Why is the Quran in Arabic (3)?

AL-JURJÂNI, THE RENOWNED Arabic grammarian and founder of the theory of Qur’anic Discourse, aptly describes Arabic as a language in which words have meaning locked up inside them until parsing sets them free. [i] Arabic does not boast of the fact that it is the only language that has retained a set of rigid and forbidding grammar rules that uselessly rack the minds of leaners, whereas other Semitic languages have jettisoned these cumbersome rules much to the pleasure and comfort of their speakers. Since language is basically for the expression of meaning, whatever trait capable of deepening, enriching and offering wider selections of meaning should be viewed as an advantage. [ii] Parsing –the analysis of grammatical form (and the meaning associated with such an analysis)–[iii] is one such tool for unlocking meaning; the insights it gives into meaning justifies the difficulty that some  learners claim it has.

The wording of the Quran claims full purposefulness; there is nothing in it that can be dispensed with or replaced with a synonymous alternative without negatively affecting the meaning. This, besides the profusion of other stylistic devices working in full and perfect unison, puts the Quran’s authorship beyond human capacity and emphasizes its divine origin. In this part more examples of the interplay between nominal and verbal structures are presented to support the claims of unfailing purposefulness and accuracy.

In the passage below, the Quran launches one of its inroads of admonition against those who refuse to submit to God and to believe that they will be held accountable for their deeds after their death and resurrection; the Quran says what is translated as:

Your god is one God. But those who do not believe in the Hereafter – their hearts are disapproving, and they are arrogant. Assuredly, Allah knows what they conceal and what they declare. Indeed, He does not like the arrogant. And when it is said to them, “What has your Lord sent down?” They say, “Legends of the former peoples!” [iv] [Sûrat Al-Naḥl, 16:22-24]

The English rendering here severely damages the message of the Quran and makes it say the opposite of what it quite emphatically says: “And when it is said to them, “What has your Lord sent down?” They say, “Legends of the former peoples.” This wording very clearly indicates that non-believers believed that God did reveal something –which is not the case at all.   The Quran here is sending a message that the hearts, minds and tongues of the addressees are repudiating the fact that there was a god or even that anything was revealed at all. But how does the Quran say this and why did the translators miss this crucial message?

Observing the word ending of the Arabic word asâtîr-u, translated here as legends, we can see that it’s in the nominative case –meaning that asâtîr-u functions as a complement not as an object. And this tells the reader that the elided (missing but understood) part must be: “[These are] legends of former peoples.” Their reply blatantly means: “What you are saying are all man-made stories.” It does not mean: “What God revealed are man-made stories. If asâtîr-u were written asâtîr-a, the second English translation above would be correct but the Quran purposefully opts for asâtîr-u. The added meaning here is: we don’t even believe that there is a god or that such a one has revealed anything. No, we believe that these tales and warnings that you are telling us are nothing but legends of former peoples.   [v]

The most economical way to put this meaning into English would be: “[These are] legends of former peoples.”  However, adding These are to replace a single meaningful sound in Arabic does not simply harm the economy of expression, but it denudes the text of the dramatic effect of the terseness of the reply. One can visualize the rejection said by disbelieving and  arrogant people who would not even care to refer to the Quran and its content saying this is or these are.

Not very far from this verse –and like pieces set in a mosaic pattern to accentuate the beauty of one another– we read a very similarly structured dialogue that is translated as:

And it will be said to those who feared Allah, “What did your Lord send down?” They will say, “[That which is] good.” [Sûrat Al-Naḥl, 16:30]  [vi]

Here too, the translator fails to convey the highly nuanced message which the Quran sends through ellipsis, through the parsed form of words and through the proximity of this dialogue to the previous one. The juxtaposition of (16:30) shortly after (16:24) aims at arousing our faculty of comparison and contrast.  Whereas the first (16:24) is an elliptical nominal structure, the second (16:30) is a verbal one. This means that in this current situation, the answer of believers to the question of what their Lord revealed conveniently employs the deleted verb technique. It means that they are saying: “[He sent] good.” We know it is a verb by the fact that the word Khair-â is in the accusative case which means it functions as an object. We know this through the accusative case marker –â at the end of the word.

Here the reader does not have to suspend the natural and logical order of guessing as he does in the first situation. The verse would be more aptly rendered: “What did your Lord send down?” They said, “Good.” The natural unobstructed flow of words is that Good, which is the reply, is an object of send down in the question. Believers here are saying that they believe that God revealed good –all this by saying a single word that takes its cue from the question asked.

By contrast, the first situation (16:24) required the unbelieving addressees to suspend the syntax of the question and introduce a completion which was alien to the given structure; they did this by deflecting from the verbal to the nominal. Their reply issued from minds that were in conflict with logic. They were saying that there is no God and that they were not accountable for their deeds. This awkward deflection of reasoning is reflected in their language –and it’s our parsing that reveals this state of their minds.

The second response to the same question, the response of believers (16:30), reveals to us minds that are at ease in both thinking and language. To see this clearly one needs to imagine someone naturally prolonging the final â in the euphonic khairâ, as if giving a sigh of relief, and compare this to the final u which adds to the cacophony in asâtîru al-awwalîn.

But, isn’t the response of the believers terser than that of the non-believers? The answer can simply be that the single-word reply encapsulates the goodness which permeates the mini-dialogue; there is a ubiquitous benevolence in the hearts, minds and tongues of the believing speakers, in the revelation received and in their Graceful Lord.


[i]  A. al-Jorjâni, Dalâ’l Al-I’jâz, Commentary by M. Shakir, 28

[ii] Fâdhil Al-Sâmerâ’i, Arabic Sentence And Its Meaning,  48

[iii]  Ibn Faris, AlShâhibi in Arabic Philology, 43

[iv] Sahih International Translation

 [v]  Fâdhil Al-Sâmerâ’î, Arabic Sentence, Its Structure and Divisions, 58

[vi] Sahih International Translation

"You are invited to respond to the contents of the article and to engage in conversation about the issues raised."

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