I learnt the value of understanding base terms when I misunderstood and thus misjudged a colleague over a decade ago. My ex-colleague used to speak of the plight of ‘The English’ which I perceived to be referring white people from England. He used to say that the English were oppressed in their own country and were disempowered to help themselves. For a long while, I stayed away from commenting on his views, believing it to be a sensitive issue and that being an immigrant myself, my comments would not be well accepted. However, one day, it emerged (I cannot remember how) that by ‘English’, he meant everyone of every ethnicity who were legally in the country. He was not using the conventional meaning connoting ethnicity at all. This put a different complexion on his rhetoric. He was not being a racialist but rather a nationalist. I could not agree totally with his view (as immigrants are not always criminals and are often driven to enter the country through desperation) but it had made his rhetoric slightly more acceptable.
The above anecdote can hopefully illustrate that in order to understand any discourse, we must first well and truly understand its ‘base terms’ which are terms on which the entire rhetoric is founded on. Like any building, a solid foundation will then allow for the building itself to reach high into the conceptual sky. Quran itself alludes to this in 14/24-26, which is the parable of the word and the tree.
For a book like Quran, finding base terms is not too difficult for they are simply words with the highest frequency of occurrences such as the words ‘Allah’ , ‘rabb’ (lord), ‘ayat’ (signs) , ‘ilm’ (information) . These words appear hundreds, if not thousands of times and form the fundamental worldview of Quran. They are not difficult to identify at all. What is difficult is to get past the Traditional, often tribal understanding of these terms. If we were to misinterpret these words, we are liable to make fundamental errors in how we read Quran. In this analysis, we believe that much of Quran’s base terms have indeed been misunderstood and consequently, Quran itself has been fundamentally misread.
The example we will use in this essay is the world ‘Allah’ itself. This word appears 2699 times in Quran and by this fact, we can see that it forms the centre of Quranic thought. By revisiting and perhaps reforming our understanding of this word, our entire perception of Quran may change radically.
The word Allah is often thought to be the ‘God of the Muslims’, that is some ancient tribal deity. In Traditional circles, worshipping Allah entails that we are to adopt a certain set of cultural rituals which means having tendency to a culture. Even the ritual prayers has to be said in Arabic and facing an Arab shrine. This strengthens the perceptions that Allah is a localised deity. It does not help that in countries like Malaysia, non-Muslims are banned from using the word ‘Allah’ in their Malay-language scriptures because apparently, the word is Muslim property! Therefore, it should not come as any surprise when Islamophobes say Allah is a ‘pagan god’ demanding worship as an ego fulfilment.
However, I believe this is a fundamental error. In truth, Allah is simply The Divine whose Will we come to understand from Quran. There are no fundamental rites of worship or culture which comes from serving The Divine. The Divine does not side with the Muslim people or tribe. He supports those who follow his instructions (Quran 47/7 for example). He also destroys communities which refuse to evolve (46/35). Therefore Allah is a universal concept, not one tied to a particular tribe. Allah is as neutral as electricity. If you follow His system, you will benefit and if you don’t you are in for a big shock (pardon the pun)! When we see Allah in these terms, many other concepts will follow suit and become ‘universalised’. We will consider one prominent examples below.
Perhaps the most significant shift in understanding is that of ‘iman’ (faith) and ‘kufr’ (concealment, disbelief) both of which may be considered base terms in themselves. In the Traditional understanding, iman and kufr are often linked to the Prophethood of Muhammad and the Sunnah (well trodden path) which he brought. However we do not agree with this proposition. If Allah is not a tribal god, then belief and disbelief cannot also be culturally localised. Therefore, by iman and kufr, we are not talking about believing and rejecting simply the message of Muhammad but rather believing and rejecting a universal system of signs. This can also be ratified by the fact that signs (ayat) is also a base term and is said to be experienced by everyone no matter what they believe. Morever truth (al-haqq) , which is not a base term, is said to be flowing in multiple streams (13/17) and therefore, belief and disbelief cannot be culturally localised.
What these hypotheses do is radically change our perception of the entire Quran. Quran is no longer a religious text but something universal, a record of human processes which anyone can enter and experience regardless of their location in space and time. All this because we revised our understanding of the base term ‘Allah’. It is therefore crucial for us to understand base terms well in order to under Quran in the best way possible.