Friday, 3 July 2009

Allah, his messengers, and their language

”The same Qur’an at the same time says that is clear and NOT clear”

And We have sent NO Messenger save with the tongue of his people, that he might make all clear to them; then God leads astray whomsoever He will, and He guides whomsoever He will; and He is the All-mighty, the All-wise. S. 14:4 Arberry

This paper has the purpose to examine some aspects of this verse that are usually overlooked. The classical commentator Ibn Kathir states in his exposition of this verse: "This is from Allah's wisdom with His creation, every Prophet He sent to a people spoke their language and everyone of these Prophets were only sent to their people. Muhammad ... was sent to all people." It is my intention to show that this interpretation is not as obvious and straight-forward as it may initially appear.

In order to better understand the issues involved, let us transform the statement regarding the characteristics of Allah's messengers into the form of a first-person speech, i.e. how one such messenger would explain to the people why he is sent to them in the way specified in this verse. Pay attention to the pronouns.

I am sent to you with the language of my people so that they can clearly understand.

Does that seem satisfactory? Hardly. What about this version:

I am sent to you with the language of my people so that you can clearly understand.

Does that sound better? Not really. In order to make sense, the messenger should say:

I am sent to you with a message in your language so that you can clearly understand.

But that last version is not the equivalent of what is stated in Surah 14:4. The formulation that is found in the Qur’an is rather strange and incoherent, and says something different.

{ Side remark: There is another strange feature in this verse. Just about everyone has the language of his people, i.e. his own language, with him wherever he goes. For that purpose one doesn't have to be specifically sent by God. A messenger is not sent with a language, but with a message (that is formulated) in a certain language. In fact, the messenger doesn't have to bring his language to his people, because it already is their language. Someone who brings a language to people who don't know this language yet, is not a messenger but a language teacher. Be that as it may, for the rest of the discussion, we will assume that the author of the Qur’an meant to say "with a message in the language of his people" when he used the deficient formulation "with the language of his people". }

The author of the Qur’an messed up in the formulation? He really wanted to say: Such a statement would merely be common sense. That is what one would expect. It would not be in any way surprising, let alone a miraculous revelation. No, one does not need "divine wisdom" to arrive at such an action plan (see the commentary of Ibn Kathir above). Anyone with an average intelligence would do the same. One could even say that such a statement would be trivial. But at least it would not cause all the problems which S. 14:4 is causing (see below).

Obviously, that interpretation is not an option for Muslims. They have to believe the Qur’an to be without error since it is coming from the perfect and omniscient God. They need to make sense of the statement without changing it.

The only meaningful way to understand this verse and fulfill both stated conditions, is to assume that all messengers were sent to their own people. In that case, the target audience can clearly understand when the messenger speaks in his own language. Again, this is not stated explicitly, it is an attempt to understand the statement in a way that makes it meaningful and avoids turning it into immediate nonsense. Thus, it is no surprise that the Islamic commentators understood it in exactly that way. Again, Ibn Kathir's explanation: "... every Prophet He sent to a people spoke their language and everyone of these Prophets were only sent to their people." However, Ibn Kathir used a more meaningful formulation than the Qur'an when he states that the Prophet spoke their language, while the Qur'an claims that he spoke his own language. So far, so good. It is certainly possible to understand S. 14:4 in this way when taken in isolation.

The case of Muhammad

The serious problems begin when Ibn Kathir continues in his next sentence with breaking the rule he just stated, i.e. by claiming that there is one exception: "Muhammad ... was sent to all people." This exception flies in the face of the very clear and general statement of Surah 14:4 that NO messenger was sent except with his own language and for the purpose that they may understand. The Qur'an does not make this exception for Muhammad. Surah 14:4 is formulated as an absolute statement.

Ibn Kathir and other commentators had no choice. They had to claim that Muhammad was exceptional in this regard, because that is what Muhammad himself taught. Thus, Ibn Kathir continues:

It is recorded in the Two Sahihs that Jabir said that the Messenger of Allah said …

(I have been given five things which were not given to anyone else before me. Allah made me victorious by awe, (by His frightening my enemies) for a distance of one month's journey. The earth has been made for me (and for my followers) a place for worship and a purifier. The war booty has been made lawful for me and it was not lawful for anyone else before me. I have been given the right of Intercession (on the Day of Resurrection). Every Prophet used to be sent to his nation only, but I have been sent to all mankind.) (Tafsir Ibn Kathir, Abridged; online source; cf. Sahih Bukhari, Volume 1, Book 7, Number 331, Book 8, Number 429, Sahih Muslim, Book 4, Number 1058)

Let's look at the passage again:

Still, although it will hardly be very convincing, Muslims will have no choice but to argue Muhammad's personal (mis)interpretation of S. 14:4, i.e. that "every Prophet used to be sent to his nation only, but I have been sent to all mankind." In other words, the rule only holds true for the prophets before Muhammad, but does not apply to Muhammad. Nevertheless, the problem remains that Surah 14:4 does not make any exceptions; it does not contain Muhammad's additional words "used to be sent". One might even wonder whether adding these words does not constitute tahrif, i.e. corrupting the Qur'an with one's tongue.

The contradiction between S. 14:4 and the mission of Moses is discussed in more detail in this article.

Another messenger sent to a foreign nation is Jonah, the Hebrew prophet who was sent to the Assyrian city of Nineveh. This story is discussed in detail in this article.

In order to make clear ...

Irony of ironies, the very verse that claims that the purpose of sending a messenger is that he might make (the message) clear to the people, is itself full of problems, messed up, and rather unclear.

In fact, the Arabic is even more cryptic than one would think when reading Arberry's translation that was used so far. Here are several translations for comparison:

And We never sent a messenger save with the language of his folk, that he might make (the message) clear for them. ... Pickthall
We sent not an apostle except (to teach) in the language of his (own) people, in order to make (things) clear to them. ... Yusuf Ali
And We sent not a Messenger except with the language of his people, in order that he might make (the Message) clear for them. ... Al-Hilali & Khan
And We did not send any apostle but with the language of his people, so that he might explain to them clearly; ... Shakir
And WE have not sent any Messenger except with revelation in the language of his people in order that he might make things clear to them. ... Sher Ali
We did not send any messenger except (to preach) in the tongue of his people, in order to clarify things for them. ... Rashad Khalifa
And never have we sent forth any apostle otherwise than [with a message] in his own people's tongue, so that he might make [the truth] clear unto them; ... Muhammad Asad
And We have sent no Messenger save with the tongue of his people, that he might make all clear to them; ... Arberry
We have not sent any apostle save with the language of his people, that he might explain to them. ... Palmer
We have sent no apostle but with the language of his people, that he might declare [their duty] plainly unto them ... Sale

Obviously, the object for the verb "to explain" or "to make clear" is missing in Arabic, but various translators decided to supply one anyway: "the message", "things", "all", "their duty", etc. Even if there had been a pronoun, i.e. "that he might make it clear to them", it would still be a problem to determine what "it" refers to. Most probably, the intended object is the message, but since the message is not mentioned in the verse, the pronoun "it" would be left hanging without a proper referent. In fact, there is a referent, but it is unsuitable. Taking only the information that is supplied in the statement, then the messenger is sent "with the language of his people" so that he might explain (it, the language?) to them. The author of the Qur’an certainly failed in making clear what he meant.

To repeat, most of these problems could have been avoided if the author of the Qur’an had only made the minor change of "language of his people" to "language of the people". In that case, none of these inner-Qur’anic contradictions would have arisen. Just a few more words would have removed all ambiguities and would have made things fully clear:

Furthermore, to allow for the alleged universal mission of Muhammad, he would simply have had to say it just like Muhammad did it in the hadith. "Every prophet was sent to his nation only, in their own language, so that they may clearly understand; only you, Muhammad, are now sent to all mankind." That is not difficult to state. Muhammad could say it himself, so why could the author not include this simple sentence into the Qur’an? But he did not, and so the Qur’an has plenty of problems because of this verse.

Finally, Muslims claim that one of the strongest proofs for the divine authorship of the Qur'an is its inimitable eloquence, and this miracle of eloquence does not only refer to some passages in the Qur'an but every verse of the Qur'an is a miracle. After observing the incoherent and unclear formulation of Surahh 14:4, one has to ask the question whether one can really believe with full conviction that it is a miracle. What is the inimitable and unsurpassable eloquence of this verse? Or is the eloquence of the Qur'an unrelated to the question of whether or not the verses are meaningful? For a detailed discussion on this topic, see the section Is the Qur'an miraculous?

And those into the fire!

The oddities are not over yet. So far we have looked only at the first half of that verse. Let's read it again in its full beauty:

And We have sent no Messenger save with the tongue of his people, that he might make all clear to them; then God leads astray whomsoever He will, and He guides whomsoever He will; and He is the All-mighty, the All-wise. S. 14:4 Arberry

In the first half of the verse, Allah makes an effort so that certain people may understand his message, and in the second half he says it doesn't really matter, because after he has made it clear to them, he then leads astray whomever he will, and guides whomever he will. So, one wonders, what really was the point of sending that messenger?

Even several of the Muslim translators were bothered by the statement that Allah leads astray whomsoever He will, that they decided to mistranslate that part of the verse in this way:

... Now God leaves straying those whom He pleases and guides whom He pleases: ... Yusuf Ali
... Then ALLAH leaves to go astray whom HE wills and guides whom HE wills. ... Sher Ali
... but God lets go astray him that wills [to go astray] and guides him that wills [to be guided] ... Muhammad Asad

The Arabic is clear that Allah is actively misleading some people, not merely leaving alone certain people who are going astray by their own decision.

1. In the main text of this article, I mentioned only three such messengers in order to avoid making the article too long. However, Joseph, Moses, and Jonah are not the only messengers in the Qur'an that contradict the "principle" of Surah 14:4. Abraham and Lot are also messengers who preach to people that are not their own. Moreover, the Injil, the book of Jesus, is not in the language of the people of Jesus (cf. the article, Did Allah give a Greek Injil to the Jews?), and the message of Jesus was intended not only for his own people but for all people, a fact that is evident from both the Bible and the Qur'an:

The Qur’an over and over makes the claim that it is clear, and has the purpose to make things clear (5:15, 6:114, 10:24, 15:1, 16:64, 25:33, 30:28, 36:69, 44:2, etc.) Although having formulated it rather akwardly in S. 14:4, the author of the Qur’an agrees also that the language of the message is a major aspect that determines whether or not the message is understood, e.g. 14:4, 12:2, 43:2-3 (all quoted above), 26:192-195, 41:44, etc.

Despite the emphasis of the Qur’an on the importance of the language so that people may understand, the Arabic of the Qur’an is NOT the vernacular of the people. It is (maybe?) a "high literary form of the language", but it is definitely not the language spoken by the common people. The language of the Qur’an is difficult to understand for the common people. Even Arabs need special training in "the language of the Qur'an" if they want to understand it. In fact, it was NOT even the language of the common people in the time of Muhammad and his companions.

The hadiths give testimony that Muhammad was asked ever so often what this or that word or sentence or verse is supposed to mean, i.e. it was not clear to the audience. And the Tafsir (commentary of the Qur'an by Muslim scholars) give many more examples of words that are unknown even to the scholars, let alone the common people. This is a large topic, and I will not attempt to be comprehensive in this appendix. I merely want to make the reader aware of the issue since it is relevant to the verse that was discussed in the main article.

For example, the Qur'an, in S. 4:12 and 176, refers to a kalalah, yet the Arabic word kalalah left many Muslims baffled:

Narrated Al-Bara' ibn Azib: A man came to the Prophet (pbuh) and said: Apostle of Allah, they ask thee for a legal decision about a kalalah. What is meant by kalalah? He replied: The verse revealed in summer [i.e. 4:176] is sufficient for you. I asked Abu Ishaq: Does it mean a person who dies and leaves neither children nor father? He said: This is so. The people THINK it is so. (Sunan Abu Dawud, Book 18, Number 2883)

A literal translation of Muhammad's answer would be: "The summer verse is sufficient for you." The footnote by the translator says:

2299. The last part of the verse of al-Nisa (Surahh iv) was revealed in summer and the first in winter.

Muhammad's refusal to give a clear answer is an implicit admission that he did not know the meaning either. And, quite understandably, this issue kept on bothering the Muslims, since most people have to deal with inheritance issues at some time in their life, many even several times. Here is another hadith mentioning the same issue:

Narrated Ibn 'Umar: 'Umar delivered a sermon on the pulpit of Allah's Apostle, saying, "Alcoholic drinks were prohibited by Divine Order, and these drinks used to be prepared from five things, i.e., grapes, dates, wheat, barley and honey. Alcoholic drink is that, that disturbs the mind." 'Umar added, "I wish Allah's Apostle had not left us before he had given us definite verdicts concerning three matters, i.e., how much a grandfather may inherit (of his grandson), the inheritance of Al-Kalala (the deceased person among whose heirs there is no father or son), and various types of Riba (usury)." (Sahih Al-Bukhari, Volume 7, Book 69, Number 493)

Note that the text in parentheses is NOT found in the Arabic, it is supplied by the translator as a possible explanation of the word. After all, the whole point of that narration is that it is not clear what is actually meant by this expression.

S. 39:63 speaks of maqalid:

Mujahid said, "Maqalid means ‘KEYS’ IN PERSIAN." This was also the view of Qatadah Ibn Zayd and Sufyan bin 'Uyaynah.

As-Suddi said ...

"The TREASURES of the heaven and the earth." Both OPINIONS mean that the control of all things is in the Hand of Allah, may He be blessed and exalted, for His is the dominion and to Him is the praise, and He is able to all things ... (Tafsir Ibn Kathir(Abridged), Volume 8 (Suraht Al-Ahzab, Verse 51 to the end of Suraht Ad-Dukhan), First Edition, September 2000, pp. 415-416)

In S. 40:18 the word kazimin is used:

means SILENT, for no one will speak without His permission ...

Ibn Jurayj said:

"It means WEEPING." (Ibid., p. 459)

As the final example, out of many more, let's see what Ibn Kathir has to say about the word 'as'as in S. 81:17, a word that allegedly has two meanings that are diametrically opposed:

THERE ARE TWO OPINIONS ABOUT THIS STATEMENT. One of them is that it refers to its advancing with its darkness. Mujahid said, "It means its darkening." Sa'id bin Jubyar said, "When it begins." Al-Hasan Al-Basri said, "When it covers the people." This was also said by ‘Atiyah Al-‘Awfi. ‘Ali bin Abi Talha and Al-‘Awfi both reported from Ibn ‘Abbas ...

"This means when it goes away." Mujahid, Qatadah and Ad-Dahhak, all said the same. Zayd bin Aslam and his son ‘Abdur-Rahman also made a similar statement, when they said ...

"This means when it leaves, and thus it turns away."

I believe the intent in Allah's saying ...

is when it approaches, even though it is correct to use the word for departing also. However, approachment IS A MORE SUITABLE USAGE HERE. It is as if Allah is swearing by the night and its darkness when it approaches, and by the morning and its light when it shines from the east. This is as Allah says ...


and He also says ...


Allah also says ...


And there are other similar Ayat that mention this. Many of the scholars of the fundamentals of language have said that the word ‘As'as is used to mean advancing and retreating, with both meanings sharing the same word.

Therefore, it is correct that the intent COULD BE both of them, and Allah knows best. (Tafsir Ibn Kathir (Abridged) Volume 9, Suraht Al-Jathiyah to the end of Suraht Al-Munafiqun), First Edition, September 2000, pp. 381-382)

That is like claiming that a word means both black and white, to begin and to end, or to love and to hate. Frankly, this is nonsense and is only revealing the desperation of the Muslim scholars who do not know what to do when being faced with unintelligable words. Instead of openly admitting that they do not know the word, they make up meanings.

Although the Qur'an claims that "this is Arabic, pure and clear" (S. 16:103), there are many more statements in the Qur'an which are unclear because they contain incomprehensible words. The above examples are mostly taken from this article which provides a long list of words in the Qur’an that leave even the foremost scholars of Islam baffled. Whether all of these are foreign words (see Arthur Jeffery's scholarly work on The Foreign Vocabulary of the Qur'an) or some of them are actually nothing more than gibberish may never be known, but all this data makes it questionable whether the Qur'an can be considered as being in the language of the people of the messenger as claimed in Surah 14:4.

But incomprehensible words are not the only problem with the Qur’anic text. Other verses in the Qur'an consist entirely of clear words, i.e. each individual word in them is known, but the meaning of the statement as a whole is still unclear.

Narrated 'Urwa: I asked 'Aisha the wife of the Prophet about the meaning of the following Verse: -- "(Respite will be granted) 'Until when the apostles give up hope (of their people) and thought that they were denied (by their people)..." (12.110) 'Aisha replied, "Really, their nations did not believe them." I said, "By Allah! They were definite that their nations treated them as liars and it was not a matter of suspecting." 'Aisha said, "O 'Uraiya (i.e. 'Urwa)! No doubt, they were quite sure about it."
I said, "May the Verse be read in such a way as to mean that the apostles thought that Allah did not help them?" Aisha said, "Allah forbid! (Impossible) The Apostles did not suspect their Lord of such a thing. But this Verse is concerned with the Apostles' followers who had faith in their Lord and believed in their apostles and their period of trials was long and Allah's Help was delayed till the apostles gave up hope for the conversion of the disbelievers amongst their nation and suspected that even their followers were shaken in their belief, Allah's Help then came to them." Narrated Ibn 'Umar: The Prophet said, "The honorable, the son of the honorable, the son of the honorable, (was) Joseph, the son of Jacob! the son of Isaac, the son of Abraham."
(Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 4, Book 55, Number 603)

Surah 12:110 was and remains rather unclear. Just compare some current translations of this verse.

Narrated 'Abdullah: When the Verse:-- 'Those who believe and mix not their belief with wrong.' was revealed, the Muslims felt it very hard on them and said, "O Allah's Apostle! Who amongst us does not do wrong to himself?" He replied, "The Verse does not mean this. But that (wrong) means to associate others in worship to Allah: Don't you listen to what Luqman said to his son when he was advising him, "O my son! Join not others in worship with Allah. Verily joining others in worship with Allah is a great wrong indeed." (31.13) (Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 4, Book 55, Number 639)

Narrated Abdullah: When there was revealed: 'It is those who believe and confuse not their beliefs with wrong.' (6.82) It was very hard for the companions of Allah's Apostle, so they said, "Which of us has not confused his belief with wrong?" Allah's Apostle said, "The Verse does not mean this. Don't you hear Luqman's statement to his son: 'Verily! Joining others in worship, with Allah is a great wrong indeed.' (31.13) (Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 6, Book 60, Number 299)

There are different ways to understand this incident. Taking the narration at face value, the verse was formulated so unclear that the Muslims misunderstood it. Muhammad needed to inform them of its "actual meaning". But, in this case, that doesn't sound credible to me. I think there is another, more convincing, explanation which is discussed in this article.

Again, as we have seen above, oftentimes even Muhammad's own people did not understand his message clearly. Those were not people of a foreign language at a different time; these were Muhammad's companions, Arabs of Arabs, in whose language the Qur’an was allegedly sent. Yet, they did not understand it. In fact, the Qur'an itself admits to being unclear:

It is He Who has sent down to you (Muhammad SAW) the Book (this Qur'an). In it are Verses that are entirely clear, they are the foundations of the Book [and those are the Verses of Al-Ahkam (commandments, etc.), Al-Fara'id (obligatory duties) and Al-Hudud (legal laws for the punishment of thieves, adulterers, etc.)]; and others not entirely clear. So as for those in whose hearts there is a deviation (from the truth) they follow that which is not entirely clear thereof, seeking Al-Fitnah (polytheism and trials, etc.), and seeking for its hidden meanings, but none knows its hidden meanings save Allah. And those who are firmly grounded in knowledge say: "We believe in it; the whole of it (clear and unclear Verses) are from our Lord." And none receive admonition except men of understanding. S. 3:7 Al-Hilali & Khan

In other words, the Qur'an admits to contain (a substantial number of) unclear verses which cause all kinds of problems for the Muslim community.

The Qur'an clearly fails its own explicitly stated purpose to be sent in the language of the people so that it may make its message clear to them



No comments:

Post a Comment