Arabic language, the balance of reason and meaning
In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful
Language is one of the great miracles of creation. Arabic, specifically the language of Quranic revelation, has special properties that can bring about a balanced understanding of life for the benefit of humanity as a whole. As we have noted, monotheism is based upon observing consistency of the creation as a guide to the unity of the Creator. This observation can only happen in past events. With this in mind, studying history in general – including the history of language – is an important part of Islam.
The Quran makes numerous references to studying the past and observing the patterns of nations and civilizations as a means to anticipate what will happen in the future:
سُنَّةَ اللَّهِ فِي الَّذِينَ خَلَوْا مِن قَبْلُ ۖ وَلَن تَجِدَ لِسُنَّةِ اللَّهِ تَبْدِيلًا
It is the established way of Allah with those who passed on before; and you will not find any change in the way of Allah.
Surat al-Ahzab 33:62
However, studying history is often erroneously viewed as a single or a few dimensions of human activity. The more holistic view in Islam led early Muslim scholars to study history as a natural phenomenon independent of race, ethnicity, or geography. Prominent in this field is the Muslim scholar Ibn Khaldun, who pioneered the fields of sociology and demography, and who had a significant impact on how we approach anthropology today.
Ibn Khaldun, in his book Al-Muqaddimah, went beyond the local variables shaping historical events towards identifying general phenomena that always repeat themselves. He was able to observe that civilizations – regardless of geography, time, or ethnicity – follow the same patterns in their rising, maturing, and eventual dying. He has famously likened the rise of empires to personal human development, in that like babies they start small and fragile, then they reach a climax until they begin to age and then die.
Ibn Khaldun also went further to identify elements that contribute to each stage of a civilization as it develops. His insights were shaped by the monotheistic approach of searching for the universal and elementary forces that take part in the building and ending of any structure. This approach is still used by historians today.
For example, the famous historian Arnold Toynbee observed that every human civilization since the beginning of time began from a conflict. With this in mind, conflicts are a necessary element that precedes the birth of any new cycle of human development. The necessity of conflict as a means of social growth is also cited in the Quran:
وَلَوْلَا دَفْعُ اللَّهِ النَّاسَ بَعْضَهُم بِبَعْضٍ لَّفَسَدَتِ الْأَرْضُ وَلَٰكِنَّ اللَّهَ ذُو فَضْلٍ عَلَى الْعَالَمِينَ
Were Allah not to check some people by means of others, the earth would have been corrupted. Yet, Allah is full of grace for the worlds.
Surat al-Baqarah 2:251
One of the reasons Mecca remained a novice among surrounding civilizations, in the early days of Islam, was because it was kept free of conflict by means of its sanctity:
أَوَلَمْ يَرَوْا أَنَّا جَعَلْنَا حَرَمًا آمِنًا وَيُتَخَطَّفُ النَّاسُ مِنْ حَوْلِهِمْ ۚ أَفَبِالْبَاطِلِ يُؤْمِنُونَ وَبِنِعْمَةِ اللَّهِ يَكْفُرُونَ
Have they not seen that We made it a sanctuary of safety, while people are being taken away all around them?
Surat al-Ankabut 29:67
The absence of conflicts afflicting other civilizations ensured that Mecca would be a more-or-less blank slate upon which Islam could be written after the sending of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ.
This monotheistic approach to history – the search for universal phenomena in history – is not only that of Ibn Khaldun and later historians. History can be viewed through the lens of any universal law that shapes human development.
A dimension of history that is still not fully given its due attention is the impact of language and linguistic features on shaping developments throughout human history. One can appreciate this dimension when we observe, for example, that all major divine revelations in the history of humankind were delivered in Semitic languages. Why is this the case?
Allah mentioned Arabic, a Semitic language, in the Quran as a means of shaping the development of thought:
إِنَّا أَنزَلْنَاهُ قُرْآنًا عَرَبِيًّا لَّعَلَّكُمْ تَعْقِلُونَ
Verily, We have revealed it as an Arabic Quran that you might understand.
Surat Yusuf 12:2
Studying the impact of language on humans and civilizations has been addressed in Marshal McLuhan ground-breaking work. He observed that languages based on sensations, such as in the sensory picture format of Chinese characters, are tilted towards the development of meaning at the expense of reason. When languages that lack sensations, like Western phonetic alphabets, they are tilted toward reason at the expense on meaning.
McLuhan attributes the features of Western phonetics to the fragmentation of time in Western culture, the development of specialization, and the lack of passion. He also asserts that, while the Greeks developed the discipline of logic, they were always behind in terms of passion and meaning.
On the other hand, the Far Eastern cultures developed a deep wisdom that is often based upon mythical stories or mythos; the meaning in them is more important than the historicity or logic. What Mcluhan has missed in his thesis is the study of Semitic languages. It is understandable as Arabic is one of the few preserved Semitic languages to still exist; one could not advance far in this field without intimate knowledge of it.
Semitic languages are the only ones that sufficiently balance both reason and meaning. Reason is supported through the phonetic structure of the language and the elaborate logical process of parsing words. Meaning is preserved not only through fundamental root forms, but also in the very sounds of the words themselves. For example, the word for “difficult” (ṣa’b) contains the heavier letter ṣad and the more guttural letter ‘ayn, but the word for “easy” (sahl) is composed entirely of lighter consonants.
Unlike Far Eastern languages, the sensory part of the Arabic language is in the sounds and not the visual pictures. Studying the meaning of each letter alone based upon its sound has been a hot topic in the minds of Arab linguists, motivated primarily by the Quran which begins many of its chapters with individual letters. The Quran demonstrates the balance between reason and meaning in that it is recited with very appealing tones while it can also be parsed towards a deep and logical structure of meaning.
To fully understand the impact of Semitic languages on human development, one should look no further than the greatest inventions, ideas, and institutions in the history of humanity. The emergence of each one of these historical milestones has propelled humanity in a way no other medium could. And all of these developments happened through thought-forms shaped by Semitic languages.
The Greatest Invention – the Alphabet
McLuhan’s study of the impact of the medium of language led him to identify the phonetic alphabet as the greatest invention in the history of humanity. It is only through this invention, which preserves the oral tradition in written format, that knowledge can be preserved for later generations.
Other mediums of language are prone to being lost over time, and with them the collective knowledge in that particular language is also lost. An example of this process is the non-phonetic holographic language of old Egypt. With the loss of the many symbols of that language came the loss of the knowledge that built the powerful kingdom of old Egypt.
Without an alphabet, knowledge could not have accumulated and human development would have been interrupted and set back many times over. Notably, this invention occurred in the minds of people who speak a Semitic language with its balance between reason and meaning. Specifically, this great invention is traced back to the Phoenician people, who spoke a Semitic language. This system was then adopted by the Greeks, which propelled them toward the development of reason and logic. Nevertheless, that adoption borrowed only the process of recording sounds through letters, but without connecting between each letter’s sound and meaning.
The Greatest Idea – One God
The greatest idea in the history of humanity is monotheism (tawḥīd) as it had developed in the mind of Abraham (Ibrāhīm). There is no idea that has influenced human history more than monotheism through Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Human history cannot be studied without addressing the impact of those three faiths.
Here again, monotheism is based upon reason – in studying the order in everything around as an indication of a singular force (God), and addressing the meaning in the form of universal values that brought the order together.
All revelations and development related to this idea began exclusively in Semitic languages. The world’s major Prophets – Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad – all spoke Semitic languages. Since these languages were the medium for the emergence of monotheism, it demonstrates that the complete idea can only be properly understood within the context of a Semitic langue; lest reason is emphasized at the expense of meaning, or meaning is addressed with disregard to reason.
As the Arabic language has powerful meanings through the sounds of the words, a deficiency in understanding parsing in the language – the container of its reason component – would tilt an individual towards meaning at the expense of reason; this is the definition of fanaticism! Hence, countering extremism in the minds of some Muslims starts by teaching them proper Arabic so that they can become balanced individuals in heart and mind.
To further understand the impact of this idea on human development, one need to look no further than development of Western civilizations and how they were transformed from a culture of logic in the Greek era to a society of science in the Renaissance era.
Europe in the Renaissance had borrowed scientific methods from Muslim scholars who emphasized the universal order in everything. This belief lead them to reject any theory that lacks universality. Europe already had the idea of God through Christianity, so adopting the premise of monotheism was not difficult.
However, since Western phonetic alphabets are tilted toward reason at the expense of meaning, it was only a matter of time until reason and passion would clash again, with reason coming out on top. Indeed, most notable scientists up to the beginning of the 20th century believed in God, even though their level of actively practicing a faith varied.
In modern Europe, science is developing towards reason with the continuous loss of meaning; a modern scientist is typically an atheist. This is an indication that Western civilization is gradually become more like the Greek logicians and less like the Renaissance scientist; and science is eventually set to lose in this scenario. As the great physicist Albert Einstein said, “Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind.”
The inability of Western phonetics to carry meaning with reason has positioned intellectuals and theologians on opposite sides. In fact, if the history of Europe is to be summarized in one sentence, it would be the struggle between intellectuals and champions of thought with the Church. This clash did not occur with the nearly same intensity in the Muslim world, where the Arabic language was the main vehicle of thought.
The Greatest Institution – the University
The greatest institution in the history of history is the University. The formation of this institution was unprecedented in that it established a medium for freedom of thought with safety from persecution. The oldest existing, and continually operating educational institution in the world, was established by a Muslim women in North Africa: Al-Quirawaan. Moreover, the concept of getting a “degree” and the tradition of a graduation ceremony was derived from Islamic traditions.
The journey of science and development would have been impossible without the existence of this institution as it migrated to Europe. The first university in the Muslim world adopted Arabic as a means of education and instilled both theology and natural science as fields to be studied together. This approach was supported by the ability of the language to address both reason and meaning at the same time.
Early universities in Europe followed the same model and had theology as a prerequisite for all studies. However, owing to the lack of meaning in Western alphabets, the conflict between reason and meaning was only a matter of time. Indeed, an unfortunate separation between theology and natural law came to be accepted as the means for science to develop. In the early stages, scientists still believed in God, but they learned to keep meaning and reason separated. Unfortunately, the gap between both is ever growing to this day.
A Call to Balance Reason and Meaning, Science and Religion
Humanity is threatened when pure reason lacks values and pure meaning lacks rationality. A clear example of the dangers of reason without universal values is the Nazi doctrine of the “pure race.” The Nazis interpreted evolution to mean their German race had a mandate – a duty – to subjugate the “lesser evolved races.” In their minds, the Nazis believed they were perfectly rational and scientific. Only through the lens of divine values of justice, compassion, and dignity is the falsehood of their doctrine exposed.
Humanity is set to destroy itself unless it can restore the proper balance between reason and meaning, science and religion. This restoration starts with the vehicles of thought. The Arabic language, with its rich heritage of meanings, is the best available option for this purpose, as it is the last remaining preserved Semitic langue.
Regrettably, one can look back at the last two centuries in which Western empires colonized the Middle East and contributed to the eroding of the Arabic language. The power of Arabic as a vehicle of wisdom was diminished as the Arab populations learned less and less about their heritage. To correct this course, we should make strong efforts to translate the insights of the Arabic language – and specifically the insights of Islamic traditions – into local vernaculars that can be understood by all those who do not know Arabic.
Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.