2. Knowledge of Arabic and its importance
As the Qur’an was revealed in Arabic, the importance of the knowledge of Arabic cannot be over emphasised. Even if one does not know or understand Arabic it is useful to know a few facts about the Arabic language.
Arabic is a very scientific language, in which the meaning of a word is based on its roots, which usually consist of three letters. ‘Variations in shades of meaning are obtained, first by vowelling the simple root, and secondly by the addition of prefixes, suffixes and in-fixes. Thus, from the root salima, to be safe (literally, ‘he was safe’) we derive sallama, ‘to deliver’; aslama, ‘to submit’ (also, to become a Muslim); istalama, ‘to receive’; istaslama, ‘to surrender’; salamun, ‘peace’; salamatun, ‘safety, well-being’; muslimun, ‘a Muslim’.1 It is an unfortunate fact that – only when one has a grasp of the structure of the language, and, in particular, when one knows the various derived forms of the verbs, both strong and weak – is one able to use an Arabic dictionary with ease, as all Arabic dictionaries enter words under their roots and only the roots are in alphabetical order. So those who have some grounding in Arabic can easily find the meaning of an Arabic word from its roots by consulting an Arabic-English dictionary or lexicon. For those who are interested in a deeper understanding of the Qur’an, it would be useful to have a concordance of the Qur’an, which lists all the verses in which a particular word appears, together with its root.
There is no doubt that for a deeper understanding of the Qur’an a knowledge of the Arabic language is absolutely essential. Such knowledge can be achieved easily if the language is taught in the early stages of schooling, particularly in countries in which the substantial majority is Muslim. As Europe has demonstrated, children are able to learn three or four languages without difficulty. There is no reason why this cannot be done in Muslim countries.
What the Muslim countries do is to teach the script in order to read the Qur’an parrot fashion – without really understanding it. In this connection I cannot help mentioning an incident in a big gathering where, at the opening ceremony, a Hafez (one who has memorised the whole Qur’an) was asked to recite some verses from the Qur’an, which he duely did. However, when he was asked toÂ give the meaning he was not able to do so. As a matter of fact the Muslim countries have created an entire class of people who can read and recite the Qur’an in Arabic but who are totally illiterate as far as the actual guidance given in the Qur’an. Although Islam does not officially recognise priesthood, the result is the creation of a priesthood which is indoctrinated in the Hadiths in order to carry out the rituals and associated ceremonial functions. The Qur’an is only recited parrot fashion to invoke the blessings of Allah. Thus, a great revelation is now used mainly as a part of rituals!
For people without any knowledge of Arabic it is extremely vital to understand the concepts behind important Arabic words which cannot be translated into a single English word. A very good example is the word deen which is usually translated as ‘religion’ or mazhab-a concept which in no way conveys the significance of Deen. Often Arabic words have many different meanings, and to get a sensible meaning, one needs to look at the context in which the word appears in the verse. A list of useful words to check would be as follows: Allah, anfiqu, deen, hamd, Islam, Kafir, Mumin, Muslim, Mushrik, Rabb, Rah’man, Raheem, riba, salat, sadaqat, taqwa. The list can be increased as one acquires the confidence in their use and connotation. As examples, I am discussing the concepts behind ‘Allah’ and ‘deen’ in some detail. Some of the other words above will be discussed briefly as part of the text.
Allah: This is the proper name of the Sustainer of the Universe. All other names denote His various attributes. The Qur’an gives some idea of Allah in sura 112 named Al-Tauhid, (The Unity), and is as follows:
Say Allah is One, ‘Ahad’. Allah the independent, ‘Samad’. He does not give birth and nothing gave birth to him and there is nothing like Him at all.
We get a further idea of Allah from the root concepts. The root of the word ‘Allah’ is ‘alif-lam-ha’ which has the following meaning and qualities: One from Whom someone seeks refuge, protection in a state of anxiety or bewilderment. One from Whose grandeur one becomes dazed and perplexed. One Whose overall sovereignty must be accepted and to Whom all subservience is due. One Who remains out of sight and One Who possesses exalted status.
Keeping in view the above meanings/attributes, the name Allah, as it appears in the Qur’an, would mean a Being Who is supreme but remains hidden from human eyes; before Whose dignity and grandeur human perceptions/wisdom become dazed; Whose sovereignty extends over the entire universe; obedience to Whom is obligatory. By accepting Him, one must accept His sovereignty and obey His laws as given in the Qur’an.2
Deen: Deen (Islam) is usually wrongly translated as religion or mazhab. According to the Qur’an Islam is deen, which means a code of life, a social system. The word mazhab has not been used anywhere in the Qur’an. It is, therefore, incorrect to define Islam as a religion or mazhab. Mazhab, in the literal sense, means a passage or path made by man, whereas deen is that code, law or system which comes from Allah alone. This is why there are so many different sects in mazhab, but none in deen. Deen revealed by Allah is universal in nature and there is no room for any sectarianism in it. Sects are made by man, not by Allah.
As G. A. Parwez remarks, the root meaning behind deen carries various concepts, such as: ‘power, supremacy, ascendancy, sovereignty, lordship, dominion, law, constitution, mastery, government, realm, decision, definite outcome, reward and punishment. The word is also used in the sense of obedience, submission, allegiance. In the Qur’an this word is used in almost all the above meanings in as many as 79 verses.’3
So, why do we need deen1? Allah says:
(2:213) Mankind was one community, and Allah sent (unto them) prophets as bearers of good tidings and as warners, and revealed therewith the Scripture with the truth that it might judge between mankind concerning that wherein they differed. And only those unto whom (the Scripture) was given differed concerning it, after clear proofs had come to them, through hatred of one another. And Allah by His will guided those who believed unto the truth of that concerning which they differed. Allah guideth whom He will unto a straight path.
The above verse makes the purpose of deen very clear: it is to unite human beings into one united nation. And this is only possible under a true Islamic state, based on the fundamental guidance of the Qur’an. Sadly, at present there is no such state in existence. What today purport to be Islamic states are merely nation states with national interests and ideologies.
- A New Arabic Grammar, by J.A. Haywood and H.M. Nahmud. Publisher Lund Humphries, London, p.1.
- Exposition of the Qur’an, by Gulam Ahmed Parwez.Tolu-E-Islam Trust (Regd) 25B Gulberg, Lahore11, Pakistan, p.6.
- Ibid., p.12.