Amin Ahsan Islahi
(Extracted from the Tadabbur-e-Quran (Pondering over the Quran)
1. THE LANGUAGE OF THE QUR'AN
The Arabic language in which the Qur'an is revealed is a miracle in its sublime eloquence and no human or jinn is able to compose anything like it. Labid, the great Arabic poet, was the last of the reputed poets of the Seven Odes (al-Mu'allaqat as-Sab ? In recognition of his poetic excellence, all contemporary poets bowed in homage when he recited a couplet in the fair of Ukaz and, according to the prevalent Arab tradition, his ode was duly honoured by having it hung on the Ka'bah. Later on, Labid embraced Islam and stopped composing poetry. People were naturally surprised, for he was their most distinguished poet and publicly honoured by the entire body of poets. He was the master of Arabic poetry and eloquence. When asked why he had not continued composing poetry, he replied, "What! Even after the revelation of the Qur'an?" There was, in the opinion of this poet laureate, no use or need for his poetry after the revelation of Allah's Book, since he could neither produce anything better nor match its sublime beauty.
This expression of utter helplessness and surrender to the beauty and grandeur of the Qur'an - the symbol of the beauty and eloquence of the Arabic language - by the greatest poet of his age signified in fact the surrender of all Arabic poetry to the beauty ·and elegance of Qur'anic eloquence. Who could thereafter dare challenge the Qur'an's supremacy? To appreciate such a language and to understand and grasp its intricacies and nuances is obviously not possible only through translations, books of exegesis, or lexicons. For this, one must.. develop a genuine literary taste for the language of the Qur'an, which is by no means easy. It requires hard work. It also requires a natural disposition, a discriminating faculty, and experience and practice in the use of the language, for it is after years of hard work and effort that a discriminating faculty for a language develops. In the case of a language other than one's own, the venture is all the more arduous and challenging.
Another difficulty with respect to the Arabic in which the Qur'an is revealed is that currently it is not used anywhere in the world. The Arabic language that is at present read and taught in the Arab and non-Arab countries is very different in style, tone, diction and idiom from the language of the Qur'an. The Arabic taught in our Arabic madrasahs is the language of Qalyfibi, Nafbatu-l Yarnan, or at best of al-Harlti" and al-Mutanabbi'. The kind of popular language currently used in the Arabian Peninsula, Syria, and Egypt can be judged from their local dailies and magazines. True, it is Arabic, but it is so different from the language of the Qur'an that being steeped in it could further remove one from the Qur'anic language and the ability to appreciate it and develop a genuine literary taste for it.
The language of the Qur'an is neither that of al-Hariri nor of al-Mutanabbi nor of the newspapers and magazines of Syria and Egypt. It is quintessentially the classical language used by eminent classical poets such as Imru'ul-Qays, 'Arm ibn Kulthum, Zuhayr, and Labid or great orators like Qus ibn Sa'idah's. Anyone wishing to savour the conciseness and miraculous elegance of the Qur'anic language should be able to study critically and understand and appreciate the works of the classical poets and orators of the immediate pre-Qur'anic period, referred to Jasahiliyyah or the Period of Ignorance. Without this, one can never truly appreciate the beauty of the Qur'an or its elegance as the supreme model of the language in which it is couched, nor can one understand its awesome power that seems to have rendered forever dumb even the most eloquent and fluent speakers and writers.
It is undoubtedly true that a large part of the works of the poets and orators of the pre-Qur'anic period has been lost over the course of time. Some portions which have survived should, however, suffice for our purpose. During the last fifty years'· many collections of classical Arabic poetry which were previously unavailable have been published. Also available are some poetic collections with large sections on classical Arabic poetry. Some of these collections contain portions wrongly attributed to certain persons, but those with a critical sense for the Arabic language can easily separate the spurious from the genuine. To search for nuggets in the orations of the Period of Ignorance, students in the past had to examine closely the works of Jahz, Mubarrad, Ibn Mubarrad and others. But now these works, speeches and orations have been published and are available in separate volumes. For the true seeker, enough material is now available
to satisfy and nourish his literary taste and make his search worthwhile.
What is. needed is the will and the desire to undertake the journey. Let me hasten to add that by bringing up and explaining this point, I do not presume to possess such a critical faculty or finesse. Rather, I only wish to draw attention to the nature and excellence of the language of the Qur'an, and the true criterion to judge its literary elegance and beauty. I did, however, succeed in one thing. Before taking up pen for this tafsir, I studied the Arabic literature of the. Period of Ignorance available to me that could be helpful in explaining the Qur'anic message or any related literary and grammatical questions or the purport of its words. At this point I would also like to acknowledge without any hesitation that the real credit for most of what I have been able to achieve in this tafsir, goes not to me, but to my teacher, Hamiduddin Farahi, may Allah bless his soul. He had thoroughly studied all the, relevant works and had marked those that could be useful in the exegesis of the Qur'an. I claim credit for no more than that I was able to digest and assimilate these writings, and then to utilise them in resolving difficulties usually encountered in understanding the Qur'an, its message, its style, its idiom, and its subtleties, nuances and elegance.
The literature of the pre-Qur'anic period is not useful in terms of linguistics and style, only. In fact, it is also far more helpful in appreciating the norms of good and evil in Arab society, its salient features, its social, cultural, political and religious beliefs as well as its customs, rituals, interests and pastimes. The amount of information one can obtain from this literature concerning these diverse aspects of Arab life is difficult to come by through any other source. A thorough acquaintance with these is indispensable for anyone seeking to understand and explain various allusions, suggestions, hints and metaphors of the Qur'an. The Qur'an has touched on all these aspects, retaining and re-enforcing whatever was wholesome, while stripping away their corrupting associations. Such allusions and metaphors are quite frequent in the Qur'anic discourse.
These are difficult to understand or explain properly unless one is conversant not only with the reforms introduced by Islam but also with the conditions prevalent in the pre-Qur'anic period. It would be useful by way of elaboration to cite some examples here, but since in the course of this tafsir we will be citing these examples often, I will confine myself to this brief comment only. It is worth noting that the material generally found in our history books on the pre-Qur'anic period is mostly superficial. It contains information that is perfunctory in nature and is not helpful in understanding various aspects of Arab life mentioned above. Generally, the picture of pre-Islamic Arab society as presented by our historians is akin more to that of a pack of animals rather than of a human society.
Looking at this picture, one can 'hardly believe that it is the same people who were the inheritors of the great tradition of prophets Ibrahim and Ismail, peace be upon them both. These historians usually paint this picture in such dark colours because they believe that the full extent of the miraculous transformation brought about by Islam cannot be adequately appreciated without this dark and dismal backdrop. The real miracle of Islam, as they see it, was that it transformed a herd of sub-humans and set them as leaders at the head of the whole world. This may be true in one sense, but it overlooks another equally important aspect: how could the Arabs be the fit recipients of a scripture like the Qur'an if they were really no better than a horde of savages or a herd of animals!
From the very outset, I have pondered this question and, to discover the truth, I had to put aside these historical works. This enabled me to see both the beauty and the ugliness of Arabian society as mirrored in pre-Qur'anic literature. Whatever information I could glean from it, I have made full use of it in this tafsir. From the above, it should be quite clear that I have not used the term language here in any limited sense. The true requisite for understanding the Qur'an is a fine and sophisticated taste for the language of the revelation, and its literature. A person devoid of this finer linguistic and literary taste cannot appreciate the real elegance and beauty of the Qur'an merely with the help of some lexicons. People often ask which is the best lexicon for the Qur'an to help study and understand it and to resolve any difficulties encountered in the course of its study. They think that if they could get hold of a good lexicon they will be able to unravel all the mysteries of the Qur'an. This is a fallacy. In the hands of a person with linguistic and literary competence, a lexicon is undoubtedly a useful tool, but in the absence of such competence, it is of little use. The lexicon that I found most useful is Lisanu-l 'Arab, because it explains various meanings of a word through its usage in diverse contexts, precedents and antecedents, allusions and examples. In my view, this is the real importance of the Lisan and it should be used and referred to for this purpose only.
Sometimes, the author of the Lisan cites various quotations from other scholars concerning their interpretations of certain words, but these are not very important. Many people, however, would merely quote and repeat these statements considering it a great achievement and describing it as research work. Some people hold the Mufradat of Imam Raggib in high esteem because it is purely a lexicon of the Qur'an, but I was disappointed whenever I referred to it to resolve some of the problems and difficulties I encountered during my research.