The composition of Quran – meaning what it is composed of – is a deliberate fact if one believes Quran to be divinely inspired. Since the Author of the text is Allah, the knower of unseen and witnessable, the contents of the text must be concordant with this attribute. Hence, everything in Quran is purposeful and serves the highest purpose in conveying the message. In Quran, words do not all appear the same number of times. That is why Quranology Institute (QG) divides our Word Study section in to ‘Big Words’, ‘Medium Words’ and ‘Small Words’. Big Words Study is for words which approximately appear a hundred times and above (examples include Allah/God, rabb/lord, ayat/signs and ilm/knowledge). Medium Words Study is for words which approximately appear less than a hundred times (examples include ‘salat’ and ‘shirk’). Finally, the subject of this essay – Small Words Study, is for words which appear approximately ten times in the text.
Why has this Word Study been divided in the abovementioned way? The division is arbitrary and helps the organization of QG’s work. Having said that, there are some differences between words of varying frequency. Big Words tend to give the fundamental worldview of Quran. These words enable us to understand what Quran is basically about. Medium words, insofar as our observations go, enable us to understand essential processes in Quran which tie us to the Big Words. Finally, Small Words tell us of exceptionalisms. Words which are not normally used to describe otherwise familiar situations. Small Words, more than anything else, enable us to bring out the subtleties of Quran and deepen our understanding.
We will now look at an example of Small Words in Quran beginning with the words ‘shu’uban’ (normally translated as ‘lineage’) and ‘qabail’ (normally translated as ‘tribe’) both of which appear in Chapter 49 Verse 13. Quran uses a number of other words to describe human associations. QG itself enumerates more than thirty of them here. Of the thirty odd terms, words like ‘ummah’ (translated as ‘nation’), ‘qawm’ (translated as ‘people’), ‘aali’ (also translated as ‘people) and ‘bani’ (translated as ‘children’) are the most frequently used. ‘Shu’uban’ and ‘qaba’il’ are the least frequently used with only one occurrence per word in its proper form (if we counted according to roots, it would be a different matter).
This naturally begs the question – why are these two unique terms used at all? Why not use ‘ummah’ and ‘qawm’. This is where exceptionalisms come in. The Author of Quran wishes to tell us something here. The normal terms are not suitable for this verse and so two other terms were chosen. The best way to determine why is to investigate the context:
O humankind! We created you from a single male and female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may recognize each other. Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted. (49/13)
From the verse in question, the exceptionalism can be substantiated by the unique call to humankind. They are said to be produced from a single male and female and made into ‘shu’uban’ and ‘qaba’il’, respectively translated as ‘nations’ and ‘tribes’. If we investigate the two words, we find some startling links. The word ‘shu’ub’ is similarly rooted as the Quranic personality ‘shu’ayb’ who brings a set of ethical principles to his people rather than theology. The word ‘qaba’il’ which is in plural is similarly rooted as the word ‘qiblah’ and ‘taqabbal’ suggesting something which is acceptable. When brought together, ‘shu’uban’ and ‘qaba’il’ are linked to the ethical principles which underpin every society and the acceptabilities which are born out of them. This is why the two terms are used. They are to explain something unique to this verse.
Please visit our Small Words Study here to see our ongoing work on this subject.