Surah 16 (Al-Nahl/The Bee): 103

‘And We have known that they say:

‘But/indeed a human teaches/instructs him, (the) tongue/language/speech (of) those who deviate, insult and defame to Him, non-Arabic/Persian (tongue/language/speech), and this (is) an Arabic clear/evident tongue/language/speech.’

[The Koran, Complete Dictionary and Literal Translation’ by Muhamed Ahmed and his daughter Samira, 1994.]


The Qur’an states on eight occasions that it was ‘sent down as an Arabic Qur’an’, {12.2}, {20.113}, {26.195}, {39.28}, {41.3 & 44}, {42.7} and {43.3}that haply you may understand{12.2}. Whilst this accords with the eminently sensible practise that God ‘has sent no messenger save in the language of his people, that he might make clear unto them,’ {14.4}, for a composition to state the language in which it is being verbally delivered seems odd. For Peter Townsend the phrase is as striking as if Shakespeare had from time to time included into his plays the statement: ‘Remember this play is in excellent English’. The motivation for this declaration is apparently revealed by {6.25}, {16.103} (produced above), {25.4-5}, {26.198-199} and {41.44}, each of which specifically refutes the accusation that the announcer was merely translating for the Arabs, stories and homilies borrowed from the existing religious traditions of other peoples who spoke an ‘ajamī’ (‘foreign’ or possibly dialectical) tongue. Given the large cast of biblical figures appearing in the Qur’an, the suspicion would have been that the Qur’an’s announcer was plagiarising his revelations from Judaism (which would have existed in Hebrew or Aramaic texts) and/or Christianity (in which case, Aramaic, Greek or Latin) and passing them off as a new revelation to a non-Judeo-Christian Arab audience. Such dark suspicions, would likely have been only strengthened by the large number of non-Arabic (Hebrew, Syriac, Persia, Pahlavi, Ethiopic and Greek) words appearing in the Qur’an.


The Qur’an was the first substantial text known to have been composed in its language, now known as Classical Arabic (although Qur’anic Arabic has several features that are not part of modern standard Arabic). Only five short rock inscriptions, the earliest from 512, are known to predate it as Arabic script.  A related language that is known as Old Arabic had existed in the region for about five centuries before the emergence of Classical Arabic, and the grammatical development of this was closely linked to that of Hebrew, and less closely to Aramaic and Syriac. Some poetry in Classical Arabic, sections of which closely resemble the Qur’an, may well predate the Qur’an, and from time to time the Qur’an denies that it too is mere poetry, {21.5}, {36.69}, {26.224}, {37.36}, {52.30} and {69.41}, but without early manuscripts, the reliable dating of these is not possible. It is thought that the Qur’an’s Arabic may have been artificially created as a composite language in order to make text comprehensible to the speakers of a range of dialects. However, the consequence of this is that the Qur’an has an extremely limited vocabulary, with words may carry a wide range of meanings. For example ‘‘awrah’ (from the Hebrew ‘erva’) may mean imperfection or vulnerability, or by extension ‘nakedness’, from which it gains the meaning of ‘private parts’ and ultimately ‘chastity’. ‘Umm’ means ‘mother of’, and an ‘ummah’, ‘a people‘, but an ‘ummiyyūn’ person may be a common person or someone who is ‘unlettered’.


A further complication comes from the structure of the written text, and its incomplete preservation. Written Arabic consists of several layers. Twenty-eight letters form a consonantal skeleton (rasm). Often consonants share the same shape and as written Arabic evolved, these came to be distinguished by the i’jaam, a system of pointing or ‘dotting’ letters with diacritical marks above or below the rasm to make clear which letter is intended. So, for example, without the i’jaam, the basic shape ٮ in a medial position in a word may indicate any of the letters ب (b), ت (t) or ث (th), ن (n) or ی (y). Further markers need to be added to indicate double-consonants, two adjacent consonants, three short vowels and further instructions for pronunciation.


Many Arabic words have a root consisting of three consonants, for example k-t-b conveying the core idea of writing, and verbs and nouns with various shades of meaning are created by the positioning of vowels or the addition of prefixes and suffixes, so that a ‘kitāb’ is a book or other document, ‘kutub’ is books, ‘katīb’, a writer; ‘katiba’ ‘he wrote’. Unfortunately, in the in the earliest Qur’an manuscripts it is generally only the rasm that was written down. Without vowels the rasm for k-t-b might mean any of the above. However, without i’jaam marks, even completely unrelated words may be indistinguishable. In examples given by Gabriel Sawma in The Qur’an, Misinterpreted, Mistranslated and Misread:

Bayt’ (‘house’) could have been pronounced ‘bnt’ (‘girl’), ‘nabt’ (‘plant’), ‘tibn’ (‘mulsh’) or ‘natob’ (‘repent’);

the word ‘janat’ (‘heaven’) could be pronounced ‘janb’ (‘side’), ‘janat’ (‘she committed a crime’), ‘khabth’ (‘not worthy’) etc.


Since not only the meanings to be given to words but even the identification of the letters that form it, all have to be chosen according to the context, the disadvantage to the Qur’an scholar of the Qur’an being the first major text known to have been written in Arabic, and then for it to have been arranged in a canon that is neither thematic not chronological, becomes evident. Assistance from knowing the meanings traditionally or popularly given to words, will almost always come from a usage which is in strongly influenced by the traditional narrative; but much of this narrative was clearly constructed for no other purpose than to provide an explanation for the Qur’an’s opaque original context and meaning. Over the centuries Islamic translators and theologians have invested the words of the Qur’an with what they believed, or what it suited them that others believe, the meaning to be. And since, naturally enough, most translations of the Qur’an are made by devout Muslims, these traditional understandings have influenced the choice of words used by past translators, each further muddying the waters as they went. So whilst it is true that most Muslims share a broad consensus as to what many of the terms used in the Qur’an mean, modern scholars who analyse the text of the Qur’an afresh to probe what may have originally been intended, encounter an Enigma Machine like puzzle, invariably leading to more questions and possibilities than firm answers. As Ibn Warraq observed: ‘Ironically, far from increasing our understanding of the contents, as devout Muslims would have us believe, a look at the Koran in its original Arabic only increases the confusion.’


The following three examples illustrate how fundamental Quranic concepts are now opening up to radical new interpretations:

In a 2013 article, Islam, Arabs and the Hijra , Robert M. Kerr, suggests that accounts of the ‘muhijaroun’ – a term that has traditionally been understood as referring to those who made the ‘hijra’ (migration) with Muhammad from Mecca to Medina 〈37.〉 – having been supported upon their arrival at Medina by a community of ‘anṣar’ – from the root n-ṣ-r, traditionally rendered as meaning ‘helpers’ – is in fact more likely to refer to Arabs – based upon the Syriac term ‘mhaggraya’, meaning ‘the descendants of Hagar’ – having been made welcome by Christians – ‘naṣara’, in reference to Jesus’s home town of Nazareth, or even one specific Christian sect, the Nazoreans, see 〈88.〉 below.

Tom Holland’s In the Shadow of the Sword, presents the argument that the ‘Quraysh’, {106.4} – long believed to be the name of the tribe that Muhammad was born into – and possibly all of those condemned as guilty of the sin of ‘shirk’, 〈88.〉 – the ‘association’ of partners with God – were in fact being accused of being ‘confederates’ – in Syriac, ‘qariṣa’ – that is to say, Arab collaborators with either Byzantium or Persia.

Holland’s thesis fits well with the suggestion that the term ‘’āhl al-kitab’, which any Muslim can today confidently explain means the ‘People of the Book’, a compendious term for Jews, Christians and the unknown Sabeans, referring to those communities’ receipt of a holy scripture prior to the revelation of the Qur’an 〈19.〉, in fact may refer more prosaically to ‘people of the treaty’. When Muhammad arrived in Yathrib he drew up a document, commonly known as the Constitution of Medina, see 〈2.〉, in which various tribes accepted his dominion over them. In its preamble, this treaty describes itself as the ‘kitab’ of the prophet. Such an interpretation would require a wholesale reassessment of major parts of what is considered to be the Qur’an’s fundamental message.

To read the Qur’an in the light of modern scholarship is to be aware of such revisionist theories, but for now it suffices for the reader to appreciate at the outset the severe limitations of the language of the Qur’an, which has been described as a ‘woefully inadequate’ medium to convey the complexity of meaning that the Qur’an clearly seeks to convey.


The Mysterious Letters

Twenty-nine surahs of the Qur’an (Surahs 2, 3, 7, 10–15, 19–20, 26–32, 36, 38, 40–46, 50 and 68) begin with a numbered verse consisting only of or commencing with between one and five letters of the Arabic alphabet, presented without context or explanation. Only fourteen letters are used in this way and in only fourteen combinations, the most frequent two combinations appearing six times each, three surahs beginning with a single letter.


Explanations proffered include mystical symbolism, secret codes, and the initials of scribes or the sources of the material assembled during the Qur’an’s composition, however patterns that have been noted in their appearance in the Qur’an make any of these possibilities unlikely. It has been noted that the fourteen letters used each have an outline shape distinct from the others, even without diacritical marks, suggesting that they may be being used as symbols rather than as letters per se. In eight surahs (2, 12, 13, 15, 26, 27, 28 and 31) they immediately precede a reference to sacred scripture, such as:

{2.1}  Alif Lām Mīm

{2.2}  This is the Book in which there is no doubt, a guidance for the reverent.

Possibly connected with this relationship to scripture it has been observed that the final six letters of the standard Arabic alphabet, none of which has a direct equivalent in the Hebrew alphabet, are never used in this way.


The most that one can say, for the certain is that the letters appear to be an integral part of the Qur’anic revelation and to communicate something, possibly connected with scripture. Beyond this, it would be fair to say that the precise meaning of the letters, and the question of why the Qur’an should contain an apparently undecipherable revelation, has utterly stumped the Qur’an-reading world.


Further reading and viewing


The Foreign Vocabulary of the Qur’an, 1938, Arthur Jeffrey († Book)

A New History of Arabia Written in Stone, E Muhanna

IQSA Zoom Seminar #6 Ahmad al-Jallad ‘Pre-Islamic Arabic Inscriptions and Qur’anic orthographies’ (Video)

IQSA Zoom Seminar #7 Robert G Hoyland ‘Arabi and A’jami in the Qur’an, The language of revelation’  (Video)