Category Archives: Qur’an

A runaway slave

al-Salāmu ‘alaykum wa rahmatullāh,

The Story of Prophet Yunus in the Qur’an is told only briefly in Surah al-Anbiya and Surah Saffat, although he is referred to elsewhere, such as al-Qalam. In brief, he was sent to a people whose unresponsiveness to him and his message led to him leaving them in frustration. In Saffat (37:139-140), the most high describes his departure by saying:

و إن يونس لمن المرسلين. إذ أبق إلى الفلك المشحون.
And Yunus was one of the Messengers; when he ran to the laden ship.”

In explaining the word ( أبق ), some exegetes gloss it as ( تباعد ) ‘to move away’; ( فزع ) ‘to flee’; or most commonly, ( هرب ) ‘to run away’. In my translation above, I rendered it simply as “ran”.

But the words given as estimates for ( أبق ) are simply that: an estimation of the approximate meaning. They do not allow us an understanding of the intricacy of this instance of word choice and usage in the Qur’an. ( أبق ) is not merely to flee; it is used for the ( آبق ), a slave who escapes and runs away from his master.

But as we know, Yunus is not technically a slave, not through birth nor through any other means. So why the usage of the specific term ( أبق )? It is, incidentally, used only this once in the entire book!

The application of the term with respect to him is justified, some exegetes say, because of his fleeing away from his people without the permission of his Lord. In this manner, his fleeing from his responsibility and the people he had been entrusted with is being compared to the slave who, instead of fulfilling his duties, runs away from his master.

Some say that the term ( أبق ) refers not only to a slave who runs away, but one who does so without the type of reason that might justify his departure, such as persecution or extremely difficult conditions. If this is correct, it adds a further nuance to the choice of the word ( أبق ), in describing the condition of the Prophet Yunus as one not warranting his flight.

The metaphoric usage of ( أبق ) thus demonstrates the relationship Yunus had with his master, and serves as a strict reminder to us as well. We, like Yunus, are servants of Allah and cannot flee from him nor his command.

This added insight into the hapax legomenon ( أبق ) demonstrates yet again the absolute brilliance of the language of the Qur’an; it manages to convey deep meaning and lessons to us even with the placing of a single word.

*This article was submitted by a guest writer, jazaahum Allaahu khayran. If you would like to submit an article to appear on Arabic Gems, please email it for review.

The secret of happiness

al-Salāmu ‘alaykum wa rahmatullāh,

So important is the concept of ‘happiness’ in our lives that many people – even dating back to the days of the Greek philosophers – considered its pursuit to be the very purpose of existence.

Indeed, the Qur’an itself speaks of happiness as being one of the rewards of those whom Allah chooses to admit to Paradise. He says of the martyrs in Aal-‘Imraan, verse 170,

فَرِحِينَ بِمَا آَتَاهُمُ اللَّهُ مِنْ فَضْلِهِ
They rejoice in what Allah has bestowed upon them of His Bounty

And of the reward of the pious believers [al-Insaan, verse 11],

فَوَقَاهُمُ اللَّهُ شَرَّ ذَلِكَ الْيَوْمِ وَلَقَّاهُمْ نَضْرَةً وَسُرُورًا
So, Allah saved them from the evil of that Day and gave them a light of beauty and joy.

What becomes immediately apparent upon reading the Arabic text (but once again obscured in the translation) is that two very different words have been used to convey the idea of happiness: فَرِحِينَ fariheena, which is conjugated from the noun فَرَح farah, and سُرُور suroor, and this is prevalent throughout the Qur’an. This is because there are two very different types of happiness being referred to.

فَرَح farah generally refers to transitory delights or pleasures, as is the case in bodily or worldly pleasure. For this reason, most times that فَرَح farah appears in the Qur’an, it is being censured, as in the story of Qarun [al-Qasas, verse 76],

إِنَّ اللهَ لا يُحِبُّ الَفِرحِينَ
Indeed, Allaah does not like the fariheen

But when the source of the farah is specified in the Qur’an, as in the verse from Aal-‘Imraan mentioned above, the meaning becomes restricted (muqayyad) and it is no longer censured.

But perhaps a greater distinction between the two lies in the manifestation of the happiness. Whereas the expression of farah is external and with clear outward signs, suroor refers to the expansion of one’s heart with delight or pleasure wherein is quiet or tranquility, and as such it has no external sign. This is indicated by the root from which the word stems – س ر seen raa’ – the same root as the word سرّ sirr, or secret. So suroor is a secret happiness, known to one’s heart but not always seen by others, as Ibn ‘Abbas said in reference to the above verse from al-Insaan, “The نضرة nadrah is on their faces, and the سرور suroor is in their hearts.”

Such distinctions exemplify yet another example in which the translation fails and the original prevails.

How the horse got his name.

horseal-Salāmu ‘alaykum wa rahmatullāh,

The verb خالَ khaala has two different forms that also differ in pattern and meaning.

The first is the verb خال khaala (perfect tense) يَخُولُ yakhoolu (imperfect tense), خَولا khawlan (verbal noun), and it means ‘to do proficiently’ or ‘to perfect’. One may use it in the phrase خَوَّلَهُ اللهُ نِعمةً مِنْ عِنْدِهِ khawwalahu Allaahu ni3matan min 3indihi to mean ‘Allaah [proficiently] bestowed upon him blessings from Himself.’

This meaning also allows us to recognise the importance and status of the maternal uncle and aunt, and indeed our obligations as maternal aunts and uncles, who are called the خَالٌ khaal and the خالَةٌ khaalah because they are supposed to ‘take care proficiently’ of their family. And this may be one reason why the maternal aunt in Islam is afforded the status of the mother when the mother is absent.

Allaah used it in this way in the Qur’an,

وَتَرَكْتُم مَّا خَوَّلْنَاكُمْ وَرَاء ظُهُورِكُمْ

and you have left whatever We bestowed upon you behind you (al-An’aam, verse 94 )

The second form is the verb خالَ khaala (perfect tense) يَخالُ yakhaalu (imperfect tense) and it has two separate meanings. The first means ‘he came to possess much wealth’ including slaves, chattel and servants. The second meaning is ‘he supposed’ and it is one of the sisters of the verb طَنَّ dhanna.

Allaah also used the verb according to this meaning in the Qur’an, (Ta-Ha, verse 66),

فإذا حبالهم وعصيهم يخيل إليه من سحرهم أنها تسعى
And suddenly their ropes and staffs seemed to him from their magic that they were moving [like snakes]

and in Surah Luqman, verse 18,

إن الله لا يحب كل مختال فخور

Indeed, Allah does not like everyone self-deluded and boastful.

Here, the word مًَُخْتال mukhtaal (which is the active participle from the verb اخْتالَ ikhtaala which is extremely closely related to the verb خالَ khaala) has been translated as self-deluded and as such is related to the first meaning of coming into possession of wealth, for too much of a good thing leads one to arrogance and feelings that they are self-sufficient.

Allaah also used a derivative of this word in (al-Nahl, verse 8 )

والخيل والبغال والحمير لتركبوها وزينة ويخلق ما لا تعلمون

And [He created] the horses, mules and donkeys for you to ride and [as] adornment.

So what does a horse have to do with any of the meanings conveyed above? The same question was asked to Abu Hatim, one of the classical scholars of Arabic, but he was unable to answer. It was reported that a madman was walking by and heard the question, so he said, “I will tell you! The horse was called a خيل khayl due to the pride and arrogance (اختيال ikhtiyaal – the verbal noun from the verb اختال ikhtaala) it displays when it walks!” Upon which Abu Hatim said, “Note down this wise reply and pass on the knowledge, even if it is on the authority of a madman!”

A search in the dictionary al-Qamus al-Muhit shows that even al-Fayroozabadi wrote that the word خَيْل khayl means pride, arrogance, and vanity, so the madman’s reply could very well be how the horse got his name.

Swallow more than your pride.

*Post edited and corrected on 28-10-08

al-Salāmu ‘alaykum wa rahmatullāh,

It has been narrated that a major scholar of the past [1] used to try and fault the Qur’an by searching for flaws in its language. His attempts and studies lasted months, during which time a group of men would frequent his house and ask him whether he had found anything yet. Eventually, he smashed his ink pot and broke his pen, and replied, “None can dispute that this is the Speech of Allah!” He then left the house and passed by a mosque, from which he heard the voice of a young boy reciting the verse,

وَقِيلَ يَا أَرْضُ ابْلَعِي مَاءكِ وَيَا سَمَاء أَقْلِعِي وَغِيضَ الْمَاء وَقُضِيَ الأَمْرُ وَاسْتَوَتْ عَلَى الْجُودِيِّ وَقِيلَ بُعْداً لِّلْقَوْمِ الظَّالِمِينَ
And it was said, “O earth, swallow your water, and O sky, withhold [your rain].” And the water subsided, and the matter was accomplished, and the ship came to rest on the [mountain of] Judiyy. And it was said, “Away with the wrongdoing people.” (Hood, verse 44)

to which the man remarked, “It is not possible that a human could produce such words.”

The verse in question is one of the most beautiful, eloquent, rhetorical verses of the Qur’an, as the scholars of Arabic balaaghah (rhetoric) identified within it more than twenty-five different rhetorical devices (fann balaaghee) within just 17 words! [2]

When the Prophet (peace be upon him)  would pray in the Ka’bah in Makkah, the Qurayshis would laugh at him, curse him, throw rocks at him, and ridicule him. One day he was sitting with some companions around the Ka’bah and recited to them Surah al-Najm, within earshot of the Quraysh. Everyone listened intently until he (peace be upon him) went on to recite the last few verses of this chapter,

أَفَمِنْ هَذَا الْحَدِيثِ تَعْجَبُونَ * وَتَضْحَكُونَ وَلَا تَبْكُونَ * وَأَنتُمْ سَامِدُونَ * فَاسْجُدُوا لِلَّهِ وَاعْبُدُوا

Then at this statement do you wonder? And you laugh and do not weep? While you are proudly sporting? So prostrate to Allah and worship [Him].

By the time this last verse was recited, they all fell involuntarily into prostration as commanded in the verse, mesmerised by the beauty and truth of what they had just heard.


And the conversion story of ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab is a well-known one. He was one of the staunchest enemies of Islam, one of the strongest men in Makkah, who was sworn to kill the man who called himself the Prophet of God. Sword in hand, he set about to accomplish the task he had set himself and on the way was asked by a man he passed on the street as to the nature of his mission. When ‘Umar told the man of his intentions, the man told him to worry about his own sister first. In a fit of rage, he went to his sister’s house to kill her first if the news was true. He asked her whether she had accepted Islam, and when she replied in the affirmative he slapped her so hard that blood fell from her face. He noticed some paper in her hand, so he asked her what she was carrying. When she told him she could not give him the papers as he was not pure, he tore them from her hands and began to read the words written on them (listen),

طه * مَا أَنزَلْنَا عَلَيْكَ الْقُرْآنَ لِتَشْقَى * إِلَّا تَذْكِرَةً لِّمَن يَخْشَى * تَنزِيلاً مِّمَّنْ خَلَقَ الْأَرْضَ وَالسَّمَاوَاتِ الْعُلَى * الرَّحْمَنُ عَلَى الْعَرْشِ اسْتَوَى * لَهُ مَا فِي السَّمَاوَاتِ وَمَا فِي الْأَرْضِ وَمَا بَيْنَهُمَا وَمَا تَحْتَ الثَّرَى  * وَإِن تَجْهَرْ بِالْقَوْلِ فَإِنَّهُ يَعْلَمُ السِّرَّ وَأَخْفَى* اللَّهُ لَا إِلَهَ إِلَّا هُوَ لَهُ الْأَسْمَاء الْحُسْنَى

Ta, Ha. * We have not sent down to you the Qur’an that you be distressed * But only as a reminder for those who fear [ Allah ] * A revelation from He who created the earth and highest heavens, * The Most Merciful [who is] above the Throne established*  To Him belongs what is in the heavens and what is on the earth and what is between them and what is under the soil. * And if you speak aloud – then indeed, He knows the secret and what is [even] more hidden * Allah – there is no deity except Him. To Him belong the best names.

Upon reading the words on the paper, ‘Umar’s eyes filled with tears. He demanded from his sister that she tell him where this man Muhammad (peace be upon him) was, and after making him promise not to harm the Prophet (peace be upon him) he set out to find him. The Prophet (peace be upon him) could tell who was at the door from the strength of his knock, so opened the door and greeted his visitor with the words, “Isn’t it about time you became Muslim, O ‘Umar?” to which he received the reply, “I bear witness that there is no God worthy of worship other than Allaah, and I bear witness that you are the Messenger of Allaah.”

The question that remains to be asked is: What did these men have in common?

The answer (among other things)? They all had a deep, solid, understanding and appreciation of the Arabic language, its syntax, semantics, rhetorical and literary devices, poetry, prose, and all else a mastery of any language entails. An understanding that allowed them to immediately discern that the difference between the speech of God and the speech of His creation is the difference between God and His creation itself. An understanding of the language that allowed them to recognise the truth and submit to it without giving another moment’s consideration to the issue at hand. An understanding that enabled them to recognise the miraculous nature of the Qur’anic text, and use this recognition as a base on which to build their faith.

Perhaps we will never be able to acheive the same appreciation and understanding of the language of the Qur’an as they did, but who can dispute that we owe it to our souls, to our faith, to at least try.

[1] It has been said that he was the well-known Ibn al-Muqaffa’. But the narration appeared without naming the man in  al-Jadwal fee I’raab al-Qur’aan wa Sarfuhu wa Bayaanuhu by Mahmood Safi (6/278).

[2] This is not a suitable place to discuss these rhetorical devices, as a background of balaaghah is first required. But if anyone is versed in Arabic and would like to read more, I recommend them to refer to the book Kifaayat al-Alma’ee Fee Ayat Yaa Ard Ibla’ee by Muhammad ibn al-Jazaree (published by Dar al-Afaq al-Jadidah in Bayrut, 2003), or to refer to Tafseer al-Bahr al-Muheet by Abu Hayyan al-Andalusi.

Love, oh love.

heart_instant_hot_pack.jpgal-Salāmu ‘alaykum wa rahmatullāh,

The word ‘love’ appeared as a noun in the Qur’an ten times – of those ten, nine were using the word hubb حبّ, as in the verse,

وَمِنَ النَّاسِ مَن يَتَّخِذُ مِن دُونِ اللّهِ أَندَاداً يُحِبُّونَهُمْ كَحُبِّ اللّهِ

And of mankind are some who take (for worship) others besides Allah as rivals (to Allah). They love them as they love Allah.

and once was using the word mahabbah, محبّة in the verse concerning Prophet Musa (peace be upon him),

أَنِ اقْذِفِيهِ فِي التَّابُوتِ فَاقْذِفِيهِ فِي الْيَمِّ فَلْيُلْقِهِ الْيَمُّ بِالسَّاحِلِ يَأْخُذْهُ عَدُوٌّ لِّي وَعَدُوٌّ لَّهُ وَأَلْقَيْتُ عَلَيْكَ مَحَبَّةً مِّنِّي وَلِتُصْنَعَ عَلَى عَيْنِي

Saying: ‘Put him (the child) into the Tabut (a box or a case or a chest) and put it into the river (Nile), then the river shall cast it up on the bank, and there, an enemy of Mine and an enemy of his shall take him.’ And I endued you with love from Me, in order that you may be brought up under My Eye,

The word hubb is the original verbal noun of the verb habba حبَّ, while the word mahabbah is what is known as the ‘masdar meemi‘ (verbal noun begining with a letter meem‘) of the same verb. As it is the original verb, it is the origin, the asl, and thus it appeared 9 times. But mahabbah only appeared once. The reason for this lies in the difference between these two words, which can be summed up in the following three points:

 

  1. In the nine times in which the word hubb appeared, it was mentioned with regards the actions of man towards Allaah, or with regards instances related to life. When Allaah the Exalted used the word in reference to Himself towards one of His Creation – Musa (peace be upon him) – He used a different word (mahabbah), that was only ever used to describe His own actions, as is most befitting of His majesty.

    Thus, when the love stems from mankind, the word hubb was used, but when it stems from Allaah, the word mahabbah was used.

  2. The love that was bestowed upon Musa from Allaah settled in the soul of Musa and began to emanate from him just as light emanates from the sun, and its beautiful fragrance would attract the people to him and make them love him. Thus, Aasiyah, the wife of Fir’awn (among many others), immediately fell in love with him and requested from her husband that he not kill the baby Musa (see al-Qasas, verse 9).

    But when humans show love to one another, it does not penetrate the beloved such that others then begin to love them also. This only occurs when Allaah loves His servant. Thus, it was only right to use different words to express these different types of love.

  3. The word hubb is much more widely used than the word mahabbah. Thus, the more common word was used with a subject that is great in number (i.e. mankind), while the rare word was used with a Subject that is not (i.e. Allaah).