The language in which the Qur’an was revealed was the
Arabic of the highest level of Umm al-Qurā (Makkah) spoken by the people of the
Quraysh in the Jāhiliyyah period.
There is no doubt that the way God has used this language in His book is a
miracle of expression, yet, as a language, it is one which was spoken by the
Prophet (sws) and his people in Makkah.
Thus, We have made the Qur’ān truly appropriate and easy
in your tongue that they may give heed. (44:58)
Thus, We have made this Qur’ān truly appropriate and easy
in your tongue that with it you may give glad tidings to the righteous and
thorough warning to the contentious. (19:97)
Therefore, a proper understanding of this book is based on
an appropriate knowledge and appreciation of its language, and Qur’ānic
hermeneutics requires that a scholar be such an accomplished connoisseur of its
language and idiom that at least language should not be a barrier to his
arriving at the correct meaning of the book.
This basic principle does not need further elaboration.
However, as far the Qur’ānic Arabic is concerned, it should be kept in mind that
this Arabic is not the Arabic which the likes of Harīrī, Mutanabbī, Zamakhsharī
and Rāzī used in their works or the Arabic which is found these days in the
newspapers of Syria and Egypt or that which emanates from the pen of the poets
and writers of these lands. No doubt these manifestations of the language are
also Arabic, but the difference in the style and diction of this Arabic and in
that of the Qur’ānic Arabic, which can aptly be termed as the Arabic of the
highest level, is something like the difference in the language of Shakespeare
or Milton or Keats or Dickens and the language one finds these days in Newsweek
or Time or the Economist. Therefore, the fact is that not only is this Arabic of
little use in developing an appreciation of the Qur’ānic Arabic, but, at times,
it can, in case of a person’s deep involvement in it, be detrimental to the
proper understanding of the Qur’ān.
Now it should also be kept in mind that the first and
foremost source of the Qur’ānic Arabic is the Qur’ān itself. It cannot be denied
that when it was revealed in Umm al-Qurā, no one was able to challenge the
grandeur of its Arabic despite the fact that its Divinity remained questionable
in some minds for a time. It openly presented its Arabic as the argument for
refuting any notion that it might be the work of an ‘Ajamī.
It proclaimed that it was a miracle of language, literature and expression, and
challenged the Quraysh to come forth with even one Sūrah (chapter) like the
Qur’ān. It even invited the Quraysh to call to their aid for this purpose not
only all their poets, orators and soothsayers but also the deities they believed
in and the Jinn they invoked. Yet, it is fact that the Arabs were unable to meet
this challenge or deny the grandeur of the Qur’ān’s language and expression.
And if you are in doubt about that which We have revealed
to Our servant, then produce one Sūrah like it, and [for this purpose] call all
your exponents other than Allah if you are truthful. (2:23)
Proclaim that if all of mankind and the jinn were to
gather together to bring forth the like of this Qur’ān, they would be unable to
produce it even if they became helpers of one another. (17:88)
And not only that. When a connoisseur as Walīd Ibn
Mughīrah heard the Qur’ān in Umm al-Qurā, he could not help exclaiming:
By God, no one from among you knows poetry or Qasīdahor Rajz incantations more than I
do. By God, the utterance on this man’s tongue is beyond comparison. By God,
there is great sweetness and light in this utterance. Its branches are fruit
laden, its roots copious; verily, it will prevail, nothing will reign over it;
and it will crush everything under it.
From amongst the poets of Al-Mu‘allaqāt al-Sab‘ah, Labīd
was alive in those time. It is he before whom all the poets prostrated
themselves in awe in the market place of ‘Ukāz on a verse of his.
But even he was in such stupor in front of the Qur’ān that on ‘Umar’s request
for a recital, he said: ‘What poesy after Al-Baqarah and Alī-‘Imrān?’
This submission was not just that of a person. It meant
that the poetry and oratory of the whole Arabia virtually surrendered to the
eloquence of the Qur’ān.
And then there is the fact that this miracle of eloquence
and expression has been passed on to us without the slightest alteration.
Therefore, it is not only the final authority in religion, but also the ultimate
and undeniable source of the language of its times.
After the Qur’ān, the second important source of this
language is the reported sayings of the Prophet (sws) and those of his
Companions. There is no doubt that a substantial portion of this source contains
content reported not in exact, original words but in the words of the narrators,
and owing to this fact, only a small part of this corpus can be presented as the
standard language of the Qur’ānic times. Yet, whatever can be presented is
without doubt an invaluable treasure for a connoisseur. It is the language of
the most eloquent among the Arabs, non-Arabs and the Companions of the Prophet
(sws), and, in relation to its diction, idiom and expression, it is a
quintessence of the language in which the Qur’ān was revealed. In reporting the
Prophet’s supplications and parables and his conversations with his Companions
(rta), usually, exact, original words have been quoted. Therefore, it is these
narrations in which one finds more examples of the idiom and diction of this
language than in other narrations. And a student of the Qur’ānic language can
indeed lay hands on many gems invaluable in appreciating Qur’ānic expressions
and in deciphering their meanings if he fathoms the depths of this treasure.
After this source, the next in the order of importance is
the classical Arabic literature. This literature comprises works of poets as
‘Imrau al-Qays, Zuhayr, ‘Amr Ibn Kulthūm, Labīd, Nabigah, Tarfah, ‘Antarah,
A‘shā and Hārith Ibn Halizzah and elocutions of orators as Qus Ibn Sā‘idah.
Scholars know well that a great part of this literature is
in collections of poetry, in anthologies as “Al-Asma‘yāt”,
“Al-Mu‘allaqāt al-Sab‘ah”, and in the works of literary figures as Jāhiz and
In present times, a number of such collections of the
Jāhiliyyah poetry have also been published as were previously not available
easily. There is no doubt that a large part of the Arabic lexicon has been
transmitted through the perpetual use of the native speakers and through their
consensus on usage and is contained in such masterpieces of lexicography as
and “Al-Nahāyah”. However,
classical Arabic literature is certainly the most reliable basis for research on
that part of the Arabic lexicon which has not been transmitted through such
consensus or perpetual use. There are a few pieces of spurious literature as
well in this corpus, but just as doctors of Hadīth distinguish between bona fide
Ahādīth and questionable ones, similarly the connoisseurs of language can sift
out authentic and spurious pieces of literature.
Therefore, prominent scholars of linguistics and of literature have always
agreed that after the Qur’ān, the corpus of classical Arabic literature, owing
to its overall authenticity and appropriateness, is the most reliable basis for
research on the language of those times.
Shaykh ‘Abd al-Qādir Ibn ‘Umar al-Baghdādī says in his
The literature which can be used as evidence of usage is
of two kinds: one which is in the form of poetry and the other which is not in
the form of poetry. The first kind has been divided by scholars into four
strata: To the first stratum belong the poets of the Jāhiliyyah period as Imrau
al-Qays and A‘shā. To the second belong Al-Mukhadramūn: those who had lived
through the days of Jāhiliyyah as well as of Islam as Labīd and Hassān. To the
third belong Al-Mutaqaddimūn, who are also called Al-Islamiyyūn and who lived in
the earlier period of Islam as Jarīr and Farzdaq. And to the fourth stratum
belong Al-Muwalladūn, who are also called Al-Muhaddithūn. In this post-classical
stage are included all the poets after the first three strata up to our present
times, for example Bashshār Ibn Bard and Abū Nawās. There is a consensus that
the first two of these strata should be used as criteria for establishing
opinion about the usage.
This is exactly what ‘Umar Fārūq (rta) once said to the
Muslims while he was addressing them from the pulpit:
‘[Obligatory] Upon you is the preservation of your
anthology’. People asked ‘what is our anthology?’ He said ‘Jāhiliyyah poetry,
for in it is the explanation of your book and of your lexicon’.
The scholar of religion among the Companions of the
Prophet (sws), Ibn ‘Abbās said:
If you wish to understand an unintelligible word or
expression in the Qur’ān, look it up in the Jāhiliyyah poetry, for it is
actually this poetry which is the lexicon of the Arabs.
It would also be pertinent to mention here that the
Jāhiliyyah literature is not only a source of the language and expression but
also of the Arabian culture and tradition of those times. Without a vivid
picture of that culture and tradition, it becomes impossible to appreciate the
various figures of speech used by the Qur’ān in which use lies the true
splendour of its eloquence. What were the fundamental characteristics of that
Arabian society? Which conventions were regarded as good and which were regarded
as bad, and what were the parameters of good and evil? What was the nature of
the religion, customs and traditions of the people? On what foundation rested
the edifice of their society, and what elements constituted their culture? What
were their political ideals, and what was their everyday life and interests
like? Were they just a band of savages who were elevated to the leadership of
the world by Islam, or were there certain qualities and traits in them as a
people owing to which they were selected, despite their recklessness, for
receiving the Qur’ān and for bearing witness to the truth before the whole world
on the behalf of God? All these are questions which can correctly be answered
through the study of the Jāhiliyyah literature, and these answers are
indispensable to scholars and students for appreciating the meanings and the
remarkable eloquence of the Qur’ān which manifest themselves in the full glory
of their grandeur in its figurative and literary use of the language.
Therefore, students of the Qur’ān should rely on this
source not only for the language, but also for all the above mentioned aspects
of the study of the book.
(Translated from “Mīzān” by Asif Iftikhar)
Wa jala al-suyūl ‘an al-tulūl ka’annahā
Zuburun tujiddu mutūnahā aqlāmuhā