The Arabic language is the only appropriate vehicle of meaning for the final Book of God.
“An Arabic Quran”
NON-ARABS—MUSLIMS and non-Muslim alike—are hardly equipped to verify the truth of this claim till they have a good command of Arabic. The truth is yes, the intricacies of Arabic’s highly developed grammatical derivativeness, its intense grammatical functionality, the dynamic inter-lexical (i.e., between words) dialogue, and the legion of linguistic features that have no exact equivalents in other languages—all these elements work together to impart a miraculously crafted message that is beyond the human capacity of even a literary giant—one of which Muhammad ﷺ famously was not.
According to Arabic rhetorician Al-Zurqâni in his book, Manâhil Al-ʿIrfân fi ʿUlûm Al-Qur’ân, pages 2, 143:
The nuances of meaning which may seem as secondary in analysis are actually indispensable enhancements of the main objectives of the Quran as a Book of Guidance. They all converge to convey a miraculous and divinely eloquent Message that is far too lofty to fully encompass, let alone to reproduce or translate into another language.
The Quran itself states this unequivocally:
Indeed, We have sent it down as an Arabic Quran that you might understand. [Sûrat Yûsuf, 12:2]
Had it been in a language other than Arabic, they would have said: “Why are its verses not 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…” [Sûrat Fuṣṣilat, 41:44]
Implied in these verses is the idea that Arabic was chosen for its ability to pack in more details than other languages could have done—or at least, the vital details appropriate to the full sense with all its connotations.
Lost in Translation
When translated, The Quran loses much of its imposing pithiness and dwindles into a linear narrative of events, an exposition of the doctrines, and a rebuttal of the arguments of non-believers, without many of the stately paraphernalia of stylistics of the Arabic original text.
Translators understandably decide to discard features which target languages cannot accommodate. Therefore, no matter what language the Quran is rendered into, it is no longer to be called a Quran proper, and becomes a human interpretation of the meaning; hence the plethora of annotations and footnotes in which some translations are rich.
Such “readers’ helps” quite often attempt to retrieve messages which the original text has but which had to be overlooked in the actual word for word translation.
The Nominal Sentence of Arabic
An outstanding feature of the uniqueness of Arabic which speakers of English can fortunately grasp and appreciate is how the Nominal Sentence—one of the types basic to Arabic—is utilized so as to imbue sentences with particular meaning boosters.
So what is a Nominal Sentence essentially? It is a sentence that starts off with a noun, either a real noun or an implied one[i]—exampled below—and it ends with a Predicate that completes the meaning.
Does this not sound like a sentence in any language? Well, no, actually. Here is how Arabic differs:
– An Arabic Nominal Sentence has no verb whatsoever. Thus, it is natural and idiomatic for Arabic to say:
The tree – green.
(without a connecting word meaning “is”)
– The basic meaning of this type of verb-less sentences is to indicate permanence and un-changeability of the meaning content which is expressed—and this content is aided and modified by the context.[ii]
Recovering Lost Meaning
The following example shows how much of the meaning is lost when a verse that has this Nominal Sentence structure is translated into English. Sûrat Al-Fâtiḥah, 1:2 reads:
al-ḥamdu li-(a)llâhi rabbi (a)l-ʿâlamîn…
Muslim commentators and rhetoricians state that this Nominal Sentence structure imparts the following messages for this particular verse:
– To begin with, al-ḥamdu—which is unanimously translated into English as “praise”—means devotionally and exhaustively “enumerating the Attributes of Perfection of the Praised One, done with utmost love, glorification and elevation.” [iii]
The word “al-” is roughly equivalent to the English word the and it implies all kinds of [praise].
This glorification—as expressed in an Arabic [verb-less] Nominal Sentence—transcends time. Such glorification has always been attributable to Him (Allah); it is true for him now and will always be so for Him.
The essential message of permanence and un-changeability entailed here is:
– that God does not need a doer of this glorification, and
– that His Greatness bypasses all limits of time known to us
These components of meaning are stated in a style succinctly in the Arabic Quran; the sentence has no verb, hence no grammatical Subject or “doer” is needed.
– The sentence is not simply informative—that all praise is due to God—in keeping with the way that Nominal Sentences normally function. It has understood in it, additionally, the supplicatory undertone of:
May all praise be to Allah.[iv]
How Well Have Our English Translations Succeeded?
Compare the above entailed components of meaning of Sûrat Al-Fâtiḥah, 1:2 with the following examples of how some commonly used translations have rendered this verse into English:
All the praises and thanks be to Allah, the Lord of the ‘Alamin (mankind, jinns and all that exists). [Muhsin Khan]
Praise be to Allah, Lord of the Worlds, [Pickthall]
Praise be to Allah, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the worlds; [Yusuf Ali]
All praise is due to Allah, the Lord of the Worlds. [Shakir]
Praise be to Allah, The Lord of the worlds. [Dr. Ghali]
[All] praise is [due] to Allah, Lord of the worlds. [Sahih International]
The following can be observed about these translations:
– Brevity and pithiness have disappeared, and the four-word long Arabic verse has been drawn out in English translation with many more words—and paradoxically to the detriment of the original meaning;
– Some translations have added a Present Tense verb like Shakir’s All praise is due to Allah—and this has made the sentence lose its sense of permanence informed by its verblessness in Arabic. The verb is indispensable to an English sentence, but using it has spoiled the Arabic meaning and restricted the extent of praise to the present time only.
– Translations that have bound the meaning to the present-only have lost the meaning component of supplication, as well as that of permanence. Furthermore, those who used the timeless verb “be” on the model of Pickthall’s Praise be to Allah have opted for the supplication component of meaning but in so doing have discarded the meaning of informing us that praise is due to Allah. They simply cannot keep both.
– The exhaustive sense of praise implied by al– in al-ḥamdu is missing in some translations, and is only expressed through annotations adding extra words like “all” in others. This loss is in contrast to the Arabic verse, where this sense of ‘fullness’ is expressed concisely through the definite article that comes naturally before nouns. Arabic al- is roughly equivalent to the English the—but if one says in English: “The praise is to Allah” it does not mean the fullness of praise, and it is not good English, either.
And, by the way, it is not to be assumed that the economy of syntax and the abundance of meaning as explained above are the only features that set Arabic apart as unique, nor are they the only traits that translators cannot include in their target languages. These are only examples among countless others that work together to impart to us God’s message.
[i] [i] A. Abu Al-Makarim, Nominal Sentences, 2007, 17
[ii] Abu Al-Baqa’ Al-Kafawi, Al-Kulliyyat, 1998, 814
[iii] Ibn Al-Qayyim Al-Jawziyyah, Badai’ Al-Fawa’id (Al-Shamila Version)
[iv] Al-Tahir Ibn ‘Ashur, Al-Tahrir wa Al-Tanwir. 1, 154-156 (Al Shamila electronic version)
In Part 2 we continue, Inshâ’Allah, our exploration as to how features of the Arabic language make it perfect for conveying the final Book of God.