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Does the Qur’ān Contain Non-Arabic Vocabulary?
Ibn Jarir Tabari
(Tr. by:Dr. Mustansir Mir)

Translator’s Note

The Arabic text used is: Abū Ja‘far Muhammad Ibn. Jarīr Tabarī (224-310/839-923), Jamī‘al-Bayān fī Tafsīr al-Qur’ān (30 vols. In 12: Beiruit: Dāru’l-Ma‘rifah, 1406/1906; reprint of 1323 H. Bulaq edition). The reference under the title of each selection is to the volume and page number(s) of the Arabic text. The Qur’ānic material cited by Tabarī is identified – if an exact quote – in the translation, in brackets, by chapter and verse; otherwise in a footnote. The blessing customarily invoked upon the Prophet Muhammad (sws) when his name is mentioned, salla llāhu ‘alayhi wa-sallam, is not translated.

Having offered proof that God sends down scripture to a nation only in the language of that nation, Tabarī in the following passage tries to answer the question whether the Qur’ān contains non-Arabic vocabulary, for it is sometimes pointed out that such-and-such Qur’ānic words and expressions have such-and-such meanings in Ethiopic, Nabataean, or Persian implying that the Qur’ānic vocabulary includes non-Arabic elements. Tabarī holds that the Qur’ān itself claims to be in Arabic, and that this ought to be the belief of a Muslim. Acknowledging that certain Qur’ānic words are also found in languages other than Arabic, Tabarī explains the phenomenon by arguing that such words are found coincidentally in the languages in question, and should, therefore, be regarded as belonging equally to all those languages. Thus all Qur’ānic words said to belong to Persian, Ethiopic, or Banataean are as much Arabic as they are Persian, Ethiopic, or Nabataean. But if a person should contend that several early authorities have termed certain Qur’ānic words Ethiopic, Persian, or Nabataean, then––


It will be said to him:

What they1 have said does not fall outside the scope of our statement, for they have not said: ‘These and similar words were not part of the Arabs’ speech and diction before the revelation of the Qur’ān, or that the Arabs did not know them before the advent of the Criterion,’2 for in that case it would have been a statement contrary to ours. All that some of them have said is that such-and-such a word in the language of Ethiopia means so and so, and that such-and-such a word in the language of Persia means so and so, without denying the possibility of the existence of words with identical meanings in the many different languages spoken by all the nations, not to speak of the existence of such words in the languages of only two nations. Such identity we have found to exist in many cases in the different languages we have knowledge of, examples being words like dirham and dinār, and da‘wah, qalam, and qirtās – and others, which it would be too tedious to count up and list exhaustively, so that we are reluctant to draw our book out by citing them – where Arabic and Persian have the same words with the same meanings. And this may well be the case with all those other languages whose diction is not known to us and whose speech in not familiar to us.

If, then, a person were to say, in regard to those Persian and Arabic vocabulary items which we have listed and whose identity of word and meaning we have pointed out, and in regard to similar other words which we have left unmentioned: ‘All of them are Persian, not Arabic,’ or: ‘All of them are Arabic, not Persian;’ or if he were to say: ‘Some of them are Arabic and some Persian;’ or if he were to say: ‘Some of them originated with the Persians, then passed over to the Arabs, who Arabicized them,’ then such a person would be deemed ignorant. For the Arabs have no greater right to assert that such words originated with them and then passed over to the Persians, and neither do the Persians have any greater right to maintain that they originated with them and then passed over to the Arabs, for they are found to be in use, in identical form and meaning, in both languages. And if, as we have said, they are found to exist among both nations, then neither nation has a greater right to hold that the words originated with it, and the person who claims that they originated with one of the two nations and then passed over to the other, makes a claim whose validity cannot be established except by means of a report that yields definitive knowledge and dispels all doubt, and whose soundness cuts off all hedging.3 To us, the truth in this matter rather is that such vocabulary be termed Arabic-Persian or Ethiopic-Arabic … just as if there were an area of land between a plain and a mountain that had the climate of the plains and the climate of the mountains, or one between land and the sea that had the climate of the land and the climate of the sea, no sane person would refuse to describe it as campestral-mountainous or terrestrial-marine, for ascribing to it one of the two qualities would not amount to denying it the other. And if someone were to use for it only one of the two qualities, but without denying it the other, he would be making a correct statement. The same is true of the words we have already cited in the beginning of this section. And this understanding of the issue that we have presented is precisely what is meant by those who say: ‘The Qur’ān contains words from all languages,’ which, in our view, means – and God knows best! -- that in the Qur’ān are to be found expressions spoken identically by the Arabs and the speakers of other nations who use those words – just as we stated earlier. This means that it is not right to suspect a person who is possessed of a good nature, accepts as true the Book of God, and is one of those who have read the Qur’ān and are cognisant of the prescriptions of God, of holding that some of the Qur’ān is Persian, not Arabic, that some of it is Nabatean, not Arabic, that some of it is Arabic, not Persian, and that some of it is Ethiopic, not Arabic, once God Himself, His name is exalted, has informed us that He has made it ‘an Arabic Reading’ (e.g., 2:12, 20:113, 41:3).

(Translated by Dr Mustansir Mir)


1. they. The early authorities, mentioned in the prefatory note above.

2. the Criterion. The Arabic word al-Furqan is used by the Qur’ān to describe itself (2:185; 3:4; 8:41; 25:1)

3. whose validity… hedging. Tabari is here alluding to the criteria, used especially in the discipline of Hadīth, to determine the authenticity of reports emanating from the Prophet and other earlier authorities.

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