Multiplicity of the Text

Sami Al - Daghistani

Multiplicity of the Text: History of the Arabic language and the humanistic approach of the Qur’an



Arabic language has had a vibrant history. It has been taken on in many areas in the Hijaz, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria and many other places, and the history of Arabic is still explained by various scholars in various ways. Since this paper does not aim to address the history of grammatical features of the Arabic language, but rather the so called “humanistic approach” to the Qur’an through the utilization of the Arabic language as asserted by Nasr Abu Zayd, this paper examines the means of communication or the code of the Qur’an and its linguistic system. There is abundance of literature on the history and development of Semitic and Arabic languages. The so called humanistic approach examines the Qur’anic text by addressing the Arabic language as a human language (i.e. operated by humans and thus differing from the revealed language as such) for Muslims revealed in a specific cultural frame. This theory was coined by the aforementioned scholar who aimed at perceiving this language through its specific text-context relation.

In this paper I would thus like to inquire the interpretation of the Qur’an not only through the history of the Arabic language but also through the Abu Zayd’s theory of the Arabic language as a human language, that is, despite being a revealed language it is understood by humans. The main field of inquiry is thus the contemporary theory of the “humanistic approach” to the Qur’an asserted by Nasr Hamdi Abu Zayd, a pioneer in this field, who had tried to inquire the Arabic language of the Qur’anic text as a product of human endeavours, despite the fact that is by Muslims perceived as revealed. Therefore I would like to investigate the literary reading of the Qur’an within Abu Zayd’s approach, by invoking the development of the Arabic language and focusing on Qu’ranic hermeneutics to understand type of philological and especially historical knowledge in relation to the human reception of the Qur’anic text. The Qur’anic hermeneutics is crucial part of the understanding the nature of the Arabic language from as seen by Abu Zayd. 

For my research I will resort mostly to the primary literature of Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd’s humanistic reading and hermeneutics of the Qur’anic code (which is according to Abu Zayd a mode of communication or rather a linguistic system), literature on the history and development of Arabic language, accompanied by primary literature of Sibaweih and the following contemporary scholars: to explain and support the thesis I will resort to A. Neuwirth and T. Bauer, whereas the texts of M. Zwettler, K. Versteegh, Rabin, Luxemburg, M. Macdonald, and O. Jonathan will serve as a reference literature for chapter on the development of the Arabic language.

The first chapter provides an overview of the linguistic map of the Arabic language, different dialects, as well as the position of proto-Semitic language in relation to Arabic (however, this paper will not address theories thereof). The second chapter commences with the historical positioning of the Qur’an, the examination of the process of standardization of the Arabic language, and the so called poetic koine of the Arabic language. For more detailed explanation of the multiplicity of the Qur’an, various readings (understandings) are briefly introduced. The third chapter presents the gist of the Abu Zayd’s theory and thus examines the writings of Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd (d. 2010) on the humanistic approach of the Qur’an. This chapter focuses on the hermeneutics of the Qur’an as a literary text and a cultural product of particular social reality, as well as on the linguistic link (relation) between the Qur’an and its receivers – theologically, the whole of human kind, whilst practically, the linguistic community of that specific area (innā anzalnāhu qur’ānan ‘arabiyyan la’allakum ta’qilūn) humankind. I will elaborate on the literary accounts and interpretation of Arabic through the light of the Qur’an and the abovementioned contemporary scholars. This section will address the mode of communication of the Qur’an by analyzing the process of revelation (in vertical sense, i.e. Allah – Gabriel – Muhammad – humankind) as means of communication between the eloquent language of the Text and the various ways of interpretation. The paper draws the conclusion of the Arabic language as the linguistic tool for the humanistic approach of the Qur’an, revealed as a human language in a specific cultural and social realm.


1. Linguistic map of Ancient Arabia and proto-Semitic language scheme


Closer look at the linguistic map of Arabic language indicates that the pre-Islamic Arabic adapted various dialects and scripts. According to Macdonald there were two parallel alphabetical traditions in the Levant area, namely Phoenico-Aramaic and South Semitic script family.1 It is important to distinguish between languages and scripts, since any script can be used to express any language. Macdonald states that Ancient North Arabian (henceforth ANA) includes multiple dialects such as Taymanitic, Dadanitic, as well as Safaitic, Hismaic, and Thamudic.2 Specific languages such as Sabaic, Nabataean, Greek, as well as Aramaeo-Arabic and other “mixed scripts” appear. Pursuing this further, old Arabic existed together with Ancient South Arabian, and it was probably spoken language, which does not presuppose that the society was illiterate, but it rather pinpoints that it did not have a dedicated script for this specific language, and that its speakers wrote in other idioms. Apart from the old Arabic and ASA, the written epigraphy indicates the existence of other registers and sub-languages. As from the rise of Islam, so called Middle Arabic, Classical Arabic, Modern Standard Arabic, and spoken Arabic dialects evolved due to various historical, linguistic as well as political factors. Whilst writing was in early Islamic centuries used for practical purposes, religious and literary material was transmitted only orally.

The linguistic Sprachraum is characterized by various umbrella-languages such as ANA, and Old Arabic. The Qaryat al Fa’w inscription dating back to 1st century B.C. was written in Sabaean script, whereas ‘En ‘Avdat inscription was written in Nabataean script from 88-126 A.D. in which four lines in Aramaic appear. Furthermore, Namara inscription A.D. 328 also written in Nabataean script differs from the Classical Arabic, despite some common features (e.g. the definite article al).3 

The epigraphy of pre-Islamic Arabia reveals that Arabic script was not used for commercial writings and commissioning but mostly for record keeping on soft materials which decayed with time. Texts written in Nabataean, Aramaic, Greek can be found. 4 The lingua franca in the Arabian Peninsula was in pre-Islamic times Aramaic, whilst in it early stages Arabic was disseminated mostly through urban areas and military centres (Medina, Damascus).5 Versteegh presupposes that before the advent of Islam in the Arabian Peninsula, its inhabitants followed nomadic life, although the term “Arab” might not relate only to Bedouins, but to the common use of language and generally to the inhabitants of Arabia. Not before 680 A.D. Arabic became prevalent language of the region also due to Islamic conquests, trade routs, and especially due to the Abdu al Malik’s decree making Arabic the administrative language of the Umayyad empire6, even though the term “Arab” does not relate only to the language present in the Arabian Peninsula, as the textual evidences might pinpoint.

To further look into this a brief overview of Prot-Semitic language scheme is necessary. Proto-Semitic language relates to the historical descent from a common origin and it is regarded as the common ancestor of all the languages in the group, of which Arabic is one of the Semitic languages.7 Certain features that do not appear in Arabic exist in other dialects. For instance, Western Semitic dialects (MSA, North-West Semitic, ASA, ANA) lost present tense form; broken plurals were present as well as predictable suffixes.8 Even though Versteegh claims that Arabic was developed in this process of “nomadisation” or “bedouinisation” of the language,9 there are no (primary) sources which would serve as evidences for such claim, relating to the etymology of the terms. One of the most important stages of Arabic was Qur’anic Arabic and its intrinsic message it transmitted. In relation to this, pre-Islamic poetry played a crucial role in the establishment of the eloquent or “correct speech”, which was studied and examined in relation to Arabic.10


2. The Qur’an, different readings thereof, and the historical position of the Classical Arabic


According to Martin Zammit the Qur’anic text relates to the Arabian tradition of the people of ‘Ad who inhabited the southern Arabia, even though there are no scriptural evidences for such a claim. Zammit goes further in his claim that in the Ancient Arabia i.e. pre-Islamic Arabia the first attestation of what is Arabic language was found in South Arabian script in south-east Syria, dating back to 4th B.C. However, apart from misrepresenting Safaitic as Arabic, dating such script to an accurate date is an uneasy task which ought to be based on various factual evidences which are not provided by Zammit.11

There are several dialects in the Arabian Peninsula from which classical Arabic might have evolved e.g. Mecca, Medina, Yemen, Hijaz, Najd, Tihama. The hypothesis that Classical Arabic developed from the Bedouins in the Najd area and Yemen is reckoned by most contemporary scholars.12 Arabic spoken by the nomads was the norm of the correct language utilization, however, it is not specified what the tool of measurement of this “correct” language was. Old poems were uttered in classical Arabic as well as in several Najdi dialects.13 Nomad Arabs spoke so called “correct” Arabic, however classical Arabic was never spoken in the form as we know it as Modern Standard Arabic, since different pronunciation of the letters occur.14

If the classical Arabic was based upon the speakers of the Najd and Yamama the Qur’an was composed in popular Arabic at that time, due to the influence of the poets’ language. From the literary point of view, Arabic was identical with the spoken language of the Bedouin tribes, which further indicates that the Arab nomad was “final arbiter of correct Arabic”, as asserted by Rabin. However, this does not inevitably indicate that the Qur’anic text is identical to the language of the nomad tribes. By examining the Qur’anic consonantal text we ought to consider Syro-Aramaic as well as Hebrew language. As shown by Arab lexicographers and various contemporary scholars e.g. Rabin, Versteegh15 Qur’anic Arabic has some borrowings from Greek, Persian, Ethiopic and Aramaic dialects. Aramaic writes from left to right, and contains semi-long vowels. According to Luxemburg Qur’anic loan words pinpoint the similarity with Aramaic due to long vowels, which for him along with other features makes the Qur’an an Aramaic text.16 Luxembourg argues that the common features between Aramaic and Arabic indicates that the language of Qur’an is actually a modified version of Aramaic language. However, if there was Syro-Aramaic grammar and no Arabic grammar at that time, can we indeed ascribe these peculiarities of the Qur’an to a particular language which cannot be fully detected before that period? Even if Qur’an combines Arabic and Aramaic this still does not mean that the Qur’anic grammar is Syro-Aramaic.

It is believed by Zwettler that the Qur’an was revealed into the co called ‘arabiyya, the linguistic form that was very similar to the language used for the pre-Islamic poetry, which later on played a pivotal role in the process of standardizing of Arabic,17 however, the later Islamic theologians and mufassirūn have focused more on the notion of the Arabic language in relation to the nature of the revelation pertaining to the notion of al’ijāza al Qur’an. This so called “koineization” process tends to neglect certain dialectical features of a language by regularizing the language. Arabic grammarians have examined the element of tanwīn suffixes (-un, –in, –an) as well as other linguistic feature to compare the language of the Qur’an to the language of the poetry, also related to rhyme, whilst prose was characterized on the basis of consonants or long vowels.18 Qur’an as the Hochsprache might diverge from the factual pronunciation, since the Qur’anic orthography includes some colloquial features (e.g. nunation, glottal stop). Fück states that the language of the Prophet Muhammad differed from the language of the Qu’ran and that of Arabs19 however, if the Qur’an was composed using certain linguistic features of the ‘arabiyya, and if the Prophet received the revelation as stated by Abu Zayd, the language, despite being human language, could not have been that different. Even though the ‘arabiyya does not resemble the spoken dialect of the Bedouins (Spitaler, Wehr)20, exactly due to its artistic Hochsprache it becomes unique compared to the eloquent utterance by poets.

Cooper defines language spread as “an increase over time in proportion of a communicative network that adopts a given language or language variety for a given communicative function”.21 Researchers argue that Modern Arab dialects descend from the Classical Arabic.22 Different dialects of Arabic existed in pre-Islamic times, and the so called Classical Arabic language or ‘arabiyya of the grammarians was based on the standard poetic language which however might not have been identical with those dialects. Whereas the poets used ‘arabiyya orally, the vast majority of population did not have access to it. In the course of time ‘arabiyya was officially recognized as the language of Islam and became codified by the grammarians.23

 According to Ferguson it has been phonetically and morphologically preserved until modern times, even though that it had diverged from this standard. Linguists whoever believed that the koine existed prior to the Arab-Muslim conquests and developed along with the expansion foremost in cities and urban culture, intermingling different dialects.

The Islamic lexicographers were interested in dialect words (specific expression present in the various dialects) and not only in that what have occurred in the pre-Islamic poetry. Most sources they investigate, use so called “correct or elegant Arabic”. The intellectual engagement of the early Muslims stems from their examination of and devotion to the Qur’anic text.24 There was no necessity for an early establishment of the system of i‘rāb  or vowel-marks or diacritical marks as long as the memory and writing of the Qur’anic text was adequate, however abu al Aswad (d. 688-89) noticed that the consonantal text might evoke incorrect reading of the unmarked vowels.25 This was not to preserve the purity of the Qur’an “as to make the ordinary speech conform to the standards of its idiom”.26 Since the inspiration for Arabic grammar and the scientific observation of the laws of the language steams from religious sentiment, the preservation of the Qur’an resulted in the formation of the institution and disciplines to examine the peculiarities of the language and later on developed through alarabiyya into al naḥw. The first Arabic lexicon is believed to be Kitāb al ‘Ain by al Khalīl (d. 786-791) who reduced all words to their roots and classified them.27 The practice of recitation of the Qur’an bears significance to al Khalīl’s phonetico-physiological system, since his next attention was disentanglement of the system of phonology.

Word “lugha” has several meanings: 1. speech, 2. ordinary usage of language, 3. Classical Arabic language, 4. a dialect, 5. a word, 6. permissible alternative expression, etc.28 Standardizing language would mean following one particular set of rules. Language standardization is a process in which a language becomes accepted throughout a community29, and we can assume that the Arab grammarians’ aim was to standardize the Arabic language (e.g. Sibaweih) and not to detect the language of the Qur’an per se. Nonetheless, the question how to read it “correctly” remains according to tradition or modern linguistics a rather puzzled task. Reckoning the divisions of Arabic (e.g. hamza, tanwin, syllable structure etc.) the classical or standardized Arabic (fuṣha) does not relate or reflect the poetic koine or the language of the pre-Islamic poetry. Taken the idea of language as a continuous flow and development, it ought not to be perceived as an closed entity. If from old Arabic through classical, middle and neo-Arabic, some sort of corruption (by speaker introducing their dialectical feature and thus distancing form the standardized form) of the language occurred, modern Arabic dialects differ from the standard language for a specific reason.30

Qur’an as the Islamic canonical text tends to reaches beyond historical timeline, even though, it has been the subject of the re-historicisation process within the academic circles.31 The third caliph ‘Uthmān (d. 656) gave the initiative to compile the Qur’an into a book called muṣḥaf 32with diacritical dots and vocalisation signs, a text which was before transmitted mostly orally. The ‘Uthmānic text became the basis for Islamic religious teachings.

The Qur’an and the pre-Islamic poetry had played a crucial role in the standardization of the Arabic language. Qur’anic message through its code of communication with humankind contributed toward the codification of the Qur’an by generating orthography of Arabic script as well as the expansion of the Arabic lexica.33 The language of the Qur’an gained its prominent status in the ‘Abbasid period.  The purity of the Arabic language should not be confused with the claims asserting that there are no loanwords in the Qur’an, but the lucid message of the importance of the (Arabic) language it tends to portray. Arab linguists had standardized and codified the Arabic language34, however, it managed to preserve its flexibility for new terms, categories and modern expressions out of already asserted word-roots. Arab linguists collected ambiguous terms and study their linguistic means of multiple meanings.35

There are 7 official readings of the Qur’an pertaining to different qiraāt (tartīl and tajwīd) forms, or as the great Islamic historian calls it sab‘at aḥruf.36 The consonantal script is therefore accompanied by the different reading traditions. The Prophet Muhammad who uttered one meaning when transmitting the Qur’anic verses, and yet permitted numerous interpretations, spoke the dialect of the Quraysh tribe. It is believed that the Quraysh dialect was the most literary language as the account of Ibn Aris (d. 1005) indicates, clearly stating that the usage of their eloquent speech “is the one to be followed”.37 Different reading traditions refer to different dialects or pronunciation of Arabic letters.

Due to the fact that reading traditions lack consistency and coherence, it is wrong to assume that they represent one (unique) spoken dialects, whilst the consonantal Qur’anic text appears consistent, since its grammar is systematic. Short vowels deletion in the Qur’an appears in the spelling and this relates to the form of how it was heard in that period of 7th century. Spelling has thus reality in the spoken language (dialect), although it was read as high classical Arabic. There is, however, a disconnect between the Text and the later reading traditions, and as we will see later, Abu Zayd proposes several literary accounts through which the Qur’anic text can be interpreted.


3. The literary language of the Qur’an and the humanistic approach


Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd (1943 Tanta – 2010 Cairo) was a prominent Egyptian scholar of Islam, who due to his liberal and revolutionary ideas was expelled from his country. Eventually he came to teach at Leiden and Utrecht University in 1995. Abu Zayd died in unknown circumstances, being infected by an unknown virus during a visit in Indonesia.

Abu Zayd’s approach to the Qur’an relates specifically to the “humanistic hermeneutics” by invoking the human-oriented interpretation of the Qur’an, shifting the emphasis from strictly theological-transcendent to more humanistic domain.38 If the literary text is a product of human imagination, the Qur’an as the Word of God is somewhat incompatible with this reasoning. Owens Jonathan argues that the Arabic language has two histories, one pertaining to the literary account whilst the other to the so called holistic language39, which might add to Abu Zayd’s theory of Qur’an as a literary phenomenon. Literary Arabic was developed in the 8th and 9th century A.D. extracting from the Qur’anic canon, pre-Islamic poetry, endeavours of the Arabic grammarians e.g. Sibawaih (d. 793) and Farrā (d. 822), as well Qur’anic commentators e.g. al Ṭabarī (d. 923), Ibn Mujahid (d. 936). This implies that these fields should be taken into account for a thorough examination of the topic. On the other hand, the “holistic language” or Gesammtsprache, according to Fleischer covers different variations of Arabic, and it can be divided into three subgroups, namely Old, Middle, and Neo-Arabic.40

Abu Zayd followed Russian linguist Jurij Lotman (d. 1993) who asserted that art was “a special means of communication, a language organized in a particular manner”.41 This presupposes that the information in the work of art is transmitted through a specific system of signs. Moreover, the Qur’an as a form of literature might insinuate that it was written before its factual composure, as upheld by Abu Zayd.42 The term nassa (to elevate) in Islamic studies and in Islamic jurisprudence pertains to the Qur’anic term which does not need any explanation since it is itself explicit enough.43 The word nass in contemporary Arabic relates to the term “text”. Word nass can thus relate to one specific meaning as well as to the whole of Qur’anic text. Abu Zaid as the contemporary Mu‘tazilite thinker (of rational approach to Islamic sciences) maintains that the Speech of God – the Qur’an – has been the gist of confrontations since the 9th century A.D. between various Islamic religious affiliations. The relation between message, addresser, addressee and the context can be explained by the textuality of the Qur’an. Wahy as the Revelation has its roots in the Qur’an and semantically means the “Speech of God”. This further stresses the openness of the Qur’anic sūwar and the intertextuality between the text and human understanding, whilst the Revelation is approached as the manifestation of God’s speech. The scientific analysis of the Qur’an text is thus done through the communication process related to the specific cultural and historical reality. This reality stems out of social and political environment, encompassing the activity of those who take upon the Text, whereas culture means the world of terms embedded in the language designated as linguistic expression.44 This approach thus implies empirical examination and understanding of the Qur’an as a cultural product. The Islamic message does not have any effect if the people cannot grasp its meaning, so the reader ought to grasp the meaning according to ones social and political context. One total understanding of the Qur’an is thus invalid, since the linguistic code of the Qur’anic text in turn stipulates infinite process of decoding the Qur’anic message in which the political and the social dimensions must not be neglected. Due to the historicism of the Qur’anic text, despite the claim of being of celestial origin, interpretation of it is indispensible human exactly due to the utilization of the language.45


When He revealed the Qur’an to the Messenger (God bless him and keep him), God, the Elevated and Praised, chose the specific linguistic system of the first recipient. The choice of a language is not the choice of an empty vessel, even if the contemporary religious discourse may assert this; for the language is the community’s most important instrument for grasping the world, and giving it order in consciousness. It is impossible to speak of a language apart from the (associated) culture and reality. It is thus also impossible to speak of a text apart from the culture and reality, because the text is something located within the linguistic and cultural framework46


This approach investigates the Qur’an not as speech of God preserved in the Tablet, but rather as “created Speech of God” (kalām Allāh makhlūq) within the mundane and not superlunary domain. Qur’an is thus seen as a “linguistic text” (naṣṣ lughawī)47 or “human text” which is a “product of culture” (muntaj thaqāfī)48 and thus historical phenomenon (ẓāhira tārīkhiyya). This hermeneutic approach presupposes language as a humanistic notion and since Arabic language is not just inextricably related to but also vital for the Revelation, for Abu Zayd this means that (Arabic) language is in its essence primarily and foremost humanistic. The Qur’an is thus as a Divine act created within the human world (fī l-ʿālam al-makhlūq) and human understanding of it is undeniable. Since the Qur’an was sent down to the Prophet Muhammad in a “humanly comprehensible language”49 it became a “linguistic text” and therefore subject to certain rules and conventions, certain language, culture, and reality.50 It is thus located in the “dialectical relationship” (ʿalāqa jadaliyya) between the Qur’an as the metaphysical text and the cultural reality to which it was given. Since the Qur’an is “embodied in human language, culture, and reality”51 it underlines that it is a product of specific culture.

Islamic scholar Jalāl al-Dīn al-Suyūṭī has inquired upon the notion of the word al Qur’an. According to Islamic classical scholars e.g. Ibn Kathīr, al-Shāfiʿī, the word al Qur’an is noun that does not have a root.52 The second approach reads the term without hamza, derived from the verb qarana which means to connect, link, draw together etc. by the structure of sūwar (pl. of sūra), the āyāt (pl. of āya) and the ḥurūf (pl. of ḥarf). The third relates to the grammarian al Farrāʾ (d. 822, who was also a Mu‘tazilite) for whom al Qur’an is singular of noun al-Qarāin. Abu Zayd reads the meaning of the Qur’an as a verbal noun (maṣdar) with hamza (Qurʾān), derived from the verb qara’a, which means “to recite, read loud”.53 The Qur’an was indeed recited in Arabic as the human language.54 Abu Zayd denotes that the relation between the signifier and the signified stems out of a human convention. As such the Arabic language is the product of such a convention. This does not diminish the importance of the Revelation, as the pious Abu Zayd would have contested, but rather it foregrounds the vernacular language as the product of a specific milieu. At this point Abu Zayd follows the prominent Russian linguist Roman Jakobson and his theory.55 The Qur’an can be thus analyzed scientifically as a literary text, even though it was sent down “as message (risāla) by the addresser (mursil as the sender) to the addressee (mustaqbil as the receiver) in a specific context (al-wāqiʿ)”.56 During this process the content of the message is transmitted via the channel within certain code i.e. linguistic system.


Abu Zayd is interested to see how the revelation occurred in terms of communication related to Arabic language and not per se in the theological underpinnings of the Qur’an. The first phase (Allah-Gabriel) is described by the term tanzīl as “causing to come down”, “send down”57, and it designates the vertical line. Gabriel is in this case the intermediary, whilst the receiver is Muhammad. The question Abu Zayd considers not only what was sent down – specific message in a specific language, or the understanding (meaning) that came along with it via a non-linguistic code – but foremost the development of the message via the humanly Arabic language, which is the ultimate phase of the Revelation. So what the Prophet Muhammad transmitted to the people is not waḥy (Revelation) but balāgha (transmission). Muhammad is thus the first addressee (al-mukhāṭab al-awwal), whilst all humankind is the ultimate addressees of revelation.58

The fact that Abu Zayd deliberately uses the term ta’wil instead of the term tafsir (commentary or explanation) in his theory, it stresses the role of the human intellect in the process of re-interpretation, as opposed to the narrated traditions.59


I treat the Qur’an as a text in the Arabic language that the Muslim as well as the Christian or atheist should study, because the Arab culture is united in it, and because it is still able to influence other texts in this culture. It is a text that took up the pre – Islamic texts and that all texts after it have taken up, even those that are produced today.60


Even thought the theory of Abu Zayd does not build upon the grammatical position of Arabic in relation to the Revelation and that it reflects upon the interpretation of the Qur’an text in relation to other methodologies within the Islamic realm, it does presuppose the importance of the Arabic language as a human language, of which the understanding the Qur’anic text reappears in a whole new light.


4. Conclusion – Arabic language as a literary tool for the humanistic approach of the Qur’an


The matter of reassessing the literary value and historic account of the Qu’ran is not merely a textual criticism or linguistic examination but rather far more complex which engages with various disciplines i.e. history, theology, and linguistics, fields which this paper, despite their relevance, cannot exhaust in their totality. The aim of Abu Zayd’s approach focuses on the transmission of the Qur’anic message through its socio-linguistic existence, which was according to Neuwirth foremost oral.61 Abu Zayd is interested not in the history of the Qur’an as such, but in the history of transmission of the Qur’anic language, i.e. the channel of Revelation. The so call “pre-canonical” Qur’an builds the communication between speaker and audience, human and celestial, by presenting itself as a self-accountability of the narration or self-testimony, and is in this sense a liturgical text.62

Islamic culture has always nurtured different discourses pertaining to theological as well as social debates – different readings of the Qur’an by Al Māwardī, Al Suyūṭī, Al Rāzī and Ibn Al Djazarī63 asserts different approaches to the Qur’anic text through numerous implications and reading styles. We briefly glanced at the early stages of Arabic, however due to the vast literature and various inscriptions on the history of Arabic language brief development of Arabic through different dialects, languages and scripts suffices. Overview of the different reading of the Qur’an and various grammatical and syntactical features of early Arabic relate to those dialects which stress the importance of the study of pre-Islamic Arabic when inquiring upon Arabic language. It has been proved that the Qur’anic and Classical Arabic as we know it today is, as the grammarian Sibaweih showed in his treaties, was differently uttered and pronounced then as we know it today.

The paper aimed at presenting the means of transmission of the Qur’anic message. Since the Qur’an was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad in a human i.e. Arabic language, it ought to be addressed and examined as a “human text” and it thus becomes subject of human understanding and interpretation. Some would argue with this very first encounter with the text was the Prophet’s aim to interpret it. This very language had to be utilized for its recitation and reading, and as such bears human-related activities. The so called “humanity of religious texts” (bashariyyat al-nuṣūṣ al-dīniyya) is at stake. The history of the Arabic language inevitably includes not only the grammatical features vital for the understanding of the development of this language, but also the notion of the Islamic revelation and the Qur’anic text. As Abu Zayd argued, this ought to be explained through a specific analysis of addressing the means of communication of the Text, i.e. the code of the Qur’an which reads as the human language being revealed to humankind. The overall idea of the paper is thus that the Arabic language can serve as a linguistic tool of understanding the capacity of the Qur’anic message along with its linguistic features of historical importance. 




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1 Michael C.A. Macdonald, The development of Arabic as a written language, 6.

2 Michael C.A. Macdonald, “Reflections on the linguistic map of pre-Islamic Arabia,” 29.

3 Zammit, A Comparative Lexical Study of Qur’anic Arabic, 35. For more see A. F. L. Beeston, Nemara and Faw, 1979.

4 Michael C.A. Macdonald, The development of Arabic as a written language, 6.

5 Versteegh, The Arabic language, 94-96.

6 Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan, Encyclopaedia of Islam, First Edition (1913-1936), Leiden, Brill.

7 ibid., 9.

8 This and many other related features brings us to the question how do we know that Arabic is indeed Arabic? For affirmative answer one might search for innovations or borrowings (e.g. relative determine pronoun), tanwin or nunation which had disappeared in other dialects, existence of the perfect form of the suffix conjugation, passive participle, internal passive, the preposition , and the negation . See Versteegh, The Arabic language.

9 ibid., 37.

10 Philip Halldén, What is Arab Islamic Rhetoric? Rethinking the History of Muslim Oratory Art and Homiletics, 30.

11 Zammit, A Comparative Lexical Study of Qur’anic Arabic, 31. For more on Safaitic see: Michael C.A. Macdonald, The development of Arabic as a written language, 2010.

12 Rabin, Ancient West-Arabian, 17. For more see Sibaweih, Al Kitāb, 1988.

13 ibid., 18-19.

14 Brockelmann in Rabin, Ancient West-Arabian,  17.

15 See Brockelmann, Arabische Grammatic, Lepizig: Otto Harrassowitz 1960.

16 Luxenberg, Christoph, The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran – A Contribution to the Decoding of the Koran, 30.

17 Zwettler, The Classical ‘Arabiyya as the Language of the Oral Poetry, 102.

18 ibid., 104.

19 ibid., 132.

20 ibid., 135-136.

21 Cooper 1982:6 in Charles A. Ferguson et al. ed., Structuralist studies in Arabic Linguistics Charles A. Ferguson’s Papers, 1954-1994, 69.

22 Charles A. Ferguson, “The Arabic Koine,” in Charles A. Ferguson et al. ed., Structuralist studies in Arabic Linguistics Charles A. Ferguson’s Papers, 1954-1994, 50.

23 ibid., 51.

24 M.M. Sharif, A history of Muslim Philosophy, 1015

25 ibid., 1017.

26 ibid., 1019.

27 “By multiplying the 28 letters of the alphabet by 27 (28 minus 1, to drop double letters) he got 756 forms of the biliteral… Dividing this number by 2, he had 378 combinations irrespective of the order of the two letters. taking these biliteral forms as one unit and adding a third letter to them, he worked out the number of triliteral forms and so on.” M.M. Sharif, A history of Muslim Philosophy, 1025.

28 Chaim, Rabin, Ancient West-Arabian, 9.

29 Charles A., Ferguson, “Standardization as a form of language spread,” in Charles A. Ferguson et al., Structuralist studies in Arabic Linguistics Charles A. Ferguson’s Papers, 1954-1994, 69.

30 This entails also the notion of hypercorrection as a non-standard usage (correcting form through misunderstanding of grammatical rules). In regard to this so called Modern Standard Arabic could be explained as the “relexicalized classical Arabic”.

31 Neuwirth, “Qur’an and History – a Disputed Relationship, Some reflections on Qur’anic History and History in the Qur’an”, 1.

32 ibid., 2.

33 Versteegh, The Arabic language, 54.

34 Thomas Bauer, Die Kultur der Ambiguität: Eine andere Geschite des Islams. Compare also with Hans Küng, Der Islam, Münschen: Piper Verlag, 2004.

35 Science of lexicology (ʻilm al luġa) of Arabic language has emerged along with important works and lexical studies (Tahḏīb al-luġa by Al Azharī, Tāj al ʻArūs min jawāhir al qāmūs by Al Zabīdī, Jamharat al luġa od Ibn Duraida,  Tāj al luġa wa al ṣiḥāh al ʻarabiyya by Al Jawhari, Kitāb al ḥuhaṣṣaṣ fī luġa by Ibn Sīde, Kitāb al ʼaḍdād by Ibn al-Anbārī, Kitāb al ʻain by Al Farāhīdī, Kitāb Sībawaih by Al Sībāwaih, and Qamus al muḥit by Al Firuzabādī). This scientific and literary engagement in Arabic language rooted in the literary interest, preservation of the language, as well as in the interest in so called “language games” (ein spielerisches Interesse). The usage of language was also examined in the so called aḍdād-collections for classification of Arabic terms with multiple meanings. Bauer, Die Kultur der Ambiguität: Eine andere Geschite des Islams, 16, 231-235.

36 Tabari I 18-26, 26-29

37 Rabin, Ancient West-Arabian, 22.

38 Sukidi, “Naṣr Ḥāmid Abū Zayd and the Quest for a Humanistic Hermeneutics of the Qurʾān,” Die Welt des Islams 49 (2009): 183.

39 Owens Jonathan: A Lingustic history of Arabic, 38.

40 ibid., 40-41.

41 Navid Kermani, “Abu Zayd and the literary study of the Qur’an”, 172-173.

42 Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, Gottes Menschenwort. Für ein humansitsches Verständnis des Koran, 39.

43 ibid., 79. For more see Hans Wehr, Arabic-English Dictionary and Ibn Manẓūr, Lisan al ‘arab.

44 Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, Gottes Menschenwort. Für ein humansitsches Verständnis des Koran, 88.

45 ibid., 90.

46 Naṣr Ḥāmid Abū Zayd, Mafhūm al-naṣṣ: Dirāsa fī ʿulūm al-Qurʾān, 27

47 ibid., 9.

48 ibid., 24.

49 Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, Gottes Menschenwort. Für ein humansitsches Verständnis des Koran, 186.

50 ibid., 187.

51 ibid., 190.

52 ibid., 190-191.

53 ibid., 191.

54 “Phrase ‘qurʾānan ʿarabiyyan’ (“an Arabic Qurʾān”) occurs six times in the Qurʾanic sūras, pinpointing that it ought to be recited in Arabic (Yusūf/12:2; al-Zukhruf/43:3; Ṭāhā/20:113; al-Shūrā/42:7; Fuṣṣilat/41:3; and al-Zumar/39:28)”. Daniel A. Madigan, “The Limits of Self-Referentiality in the Qurʾān”, 61.

55 Roman Jakobson (Russia, 1896-1982) and his theory of the six constitutive components in a verbal communication: addresser, addressee, message, code, context, and contact. Addresser sends a message to the addressee with a transmitted message which is a system of signs or code in the specific context. In this very transmission the contact, linking together both actors is embedded.  For more see Roman Jakobson, “Closing Statement: Linguistics and Poetics,” Style in Language, ed. Thomas A. Sebeok.

56 Sukidi, “Naṣr Ḥāmid Abū Zayd and the Quest for a Humanistic Hermeneutics of the Qurʾān”, 196.

57 Hans Wehr, Arabic-English Dictionary, 1994.

58 Abū Zayd, Mafhūm al-naṣṣ: Dirāsa fī ʿulūm al-Qurʾān,, 57.

59 Abu Zayd in Navid Kermani, “Abu Zayd and the literary study of the Qur’an”, 172.

60 Abu Zayd in Navid Kermani, “Abu Zayd and the literary study of the Qur’an”, 180.

61 Neuwirth, “Qur’an and History – a Disputed Relationship, Some reflections on Qur’anic History and History in the Qur’an”, 12.

62 ibid., 15.

63 Bauer, Die Kultur der Ambiguität: Eine andere Geschichte des Islams, 116.