Somalilandsun – Qur’an students love to talk about “the original Arabic.” Preachers, too! All preachers seem to want to work Arabic into their sermons as often as they can. And of course, there is nothing wrong with wanting to know something about the language that God gave us for the Qur’an. But there are also dangers involved, since most Muslims either don’t know Arabic at all, or (which is almost the same thing) know only enough to look up individual Arabic words. Just imagine how badly a foreign speaker could butcher English if all he could do was look up individual English words.
The path is littered with what some scholars call “exegetical fallacies”. In this post I will try to share with you some of the lessons I have learned on how not to use Arabic in Qur’an study.
1. Usage Beats Etymology – Avoid the Root Fallacy
I once took a course on etymology. Etymology deals with the “roots” of words—where a word originally came from way back in the ancient times. It’s a valuable area to study, and nothing I’m about to say in this post is meant to suggest otherwise.
Nevertheless, a problem arises when people mistakenly think that a word’s etymology tells them “what it really means.” We can see the fallacy of this notion clearly in English language. For example, the word nice comes from the Latin root nescius, meaning “ignorant.” But no one but a fool would respond to your calling them “nice” by saying, “Oh, I see what you really mean! You’re saying I’m ignorant! You and your masked Latin insults!”
No one does this in their native language, but many Muslims do this very thing when studying the Qur’an. They look up Arabic words in their favorite concordance, find the original Arabic root, and conclude that they have found the word’s “real” meaning. This is what is called the “root fallacy.”
Don’t get me wrong: roots and etymology are good. They can sometimes give you an interesting back story on why a particular word came to be used to describe a particular thing. They can even help you win the national spelling contest. But they don’t tell you the “real meaning” of a word, because a word’s meaning is not determined by its etymology, but by its usage. The question is not, “Where did this word originate?” but, “What did the writer/speaker mean by it?”
If you proposed to your girlfriend and she said, “No,” but you could somehow prove that “No” came from a Greek word meaning “Yes,” it still wouldn’t do you any good. “No” means what your girlfriend (and everyone else) means by it, not what it might have meant 1,000 years ago in an ancestor language. The reason no one today would take “nice” to mean “ignorant” is that no one today uses it that way. If you want to know what a word means today, you must find out how it’s used today. That’s what an up-to-date dictionary will tell you. For Qur’an students, it’s also what a good lexicon will tell you.
2. Scholars are Necessary – Avoid the Cult of the Amateur
When it comes to Qur’an study, many Muslims seem to think that knowing Arabic is like a magic bullet that will unlock all the secrets of Qur’anic meaning. I once thought this, and then I began studying Arabic. The main thing I learned in the first couple of months of class was that most of what I thought I knew about Arabic was malarkey. In many ways, Arabic is much more mundane than I had thought. It resolves some questions but also creates others.
I’m not trying to discourage anyone from studying Arabic. In fact, I would encourage as many Muslims to learn it as can. But the reality is that most believers don’t have the time or the ability. The good news, however, is that God never intended all (or even most) of his people to have to learn Arabic in order to understand His Word. There is a happy division of labor. God is merciful—some people become experts in Arabic so the rest of us don’t have to.
With the multiplicity of many excellent English Qur’an translations, readers of the Qur’an have the fruit of scholars’ painstaking research. Never before in the history of Islam has there been less need for Arabic studies for an average Muslim than today. Translations are mostly sufficient for those who have not access to the original Arabic. Unlearned men will not be held accountable for a degree of light beyond what is granted to them; and the benevolence of God in making revelation has not endowed all with the gift of interpreting tongues… God has seen it wiser and better to leave the members of the Ummah to feel the necessity of mutual sympathy and interdependence, than to bestow every gift on every individual. He has bestowed the knowledge necessary for the translation of his word on a sufficient number of faithful men and women to answer the purpose of His benevolence. And the least accurate of the translations with which the common people are favored is full of divine truth and able to make wise to guidance and salvation.
If I am is right, and I think I am, then the impulse that says, “I don’t want to be dependent on scholars” or “I want to make my own Ijtihad”, may be a latent form of pride. It may be the hand saying to the foot, “I have no need of you.” I’m not trying to turn translators into an infallible high priestly class. I’m simply saying that unless God expects us all to become language scholars, then he must have willed a division of labor. It won’t do to replace the cult of the expert with the cult of the amateur. We depend on scholars whether we like it or not.
Pride will chafe at this reality, and paranoia will invent conspiracy theories. But until we become omniscient, omnipotent, and omnicompetent, nothing will change it. Humility will see this fact as welcome news and will be relieved at God’s way of dividing the labor.
3. Text out of Context is pretext – Avoid the Overload Fallacy
The sad truth is that many Muslims spend too much time looking up individual Arabic words and coming to misguided conclusions because they don’t really understand how the language works (they often know just enough to be dangerous). But for those who think they can’t understand the Qur’an at all unless they can read Arabic, the good news is that nine times out of ten you will gain a better understanding of what a word means simply by reading it in its context.
Here’s what I mean by “reading it in its context”: don’t just zero in on one word. Read the entire sentence. Then read the entire paragraph. As a teacher once noted in a Madrassa class, “Words should NOT be read with blinders on.” Most words don’t have a “literal meaning” at all—rather, they have a range of possible meanings (the technical term we use is “semantic field/range”). That’s why a dictionary usually lists several possible options. Only when a word is used in context does the precise meaning become clear.
The better you know a language, the less time you will spend zeroing in on individual words. Consider this sentence: “Cinderella danced at the ball.” The average English speaker can read this sentence and understand it immediately. No fluent English speaker who knows the story of Cinderella is going to see the word ball and think, Hmm. I wonder what ball means. I better look it up. But imagine if a misguided non-English speaker were studying this sentence the way many people study the Qur’an. He might look up the word ball and think, Ah! Look at this! This word ball is rich in meaning! It can mean all sorts of things! A round object; a non-strike in baseball; a dance. Boy, this sentence is so much richer when you can read it in the original English!
Native speakers can immediately see the folly of this method. Yes, the word ball can mean all those things, but in this sentence it only means one of them. Which means that the other possible meanings are irrelevant at this point. Reading every possible meaning into a particular use of a word is sometimes called the “overload fallacy.” Context usually narrows the possible meanings to one, though there are exceptions.
I’m not saying that individual Arabic word studies are bad, or totally unnecessary (after all, we are not native Arabic speakers). But unless you do them properly, they’ll simply give you the illusion of knowing something when you really don’t. Most of the time you’ll do better to simply compare a number of solid translations like Yusuf Ali, Dawood, Muhammad Asad, Abdel Haleem, Arbery, etc. After all, the people who made these Qur’an translations understand Arabic far better than you or I ever will. So don’t throw away their expertise. And as you read, pay attention to the context. An ounce of good contextual analysis is worth a pound of poorly done individual Arabic word studies.
So take your English Qur’ans and read carefully. When you do individual word studies, avoid the root fallacy, take advantage of scholars’ expertise, and remember that context is king. In short, read, reread, and reread again. It’s not as flashy a study method, and it probably won’t make you feel (or look) as smart, but it’ll give you much more accurate results.
The Author Imran Jumah is a lecturer at Admas University Hargeisa