The Language of the Quran, Is Arabic a Sacred Language?
The following is a lecture given by Dr. Stefan Wild on the language of the Quran. Dr. Stefan Wild is a leading scholar in in oriental studies, the Quran, and Arabic lexicography. Dr. Wild was Professor of Semitic Languages and Islamic Studies at the University of Bonn from 1977-2002. From 1982-2009 Dr. Stefan Wild edited and co-edited Die Welt des Islams. International Journal for the Study of Modern Islam (Leiden).
The is the second lecture of three lectures sponsored by Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies.
- Introduction – The Quran: The Most Powerful Book in the World
- The link between the Quran and the Arabic language
- The role of the Quran in the history of the Arabic language
- Modern Arabic literature and the Quran
- A Critique of Stefan Wild’s approach
“This lecture has a short introduction and after the introduction I will touch four main topics. The first topic is the link which the Quran has with the Arabic language. The second topic is the role of the Quran in the history of the Arabic language. The third point is modern Arabic literature as mirroring the Quran as being influenced by the Quran. And the fourth point is the Quran as world literature.
The Christmas issue of the German weekly Der Spiegel in December 2007 ran as its cover story, “The Quran: The Most Powerful Book in the World” [“Der Koran — Das mächtigste Buch der Welt”]. Now media such as Der Spiegel often catch the zeitgeist perfectly. They sometimes have a way of trends that allude serious but usually slow paced academic scholarship.
This kind of sweeping generalization, of course, must always be taken with a grain of salt. But the concept of the most powerful book in the world does reflect an impression increasingly shared by many observers in Germany and possibly all over central Europe be they Muslims or non-Muslims. Islam with the Quran as its holy book is presently, probably, the most talked about religion. It is in a sense the most vibrant and the most visible religion in Europe.
Powerful is of course an ambiguous category. The Quran is the book of a powerful and somehow useful religon. It draws public attention as it competes with other Scriptures. Of course, different holy book, different scriptures have always competed for recognition as truth, but it seems that behind this truth claim competition that there is now a sub-competition for power. At the same time established an organized Christianity in Europe is tending to retreat, to shrink, to lose its influence to become secularized and in many ways marginalized. Not only in Germany but all over central Europe this retreat of the Christian churches is seemingly unstoppable. And the loss of institutionalized Christianity in the geographical area that was until 1989 the German Democratic Republic is spectacular and could be seen as a late victory of state socialism.
The Quran in Europe
The Quran is a holy book of Muslims now claims its position as the second holy book in Germany after the Bible. Just as mosques are built next to churches and synagogues and minarets rise next to church spires. Islam demands a public presence all over Europe wherever Muslims are with as its most visible symbol the female headscarf.
Some European hotels catering primarily to rich customers from the Gulf stealthily replace the copy of the Bible on the bedside table with a copy of the Quran. In Germany alone there are at present more than twenty different German translations of the Quran available. Books on the Quran abound and the Quran sells.
But the Quran is also despised, maligned, and hated by many in many European countries. Islamophobia in Europe is not a chimera. It is especially virulent in the Internet and the mixture of rage and fear marks Islamophobia in Germany, the Neterlands, in Denmark, and Switzerland, and most other European countries. And this Islamophobia sometimes, seems to me at least, structurally akin to antisemitism. The director of the center on research on antisemitism in Berlin who is hardly prone to succomb to undue Islamophilia remarked recently that Islamophobia in Germany often quotes the Quran today in a way that resembles national socialism quoting the Talmud yesterday.
Geert Wilders the Dutch politician is leader of an important Dutch party calls the Quran simply the Islamist Mein Kampf. In other words, in Europe numerous non-Muslims read the Quran today primarily as the unholy book of the enemy. In many a popular mind, the Quran is a ticking bomb that needs somehow to be diffused.
The German author writing under the pseudonym of Christoph Luxemberg – I talked of him yesterday I mentioned him yesterday in my lecture – published a book that intended to unveil the “real meaning” of the Quran by reading many verses as misunderstood Aramaic passages.
One of his more spectacular propositions was to demythologize the fair maidens who await the faithful in the Quranic Paradise and to reduce them to nothing more than white grapes. In this way he not only reopens a medieval Christian anti-Islamic polemic against what Christians perceived as a scandalous sexual sensuality of the Muslim hereafter, but consciously or unconsciously the author reflects a perception that the modern phenomenon of Muslim suicide bombing has its origins in a particular reading of the Quran and that the way to deal with the current crisis in relation with Muslims is simply to discredit such reading.
If proof were needed that the Quran is a powerful book the events around the little known evangelical minister in Florida and his proclaimed aim to burn copies of the Quran on the ninth anniversary of the September 11th events confirmed it.
Most of the people involved just as those in Pakistan, India and Afghanistan who demonstrated against the protected book burning by burning flags, by killing people, and by being killed had most probably never read the book. But this was essentially a war of powerful symbols.”
“Let me now come to my first topic: Arabic as a central issue of Quranic Revelation.
Beyond these often scandalous attitudes which I mentioned, the question remains: What exactly constitutes the attraction, the power of the Quran?
There are few cultures in the world more linguistically oriented than the Arab culture. And the main reason for this unique orientation is, of course, the Quran and the impact it had and has on the Arabic language and its history. If it makes sense at all to speak of a sacred language, I’m not altogether sure that it does, certainly Arabic would be first choice. No other sacred book has shaped the culture of its speakers in a comparable way with the possible exception of Hebrew.
The relation between the Arabic Quran and the history of the Arabic language is a topic of this lecture and the related question of whether and how the Quran is translatable will be the subject of my last lecture tomorrow.
The Quran is for the believer the last revelation. From here on, God will not speak anymore to mankind until the Day of Judgment. So the history of post-Quranic Arabic is theologically speaking the history of the language in which the most important things for the spiritual future of mankind have already been said.
The Arabic language of the Quran is not only its linguistic medium but also an important topic of Quranic revelation.
While similar ideas exist in other monotheistic scriptures as well there is one aspect of the Quran and its language that is unique. And that aspect is that the Arabic language of the Quran is not only its linguistic medium but also an important topic of Quranic revelation. The Quran is the only Scripture I know whose medium of revelation is in the center of its message. The Quran is itself and at the same time always about itself. I think the Quran is the most self-referential scripture in the history of religious thought.
No wonder then that the Quran is also historically the first Arabic document that mentions the Arabic language. A clear Arabic…In the Quran, the word Arabic always refers to language, never to a tribe or to a region. For important parts of the Quran, the fact that the prophet Muhammad that his message was in Arabic was the major difference between Muslim revelation and all previous revelation: Jewish, Christian, and others. And at the time during which Muhammad received the message, not all Arabs or Muslims, but all followers of the prophet were Arabs.
The prophet’s recited message was directed initially to speakers of Arabic only. The Muslim community began as a community of speakers of Arabic. Islam was the religion of the Arabs before becoming a universal religion.
The inimitability of the Quran (I’jaz al-Quran)
And there are two main ideas that have developed in marking the Qur’ans unique religious status in comparison with other scriptures. There is first the affirmation of what is somewhat clumsily called the inimitability of the Quran. The I’jaz al-Quran in Arabic. And there is second the denial of the createdness of the Quran that is to say that the assertion of the Quran as God’s Word, eternally preexistent with God. The Quran insists that its verses are the best speech….This is often translated as the most beautiful speech, but it is not completely clear whether this refers only or even primarily to the rhetorical aspect. One thing is clear, the Quranic voice is matchless. A Quranic surah is often not so much a report about revelation, but a protocol of revelation. And the Quran itself does not directly attest to its primarily aesthetic supremacy, but in post-Quranic times the rhetorical beauty of the Quranic word becomes part of its inimitability.
The uncreatedness of the Quran
While there are many verses in the Quran referring to its inimitable character, there is not a shred of scriptural evidence that the Quran for the second concept the dogma of the uncreatedness of the Quran. This notion was developed by early Muslim theology in the 9th century when the caliphate had been transferred to Baghdad. Scholars combined the two concepts of inimitability on the one hand and uncreatedness on the other hand in the Muslim collective imaginaire. This made the status of Jewish and Christian scripture in the eyes of their believers pale in comparison with the status of the Quran for a Muslim.
The Quran and Competition with Cultural and other Religious Backgrounds
There is a distinct element of inter-religious and inter-scriptural outstripping and topping here that has as far as I see not yet received sufficient attention. In such a context, the competition for scriptural attractiveness must have played an essential part. The Quranic paradise is far more attractive than its counterpart in the Christian Scripture. Conversely, the tortures of the Quranic hell are much more graphic and cruel than its Christian parallels.
It makes sense that the new prophet’s message about the hereafter could be more attractive and more terrifying at the same time. Both aspects were part of the struggle for the minds of the new group of followers of the prophet and of the prospective novices(?). Following this line, the Quran revealed itself as a document to outstrip and top all other scripture. The Quran was therefore, from its beginning, a highly competitive text. It was also a highly contested text. The emerging new community of “Muslims” – we are not really sure what “Muslims” meant at this time and whether it always meant the same thing in the document of the Quran – the emerging young community of “Muslims” who may have had Jewish, Christian, pagan, or other background, had to distance itself from competing cultural and religious tendencies, powers, and texts.
It also had to defend itself. There were many well-known stories of religious narratives circulating in this intensely syncretistic milieu and they were usually woven around a hero. There was Joseph and his brothers, Yusuf in the Quran, the sleepers of Ephesus, Ashabu Al-Kahf (the people of the cave), Alexander the Great (Dhul Qarnayn), and many many others.
The Joseph story in the Quran
There was also inter-denominational competition and exclusion but they co-existed with a certain multi-confessional inclusiveness and the emerging new community not only had to show that it was equal but that it was superior. The Joseph story is told in great detail in Surah 12. It is the most detailed narrative in the Quran and in its introductory verses the privileged voice that speaks to the prophet says, “We will relate to you the fairest of stories… in that we have revealed to you this Quran. This is by the way, this Quran shows that in the Quran the word “Quran” never means the whole corpus, but almost always a fragment, a part of the text that we consider the Quran.
This super human “We” – “We will related to you the fairest of stories” – carries emphasis in Arabic. What the audience is going to hear is a well-known story the verse says. But this recitation, this Quranic version of it, is in Arabic and it is the fairest version of them all.
The Challenge Verses of the Quran
This outstripping is a strong element in Quranic discourse and it is perhaps most clearly seen in the Quran’s appraisal of its own language, Arabic. There are a number of verses which I call the ‘Challenge Verses’ …that encapsulate this idea. The enemies of the prophet accused him of “forging” the verses that he recited. And in the Quran the privileged voice answers, “Or do they say (these people) why he has forged it saying… ‘then produce a Surah like it and call upon whom you can apart from God if you speak truly.'” And the culminating point is reached in Surah 17, “If men and jinn banded together to produce the like of this Quran they would never produce its like, not though they backed one another.”
This was the scriptural cornerstone of the conviction that the Quran could not be surpassed, not even by the most eloquent. The whole Quran became a miracle. It was not only true in its narratives, it was not only wise and binding in its prescriptions and prohibitions, it was not only true in its prediction of the future, it was also the purest and the most elogent Arabic speech possible, and surpassed all humanly achievable excellence.
The hermeneutic circle of the Quran
The existence of the Quran was the proof of the divine origin of Muhammad’s recitations. And this dogma like many dogmas, religious dogmas, was based on a hermeneutic circle: The Quran is God’s Word, therefore the Quran is true. As the Quran says that it is God’s Word, the Quran is truly God’s Word.
The other theological tenent concerning the Quran was that God’s Word was not created in time but was co-eternal with God. Protected by this double wall of two dogmas, the Quranic text reached its highest possible status for the Muslim community. It was theologically impossible that such a text could be topped or even equalled. Any human attempt to compete with the Quran was soon considered tantamount to heresy, at least in Muslim orthodoxy.
The dissension of the Mu’tazilites
There were also other dissenting views. Some Muslim philosophers in Baghdad argued the composition of the Quran is not a miracle. Human beings are capable of the same and better. These were the Mu’tazilites, a philosophical group, who discussed this and talked like this. But, many Muslims long regarded such thinkers as heretics and still do.
The overwhelming emotive and aesthetic quality of the early prophetic revelations in Mecca is life innumerous Muslim narratives about the earliest recitations of the Quran. Legendary as they are, they confirmed the Quranic self-vision. People convert to Islam after they’ve heard only one verse recited. These Quranic revelations are above all stunning, overpowering, frightening, tears and prostrations, shivering and trembling are adequate human reactions to this overwhelming character of Quranic recitations.
For the reciter, it was a laudable sign if he himself was moved to tears by his own recitation.
In latter times books were written on the those who had been slain by the Quran; that is to say, people who had died under the impression made when the Quran was recited to them. In all these cases, the rhetorical magic of Quranic speech is fully effective only when the Quran is recited and orally produced, not by the written word.
And here lies one of the numerous unsolved contradictions of the Quranic message: The Quran is primarily read, recited, orally produced. Quran after all means recitation. Reading in this context never means reading in the shade of a lamp a book. It’s an oral phenomenon with oral in the sense of referring to the mouth and oral referring to the ears. Oral in both senses. But the Quran is also a scripture. It’s a kitab; it’s the kitab; it’s the book of the Muslims and the dialectical tension between these two concepts is very much in the center of modern scholarship on the Quran.” [Dr. Stefan Wild discusses this more during the question and answer period, 50:00-51:53. Dr. Wild says the Quran is an internally contradictory book.]
The difference betwen Muslim recitation of the Quran and Jewish recitation of the Torah
And in this connection we find an interesting and little noticed difference between Muslim Scripture and Jewish Scripture. The Jewish recital of the Torah in the Jewish liturgy has to read the holy text in the sense that he has to have the written text before his eyes and follow it, assisted if necessary by a Torah finger. The Muslim reciter is allowed and even encouraged to liturgically recite the memorized Quran by heart without access to the written text and that is why Muslim culture knew and knows so many famous blind reciters of the Quran. Taha Hussein, one of the greatest Arab intellectuals of the 20th century was blind from childhood on and was by his parents or by school teacher trained early to know the Quran by heart and to recite it because this was one of the very few careers open to a blind boy.
Estimates are that the in the Middle Ages as many as 10% of the Quran readers were blind. In the Jewish tradition, as far as I know, a blind reciter of the Torah in the Jewish service would be unthinkable.
Non-Muslim rejection of the rhetorical power and the beauty of the Quranic text
There is now, and that is very funny or very strange, an amazing tradition of non-Muslim scorn for Muslim admiration of the rhetorical power and the beauty of the Quranic text. Non-Muslims, of course, are not expected to share Muslim dogma, of course. Especially when aesthetic value judgments are concerned, but the hostility of non-Muslim scholarly responses to Muslim concepts of the status of their holy book was almost limitless.
The Quran was accused of repetitions and grammatical mistakes, of ridiculous blunders and incredible errors. Many orientalists – and I use the term now in the Saidian [Edward Said] sense – were convinced that the idea of the miraculous character of the Quran could be scientifically proven to be erroneous. Muslims were simply laboring under a misconception when they claimed that the Quran was all-inspiringly beautiful. Enlightened and disinterested orientalist studies could objectively show and prove that the Quran was not divine and not inimitable.
Stefan Wild argues that Muslim judgments about the Quran is aesthetic; a subjective taste or preference
On the contrary, the Quran was boring and ugly, stupid and repelent. Should we laugh or cry when we read today Theodor Nöldeke, the great German orientalist of the 19th and early 20th century, when Theodor Nöldeke warned, “One has always to keep in mind that the prophet did not address academically trained Europeans.” There is a profound and systematic misconception of Nöldeke. To scorn Muslims because they are deeply moved by the rhetorical power of Quranic recitation just because non-believers are not impressed misunderstands the nature of aesthetic judgments. An Afghan Talib will most probably not share a fairly wide spread western delight with Johann Sebastian Bach’s passions. The Afghan Talib is of course entitled to his judgment. Taste is subjective and so is a collectively mediated taste. Beauty is always in the eyes of the beholder or, in our case, the ear of the listener.
The problem is that there was and still is a tendency among non-Muslim scholars to think that what they consider their enlightened and disinterested quest for academic truths. Is there lack of appreciation of the Quranic language the aura of “objective scholarship?”
Stefan Wild gives examples of those who appreciated the magical quality of Quranic lanugage
But the luster of the Quranic language affected also non-Muslim Arabs. Edward Kharrat, an influential modern Egyptian novelist, describes in an autobiographical text how proud he was as a non-Muslim Copt when his teacher asked him to recite surahs of the Quran. Al-Kharrat describes how he was “enthralled by the rhythm of the phrases” and how he envied his Muslim classmates for having such a wonderful book as the foundation of their religion.
For a non-Arabic speaker this magic quality of the Quranic Arabic and of Muslim religious discourse is hard to pin down. Nasr Abu Zayd…called this magic quality of the Quranic language, “the emotional temptation of Arabic” and he also pointed out its abuse, “the … of religious extremists rests partially on the fact that they use the well worn patterns of classical Arabic. Irrespective of what they are actually saying, their language sounds scholarly and familiar, serious and reliable, yet intimate. And this magic works especially well with the less educated who themselves cannot speak this high language.”
One can observe this even as an outsider in many Arabic talk shows for instance on the TV channel Al Jazeera when a Muslim religious scholar quotes the Quran or talks about an Islamic subject in such a setting. The register of his voice often becomes louder, deeper, slower, and more dramatic. The eulogies after the name of God or the name of the prophet are rolled out in full awe inspiring length, “Muhammad ‘salla Allaahu ‘alayhi wa salaam“. This type of speaking commands a respect and the agreement of the audience. Interruption is impossible. Contradiction becomes very difficult.
Let me come to the second part of this lecture: The Quran in the history of the Arabic language. With the beginning of the spread of Islam to non-Arabic speaking people, Arabic became the prestiage language of Muslim culture. Grammarians and lexicographers watched over it and fought what they called mistakes, linguistic corruption… Arabic words and so on.
Historically, it was probably inevitable that the dogma of the inimitability of the Arabic Quran develop into a common view that Arabic as such was superior to other languages. In spite of its luster, it was in the course of time gradually rivalled and eventually superceded by languages such as Persian or Ottoman Turkish. Even at that time however, Arabic flourished as an international language of Muslim law and theology, Arabic poetry, Arab literature survived in the Arabic speaking areas of the Muslim world.
Pan-Arabism and the bond of the Arabic language
When in the second half of the 19th century national ideas and nationalistic ideologies swept the Ottoman Empire, Arab nationalism grew and it turned out that the firmest …in reality perhaps the only sustainable time that united the Arabs was the language.
Sāti` al-Husrī, one of the venerable pioneers of pan-arabism who died in 1968, studied the works of the German philosopher’s Helde and Fichte to find out that in the 18th and 19th centuries there had been a bond between Germans before a German state was born. That bond was the German language.
Edmund Talbot, a Lebonese Christian, celebrated the Arabic of the Quran and said, “For 2,000 years the Arabic language has not changed in the least. This is the very same Arabic which is still being used as a medium by the literate of the Arab world. The same grammatical rules govern it as they govern the old Quranic prosidy. What a unique privilege in the world this eternal maturity” and “thanks to the Quran the summa of the principles of correct speech Arabic has been spared degeneration.”
Now linguists of course are wary of confusing linguistic change with degeneration and we frown on such sweeping statements, but they reflect an idea that preserves the attraction of Arabic to this day.
Sāti` al-Husrī already had argued that Arabs should use their common language to build an Arab state. This common language must not be the language of the Arabic dialects but had to be the formerly written language of classical Arabic. And the dogma of the… Quranic text as a unifying factor for the Muslim community was secularized by Arab nationalists and used for what might be called linguistic nation building.
Classical Arabic in the garb of what became modern standard Arabic was the only sustainable guarantee of a pan-Arab national unity. It turned out to be the only hope for politically, socially, and culturally unifying the desperately divided Arab societies.
Christians played, by the way, an important role in combining these idea of Arabism with their own ideologies. Generally Arab Christians and Arab Muslims aimed at adapting written Arabic to modernity without infringing on its normative and unifying power and this left the basic rules of classical and of Quranic morphology and syntax untouched.
The German historian and jurist Carl Schmitt once claimed that most important European notions regarding the modern state can be regarded as secularized concepts of Christian theology. A similar case can be made for a national Arab language as a secularized bond of Islam. Some key terms of the political vocabulary of modern Arabic…point in this direction. The Quranic background of such essentially political concepts is clear.
Let me switch to my last subject: Modern Arabic Poetry and the Quran. The Quran plays an important role in modern Arabic literature. It plays an especially vital role for Arabic poetry.
This is not very easy to prove this in such a lecture but I will do my best in trying….
Stefan Wild discusses the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish.
Can the Quran be considered a work of world literature? Yes, it can. But there we first have to step outside the realm of the Arabic language and of Muslim culture and second, face modernity. In the last 150 years the Quran was turned into world literature by the hundreds of translators of the Quran, many of them non-Arabs, many of them non-Muslim…This is why my third and my last lecture will be on the problems and pitfalls, the greatness and the weakness, the glory and the risk of translating what according to many Muslims is untranslatable.
Thank you very much.”
Questions and Answers
Stefan Wild discusses whether Arabic is a sacred language. Stefan Wild gives an anthropological reply and not a theological reply saying that “for the Muslim” it is “sacred.” On the distinction between anthropology and theology, see my comments below.
Stefan Wild discusses the scattered letters, Muqatta’at, in the Quran and how nobody knows their meaning, “nobody knows, and I am sure that nobody ever will know” what they mean.
In this lecture, Stefan Wild compared the aesthetic beauty of the Quran with Johann Sebastian Bach. I doubt most Muslims would accept such a comparison because they do not believe that Bach’s work – great as it is – is divine revelation.
Why would Stefan Wild make such a comparison? It seems that Stefan Wild views the theological beliefs of Muslims from a perspective of anthropology. What Stefan Wild says about Muslim beliefs is a study of man (anthropology) and not a study of what God has or has not revealed (theology).
Stefan Wild is a brilliant man. He knows much about philology; the Quran; Arabic literature; Muslims beliefs; etc. Stefan Wild is most helpful in understanding Islam and the Quran. That’s why I’ve taken the time to transcribe his Harvard lectures. But what, if anything, has Stefan Wild learned about God in his study of the Quran? These are not unimportant or irrelevant questions.
Theology is not anthropology. Theology can make true statements about God just as anthropology can make true statements about man and what men believe.
Stefan Wild’s comparison of Muslim beliefs with his personal beliefs about Bach exposes a flaw with many academics going back to the German liberalism of the late 19th and early 20th century which Gresham Machen wrote about,
The student of the New Testament should be primarily an historian. The centre and core of all the Bible is history. Everything else that the Bible contains is fitted into an historical framework and leads up to an historical climax. The Bible is primarily a record of events… Give up history, and you can retain some things. You can retain a belief in God. But philosophical theism has never been a powerful force in the world. You can retain a lofty ethical ideal. But be perfectly clear about one point—you can never retain a gospel. For gospel means “good news”, tidings, information about something that has happened. In other words, it means history. A gospel independent of history is simply a contradiction in terms (History and Faith).
Academics who study things like Islam, the Quran, Christianity, and the Bible could learn much about God (theology). Yet, it’s sad how many either do not learn or they choose not to share their knowledge about God. We need to go further and ask, Is the Quran objectively and theologically true? Did Muhammad objectively speak with an angel from heaven? Are the theological beliefs of Muslims true?
Majid Fakhry, “Philosophy and the Qurʾān.” Encyclopaedia of the Qurʾān. General Editor: Jane Dammen McAuliffe . Brill (Leiden and Boston), 2005. CD-ROM version.
W. Madelung, The controversy on the creation of the Koran, in Orientalia Hispanica sive studia F.M. Pareja octogenaria dicata, ed. J.M. Barrál, i, Leiden 1974
W. Madelung, The origins of the controversy concerning the creation of the Qurʾān, in W. Madelung, Religious schools and sects in medieval Islam, London 1985, Nr. V, 504-25
Richard C. Martin, “Createdness of the Qurʾān.” Encyclopaedia of the Qurʾān. General Editor: Jane Dammen McAuliffe . Brill (Leiden and Boston), 2005. CD-ROM version.
A. S. Tritton, Muslim Theology, published by Luzac & Co., Ltd. London, 1947.
W. Montgomery Watt’s book, The Formative Period of Islamic Thought, Edinburgh University Press, 1973.
Stefan Wild, “Lost in Philology? The Virgins of Paradise and the Luxenberg Hypothesis” in The Quran in Context, edited by Neuwirth, Sinai, Marx [Brill 2010], pp. 625-647.