Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Foreign Vocabulary of the Quran

By Mansur Ali

With the rise of European colonialism of the Middle East, the West became greatly interested in the Orient. Edward Lane’s ‘Customs of 19th century modern Egypt’ is a good example of this. Colonialists discovered large amounts of manuscripts tucked away in boxes in mosques and other religious centers. This led to a deeper academic interest. Upon studying these manuscripts orientalist scholars felt that the Muslim method of source criticism to be unscientifc and unscholarly, therefore they decided to study the Qur’an using their own parameters and methods of inquiry taking their cue from social theories and methods of Biblical criticism. This was the turning point in the study of the Qur’an in the west, which is still carrying on today not only by Western scholars but also by Muslims, sometimes to their own peril, as Taha Hussain and Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid had found out.

There are many methods of Biblical study and social theories, which have been employed to understand the Qur’an. To name a few; (a) Historical sociology and psychology, (b) Structuralism, (c) Hermenutica sacra, (d) Anthropological method, (e) Feminism and the theory of liberation and (f) the Historical philological approach.[1]

The historical philological approach is a method of Biblical study, which is used to find the answers to ‘when’, ‘what’, ‘how’, and by who. In the study of the Qur’an this method will be used to find the answers to when the Qur’an was written, what were the stages by which it came into being, how did it reach us and by who was it written?[2]

The historical critic in his search for the truth will apply the following criticisms to the Qur’an: (a) Form, (b) Term, (c) Text and (d) Literary criticisms.

Form criticism is a complete historic reconstruction of the Qur’an. This will be done through bypassing all auxiliary and subsidiary disciplines such as Tafsir, Hadith and Fiqh. This is because the historical critic believes that Hadith and Tafsir are the product of a later generation, therefore they will not give us an accurate understanding of the Quran, rather the understanding of the Quran of a later generation.

Term criticism tends to find the implication a word had in the milieu that it was revealed in, and not what it means in the present. Text criticism finds answers to the question, ‘What were the earliest sources for the text?’ Again this is done by going directly to the Qur’an by working backwards. If two texts talk about the same subject, the historical critic sees it very necessary to establish a chronology of which text came first and which text came second. Literary criticism helps to determine anachronisms in a sentence.

In short it can be said that the historical critic is interested in the genesis of the text. The processes that the text went through are more important to them than the end product. It can be seen that this approach is diachronic in nature and not synchronic.[3]
Muslim scholars undertook the study of foreign vocabulary in the Qur’an, long before the Orientalists came unto the scene. The origin of this study stems from the claim of the Qur’an itself that it is a book written in pure Arabic (‘Arabiyyun mubin).[4] The tenth century scholar al-Suyuti (d.911) dedicated a whole monograph to this subject called ‘al-muhadhab fi ma waq‘a fi al-Qur’an min al-mu‘arrab’. He then summarized this book and included it as a chapter in his compendium of Quranic sciences called ‘al-Itqan fi ‘ulum al-Qur’an’.

The first modern orientalist to write on this subject was Aloys Sprenger, who came into contact with a lot of Arabic books, including al-Suyuti’s al-Itqan, whilst he was acting as a principal in the middle of the 19th century in a madrassa in Calcutta. Being a child of his time, Sprenger had a romantic streak in his study of Islam. He penned an article on the foreign vocabulary of the Quran, basing his article on al-Suyuti’s work. This article was published in the ‘Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal’ for 1852.[5] Another scholar by the name of S. Fraenkel followed suit in 1880. This was a more serious and detailed study.[6] Basing his article on the works of his predecessors, the great scholar Theodore Nöldeke wrote an essay on this subject for the 9th edition of the ‘Encyclopedia Britannica’ 1891.

Subsequent scholars who have dealt with this subject have generally adopted and reiterated the Sprenger- Nöldeke view. The most elaborate study in this field had been carried out by professor Arthur Jeffery, an early 20th century scholar of Semitic and Islamic studies.

Professor Jeffery studied at the University of Melbourne, Australia, where he attained his degrees (BA 1918, MA 1920) and a degree in theology (B.Th 1926). In 1929 he received his PhD from Edinburgh University and a D.litt in 1938.

He was a teacher at Madras Christian college in India, when a center for Oriental and Islamic studies was founded in Egypt called the ‘School of Oriental Studies’ (S.O.S), affiliated with the American University of Cairo. Part time missionary scholars such as Dr. Zweimer and Dr. Watson did much of the work at SOS. In addition to these part-time teachings, the school needed the services of a competent orientalist with professorial status. Dr. Jeffery was chosen for this job. He Left Cairo in 1938 to occupy the chair of Near Eastern and Middle Eastern languages at Columbia University. One of his major interest was the textual criticism of the Quran, which he carried out throughout his life. He has contributed many books on this subject. Just to name a few: The Quran as a scripture; the textual history of the Quran; A variant text of Fa>tih}a; the orthography of the Samarqad codex; Materials for the history of the text of the Quran and the Foreign vocabulary of the Quran.

What is the driving force behind this extensive and intensive study of the Quran? Badeau answers this for us by saying, “As a minister of the Methodist church, he was devoted to the missionary, enterprise and exemplified in his own life and interests a deep Christian concern. His Scholarship had a Christian purpose, for he believed that only by a pain staking and exacting study of the Islamic materials could that faith be understood and a Christian contribution made to these who followed it.”[7]

In the introduction to his book, ‘Foreign Vocabulary of the Quran’, Dr. Jeffery writes, “One of the few distinct impressions gleaned from a first perusal of the bewildering confusion of the Quran, is that of the amount of material therein which is borrowed from the great religions that were active in Arabia at the time when the Quran was in process of formation.”[8] One way that Jeffery goes about proving this contention is by tracing words back to its philological origin. He lists over 300 words. The proposition is that if a foreign word is found in the Quran, then this will prove; (a) that the Quran has contradicted itself by claiming to be in pure Arabic, and (b) “ We are able to estimate to some extent the influences which were working on Muhammad at various periods in his mission.”[9]

Jeffery builds up his argument by summarizing the facts that al-Suyti mentioned about the difference of opinions amongst Muslim scholars regarding foreign vocabulary in the Quran. He then produces a list of all the foreign languages that al-Suyuti mentioned which are found in the Quran. He dedicates the rest of the introduction in expanding on these languages. He comes to the conclusion that Muslim scholars were incompetent in their analysis of foreign words in the Quran, as they did not possess adequate knowledge of these languages, also Western scholars have found many more foreign words in the Quran than Muslim scholars have ever found. Jeffery writes that when Muslim scholars found non Arabic words in the Quran, of the origin of which they don’t have a clue, they cloak their ignorance by saying it is of Berber or Nabtaien origin.[10] He says, “As a general rule, the philologers were at their best when dealing with Persian words, a fact which may perhaps be explained by the Persian origin of so many of these savants themselves.”[11]
Coming from a methodological point of view, it seems that Dr. Jeffery did not stick strictly to this approach. It can be seen that in his form criticism he did not always go direct to the Qur’an. Sometimes he went direct whilst other times he used the ideas of other scholars who came before Al-Suyuti. At times he resorted to Sprenger and Nöldeke, but he mostly depended on al-Suyuti.
Text criticism is applied to find out which words and versus of the Qur’an are ideas which pre-dates Islam, and which are the spiritual property of Muhammad. In the words of Jeffery, “To ascertain whether an idea or expression was Muhammad’s spiritual property or borrowed from elsewhere, how he learnt it and to what extent was it altered to suit his purposes.”

The application of literary criticism is to find anachronism in Muslim scholars’ interpretation of the Qur’an. An example of this can be seen in Jeffery’s analyses of the word ‘taht’. He blames the Muslim scholars for twisting the meaning of Arabic words and making them into non-Arabic words so that it corroborates with a borrowed idea.

The word ‘taht’ in Sura 19:24 is a proper Arabic word meaning ‘beneath.’ Muslim scholars have interpreted it to mean ‘bat}n’ meaning womb. This is because there is a difference of opinion amongst the scholars as to who spoke, was it the babe or was it the angel Gabriel from the bottom of the hill, this gave rise to variant readings of verse 19:24. Is it in the genitive case (fa na daha min tahtiha), or is it a subject (fa na daha man tahtaha)? Muslim scholars saw in Biblical sources that it was the babe that spoke therefore they readily accepted this view and interpreted ‘taht’ as ‘batn.’ In order to justify themselves they branded the word to be of Ethiopic origin.
Professor Jeffery identifies the foreign vocabulary of the Quran to be of three distinct kind: (a) Words which are entirely non Arabic such as istabraq and namaariq, (b) Words which are of Semitic origin, but have become naturalized into Arabic, and (c) Words which are genuinely Arabic but have been influenced in their meaning by the use of cognate language.

Dr. Jeffery gives his view as to the reason why there are foreign words in the Quran. He makes two assumptions, the first being that the Quran reiterates over and over again that the religion of Muhammad was something new to the Arabs, therefore new words had to be introduced to explain the new ideas. The second assumption is in the words of Jeffery, “ Muhammad had a penchant for strange and mysterious sounding words, he loved to puzzle his audience with these new terms though he himself had not grasped correctly their meaning.” [12]

In my critique of Dr. Jeffery it could be said that excluding the proper names he mentioned, we are left with about 275 words about which Montgomery Watt says, “About three quarter of the words in this list can be shown to have been in use in Arabic before the time of Muhammad ... Of the remaining seventy or so, though there is no written evidence of their earlier use, it may well be true that they were already employed in speech”[13]

Dr. Jeffery assumes that the Quran again and again mentions that it has brought something new. I disagree with him because in my reading of the Quran, I have found that it repeatedly asserts that Islam is not a new concept, but rather it confirms the teaching of the previous Prophets, and the people of Arabia where familiar with it because of their contact with these people, as acknowledged by Dr. Jeffery. As for the redundancy of the Arabic language, it can be said that the foreign words are equivalent to one percent of the holy Quran. It is an established fact that the Quran in its Arabic is a literary masterpiece.
In conclusion I can say that professor Jeffery very skillfully traces the origins of words back to its roots. It shows that he has a good command over the Semitic languages, and his application of the historical critical approach is very scholarly. Jeffery’s book, in my opinion, is an appraisal and annotation of al-Suyuti’s work, and an extension of Sprenger and Nöldek’s work. Although it cannot claim originality it certainly is an excellent exhibition of the of historical phillological approach.


Published work

Ali, Mohar, The Quran and the Orientalists, pp. 305-313, Jamiyt Ihya Minhaj al-Sunna, Ipswich 2004

Jeffery, Arthur, Foreign Vocabulary of the Quran, Baroda, Oriental institute, 1938. Online print http://www.answering-islam.org.uk/books/jeffery/vocabulary/

John Barton, The Cambridge Companion to Biblical Interpretation

Khan, Muhsin, The interpretation of the meaning of the Noble Quran, Da>r al-sala>m publication, Riyadh

Al-Suyuti, Jalal al-din, al-Itqan fi ‘ulum al-Qur’an, pp. 271-287, Dar al-kutub al-‘ilmiyya, Beirut.


Arthur Jeffery-A Tribute, Moslem World, vol. 50 (1960) pp. 230-247

Unpublished work

Notes by Dr. Andreas Christmann on theories and the study of Islam.
[1] Taken from notes provided by Dr. Andreas Christmann
[2] John Barton, The Cambridge Companion to Biblical Interpretation, p. 9
[3] Taken from lecture delivered by Dr. Christmann on 10/02/2005
[4] cf. Surah 12:20, 14:4, 41:44
[5] J.A.S.B. 1852, pp. 109-144
[6] S. Fraenkel, De Vocabulis in Antiquis Arabum Carminibus et in Corno Pregrinis, Leiden, 1880
[7] Arthur Jeffery – A Tribute. Muslim World, vol. 50 (1960), pp. 230-247)
[8] Arthur Jeffery, Foreign Vocabulary of the Quran, p. 1, Baroda, Oriental institute, 1938, abbreviated after this is fvq.
[9] Fvq p. 2
[10] Ibid p. 31
[11] Ibid p. 32
[12] Ibid pp. 38-39
[13] Watt, Bell’s Introduction p.85, cited by Mohar Ali in The Quran and the Orientalists, p. 313

No comments: