BOOK REVIEW: Miracle of language in Quran —by Robert B Reich


From: Daily Times


The Quran in its Historical Context; Edited by Gabriel Said Reynolds
Routledge 2008
Pp294; Price £75
Available at bookstores in Pakistan

For Ibn Khaldun in the 14th century, the Nabataeans were the native inhabitants of Mesopotamia before the Islamic conquest of Iraq. Assyrians, Babylonians and Chaldaeans are called Nabataeans. They were renowned for their magical practices
No one has studied the Arabic language better than the Arabs in history. In the field of etymology they have done immeasurably better than the Iranians with regard to Persian and Pakistanis with regard to Urdu. In Pakistan, interest in lexicography excludes any interest in the origin of Urdu words. But the Arabs always showed inquisitiveness about the origin of the words of the Quran.
The first person who focused on the foreign words in the Quran was none other than Islam’s foremost exegete, Imam Al Shafei, who came to the conclusion that no one knew exactly how many words had come in from other languages. He says: “Of all tongues, that of the Arabs is the richest and the most extensive. Knowledge of this tongue to the Arabs is like the knowledge of the sunna to the jurists. We know of no one who possesses knowledge of all the sunna without missing a portion of it. In like manner is the knowledge concerning the tongue of the Arabs by the scholars and the public. No part of it will be missed by them all, nor should it be sought from other people; for no one can learn this tongue save he who has learned it from the Arabs.” (Al-Shafei, Risala, 27-8).
Persian words were soon discovered because of the Arab-Persian contact in Iraq. For instance, ‘istabraq’ meaning ‘silk brocade’; ‘barzakh’, meaning ‘barrier’, used three times; and ‘firdaws’, meaning ‘paradise’. Other Quranic words that were deemed derived from other languages included ‘tannur’ in the sense of ‘oven’; ‘jibt’ meaning ‘idol’; and ‘rahiq’ meaning ‘wine’.
Many languages are isolated by the classical grammarians and lexicographers as sources of Arabic words. Among them is Syriac. Syriac, referred to as suryani or nabati, appears to have been well-known as a spoken language according to anecdotes found in the works of Ibn Qutayba and Ibn Durayd, both living in the tenth century. The association of Syriac with Christianity is also clear in the work of the eleventh century writer Al Biruni.
For Ibn Khaldun in the 14th century, the Nabataeans were the native inhabitants of Mesopotamia before the Islamic conquest of Iraq. Assyrians, Babylonians and Chaldaeans are called Nabataeans. They were renowned for their magical practices. Other writers make it apparent that this designation was not linguistic exclusively but rather an ancient group of people distinguished by their agricultural practice, as opposed to pastoral or military life. (p.255)
Al-Suyuti, who died in 1505, edited in several different versions lists of foreign words in the Quran. One of his works is called al-Mutawakkil fima warada fil-Quran bil-lughat. The treatise, named after the caliph al-Mutawakkill who died in 943/1536 who ordered the author to compile the work, is a list of Quranic words that are ‘to be found in the speech of the Ethiopians, the Persians or any other people other than the Arabs’. (p.256)
Another list has nineteen Hebrew words, including two from the Suryani list. The vocabulary is as follows: ‘Ran’ meaning ‘river’; ‘taha’ meaning ‘O Man’; ‘annat’ meaning vineyard and grapes. ‘Hawn’ meaning ‘wise men’ ‘layta laka’ meaning ‘come here’; ‘wa-lata’ meaning ‘and there is not’; ‘ahwan’ meaning ‘tranquil’; ‘Sujjad’ meaning ‘with uplifted heads’; ‘qayyum’ meaning ‘one who does not slumber’; ‘asfar’ meaning ‘books’; ‘qummal’ meaning ‘fly, bee’; ‘shahr’ meaning ‘month’; ‘yamm’ meaning ‘sea’; ‘salawat’ meaning ‘synagogues’; ‘qintar’ meaning ‘bull’s hide full of gold or silver’, etc.
Early references to Arabic by Christians are traced. For example, fourth-century writer Uranius notes that the place name Motho means death ‘in the speech of the Arabs’ (he arabon phone). His near contemporaries Ipiphanius of Salamis and Jerome also make reference to Arabic, the former in connection with a virgin goddess whom the inhabitants of Petra and Elusa praise in the arabike dialektos and call her in Arabic Kaabou (‘buxom maiden’). And the Jewish Talmud adduces a number of words said to be from the speech of the Arabs, and a few Arabicisms enter the Syriac language of this period. (p.54)
It is noteworthy that the Quran itself is self-conscious with respect to the language in which it is written stressing that it is an ‘arabi recitation’ (12:2), an ‘arabi decree’ (13:37), composed in the ‘arabi tongue’ (20:195), which has been made easy for Muhammad (19:97, 44:58) and is the language of his people (14:4). (p.63)
When Muhammad (PBUH) had his first revelatory experience, his wife Hazrat Khadija took him to her cousin Waraqa bin Nawfal. The passage on this event is given in the Maghazi of the historian Ibn Ishaq (d. 150/767), in the section on Muhammad’s ‘invocation to mission’ or ‘call’ (al-mab’ath), within a longer narrative on his call, translated here according to the version (transmission) of Ibn Hisham (d. 218/834), in the account of the storyteller (qass) ‘Ubayd b. Umayr b. al-Laythi (d. 68/687). (p.91)
In another report Hazrat Khadija gives to Abu Bakr RA the order to go with Muhammad (PBUH) to Waraqa, and when Waraqa hears the account of Muhammad he cries: ‘All-Perfect! All-perfect!’ (sabbuh or subbuh). These events are given as proof of contact with a person who knew languages other than Arabic.
A great part of the technical terms on the Quran as a book are also not of Arabic origin, according to the book. The word ‘quran’ is a loanword, as is ‘mushaf’ (codex). One of the supposed collectors of the Quran, Salim bin Ubayd (or: bin Ma’qil), mawla of abu Hudhayfa, is supposed to have been the first to give the name ‘mushaf’ (codex) to the Quran as a collected book, a word he learned in Ethiopia. Finally, neither ‘sura’, nor ‘aya’ are of Arabic origin (Claude Gilliot on page 94).
The Quran’s evocation of the legend of the ‘Companions of the Cave’ comes close to the beginning of Surat al-Kahf (18:9-26), where Allah addresses Muhammad PBUH with the following question: “Do you reckon that the companions of the cave (ashab al-kahf) and of the inscription are wondrously among Our signs?”
The parable is also known through Jacob of Serugh in Syriac who called the story The Youths of Ephesus (p.122). The word ‘aya’ is a keyword in Islamo-Christian revelation. One finds it 77 times in the New Testament, especially in the Gospel of John, and 287 times in the Quran (however somewhat rarely in the first Meccan suras). (p.145)
It is the gnostic gospels where the echo of the Quran is felt more strikingly. 1) Jesus was not crucified; someone who looked like him was crucified in his place. 2) He is therefore not dead, but was raised up to God. 3) At the end of the world, he will return to earth, fight the Antichrist, proclaim Islam as the true religion. 4) He will proclaim the coming of the Hour of Judgement, and die. 5) He will be raised on the day of the final resurrection. The text most evocative of the Quranic passage is that of the Gnostic Judaeo-Christian Basilides, reported by Irenaeus of Lyon at the end of the second century.
Suleiman Nadwi was the Indian Muslim scholar who had enough knowledge of Arabic to write about the Sanskrit words appearing in the Quran. He thought that since these words occurred where the Quran describes Paradise, the idea of Paradise must be located in India. But the word Paradise was taken from the Persians by the Greeks, and as Muhammad Hussain Azad would confirm if he were alive today, the Aryans of Persia and the Aryans of India would agree on the very mundane Hindi word Pradesh also meaning a far-off country. But for us the word has become Firdaws, the best of the many versions of Eden described in the Quran. *