By M Aamer Sarfraz
December 4, 2018
The Quran often uses key words (eg Salaat, Zakat, Mlaika, Jannah, Deen) in its verses to define and communicate a pertinent message. If authentic meanings of these words could be independently determined, we do not need to rely on Ahadith or Shan-e-Nazool to understand the actual meanings of the Quranic verses. But if these words are in Arabic (which they are), one could argue as to what the fuss is about understanding Quran if someone understands the Arabic language and/or uses an authentic Arabic dictionary for assistance. Allama Iqbal stressed that the matter was not that simple!
The Quran was perhaps the first book of prose, albeit poetic prose, in Arabic. It was revealed in the pure Arabic language used by the native Arabs approx. fifteen centuries ago. Arabic is also known as the most comprehensive language the world has ever known. For example, it has 1000 words for sword, 500 for lion, and 5744 for a camel. Therefore, it is not always easy to detect how the Quran has used a particular key word in line with its global message and philosophy. Our traditional approach does not work. For example, three leading names (Shah Abdul Qadir, Moulana Mehmood-ul-Hasan and Shabbir Ahmed Usmani) translated the Verse 2:102as a revelation to two angels (Haroot and Maroot); but Abul Kalam Azad rejected in his translation that anything was revealed towards the two angels.
I can give numerous examples where the essence of the Quranic message is ‘lost in translation’ because of lack of vocabulary or conceptual compromises. For instance, Quran has three words to describe stages of creation of the universe (Khalaqa, Fatara, Bada’a) while the English language has only one: creation. Verse 2:153 is famously translated as ‘Indeed, Allah is with those who do Sabre (are patient).’ However, Sabre’s root actually means steadfast, and upright. Arabs used to call the cloud which stayed in its place Al-Sabeer, and the herd which goes for grazing in the morning and returns to the same place keeping their headcount was called Al-Asbeerah. This means that ancient Arabs meant ‘steadfastness’, ‘resolute’, ‘determined’ and ‘unwavering’ when they used the word Sabre; which is very different from how we (in Urdu), our translators or modern Arabs understand it as: being patient. How this translation/understanding destroys a great principle laid down in the Quran is a calamity.
Arabic itself has not only evolved as a language over the centuries, but the alien (Ajami) influences have also modified it significantly. As described above, Zoroastrian concepts were imported and misused to interpret the key words in the Quran, which changed the meaning and connotation of the relevant message. This trick was employed because Allah had taken responsibility for preserving the Quranic word (through Huffaaz and secured copies) – so the words remained the same, but their denotation was distorted.
Arabic is also known as the most comprehensive language the world has ever known. For example, it has 1000 words for sword, 500 for lion, and 5744 for a camel. Therefore, it is not always easy to detect how the Quran has used a particular key word in line with its global message and philosophy
Pre-Islamic Arabs were fond of poetry. Since writing skills were rare and books non-existent, this poetry passed from one generation to another through exceptional memory banks. Along with the collection of Ahadith, Abbasids also made another ‘mistake’ by collecting the ancient Arabic poetry. This was a blessing because poetry from the time of Prophet Muhammad (SAW) was saved; which has preserved the way Arabs of that era used certain words. Since the Quran was revealed in their language; those (key) words were also used in the same manner as were found in the poetry of that era. This leaves no chance for Zoroastrian concepts or other conspirators to replace or misinterpret those key words which often get repeated in the Quran. Arabic language is also fortunate to have been chosen as the language of the Quran because every word has a root (usually three letters) and once the root of a key word is determined, it is impossible to deviate from its meaning.
Iqbal did not have the time or energy himself but strongly wished that a dictionary of the key words of the Quran is prepared which is based on the expression in the Arab poetry of when Quran was revealed while keeping authentic Arabic dictionaries as reference. Once this work is completed, the real meanings of the Quran, as understood in the Prophet’s time, can be determined, without having to rely on the Ahadith or Shan-e-Nazool. This had the potential, in Iqbal’s view, to change the message, tradition and spirit of the Quran and Islam, and would transform the fortunes of Muslims in line with what has been promised in the Quran. This could also put to an end the historical theological disputes among Muslims based on early history of Muslims.
Iqbal approached Allama Aslam Jairajpuri, Professor of Arabic Language and Islamic History at the Aligarh University, to undertake this great work. He was due to retire, and move to Delhi to start his own Madrasa. After some deliberation, Allama Jairajpuri agreed to undertake this colossal project.
Iqbal was pleased to engage Jairajpuri for the Quranic dictionary project, but he believed that young men grounded in traditional Islamic education (but having a progressive attitude) would be required to carry the original message of the Quran when it was ready.
(To Be Continued)
Read the Part One Here
Read the Part Two Here
Read Part Three Here
Read Part Four Here
Part Five Here
Read Part Six Here
Read Part Seven Here
Read Part Eight Here
Read Part Nine Here
Read Part Ten Here
Part Eleven Here
Read Part Twelve Here
M Aamer Sarfraz is a Consultant Psychiatrist & Visiting Professor
“Arabic itself has not
only evolved as a language over the centuries, but the alien (Ajami) influences
have also modified it significantly. As described above, Zoroastrian concepts
were imported and misused to interpret the key words in the Quran, which changed
the meaning and connotation of the relevant message. This trick was employed
because Allah had taken responsibility for preserving the Quranic word (through Huffaaz and secured copies) – so the words remained the same,
but their denotation was distorted.”
Very true indeed! Not only Zoroastrian
concepts but also Hellenistic, Christian and Jewish concepts have been used to
misinterpret the key words in the Quran. For example, Kafir could not have and
did not mean disbeliever to the Pagan Arabs nor is this the meaning of the word
in the Quran but has over a period, been translated invariably as disbeliever,
even when the contradiction such translation makes is obvious! Shuhuda is
another word which has come to mean the martyrs when this is not the meaning at
all in the Quran. The Quran is however a Book above every trick that can be
employed to distort its meaning. The meaning of all keywords used in the Quran
is made clear by the Quran itself and I have demonstrated this in all my
articles. There is no need to go outside of the Quran to find its true meaning:
1. Revisiting the Meaning of Kafir
2. The Politics of Religion and the Changing Concept of
Shuhuda over the Years
3. The Ahadith That Distort The Message Of The Quran - Part
4. The Ahadith That Distort The Message Of The Quran – Part
5. The Principles of War from the Quran
6. The Importance of Getting the Story Right on the Divine
7. The Correct Understanding of the So Called ‘Sword’ Verses
of Surah Taubah
8. The Mufassirin Who Render the Quran A Book of Foolish
9. The Nuances of Quranic Diction
10. Is It Possible To Logically Derive A Single Meaning Of
Every Verse Of The Quran? Or, Does Allah Provide A Level Playing Field To All
11. Islam and Mysticism: Is ‘Nafs’ Soul? (Part - 1)
12. Islam and Mysticism: Is ‘Ruh’ Soul? (Part 2)
13. Islam and Mysticism: What Else Is Confused With Soul?
14. The Quran, Islamic Theology, Philosophy And The Sciences
- What Is God And How Do We Go About Trying To Know God Better? (Part 1)
15. The Quran, Islamic Theology, Philosophy and the Sciences
– On Soul and the Creation of Man (Part 2)
16. Who Are Those Who Will Believe And Those Who Will Not?
17. The Misrepresentation of the Quran through Mistranslation
18. An Exposition of the Verse of Light (Ayat al-Nur)
19. The Quran and the Golden Rule: ‘Do unto Others as You
Would Have Them Do unto You’
20. Deen-e-Islam or the Moral Way of Living in Islam
21. The Role Models in the Quran
22. Science and Religion