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The impact of the Qur''an of the Arabic language

The impact of the Qur''an of the Arabic language

Structure and content

As has already been pointed out, scholars have gone to great lengths over the past thirteen centuries to describe and emphasize the inimitability of the verses of the Qur''an. However, the impact of the revelation of the Qur''an on the Arabic language, its structure and content, has certainly been the focus of fewer studies. Works on the inimitability of the Qur''an have mostly focused on the literary beauty of the Holy Book, its conceptual strength and precision. Another important aspect of the Qur''an, one not adequately addressed, lies in its linguistic impact on the form and content of the Arabic language.

The Holy Qur''an has undoubtedly helped reinforce and deepen the Arab people''s awareness of the richness and beauty of their tongue. From a linguistic point of view, the revelation of the Qur''an was the most important event in the history of the Arabic language. It was an event with far-reaching and lasting consequence, for the Qur''an gave Arabic a form which it had hitherto lacked. In fact, it was due to the desire to preserve the Qur''an that efforts were made to develop and refine the Arabic alphabet. It was within the same context that Abu l-Aswad al-Du''ali developed the dot system in the first century of the Islamic era in his attempt to lay the basis for Arabic grammatical theory. [31] His efforts were among the first to establish a permanent form for the Arabic alphabet and hence the Arabic writing system. As deciphered from the earliest inscriptions, the Arabic alphabet was vague, unsystematic, and inefficient. The dot system as developed by al-Du''ah helped to clarify and establish distinctions which were otherwise unclear. In fact, it can be maintained that had it not been for the strong desire to preserve the Qur''an, its form, grammar, pronunciation, and accuracy, the Arabic alphabet and writing system might not have developed as quickly as they did.

The Arabic alphabet and writing system were only one aspect of the Qur''an''s impact on the language; it also gave Arabic a rigidity of form and a precision of presentation which were novel to the language, as well as a host of new locutions, complex concepts, meanings, and arguments. Furthermore, the Qur''an enriched the lexicon of the language by bringing new words and expressions into use, and by introducing loan-words from foreign languages. It also presented a firm set of linguistic standards and directions which were instrumental in the subsequent documentation of Arabic grammar.

The Qur''an likewise helped to expand the scope of Arabic as it was known in the early years of the seventh century. Islam and the Qur''an helped to open new horizons and fields of study which included such disciplines as philology, Islamic law (the sharia), and Islamic philosophy. The Qur''an also introduced a host of new themes and linguistic forms not only to the Arabic language but to the Arab mind as well. Taha Husayn dealt with this particular aspect of the verses of the Qur''an when he wrote:

In its external form the Qur''an is neither poetry nor prose. It is not poetry because it does not observe the metre and rhyme of poetry, and it is not prose because it is not composed in the same manner in which prose was customarily composed. [32]

The Qur''an consists of verses which vary in length depending on their theme and the occasion for which they were revealed. What is most interesting about Qur''anic verses is the superb selection of words, a selection which helps to induce varying reading speeds, which render these verses most effective. On this particular point,

Taha Husayn wrote:

For example, those verses dealing with the dialogues that took place between the Prophet and the pagans as well as those dealing with legislation require the type of low reading speed appropriate to explanation and recapitulation. On the other hand, those verses in which the pagans are warned of the fate that awaits them require a higher speed appropriate to censuring and warning. [33]

The varying speeds which Taha Husayn mentions appear to be achieved with remarkable spontaneity, which is the result, in Taha Husayn''s words, of ''a careful selection of words and expressions.'' [34] He gives sura 26, al-Shu''ara'', as an example of the type of verse requiring speedy reading, and sura 28, al-Qasas, as an example of that requiring slow reading.

Another aspect of the novelty of the Qur''an language has to do with its themes. These themes and topics represent a clear departure from those which had been hitherto familiar to the Arabs. As Taha Husayn explained:

It does not deal with any such things as ruins, camels, or long journeys in the desert; nor does it describe longing for the beloved, love, or eulogy, topics most familiar to pre-Islamic Arabs. But rather it talks to the Arabs about such things as the oneness of God, His limitless power, His knowledge, which is unattainable, His will, which is unstoppable, and His creation of heaven and earth. [35]

This passage underscores yet another innovative aspect of the Qur''an, namely the presentation of novel themes through an abundance of examples all aimed at illustration and persuasion. The use of illustration is one of the most effective stylistic techniques of the Qur''an. One can hardly read a verse without experiencing the impact of this technique.

The art of narrative style represents another innovative aspect of the Qur''an. It relates in astounding detail the stories of Noah Abraham, Joseph, Moses, and Jesus, among others. It presents the dialogues that took place in such stories and the claims and counter-claims made by each of the opposing parties. Story-telling may not have been totally novel in pre-Islamic Arabia given the significant quantity of parables, epics, and myths that were inherited from that period. What was novel, however, was the type of integrated, elaborate story involving such essential items as theme, plot, well-developed characters, and denouement which are to be found in the Qur''an, which refers itself to the benefit in telling such stories:

We do relate unto thee the most beautiful stories, in that We reveal unto thee this [portion of the] Qur''an. Before this thou too were among those who knew it not. (1: 3)

Lexical borrowing

Lexical borrowing is another area in which the Qur''an established precedent. The Holy Book draws freely on words of non-Arabic origin, including Persian, Sanskrit, and Syriac. The importance of the Qur''an in this respect can be better understood against a deep-seated theme which can be discerned in the writings of scholars of preand early Islam, namely, that the Arabian Peninsula was, during the pre-Islamic era, more or less isolated from the rest of the world, and that the Arabic language, and consequently the Qur''an, was the unique product of the Arabian desert. Inherent in this theme is a belief in the ''purity'' of the Arabic tongue and hence the scholars'' reluctance to agree with the fact that in its attempt to illustrate the breadth of human religious experience the Qur''an drew on the lexicons of other languages and religions. [36] The verse: Thus have We sent down this Arabic Qur''an is often cited in support of this view. [37] It is obvious from the literature that the majority of the earlier scholars, for example, al-Shafi''i, Ibn Jarir, Abu '' Ubayda, al-Qadi Abu Bakr, and Ibn Faris, rejected the theory that some of the words of the Qur''an were not of Arabic origin. [38] The question of lexical borrowing and the existence of foreign words in the Qur''an was viewed differently by different scholars. Thus the earlier scholars maintained that the existence of foreign words implied and inadequacy of the language. Al-Suyuti quoted Ibn Aws as saying:

If the Qur''an had contained anything other than Arabic, then it would be thought that Arabic was incapable of expressing those things in its own words. [39]

Later scholars, however, viewed lexical borrowing differently. Thus, al-Suyuti explained that the adoption of some non-Arabic words in the Qur''an took place because such words denoted objects or ideas for which no Arabic words were readily available. [40] Examples include the Persian words ''istibraq'' (a thick, silky brocade), ''ibriq'' (a water jug); the Nabatean word ''akwab'' (goblets); the Aramaic word ''asfar'' (a large book); the Hebrew borrowing ''rahman'' (merciful); and the Syriac words ''zayt'' (olive oil) and ''zaytun'' (the olive tree). The Qur''an has several hundred such foreign borrowings. Earlier generations of Muslim scholars maintained that such words were either ancient Arabic words that had gone out of use until the revelation of the Qur''an, or that such words were ancient borrowings introduced into Arabic long before the Revelation which had since then acquired an Arabic pattern. [41]

Whether we agree with the view that foreign words in the Qur''an are direct borrowings from other languages or with the view that the majority of these words were ancient borrowings which occurred in pre-Islamic poetry and which had been in use long before the revelation of the Qur''an, it is a fact that the Qur''an contains words that are not of Arabic origin. Such words come from a host of languages including Ethiopic, Persian, Greek, Sanskrit, Syriac, Hebrew, Nabatean, Coptic, Turkish, and Berber. [42] By adopting words of non-Arabic origin, the Qur''an may have helped to legitimize a very important linguistic process, that of lexical borrowing. The importance of this practice derives particularly from the fact that the use of foreign words was viewed unfavourably by a large number of Arab scholars at that time. [43] The term ''ajami (Persian, foreign) was used strictly in reference to non-Arabic words to set them aside from native Arabic words. During the documentation of the grammar in the first three centuries of the Islamic calendar, the same term was used to refer to less-than-native pronunciations of Arabic. In their attempt to document the grammar, the early scholars considered the speech of the bedouins in the heart of the desert to be the most reliable and purest, apparently due to their belief that the bedouins seldom left the desert or mixed with speakers of other languages. [44] Likewise, the early grammarians did not look favourably upon the adoption of foreign terms into Arabic, apparently in the belief that borrowing would indicate certain gaps or deficiencies in the language.

Since it contained words of non-Arabic origin, the Qur''an established a precedent for lexical borrowing as a tool whereby languages may enrich themselves. This was clearly one of the most innovative aspects of the Qur''an. It is particularly important given the unfavourable climate that prevailed among the early Muslim scholars with respect to lexical borrowing.

Structure and style

The Qur''an has made remarkable contributions to the structure and style of the Arabic language. It combines within its covers the first documentation of the sentence patterns of Arabic, and it was instrumental in the documentation of Arabic grammar which began in the first Islamic century. From the time of Sibawayh (d. c. 793) up to the present day there is hardly a page in any manual of Arabic grammar which does not contain one or more verses from the Qur''an. Furthermore, the strong interest in Qur''anic studies brought with it an equally strong interest in Arabic linguistic studies.

The style of the Qur''an helped to develop and enrich the Arabic language. As the first book in the Arabic language, it introduced stylistic innovations which greatly influenced trends in subsequent generations. Foremost among such trends is the Qur''an''s abundant use of figures of speech in place of simple words. The Qur''an makes extensive use of illustrations, imagery, and metaphor, thus adding beauty, life, and colour to plain words In fact, the ubiquity of figures of speech in the Qur''an has led Sayyid Qutb to conclude that ''the use of imagery and figures of speech is the Qur''an''s preferred style.'' [45] The preference for figures of speech over plain words appears to be a general trend that permeates the entire Book. Thus, the Qur''an affirms the impossibility of the disbelievers'' entry into paradise:

Nor will they enter the Garden until a thick rope can pass through the eye of a needle. (7: 40)

Confirming that the disbelievers'' actions will be in vain, the Qur''an conveys this notion in the following way:

The parable of those who reject their Lord is that their works are as ashes on which the wind blows furiously as on a tempestuous day. (14: 18)

Another idea, that of those who do charitable acts yet spoil what they have done by gloating and reminding others of such acts is conveyed thus:

they are in a parable like a hard, barren rock on which is a little soil: on it falls heavy rain which leaves it just a bare stone. (2: 265)

The opposite case, namely that of those who spend for God''s sake rather than in order to boast, is also expressed through imagery:

as a garden, high and fertile; heavy rain falls on it but makes it yield a double increase of harvest. (2: 265)

Earlier in the same sura, the same idea is conveyed through a different figure of speech:

The parable of those who spend their money in the way of God is that of a grain of corn: it groweth seven ears and each ear hath a hundred grains. (2: 261)

Criticizing those who worship gods other than Allah, the Qur''an likens their actions to that of a spider building a web:

The parable of those who take protectors other than God is that of the spider building for itself a house; but, truly, the flimsiest of houses is the spider''s house. (29: 41)

Doomsday is one of the frequent themes of the Qur''an. The description of the horrors of that day is also presented through figures of speech:

for the convulsion of the Hour will be a terrible thing! The day ye shall see it, each mother giving suck shall forget her suckling-babe, and each pregnant female shall deliver her load. Thou shalt see mankind as in a drunken riot, yet not drunk. (22: 2)

Another very characteristic stylistic device of the Qur''an is that of anthropomorphization. Thus it describes dawn as breathing away the darkness (78: 10), the night as concealing the sun and veiling the day, the wind as fecundating, causing the rain to fall (15: 22). The sea is likened to ink which, if used, will not suffice to write the words of God:

Say: If the ocean were ink wherewith to write out the words of my Lord, sooner would the ocean be exhausted, even if we added another ocean like it. (18: 109)

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