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Linguistic Resources of Interpretation
Imam Hamiduddin Farahi
(Tr. by:Tariq Haashmi)

Not only did the Almighty guarantee protection of the Qur’anic text from being lost, He also promised its explanation. Both of these facts have been mentioned in the following verses respectively:

إِنَّا نَحْنُ نَزَّلْنَا الذِّكْرَ وَإِنَّا لَهُ لَحَافِظُونَ (٩:١٥)

It is indeed We who have revealed the reminder and upon Us is its protection. (15:9)

وَإِنَّ عَلَيْنَا بَيَانَهُ (١٩:٧٥)

And upon us is its explanation. (75:19)

 The fulfilment of this latter promise demanded that the Almighty guard from extinction the Arabic language in which the Qur’anic message was coded. He therefore has given it eternal life. Similarly, he has guarded the meanings of the religious terms of the Holy Qur’an like al-salah (the ritual prayer), al-zakah (the obligatory alms), al-jihad (the holy war), al-sawm (the fast), al-hajj (the annual pilgrimage), al-masjid (the mosque), al-haram (the inviolable precinct in Makkah), al-safa and al-marwah (two hills in the vicinity of Ka‘bah), the rites of hajj and the related practices. The meanings of all the religious terms have been transferred to the later generations of the Muslims through tawatur. I acknowledge that minor differences over the method of observing these rites exist but they are negligible. An example would best explain my viewpoint. There is no denying the fact that the Arabic word asad signifies a lion in spite of the minor differences in the colour and shape of lions of different geographical regions. Thus al-salah we are required to offer is the same al-salah offered by Muslims today in spite of the minor differences observed in its form and method. Whoever splits hair in this regard in fact ignores the stance of the firm religion of the Lord who says:

 لَن يَنَالَ اللَّهَ لُحُومُهَا وَلَا دِمَاؤُهَا وَلَكِن يَنَالُهُ التَّقْوَى مِنكُمْ (٣٧:٢٢)

Neither their meat nor their blood reaches Allah: instead, it is your piety that reaches Him. (22:37)

 The controversialists follow the footsteps of the Jews who dissevered their religion and succumbed to doubts. God has depicted them in the Holy Qur’an with reference to their attitude regarding the divine command of offering a cow. They kept on asking hair-splitting questions while their Prophet continually told them to “do what they were commanded to do.”1 They were even not ready to follow the command after much unreasonable questioning. It was only because of the blessing of the following words they somehow uttered, during this conversation, “God willing.”2 This is evidenced by the words of the Almighty Allah, concerning their insistence, saying, “they were not seem like doing [what they were commanded to do].3

When dealing with unqualified terms of the shari‘ah, of which we do not find any clear definition and implication in the Holy Qur’an, we may not blindly fall upon the akhbar-i ahad.4 This can cast us in uncertainty and we may end up in falsifying and disputing other approaches while none of us will have a criterion to resort to what the truth is in this regard. In such cases it is advisable to content ourselves with what is agreed upon by the ummah so that we may avoid condemning others concerning which we have no clear proof in the text of the Holy Qur’an or practice of the Holy Prophet (sws) handed down to us by Muslim generations without dispute. To sum up, talking about the shari‘ah terms in the Holy Qur’an, we must follow the above mentioned path and a clear understanding of the Holy Qur’an avoiding dispute over minor issues.

Classical Arabic poetry and the text of the Holy Qur’an are two resources which can be used as foundational reference in ascertaining the meaning and significance of the remaining literal and figurative diction of the Qur’an and its style of expression. Arabic dictionaries and lexicons do not help much in this regard because they do not cover the entire words and their usage in the language. Many things have been discussed inadequately. They do not even help us differentiate between the pure classical and the naturalized Arabic diction. Neither do they guide us to the root of the words enabling us to discern the foundation from the branch and the literal from the figurative. When a person not fully groomed in classical Arabic poetry resorts to them, he is bound to fail in ascertaining true meanings and real significance of the words of the Holy Qur’an. Moreover the extant classical Arabic poetry also contains much concoction. Many words of unknown meaning and rare usages have crept into it. However, the difference between the unsound and the sound is not lost upon a connoisseur of the language. This forces us to exercise utmost care in using some resource while interpreting the Holy Qur’an. We must only employ what is established as sound and abandon the rare usage. An example may explain what we want to bring to the fore. Some exegetes have interpreted the word “tamanna” (تَمَنَّى) in the following verse to mean recitation:

 وَمَا أَرْسَلْنَا مِن قَبْلِكَ مِن رَّسُولٍ وَلَا نَبِيٍّ إِلَّا إِذَا تَمَنَّى أَلْقَى الشَّيْطَانُ فِي أُمْنِيَّتِهِ (٥٢:٢٢)

Whenever a Prophet or a Messenger sent before you whished something Satan tampered with his wishes. (22:52)

 In order to escape explaining a complex theme the commentators have adopted a rare meaning of the word (“tamanna”) abandoning its clear and obvious significance. This however, did not help; rather it opened the door of disputation and polemics while sowing difference in the ummah. Whoever departs from the right path is destined to wander in mazes of ignorance.

Books compiled in the fields of the remaining linguistic disciplines like grammar, logic, Islamic jurisprudence, rhetoric, balaghah, and meter, though many, are no less lacking usefulness in understanding the Holy Qur’an than the lexicons. I would rather say that our present knowledge of the discipline of Arabic grammar needs a lot of improvement. Its role is limited to establish rules for a mediocre discourse. Therefore the interpreter should not subject the word of God to these grammatical rules, which results in changing the obvious meanings of the text and rejecting its basic style. Such an approach would also make the Holy Qur’an a very strange kind of discourse not in line with the customary literary style of the Arabic language. On the contrary, the exegete’s duty is to quote evidence from the Arabic poetry so that those enthusiastically hunting for grammatical and stylistic errors in the Book of God can get to know that it is a discourse of the highest literary order.

Logic also involves hair-splitting discussion over the techniques of reasoning and argumentation, and over the usage of the words of definition, negation and exception. The exegetes employing this discipline in interpreting the Qur’anic text finds it difficult to grasp the meaningfulness of assertions like ‘wa ‘allama adama al-’asma’a kullaha (وَعَلَّمَ آدَمَ الأَسْمَاء كُلَّهَا (5 and ‘wa ma mana‘na ’an nursila bi al-ayati ‘illa ’an kadhdhaba biha al-awwalun’ (وَمَا مَنَعَنَا أَن نُّرْسِلَ بِالآيَاتِ إِلاَّ أَن كَذَّبَ بِهَا الأَوَّلُونَ).6 He also fails to understand the Qur’anic style of reasoning. This issue will be elaborated upon in a separate discussion.

‘Ilm al-bayan (the science of rhetoric) also falls short as much as grammar does. Those who develop in this field do not find themselves able to appraise and analyze the nuances of a discourse gushing from the veins of a living heart. One can compare its uselessness in dealing with what has showered as a revealed discourse from the Most High. We see a Prophet, even anyone calling to the truth, spontaneously gives expression to what he feels in his heart, considering the circumstances of his audience, employing the figurative language here and literal there. He does not particularly consider anything except for the understanding of his addressees and the conventional style of expression. Therefore we see that the divine revelation uses the word ’ab (father) and ’ibn (son); talks of His body being divided up in many; alludes to transferring His flesh and blood into someone else’s; refers to yad (hand), saq (shin) and wajh (face); cites ‘arsh (the throne) and kursi (chair); employs expressions like expansion and recession, dispersion and folding, pathos and retribution, wrath and love. The addressees always grasp it all fully. However, whoever chains himself in the art of rhetoric walks on this path of explaining the divine text like an ant. He wobbles likes the blind and gets knocked off. Those acquainted with the style of expression employed in the Psalms and the other divine Books can best understand to what great degree figurative language has been employed in the revealed texts.

As regards the discipline of Islamic jurisprudence, the founder ’usulis did in fact render a laudable service. They did not borrow it from the Romans, Indians or any other nation. They found this knowledge indispensable for their pursuit to understand the Holy Qur’an and the Sunnah. Therefore, in order to enable themselves to derive legal rulings from these resources in a systematic way they needed to form some guiding principles. This undoubtedly makes them the pioneers of the discipline and in this case, others have been compelled to follow them. Unfortunately the scholars of the later generations did not develop this useful discipline. They failed to systematize it. Consequently the discipline remained inadequate and imperfect and was left short of becoming a science in the true sense of the word. This explains the lack of uniformity of principles in this field which leads people to different conclusions concerning rulings of the Holy Qur’an, something undesirable. This, however, is not the case with other disciplines like grammar, logic and the like which can properly be called disciplines. In this short introduction I can only refer to some points of cardinal importance in this regard and cannot go into further detail. However, I intend to work on this branch of Islamic sciences and for which I beseech help of God, in whose hands are all matters.7

The science of balaghah has been constructed upon the Arabic poetry alone. Poetry, every one knows, only deals with fine sentence structure, niceties of words and phrases and manipulation of badi‘8. It leaves out a lot including, for example, many aspects of fine reasoning, diverse aspects of relationship of words with the intended meaning, use of examples and parables, various ways of narratives yielding morals, ‘awd ’ila al-bad‘a (going back to the initial discussion), admonition, stress springing out from overwhelming confidence of the speaker, ignoring the objections like a self-sufficient author, pathos of a concerned well-wishing teacher among other techniques which are used by the eloquent speakers, and the divine revelation. They could not mention this greater part of styles of expression because they did not treat the speeches of the famous Arab orators. This is possibly because they did not find sufficient material from the oratory of the Arabs and disregarded the oratory of the non-Arabs. Therefore we see that ‘Allamah Baqilani, despite his utmost efforts to unearth the unparalleled Qur’anic eloquence, only evokes Arabic poetry as evidence. He has however recorded some famous speeches as specimen so that one can see the difference between the two genres of speech: poetry and oratory. As regards those aspects of language which ought to be treated under this discipline and which we have referred to above, they are ten in number. Five of them are rational and five emotive. Since they are the common characteristics of all the languages of the world, we can evoke any other language other than Arabic or rather merely allude to them. The Holy Qur’an itself contains sufficient examples of such devices.

Another important fact that needs to be appreciated is that the discipline of balaghah in its present form does not help in understanding the styles of expression employed by the Holy Qur’an. Most of the contributors in this discipline were non-Arabs, who found it difficult to study, analyze and understand the Arabic styles of expression. Therefore, it would not be fair to complain over what they failed to accomplish. We should rather acknowledge their services. They successfully laid foundations of the science. They sometimes reach the correct conclusion and at others merely referred to what they targeted.

 (Translated from Farahi’s Majmu‘ah Tafasir by Tariq Mahmood Hashmi)




1. The Qur’an, 2:70.

2. The Qur’an, 2:70.

3. The Qur’an, 2:71.

4. Traditions reported by a few or single narrator in each section of the chain of transmission.

5. And He taught Adam all the names. (Qur’an, 2:31)

6. Nothing hinders us from giving signs except that the ancients disbelieved them. (Qur’an, 7:59)

7. Farahi, however, could not accomplish this task. However, the manuscripts he has left contain some guidance around fundamental issues in this regard which though resolve many knotty questions on the topic do not suffice as a guide out of the problems highlighted.(Islahi)

8. badi‘ is a branch of Balaghah which deals with use of literary devices like mubalaghah (emphatic statement), istitrad (digression), mutabaqah (contrasting parts), tajnis (paronomasia) etc (For detail see Mir, The Coherence in the Qur’an: A Study of Islahi’s Concept of Nizam in Tadabbur-i Qur’an (Indianapolis: American Trust Publications, 1986)

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