The Arabic language is the only appropriate vehicle of meaning for the final Book of God.
IN PART 1 we discussed the Nominal Sentence of Arabic grammar and gave an extended example to show how English translations have fallen short of conveying all the elements entailed in Arabic text of a familiar verse from Sûrat Al-Fâtiḥah, 1:2.
Here in Part 2 we look at a second typical sentence structure in Arabic grammar and the literary technique of Ellipsis, which is so much a part of the Arabic Quran.
The Verbal Sentence of Arabic
Another example of how compactness and brevity uniquely yields more subtleties of meaning is the way that implicit, or “understood,” components work both with Nominal Sentences and with Verbal Sentences.
Recall that the Nominal Sentence entails permanence and un-changeability as components of meaning. The Arabic Verbal Sentence is the counterpart of the Nominal Sentence, and it conversely implies change and transience.
Why ‘Understood’ Meaning Matters
The technique of building implication, or entailment, or indirect conveyance, of meaning into a text is what linguists call ‘ellipsis.” Ellipsis is the non-direct expression of one or more sentence elements whose meaning can be reliably known, or reconstructed … from the context.” [i] Simply put, words can be “elided” (left out) and still the meaning remains—based upon the totality of language elements that are present.
The Arabic Quran in numerous instances leaves the reader to conjure up the deliberately concealed elements, and to construct the meaning accordingly. The Arabic reader or listener to the Quran does not find such elision a weakness; in fact, he finds it a strength! Elision is part of the literary flair of the Arabic Quran, one element of the Quran’s toolkit that helps to take him/her on an exhilarating journey of the mind and soul.
“Then came Our Messengers to Abraham…”
In Sûrat Hûd, 11:69-73, God recounts the story of Prophet Abraham and the angels who come to give him the good news of his wife’s imminent conception. The angels and Abraham trade greetings of peace (11:69):
The angels: qâlû salâmân
Abraham: qâla salâmûn
In all below English translations of this short interchange of greeting, Abraham’s salutation is identical to that of the angels:
They said, “Peace.” He said, “Peace.” [Sahih International]
They said: Salâm (greetings of peace!) He answered: Salâm (greetings of peace!) [Muhsin Khan]
They said: Peace! He answered: Peace! [Pickthall]
They said, “Peace!” He answered: “Peace!” [Yusuf Ali]
They said: Peace. Peace, said he. [Shakir]
The Arabic text has it differently though. The angels say: salâmân, whereas Abraham says: salâmûn. The single sound difference between the two words hides beneath it more than meets the eye.
Parsing the Grammar of the Two Greetings
1. Arabic grammarians state that Abraham’s salâmûn is a grammatical Complement of an omitted word, i.e. the complete understood utterance is not a single word but a full Nominal Sentence, which can read:
“[This (is)] salâmûn!“
How do we know this? It is through the ûn ending of the Arabic noun salâm which is the clue to deducing the elided part. Again, here the Nominal Sentence structure implies that Abraham’s reply of “Peace!” implies permanency in the same way that permanency is implied in al-ḥamdu lillâh, as explained in our first example of a Nominal Sentence.
2. By contrast, the ân in the angels’ salâmân is our indication that the elided part is a verb which makes the understood missing part a verb and salâmân its grammatical Object. The complete initial greeting, then, is a Verbal Sentence that can be read:
“[We greet you (with)] salâmân.”
The nuanced meaning of each of the two slightly varying greetings has been implied by the minimal sound difference between the two Arabic word forms.
Parsing Abraham’s Experience
What is the meaning of all this interplay of words? Commentators say that Abraham’s greeting in reply foreshadows a more enduring peace:[ii]
1. because he knows that when you are greeted with a greeting, [you should] greet [in return] with one better than it or [at least] return it [in a like manner],” [Sûrat Al-Nisâ’, 4:86] and
2. because as host he shows indefatigable hospitality when he hurries to entertain the guests with a fat [roasted] calf [Sûrat Hûd, 11:69]
3. Also, when Abraham knows of the forthcoming punishment about to befall the villages of the People of Lot, he tries to reprieve them from annihilation: Abraham gently pleads with the angels that surely they cannot destroy Lot’s village because Indeed, within it is Lot [Sûrat Al-¢Ankabût, 29:32]. True to Abraham’s secure trust in God, Lot was rescued from the punishment of his people.
Actually Prophet Abraham was reprimanded for making this intercession because it was basically meant to ward off the punishment from the village of sinners, and mentioning Prophet Lot was more like a pretext. Here are some verses that support this implication:
And when the fright had left Abraham and the good tidings had reached him, he began to argue with Us concerning the people of Lot. Indeed, Abraham was forbearing, grieving and [frequently] returning [to Allah]. [The angels said], “O Abraham, give up this [plea]. Indeed, the command of your Lord has come, and indeed, there will reach them a punishment that cannot be repelled.” [Sûrat Hûd, 11:74-76
[Abraham] said, “Indeed, within it is Lot.” They said, “We are more knowing of who is within it. We will surely save him and his family, except his wife. She is to be of those who remain behind.” [Sûrat Al-¢Ankabût, 29:32]
On the other hand, the angels’ greeting of peace is not one entailing permanency and un-changeability.
Pooling various accounts [Sûrat Hûd, 11:69-83; Sûrat Al- Ḥijr, 15:51-60; Sûrat Al-¢Ankabût, 29:3231-35 ], the rest of the story goes like this: Abraham says: Peace. Indeed, we are fearful of you [ Sûrat Al- Ḥijr, (15:52]. When he saw their hands not reaching for [the fat roasted calf], he distrusted them and felt from them apprehension [Sûrat Hûd, 11:70]—because guests hardly needed to be invited to eat.[iii] Fear not, they assured him We give you good tidings of a forbearing boy [Sûrat Al-Ḥijr, 15:53].
This marks the end of the peaceful first part of their mission. We have been sent to the people of Lot (15:58). The angels decline his plea for delay of punishment of the Sodomites on account of Prophet Lot being among them: We are more knowing of who is within it. We will surely save him and his family, except his wife. She is to be of those who remain behind [Sûrat Al-¢Ankabût, 29:32], they expostulated; Indeed, we will bring down on the people of this city punishment from the sky because they have been defiantly disobedient [Sûrat Al-¢Ankabût, 29:34].
The angels came with glad tidings to Abraham and with a scourge of punishment to the sinners among Lot’s people. This is what their salâmân elegantly conveys—a lack of constancy of peace and security. And this is what the translation misses.
Just a Taste of the Arabic Quran
In this limited article we have presented some examples with less complicated grammar, meant to give just a taste of the limitless array of entailed meanings woven into the Arabic Quran. The above example of the exchanged salâm‘s of the angels and Abraham is a case in point to show the kind of profundity of intra-textual dialogue which loses its vigor when the Quran is separated from its Arabic origin.
One can accordingly imagine how inappropriate it would be to reverse the salâm‘s of the angels and those of Abraham: if Abraham were to greet the angels with salâmân or for the angels to salute Abraham with salâmûn.
One More Comment
In fact, there is nothing in the Arabic Quran that is accidental; Arabic is the perfect tool for precisely communicating the nuances of its intended message. The Quran’s message comes alive the more one digs into the jewels of the Arabic verses. Our traditional scholars have noted many of these in their commentaries; no doubt other jewels remain to be uncovered or re-discovered.
But, you may suggest, is it really true what you began by saying: The Arabic language is the only appropriate vehicle of meaning for the final Book of God. Isn’t it reasonable to argue that the other ancient Semitic languages also possessed the same traits which Arabic boasts having? And the answer is yes, they did. And yes, we cannot definitively test the above thesis with just a few easy examples—but let us point out that when God chose Arabic for this noble mission, He added honor to distinction.
It behooves all of us, as much as we can, to find our individual-appropriate way to dig into the intricacies of the Arabic Quran, to understand our Book and to be maximally guided, each of us, in our earthly journeys.
[i] Marjorie J. McShane, A theory of Ellipsis, 2005
[ii] Al-Tahir Ibn ¢Ashûr, Al-Tahrîr wa Al-Tanwîr, 1984, 1, 16
[iii] Ibrahim Ramadhan, Al-Tafsîr Al-Qayyim ibn Al-Qayyim, 1410 h, 1, 489