The Qur'an's Pure Arabic and the Presence of Foreign Words




Ansar Al 'Adl




The allegation is as follows:

The Qur'an is PURE Arabic [16:103] but there are numerous foreign, non-Arabic words in it.

Verses in question:

16:103. And indeed We know that they (polytheists and pagans) say: "It is only a human being who teaches him (Muhammad)." The tongue of the man they refer to is foreign, while this (the Qur'ân) is a speech Arabeeyun mubeen.

1. This is simply an example of a mistranslation. The critics have incorrectly translated arabeeyun mubeen as 'pure arabic' when in reality it refers to clarity and eloquence, hence the phrase should be rendered as:

while this (the Qur'ân) is clear, eloquent Arabic speech.

In his explanation on this verse, Ibn Kathir Ad-Damishqi (d. 1372CE) writes in his renowned Tafsir Al-Qur'an Al-Azim:

(The tongue of the man they refer to is foreign, while this (the Qur'an) is a (in) clear Arabic tongue.) meaning, how could it be that this Qur'an with its eloquent style and perfect meanings, which is more perfect than any Book revealed to any previously sent Prophet, have been learnt from a foreigner who hardly speaks the language? No one with the slightest amount of common sense would say such a thing. (Tafsir Ibn Kathir, Abridged, Darussalam Publishers & Distributors, 2000, vol. 5, p. 528; More Detailed Quote from Ibn Kathir here)

Thus, this verse has nothing to do with etymology and the presence of foreign words in the Qur'an. It simply points out that the Qur'an cannot be attributed to a foreigner when it has been revealed in clear and eloquent arabic. To understand mubeen in a sense that negates words of foreign origin would be illogical in light of its context in other verses. For example, Allah says:

31:11 Such is the Creation of Allah. now show Me what is there that others besides Him have created: nay, but the Transgressors are in manifest error.

The phrase that has been rendered here as 'manifest error' is dalaalim mubeen. Hence, it it obvious that mubeen refers to something clear, especially in the sense that it is obvious. There is no doubt about it,whether it be about its origin, its implication for humanity, its laws, its guidance - it is all clear and straightforward. As Muhammad Asad writes about the word:

whereas this is Arabic speech, clear [in itself] and clearly showing the truth [of its source].

The participial adjective mubin may denote an attribute of the noun which it qualifies ("clear", "manifest", "obvious", etc.) as well as its function ("making clear" or "manifesting", i.e., the truth), either of which meanings is dictated by its context. In the consensus of authoritative opinion, both these meanings are comprised in the above instance; consequently, a compound phrase is necessary in order to render the term appropriately. (Asad, Message of the Qur'an, The Book Foundation 2003)

From the above discussion it becomes apparent that the critic's objection about foreign words is totally irrelevant to the verse. The verse simply points out the fact that the Qur'an is obviously in clear arabic, hence it cannot be attributed to a non-arab. Regarding the stunning eloquence of the Qur'an, non-Muslim writer John Naish says:

The Qur'an in its original Arabic dress has a seductive beauty and charm of its own Couched in concise and exalted style, its brief pregnant sentences, often rhymed, possess an expressive force and explosive energy which it is extremely difficult to convey by literal word for word translation. (John Naish, M. A. (Oxon), D. D., The Wisdom of the Qur'an (Oxford: 1937), preface viii.)

For more quotes on the eloquence of the Qur'an, please see here and here.

2. It should be noted that although the Qur'an has words of foreign origin in it, this does not detract from the purity of the language at all. Shaykh Muhammad Mohar Ali, a former Professor of the History of Islam at Madinah Islamic University, discusses such issues in detail in one of his recent works:

Ever since the middle of the nineteenth century orientalists have turned their attention to what they consider "foreign words" in the Qur'an. They indeed take their cue from the writings of the Muslim classical scholars and exegetes themselves who, in their eagerness for meticulous studies of all aspects of the Qur'an, paid attention also to the words and expressions in it that were adopted and naturalized in the Arabic language of words and expressions of non-Arabic origin.

...Al-Suyuti and others before him emphasize three important facts in this connection. First, Arabic, Ethiopic, Syriac and Aramaic are cognate languages and have a good number of words in common because of their common roots. Second, in the course of the Arabs' long contact with the outside world, especially in the course of their trade and commerce, a number of words of non-Arabic origin entered the language and were naturalized, these being considered part and parcel of the Arabic language. Third, in the course of such adoption and naturalization the forms as well as the original meanings of the words underwent some modifications and changes.

These facts are common in respect to all languages. So far as Arabic is concerned, however, the first mentioned fact may be a little more elaborated. Arabic, Aramaic, Syriac and Hebrew are all Semitic languages and all had the same origin... The later Arabic language developed out of this original Arabic-Aramaic language. It is because of this fact that all the above mentioned languages have a number of words and expressions in common, though their senses and connotations have undergone changes due to the influences of time and locality. At the time the Qur'an came down, a number of words of these cognate languages as well as languages of the neigbouring peoples had been naturalized in the Arabic language and were regarded as part and parcel of the standard and literary Arabic (al-'arabiy al-mubin). The occurrence of such words and expressions in the Qur'an is thus quite natural because it was sent down in the language of its immediate audience, the Arabs.

...The Qur'anic ayah (16:103)...very strongly rebuts the same allegation of instruction by some person made by the Makkan unbelievers and points out that the language of the individual hinted at was "foreign" ('a'jami), i.e. not Arabic. ...The literary Arabic of the time was very developed and expressive; and a passage of the Qur'an which does not contain any of the alleged "foreign" words is as much a masterpiece of composition as any other passage.
(M. M. Ali, The Qur'an and The Orientalists, Jam'iyat 'Ihyaa' Minhaaj Al-Sunnah 2004, pp. 305-306, 308, emphasis added)

In his above discussion on foreign words in the Qur'an, Shaykh M. Mohar Ali makes several important points. First, he points out that it is a characteristic of languages that they borrow extensively, and even entirely, from previous dialects, yet this in no way detracts from the purity of the language. He states that the foreign words become "part and parcel" of the language, which maintains the status of arabeeyin mubeen. He also points out that all these foreign words had already been accepted as part of the arabic language prior to Qur'anic revelation. In fact, Shaykh Mohar Ali continues by discussing the research on foreign words by Arthur Jeffery:

In fact Jeffery's researches go to show that the words he identifies as of foreign origin had actually been naturalized and become regular Arabic words before they came to be used in the Qur'an. He lists some 275 such words other than proper names. "About three quarters of the words in this list", as Watt points out, "can be shown to have been in use in Arabic before the time of Muhammad, ... Of the remaining 70 or so, though there is no written evidence of their earlier use, it may well be true that they were already employed in speech..." (fn. Watt, bell's Introduction etc., op. cit., p. 85). And in view of the fact that Arabic, Syriac, Ethiopic, Hebrew or Jewish Aramaic are cognate Semitic languages having common origin in the original Arabic-Aramaic mentioned above, they have many words in common and also similar forms. It is thus difficult in many cases to say which of such common words is derived from which of these languages. (M. M. Ali, The Qur'an and The Orientalists, Jam'iyat 'Ihyaa' Minhaaj Al-Sunnah 2004, p. 313)

Thus, these "foreign" words had already been integrated into the arabic language and were accepted as part of pure literary arabic. This notion is expressed accurately by Moiz Amjad as follows:

it is not the lack of words borrowed from other languages that makes good and pure literature, but the clarity and the purity of the dialect. In fact, words of foreign-origin, when adopted by the literati of a language, become a part of that language. The Qur'an, in the referred verse has indeed stressed the clarity and the purity of the dialect to refute the allegation of the rejecters that a non-Arab has forged the Qur'an. Nevertheless, the fact that some of the words of the Qur'an are of a foreign-origin does not refute the purity of the Qur'anic Arabic, unless it is proven that such words had not already been adopted by the Arabs in there speech and/or literature.

Obviously, the clarity and the style of the language of "Julius Caesar" is a clear evidence of the fact that its writer has a classical English background. The mere fact that 'Caesar' is a word of Roman (?) origin does not make Shakespeare any less an English writer. In fact, if any one criticizes Shakespeare for not using 'emperor' or 'ruler' (or any other pure English synonym for 'Caesar') in place of 'Caesar', to make it pure English, such a person not only has no sense of literature but is not even aware of the fact that the word 'Caesar' was used in the English language not merely to imply 'ruler' or 'emperor', but as a title for the Roman emperors.

Exactly in the same manner, any one who thinks that the Qur'an has used any foreign words actually is mistaken by the fact that some of the words in the Qur'an have a foreign-origin. Nevertheless, the Qur'an has used only such foreign-origin words, which had not only been introduced in the Arabic language but were also commonly used by the Arabs. Thus, it should be kept in mind that it is not the origin of words used by a literature, that effects the purity or otherwise of that literature. On the contrary, it is whether such words of foreign-origin have been adopted in the language or not. If such words have generally been adopted as a part of the language, usage of such words would not affect the purity of the language or the dialect.

In light of the above explanation, it should be clear that the Qur'an is still considered pure arabic inspite of the fact that Arabic borrows, as all languages do, extensivley from previous dialects and languages.

In conclusion, there is no contradiction in verse 16:103 as it points towards the fact that the Qur'an is clear and eloquent arabic speech that cannot be mistaken for any other language. The Qur'an is clear in its source, its wordings, its laws and its commands.




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