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Knowledge in the realm of language and linguistics

In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful

Knowledge of the Arabic language in all of its details and complexities is essential for understanding the religion of Islam. Classical Muslim scholars used to consider knowledge of Arabic, its grammatical principles, and common usage in poetry and literature as a necessary requirement for anyone to give learned judgments in Islamic law. However, the Muslim world is experiencing the crisis of violent extremism due in part to the loss of this important knowledge, as extremists force unwarranted and unintended meanings on the Quran and prophetic tradition.

The latest theories in modern linguistics can help us better understand how knowledge and meaning are transmitted, and sometimes obscured, by the nuances of language. Noam Chomsky is a prominent scholar regarded for his many revolutionary theories in the fields of linguistics, philosophy, and artificial intelligence. Among his most distinguished contributions are the Universal Grammar Theory and Transformational Grammar Theory.

In the first theory, he asserts that the ability of humans to learn language and grammar is hard wired into their brains. In other words, all languages spoken by humans share common structures based on their innate neurology. In the second theory, he asserts that languages use defined operations to communicate deep meanings through simple structures. Parts of Transformational Grammar are Deep structures and Surface structures.

Whereas Universal Grammar Theory is related to the innate capability of humans to use language, the Transformational Grammar Theory is related to difference in languages of communicating deeper meanings through surface structures that involve connections between words. This transformation of grammar is also often referred to as Parsing. Parsing is critical to exploring and understanding the deepest meaning of a sentence.

Chomsky’s theories are especially intriguing when we observe that Allah communicated knowledge to humans in the realm of language:

وَعَلَّمَ آدَمَ الْأَسْمَاءَ كُلَّهَا ثُمَّ عَرَضَهُمْ عَلَى الْمَلَائِكَةِ فَقَالَ أَنبِئُونِي بِأَسْمَاءِ هَٰؤُلَاءِ إِن كُنتُمْ صَادِقِينَ قَالُوا سُبْحَانَكَ لَا عِلْمَ لَنَا إِلَّا مَا عَلَّمْتَنَا ۖ إِنَّكَ أَنتَ الْعَلِيمُ الْحَكِيمُ

Allah taught Adam the names of all things. Then, He showed them to the angels and said: Tell me the names of these if you are truthful. They said: Exalted are you, for we have no knowledge except what you have taught us. Indeed, you are the Knowing, the Wise.

Surat Al-Baqarah 2:31-32

The exchange between Allah and the angels shows us that angels lacked knowledge because they lacked terminology to describe it. Adam possessed this knowledge because he was bestowed with greater linguistic ability. This linguistic ability is hardwired into human beings, resulting in certain knowledge being embedded within human instinct:

وَإِذْ أَخَذَ رَبُّكَ مِن بَنِي آدَمَ مِن ظُهُورِهِمْ ذُرِّيَّتَهُمْ وَأَشْهَدَهُمْ عَلَىٰ أَنفُسِهِمْ أَلَسْتُ بِرَبِّكُمْ ۖ قَالُوا بَلَىٰ ۛ شَهِدْنَا ۛ أَن تَقُولُوا يَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ إِنَّا كُنَّا عَنْ هَٰذَا غَافِلِينَ

Mention when your Lord took from the children of Adam, from their loins, their descendants and made them testify of themselves, saying to them: Am I not your Lord? They said: Yes, we have testified. Thus, lest you should say on the day of Resurrection: Indeed, we were unaware of this.

Surat Al-A’raf 7:127

The testimony of Adam’s decedents (that is, all of us) indicates that a sense of the oneness of Allah is hardwired into every human being as well. Allah mentions that the reply from humans was in language, and this understanding would be available to us until the day of judgement. What is especially interesting is the concept that terminology precedes creations. Allah defines the meaning and terminology of everything before it is ordered into existence:

إِنَّمَا أَمْرُهُ إِذَا أَرَادَ شَيْئًا أَن يَقُولَ لَهُ كُن فَيَكُونُ

Verily, His command when He intends something is only to say: Be! And thus it is.

Surat Ya Seen 36:82

This phenomenon of terminology preceding the creation is also related to the creation of mankind, as their behavior and performance was discussed before humans were created. In other words, knowledge about humans was available before humans were created:

وَإِذْ قَالَ رَبُّكَ لِلْمَلَائِكَةِ إِنِّي جَاعِلٌ فِي الْأَرْضِ خَلِيفَةً ۖ قَالُوا أَتَجْعَلُ فِيهَا مَن يُفْسِدُ فِيهَا وَيَسْفِكُ الدِّمَاءَ وَنَحْنُ نُسَبِّحُ بِحَمْدِكَ وَنُقَدِّسُ لَكَ ۖ قَالَ إِنِّي أَعْلَمُ مَا لَا تَعْلَمُونَ

Mention when your Lord said to the angels: Verily, I will make upon the earth a successor. They said: Will you place upon it one who causes corruption therein and sheds blood, while we declare your praise and sanctify you? Allah said: Verily, I know that which you do not know.

Surat Al-Baqarah 2:30

The concept of knowledge being embedded in language even includes the most advanced and abstract thoughts related to the Creator Himself. As the understanding of monotheism by Ibrahim dictates that Allah cannot be seen or physically sensed, yet knowledge of Him is in the attributes with which He described Himself, and those attributes are in our language:

وَلِلَّهِ الْأَسْمَاءُ الْحُسْنَىٰ فَادْعُوهُ بِهَا

Unto Allah belong the most beautiful names, so call upon Him with them.

Surat Al-A’raf 7:180

This concept extends even further by negating the existence of something based on the lack of a clear definition of it, as the idols of Mecca were dismissed as fictions without truly divine attributes:

إِنْ هِيَ إِلَّا أَسْمَاءٌ سَمَّيْتُمُوهَا أَنتُمْ وَآبَاؤُكُم مَّا أَنزَلَ اللَّهُ بِهَا مِن سُلْطَانٍ ۚ إِن يَتَّبِعُونَ إِلَّا الظَّنَّ وَمَا تَهْوَى الْأَنفُسُ ۖ وَلَقَدْ جَاءَهُم مِّن رَّبِّهِمُ الْهُدَىٰ

They are nothing names you have named, you and your forefathers, for which Allah has revealed no authority. They follow nothing but assumption and what their souls desire, for there has already come to them from their Lord guidance.

Surat An-Najm 53:23

The significance of all monotheistic religions stems from the articulation of Ibrahim, the first person to properly express the meaning of monotheism:

وَجَعَلَهَا كَلِمَةً بَاقِيَةً فِي عَقِبِهِ لَعَلَّهُمْ يَرْجِعُونَ

Ibrahim made it a lasting word among his descendants that they might refer to it.

Surat Az-Zukhruf 43:28

Among all languages, Semitic languages have the distinction of being nonconcatenative morphology. This feature means that all words are derived from roots, adding vowels and sometimes additional consonants to modify the roots and thereby express very advanced meanings. It is through this feature that Semitic languages have a unique capability of preserving context and emotion alongside the basic meanings of sentences. It is not a coincidence that the Torah, the Psalms, and the Quran were all communicated in Semitic languages. These languages could better preserve the context and deeper meanings of scriptural passages as long as the text itself was not altered or lost.

Significance of Arabic Language

As Arabic is a Semitic language, it has the feature of being fully parsed. This feature means that sentences have specific meanings related to a defined context and emotion which can be understood through parsing.

Moreover, Arabic being fully parsed means it does not have completely similar synonyms. Each word, every terminology, and each sentence structure has a specific meaning which includes a certain context and emotion. Those features made the language ideal for communicating the values of Islam such that they could be preserved over time by preserving the language. Knowledge of the language itself is enough to understand the intention of the sentences with proper context.

Allah mentions in the Quran that the wisdom of using the Arabic language to reveal the final divine revelation message was due to its clarity of conveying understanding:

إِنَّا أَنزَلْنَاهُ قُرْآنًا عَرَبِيًّا لَّعَلَّكُمْ تَعْقِلُونَ

Verily, We have revealed it as an Arabic Quran that you may reason.

Surat Yusuf 12:2

And in another verse:

بِلِسَانٍ عَرَبِيٍّ مُّبِينٍ

In a clear Arabic language.

Surat Ash-Shu’ara 26:195

Furthermore, Allah mentions that the hidden details (or “deep structures” according to Chomsky’s theory) can only be extracted by those who have knowledge and understanding of the language.

كِتَابٌ فُصِّلَتْ آيَاتُهُ قُرْآنًا عَرَبِيًّا لِّقَوْمٍ يَعْلَمُونَ

It is a book whose verses have been detailed, an Arabic Quran for people with knowledge.

Surat Fussilat 41:3

Value of Parsing اعراب

Whereas the Arabic language is very powerful at relaying deep meanings, what we really want to highlight here is the extremism committed in the name of Islam by those who have a very superficial understanding of the language. In fact, there is an epidemic of illiteracy regarding classical Arabic and the interpretation of the Quran due to the neglect of parsing.

Decades of colonization followed by a lack of focus on proper education in Arabic has had a profound impact on how people understand the language. Communication in Arabic in modern times is much more related to the basic meanings of words used in a sentence and not their parsing. This means that the context and emotion is lost or misunderstood, especially when reading scripture and classical religious texts.

Another profound impact is the development of new Islamic cultures over the world that started to attribute meanings to words through established practices. For example, zakat is associated in people’s minds to the actions of spending part of ones wealth for charity, which is one of its meanings, but the deeper meaning of the word is growth, as zakat plays a vital role in economic development acting as a tide that lifts all boats. The deeper meaning of zakat is lost as the word is understood in relation to a set of practices, rather than its original linguistic connotation.

Another example is the word deen whose full meaning cannot be fully translated by a single word in English. In Arabic, the word conveys the idea of accountability to principles, while it is usually translated as “religion” or a set of beliefs. Many derivations of the word can be used to illuminate its core meaning, as in the saying:

البرُّ لا يَبلى والإثمُ لا يُنسَى والدَّيَّانُ لا يموتُ وَكُن كما شِئتَ كما تَدينُ تُدانُ

Righteousness will not perish, sin will not be forgotten, and the Creditor will never die. So be as you wish, for as you borrow you will be judged.

Here, God is referred to as “the Creditor” (Ad-Dayyan) so in the manner that you “borrow” (tadeen) you will be “judged” (tudaan). From this root we also get the words “debt” (dayn) and “the Day of Judgment” (yawm ud-deen). All of these meanings indicate that the word deen, commonly translated as religion, strongly implies accountability.

There is an important difference between deen and religion. Deen refers to holding a specific set of values and being accountable to them, whereas religion refers to a collection of beliefs that explain an order of existence. Accountability is not necessarily required in religion, but it is a requirement in the deen of Islam. What is more, the word “religion” carries with it a number of nuances due to its varied use in English which do not always apply to deen.

The examples here are related to the definitions of words by parsing them back to their roots. Deeper meanings in Arabic exist in advanced parsing, important meanings intended within the scripture. Ignorance of this fact can have catastrophic implications.

For example, in a verse that Allah asks the believers to hold their ground in the battlefield, the context in which this requirement is restricted to actual encounters in battlegrounds is communicated in the parsing of one word, fadarba:

فَإِذَا لَقِيتُمُ الَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا فَضَرْبَ الرِّقَابِ حَتَّىٰ إِذَا أَثْخَنتُمُوهُمْ فَشُدُّوا الْوَثَاقَ فَإِمَّا مَنًّا بَعْدُ وَإِمَّا فِدَاءً حَتَّىٰ تَضَعَ الْحَرْبُ أَوْزَارَهَا ۚ

So when you meet those who disbelieve (in battle), then strike their necks until, when you have routed them, then secure their bonds, and either confer favor afterwards or ransom them until the war lays down its burdens.

Surat Muhammad 47:3

A subtle parsing change in this word where it is changed from fadarba to fadarbu would change the meaning into requiring the believers to kill the disbelievers every time they meet them. Obviously that is not the correct interpretation, as Islam prohibits aggression and only allows fighting to defend the innocent. The subtle change of the word can lead to a completely opposite meaning, hence the importance of understanding the parsing of language.

The rise of extremist groups of Muslims in modern times coincides with the plague of unprecedented illiteracy in classical Arabic and its parsing among native Arabic speakers. Without an understanding of parsing, meanings are extracted by looking at words individually without the significance of their order, context, emotion, and subtleties. This poor level of understanding ignores the intended meanings which the language expresses through its natural deep structures.

Extremists rely upon various verses of the Quran and they preach emotionally to young people who are ignorant of the nuances in Arabic and the classical scholarly tradition, resulting in actions that violate the values of Islam. They prey upon sentiments and feelings which are unguided by knowledge and wisdom. This crisis must be remedied by approaching the Quran with a scholarly methodology, reason, sound logic, and knowledge of the Arabic language.

Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.