The Importance of Classical Arabic
The language in which the Qur’an was revealed was the Arabic of the highest level of Umm al-Qura (Makkah) spoken by the people of the Quraysh in the Jahiliyyah1 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’an truly appropriate and easy in your tongue that they may give heed. (44:58). Thus, We have made this Qur’an 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’anic 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’anic Arabic is concerned, it should be kept in mind that this Arabic is not the Arabic which the likes of Hariri, Mutanabbi, Zamakhshari and Razi 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’anic 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’anic 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’an.
Now it should also be kept in mind that the first and foremost source of the Qur’anic Arabic is the Qur’an itself. It cannot be denied that when it was revealed in Umm al-Qura, 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 ‘Ajami2. It proclaimed that it was a miracle of language, literature and expression, and challenged the Quraysh to come forth with even one Surah (chapter) like the Qur’an. 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’an’s language and expression.
And if you are in doubt about that which We have revealed to Our servant, then produce one Surah 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’an, 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 Walid Ibn Mughirah heard the Qur’an in Umm al-Qura, he could not help exclaiming:
By God, no one from among you knows poetry or Qasidah3 or Rajz4 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.5
From amongst the poets of Al-Mu‘allaqat al-Sab‘ah, Labid was alive in those time. It is he before whom all the poets prostrated themselves in awe in the market place of ‘Ukaz on a verse of his6. But even he was in such stupor in front of the Qur’an that on ‘Umar’s request for a recital, he said: ‘What poesy after Al-Baqarah and Ali-‘Imran?’7
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’an.
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’an, 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’anic 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’an 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’anic language can indeed lay hands on many gems invaluable in appreciating Qur’anic 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 Kulthum, Labid, Nabigah, Tarfah, ‘Antarah, A‘sha and Harith Ibn Halizzah and elocutions of orators as Qus Ibn Sa‘idah.
Scholars know well that a great part of this literature is in collections of poetry, in anthologies as “Al-Asma‘yat”8, “Al-Mufadaliyyat”9, “Al-Hamasah”10, “Al-Mu‘allaqat al-Sab‘ah”, and in the works of literary figures as Jahiz and Mubarrad.11
In present times, a number of such collections of the Jahiliyyah 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 “Al-Tahdhib”12, “Al-Muhkam”13, “Al-Sihah”14, “Al-Jamhurah”15 and “Al-Nahayah”16. 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 Hadith distinguish between bona fide Ahadith and questionable ones, similarly the connoisseurs of language can sift out authentic and spurious pieces of literature17. Therefore, prominent scholars of linguistics and of literature have always agreed that after the Qur’an, 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-Qadir Ibn ‘Umar al-Baghdadi says in his ‘Khazanah al-Adab’18: 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 Jahiliyyah period as Imrau al-Qays and A‘sha. To the second belong Al-Mukhadramun: those who had lived through the days of Jahiliyyah as well as of Islam as Labid and Hassan. To the third belong Al-Mutaqaddimun, who are also called Al-Islamiyyun and who lived in the earlier period of Islam as Jarir and Farzdaq. And to the fourth stratum belong Al-Muwalladun, who are also called Al-Muhaddithun. In this post-classical stage are included all the poets after the first three strata up to our present times, for example Bashshar Ibn Bard and Abu Nawas. 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 Faruq (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 ‘Jahiliyyah poetry, for in it is the explanation of your book and of your lexicon’.19
The scholar of religion among the Companions of the Prophet (sws), Ibn ‘Abbas said: If you wish to understand an unintelligible word or expression in the Qur’an, look it up in the Jahiliyyah poetry, for it is actually this poetry which is the lexicon of the Arabs.20
It would also be pertinent to mention here that the Jahiliyyah 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’an 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’an 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 Jahiliyyah literature, and these answers are indispensable to scholars and students for appreciating the meanings and the remarkable eloquence of the Qur’an which manifest themselves in the full glory of their grandeur in its figurative and literary use of the language.
Therefore, students of the Qur’an 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 “Mizan” by Asif Iftikhar
1. (Lit. Ignorance). The days of ignorance in pre-Islamic Arabia.
2. Non-Arab; Persian.
3. A form of eulogistic poetry in the Jahiliyyah period.
4. A form of battle songs in the Jahiliyyah period.
5. Ibn Kathir, Sirah al-Nabwiyyah, Vol. 1, p. 499
6. The verse is Wa jala al-suyul ‘an al-tulul ka’annaha Zuburun tujiddu mutunaha aqlamuha
7. Ma kuntu li aqula shi‘ran ba‘da ‘an ‘allamaniya Allahu al-Baqarata wa ‘Ali-‘Imran. (Al-Isti‘ab, Ibn ‘abd al-Barr Bihamish, Al-Isabah, Vol. 3, p. 327.)
8. Abu Sa‘id ‘Abd al-Malik Ibn Qarib al-Asma’i.
9. Al-Mufaddal Ibn Muhammad Ibn Ya‘la Ibn ‘Amir Ibn Salim al-Dabbi.
10. Abu Tammam Habib Ibn Aws al-Tai
11. For example Jahiz’s “Al-Bayan wa Al-Tabyin” and Mubarrad’s “Al-kamil fi al-Lughah wa al-Adab”. Similiary, Abu Zayd’s “Jamhura Ash‘ar al-‘Aarab”; Ibn al-Shajari’s “Mukhtarat Shu‘ara al-‘Arab”; Abu Tammam’s “Al-Fuhul”, “Hamasah” by Buhtari, Khalidiyan, Ibn al-Shajari, Abu Hilal al-‘Askari; and Shantamri, and Abu Hilal’s, “Diwan al-Ma‘ani”, are also similar compilations.
12. “Al-Tahdhib fi al-Lughah”, Abu Mansur Muhammad Ibn Ahmad al-Azhari.
13. “Al-Muhkam wa al-Muhit al-A‘zam”, ‘Ali Ibn Sayyidah.
14. “Taj al-Lughah wa Sihah al-‘Arabiyyah”, Abu Nasr Isma‘il al-Jawhari.
15. “Al-Jamhurah Fi al-Lughah”, Abu Bakr Muhammad Ibn Durayd Al-Azdi.
16. “Al-Nahayah fi gharib al-Hadith wa al-Athar”, Abu al-Sa‘dat al-Mubarak Ibn Muhammad Al-Jurazi, Ibn al-Athir.
17. The recent campaign to cast aspersions on the relevance and reliability of the whole corpus of classical Arabic literature of the Jahiliyyah period which began with ‘Usul al-Shu‘ara al-‘Arabi’ by the famous orientalist D.S. Margoliouth and reached its zenith with Dr Taha Hussain’s ‘Fi al-Adab al-Jahili’ has unfortunately even influenced some Muslim scholars. However, the fact remains that after the cogent and decisive criticisms of some orientalists themselves as Lyall (Charles James) and Brockelmann there is no scope whatsoever in the world of academic research for doubting the appropriateness, usefulness and reliability of the classical Arabic literature of the Jahiliyyah period.
18. “Khazanah al-‘Adab wa Lubb Lubab Lisan al-‘Arab”, Shaykh ‘Abd al-Qadir Ibn ‘Umar al-Baghdadi. (Vol. 1, p.3)
19. “Tafsir Anwar al-Tanzil, al-Baydawi”, (Vol.1, p. 459)
20. “Al-Muzhir fi ‘Ulum al-Lughah, al-Suyyuti, (Vol. 2, p.302)