Muhammad Umar

This article concerns the Arabic language in reference to the Qurʾān and as discussed in the exegetical tradition.

According to Ibn Fāris (d. 395/1004), the root ʿ-r-b has three original meanings: (i) ibāna and ifṣāḥ, meaning elucidation, clarification; (ii) to be full of vitality and naturally cheerful (al-nashāṭ wa ṭīb al-nafs); and (iii) a certain disorder in the body or a limb. One of these three meanings must obtain for each of the root’s derivatives. As examples, he cites respectively (i) the Prophetic hadith “a remarrying woman vocally expresses her consent” (al-thayyib yuʿrib ʿanhā lisānuhā); (ii) the Qurʾānic verse describing the Paradisiacal companions of the righteous as devoted peers of equal age (ʿuruban atrāba) (Q 56:37); and (iii) an idiomatic expression for a stomach ache (ʿaribat maʿdatuh) (Maqāyīs, sub ʿ-r-b).

Arabs and Arabic

Classical dictionaries and exegetical works describe Arabic as the language spoken by the Arabs. This pragmatic definition is then explicated by emphasizing the intimate relation between language and people (see Language and Speech). The phrase rajul ʿarabī (“Arabic man”) describes a man who is of established Arab lineage, whether or not he is proficient in the Arabic language. The plural al-ʿarab is formed by removing the attributive final letter yāʾ, just as the plural al-yahūd (“the Jews”) is formed from the attributive phrase rajul yahūdī (“a Jewish man”). A muʿrib is someone who speaks Arabic fluently, whether or not they are of Arab lineage. The word aʿrābī (pl. aʿrāb and aʿārīb) signifies the Bedouin, the nomadic desert-dweller following the courses of the rain in search of fresh herbage, whether he is of the Arabs proper or of their clients; those settled in townships are the ʿarab, whether or not they are fluent in Arabic. Finally, a distinction is drawn between the Arabs “proper” (the so-called ʿarab ʿāriba) and the “Arabicized/naturalized” Arabs (ʿarab mustaʿriba and mutaʿarriba), who became Arab after having been non-Arab (ʿajam), whether through genealogical filiation or through proficiency in Arabic (Azharī, Tahdhīb; Jawharī, Ṣiḥaḥ; Ibn Manẓūr, Lisān). The difference between Arab and non-Arab is not reducible to a matter of either lineage or language, which are rather closely bound.

Some contend that the Arabs received their name because they were descended from Yaʿrub b. Qaḥṭān, forefather of the Yemenites, “the first whose tongue Allah caused to speak the language of the Arabs.” Others hold that Yaʿrub was the first to convert (naqal) the earlier, primordial language of Syriac (suryānī) into Arabic, and that they were thus named after what he did. The lexicographer al-Azharī (d. 369/980) and others are of the view that Arabs are named after their land, al-ʿArabāt. Isḥāq b. al-Faraj defines ʿAraba as the open country (bāḥa) of the Arabs, being also the abode of Prophet Ismāʿīl, upon him peace, the “Father of Eloquence” (Abū l-faṣāḥa)—for the descendants of Ismāʿīl multiplied and spread across the Arabian Peninsula from ʿAraba, where he was raised, while the Quraysh remained there. ʿAraba thus appears to be a name for the area surrounding Makka(Tahdhīb; Rāghib, Mufradāt; Yāqūt, Muʿjam 4:96) (see more on these narratives below). Abū Bakr al-Anbārī (d. 577/1181) is of the view that the Arabs are so named because of their vivid, clear, and beautiful [removed]al-Zāhir 2:56).

History of the Arabic Language

The ancient history of the Arabic language, as recounted in universal histories and exegetical traditions, passed through several epochs before being established as the language of the Quraysh. It is said to have been the language of Ādam, upon him peace, in Paradise itself, until he disobeyed the Divine command not to approach the tree (cf. Q 2:36; 7:19-22; 20:120-121) whereupon Allah Most High stripped him of Arabic. When he repented and Allah Most High accepted his repentance(cf. Q 2:37; 20:122), He returned to him the Arabic language (Ibn ʿAsākir, Tārīkh Dimashq 7:407, based on a report from Ibn ʿAbbās, Allah be well-pleased with him and his father). Three are mentioned as being the first to speak Arabic: Ādam, upon him peace; Ismāʿīl, upon him peace; and Yaʿrub b. Qaḥṭān. Ibn Kathīr (700-774/1300-1373) holds that the former is the preferred (rājiḥ) opinion (Bidāya 1:138). Both Ibn Ḥajar (773-852/1371-1449) and al-ʿAynī (762-855/1361-1451) understand the second claim in a more restricted sense, meaning that Ismāʿīl, upon him peace, was the first to speak Arabic clearly and eloquently (Fatḥ al-bārī, qawl Allāh taʿālā wa-ttakhadha Llāhu Ibrāhīma khalīla), or the first to do so of the family of Ibrāhīm, upon him peace (ʿUmdat al-Qārīʾ 15:258). The Yemenites, for their part, uphold the claim of their forefather Yaʿrub b. Qaḥṭān (al-Balādhurī, Ansāb al-Ashrāf 1:6).

Al-Ālūsī (1217-1270/1803-1853) quotes Ibn Ḥabīb (d. 245/859), an early authority on tribal genealogies, as holding that Ādam, upon him peace, spoke Arabic when he came to earth. The language gradually changed into Syriac, a corrupted cognate of Arabic that was spoken by all but one of those saved from the Deluge in the Ark. The exception was a man named Jurhum, who spoke Arabic, and thus the antediluvian tongue was preserved (Rūḥ, sub Q 12:2). Subsequent history, as summarized in various universal chronicles, traces the differentiation of languages to the confusion of Bābil during the reign of Nimrūd b. Kanʿān b. Ḥāzim b. Nūḥ. Nimrūd forced people to abandon their religion, whereupon Allah suddenly confounded their tongues: one evening they all spoke Syriac, but the next morning none could understand the language of another. Among this new multiplicity of languages (the count reaching seventy-two), Allah Most High granted Arabic to the progeny of Sām b. Nūḥ (Ibn Ḥabīb, al-Muḥabbar p. 384; al-Yāfiʿī, Mirʾāt al-jinān 1:236)—which according to Ibn Qutayba (d. 276/886) comprised the lineage of all the Prophets and all Arabs (al-Maʿārif p. 24, 28). Al-Ṭabarī (d. 310/923) quotes Ibn Isḥāq (d. 150/767) to the effect that these children of Sām (biblical Shem: i.e., the Semites) were the original Arabs (ʿarab ʿāriba), since their language was Arabic (Tārīkh 1:204).

Al-Masʿūdī (d. 346/957) includes the tribe of Jurhum among these original Arab tribes and says that they settled in Makka (Akhbār al-zamān 1:104). In a lengthy hadith, Ibn ʿAbbās, Allah be well-pleased with him and his father, reports that Ismāʿīl, upon him peace, was raised among the children of this same Jurhum tribe, learned Arabic from them, and married into the tribe (Bukhārī, Aḥādīth al-anbiyāʾ, qawl Allāh wa-ttakhadha Llāhu Ibrāhīma khalīla). In another hadith, ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib reports that “Ismāʿīl, upon him peace, was the first to speak clear and eloquent Arabic” despite it not being his mother tongue (Ibn Ḥajar, Fatḥ al-bārī; Ibn Kathīr, Bidāya 1:138): for the language of his parents was not Arabic but Syriac (suryānī). Hence the Arabs call the progeny of Ismāʿīl, upon him peace, “Arabicized/naturalized Arabs” (ʿarab mutaʿarriba or ʿarab mustaʿriba), for they learned Arabic from the original Arabs (arab ʿāriba) (Ṭabarī, Tārīkh 1:204; al-Masʿūdī, Akhbār al-zamān 1:104). In the course of time, the original Arabs perished (and are therefore known as “the extinct Arabs” (al-ʿarab al-bāʾida)); but the naturalized Arabs, descendants of Maʿād and Qaḥṭān who settled respectively in the Ḥijāz and Yemen, remained and continued to speak Arabic (and so are known as “the surviving Arabs” (al-ʿarab al-bāqiya)) (Ibn Durayd, Jamhara 1:319; al-Masʿūdī, al-Tanbīh wal-ishrāf p. 157).

According to most genealogists, the Quraysh stem from the progeny of ʿAdnān, and specifically al-Naḍr b. Kināna b. Khuzayma, as confirmed in a Prophetic hadith (Ibn Kathīr, Bidāya 2:250-254). The language of the Quraysh is said to have been superior to the dialects of other tribes on many counts. Because they were surrounded only by other Arabs, their tongue remained unaffected by other languages, and is said to have been the most eloquent (Ibn Khaldūn, Tārīkh 1:765) for they adopted only the best and most refined idioms (lughāt) (Azharī, Tahdhīb; Zarkashī, Burhān 1:284). The Prophet, upon him peace and blessings, was for his part the most eloquent of the Quraysh (Ibn Kathīr, Bidāya 1:138; Ālūsī, Rūḥ, sub Q 12, introduction). Hence the pious dictum of al-Shāfiʿī: “Of all languages, that of the Arabs is the richest and has the most extensive vocabulary; we do not know of any man but a Prophet who has a complete knowledge of it (yuḥīṭ bi-jamīʿ ʿilmih)” (al-Risāla p. 128).

The Qurʾān and Arabic

The Qurʾān reflects upon the language of its own revelation, remarking that it is an Arabic Qurʾān (Qurʾānan ʿarabiyyan) (Q 12:2; 20:113; 39:28; 41:3; 42:7); a decisive judgment in Arabic (ḥukman ʿarabiyyan) (Q 13:37); And truly, it is a revelation of the Lord of the worlds; the Trustworthy Spirit has brought it down—upon your heart [O Muḥammad], so that you may be of the warners—in clear Arabic (bi-lisānin ʿarabiyyin mubīn) (Q 26:192-195). In another verse, the language of the Qurʾān is called “clear Arabic” (Q 16:103): And We certainly know that they say, “it is only a human being who teaches him”—[but] the language of the one to whom they refer is non-Arabic (aʿjamī), whereas this [Qurʾān] is clear Arabic.

The Qurʾān also points out that Allah Most High never sends a Messenger to a people save in their own tongue, so that he might make [the message] clear to them (Q 14:4). Elsewhere, it exclaims: Had We made it a non-Arabic Qurʾān, they would have said, “If only its verses were expounded!” What! A [Book in] non-Arabic and an Arab [Messenger]? Say unto them [O Muḥammad]: “It is, for those who believe, guidance and healing; and as for those who disbelieve, there is deafness in their ears, and it is blindness for them. Those are being called from a distant place” (Q 41:44). (See other entries mentioned at the beginning of the article.)

Seven Modes

The Qurʾān’s self-description as being in “clear Arabic” has been understood by Muslim scholars in conjunction with Prophetic hadiths about the Qurʾān having been revealed in seven modes or dialects (sabʿat aḥruf, lit. “seven letters”). They also cite the consensus of the Companions at the first compilation of the text on sheets of parchment (ṣuḥuf), shortly after the death of the Prophet, during the Caliphate of Abū Bakr (r. 11-13/632-634); and at its compilation into a bound codex during the Caliphate of ʿUthmān b. ʿAffān (r. 23-35/644-656), both times under the supervision of the Companion Zayd b. Thābit (d. 45/665), Allah be well-pleased with them all (al-Azamī, History p. 91, 97). The “seven modes” (q.v.) of the Qurʾān are discussed in more detail in the entry under that name, but are briefly described here for their relationship to the Arabic language of the Qurʾān. Ibn Kathīr warns against confusing these “seven dialects” with the “seven recitations” (sabʿa qirāʾāt) (see Canonical Readings), all of which are based on a single dialect adopted at the time of preparation of the “ʿUthmān Codex” (Faḍāʾil al-Qurʾān p. 137).

Over twenty Companions report the hadith about the seven modes of the Qurʾān (Suyūṭī, Itqān 1:131-141). As narrated by Ubayy b. Kaʿb (d. 39/659), Allah be well-pleased with him:

The Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, was in the locale of Banū Ghifār (i.e., on a caravan route near the Red Sea) when Jibrīl, upon him peace, came to him and said, “Allah has commanded you to recite the Qurʾān to your people (ummatuk) in a [single] dialect (ʿalā ḥarf).” To this, he said, “I ask Allah for His succor and forgiveness, [but] my people are not capable of that (lā tuṭīq dhālik).” He then came for the second time and said, “Allah has commanded you to recite the Qurʾān to your people in two dialects.” To this he said, “I ask Allah for His succor and forgiveness, [but] my people are not capable of that.” Then he (Jibrīl) came for the third time and said, “Allah has commanded you to recite the Qurʾān to your people in three dialects.” To this he said, “I ask Allah for His succor and forgiveness, [but] my people are not capable of that.” Then Jibrīl came for the fourth time and said, “Allah has commanded you to recite the Qurʾān to your people in seven dialects (ʿalā sabʿat aḥruf); and in whichever dialect they recite, they will be correct (fa-qad aṣābū).”

Muslim, Ṣalāt al-musāfirīn wa qaṣrihā, bayān anna al-Qurʾān ʿalā sabʿat aḥruf wa
bayān maʿnāh

The same Companion also reports a similar message on another occasion:

The Prophet met Jibrīl by the Stones of Mirāʾ (ʿind aḥjār al-mirāʾ) (in Qubāʾ, at the outskirts of Madīna). The Messenger of Allah, upon him blessings and peace, said to Jibrīl: “I have been sent to an illiterate people, including the elder with his walking stick, aged women, and the young.” [Jibrīl] said: “Then command them to recite the Qurʾān in seven dialects.”

Abū Dāwūd, Aḥādīth Ubayy b. Kaʿb, 1:439 §545; Ibn Ḥibbān, Ṣaḥīḥ, Qirāʾāt al-Qurʾān, dhikr al-ʿilla, 3:14 §739; al-ʿAynī, ʿUmdat al-Qārī 12:250

The various interpretations of these “seven modes” include that they are the seven dialects of seven tribes, as per al-Zarkashī (d. 794/ca.1392) citing a group of scholars, Abū ʿUbayd al-Qāsim b. Sallām the most prominent among them (Burhān 1:211-218); the dialects of various branches of Quraysh, given that Allah Most High only sends Prophets speaking the language of their people, here being the Quraysh (Ibn Ḥajar, Fatḥ al-bārī, qawluh bāb unzil al-Qurʾān ʿalā sabʿat aḥruf, 9:27), according to Ibn Qutayba; or the seven most eloquent dialects of the Arabs, being those of the Quraysh, Hudhayl, Taym al-Ribāb (al-Suyūṭī writes: Tamīm), Azd, Rabīʿa, Hawāzin, and Saʿd b. Bakr (al-Samʿānī, Kitāb al-Ansāb 3:116; Zarkashī, Burhān 1:218-219; Ibn Ḥajar, Fatḥ al-bārī 9:26-27; Suyūṭī, Itqān 1:169 Type 26).

Both ʿUmar and ʿUthmān, Allah be well-pleased with them, said that the Qurʾān was revealed in the dialect of the Quraysh, but that a temporary dispensation was made for recitation in other dialects in order to make its pronunciation easier for people of other tribes (Burhān 1:212-213; Fatḥ al-bārī 9:27-30). Al-Bāqillānī (d. ca.338-403/ca.950-1013) interprets this to mean that most of the Qurʾān (muʿẓamah), but not all of it, was revealed in the dialect of the Quraysh—because Ibn ʿAbbās, Allah be well-pleased with him and his father, himself a Qurayshī, remarked that he did not know the meaning of Fāṭir al-samāwāt wal-arḍ (Q 35:1) until he heard a Bedouin use the verb faṭira regarding a well he had started to dig. Al-Bāqillānī also held that the Qurʾān was revealed in the dialects of various tribes, not just of the Quraysh, for its self-description as “Arabic” (rather than “Qurayshī”) includes all Arab tribes, whether from Ḥijāz or Yemen (Ibn Kathīr, Faḍāʾil al-Qurʿān p. 135; also Ibn Ḥajar, Fatḥ al-bārī, qawluh bāb nazala al-Qurʾān bi-lisān Quraysh wal-ʿArab Qurʾānan ʿArabiyyan bi-lisānin ʿarabiyyin mubīn). Certain scholars believed that a few words of the Qurʾān derive from the dialect of the Yemeni tribe Banū Tamīm (Burhān 1:285).

Despite these diverse interpretations, all authorities agree that the hadiths pertaining to the “seven modes” do not mean that the entire text of the Qurʾān was revealed in seven different dialects, but rather that certain words (such as the word Mālik (Q 1:3) recited rather as Malik in the dialect of Ḥudhayl) can be consistently recited in different dialects, as they were orally transmitted from Jibrīl, upon him peace, to the Prophet, Allah Most High bless him, to the Companions, Allah be well-pleased with them all. Emphasizing absolute reliance on following the actual transmission of recitation, Zayd b. Thābit said, “Recitation (al-qirāʾa) is a strictly-observed Sunna” (Suyūṭī, Itqān 1:260 Type 22-27).

During his Caliphate, ʿUmar b. al-Khaṭṭāb discovered that Ibn Masʿūd (d. 32/ca.653), whom he had sent to Iraq, was teaching the Qurʾān in the dialect of Hudhayl. ʿUmar wrote to him: “The Qurʾān was revealed in the tongue of the Quraysh, so teach it according to the language of the Quraysh, not that of Hudhayl” (Ibn Ḥajar, Fatḥ al-bārī, qawluh bāb nazala al-Qurʾān bi-lisān Quraysh, 9:9). As the state expanded and many non-Arabic speakers entered Islam, different recitations became prominent in various centers and frontier regions. After witnessing men in the military camps in Azerbaijan and Armenia (in 25/645) arguing over the pronunciation of certain words of the Qurʾān, Ḥudhayfa b. al-Yamān (d. 36/656) came to the Caliph ʿUthmān, and said: “Commander of the Faithful, take this nation (umma) in hand before they differ over their Book as did the Jews and Christians” (Bukhārī, Faḍāʾil al-Qurʾān, jamʿ al-Qurʾān). ʿUthmān assembled the Companions and sought their opinion on recitation in different dialects. When asked about his opinion on the matter, he said, “I think we should bring the people to a single dialect, so that there may be neither division nor discord.” They answered, “Well have you proposed” (Ibn Abī Dāwūd, al-Maṣāḥif p. 97). A committee of twelve Companions (for whose deliberations dates range 25-30/645-650) produced what was later called the “ʿUthmān Codex”. It was during this process that, by the unanimous agreement of the Companions, the dialect of the Qurasysh was adopted (Bukhārī, Manāqib, nazala al-Qurʾān bi-lisān Quraysh; al-Azami, History p. 96-97).

Arabicized Words in the Qurʾān

“Arabicized (muʿarrab) words are words coined from non-Arabic languages to express meanings which the Arabs use in their own way” (Zabīdī, Tāj 1:27). These words, such as the Persian word istabara (“thick silk”) Arabicized as istabraq (al-Suyūṭī, al-Muhadhdhab 1:71), occur in the Qurʾān as proper nouns by scholarly consensus (al-Suyūṭī, al-Muhadhdhab 1:60): for example, the names of all the Prophets but Ādam, Ṣāliḥ, Shuʿayb, and Muḥammad (al-Jawzī, Funūn al-afnān p. 345-346). Opinions differ about whether the Qurʾān contains Arabicized words as improper nouns, with a majority (al-Shāfiʿī, al-Ṭabarī, Abū ʿUbayda, al-Qāḍī Abū Bakr, and Ibn Fāris among them) holding that all so-called Arabicized improper nouns have in fact been absorbed into Arabic (al-Suyūṭī, al-Muhadhdhab p. 57). Based on this definition, al-Shāfiʿī argues that there is enough evidence in the Qurʾān itself to reject the opinion that it contains non-Arabic words, because whatever words had earlier been “non-Arabic” had already been “Arabicized” by the time the Qurʾān was revealed. He then cites Q 13:37, 26:192-195, 39:28, 42:7, and 43:1-3 as evidence that the Qurʾān is wholly in Arabic, and quotes Q 16:103 and Q 41:44 as confirmation “by His disavowal—glorified be His praise—of any language but Arabic” (al-Risāla p. 128-132). Abū Isḥāq al-Shīrāzī (393-476/1003-1083) also interprets Q 41:44 likewise to conclude that there is nothing non-Arabic in the Qurʾān: “Allah Most High made the Qurʾān a miracle for His Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, and a proof of his veracity; had there been non-Arabic words in it, it would not have been appropriate to challenge the disbelievers with it (i.e., to produce its like). That would have opened ways for the disbelievers to refuse the challenge, saying, ‘the Qurʾān you have brought contains both Arabic and non-Arabic, and we cannot produce a book which has both Arabic and non-Arabic in it; we can only compete with pure Arabic’” (al-Tabṣira p. 181).

Those who argue that the Qurʾān does include non-Arabic words cite examples, often from “Ethiopic” (lisān al-Ḥabasha), in which kiflayn (Q 57:28) means “double” according to the Successor Abū Mūsā; nashʾa (Q 73:6) means “to stand during the night” according to Ibn ʿAbbās, Allah be pleased with him and his father; and awwibī (Q 34:10) means “Glorify!” according to Abū Maysara (Ṭabarī, Tafsīr 1:13). Abū Maysara also holds that the Qurʾān contains words from every language, implying that the Book proves a culmination of all language as such (Ṭabarī, Tafsīr 1:14). Such scholars also argue that for a Revelation to include words from the languages of all peoples is in keeping with the mission of a Prophet sent to all people, especially since Allah Most High only sends a Prophet in the language of his people (Q 14:4). That this last Revelation reflects the Prophet’s universal mandate (see below) is held to be a special prerogative of the Qurʾān, as per the exegete Ibn al-Naqīb (d. 698/1298) (al-Suyūṭī, al-Muhadhdhab p. 62).

In reply, others insist that the early reports of non-Arabic words in the Qurʾān mean only that those words are also employed in other languages, without this implying they are not Arabic. Likewise, they hold, the claim that the Qurʾān contains words from every language means that the Qurʾān contains Arabic words that correspond to words (wāfaqat lughat al-lughāt) in those other languages (al-Sāmirī, al-Lughāt p. 19; Ṭabarī, Tafsīr 1:16-20). Finally, commenting on the reports about certain Companions not knowing certain words of the Qurʾān, they hold that this was due to the vastness of the Arabic language, not that the words were non-Arabic (al-Shāfiʿī, al-Risāla p. 128).

Abū ʿUbayd al-Qāsim b. Sallām (150-224/767-838), an early authority on tribal dialects, holds that the two opinions can be reconciled—“both [groups] shall be rewarded, God willing” (kilāhumā muṣīb, in shāʾ Allāh)—for these words were of non-Arabic origin, but became Arabic as the Arabs articulated them in Arabic. Those who hold these words to be non-Arabic do so on the basis of their origin, while those who hold them to be Arabic do so on the basis of their having been assimilated (Gharīb 4:242).

The Universal Prophethood of Muḥammad, upon him blessings and peace, and Arabic

The exegetes relate Q 34:28 (And We have not sent you [O Muḥammad] except as a giver of glad tidings and a warner to all mankind, but most people know not) and Q 14:4 (And We never sent a Messenger save in the language of his people, so that he might make [the Message] clear for them; then Allah leaves straying those whom He pleases and guides whom He pleases: and He is Exalted in power, full of Wisdom). They write that the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, was sent to all mankind as well as to the Jinn, but that the single message with which he was sent was conveyed to non-Arabs in their languages by his messengers (Ibn ʿAṭiyya, Muḥarrar, sub Q 14:4). Al-Shāfiʿī holds it imperative for every Muslim to learn Arabic to the best of their ability in order to be able to articulate the testimony of faith, recite the Qurʾān, and fulfill religious duties (al-Risāla p. 132). Ibn ʿAbbās, Allah be well-pleased with him and his father, was asked, “What is the blessing of Allah on the Prophets?” He said, “That Allah Most High says, We have not sent any Messenger save in the language of his people, and Allah said to Muḥammad, upon him blessings and peace, We sent you not but unto all mankind. Allah, Mighty and Majestic, sent him to all mankind and the Jinn” (al-Bayhaqī, Dalāʾil 5:486).


Al-Zamakhsharī observes that the Qurʾān could potentially have been revealed either in a single language or in multiple languages, but that the first suffices due to the possibility of translation. Had the Qurʾān been revealed in all languages, and the Prophet spoken to all peoples in their own languages, moreover, this would have impinged on the human freedom to submit voluntarily to the Divine revelation. Furthermore, he writes, all people living in all parts of the world are thus united by a single Book, and in this lies protection from corruption, change, and discord, among other benefits (Kashshāf, sub Q 14:4).

Inimitability of the Qurʾān (Iʿjāz al-Qurʾān) and Arabic

Scholars explain that the inimitability of the Qurʾān is the greatest miracle of the Prophet, and that the Qurʾānic challenge to produce something like it applies to both Arabs and non-Arabs. Nor can a non-Arabic speaker seek refuge in his own tongue from its miracle and challenge, they proclaim—for if the Arabs, who were the foremost in eloquence and bent on denying the unlettered Prophet, could not meet the challenge of the Qurʾān, how much more futile the efforts of non-Arabic speakers! The Divine challenge of each Prophetic epoch occurred in its idiom: magic was prevalent in the era of Prophet Mūsā and medicine in the era of Prophet ʿĪsā, upon them both peace; yet the greatest magicians and physicians were helpless against their miracles, which only underscored the futility of all others’ efforts. Such is the case of the Arabic Qurʾān among the Arabs, they write, whose prowess lay not in magic or medicine but in language (Ibn ʿAṭiyya, Muḥarrar, sub Q 14:4; al-Bāqillānī, Tamhīd p. 181; al-Shīrāzī, al-Tabṣira p. 183).

Arabic and Exegetical Disciplines

Knowledge of Arabic is obviously a sine qua non for understanding the Qurʾān and its sciences, but two branches of these sciences (ʿulūm al-Qurʾān) specifically require extensive knowledge of the language: gharīb al-Qurʾān (“Rare Terms of the Qurʾān”) and al-wujūh wal-naẓāʾir (“Polysemy and Semantic Collocation”).

The former discipline (also known as iʿrāb al-Qurʾān) concerns those rare words whose understanding and interpretation requires consultation with specialists in this science (ahl al-gharīb). Such obscurity (gharābat) occurs due to the presence of a metaphor, because the word occurs in several dialects, or for similar reasons (al-Jurjānī, Dalāʾil al-iʿjāz p. 397). Al-Zarkashī (d. 794/1391) states that knowledge of this discipline is essential for any exegete, for a general knowledge of language does not suffice to interpret the Book of Allah. A word may have multiple meanings, and so the exegete requires extensive insights into the nature of language and its vocabulary. “This is why the scholars of the Qurʾān have called it a dangerous branch of its sciences, requiring extreme care. Many eminent Companions and great experts in language used to remain silent on such matters, out of caution.” He gives the example of Abū Bakr and ʿUmar, Allah be well-pleased with them both, who, from caution and recognition that it might have multiple meanings, refused to interpret the word abban (pausal form: abbā (Q 80:31)) although they were the most well-spoken of the Quraysh and were asked about it. The great lexicographer al-Aṣmaʿī (d. 216/831) would likewise remain silent regarding rare words in the Qurʾān (Zarkashī, Burhān 1:291-295). Al-Suyūṭī quotes al-Mubarrid (d. 286/899) as saying that al-Aṣmaʿī (121-216/740-831) would not even explain the meaning of a verse couplet if its meaning had the least resemblance to the exegesis of any word in the Qurʾān (al-Muzhir 2:278). Among the Companions, Ibn ʿAbbās, Allah be well-pleased with him and his father, was an expert in gharīb al-Qurʾān and used to explain these by reference to Arabic poetry. Al-Suyūṭī considers this genre in his al-Itqān (Type 36); two recent monographs provide extensive bibliographic details of extant treatises on the topic: al-Hābiṭ’s Maʿājim maʿānī alfāẓ al-Qurʾān al-Karīm (p. 244-254) and Farḥāt’s Maʿājim mufradāt al-Qurʾān (p. 11-17).

As a special branch of the study of Qurʾānic vocabulary, al-wujūh wal-naẓāʾir deals with semantic polysemy or equivocation (wujūh) and collocation (naẓāʾir). Al-Zarkashī mentions that the early exegete Muqātil b. Sulaymān wrote on this subject, as later did Ibn Zāghūnī, Ibn al-Jawzī, al-Dāmaghānī al-Wāʿiẓ, and Ibn Fāris.


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Ibn Fāris. Maqāyīs.

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Ibn Kathīr. Bidāya.

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Ibn Manẓūr. Lisān.

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al-Jawzī, Jamāl al-Dīn Abū-l-Faraj ʿAbd al-Raḥmān b. ʿAlī b. Muḥammad. Funūn al-afnān fī ʿuyūn ʿulūm al-Qurʾān. Beirut: Dār al-Bashāʾir, 1408/1987.

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——. al-Tanbīh wal-ishrāf. Ed. ʿAbd Allāh Ismāʿīl al-Ṣāwī. Cairo: Dār al-Ṣāwī, n.d.

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Rāghib. Mufradāt.

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al-Sāmirī, Abū Aḥmad ʿAbd Allāh b. al-Ḥusayn b. Ḥasnūn. al-Lughāt fī-l-Qurʾān. Ed. Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn al-Munajjad. Cairo: Maṭbaʿat al-Risāla, 1365/1946.

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——. al-Muhadhdhab fī-mā waqaʿ fī-l-Qurʾān min al-Muʿarrab. Ed. al-Tuhāmī al-Rājī al-Hāshimī. UAE: Maṭbaʿat Faḍāla bi-ishrāf Ṣandūq Iḥyāʾ al-Turāth al-Islāmī, n.d.

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——. Tārīkh.

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Zarkashī. Burhān.

See also

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