In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful
Revelations – all in Semitic languages – highlight the unique ability of this form of communication to address both reason and meaning at the same time. Messages from the Divine appeal to both the heart for universal meanings and the mind for consistency in all that we observe and feel. Nevertheless, it is only through the consistency between powerful meanings and profound reason that language and revelation can propel humans to ever higher status as compared to all other creatures.
We, as humans, unfortunately have the ability to decouple this relationship and so act in an inconsistent and unprincipled manner. Monotheism, properly understood, is the antidote to this inconsistency, for monotheism is founded upon knowing the Creator by observing that everything is governed by the same patterns that are traced back to one singularity. Reasoned reflection reinforces the meanings we derive from the universe. When our hearts and minds resonate together towards the worship of God, we start to experience true monotheism.
Linguists have long explored the effect of language on human thought, and philosophers have attributed human development to the power of language itself. For example, McLuhan has famously attributed the fragmentation of occupation, time, space, and the rise of individualism in the West to the Western phonetic alphabet. He argued that Western alphabets are parts of a whole that do not have meanings in themselves, i.e. each letter does not have a meaning by itself, although they contribute to forming words that have meanings. Removing a letter from a word would eradicate the whole word. This gives an impression that the part is the whole and thus such thought forms support individualism.
The meaning in Western words is attributed mentally to different formations of letters by bypassing the sense, i.e. the sounds or shapes of a word does not have meaning, rather the meaning is stored mentally and has to be retrieved each time a word appears. In Western phonetics, the pictures of letters or the sounds of words do not convey any meaning by themselves. The meaning is taken by linking words from our memory together; it is purely a mental process without input from the senses.
McLuhan attributes this feature in Western alphabets to the bias towards reason over meaning, or in other words, the bias of mind over heart. In contrast, Semitic languages, though they are also based on phonetic alphabets, utilize the sound as a means to convey the meaning from the senses, which precedes the mental process of retrieving memorized words.
For example, one can guess the meaning of a new word in Arabic based on the sounds and tones of the word. A school of thought in Arabic linguistics views the Arabic vocabulary as a naturally expanding domain by combining words in any new formations of letters. Those words can be invented without something specific to point to initially; knowing the meaning of each individual letter would establish new meanings of invented words. This process allowed pre-Islamic Arabs to excel in language and grammar without skills of reading or writing.
In the Far East, the meanings of words are conveyed in pictorial format with symbols that are not phonetic. This form of language relies purely on the visual sense to extract meaning, with less mental involvement as in the Western and Semitic alphabets. In this case, McLuhan attributes the rise of wisdom in the Far East to the emphasis on meanings in their languages.
It is a curious matter to investigate the impact of Semitic languages, specifically Arabic, on those who speak them. If Western phonetics tilted its speakers towards reason, and Eastern pictorial words tilted its speakers towards meaning, then how does the human mind react to Semitic languages?
One might think that a language with both meaning and reason would produce a balanced mind. Yet, history seem to tell a conflicting story in which Semitic languages gave rise to the most balanced humans in reason and in meaning, such as the Prophets (ṣ), and also produced very turbulent minds, many examples of which can be easily found throughout the history of any Semitic nation. To understand this apparent contradiction, one needs to investigate beyond Arab history to understand the conflict between balance and turbulence.
When language is weaponized
It is argued by historians of war that language is the most lethal weapon humans have used and will ever use. Indeed, every war is supported by a propaganda narrative that justifies the use of force, including weapons of mass destruction. The use of any weapon is contingent on that propaganda; thus, language is a key enabler and diffuser of any war or weapon.
The history of Arabs before Islam can be characterized with its incessant in-fighting, vying for alliances with foreign powers (such as the Roman and Persian empires) to support their battles with each other. Loyalty was ultimately to tribes and the pursuit of a misplaced sense of honor or glory. Art was generally limited to poetry and story-telling.
In contrast, meaning and reason are united by the power of monotheism; such unification is a proof of the one God. A truly monotheistic mindset is balanced because it only accepts a narrative as true if it is both consistent and conforms to universal meanings. Moreover, this balance is only fully possible in a language that addresses both at the same time.
Without the unifying force of monotheism, the mind will naturally drift to whatever side language trends toward. In Eastern or Western languages that favor meaning or reason over another, respectively, the language brings a consistent bias in one direction. Whereas in a Semitic language, there is no consistent bias as both reason and meaning should be present in the mind.
Here, the mind alternates and thus becomes turbulent. This turbulence can only be resolved when monotheism unifies our mental experiences and results in a peaceful balance. Arab history is a clear depiction of this balance within Islam. Turbulence occurs when Islam, properly understood, is pushed to the side.
Arabs in the pre-Islamic era are a clear example of this imbalance, as documented in their poetry. Arab poetry before Islam emphasized the individual’s honor, freedom, and self-initiative, similar to Western attitudes shaped by the phonetic alphabet.
On the other hand, the meaningful aspect of the language through the auditory senses emphasized blind tribal allegiance, zealotry, and self-sacrifice for the group, similar to Eastern attitudes shaped by the sensory characters of their languages.
Without monotheism, an Arab would alternate between those two powerful forces. The imbalance was the source of internal fighting between each tribe and within each tribe. The individual, in this case, needs to belong to a group to satisfy the pressures of loyalty, while also strives to lead as a prominent member in that group to satisfy the pressures of individualism. Those pressures existing in each mind were the basis for continuous infighting.
The imbalance and subsequent conflicts also prohibited Arab society from flourishing, growing, and expanding. Arab linguistic weapons, without monotheism, were always directed at other Arab tribes. These weapons would be less effective when directed outward. Hence, the Arabs never had the unity needed to take on foreign powers, instead using those powers in their conflicts with each other. After in the initial unity brought about due to Islam’s monotheism, it was not long until the Arabs reverted to the old tribal and nationalistic ways.
The impossibility of uniting the Arabs, except through monotheism, has been mentioned by Allah in the Quran:
وَأَلَّفَ بَيْنَ قُلُوبِهِمْ ۚ لَوْ أَنفَقْتَ مَا فِي الْأَرْضِ جَمِيعًا مَّا أَلَّفْتَ بَيْنَ قُلُوبِهِمْ وَلَٰكِنَّ اللَّهَ أَلَّفَ بَيْنَهُمْ ۚ إِنَّهُ عَزِيزٌ حَكِيمٌ
He brought together their hearts. If you had spent all that is in the earth, you could not have brought their hearts together, but Allah brought them together. Verily, he is Almighty and Wise.
Surat al-Anfal 8:63
In addition, Allah highlighted the conflict in a Semitic mindset by addressing the alliances of Arabs and Jews against Prophet Muhammad (ṣ). Their anti-Islam alliance was ineffective due to the mental conflicts that abandoned the monotheistic balance:
لَا يُقَاتِلُونَكُمْ جَمِيعًا إِلَّا فِي قُرًى مُّحَصَّنَةٍ أَوْ مِن وَرَاءِ جُدُرٍ ۚ بَأْسُهُم بَيْنَهُمْ شَدِيدٌ ۚ تَحْسَبُهُمْ جَمِيعًا وَقُلُوبُهُمْ شَتَّىٰ ۚ ذَٰلِكَ بِأَنَّهُمْ قَوْمٌ لَّا يَعْقِلُونَ
They will not fight you all except within fortified cities or from behind walls. Their violence among themselves is severe. You think they are together, but their hearts are diverse. That is because they are a people who do not reason.
Surat al-Hashr 59:14
Even as they united against the Muslims, they could not overcome the animosity among themselves, one of the reasons why they eventually lost. All of this was due to their inability to grasp the balance between meaning and reason, emotion and thought.
A similar tale in Jewish history
The history of the Jews resembles that of Arabs in that both traditions are shaped by Semitic languages. The protection of heritage at the expense of universal monotheism reached its climax upon the sending of Jesus (ṣ). Here again, by abandoning the true meaning of monotheism, the Semitic mind spiral into internal conflicts that limited their ability to advance.
Allah highlighted this by informing us that Jesus (ṣ) and his followers will always be above those who rejected him. Like the Arabs without monotheism, the choice of preferring heritage to divine values limited the extend that they could grow:
إِذْ قَالَ اللَّهُ يَا عِيسَىٰ إِنِّي مُتَوَفِّيكَ وَرَافِعُكَ إِلَيَّ وَمُطَهِّرُكَ مِنَ الَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا وَجَاعِلُ الَّذِينَ اتَّبَعُوكَ فَوْقَ الَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا إِلَىٰ يَوْمِ الْقِيَامَةِ ۖ ثُمَّ إِلَيَّ مَرْجِعُكُمْ فَأَحْكُمُ بَيْنَكُمْ فِيمَا كُنتُمْ فِيهِ تَخْتَلِفُونَ
Mention when Allah said, ‘O Jesus, I will take you and raise you to myself and purify you from those who disbelieve and make those who follow you above those who disbelieve until the Day of Resurrection. Then to me is your return, and I will judge between you concerning that in which you used to differ.’
Surat Ali Imran 3:55
Indeed, the utterances of divine revelation are terribly destructive if they are used for purposes other than those intended by Allah.
Islam and peace
Islam, in its deepest meaning, is the internal and external peace brought about by surrender to the will of God. The companions of the Prophet (ṣ) felt this since of tranquility, even as they faced an enemy on the battlefield much more powerful than themselves:
إِذْ جَعَلَ الَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا فِي قُلُوبِهِمُ الْحَمِيَّةَ حَمِيَّةَ الْجَاهِلِيَّةِ فَأَنزَلَ اللَّهُ سَكِينَتَهُ عَلَىٰ رَسُولِهِ وَعَلَى الْمُؤْمِنِينَ وَأَلْزَمَهُمْ كَلِمَةَ التَّقْوَىٰ وَكَانُوا أَحَقَّ بِهَا وَأَهْلَهَا ۚ وَكَانَ اللَّهُ بِكُلِّ شَيْءٍ عَلِيمًا
When those who disbelieved had put into their hearts zealotry, the zealotry of the time of ignorance. Yet Allah sent down his tranquility upon his messenger and upon the believers and imposed upon them the word of righteousness, and they were more deserving of it and worthy of it.
Surat al-Fath 48:26
As the polytheistic Arabs were raging for the sake of their idols, the believers in monotheism were in a state of tranquility and inner-peace. That inner-peace is the meaning and objective of Islam.
When they understood, the believers were able to unite to spread the message of peace into faraway lands and to confront hostile empires intent on suppressing the message. This was achieved in part by the language of monotheism that balanced meaning and reason, emotion and thought. Highly emotional aspects of pre-Islamic Arabic, like the emphasis on blind loyalty, were brought back into a balance between the rights of the individual and the rights of society.
In fact, Allah criticized the Arab poets for their lethal influence, hypocrisy, and misguiding the masses:
وَالشُّعَرَاءُ يَتَّبِعُهُمُ الْغَاوُونَ أَلَمْ تَرَ أَنَّهُمْ فِي كُلِّ وَادٍ يَهِيمُونَ وَأَنَّهُمْ يَقُولُونَ مَا لَا يَفْعَلُونَ
And the poets, only the deviant follow them. Do you not see that in every valley they roam and that they say what they do not do?
Surat al-Shu’ara 26:224-226
And Allah said:
وَمَا عَلَّمْنَاهُ الشِّعْرَ وَمَا يَنبَغِي لَهُ ۚ إِنْ هُوَ إِلَّا ذِكْرٌ وَقُرْآنٌ مُّبِينٌ
We did not teach him poetry, nor is it befitting for him. It is not but a message and a clear Qur’an.
Surat Ya Sin 36:69
A modern prominent Arab poet, Ahmad Shaouqi, who has been nicknamed “the prince of poets,” once reflected on Arab history and the impossibility of their ascendance without monotheism. He credited the message of Prophet Muhammad (ṣ) with saving the Arabs from the implosion of ignorance, comparing Muhammad (ṣ) to Jesus (ṣ):
أَخوكَ عيسى دَعــــــا مَيتـاً فَقـامَ لَـهُ
وَأَنتَ أَحيَيـتَ أَجيــــــالاً مِـنَ الزِمَـمِ
Your brother Jesus called upon a dead man and he woke up for him,
And you [Muhammad] resurrected generations from the ruins.
We should mention that the “Semitic mindset” discussed here is not a function of ethnicity or race. Rather, it is mental development and maturity through the thought-forms provided in Semitic language. It extends wherever the language is adopted and studied, but only under the guidance of divine and universal values.
Knowing the properly balanced mind, as conveyed in the richness of the Arabic language, helps us understand in part the origin of modern extremism and terrorism. Extremism reflects turbulent minds, swaying too far towards emotion or reason, and thus resulting in the same internal fratricide that afflicted the Arabs before Islam.
An overview of Arab and Muslim societies and their historical achievements, from the city-state of Medina to the Ottomans and beyond, indicates that something normal has been severely disrupted. This disruption of established historical patterns gives us a clue about what is really happening. It is not something intrinsic to Islam or Arab society that is producing extremism, but rather there must external factors at work. The reason Islam is blamed by so many is due to the phenomenon of the availability heuristic, or the tendency of people to only look at immediate events instead of long-term patterns. In other words, people blame terrorism on Islam because they are unable or unwilling to see the bigger picture.
To be sure, terrorism, the most severe form of extremism, is a product of complex sociological factors, but ignorance is at its core. How can terrorist cite Islam (which linguistically means peace) as a justification for killing innocent people? Clearly, they do not understand the very language they use to justify their criminal deeds. This mental turbulence, born of ignorance and fed on trauma, leads to the implosion and disintegration of societies, all while they ostensibly direct their fury outward.
The only way out of this downward spiral is a renewal of knowledge and values and the spiritual path laid forth by monotheism. When the inner turbulence of the mind is calmed and the imbalance is corrected, terrorist propaganda will no longer be able to feed on social problems and the real solutions, as they are, will be made known and accepted. Yet the struggle begins inside first, in the heart and mind, before it exists anywhere else.
Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.