Muqaddimah – Tafsir Nizam-ul-Quran – Linguistic Resources of Interpretation
Not only did the Almighty guarantee protection and security of the Quran from being lost, He also promised to explain it. Both of these facts have been mentioned in the following verses, respectively:
We have, without doubt, sent down the Message; and We will assuredly guard it (from corruption) (15:09)
We shall Ourself explain it (75:19)
The fulfilment of this latter promise required that the Almighty guard Arabic, the language of the Quran, from extinction. He has, therefore, sustained it and has given it eternal life. Similarly, He has guarded the meanings of the religious terms of the Holy Quran like salah (the ritual prayer), zakah (the obligatory alms), Jihad (the holy war), sawm (the fast), hajj (the annual pilgrimage), masjid (mosque), haram (the inviolable precinct in Makkah), safa and marwah (the two hills in the vicinity of Kabah), and the rites of hajj and related practices. The meanings of all these religious terms have passed onto us through generations. Minor differences over the method of observing these rites exist but they are negligible. An example would best explain my viewpoint. There is no denying the fact that the Arabic word asad means lion in spite of the minor differences in the colour and shape of lions of different geographical regions. Similarly, the salah we are required to offer is the salah Muslims offer today in spite of minor differences in its form and method. Whoever splits hair in this regard in fact abandons the spirit of Islam. As the Almighty says (22:37):
Neither their meat nor their blood reaches Allah; instead, it is your piety that reaches Him
Those seeking controversy follow the footsteps of the Jews who put the seed of discord in their faith and succumbed to doubts. God has depicted their attitude in the Holy Quran with reference to their response to divine command to offer a cow for sacrifice. As is narrated in the Quran, they kept on asking hair splitting questions while their Prophet continually told them to:
…do what they were commanded to do (2:70)
To make matters worse, they were not ready to follow the command even after so much unreasonable questioning. It was only because of the blessing of the words “God willing”, which they uttered mechanically during this conversation, that they were led to obey their Messenger. Hence the Quran rightly affirms that:
…they were very close to not doing it (2:71)
Thus, when dealing with unqualified terms of the shariah regarding which we do not find any clear definition and implication in the Holy Quran, we should not blindly fall upon traditions reported by a few or a single narrator. This can cast us in uncertainty and we may end up falsifying and negating other approaches and thus inflicting pain upon those who hold differing point of view than ours: neither of the contesting parties will have a criterion to resort to. In such cases it is advisable to content ourselves with what is agreed upon by the ummah and avoid condemning others concerning which we have no clear proof in the text of the Holy Quran or agreed upon practices of the Holy Prophet (sws) handed down by the Muslim generations. This is, therefore, the correct path to follow when it comes to understanding the terms of the shariah.
The Classical Arabic literature and the text of the Holy Quran are two resources which can be used as foundational reference in ascertaining the meaning and significance of the remaining literal and figurative diction of the Quran and its style of expression. Arabic dictionaries and lexicons do not help much in this regard because they do not cover the entire usage of a word in the language. They discuss many issues quite inadequately and do not help us differentiate between the pure Classical and the naturalized Arabic diction. Neither do they guide us to the root of the words enabling us to discern the foundation from the branch and the literal from the figurative. When a student, who is not fully groomed in Classical Arabic literature, consults these dictionaries he fails to grasp the true meanings and the real significance the Quranic words. Moreover, the extant Classical Arabic poetry contains much pollution in that many extinct words and rare usages (shadh) have crept into it. However, the difference between the unsound and the sound is not lost upon a connoisseur of the language. Thus we must only employ what is established as sound and abandon the rare usages. An example may explain what I want to bring to the fore: some exegetes have interpreted the word tamanna in the following verse to mean ‘recitation’:
And We did not send before you any messenger or prophet except that when he recited, Satan threw into it [some misunderstanding] (22:52)
In order to escape explaining a complex theme the commentators have adopted rare meaning of this word abandoning its clear and obvious meanings. This, however, did not help: on the contrary, it opened doors of disputation, disruption, and differences in the ummah. Whoever deviates from the straight path is destined to wander in the mazes of ignorance.
In addition to this, books compiled in the fields of remaining disciplines like grammar, logic, rhetoric , meter, and Islamic Jurisprudence, though many, are also not helpful in understanding the Holy Quran. The contemporary discipline of Arabic Grammar requires a lot of improvement, the result being that its role is limited to establishing rules for a discourse of mediocre quality. Therefore the exegete should not subject the Word of God to these grammatical rules, which will inadvertently lead to changing the obvious meanings of the text and deviation from its basic style. Such analysis would make the Holy Quran seem like a very strange kind of discourse, not in line with the customary literary style of the Arabic language. On the contrary, it is the duty of the exegete to adduce Classical Arabic literature so that it can be proven that the Holy Quran is a discourse of the highest literary order.
As for logic, it involves hairsplitting discussions over the techniques of reasoning and argumentation, and the usage of the words generally used in definition, negation, and exception. The exegetes employing this discipline in interpreting the Quranic text find it difficult to grasp the meaning of assertions like:
And He taught Adam the names – all of them (2:31)
And nothing has prevented Us from sending signs except that the former people denied them (17:59)
This issue will be elaborated upon in a separate discussion.
Ilm-ul-bayan, the science of rhetoric, also falls short as much as grammar does. Those who excel in this field remain unable to appraise and analyze the nuances of a discourse gushing forth from the arteries of a living heart. Such a science would therefore be utterly useless when applied to the text revealed by the Most High. Every Prophet who receives the Divine revelation, rather every caller to the Truth, spontaneously expresses his feelings, while considering the circumstances of his audience. He employs figurative language at one instance and literal in the next. He strictly follows the conventional style of expression and carefully considers the competence and level of understanding of his addressees. Therefore, we see that a divine prophet uses words like ab (father) and ibn (son), talks of his body being divided in many, alludes to transferring his flesh and blood into someone else’s; he uses words and expressions like yad (hand), saq (shin), and wajh (face), arsh (throne) and kursi (chair), bast (expansion) and qabz (recession), nashr (dispersion) and tayy (folding), hasrah (pathos) and intiqaam (retribution), ghazab (wrath) and hanan (compassion). No matter what the expression, the addressees grasp its meaning without any difficulty. However, someone who chains himself in the the art of rhetoric walks clumsily on this path of understanding and explaining the Divine text like an ant and stumbles like the blind. Those acquainted with the style of expression of the Psalms and other divine Books can best understand that the revealed Books rely heavily on figurative expressions.
As regards the discipline of Islamic Jurisprudence (fiqh), the founders of this branch of knowledge did in fact render a laudable service. They did not borrow this discipline from the Romans, Indians, or any other nation. They found this knowledge indispensable in their pursuit of understanding the Holy Quran and the Sunnah. Therefore, in order to enable themselves to derive legal rulings from these sources in a systematic way they needed to form some guiding principles. This undoubtedly makes them the pioneers of this discipline and those coming after them have emulated them in this field. Unfortunately, the scholars of the later generations did not develop it further and failed to systematize it. Consequently, the discipline remained inadequate and imperfect and was left short of becoming a science in the true sense of the term. This explains the lack of uniformity of principles which leads to different conclusions concerning rulings of the Holy Quran, something which is undesirable. This, however, is not the case with other disciplines like grammar, logic, and the like which can properly be called disciplines. In this short introduction I can only refer to some points of cardinal importance and cannot go into details. However, I intend to work on this branch of Islamic sciences, for which I beseech help of God, in whose hands are all matters.
The science of balaghah has been constructed upon Arabic poetry alone. Poetry, as everyone knows, only deals with fine sentence structure, nuances of words and phrases, and manipulation of badi*. It leaves out a lot including, for example, many aspects of reasoning, relationship of words with the intended meaning, use of examples and parables, various aspects of narratives yielding morals, ‘awd ‘ila al-bad’a (i.e going back to the initial discussion), promise [of reward], and admonition and stress produced by the overwhelming confidence of the speaker. It also does not cover other important techniques. For example, sometimes a self confident speaker consciously ignores the objections of the addressees. Sometimes he shows pathos like a concerned well-wishing teacher. These and some other techniques used by the eloquent speakers and the divine Books are not covered in this discipline. The scholars could not mention this greater part of style of expression because they did not analyze the speeches of the famous Arab orators. This is possibly because they did not find sufficient material from the oratory of the Arabs while intentionally disregarding the same from non-Arabs.
Thus we see that Baqillani, despite his utmost efforts to unearth the unparallelled Quranic eloquence, evokes only Arabic poetry as evidence. He has, however, recorded some famous speeches as specimen, so that one can compare between the two genres of speech. He did not deal with the above mentioned ten aspects of the language which ought to be treated under this discipline. Five of them are intellectual or rational and the rest are emotive or psychic. Since they are common characteristics of all the languages of the world, we can evoke any language other than Arabic to provide examples. The Holy Quran itself contains sufficient examples of such devices.
Thus, balaghah in its present form, does not help in understanding the styles of expression employed by the Holy Quran. Most of the contributors in this discipline were non-Arabs, who found it difficult to study, analyze, and understand the Arabic style of expression. Therefore, it would not be fair to complain over what they failed to accomplish; rather, we should thankfully acknowledge that they successfully laid foundations of this discipline; they sometimes reached at the correct conclusion and at other times only referred to to what they were aiming at.
To further explain my point I will discuss some of the Arabic styles of expressions in a separate introduction to this book. I will also discuss the meter and its use in a separate introduction.
*Badi is a branch of balaghah which deals with the use of literary devices like mubalaghah (emphatic statement), istitrad (digression), mutabaqah (contrasting parts), and tajnis (paronomasia, or pun) etc
This is a rendering of English translation of Muqaddimah – Tafsir Nizam ul Quran by the permission of the translator, Tariq Mahmood Hashmi. Original version available here.