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Shi'a Pundit

Devoted to the viewpoint of Islam of Muhammad SAW and Amir ul-Mumineen, Ali ibn Abi Talib SA, in the Shi'a Fatimi Ismaili Dawoodi Bohra tradition.

July 20, 2002

The special qualities of Arabic.

H.D. Miller has a lengthy post inspired by my recent piece on translations (and subsequent commentary on Ideofact).

He brilliantly describes the complexity of the Arabic language. He starts with a great quote by Joel Carmichael in his book, The Shaping of the Arabs: "Arabic loses on translation but all other languages gain on being translated into Arabic"

He then goes on to say:

individual Arabic words are formed from simple three letter roots. To these simple roots suffixes, prefixes, and infixes are added, and vowels are changed to produce a large number of individual words which have, either actually or metaphorically, meanings somehow related to the idea behind the simple root. For example, the Arabic root k-t-b is expressed as a verbal infinitive as kataba, meaning "to write". From that basic root we can then get the words kitab "book", kAtib "writer", maktUb "written" (with a metaphorical meaning of "predestined"), maktab "office", maktaba "library", makAtaba "correspondence", kutubi "bookseller", kuttAb "elementary school", istiktAb "dictation", makAtib "correspondent" or "reporter", muktatib "subscriber", and about a hundred more variations all produced from that original three letter root.
All of the words springing from the triliteral root k-t-b have that similar three letter sound to bind them together, which means that each of the words shaped from the root, when spoken, are capable of evoking any of the other words shaped from that same root... To the native speaker all of these various meanings resonate at either the conscious or unconscious level.

The richness and suppleness of the language and the way it lent itself to the most magnificent and evocative poetry, coupled with the way the Qur'an bound religion and language tightly together, meant that for the Muslims of the Classical era grammar was one of the greatest of their sciences. Medieval Muslim grammarians studied their own language with an intensity we reserve for partical physics and professional football. ...They even invented semiotics a full thousand years before Charles Pierce and Ferdinand de Saussure figured it out anew from scratch.

Of course, it's an element of my faith that Arabic was nurtured to this level of richness and complexity for the single purpose of serving as the language of the Qur'an. But even non-Shi'a non-Muslims can and have acknowledged this richness and complexity without having to necessarily believe in a divine origin to it. To each his own :) However, the vary nature of the Arabic language should itself be the first warning against strict, fundamentalist, literal readings of the Qur'an. Anyone claiming that there is zero esoteric, figurative, or symbolic content in the words of the Qur'an, whether they believe it to be of divine origin or not, is grotesquely ignorant.

I have to thank H.D for writing his piece - it's clear his knowledge of Arabic far outstrips mine. I do have to take exception with his minor assertion that:

'Ali was murdered in 661 CE, before the nuqat, the dots, were added to the Arabic script. They're an invention of a grammarian named al-Thaqafi in the first decades of the 8th century. So, there's no way 'Ali could have spent an evening boring his dinner guests with grammatical small talk.

I have asked H.D. to provide a source reference for this claim, but I am quite certain of its authenticity since the anecdote mentioned therein is extremely well-documented in the Shi'a oral tradition. There is often a bias against oral traditions in Western cultures, assuming that the printed word is superior to the spoken one. But I personally know at least four people in my community who have the entire text of the Qur'an committed to memory (we call such people by the honorific, Hafiz al-Qur'an). In fact the written word is just as subject to manipulation and alteration as the spoken one. And in cultures with strong oral traditions, a great deal of discipline surrounds memorization and propagation of these works of history and literature, such as the anecdote of Ali AS discussing the nuqta.

The bottom line is, I trust an oral tradition over a written record when it comes to Eastern works of literature or history. I trust the written word over the oral tradition when it comes to Western works of literature or history. Just as I don't put much stock in a Western historian's claim about Ali AS, I would not bother with someone in the streets of Cairo offerring to recite Shakespeare!

I'm also bound to point out that when Ali AS spoke on religion, it was never small talk. Even the usurping caliphs deferred to Ali's AS judgement in recognition of Ali's rightful position as the "gate to the City of Knowledge". Ali AS had enormous responsibility to ensure that Islam as delivered by the Prophet SAW survived in the face of the innovation and manipulation of the Ummaiyads, and so never wasted an opportunity to educate his followers. It would have been a sublime honor indeed to have received his knowledge first hand.

(I fully realise that Howard did not intend to denigrate Ali AS, nor do I mean to imply that Howard is uaware of the difference between oral and writtem traditions. This is my blog, I only write about the thoughts that go through my brain. I'm still not convinced anyone reads it besides my mom, and I'm not all that sure she does, either! I'm not trying to prove anyone wrong or propagate a point of view. I'm just putting thoughts to keyboard.)

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Nahj-ul Balagha

About Shi'a Pundit

Shi'a Pundit was launched in 2002 during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. The blog focuses on issues pertaining to Shi'a Islam in the west and in the Islamic world. The author is a member of the Dawoodi Bohra Muslim community. Bohras adhere to the Shi'a Fatimi tradition of Islam, headed by the 52nd Dai al-Mutlaq, Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin (TUS).

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