August 29, 2005
God's chosen tongues
BY Devin Stewart
Religions, like nationalisms, often are imagined by their adherents to be unique and indigenous despite abundant evidence to the contrary. Christians, for example, regularly forget that Jesus was actually Jewish, that the Last Supper was a Passover Seder, and that reindeer are exceedingly rare in the Middle East. Similar blind spots are observable in the Islamic tradition.
While the Qur’an portrays Islam as an authentic continuation of Judaism and Christianity, a number of Islamic doctrines stress its unique (and therefore superior) representation of God’s will, serving to bolster an Islamic theory of native origin.
The Prophet Muhammad’s claimed illiteracy obviates the accusation that the Qur’an draws directly on Biblical material. The assertion of taHriif, the idea that the extant scriptures of the Jews and Christians have been significantly altered or doctored, has impugned even their basic validity for Muslims. Another key element of this ideology is the special status assigned to Arabic, considered the sacred language par excellence. Yet all of these standard articles of Islamic doctrine should be recognized as later constructs with limited support in the Qur’an.
The Qur’an insists it is a text in “plain Arabic.” Theologians and jurists since Muhammad ibn Idris al-Shafi’i (A.D. 767–820) have identified particular passages as unambiguous references to Arabic’s status as a sacred language, its superiority to other languages and the privileged access to knowledge of God’s will that native speakers of Arabic enjoy.
In extreme form, this ideology asserts that Arabic is the language spoken in paradise, the perfect linguistic system—in effect, God’s chosen tongue. Medieval Islamic scholarship did take into consideration the appearance of words of Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac, Greek, Persian and Ethiopic origin in the Qur’an itself. Even so, while correctly identifying the non-Arabic origins of many Qur’anic terms, traditional Islamic scholarship on the whole did not question Arabic’s special status as a sacred language. Those terms, it was argued, had been fully assimilated into Arabic before the Qur’an was revealed.
Though the Qur’an presents itself as miraculous and wondrous, it is positioned as one member in a class of sacred texts revealed by God—the same biblical God who parted the Red Sea—through the mediation of prophets. The label for this literary category is simply Kitaab, “book, scripture.” The category also includes the Torah, revealed to Moses; the Gospel, revealed to Jesus; the Psalms of David; and a text called the Scrolls of Abraham. Not a category of holy books in general, it is limited to the biblical tradition. While the Qur’anic references to these earlier scriptures do not include explicit statements about language, it is likely they were, by and large, imagined as being written primarily in Hebrew.
Three major traditions provide the main characters and narrative material of the Qur’an: the Hebrew Bible and Jewish tradition, the New Testament and Christian tradition, and pre-Islamic pagan traditions. Of these, the Hebrew Bible and its Jewish commentaries dominate. Moses is, after a fashion, the hero of the Qur’an, the single character mentioned most frequently. Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Isaac and Ishmael, Lot, Jacob, Joseph, Saul, David, Goliath, Solomon, the Queen of Sheba, Job, Ezekiel, Jonah and other figures also appear prominently in the text.
Many biblical concepts appear, often in terms that clearly derive from Hebrew or Aramaic. The number and usage of these lexical borrowings from Hebrew suggest not only a general familiarity with biblical religious concepts but also close textual links between the Qur’an and earlier biblical literature.
The Arabic Jahannam, one of the most frequent terms for Hell in the Qur’an, derives from Hebrew Ge Hinnom, “the Valley of (the Sons of) Hinnom,” originally an area south of Jerusalem that was the site of a dump
and/or human sacrifice (both associated with fire) that came to represent Hell.
The Arabic asbaaT, the term for the tribes of Israel, derives from Hebrew shvatim; the Arabic sakiina, “God’s presence,” from Hebrew shekhina; the Arabic al-Tuur, “Mount (Sinai),” from Aramaic Tuur, as opposed to Hebrew Har, “mountain,” and Arabic Jabal, “mountain.”
Puns in the Qur’an used by Jews and Israelites contemporary of biblical history appear to be based on underlying Hebrew terms. One example is the phrase raa`inaa, literally, “Pay attention to us” (2:104; 4:46). The 12th century Muslim commentator Zamakhsari, for example, states that raa`inaa is a word from Hebrew `ibraaniyyah or Aramaic/Syriac suryaaniyyah—used by the Jews to insult each other. In 1833, Abraham Geiger connected this expression with the Hebrew raa`, “evil, bad.” Apparently, some Jewish opponents of the Prophet would call for the Prophet’s attention while surreptitiously addressing him as “[our] evil one.”
In one verse, God instructs the Prophet, “Thus have We inspired in you an Arabic Qur’an so that you warn the Mother of Towns [Mecca] and those around it of the Day of Gathering. There is no doubt about that [day]: one group will be in Paradise, and one group will be in Hell” (Qur’an 42:7). According to this passage, the primary audience of the Prophet Muhammad are the inhabitants of Mecca and the surrounding region in Western Arabia. The Qur’an is thus a biblical text presented exceptionally in the Arabic tongue in order to make God’s message accessible to Arabs in particular.
While the Qur’anic theory of prophecy envisages a multiplicity of languages being used to deliver God’s message, the languages already evident in the biblical tradition hold a privileged position. Nowhere in the Qur’an does the word Hebrew appear, but there are unequivocal references to Hebrew writing and language in the text. Verse 16:103 remarks on an accusation that has been leveled against the Prophet: “Well We know that they say: He is being taught by a mere human. But the speech of the one whom they incorrectly point out is foreign, while this is clear Arabic speech.”
Some opponents of the Prophet have obviously identified a specific person as the Prophet’s “teacher,” from whom he had derived the contents of the Qur’an. The material in question was doubtless biblical, and, while the identity of this person is disputed, he was most likely a Jew with some scholarly background. The response argues that the Qur’an could not derive from such teachings because the person in question has a foreign tongue, while the Qur’an has been delivered in clear Arabic.
The linguistic medium of Arabic distinguishes the Qur’an from previous biblical scriptures, which it nevertheless follows and confirms. Given that the primary example of an earlier biblical text is the scripture of Moses, one must conclude that—according to the Qur’an—Hebrew (and not Arabic) is the default sacred language.
In this case and in others, Islamic ideologies focusing on the Qur’an and the origins of the faith pay a form of lip-service to biblical tradition, tending to minimize the extent and importance of this connection while necessarily admitting that it exists.
That this is so should not surprise us; signs of cultural hybridity are often selectively overlooked or interpreted away in defense of ideologies of purity and originality. Nevertheless, their remaining traces—often quite blatant, once one scratches the surface—invite us to appreciate the deep affinities, whether historical or typological, between cultural spheres viewed as rigidly divided and distinct.
This essay first appeared in the April/May 2005 issue of Academic Exchange and is reprinted with permission.