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No ‘ology’ like Etymology
Asif Iftikhar


 ‘Man’ is a fine word except that it gets confusing sometimes. My neighbour is a man, yet his wife is always telling him to ‘be a man’, and the boy next door who was caught doing' `unspeakable things' said he was only trying to do something ‘manly’. Sherry's (Shehryar's) father was a `big man' (though he was only five feet three inches tall) and could afford to send him to a nice English medium school where Sherry learned enough English to be merry because he doesn't have to worry about a problem that still haunts his office boy trying to matriculate, who was not fortunate enough to attend the American school: `How can Mrs Sherry---being a woman ---"man" the family boat?'

Now Sherry, of course, was fortunate enough; he speaks excellent English and appreciates the literature, but even he gets confused when some smart alec, say, a Mr P. ( who was either a real `bad guy' or was one who badly misunderstood what he tried to interpret) `uses' etymology to explain the Qur’ān . So if Michael Jackson said `beat it' and did not mean `beat your wife', and if `to beat' as a verb in Arabic can be used for giving an example, then God Almighty in the following verse of the Qur’ān is telling Sherry to use examples for highlighting the merits of good conduct, if his wife deliberately invites the neighbour's boy to do something `manly':

`As to those women [wives] on whose part you fear disloyalty and ill-conduct, [first] admonish them, [if they still don't repent] refuse to share their beds, [and finally if nothing else works] beat them1 [lightly].' [4:34]

Sherry accepts the interpretation of Mr P. primarily because he has neither the time nor the inclination to study the context of the verse. Besides, analysis of context in most cases would require a sound understanding of the language of the Qur’ān , and making an effort to learn that language would be something not worth his time. It is needless to say that it is also to his practical advantage to accept the interpretation because he was some `dude' before marriage but now is only subdued, because his father-in-law( another `big man') had done him some `big favours', which he still needs, and is, therefore, grateful to be living in a free country where he can do as his wife pleases.

`Roots' ( not the TV serial) is the key word. Sherry and his `upper crust' friends don't have to study the roots of the words they use in English because they are `well-educated' and, as is typical of our elite, know too much about English, albeit too little about the prerequisites for a sound understanding of Islam, like Qur’ānic Arabic, for example. So, if some Mr P. were to say fourteen hundred years later that in the twentieth century `floating currency' meant something that floated in circles, and if somebody like Sherry's office boy accepted that meaning, it wouldn't be surprising. Of course, `Sherries' in our socity are proud of their English, but when it comes to the Qur’ān and its language, well, that's another matter. `Devil in English', says some smart alec to the office boy,` means a naughty school-boy because that is how the head-master of Aitchison used the reprimand the boys there: "You young devils..." ' The office boy, of course, accepts the meaning.`Ha! Ha!' laughs Sherry at the poor boy's credulity. ` Ha! HA!' laughs Mr P. at Sherry after having convinced him that Jinn in the Qur’ān means a villager, and since `fire' connotes passion , God is referring to some passionate villagers when He says He created Jinnaat from fire.

Once the foundation is laid etymology can do wonders. Assalaat ( the prayer) despite the definite article, refers to any prayer, and the best one naturally would be from the bottom of one's heart, which is more active when one is asleep. The only trouble is that the Qur’ān says ablutions are necessary before Assalaat, but etymology, I guess, can take care of that too. Hallelujah! The customs and ways of the Prophet (the Sunnah) no longer have any significance, because etymology and the Sunnah don't go together. Etymology can be used to interpret words only, not established and perpetuated practices. Nothing, therefore, matters anymore. The Day of Judgement means nothing really. Reward and punishment are only mental concepts. So, don't worry about any thing, that's positive thinking! Heaven and Hell are only in one's mind. Three cheers for etymology ! Three cheers for Mr P! Milton's Satan couldn't have done better when he said:


`----and thou profoundest Hell,

Receive thy new possessor, one who brings

A mind not to be changed by place or time;

The mind is its own place, and itself

Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven'.

But the fault, dear Brutus, is in ourselves, for we are indifferent to our religion and its demands. How many of the elite in our society are really interested in teaching their children the language of the Qur’ān ? Milton, Keats, Shakespeare, and then Time Newsweek, Fortune---these are the things that deserve your time, effort, and attention. Yes, an Assistant Commissioner, a business tycoon, or even a politician is what you should be, but no, never an Imam Malik, or an Abu Hanifa, or even an Averroes. Once you are a `big man' you can always serve Islam by your postprandial oratory and criticism of some maulvi (the scapegoat).

If Sherry has a son he'd probably be called Jimmy (Jamshed). Jimmy would probably never come to know, if things go on the way they are, that he is a tiny leaflet of the tree called `Muslim Ummah'. The indifference of our elite towards the Qur’ān and its language has enabled etymologists like Mr P. with their weird eschatology to sever the tree from its roots. A tree without its roots cannot survive for long. `Roots', as I said earlier, is the key word, but there is one connotation of the word which , it seems, is no longer important to the elite in our society.






1. ie give them examples?! Unless, of course, one uses the word`example' in the sense of setting one, nothing except etymology could have helped Mr P. to put his tortuous interpretation of the Arabic word dharb (to beat) in the given context of the verse.

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