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The Quran

May 27, 2020

(2) The Quran

The Quran embodies Muhammad’s prophethood. It provides the reason for distinguishing between truth and falsity. Together with the ‘seven oft-repeated’ (sab’ al-mathani) it constitutes the book of ambiguous verses. The Quran reveals the ‘clear signs’ which represent the truth …  The Quran is the truth.

The Words of God (kalimat Allah).
Before we are able to define what Allah’s words are, we need to distinguish between the different categories of human speech. In Arabic, words that are spoken but not understood (aswat) are distinguished from words that are spoken and understood (qaul). If one overhears a conversation in Chinese and does not understand a word, the spoken utterances are just incomprehensible ‘sounds’ (aswat). If one is Chinese and understands every word of the conversation, the words we hear would be classified as ‘meaningful’ (qaul).

Furthermore, if the words are spoken with fluency and clarity, the words are defined as ‘good speech’ (fasiha). If words are used eloquently and their meanings well expressed, they are called ‘intelligent speech’ (qaul). Intelligent speech (qaul ) is the realm of ‘rhetoric’(al-balagha), whereas good speech is the realm of language fluency or competence (al-lisan). We therefore distinguish between ‘sounds’ that exist objectively but make no sense and ‘sounds’ as words, whose meaning is perfectly clear.

As for the latter category, we distinguish between words whose meanings are registered but not pondered upon by their receivers, on the one hand, and words which are ‘food for thought’, words meant to evoke conscious reflections in the receivers, on the other. Such reflections can be stimulated either by oral speech or by a written presentation of the (silent) word.

If we apply these categories of human speech to the Quran we are faced with a dilemma, because if we claim that the words of the Qur’anic text, written or orally recited, are the words of God, we would turn His words into human speech, and Allah would become an Arabic native speaker. But since this would violate God’s unity (‘Say: “But in truth He is the one God…’An’am:19) and His uniqueness (‘Say: “He is God, the one and only”’Ikhlas:1),

Allah is neither Arab nor of any other nationality. An analogy between God’s words and human speech must be rejected. In the Qur’anic text, the signified (divine) meaning of words must be found outside the text, not in human speech. The word ‘sun’, for example, signifies—if understood as Allah’s word (kalima)—the sun itself, not just the meaning of the word ‘sun’. The word ‘moon’ signifies, or better is, the moon in space, not just the signified meaning of ‘moon’. Allah’s word ‘nose’ is the nose, not just the signified meaning of ‘nose’, and so forth. In other words, the essence of Allah’s words cannot be found in the Qur’anic text but in the objective, material existence of the universe, that is, in the general laws that govern the cosmos, nature and human history. Or, if put dialectically, the words of God are the essence of the entire universal existence which, in its status as the divine signified, is the essence of God’s words (kalimat Allah).

Because of this extra-textual link between Allah’s words and their signified essence, we are assured that His words cannot be changed or modified. Since nobody can interfere with the course of nature and since nobody can turn the clock back, human beings can only accept or ignore God’s words but they cannot be changed.

And recite (and teach) what has been revealed to you of the book of your Lord: none can change His words [la-mubaddil li-kalimatihi], and none will you find as a refuge other than Him. (Kahf:27) This verse proves that the essence of Allah’s words resides outside the text. Just imagine someone reading the following verse as representing (essentially) the word of God: God (thus) directs you as regards your children’s (inheritance): to the male, a portion equal to that of two females… (Nisa”:11) Imagine further that someone came along and

  1. a) ignored this instruction and gave his daughters twice as much as his sons, and
  2. b) tampered with the text by changing its words around, then verse 27 of

Surat Kahf (‘none can change His words’) would actually be contradicted by what this person just did.

And if someone is able to change ‘His words’ so easily, the self-definition of the text that it cannot be changed would actually be a lie. But to find a lie in Allah’s text is, categorically, impossible. We have to accept the fact that Allah’s words encompass more than what any human language can ever express (as text). If He were to express His words, that is, the totality of objective reality, in written (human) text, ‘oceans of ink’ would not be enough to exhaust Allah’s knowledge: Say [Prophet], ‘If the whole ocean were ink for writing the words of my Lord [kalimat rabbi], it would run dry before those words were exhausted’—even if We were to add another ocean to it. (Kahf:109)

The Truth ( al-Haqq)

Allah is the truth and His words are the truth. He establishes what is true through His words. The existence of the universe, which is outside the human mind, is the sacred abode of God—He is the reality. This all-encompassing existence is expressed in His words which are thus also true. Hence, Allah is the truth, and His words are the truth. His words are rooted in the truth, not in human language. Among the ninety-nine beautiful names of Allah you will not find the attribute ‘the speaker’.

But in order to instruct humankind about the truth, God transformed the laws of objective reality into human language. The ninety-nine beautiful names are therefore derived from human concepts. Human beings understand the truth of objective reality according to what their limited minds can grasp.

Such understanding is relative and confined to what the dominant episteme allows us to comprehend. The language of the Quran must therefore allow such piecemeal understanding, inasmuch as it must guarantee an ever-growing awareness of objective reality because human societies develop and the intellectual horizon of people broadens day by day. The Quran does allow such relative and gradual understanding because of its revelation in Arabic which has the quality of ‘ambiguity’ ( al-tashabuh).

God has chosen Arabic as the vessel for His divine references to objective reality because it provides the necessary dialectics between the absolute objective truth of God and its relative, subjective understanding by human beings. This dialectic guarantees that human societies, in spite of their diversity and multiplicity of interpretations, participate equally in the divine truth and take from it what they can comprehend.

This is the true explanation of why the Quran is called inimitable and why its opponents were overwhelmed when they heard it: When Our clear signs are rehearsed to them, the unbelievers say, of the truth [al-Haqq] when it comes to them: “This is evident sorcery!” (Ahqaf:7)