In Search of Quranic Language: A Thought Experiment

The issue of the clarity of Quran is a perennial one in the debate between Quranists and Traditionalists. Quranists claim that ‘The Quran is clear’ and while Traditionalists do not disagree, they link the clarity to the explanations allegedly from Prophet Muhammad. This shows two different assumptions, namely:

1. For Quranists, the meanings of Quranic words lie in the Arabic language itself. This is what is traditionally known as ‘ma’na lughawi’ (linguistic meaning). Quranists tend to look at ancient Arabic dictionaries in order to determine meaning.

  1. For Traditionalists, the meanings of Quranic words lie in the alleged Prophetic explanations. This is what is traditionally known as ‘ma’na shar’i’ (meanings according Islamic law). Traditionalists tend to look more towards meanings used in Islamic law. For example, although ‘zakaat’ and its cousin-words appear in Quran, there is no suggestion that it means ‘charity’ as Traditionalists claim. Rather the usages seem to suggest that the meaning of ‘purification’ and ‘growth’. This is where Traditionalists use the ‘meaning according to Islamic law) to authenticate the meaning they infer.

This brings us to the question – how we verify the ‘correct’ meaning? What is the ‘correct’ meaning here? In this context, it is the meaning intended The Author of Quran, Allah. Allah intends a particular meaning for each word and the Reader’s task is to elicit that meaning.

Let us now pose this question – how do we know we have the correct meaning? Quranists have a variety of answers and Traditionalists place their faith in their literature. Is there a way of verifying meaning so as to give us certainty? Our thought experiment begins here:

Scenario 1

Assuming you visit a library in Yemen. In this library, you find an old Arabic dictionary. Not just old but ancient. In this dictionary, there are words written in Arabic and pronounced exactly the same as Quranic words (like ‘Allah’, ‘rabb’, ‘deen’ etc). However the meanings are entirely different. They bear little resemblance to the meanings proffered by other Arbic dictionaries or current Arabic usage.

Upon reading Quran with these ‘new’ meanings, you find that Quran’s ideas become much more powerful. Suddenly Quran seems to answer all questions with great clarity. Upon practising these meanings, you find a tremendous change in your personal life and when these practices are applied in your society, it becomes excellent in all ways. In other words, these meanings were the magic keys which unlock the power of Quran.

However, they are not meanings agreed upon by the scholars and speakers of Arabic. Would you still use this dictionary?

Scenario 2:

Same as Scenario 1 above except that you find this dictionary in the Levant and this ancient language could be Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac or the like but not Arabic. The writing is not the same as Arabic of course but the sounds match precisely.

Would you still use this dictionary?

Scenario 3

Same as Scenarios 1 and 2 except that this dictionary is found in London. It is a relatively new dictionary and its writing is in Romanized alphabets (ABC) and it matches sounds of Quranic words to English meanings. Again the meanings take Quran to a high level of profundity and application.

Would you still use this dictionary?

The purpose of this thought experiment is to ask oneself, does the fact that Quran is in Arabic matter? If so, how does it matter? How does one determine the meanings of words?

Let us take Scenario 1. This isn’t far-fetched compared to the proceeding scenarios. It is conceivable that some Arabic philologist found different meanings and recorded them. What is vital here is the results. If these meanings take Quranic discourse to an infinitely higher level, would the fact that no other Arabic lexicographers agree with them matter at all?

Next, let us take Scenario 2. In this scenario, the sounds of the words match Quran but the writing is different. The language of Scenario 2’s dictionary is clearly not Arabic yet the proposed meanings take Quran to a higher level. So does it matter to us that this isn’t Arabic?

Lastly, Scenario 3 is intended for us to question ancientness. Does it matter if a dictionary is ancient or modern? If human experience takes us to particular meanings of words forged through human convention, then wouldn’t those meanings already be predicted by an All-Knowing Allah?

The purpose of this thought experiment is to understand the nature of Quranic language. Does Quran have to be within the orbit of the Arabic language to make sense? If so, how far does have it to conform to the meanings with Arabic lexicons? What if Quranic language was outside this orbit? Can the meanings still be acceptabl if they produce optimum results? What if the resource providing meaning wasn’t ancient or even close to Arabic? Can the meanings still be acceptable? Future essays on this topic will examine how we discover Quranic language.

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About Farouk A. Peru

I am a human being in the world, blogging my existence. My thought systems may be found in my website: www.farouk.name
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