Why I Study Language

The din of Islam is a Way of living that organizes a deep structure of social justice. This is well known and well discussed amongst Islamic circles. Also well known: what is offered is a social justice, not limited by human ignorance, but ordered by the Divine, a manifestation of an order similarly manifested in the order of nature and thus perfectly in line with the real workings of the world. Because of this truth, we say that when the laws and definitions of Revelation are put into proper practice, their inherent function (a function rooted in tawhid) can in fact actualize, and can flourish. While this may be an ideal considering the many confines of the human condition, it is an essential ideal for the proper management of mankind, on both individual and societal levels. And it is an ideal that has historically produced real (with all of its human flaws) and exemplary models.

And when we look to the highest archetype of that ideal, that of the blessed city of the Prophet (peace be upon him), we have to ask ourselves- what were the means by which the tawhid of that city was achieved?

Of course it stems primarily from the Mercy of God. He says in His Book “It is He Who supports thee with His Help, and the believers and joined their hearts” (8:62-63)[i]. Clearly the unity of the initial community was a decree and an expression of God’s love. Yet when we look at the root structure of the word translated here as ‘joined’, namely alif, lam, fa, we start to see a bigger picture unfold. This root holds many meanings axial to the general creation of unity, the composition of a harmonic structure and neat order. It holds, as well, shades of a purely societal composition, formed via the acquaintance of often-diverse peoples that is a direct result of conversation and intimacy. This is made profoundly evident in the semantic-field[ii] of the (now famous) form II verbal noun: ta’leef, i.e. the composition of a whole, both linguistic and social. The hearts of the Hejaz were literally written together.

And while the holy articulation of God’s speech is never limited, a particular aspect of the revolutionary function (and I mean revolutionary in the deepest sense of the word) is revealed upon consideration of this ayat. God unambiguously affirms multiple times throughout the Qur’an that He has revealed His book in a plain Arabic tongue. He was (to say the least) well aware of His audience, i.e. the supremely eloquent and poetic Bedouin tribes of the Arabian Peninsula. Theirs was a language almost infinitely rich in metaphorical beauty and semantic nuance. Any student of Arabic is constantly reminded of this fact. Yet the cultural manifestations of this language were, despite the potentiality, often oppositional to the true growth and health of a society. This was a community divided into proud and bickering tribes, and the poetry and oral traditions became a place of competition, potential violence, and a deep locus of miscommunication; contradictions of what should be desired results.

Yet it was in the midst of this community that God revealed the Arab language to be a language that could, in the words of Dr. Timothy Winter, “reshape the crude materialistic egotism of the pagan nomad…[whereby] barely twenty years later [the Arabian Peninsula became] a unified nation led by saints.”[iii] He revealed the potentiality of a language as a vehicle of the Divine. And it is at this level of language that an aspect revolution of the Qur’an can be most clearly recognized. Yet how was this success realized? I wrote in one of my reflection papers for class that: “The Qur’an united the disparate vocabulary of the pre-Islamic Arabs just as it united their hearts. “The words themselves were in current use in the 7th century [Arabia]… only, they belonged in different conceptual systems. Islam brought them together; combined them all in an entirely new hitherto unknown conceptual system.”[iv] Words, common to the every day speech of this desert population, were ordered in such a way as to give them their ‘proper place’, arranging the language with such refinement that it produced a symphony of meaning whose reverberations have not diminished in the slightest 1,400 years on. Meanings were brought into contact in ways unimaginable and yet strikingly clear to its audience. A conceptual system was set forth which permeated, in varying degrees, traces of its ultimate significance (God) unto every single word within its hierarchy. By this, the language of the Arabs became the sacred language of both a religion and a civilization.”

Of course I will continue to highlight that this was only an aspect of what was produced and resoundingly achieved. But it is an aspect that must be stressed. So why do I study language? Because I firmly believe this to be a corner of the Qur’anic revolution that is both timely and necessary as we move forward in this modern age.

As I stated at the beginning, Islam is a Way deeply rooted in social justice, and there is always a lot of talk about social justice. But how often do we take the time to stop and think about the actual linguistic structures operating within that talk? While we are blessed to have access to the sacred language of our book, we live and speak in a world in which the sacred has been marginalized. The underlying framework of much of our discussion is, on the semantic level, an anathema to the results we seek. The way one views the world is intimately connected to the concepts by which one explains that world, and many of the concepts we use are so vague and empty that advertising companies politicians have easily taken the task of arranging their meaning, leading us (as a whole) towards a state of cultural enslavement. And while we, the Islamic community, often have the best of intentions, how can we imagine speaking with and moving forward in a community, the larger, non-Islamic community, that hears and understands a completely different word then what we may intend?

The Qur’an didn’t erase the language of the Arabs; it re-structured it from the inside out, by arranging its field of meaning in a pattern truly Divine. This resulted in a language that was absolutely precise, Divinely precise, and thus a communication that was real and supported real progress. I believe it to be absolutely inhibiting to move forward discussing problems- be they political, theological, philosophical or what have you- if we do not establish a clear understanding of the internal structures of the language that we use.

Finally, if we are going to look for solutions in a world that is literally worlds apart (and looking for solutions in that world is essential), we need to have a clear understanding of how language functioned in both societies. The social, theological and philosophical achievements of the first 1200 or so years of Islamic civilization were operating under a particular semantic worldview that facilitated the particular results of those discussions. We cannot and should not ignore those results, but in order to adopt them we must know the linguistic structure by which we operate, and through which we can give justice to our tradition. Ignoring this, and all of that talk about social justice will end up in one ear, and out the other.

[i] Translation from The Study Quran

[ii] When examined as a whole or amongst its parts, a language produces what Toshihiko Iztustu termed a ‘semantic-field (or fields)’ or the structure of relationships between individual words in the production of meaning.

[iii] Murad, Sheikh Abdul Hakim. “Seeing With Both Eyes” http://www.masud.co.uk/ISLAM/ahm/cardiff.htm

[iv] Itzutsu, Toshihiko, God and Man in the Qur’an: Semantics of the Qur’anic Weltanschauung. Pakistan; Royal Book Company, 2002. Pg. 5

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