There are many definitions of the Qur’an, but they differ in wording only. There is no difference of opinion as to what the Qur’an is, but merely what the best way to define it is.1
One of the more appropriate definitions is as follows: 2 The Qur’an is the Arabic Speech (Kalam) of Allah, which He revealed to Muhammad (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) in wording and meaning, and which has been preserved in the mushafs, and has reached us by mutawatir transmissions, and is a challenge to mankind to produce something similar to it.
The breakdown of the definition
The statement in the definition, “The Qur’an is the Arabic …” implies that the Qur’an is in the Arabic language. This, therefore, implies that a translation of the Qur’an into any other language cannot be considered the Qur’aan.3
Imam az-Zarkashi said, “Know that the Qur’an has been revealed in the language of the Arabs. Therefore, it is impermissible to recite it in any other language.” 4
There are eleven references in the Qur’an that it is in the Arabic language, amongst them the verses,
“…this (the Qur’an) is in a clear Arabic tongue.” (Surah An-Nahl, 16 : 103)
“Verily, We have revealed this as an Arabic Qur’an … ” (Surah Yusuf, 12 : 2)
“And thus We have inspired you with an Arabic Qur’an … ” (Surah Ash-Shura, 42 : 7)
Since the Qur’an has described itself as being in Arabic, it is clear that any non- Arabic speech cannot be the Qur’an.
However, is every single word in the Qur’an originally from the Arabic language? In other words, does the Qur’an use words from other languages?
There exist narrations from some of the Companions, and many grammarians after them, concerning certain words in the Qur’an which were claimed to be of non-Arabic origin. Thus, for example, Ibn Abbas claimed that the word ‘toor’ was Syriac for mountain, tafiqa meant ‘to intend’ in the Roman language, hudna was Hebrew for repentance, sijl was Persian for book, sundus meant a soft cloth in Hindi (probably referring to Sanskrit), miskhat was a shining lamp in an Ethiopian language, and sirri was Greek for a small river.5 His student Ikrimah was also of the same opinion.
This opinion led some later scholars to come forth with numerous examples of words that were claimed to be non-Arabic in origin, yet mentioned in the Qur’an As-Suyuti (d. 911 A.11.) compiled a list of over a hundred words in the Qur’an that were claimed to be non-Arabic in origin, and even versified these words in a poem.6
Other scholars, however, denied the claim that there could be any non-Arabic words in the Qur’an. Basing their evidences on the Quranic verses quoted above, they held the view that these verses precluded the existence of foreign words in the Quran. Imam ash-Shafi (d. 204 A.M.) was particularly strict in this matter, for he wrote concerning some grammarians of his time, “And some have spoken in this topic (of foreign words in the Quran), and had they restrained themselves from speaking it would have been better, and safer for them! For some of them have presumed that the Quran is part Arabic and part foreign! Yet the Quran is explicit that there is nothing in the Book of Allah except that it is in the language of the Arabs …” 7
In attempting to refute the opinion that the Quran contains foreign words, at- Tabari (d. 310 A.H.) claimed that these particular words were used by both of these languages simultaneously, and thus the Companions’ claims that these words were non-Arabic only meant that they were also used by other languages as well.8 However, this is not a satisfactory explanation, as the word must have originated in one of the two languages.
Abu Ubayd al-Qasim ibn Sallam (d. 22-4 A.11.) explained the above narrations from Ibn Abbas correctly when he said, “The correct opinion with me is that both of the above opinions (meaning that there are foreign words in the Quran, and that the Quran is only in Arabic) are correct. This is because the origin of these words is foreign, like the scholars said (referring to the narrations of Ibn Abbas). However, these words entered into the Arabic language, and were transformed to Arabic words, and the foreign letters were exchanged for Arabic ones, until they became a part of Arabic. Then the Quran was revealed, and by this time these words had mixed in with the Arabic language. Therefore, he who says that the Quran is only in Arabic is correct, and he who says that there are some foreign words is also correct.” 9
In other words, these particular phrases are originally non-Arabic in origin. However, as is the case with any language, these words were ‘borrowed’ by Arabic, and were used so commonly that they became a part of the Arabic language. Thus, for all practical purposes, these words became a part of fluent Arabic, and were used in poetry… and if an Arab were ignorant of these words, it was as if he were ignorant of other Arabic words.10
Therefore, the correct opinion is that there are no non-Arabic words in the Quran, although there are words that have non-Arabic origins. Due to the continued usage of these words by the Arabs, however, they can no longer be considered foreign.
The next part of the definition of the Quran states that it is the “…Speech (kalam) of Allah…” The Quran is the Speech (kalam) of Allah, that He spoke in a manner that befits Him. This excludes all speech that emanated from men, Jinn, and angels. Due to the importance of the fact that the Quran is the kalam of Allah, and the different philosophies that have evolved concerning this topic, this part of the definition will be discussed in greater detail in the next section.
The next part of the definitions states – “…which He revealed to Muhammad … ” This excludes any other Speech (kalam) of His that He spoke. The kalam of Allah is infinite, as the Quran says,
“And if all the trees on the earth were pens, and the sea (were ink wherewith to write), with seven seas behind it to add to its supply, still the Words (kalam) of Allah would not be exhausted. Verily, Allah is All Mighty, All Wise” (Surah Luqman, 31 : 27)
Therefore, this part of the definition limits the Quran to the kalam that Allah revealed to Muhammad (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam), and excludes any Speech that He spoke to other than the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam). The Quran is specifically the revelation sent down to the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam).
“And truly, this Quran is a revelation from the Lord of the Worlds; which the Trustworthy Spirit (Angel Jibril) brought down; Upon your heart so that you may be among the warners.” (Surah Ash-Shura, 26 : 192-194)
The next part of the definitions states: “ … in wording and meaning … “. This part of the definition affirms that the words of the Quran are from Allah, and not from Jibril or even Muhammad (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam), as some of the innovated sects of Islam, such as the Asharis, allege. According to some scholars, this part of the definition also excludes hadith Qudsi,11 since, according to these scholars, hadith Qudsi is only inspired in meaning, while its wording is from the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam).
The next part of the definition states: “ … which has been preserved in the mushafs … ”. A mushaf is a written copy of the Quran. When used in this definition, it refers specifically to the copies that the Caliph Uthman ordered to be written 12 Therefore, it includes one hundred and fourteen surahs, starting with Surah al-Fatihah and ending with Surah an-Nas. The Quran must be written in any one of the mushafs of Uthman.
This part of the definition excludes the verses that used to be a part of the Quran, such as those whose recitation was abrogated (the mansukh), and those readings that were abrogated by the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) before his death, when he recited the Quran for the last time 13 The reading must be in at least one mushaf of Uthman, and not necessarily in all of them.14
The next part of the definition states: ‘… and has reached us by mutawatir transmissions…’. A transmission is called mutawatir when it is reported by a large number of people, such that they could not all be mistaken or intentionally forge a lie. The Quran has reached us through muttawatir chains of narration.15. In other words, in each generation so many people narrated it that there is no question of its authenticity. There are some readings, however, that have not reached us in mutawatir form (in other words, they are ahad 16). Such readings are not considered part of the Quran. This point will be further elaborated in a later chapter.
The Iast part of the definition states: “ … and is a challenge to mankind to produce something similar to it.” This part of the definition is extraneous in that it does not remove anything that should not be a part of the Quran (unless one believes that hadith Qudsi is inspired in meaning and wording, in which case this portion would remove hadith Qudsi as being part of the Quran). This portion is essential, however, in that it mentions the miraculous nature (i’jaaz) of the Quran. Allah has challenged mankind to produce even a chapter similar to it, and this challenge is reserved for the Quran, and not for the hadith.17
It should be mentioned that the word “Quran” can be used for the whole Quran and for a part of the Quran. Thus, if someone has recited a few verses from the Quran, or has completed the recitation of the whole Quran, it is possible to say in either case, “You have recited the Qur’aan.” 18
- A good definition must include everything that is essential, exclude everything that is extraneous, and be as succinct as possible.
- cf. az-Zarqani, v. 1, p. 21.
- See Ch. 15, The Translation of the Quran, for a more detailed discussion of this point.
- az-Zarkashi, v. I, p. 287.
- Examples taken from az-Zarkashi, v.l, p. 288.
- as-Suyuti, v. I, p. 181 -84.
- az-Zarkashi, v. 1, p. 287, quoting from ar-Risalah.
- as-Suyuti, v. I, p. 178.
- az-Zarkashi. via, p. 290.
- az-Zarkashi. v. 1. p. 289.
- A Hadith Qudsi is defined to be a hadith in which the Prophet (Sallallahu a’laihi wa sallam) says, “Allah says…”, attributing the speech to Allah. This type of hadith is discussed in more detail in the next chapter of this book, under the heading, ‘The Difference between the Quran and Hadith Qudsi’.
- See Ch. 8, ‘The Collection of the Quran’ for further details.
- See Ch.’s 10 and 13, ‘The Ahruf of the Quran’ and ‘Abrogation in the Quran” for an explanation of the mansukh and variant readings.
- The mushafs that ’Uthman wrote were not exactly the same. See Ch. 8 for further details.
- See ‘The Conditions for an Authentic Qiraat’ in Ch. 11 for a more detailed discussion of this point.
- Meaning the shadh readings, and not the ‘ahad’ definition of as-Suyuti; see Ch. 11 for further details.
- See Ch. 15, which is entirely devoted to discussing the concept of i’jaaz in the Quran, for further details.
- cf. az-Zarqani, v. 1. p. 22.
From the book: AN INTRODUCTION TO THE SCIENCES OF THE QURAN