Monday, 1 December 2014
The Sharing Group Discussion: Why was the Qur'an Revealed in Arabic?
بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ
The following was posted in The Sharing Group by Brother Abdullah Shalchi, on the 30th June, 2014: “Why was the Qur’an Revealed in Arabic? Is there anything special about the language or place it was Revealed? 6th century Makkah does not seem as special a place as Muslims make it out to be; rather insignificant in fact.
In terms of language, the Persian language, pre-Islam, had about 48 letters in the alphabet until they adopted Arabic script. Written Arabic seemed quite basic and young, and it was almost immediately improved after Revelation. English, these days, is said to have the broadest vocabulary. Similarly, Mandarin is a very complex and developed language. There are hundreds if not thousands of other languages past and present. What makes Arabic so special? And why was the Qur’an Revealed there and then?”
Brother James Harris: A very good question, Brother Abdullah.
Sister Rhiannon Roesler Alobeid: This is an interesting and intelligent question. I am all ears.
Sister Amani Gamaledin: This verse, for starters, explains why:
Had We Sent this as a Qur'an (in a language) other than Arabic, they would have said, “Why are not its verses explained in detail? What! (A Book) not in Arabic and (a Messenger) an Arab?” Say, “It is a Guide and a Healing to those who believe; and for those who believe not there is a deafness in their ears, and it is blindness in their (eyes); they are (as it were) being called from a place far distant!” (Surah Fuswswilat:44)
And here is another supporting verse:
We Sent not a messenger except (to teach) in the language of his (own) people, in order to make (things) clear to them. Now Allah leaves astray those whom He Pleases and Guides whom He Pleases: and He is Exalted in power, Full of Wisdom. (Surah Ibrahim:4)
Brother Abdullah Shalchi: That is interesting, thanks. I have heard that it is a superior language but I do not see how. So then it begs the question, why Makkah and Madina? Were the people special? As I said, it seems like a small insignificant place. Perhaps it had to do with the people there and their capability to spread Islam. I do not know, as I do not know if it was spread in a good way.
Sister Amani Gamaledin: ‘Umar (r.a.) said that, on the contrary, the Arabs were the worst people on Earth and that Islam was Revealed to them for that very reason. Islam was the miracle needed to transform the Arabs into Muslims, the best of people and thus spread the Message from there. I will look for the source, insha’Allah.
Brother Abdullah Shalchi: Yes I have heard that too. But were they that bad? They practised some crazy things. But then, a lot of what they practised such as female infanticide, were practised in many places. And were they really that significant? Maybe the Ka’bah of Abraham (a.s.) is a factor?
Brother Abdul-Halim Vazquez: The Torah, the Injil and Zabur are also Revelations from Allah (s.w.t.). And presumably the other unnamed messengers brought Revelations in various languages. The Speech of God is going to be beautiful and eloquent because it is from God, not because Arabic is so awesome. God can Speak in any language.
Sister Amani Gamaledin: Well, there was also idolatry, rampant promiscuity, heavy drinking, constant fighting between tribes, and such; in addition to what you mentioned. Plus, perhaps the frequency by which they practiced such vices played a role? Allahu ‘Alim, really. It is hard for us to know for sure but I believe the words of ‘Umar (r.a.), and it certainly makes sense for Allah (s.w.t.) to Clean the core of corruption before Radiating His Message throughout the world. It is a dangerous thing to think that by simply being Arab one is superior, yet unfortunately there is still this pseudo-religious racism within the Arab community.
Brother Abdullah Shalchi: Yeah, I was going to say, some good it did to the Hijaz when we look at it today. It is worse now, in fact, because there is hypocrisy.
Brother Dan Oo: How about this as an idea? The fact that it was so completely ignored and had no resources is a testimony to God’s Greatness; that He would Take a band of people and have them lead humanity with such scant resources is a testament to His Power.
Brother Abdul-Halim Vazquez: When I was becoming Muslim, I think that argument was actually one of the ‘last straws’. They went from disorganised tribes in the Jahiliyyah to a huge multi-racial empire and civilisation because of Islam.
Brother Jak Kilby: Just imagine if it had been in English. Nobody much world understand the ‘English’ language of 700 years ago now, let alone 1,400 years. As a non-Arabic speaker, I have the impression that it is very much a preserved language and so has protected Islam. This would be Allah’s (s.w.t.) Wisdom. As for the Arab’s being the worst of people, I am not so sure of this at all. While I have only read translations, there is pre-Islamic era Arabic literature. The culture of honour, nobility and such is very prominent. I do not think you would find much of the same in European people of the time for example. Check out Anta wa Abla’. Another impression I have is that in many ways, Arab society has fallen to become worse than in the time of Jahiliyyah, although Islam survives within that. And you cannot make generalisations. Amongst the Arabs of today, you can find the best of humanity as well as the worst.
Brother Abdur Rahman: The fact that Arabia was on the edge of the Fertile Crescent might also have some bearing perhaps. That is, Makkah, at the time, was situated on a north-south trade route that connected it with the southern world of Yemen and Ethiopia, and thence to India, and Persia and further. It was thus exposed to, but not the centre of, the religious beliefs of those areas. Similarly it was open to, but not the main centre of, beliefs emerging from the north, from the Roman Empire and the Persian Empire, and in particular, the complex religious scene of Syria and Iraq. This included many strands of Christianity: Orthodox, Nestorian, Monophysite and so forth; Zoroastrianism: orthodox and Zurvanite; Manichaeism with its centre in Iraq; the Mandaean faith of southern Iraq; the Sabians and many others. The Middle East of the time was also home to a great number of smaller sects. The early Muslim community were heirs to a deep and rich religious heritage, and which in many ways, the emerging Qur’an speaks to. Whilst, of course, the Qur’an does not validate every belief that it was aware of, it certainly does address them. In other words, this rich religious context allowed the swift development of a broad, deeply informed and rich faith, Islam. This does not address the issue of Arabic itself, of course. The fact that Arabic was cognate with many of the languages of the Middle East might have some bearing though. These are just a few thoughts.
Brother Aftab Ahmed: This blog has interesting points to say on why the Qur’an was Revealed to Arabs: The Qur’an: Why Was It Revealed in the Arab Nation?
Brother James Harris: As we have seen in some of the comments above, there are two general issues we need to address with respect to why the Qur’an was Revealed in Arabic: the significance of it being revealed to the Arab people, whose language is Arabic; the nature of the Arabic language itself, and its supposed status as being ‘superior’ to other languages. Here is my take on it.
Regarding the first point, the choice of the Arabs as the people to whom God’s Final Revelation to mankind would be Given was due to the spiritual and genetic lineage of the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) as well as the significance of the land on which he lived. The Prophet’s (s.a.w.) tribe, the Quraysh, were the people of Makkah, which is home to the sacred Ka’bah and the holy sanctuary in which it is kept. This is the original House of God built originally by the Prophet Adam (a.s.) and rebuilt by the Prophet Ibrahim (a.s.). The people of Makkah at the time of the Prophet (s.a.w.), including the tribe of the Quraysh and all the Arab people, are the direct descendants of Ibrahim (a.s.) through his second son Isma’il (a.s.). As it is written in the Qur’an:
Remember We Made the House a place of assembly for men and a place of safety; and take ye the station of Abraham as a place of prayer; and We Covenanted with Abraham and Isma’il that they should sanctify My House for those who compass it round or use it as a retreat or bow, or prostrate themselves (therein in prayer). (Surah al-Baqarah:125)
The Message of the Final Revelation was for all humanity, and in this lies the significance of Prophet Muhammad’s (s.a.w.) recovery of the Holy Sanctuary in Makkah for monotheism. With this great inheritance, the mission to bring monotheism to all people was given enormous strength. The fact that this message culminated in the mission of the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.), who was of this lineage, meant that the message was also tied to the lineage of Christianity and Judaism, the two great world monotheistic faiths.
The Arabic language, as a Semitic language, is closely related to Hebrew and Aramaic, and Chaldean, and as such, the Qur’an preserves the message of monotheism of earlier prophets in language, concepts, grammatical structures, and rhetorical devices that are similar to those familiar with the previous revelations, Christianity and Judaism. Those familiar with those traditions would certainly therefore not find the Qur'an and its message strange. This is essential for a universal message claiming descent from these earlier traditions. This can be summed up in the following verse:
And before this, was the book of Moses as a Guide and a Mercy; and this book confirms (it) in the Arabic tongue; to admonish the unjust, and as Glad Tidings to those who do right. (Surah al-Ahqaf:12)
In my opinion, it is for these reasons that the Qur’an was Sent to the Arab people, and why it is in the Arabic language. Other matters such as the ungodly nature of Arab society, and such like, are secondary matters.
Now, turning to the second reason I mentioned above, namely the nature of the Arabic language as being ‘superior’ to other languages, this is a weak argument for a number of reasons. We can say that the Arabic language had a remarkably developed oral literary culture, with a wide range of vocabulary to describe all kinds of concepts. Nevertheless, it if often forgotten that many of the religious concepts developed in the Qur’an were unknown to the Arabs, and that over the course of the Revelation, these were developed so that the people could understand the message. For example, the terms ‘diyn’, ‘tawhid’, and other concepts had to be taught slowly through lots of examples and parables. They did not just come automatically to the Arabs. These terms were not developed with any sophistication before Islam. I would argue then that it was due to the Qur’an itself and the remarkable teacher, the Prophet (s.a.w.), that the Message could be conveyed so successfully and with such depth, and not due to any miraculous nature of the Arabic language itself. The Message of Islam was not just about language, but through the example of the Prophet (s.a.w.) himself.
The most problematic aspect of the claim of Arabic being ‘superior’ is that I am never sure as to what the criteria are by which we judge this. If we are looking at the complex grammar of the language, such as the marking of number: singular, dual, plural; gender: masculine, feminine, both; mood on verbs, and so forth; these occur in many other languages around the world. Such complex grammar occurs in Greek, Hebrew, Amharic, and many other languages. In fact many other languages are even more grammatically complex than Arabic. Also, the Qur’an does not explicitly state that the Arabs or their language are somehow superior to the others. It simply mentions that the book was revealed in “clear Arabic”:
We have Sent it down as an Arabic Qur'an in order that ye may learn wisdom. (Surah Yusuf:2)
The Qur’an specifically Mentions Arabic in terms of it being the language of the Arab people, nothing more.
I think that sometimes, the claim that Arabic is somehow greater than other languages is coming from nationalistic ideas rather than religious ones. The idea that Arabic is the language of Paradise can be interpreted in a number of ways. Unfortunately many claims about Arabic being superior are framed with an attitude of chauvinism, which I believe is misguided, as I have argued above. This is not to discount the remarkable nature of Arabic on a number of levels. I have devoted much of my adult life to its study, and the language is something which is very close to my heart. However, I think we need to move away from attitudes of superiority. All languages and cultures have great value to human civilisation. These a few of my thoughts on the matter. I would be interested to see what others think.
Brother David Rosser Owen: I read too, about Makkah as the place of the Revelation, that it has no antipodes to be used as a rival. I do not know whether that ever occurred with other religions, but somebody made a point of it - I forget who - in that the antipodes of Makkah is a spot in the sea in the Pacific Ocean.
Brother Colin Turner: Difficult to say anything more elegant or eloquent than Brother James Harris’ appraisal, which seems to hit the nail on the head. There is, however, something about Arabic which to me, as someone with only a reading knowledge of the language, seems particularly suited to Revelation. Conciseness, perhaps? Polysemy, perhaps? I would be interested to hear from Brother James Harris precisely what he finds remarkable about Arabic.
Brother Abdullah Shalchi: Yes, thank you Brother James Harris, very well explained. I have heard that Arabic is a superior language, not just from Arabs but also from Iranians. Impossible for me to say though.
Brother James Harris: Yes, I think it is important to know what one means when we say something is ‘superior’. That is where the problem lies.
Brother Colin Turner: There is a tradition, clearly fabricated, that says, “The language of Heaven is Arabic; the language of barzakh is Farsi; and the language of Hell is Turkish.” Clearly fabricated by an Iranian!
Brother James Harris: Thanks, Brother Colin. I think the Qur’an and Islamic tradition that has sprung from the Qur’an, all carried through the medium of Arabic, is what is remarkable about the language. No other language can match Arabic with respect to the depth by which Islamic theology, law, Sufism, metaphysics and such like, can be comprehended and discussed. That is certain.
Brother Abdul-Halim Vazquez: Is that statement not a bit circular though? I mean, is French not the best language for discussing French philosophy? Is Greek not the best language for discussing Greek thought?
Brother James Harris: Well, I was not making an argument. Just stating a plain fact, like the facts you have stated. The value of Arabic is in these things. Greek and French are remarkable for, among other things, the facts that you mentioned.
Brother Louis Llewellyn Shann IV: Great discussion thread. Could it be also to the connection of Ishmael (a.s.) and Hagar being taken to Makkah by Abraham (a.s.)?
Brother James Harris: Thanks, Brother Louis. The connection of Ishmael (a.s.) and Hagar was the first point in my comment.
Brother Omar Grant: The abjad system allowed for very sophisticated levels of meaning within Sufi texts.
Brother Abdur Rahman: I think we also have to factor in economic and social factors into our understanding of Arabian society at the coming of Islam. That is, the increasing wealth disparity between the various clans of Quraysh, such as Bani Umayyah and Bani Hashim, were also important factors in seriously distorting traditional Arab cultural norms. Reading the sources, the Qur’an, the ahadits, the sirah, and other materials, there is evidence of serious economic and social dislocation.
Brother Abdul-Halim Vazquez: Both Hebrew and Greek have systems similar to abjad. For Hebrew, it is called gematria.
Brother Omar Grant: The abjad system, coupled with the tri-literal root consonants of Arabic allow for embedded ‘references’ to other, related words which is quite remarkable. For some very good examples, see ‘The Sufis’ by Idries Shah. Gematria had its roots in Assyrian and Babylonian.
Brother Abdur Rahman: Please refer to Gematria. It is a system by which hidden truths and meanings are discovered within words. Each letter of an alphabet corresponds to a number. Numerical values of words are totaled up and then these words are said to correspond with other words sharing the same numerical value. The Babylonian king Sargon II, in 8th century BC, is believed to have been the first to use gematria when building the wall of Khorsabad exactly 16,283 cubits long, because that was the numerical value of his name.
In Jewish mysticism, this is a traditional system of associating numbers with Hebrew letters for the purpose of discovering hidden meanings in words. This is accomplished by systematically associating letters with numbers and then finding other words with similar numbers. These latter words are regarded as comments on the original words. Systems related to the Hebrew implementation of gematria are still used. The Hebrews also used gematria for divination.
The ancient Greeks used gematria in dream interpretation. It also appears in the literature of the magi, and has been used in connection with the Greek alphabet. The Gnostics applied gematria to names of deities such as Abraxas and Mithras, equating them because both of their names equaled 365, the number of days in a year. Gematria carried over into early Christianity, which helped make the dove a representation of Jesus; the Greek word for dove, peristera, equals 801, as do the Greek letters in alpha and omega, which represent the Beginning and the End.
It was the Kabbalists, however, who seriously studied gematria and developed it into an art form. The Kabbalists of the 13th century seriously believed that the Old Testament was written in a hidden code inspired by God. They used gematria as one of the chief means by which to decipher this code. An example of this is shown in their interpretation of Jeremiah 9:9:
9 What, shall I let all this pass me by, the Lord says; shall I not take my fill of vengeance against such a nation as this?
This was interpreted as meaning that no traveler passed through Judea for 52 years, because the Hebrew word behemah, has the numerical value of 52.
Entire verses were numerically added up and interpreted in such a fashion. The 13th century German Kabbalistic scholar, Eleazar of Worms, did extensive gematric commentaries on the Bible.
The Kabbalists also used gematria to search for the Holy Names of God thinking, as so many others have, that these names such as the Tetragrammaton possessed power. Such a procedure has been adopted by many present day magicians. However, it should be noted two schools of thought regarding gematria also were issued from the Kabbalists. One advocated it use while the other cautioned against its practice, recommending that it only be practiced to strengthen one's own conclusions. Various methods of gematria have evolved; for example one Kabblistic tract lists 72 of them.
There are two other lesser known decoding systems which are related to gematria, and various methods of practice exist within each of these systems too. The first of these systems is known asnotarikon, in which the first letter of words may be extracted and combined to form new words; or, another version is to take the first, last, and sometimes the middle letters to make new words or phrases. The other system is called temurah. It is a more complicated system in which letters are organised in tables, or according to mathematical arrangements. By the procedure of substitution, new words or anagrams are formed. Some modern occultists apply gematria to Tarot cards, associating the twenty-two trumps with Hebrew letters.
And also this: Nabataean Abjad
Brother Abdulkareem C Stone To me Arabic language is clearly superior to all others, simply because it is the language the best and most superior of all Creation speaks. Out of all mankind, Allah (s.w.t.) Chose the Arabs; and from the Arabs, He Chose the Quraysh; and from the Quraysh, He Chose Banu Hashim; and from Banu Hashim, He Chose Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.). The language one speaks and how more particularly the way one speaks is integral to their character. There is a brevity and depth in the ahadits that has such a distinction from all other reported speech. These words our Prophet (s.a.w.) spoke were spoken directly and simply reported over time rather than written down. They reflect the nobility and temperance of character of our Nabi (s.a.w.) as well as containing depth of wisdom.
Brother Abdullah Shalchi: Can you give an example, brother? That is what we are trying to work out.
Brother Colin Turner: Brother Abdulkareem C Stone, it does not really follow on that just because the Prophet (s.a.w.) spoke Arabic, Arabic is therefore superior to all other languages. This would appear to be emotivism rather than an appraisal based on reason and evidence. Wa Allahu ‘alam.
Brother James Harris: It also leads to ethnic chauvinism. This is a major problem we face these days and hence why I emphasised my point about the problem with calling Arabic a ‘superior’ language. People swear in Arabic, speak about all kinds of everyday things in Arabic. What makes such speech superior to an Englishman’s speech? We must not mix up the Revelation with the language in general.
Brother Abdulkareem C Stone: Our distinction is rooted initiation of Adam (a.s.) into being taught the names of things. Whether this was actually Arabic or not cannot be deduced with any great surety but was a position that many classical ‘ulama took. But what we can gleam from this is that our distinction from the rest of Creation is rooted in language, and our office to actually participate in the naming of things.
Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) and the society he came from had a very different appreciation of identity from ours, one rooted in the identity of their forefathers. This was often to excess but as most things go our society is deficient in this. Language is integral to the identity of the tribe, nation and society. We, however, tend to see inventiveness and distinction only in the objects produced by men. We have to reevaluate the centrality our spoken language has to the very core of our essence. Our words are our real artifacts.
Rationality is not something that has a very great record in approaching ‘truth’. Poetry is often more apt a medium for revealing insights into a nature. The lived experience of being is just that - an experience. It has a subjective reality to it. Rationality has nothing to say in the evaluation of beauty and wisdom, but we should not denigrate such evaluation.
Brother Colin Turner: But we are not evaluating beauty and wisdom; we are evaluating the superiority of one language over another. If this superiority cannot be demonstrated rationally, then it really does become, as you suggest, an issue of subjectivity, and emotion.
Brother Abdulkareem C Stone: Saying something like Shakespearean English has a superiority over contemporary English is not a rational question, or rather a question of reason. It is a question of value and appreciation, if we do not evaluate beauty or wisdom then we neglect an aspect most intrinsically human.
Brother Abdullah Shalchi: Surely the question should not be whether it is more poetic, but whether Allah (s.w.t.) could express His Message to us in a better way in Arabic than other languages.
Brother Abdulkareem C Stone: I fear we are treading into an area where angels fear to tread, but was the Message Chosen or the Messenger (s.a.w.)?
Brother James Harris: That was my point, Sidi Abdulkareem. All the pseudo-scientific claims of the superiority of one language over another, or one culture over another, are misguided. It is a subjective judgement, not a scientific one.
Brother Abdulkareem C Stone: Yes our evaluation, our love, our devotion to our Nabi (s.a.w.) is not rationally based, it is an affair of the heart. But his speech is more of an integral part of him then his turban, beard and miswak.
Brother Justin Taylor: The only differences between Shakespearean English and modern English is time and one is the language of normal life and the other the stage. Shakespearean English was considered archaic and 'flowery' in his time, and specifically so. I would be very interested in the ancient roots of Arabic, and the progression of the language from ancient times.
Brother Terence Helikaon Nunis: Shakespearean English was not considered ‘high’ English. It was the language of the masses and that is evidenced in its bawdy humour and vulgar jokes.
Brother James Harris: Brother Justin, this Wikipedia entry provides a solid, detailed background on the development of Arabic: .
Brother Justin Taylor: Shakespeare used that bawdiness to great effect to appeal to and imitate life with realism. I would suggest Chaucer was the bawdier writer. Shakespeare invented many of the words we use today. ‘Murderer’ as example this would indicate to me he was far from using the language of the masses. Until this was explained in context, they would not actually know what it meant. By all accounts, his vocabulary was absolutely stupendous.
Brother James Harris, I read the information very interesting. However, it said only since the 6th century CE. I am interested in the Tower of Babel story; specifically the direction languages took. From my interest in Buddhism and the Thai and Laotian languages, I have been exposed to Sanskrit words which are very old. Sanskrit is related to Iranian and Persian languages. So logic would say there are connections to Arabic.
Brother James Harris: The stories of the Tower of Babel can be found in the Bible, and there are stories of a similar nature in Islamic tradition. I take the value of such stories for their moral message as parables, rather than for information on the historical development of languages. There is not enough information in such stories for rigorous historical research, which was not their original aim anyway.
Regarding your second point, Sanskrit and the Persian languages are Indo-European, belonging to the same family as English. As such, Persian and Sanskrit have no genetic relationship with Arabic, which is a Semitic language. The Semitic languages are not related to the Indo-European languages, but rather belong to a larger family known as Afro-Asiatic, which includes a wide range of languages in the Middle East and North Africa, including Coptic, Berber, and Somali, among others.
Sister Jonae Cope: This might help explain parts of it, insha’Allah: The Miraculous Qur’an by Sayed Ammar Nakshawani
Brother Justin Taylor: That is why I was confused. I thought there was a connection between Persian and Arabic. I tend to agree with your assertion that the Babel story was message in parables. I would think though, given we all come from a fairly small origin base, all languages would have a single, if unidentifiable source. I guess this type of speculation has no real direction given the time lost. I am watching that video now, and interestingly, the man mentions that Indonesians use Arabic because it is considered special; the connection to the Prophet (s.a.w.). The exact same thing happens with Buddhists who read and chant in the temple in Pali, considered the language of Buddha.
Brother James Harris, all this has made me think of something. How did it feel studying the desert language which could well be over 40, 000 years old?
Brother Abdul-Halim Vazquez: One difference between the Bible and the Qur’an is that in the Bible, diversity of languages is a punishment and a curse while in the Qur’an it is a sign from Allah (s.w.t.):
And among His Signs is the Creation of the heavens and the earth, and the variations in your languages and your colours: verily in that are Signs for those who know. (Surah ar-Rum:22)
Brother James Harris: The Western Desert language is fascinating, Brother Justin. It has a structure as complex as Latin, and captures the soul of the desert people. Really worth exploring.
Brother Abdulkareem C Stone: The following is from Shaykh Martin Lings’ (q.s.) ‘Ancient Beliefs & Modern Superstitions: “In Judaism, as also in Islam, we find the doctrine that by Divine Revelation, Adam was Taught the true language, that is, the language in which sound corresponded exactly to sense. This conception of man’s primordial speech is undoubtedly beyond the reach of philological verification. None the less philology can give us a clear idea of the general linguistic tendencies of mankind, and in doing so, it teaches us nothing which in any sense weighs against the traditional report. On the contrary, every language known to us is a debased form of some ancient language, and the further we go back in time the more powerfully impressive the language becomes.
It also becomes more complex, so that the oldest known languages, those which are older than history itself, are the most subtle and elaborate in their structure, calling for greater concentration and presence of mind in the speaker than do any of the later ones. The passage of time tends to diminish the individual words, both in form and sonority while grammar and syntax become far more simplified.”
Brother James Harris: That is, in fact, the traditional European understanding of language, which stems from the idea that Latin and Greek were the highest forms of language, and everything in the modern period is a decayed form of these earlier purer languages. This corresponds with the idea that Ancient Greece and Rome were the ideal, purest models of civilisation upon which European civilisation should be based, and Europeans studied the classics to retain this culture. Modern linguistics generally rejects this idea though. Languages change, but the complexity is expressed in new, different ways.
Brother Colin Turner: Brother James Harris has an excellent approach to this subject. He should write an article on it.
Brother Abdulkareem C Stone: It may well be true that the idea of a pure language and a pure race were abused to a disastrous extent but that does not logically invalidate any notion that there exist purer languages. Also the fact many blatantly inferior people have asserted their superiority does not negate the existence of superiority. It may seem a safer option to insist on a cultural relativity by negating such claims but that leads to the reduction of humanity to normality and standardisation. But getting back to language, the great mistake of the modern age is to reduce the status of language to the same level as our other artifacts and inventions rather than something intrinsically human. I see it just as that, so if we cannot make any value judgement about language, it holds we cannot do so about humanity itself. This become problematic for us, as followers of the Prophet (s.a.w.), who so compassionately asserted his superiority.
Brother Colin Turner: The problem here is that ‘purity’ and ‘superiority’ are, in the absence of any Divine Directives as to their meaning, completely subjective when it comes to the issue of language. If you can elucidate what you mean by ‘purity’ and ‘superiority’, it would be helpful.
Brother Abdul-Halim Vazquez: It was written above, “In Judaism, as also in Islam, we find the doctrine that by Divine Revelation, Adam was Taught the true language, that is, the language in which sound corresponded exactly to sense.” That makes it sound as if the language of Adam (a.s.) should be perfectly onomatopoetic, which is kind of a funny idea if you think about it.
Also I once taught at a school where one of my closest colleagues happened to be the language teacher and I had an opportunity to have numerous conversations with him about American Sign Language, and even today I continue to be interested in how one can have a language in a totally different modality with a radically different sort of grammar and logic. Anyway, I mention it because it seems to me that ASL, and probably other deaf languages, potentially have the property that ‘the sounds’, or strictly speaking, the signs, correspond exactly to ‘sense’, especially since many words and concepts would be pantomimed.
Brother Omar Grant: The Sufis have a deep knowledge of the science of the effects of sounds on the human brain. Language is also a prison that fences in perception. The writings of Henri Bortoft are interesting in this respect. It has been observed by some that language is the source of misunderstanding.
Sister Jonae Cope: Part of the reason is that the three Abrahamic faiths have been given to people in the modern Middle East is that it is logical. Based on this, it would be given to those in the same region as well as those who are in the area of the Ka’bah. It is not necessarily that Arabic is better than other languages, but linguistically, especially at that time, it completely transformed the language spoken by the Arabs. The most advanced poets of the time were not able to create anything that compared to the poetic nature of the Qur’anic verses. It is why many converted and followed our Prophet (s.a.w.). I have studied the language for four years and it is astonishing how the language is structured.
Brother James Harris: Thank you for your kind words, Brother Colin, and Sister Amani. I am considering writing something more substantial on the relationship between language, culture and revelation in this vein. This thread has been helpful in clarifying some of my thoughts on the issue, as I am sure it has for others here.
Perhaps I could also respond to Brother Colin’s question about what is remarkable about the language with this quote from the great anthropologist-linguist Edward Sapir in 1921, about what he calls the ‘genius’ of language: “For it must be obvious to anyone who has thought about the question at all or who has felt something of the spirit of a foreign language that there is such a thing as a basic plan, a certain cut, to each language. This type or plan or structural ‘genius’ of the language is something much more fundamental, much more pervasive, than any single feature of it that we can mention, nor can we gain an adequate idea of its nature by a mere recital of the sundry facts that make up the grammar of the language.”
Brother Abdulkareem C Stone: I want to add some more from this book, Ancient Beliefs & Modern Superstitions: “There is no doubt that in general, ‘civilisations’ takes the edge off man’s natural alertness and vigilance, qualities which are most necessary for the preservation of language. In particular, literacy lulls men into a false sense of security by giving them the impression that their everyday speech is no longer the sole treasury in which the treasure of language is safeguarded; and once the idea of two languages, one written and one spoken, has taken root, the spoken language is doomed.”
And for some of my musing now, the speech of man mirrors his dwelling, it becomes a microcosmic reflection of all around him. What is heard, what is seen what is felt all participate in the genesis of speech. The journeys by travel through the night by camel become manifest on through the tongue. So many factors of language that do not necessarily concern the actual words add far more to what is communicated than what can be written. Direct speech that is both spoken and heard, that is experienced, that occurs in the holistic context of the entire universe and is rooted in the very earth upon which the speaker and listener stands is the real reflection of the value of language.
Sister Amani Gamaledin: Brother Abdulkareem, I found this passage particularly interesting: “In particular, literacy lulls men into a false sense of security by giving them the impression that their everyday speech is no longer the sole treasury in which the treasure of language is safeguarded; and once the idea of two languages, one written and one spoken, has taken root, the spoken language is doomed.”
I would have thought the opposite. Then again, can the two be completely separated, if they coexist? For instance, in Arabic, there are a multitude of dialects but when it comes to written material, classical Arabic is always used. In a literate society, would not the written be alive and well even if it is not completely spoken in a colloquial sense?
Some linguistic critics are not worried about the spoken language’s viability but rather the written - fearing the classical Arabic might end up like Latin or Ancient Greek. I think one of the major reasons why classical Arabic is still alive and well is because of the Qur’an mainly and Islamic sciences, secondly. Muslim scholars are advised to give their lectures, juma’ah khuthab and lessons in classical Arabic.
Then again, I think about how rapidly spoken language changes. Is it not just that the nature of spoken language? Is it not meant to be dynamic? For example, Egyptian Arabic seems to be adding on and incorporating new words and amalgamations based on foreign lexicon. I have heard some of the weirdest phrases last time I was in Egypt. According to most folk, I speak with an ‘old Cairo’ dialect since I learned it from my parents who have not lived there for several decades. Within the span of 18 years, I witnessed a significant change in Cairo dialect, and it is not just dialect, but inflection, speed, and so forth. And that is just one city in Egypt. There ae lots of food for thought here.
Brother Akram Abu Abs: Most importantly, I would suggest that Arabic, as the mother of Hebrew and Aramaic, was in fact, the language of all biblical prophets, and that Hebrew gained ‘dominance’ only because the oldest biblical books were first written in Hebrew about 2,500 years after the events described in them, at around 1,000 to 500 BC.
Second important fact is that Isma’il (a.s.) was Abraham’s (a.s.) first-born by several years and was also his heir, the ‘object’ of his sacrifice and the first person ever circumcised. No doubt, Abraham (a.s.) was an Arab and Hebrew, as a dialect, developed later among the Habiru, desert princes, or nomads similar to today's Bedouin.
Thirdly, the superiority of Arabic lies in the fact that all words consist of consonants in a specific sequence or key, for example K-R-M, such as in my name, and any word containing K-R-M will have an associated meaning, making Arabic the most unambiguous language in the world.
Finally, the Arabic alphabet is, as far as I know, the only fully phonetic alphabet in the world and could be used to write any language in the world with little changes such as adding a ‘ch’ and ‘p’ in Farsi. Afrikaans, interestingly, was first written in Arabic script.
Brother James Harris: Hebrew did not develop historically from Arabic. Rather, these languages both descend from a common Semitic source which can be considered neither Arabic nor Hebrew. Where did you get this from? And who has said that Ibrahim (a.s.) was an Arab? The importance attached to ethnic categorisation is a decidedly modern phenomenon. It is of little importance when it comes to our spiritual heritage.
The Arabic spelling system is indeed phonetic. However, the Roman alphabet is fully phonetic in many languages, such as Italian, Finnish, and Indonesian. Being phonetic concerns the relationship between the alphabet and the language it records; it is not a fundamental feature of an alphabet in itself.
Arabic is not suited to many languages, as there are sounds in English which could not be captured by the Arabic alphabet. The biggest problem for Arabic in being used for other languages is its so-called ‘defective script’, where the short vowels are missing. It works for Arabic, which has only three short vowels, but not for languages which have many more.
Sister Amani Gamaledin: I thought Arabic and Hebrew were derived from Aramaic and that Abraham (a.s.) was the father of both Arabs and the children of Israel? I was taught that Ishmael (a.s.) is considered the father of the Arabs, while Isaac (a.s.) is considered the father of the 12 Jewish tribes.
Brother James Harris: It is the other way around. Aramaic and Hebrew developed independently from Northwest Semitic, in the same region. Hebrew was the language of the ancient Hebrew people, and the related language, Aramaic later spread through the region of Palestine replacing Hebrew and other related languages. Hebrew survived as the liturgical language of the Jewish religion. Aramaic became the language of the Jewish people well before the time of ‘Isa (a.s.). In this way, Aramaic is, in a sense, a continuation of Hebrew, but only indirectly.
Sister Amani Gamaledin: Ah, that makes perfect sense now. I always wondered why that was since Jesus (a.s.) spoke Aramaic.
Brother Akram Abu Abs: Age of languages are determined by phoneme diversity, and except for Khoi, San, Kung, and Kwena; Bushman languages; Arabic is by far the oldest. If the Roman alphabet was phonetic, anyone should be able to correctly pronounce any word in any language written in Roman alphabet. This is simply not the case.
Brother James Harris: That does not make sense. What is your source? Saying that phoneme diversity equals the age of a language, they are two entirely different issues.
Brother Abdulkareem C Stone: Back to the Shaykh Martin Lings’ (q.s.), he wrote Arabic is a touchstone and that the Arabs were a race of poets but most were illiterate. “Arabic was still, in 600 CE, more archaic in form and therefore nearer to the ‘language of Sham’ than was the Hebrew spoken by Moses (a.s.) nearly two thousand years previously.”
Then he spoke of the importance of Qur’an and it preservation, and notes it is still a living language but ‘inevitably, dialects have been formed from it.’ He further said, “But the slightest formality of occasion calls at once for a return for the undiminished majesty and sonority of Classical Arabic, which is spontaneously reverted to in conversation also, when anyone feels he has something important to say. On the other hand, those few who, on principle, refuse to speak the colloquial language at all, are liable to find themselves in a dilemma; either they must abstain altogether from taking part in an ‘ordinary conversation’ or else they run the risk of producing an incongruous discourse, like a street urchin masquerading in royal robes.”
Brother James Harris: Sister Amani, to clarify, here is a map of the relationships between Semitic languages.
Sister Amani Gamaledin: Thank you, Brother James Harris.
Brother James Harris: Thanks for the Shaykh Martin Lings (q.s.) quotes, Brother Abdulkareem. I had not read this before. It is very interesting.
Brother Abdulkareem C Stone: I think much of our reluctance to acknowledge the superiority of Arabic stems from this incongruence. In essence, that Arabic that was superior is dead, but taxidermically preserved. That is too harsh but contains a bitter truth many are not able to swallow. Language divorced from the context of a congruent community becomes almost an abomination. Community can only have congruence with context, a geographical, political and technological context. A context which both influences and is influenced by what has been spoken at a face to face level.
“The truly simple man is an intense unit; he is complete and whole hearted, not divided against himself. To keep up this close knit integration, the soul must readjust itself altogether to each set of circumstances, which means that there must be a great flexibility in the different physic elements: each must be prepared to fit perfectly with all others, no matter what the mood. This closely woven synthesis upon which the virtue of simplicity is based, is a complexity as distinct from complication; and it has its counterpart in the complexity of the ancient languages to which the term ‘synthetic’ is generally applied to distinguish them from the modern analytical languages. It is only by an elaborate system of grammatical rules that the different parts of speech, analogous to different elements of the soul, may be inflected so as to fit closely together. Giving each sentence something of the concentrated unity of a single word.”