Introduction Part 2: Inseparable: Islam and the Arabic language

tafsir

This is Part 2 of the Introduction in the abridged tafsir of Surah Al-Baqarah based on the book ‘tayseer ila usul it-tafsir’ by Shaykh Ata bin Khalil Abu Rishta

This tafsser explains the centrality of the Arabic language in understanding and deriving the laws, rules of Islam. Similarly they did not exercise the mind in the unseen that were not sensed by them. This understanding made them glad and satisfied their hearts.

Bismilliah irahmaniraheem

With Islam the best ummah (people) raised from mankind was founded:

“You are the best ummah raised from mankind, you command the good and forbid the evil and you believe in Allah” [aal-‘Imran 110]

With Islam a state arose that was a guiding light for the world, spreading justice to all corners of the earth. The sovereignty and leadership of this ummah and this state was for the book of Allah (jalla jallalahu) and the sunnah (way) of His messenger (saw).

The Muslims in the time of Rasul Allah (saw) and the time of his companions (raa) used to understand the book and the sunnah with a pure understanding. An understanding that made them glad and satisfied their hearts. If a verse or part of a verse was explained by Rasul Allah (saw) as a shariah legal explanation, so the word or verse was given a shariah terminology, they adhered to it and followed it. If he did not give it a shariah terminology they searched for it in their language, the Arabic language, in which it was sent down

“an Arabic Qur’an”

and whose tongue it was

“with a clear Arabic tongue”

Like this, if Rasul Allah (saw) read:

“establish prayer”

then explained ‘prayer’ as specific actions and sayings, they followed this shariah terminology in understanding the verse and its performance, thus leaving the linguistic meaning of ‘prayer’ that has the meaning of supplication.

As for when it was read to them

“carrion is forbidden for you”

and he (saw) did not give it a shariah terminology, they understood it in their Arabic language as a prohibition to eat carrion, because the التحريم prohibition is connected to carrion as is clear in their language.

This is what they used to do. If an explanation was authentically traced back to Rasul Allah (saw) speech, they adhered to it and followed it. If not, they looked for it in their language that the Qur’an was sent down in. This matter gave them a sound understanding and a straight path that they traveled along, so the ummah became honoured and the state became strong. With that they had a great position.

What increased the purity purer and the clarity clearer was their adding to their understanding of the language of the Qur’an their understanding of the limits of the human mind that Allah distinguished mankind with.

“Allah taught Adam all of the names” [al-Baqarah 31]

They understood that the mind is limited in its scope and its capability, so it cannot study except that which has a sensed reality. As for what has no reality, then there is no role for the mind to produce a thought about it, rather every study of what has no reality will not fail to be an instance of imagination.

They thought about Allah’s creation and contemplated His signs. They saw that this universe, man and life, with its limited nature, its incapability and its neediness and its existence with this precise system, indicates definitely that it has a great powerful eternal creator who limited its existence and organized its sustenance, who is able to end its incapability and secure its needs. So, they believed in Allah, the Creator, the One, al-Ahad as a result of contemplating His signs and thinking about His creation on the basis of the sensed reality for them.

Then, they believed in the Qur’an al-Kareem and that it is the speech of Allah (jalla jallalahu), because they failed in the challenge and their inability to bring a surah like it while they are the people of clear speech and eloquence. Their language is the language of the Qur’an, so their incapability was a definite proof that the Qur’an is the speech of Allah (jalla jallalahu), so they believed in the Qur’an that they read or heard its verses, while it was sensed by them, not unseen to them.

Like this it was confirmed that Muhammad is a Messenger from Allah, as he had come to them with the speech of Allah revealed by Him سبحانه. So, they believed that Muhammad is Rasul Allah (saw) while it was sensed by them, not unseen to them.

However, they did not exercise the mind in the unseen that were not sensed by them. So, they did not subject it to an intellectual study, because it is not its domain. Rather, they were satisfied with an-naql (the transmission), i.e. with what came about it in the book of Allah and what they heard of it from Rasul Allah (saw) , or was transmitted to them of him (saw).

Therefore, they did not exercise the mind to investigate the صفات الله attributes of Allah: are they are created or uncreated? Are they connected to the ذات essence or separate from it?!… Because, their reality was not sensed by them, so they believed in them as they came by way of transmission from Allah’s book and the sunnah of His messenger (saw). The Qur’an is the speech of Allah, they believed in that and were certain about all that was in it, without doubt or suspicion.

Allah is Samee’, Baseer, ‘Aleem, Hakeem, for Him is the best names. They believed in that and had certainty without any investigation into how are these attributes. Rather, they surrendered to them submissively.

Their Iman in the unseen matters became complete just as the Qur’an brought it, without increase or decrease, without interpretation or misguidance. They were happy with that and their hearts were satisfied.

Just as they understood the scope of the language in understanding the Qur’an, similarly they comprehended the scope of the mind and the transmission in al-iman. So the Qur’an is not understood except in the language with which it was sent down, and the mind is not exercised in what has no sensed reality, rather it is transmitted from the book of Allah and the sunnah of His messenger (saw) and it is believed in as it is. The limits of the language are not exceeded in understanding the Qur’an, nor is the scope of the mind that Allah distinguished mankind with exceeded. Their adherence to these two: the language and the mind, and understanding their limits and their domains, was a path to the soundness of the aqeedah (creed) and its correctness, and to the best implementation and perfection of the shariah rules.

This is what the Muslims were on in the time of Rasul Allah (saw) and the time of his companions (raa), all of them, and those who followed them in good. Their weapon in understanding their deen (religious way of life) was what was authentically transmitted of Rasul Allah (saw) of explanation, and their comprehending their language, the Arabic language that the Qur’an was sent down in. Then, their understanding the scope of the mind, its limits and that it has no role in the un-sensed unseen matter, except in proportion to what the mind transmits from the book of Allah and what tawatara (was transmitted in a way that leaves no room for error) from Rasul Allah (saw).

But, there came after them successors, who were weaker in their possession of the language and who were confused about matters. So, they delved into explaining the verses of Allah without the language that it was sent down in, giving meanings to it which it cannot carry. Interpretations became many as they made for the text apparent and hidden meanings. Sects were founded and the people who followed their desires disunited the opinions. This did not stop at exerting effort in the branches, rather it transgressed into the foundations until it extended to the beliefs and the branches of belief.

That which muddied the waters more, was that they did not comprehend the scope of the mind and its limits, so they gave it free reign in what it was not created for. They entered into the intellectual study of Allah’s essence, His attributes and the creation of the Qur’an. They brought investigations that are neither in the book of Allah (jalla jallalahu) nor in the sunnah of His messenger (saw). They busied the people along with them in investigations that Allah did not send down authority for, dividing the Muslims instead of gathering them on the truth that Rasul Allah (saw) and his companions (raa) were on.

Then, after those successors, came other successors, distancing further from the truth, descending lower than those who came before them in terms of guidance.

Those who came before them had one calamity in that they gave free reign to the mind in other than its domain.

As for those who came after them, the initial calamity remained as it was, so they also gave free reign to the mind in other than its domain, then they completed the previous misfortune [so it became a calamity] by neglecting the language, not giving any value to it. If only they had known that they were on ignorance, for they would have then sought knowledge and learnt it. But, they thought that they themselves were knowledgeable, so you see that they were daring with the deen of Allah. They were asked and gave fatwas (specific legal rulings) while they read the verses of Allah and the narrations of Rasul Allah (saw) without understanding or contemplating the language that the Qur’an was revealed in and the messenger of Islam (saw) spoke in, without comprehending its sciences and styles.

If you said to them “how do you issue rules from the book and sunnah while you don’t understand the language of the Qur’an and the sunnah?!” Or, you said to them “Don’t you fear Allah in deriving rules that you are not qualified for, and it is obligatory upon you to concentrate on the language before you issue rules and misguide or be misguided?!”… They reply to you with belittling the standing of the language in understanding the book of Allah (jalla jallalahu) and the sunnah of His messenger (saw).

They added to this claim of theirs, making matters worse, and increasing more on the two calamities. Then some of the general public were affected by them, carrying some of their corrupted concepts and erroneous thoughts, so, sects were established upon them, some connected to those who came before and some of them unconnected.

Except that Allah (jalla jallalahu) sent his favour to this ummah with men after men, who were elevated with this deen to towering heights, with Allah’s favour. Allah protected His deen, so these sects were not able to change its path or destroy its thoughts.

Knowledgeable men stood up, among them the extraordinary. They exerted effort and ability in transmitting this language, the language of the Qur’an, pure and clean, from its foundations and principles, then they built upon it other sciences in al-usul Principles and al-fiqh Jurisprudence. The sciences of the language were a companion to the sciences of the Qur’an and hadith and were a basis for them.

They protected for us and transmitted how the Arabs used to speak, and how they used to understand the book of Allah and the sunnah of His messenger (saw) with the language in which it was sent down and the language in which the messenger (saw) said it.

5 Comments

  1. H Khan says:

    “They were asked and gave fatwas (specific legal rulings) while they read the verses of Allah and the narrations of Rasul Allah (saw) without understanding or contemplating the language that the Qur’an was revealed in and the messenger of Islam (saw) spoke in, without comprehending its sciences and styles.”

    Is this “charge” also applicable at the contemporary Arabs, particularly the Saudis, some of whom have recently issued highly dubious fatwas concerning Hijab / Niqab in European countries?

    These “clerics” certainly live by the Arabic language of Makkah and Medinah, but perhaps not so the narrations of Rasul Allah (saw) [Allah knows best], whilst the Noble Qur’an is the same today as the day it was revealed.

    Allah (swt) says, to the nearest meaning,

    “And thus: We have revealed to you a Qur’an in Arabic so that you may warn the Foremost of all towns and those who dwell around it, and may warn of the Day of Gathering, which is beyond all doubt. One group will be in the Garden, and one group will be in the Flames.” [TMQ: Surah Al Shura, 42:7].

    “Now if We had made it a Qur’an in a non-Arabic tongue they would surely have said, “Why is it that its verses have not been made clear? Why – a foreign tongue and an Arab?” Say, “For those who accept it, this is a Guidance and medicine for a wholesome life. But as for those who will not believe (Arabs or non-Arabs), in their ears is deafness, and so it remains obscure to them. They are like people who are called to from afar.” [TMQ: Surah Fussilat, 41:44].

    “Behold, We have sent it down in all clarity, in the Arabic tongue, so that you might encompass it with your reason.” [TMQ: Surah Yusuf, 12:2].

    “Behold, We have made it a Qur’an in clear Arabic language that you may fully understand.” [TMQ: Surah Al Zukhruf, 43:3].

    How, with the Arabic language as their mother tongue can these Arabs grossly misunderstand or misinterpret such verses, whilst they give credence to a monarchical & hereditary system of government? How does one understand this article in the context of the contemporary Arab, for whom Arabic is as native as his deen?

    Reply
  2. Abu Hasib says:

    Assalaamu alaikum wa Rahmatullah, the article discusses how the original muslims understood how to correctly use the language and their mind to understand Islaam. However it goes on to say how people moved away from the correct understanding which lead to problems and then it states how extraordinary and knowledgeable men came and returned to the muslims the clarity of before, building fiqh and Usool etc.. upon pure foundations. It’s been written as If they saved the day but yet whats confusing to me is that the writer does not provide any detail to this narrative i.e. what specific times or stages he is talking about and who were the saviours of this deen?
    If he is referring to the four Imaams then the muslims did not have a problem with language at that time and it was at a high level up until the first 400 years of Islaam. And added to this what about what happened after the four Imaams where the muslims fell into decline and those of their madhabs became entrenched in supporting their madhhabs and their Usool and fiqh blindly as if their role was just to defend their madhhab rather than seek the correct opinion. On top of this this is when the language declined even if some attempted to write books to protect it and then the gates of Ijtihaad were closed and arabic became less and less important. If the author is talking about people in recent times who have saved this deen then again this needs further clarification and is harder to comprehend especially as we are living in the most declined of times.
    Finally the title of this article ‘Inseparable: Islam and the Arabic language’ does not relate well to its subject matter confusing the reader about what topic he is actually reading about.
    Jazaakallahu khairan

    Reply
  3. Dr Q A says:

    AA… This leaves much to be desired in the understanding of the importance of Arabic…

    This is the way I understand it…

    Arabic is basically needed to derive rules and laws from the sources of Islam i.e Quran and Sunnah… So one cannot be a Mujtahid without knowing Arabic… Since we need Mujtahideen at all times to keep Ijtihad going, we need to make sure that people know Arabic…

    Just the fact that someone knows Arabic however is no guarantee that they will be on the righteous path… If we look at the Arabic speaking Muslim world, they are basically living in a system of Jahiliyah and in the past they have supported all sorts of kufr like Nationalism, Socialism, Democracy and Monarchies etc…

    However to understand the Quran one has to understand Arabic… similarly one has to know Arabic for Salah…

    It ultimately comes down to people… In non Arabic Muslim countries even though Muslims dont know Arabic, those who desire to learn about Islam can do so with very good translations of books available to them… but those who dont care, it does nt really matter if they know Arabic or not…

    So basically it comes down to two things… sensing the miracle of the Quran directly… and secondly for ijtihad…

    Reply
  4. Yahya says:

    As Salamu alaikum,

    This article is a partial translation of the introduction to a book called ‘Tayseer fi Usul at-Tafsir’, which aims to explain the foundations of tafseer. It is being serialised, so more evidence will be mentioned in the coming articles insha’Allah.

    However, for clarity the article mentioned those who protected the deen, by protecting the language:

    “They exerted effort and ability in transmitting this language, the language of the Qur’an, pure and clean, from its foundations and principles, then they built upon it other sciences in al-usul Principles and al-fiqh Jurisprudence. The sciences of the language were a companion to the sciences of the Qur’an and hadith and were a basis for them.”

    It was their transmission of the language that was key.

    It should not be assumed that every individual wholly ignored the language, however many did ignore it. That is hard to understand without examples, but the thrust of the point is that they used their minds to explain verses even if their was no usage of that word with that imagined meaning among the early Arabs. They would even ignore meanings that the Arabs did use, then instead give meanings from their own thinking.

    This did happen very early on, after the time of the Tabi’een, and all of the discussions of the Mu’tazila, the Asha’ira etc. are littered with such ramblings. It became known as ‘ilm al-kalam and even the great imams were effected, as it was rife during their time. Al-Hamdulillah, Allah saved many and we have some quotations from the four Imams saying how they now reject such debate.

    The important point is, that we need to refer back to the earliest sources of the Arabic which has been preserved for us, in order to understand the Qur’an correctly. If we do not appreciate its significance, then we only bring harm to the ummah, as we will only set up a new sect and invite to more division as a result.

    Be patient brothers and sisters, the rest of the serialised article will cover these points, but they are quite long, so needed to be broken up.

    Reply
  5. Abu Laith says:

    Arabic we have today is not the same as the Arabic at the time of the prophet (saw). The Fusha arabic is preserved in books and spoken at a high level on by a tiny proportion within the ummah. Hence the ability ti directly understand the texts is only open to a tiny proportion within the ummah. This situtation was noted 7 centuries ago when scholars like imam juwainy witnessed the decline of the arabic language. This led to a number of wrong fatwas and ijtihadat being issued due to the mistakes in the Arabic language. Therefore to preserve the corruption of the the Islamic law the majority of ulema began to call for the doors to ijtihad to be closed such that the number of mujtahid declined severely. This meant the ummah became mass imitators unable to develop new laws to address new issues particularly when faced with the growing dominance of the west through the industrial revolution. This resulted in some intellectuals and thinkers to shift their taqleed away from past ulemas fatwas and adopt western political thought. While unable to comprehend it’s reality and how it contradicted Islam. 

    Secondly as the Arabic language declined foreign philosophies became more important. One such example was the rise of Greek logic which some believed that it’s rules could transcend language and be applied to the quran and sunnah. An example of this was the debate that occurred between as sirafi and al mata during the abbassid khilafah. Al mata argued that Greek logic was more important than Arabic grammar whereas as sirafi argued against this. In logic words such as ‘and’ ‘upon’ ‘of’ ‘in’ and others have very specific connotations. So al mata believed that knowing the science of logic would help elucidate the true meaning of the quran (or at least that was the implication of the discussion). Hence grammar was a science beneath logic. As sirafi asked al mata what are the different forms of the word ‘waw’ which sometimes can mean ‘and’ or the fee and ma etc. Al mata didn’t know it’s different forms even though he was an Arab speaker. As sirafi showed that an extensive knowledge of Arabic grammar is needed to elucidate meaning and that logic simply followed Greek grammatical forms which could not be simply transposed onto the Arabic language. 

    As the Arabic language began to decline outside influences such as Greek philosophy began to gain strength thereby confusing the meaning of Islam. Eg the subject of guidance and misguidance in the quran was looked at rather than from trying to understand the language used in the quran and thereby helping to reconcile it’s meanings according to the rules of the language, to adopting various philosophical positions and then justifying those positions by the text. Therefore the one who adopted stoic Greek school of thought would look to the texts to justify their position just like the one who adopted the epicurean position would do likewise. 

    This showed then that the decline of the Arabic had both effects in law and concepts of Islam. 

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