بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
Arabic- The Key to Understanding the Qur’an
3 short stories to introduce this week’s discussion:
1. It has been narrated that a major scholar of the past used to try and fault the Qur’an by searching for flaws in its language. His attempts and studies lasted months, during which time a group of men would frequent his house and ask him whether he had found anything yet. Eventually, he smashed his ink pot and broke his pen, and replied, “None can dispute that this is the Speech of Allah!” He then left the house and passed by a mosque, from which he heard the voice of a young boy reciting the verse,
وَقِيلَ يَا أَرْضُ ابْلَعِي مَاءكِ وَيَا سَمَاء أَقْلِعِي وَغِيضَ الْمَاء وَقُضِيَ الأَمْرُ وَاسْتَوَتْ عَلَى الْجُودِيِّ وَقِيلَ بُعْداً لِّلْقَوْمِ الظَّالِمِينَ
And it was said, “O earth, swallow your water, and O sky, withhold [your rain].” And the water subsided, and the matter was accomplished, and the ship came to rest on the [mountain of] Judiyy. And it was said, “Away with the wrongdoing people.” (Hud, verse 44)
to which the man remarked, “It is not possible that a human could produce such words.”
The verse in question is one of the most beautiful, eloquent, rhetorical verses of the Qur’an, as the scholars of Arabic balaaghah (rhetoric) identified within it more than twenty-five different rhetorical devices (fann balaaghee) within just 17 words!
2. When the Prophet (peace be upon him) would pray in the Ka’bah in Makkah, the Qurayshis would laugh at him, curse him, throw rocks at him, and ridicule him. One day he was sitting with some companions around the Ka’bah and recited to them Surah al-Najm, within earshot of the Quraysh. Everyone listened intently until he (peace be upon him) went on to recite the last few verses of this chapter,
أَفَمِنْ هَذَا الْحَدِيثِ تَعْجَبُونَ * وَتَضْحَكُونَ وَلَا تَبْكُونَ * وَأَنتُمْ سَامِدُونَ * فَاسْجُدُوا لِلَّهِ وَاعْبُدُوا
Then at this statement do you wonder? And you laugh and do not weep? While you are proudly sporting? So prostrate to Allah and worship [Him].
By the time this last verse was recited, they all fell involuntarily into prostration as commanded in the verse, mesmerised by the beauty and truth of what they had just heard.
3. the story of ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab embracing Islam is a well-known one. He was one of the staunchest enemies of Islam, one of the strongest men in Makkah, who was sworn to kill the man who called himself the Prophet of God. Sword in hand, he set about to accomplish the task he had set himself and on the way was asked by a man he passed on the street as to the nature of his mission. When ‘Umar told the man of his intentions, the man told him to worry about his own sister first. In a fit of rage, he went to his sister’s house to kill her first if the news was true. He asked her whether she had accepted Islam, and when she replied in the affirmative he slapped her so hard that blood fell from her face. He noticed some paper in her hand, so he asked her what she was carrying. When she told him she could not give him the papers as he was not pure, he tore them from her hands and began to read the words written on them (listen),
طه * مَا أَنزَلْنَا عَلَيْكَ الْقُرْآنَ لِتَشْقَى * إِلَّا تَذْكِرَةً لِّمَن يَخْشَى * تَنزِيلاً مِّمَّنْ خَلَقَ الْأَرْضَ وَالسَّمَاوَاتِ الْعُلَى * الرَّحْمَنُ عَلَى الْعَرْشِ اسْتَوَى * لَهُ مَا فِي السَّمَاوَاتِ وَمَا فِي الْأَرْضِ وَمَا بَيْنَهُمَا وَمَا تَحْتَ الثَّرَى * وَإِن تَجْهَرْ بِالْقَوْلِ فَإِنَّهُ يَعْلَمُ السِّرَّ وَأَخْفَى* اللَّهُ لَا إِلَهَ إِلَّا هُوَ لَهُ الْأَسْمَاء الْحُسْنَى
Ta, Ha. * We have not sent down to you the Qur’an that you be distressed * But only as a reminder for those who fear [ Allah ] * A revelation from He who created the earth and highest heavens, * The Most Merciful [who is] above the Throne established* To Him belongs what is in the heavens and what is on the earth and what is between them and what is under the soil. * And if you speak aloud – then indeed, He knows the secret and what is [even] more hidden * Allah – there is no deity except Him. To Him belong the best names.
Upon reading the words on the paper, ‘Umar’s eyes filled with tears. He demanded from his sister that she tell him where this man Muhammad (peace be upon him) was, and after making him promise not to harm the Prophet (peace be upon him) he set out to find him. The Prophet (peace be upon him) could tell who was at the door from the strength of his knock, so opened the door and greeted his visitor with the words, “Isn’t it about time you became Muslim, O ‘Umar?” to which he received the reply, “I bear witness that there is no God worthy of worship other than Allaah, and I bear witness that you are the Messenger of Allaah.”
What did these men have in common? The answer (among other things) is that they all had a deep, solid, understanding and appreciation of the Arabic language, its syntax, semantics, rhetorical and literary devices, poetry, prose, and all else a mastery of any language entails that allowed them to immediately discern that the difference between the speech of God and the speech of His creation is the difference between God and His creation itself. An understanding of the language that allowed them to recognise the truth and submit to it without giving another moment’s consideration. An understanding that enabled them to recognise the miraculous nature of the Qur’anic text, and use this recognition as a base on which to build their faith.
Perhaps we will never be able to achieve the same appreciation and understanding of the language of the Qur’an as they did, but we cannot dispute that we owe it to our souls, to our faith, to at least try.
Many of us (myself included) often belittle the importance of learning the Arabic language. We see it as something we would like to do if we had the time and opportunity, but we do not consider it a matter of priority. The purpose of this week’s tarbiya is to highlight the importance of the Arabic language in Islam.
As we know, the Qur’an is the word of Allah; a direct message from Allah to us- His creation and Allah chose the Arabic language as the language of this message. Indeed Allah emphasizes to us in the Qur’an that to understand the message in its fuller form one must understand the language:
“Indeed we have sent it down as an Arabic Qur’an, in order that you may understand” (Yusuf: 2)
“And thus we have inspired to you an Arabic Qur’an so that you may warn the mother of towns and all around it” (ash-Shura: 7)
Arabic and the message of the Qur’an cannot be separated and translators throughout the ages have tried to convey to the non-Arabic speaking people the beauty of the meaning of the Qur’an but have always called it ‘The translation of the meaning of the Qur’an’, emphasizing the fact that the Qur’an’s direct translation is not possible, because so much of the potency and splendour of the words and their meanings which are inextricably linked to the Arabic language are lost in English or any other language. Indeed to even appreciate the poetic beauty of the Qur’an one needs to have an understanding of Arabic.
We must remember that for the Arabs in the time of the Prophet (sallallahu ‘alayhi wassalam), who were masters of eloquence and poetry, the words of the Qur’an itself were so unique compared to the poetry of the most eloquent of them, that many came to Islam recognising that the Qur’an could not be the handiwork of even the best human poet; rather it could only come from Allah. The language itself was one of the miracles of the Qur’an. Allah challenges mankind:
“And if you are in doubt about what we have sent down to our servant, then produce a chapter like it and call your witnesses besides Allah if you are truthful. But if you do not do it, and you can never do it, then fear the Fire whose fuel is men and stones, prepared for the disbelievers” (al-Baqarah: 23-24)
The preservation of the Arabic Language:
The Arabic language is not just ‘a language’. The Sahaba and the early generations of Muslims strove to preserve the classical Arabic language in the form revealed in the Qur’aan. It was Ali (radi allaahu ‘anhu) who noticed on the tongues of some of the Arabs a slight change in dialect and ordered for the grammar rules of Arabic to be recorded in a universal form. He knew that the preservation of the Arabic language was part of the preservation of Islam itself.
Arabic unified the Muslim countries as it spread to every land that embraced Islam. The enemies of Islam have worked hard to tear the Muslims from the Arabic language and the Qur’an. During the French occupation of Algeria, the French government was advised: “We will never be able to overpower the Algerians as long as they read the Qur’an and speak Arabic. Therefore we must remove the Arabic Qur’an from their midst and abolish the Arabic language from their tongues.”
And unfortunately this is exactly what the secular leader of Turkey, Kamal Ataturk, who abolished the Islamic caliphate, did. He ordered that the Qur’an be recited in Turkish, even in prayers and changed the Turkish language which used to be written in Arabic into the Latin alphabet.
Today we find that although Arabs throughout the world unfortunately have different colloquial dialects, they are still taught the Classical Arabic in their schools and Classical Arabic is the standard written Arabic in every Arabic newspaper and book. So it has been preserved by Allah as He promised in the Qur’an:
“Indeed we have sent down the Reminder and surely we will preserve it.” (al-Hijr: 9)
We need to realize that studying the Arabic language is studying Islam itself; of course it is a means to an end, but it is also an end in itself.
Scholars throughout the ages, from the Companions to the present day, encouraged the Ummah to learn the Arabic language. Ubay ibn Ka’b (radi allaahu ‘anhu) said,
“Teach Arabic like you teach the memorisation of the Qur’an!”
Abu Bakr (radi allaahu ‘anhu) said:
“That I recite and forget (a portion of the Qur’an) is more beloved to me than to make a grammatical mistake!”
According to another hadeeth narrated from ‘Umar (may Allaah be pleased with him), the Prophet (s.a.w.) said: ‘Learn Arabic for it is part of your religion, and learn how the estate of the deceased should be divided (faraa’id) for these are part of your religion.’
A man went to Ziyad ibn Abeehi and complained to him that his father had died and his brother had taken all the inheritence unlawfully, but made a grammatical mistake in his complaint. Ziyad replied, “The loss you have caused your soul is greater than what you have lost in your wealth.”
It is reported that ‘Umar ibn Yazeed wrote to Abu Moosa al-Ash’ari (may Allaah be pleased with him) and said: ‘Learn the Sunnah and learn Arabic; learn the Qur’aan in Arabic for it is Arabic.’
Imam ash-Shaafi’i (rahimahullah) said:” it is imperative that every Muslim should strive to learn Arabic as hard as he can, so that he can testify the shahada, and recite the Book of Allah and say the invocations that are mandatory upon him, such as the takbeer, tasbeeh, tashahud and other prayers. And the more he learns the language that Allah Himself chose to be the language of him who sealed the Prophets (sallallaahu ‘alaihi wa sallam), and to be the language of His final revelation, the better it is for him!”
The great 8th century scholar Ibn Taymiyyah (rahimahullah) even went so far as to say that: “The Arabic language is part of the Religion, and knowing it is an obligation.”
Unfortunately, we have become comfortable with simply relying on translations and spending all of our time and efforts in studying other things. We have forgotten that the Qur’an is in a very approachable language and we all have the ability or rather the responsibility to study and understand it. We have the last revelation to mankind, the only communication from our Lord and Master, which is preserved in its original form, and yet we do not give it the attention which it deserves. We should realise that Allah has honoured us with the Qur’an and chosen for us the noblest of languages. Attention to Arabic is attention to the Book of Allah, so we should make learning it a priority.
To many of us, learning Arabic seems like an impossible and daunting task. We believe that the benefits of learning Arabic are outweighed by the costs. This is especially true because many of us feel we can accept that the language of the Qur’aan is a miracle without the need to study it. Furthermore, we can rely on translations of Qur’aan to understand the gist of the Qur’aanic message. What we fail to realize is that knowledge of Arabic in itself is knowledge of Islam, and studying Arabic with the correct intention is as important and as praiseworthy in the site of Allah as studying issues of fiqh and aqeedah. We may never become fluent in the Arabic language, but this does not mean studying Arabic is pointless; on the contrary any addition to our Islamic knowledge is beneficial, and we will be rewarded for it inshAllah. Even grasping a very limited knowledge of Arabic has an amazing effect on the way one looks at the Qur’aan and is able to concentrate in prayer.
Summary- why study Arabic?
1.To fully appreciate the miracle of the Qur’aan, as this will undoubtedly strengthen our iman
2.To obtain a deeper understanding of the Qur’aanic message
3.Knowledge of Arabic = knowledge of Islam
4.Because it is our duty to do so!
May Allah (swt) help us in our pursuit of Islamic knowledge for His sake. Ameen.