Linguistic problems in arabic Quran

The Arabic language is a descendent of the Aramaic language. The Arabic language used in the Qur’an originated in the region west of the Euphrates river in the fourth-fifth century AD. It was originally centered around al-Hira, about three miles from al-Kufa in southern Iraq, among the Christian tribes of al-Munathara that expanded its rule to the region of al-Anbar on the Euphrates west of Baghdad. Its origins then are the Christians of al-Hira and al-Anbar. Subsequently, the Arabic language dominated all the territory west of the Euphrates. That is probably why it is called Arabic (Arabi) from the word “western” (Gharbi). It influenced the Levant, and spread to Mecca and al-Higaz through trade and Christian evangelism.

It is important to distinguish between miracles of the almighty living God and accomplishments of natural human talents. The achievements of human talents and special abilities are not miracles. Some persons may be gifted physically—they have strong large bodies. Others may have strong photographic memories. Some are gifted in the area of languages. They have the natural ability to learn many languages, including unwritten dialects, quickly and retain them. Some are gifted in speech. They talk very well and make captivating speeches. Others may be gifted writers and poets. They author excellent prose and poetry. It is important to stress the fact that language fluency, authoring and speech abilities are human talents. They are not miracles of the living God. Therefore, it is inappropriate to call any book a miracle because of its eloquent language. Great works of gifted authors and poets could not be called miracles. For instance, we cannot call the Eliad and the Odyssey, the great works of the Greek poet Homer of the eighth century B.C., miracles. Neither can we call the plays of William Shakespeare, the great English writer of the sixteenth century A.D., miracles. By the same token, we could not consider the Qur’an a miracle, even if it were a great literary work, which it is not. The following analysis shows why the Qur’an is not a great literary work.

A. The Style of the Qur'an

The style of the Qur’an is a blend of rhetorical rhymed prose and a lyrical structure particularly adaptable for oral recitation, which was a common and a favorite mode of composition in Arabia at Muhammad’s time. The rhymed prose which dominates the Quranic style adheres to no meter, and was utilized extensively by the soothsayers of pagan Arabia. The Qur’an is in the dialect and style of the tribe of Quraysh of the sixth and seventh centuries Arabia, and therefore, does not reflect an independent heavenly source (Concise Encyclopedia of Islam, p. 228).

The rhyme is regularly maintained in the Qur’an. This often causes distortion and ambiguity in the Qur’anic text by the derangement of the order of words, by distorting nouns, and by changing verbal forms (e.g. using the imperfect instead of the perfect tense). In order to save the rhyme mount Sinai is called mount Sinin in Surah al-Tin 95: 2 instead of mount Sina’ as in Surah al-Mu’minun 23: 20. Similarly, Elijah is called Ilyasin in Surah al-Saffat 37: 130 instead of Ilyas as in Surah al-An’am 6: 85 and Surah al-Saffat 37: 123. In certain instances, the substance is modified to suit the requirements of the rhyme. In Surah al-Haqqah 69: 17, the unusual number of eight is used for the angels bearing the throne of God, because the Arabic word for “eight” fits the rhyme of the passage perfectly. This is despite the fact that the number “eight” has no theological significance. Surah al-Rahman 55: 46ff speaks of two heavenly gardens, each has two fountains and two kinds if fruits, etc. The number “two” is used simply because the Arabic dual termination “an” corresponds to the syllable that controls the rhyme of the whole Surah.

Although Arabia’s pre-Islamic history ended with the country still on the fringes of civilization, the sixth century AD saw the birth of Arabic literature, which was associated with the short-lived kingdom of Kinda (from about 480 to about 550 AD). Poetic talent flourished in the sixth and seventh centuries AD. The most famous poems were known as the seven golden odes. In fact, it was the custom of poets and orators of that time to hang up their compositions on the Kaaba in Mecca for every one to read and recite. That is why they were known as the hangings (al-Muallaqat). A famous poem of the poet Imru’ al-Qais (d. 540) was published in that way. Several lines of that poem are found in the Qur’an (al-Qamar 54: 1, 29, 31; ad-Duha 93: 1, 2; al-Anbiya 21: 96; al-Saffat 37: 61). In addition, words, thoughts and style of known poets and orators contemporary with Muhammad are found in the Qur’an. A few examples of those are Qus ibn Sa’idah al-Ayadi (d. 600), Qamaia ibn Abi al-Salat (d. 624), al-Haseen ibn Hamam (d. 611) [al-A’raf 7: 8, 9], Waraqa ibn Nofal (d. 592), and Antara al-Abasi (d. 610). Not only some of the works of contemporary poets and orators are found in the Qur’an, but also men like Nadir ibn Haritha (Canon Sell, Studies, p. 208), Hamzah ibn Ahed, and Musailama (McClintock and Strong, Cyclopedia, V:152) produced works like, and qualitatively better than, the Qur’anic text in eloquence. In addition, according to the Qur’an, the jinn (al-Hijr 15: 27 tells about creating the jinn from fire) contributed almost a whole chapter (Surah) into the Qur’an. It is Surah 72, and it is called by their name: Surah al-Jinn. Most of the verses in this Surah are words of the jinn, but the style is that of the Qur’an. Furthermore, Satan contributed into Surah al-Najm his satanic verses (al-Najm 53: 19-23), which were subsequently deleted.

Therefore, it is concluded that the challenge of the Qur’an to produce something like it: “Say: ‘Surely if men and Jinn were to gather together to produce the like of this Qur-an they could not produce its like, even if they backed up each other with help and support’” (al-Isra’ 17: 88; al-Baqarah 2: 23; Yunus 10: 38) was successfully and convincingly met both in the jahilia before Muhammad and during the time of Muhammad by Arab poets and orators, as well as by the jinn and Satan. In fact, Ali Dashti, the famous Iranian-Arab Muslim scholar, stated the following in his book, “Twenty Three Years: A study of the Prophetic Career of Muhammad,” Allen and Unwin, London, 1985:

"Among the Muslim scholars of the early period, before bigotry and hyperbole prevailed, were some such as Ebrahim an-Nazzam who openly acknowledged that the arrangement and syntax of the Qur'an are not miraculous and that works of equal or greater value could be produced by other God-fearing persons" (p. 48).

"It is widely held that the blind Syrian poet Abu'l-`Ala al-Ma'arri (979-1058) wrote his Ketab al-fosul wa' l-ghayat, of which a part survives, in imitation of the Qur'an" (p. 48).

"The Qur'an contains sentences which are incomplete and not fully intelligible without the aid of commentaries; foreign words, unfamiliar Arabic words, and words used with other than the normal meaning; adjectives and verbs inflected without observance of the concords of gender and number; illogically and ungrammatically applied pronouns which sometimes have no referent; and predicates which in rhymed passages are often remote from the subjects. These and other such aberrations in the language have given scope to critics who deny the Qur'an's eloquence. The problem also occupied the minds of devout Moslems. It forced the commentators to search for explanations and was probably one of the causes of disagreement over readings" (p. 48, 49).

Upon careful reading of the Qur’an, one realizes that Many of the longer Surahs are made up of passages from Muhammad's mission both at Mecca and at Medina. Within these composite long Surahs, the subject of the text varies from legal restriction to prophetic narratives, from ethical teaching to praises to God, etc., coupled with numerous catch-phrases. More often than not the different subjects of the longer Surahs have no logical connection with each other at all. Therefore, the Qur'an is quite a disjointed book. It is a collection of fragmentary texts and passages compiled into an unharmonious whole without respect to sequence, subject or theme.

B. Imperfect Grammar

Although the Qur’an states that it is in clear perfect Arabic tongue (al-Nahl 16: 103; al-Shu’ara’ 26: 195; al-Zumar 39: 28; al-Shura 42: 7; al-Zukhruf 43: 3), it could not be considered perfectly eloquent because of its imperfect Arabic grammar, its usage of foreign words, and its spelling errors. It contains many grammatical errors. The following are a few examples of these errors: al-Ma’idah 5: 69 (the Arabic word Alsabeoun should be Alsabieen); al-Baqarah 2: 177 (the Arabic word alsabireen should be alsabiroon); al-Imran 3: 59 (the Arabic word fayakoon should be fakaana); al-Baqarah 2: 17, 80, 124; al-A’raf 7: 56 (the Arabic word qaribun should be qaribtun); al-A’raf 7: 160 (the Arabic word asbatan should be sebtan); Ta Ha 20: 63 (the Arabic phrase Hazani Lasaherani should be Hazaini Lasahirieni); al-Hajj 22: 19 (the Arabic phrase ikhtasamu fi rabbihim should be ikhtasama fi rabbihima); al-Tawbah 9: 62, 69 (the Arabic word kalladhi should be kalladhina); al-Munafiqun 63: 10 (the Arabic word Akon should be Akoon); al-Nisa’ 4: 162 (the Arabic word Almuqimeen should be Almuqimoon); and al-Hujurat 49: 9 (the Arabic word eqtatalu should be eqtatala). Ali Dashti and Mahmud al-Zamakhshari (1075-1144), famous Muslim scholars, noted more than one hundred Quranic aberrations from the normal grammatical rules and structure of the Arabic language (Ali Dashti, Twenty Three Years: A study of the Prophetic Career of Muhammad, Allen and Unwin, London, 1985, p. 50).

C. Foreign Words

According to Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti (d. 1505), the great Muslim philologist and commentator, and Arthur Jeffery in his book of The Foreign Vocabulary of The Qur’an (Lahore, Pakistan: al-Biruni, 1977), the Qur’an contains 107 and 275 foreign words respectively taken from the Persian, Assyrian, Syriac, Hebrew, Greek, Coptic, and Ethiopian languages. The following are a few examples of these words:

Persian: Ara’ik and Istabraq (al-Kahf 18: 31) meaning couches and brocades respectively, Abariq (al-Waqi’ah 56: 18) meaning ewers, Ghassaqan (al-Naba’ 78: 25) meaning pus, Sijjil (al-Fil 105: 4) meaning baked clay;
Aramaic: Harut and Marut (al-Baqarah 2: 102), Sakina (al-Baqarah 2: 248) meaning God’s presence;
Hebrew: Ma’un (al-Ma’un 107: 7) meaning charity, Ahbar (al-Tawbah 9: 31) meaning Rabbis;
Ethiopian: Mishkat (al-Nur 24: 35) meaning niche;
Syraic: Surah (al-Tawbah 9: 124) meaning chapter, Taghut (al-Baqarah 2: 257; al-Nahl 16: 36) meaning idols, Zakat (al-Baqarah 2: 110) meaning alms, Fir’awn (al-Muzzammil 73: 15) meaning Pharaoh;
Coptic: Tabut (al-Baqarah 2: 248) meaning ark.

Muhammad did not know the exact meaning of some of these foreign words, which were not arabized by his time. Therefore, he misused them. For instance, the Aramaic word “furqan” means “redemption.” Muhammad used it for “revelation” and “criterion” (e.g. al-Furqan 25: 1). The Aramaic word “Milla” means “word.” It was used for “religion” in the Qur’an (al-Baqarah 2: 120, 130, 135; etc). The word “Illiyun” (al-Mutaffifin 83: 18, 19) is from the Hebrew word “Elyon” which means “the most high.” Muhammad used it for “a heavenly book” (al-Mutaffifin 83: 20).

The earliest Islamic exegetes, especially those associated with ‘Abd Allah ibn ‘Abbas, a cousin of Muhammad, had a special interest in discovering the origin and meaning of the foreign words. The true living God, the originator of all human languages, is certainly capable of perfect Arabic devoid of foreign words, especially in light of the fact that the Qur’an claims that it is his eternal speech in pure Arabic! Therefore, the divine origin of the Qur’an is questionable?

D. Spelling Errors

The text of the Qur’an has many spelling errors, many of which are traceable back to its most ancient extant manuscripts of the end of the eighth century AD. This indicates that these serious mistakes had existed in the original texts. One wonders about the extent of other mistakes in the original that are not so obvious, and therefore, have gone undetected! This means that the Qur’an is not divinely protected from corruption as it claims. There are various printings of the Qur’an in circulation today (Indian, Pakistani, Swahili, Iranian, Egyptian, Turkish, etc). They are inconsistent in manipulating the spelling errors. Some printings delete an extra letter, while others silence it with a vowel mark., still others add a missing letter. The following are a few examples of these spelling mistakes in the Qur’an.

1. One of these very serious spelling errors changes the meaning drastically form “yes” to “no.” This is because, in many cases, the Arabic word “la” for negation is followed by an extra letter “alif.” The word “la” means “no,” while the Arabic letter “l” attached to a word means “certainly,” which is the opposite of “no.” A few examples of this serious mistake are found in these verses: al-Naml 27: 21; al-‘Imran 3: 158; al-Saffat 37: 68; al-Tawbah 9: 47; al-‘Imran 3: 167; al-Hashr 59: 13. Removing the extra alif after the word “la” corrects the reading.

2. The 1924 Egyptian text of the Qur’an contains over 9,000 small alifs marked above the letters it follows. This small alif is a modern invention used to correct thousands of mistakes in the earliest extant manuscripts of the Qur’an where the alifs are completely missing (al-Fatihah 1: 1-4, 6; al-Baqarah 2: 110, 126; Ta Ha 20: 63; etc). This indicates that the original text of the Qur’an contained all these mistakes. In fact, the opening statement of the Qur’an (In the name of Allah, the beneficient, the merciful) contains three errors of missing alifs: two are pronounced (Allah, alrahmaan) and one is silent (bism). The Arabic word for God (Allah) is spelled wrongly without the alif 2700 times. In the oldest manuscripts of the Qur’an, the Arabic word for man “al-ensaan” is written wrongly without the alif. This is corrected in some modern printings of the Qur’an by either adding the missing alif or a short “alif.” In some instances, the omitted alif changes the meaning significantly. For instance, in Muhammad 47: 4, the word “qutilu” without alif means “were killed,” whereas the word “qaatalu” with alif means “fought.” Excess alifs are silenced by the vowl mark of sukun to correct the spelling (al-Tawbah 9: 47; Hud 11: 68; al-Furqan 25: 38; al-Ankabut 29: 38; al-Najm 53: 51; al-A’raf 7: 103; Yunis 10: 75, 83; Hud 11: 97; al-Mu’minun 23: 46; al-Qasas 28: 32; al-Zukhruf 43: 46; etc).

3. The Arabic “shadda” is a later addition that indicates doubling the sound of the consonant. There are disagreements on its use. In fact, the 1924 Egyptian edition contains over 3380 shaddas more than those in the 1909 Turkish edition of the Qur’an (al-Baqarah 2: 78; etc). In some instances the addition of a shadda changes the meaning of the verse. For instance, two opposing doctrines are derived from al-Baqarah 2: 222 depending on the presence or absence of the shadda. If the word “yathurna” without shadda is used, the verse indicates that sexual intercourse with a menstruating woman is permitted at the expiry of her period, but before she has cleansed herself. However, if the same word with the shadda “yattahirna” is used, the verse will indicate that intercourse is permitted only after the menstruating woman has cleansed herself? Again, with shadda, the word “wakaffalaha” in al-‘Imran 3: 37 indicates that Zakariya looked after Mary. Without shadda, the word “wakafalaha” indicates that God appointed Zakariya to look after her. In fact, the shadda in the word “Allaah” is a mistake because it adds a third letter “l” to the word making it “Alllaah.”

4. Excess letters are silenced or simply ignored. For instance, the excess waw is silenced by hamza in al-Ma’idah 5: 29; the excess “l” in al-An’am 6: 32 is ignored; so is the excess “dal” in al-Ma’idah 5: 89; etc. In addition, there are many examples of missing letters: missing “ya” from al-A’raf 7: 196; Quraysh 106: 2; etc; missing waw from al-Zukhruf 43: 13; al-Isra’ 17: 7; al-Ma’arij 70: 13; etc; missing nun from al-Anbiya’ 21: 88; Yusuf 12: 11; and missing sin from al-Baqarah 2: 245; al-A’raf 7: 69; etc.

5. The Arabic letter “y” is pronounced as the long vowel “a” if its two dots are omitted. This is treated differently in various modern printings of the Qur’an, as there are disagreements on how it should be handled. Examples on this problem are: al-‘Imran 3: 28; al-Baqarah 2: 98; al-Dhariyat 51: 47; Fussilat 41: 20; al-Kahf 18: 70.

6. The Arabic letter “t” should be corrected and written with the Arabic letter “h” with two dots over it in these verses: al-‘Imran 3: 61;al-A’raf 7: 56; al-Nur 24: 7; etc.

E. Conclusion

As we discussed above, Arabic eloquence was common in Muhammad’s time among both the literate and illiterate alike. There is a strong evidence that Muhammad was literate. He was a successful merchant that knew how to read numbers which were written in letters. He also wrote several letters to kings and heads of states inviting them to Islam. The Qur’an says he was literate in Surah al-‘Alaq 96: 1-5; al-Nahl 16: 98; al-Isra’ 17: 14, 45, 106; and al-Furqan 25: 5. The Arabic word “ummy” in Surah al-Imran 3: 20; al-Jum’ah 62: 2; and al-A’raf 7: 157-158 does not mean illiterate. It means those who were neither Jews nor Christians. However, even if Muhammad were illiterate, the alleged eloquence of the Qur’an, which is imperfect Arabic and an inferior literary production as we explained above, is not extraordinary in its historical context.

In addition, the above proves definitively that the Islamic claim about the linguistic perfection of the Qur’an is false and has no foundation in truth. Therefore, linguistically the Qur’an is not miraculous. In fact, the presence of grammatical errors, spelling errors, and foreign words in the Qur’an are strong arguments against its divine origin. The true almighty omniscient God of this universe could certainly produce a book containing both perfect grammar and eloquence at the same time, without having to sacrifice one for the other.

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    Anonymous said...

    I tried to replace the words in the Quran based on the alleged grammatical errors, but the resulting depiction came out weak and uninteresting. I think the matter is just that you don't know about arabic grammar except that which is taught in schools, and you definitely have no taste for the linguistic beauty of the Quran. You're reading it like an automated sentence parser :-). The patterns you say are grammatical errors are existent in ancient arabic poetry. Maybe you also claim that you know arabic grammar more than they did?


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