Foreign Vocabulary in the Qur’an
by Ibn Anwar, BHsc (Hons), MCollT
In recent times, works such as Christoph Luxenberg’s Die syro-aramaische Lesart des Koran: Ein Beitrag zur Entschlusselung der Koransprache (The Syro-Aramaic Reading of the Koran: A Contribution to the Decoding of the Language of the Koran) have have emerged that Christian missionaries feel pummels forward their agenda against Islam. Luxenberg’s proposal is that the Qur’an is not completely in Arabic but contains words, phrases and expressions in the Syriac language. Picking up on such views, the Christian missionary thinks he has found the silver bullet to end the Qur’an once and for all. Arguing that since the Qur’an is not in plain Arabic, the Qur’an fails on its own testimony:
إِنَّآ أَنزَلۡنَـٰهُ قُرۡءَٲنًا عَرَبِيًّ۬ا لَّعَلَّكُمۡ تَعۡقِلُونَ
“Indeed, We have sent it down as an Arabic Qur’an that you might understand.” (Surah Yusuf, verse 2)
Luxenberg’s work may seem rather impressive at first glance and the missionary argument may seem potent too, but sadly for both of them, they are horribly and embarrassingly wrong.
Yes, the Arabic Qur’an does contain foreign words that are not just taken from Aramaic but many other different languages as well. By Imam al-Suyuti’s count, the Qur’an incorporates vocabulary from eleven languages that includes Ethiopic, Greek, Persian, Indian, Syriac (Aramaic), Hebrew, Coptic, Nabataean, Turkish, Negro and Berber. Does this impressive list shakes the belief of the Muslim that the Qur’an is inimitable? Long before Luxenberg, whoever he is (the name is actually a pseudonym), was born or his great great great great grandmother was born, the polymath and prolific scholar of Islam Imam Jalaluddin al-Suyuti in the 1400s had already critically looked at the Qur’an and collected, classified and discussed the so called “foreign vocabulary” of the Qur’an. In fact, he wrote complete works on the subject such as ‘ al-Muhadhdhab fima waqa’a fil Qur’an min al-mu’arrab’ (The emendation regarding the foreign words and phrases in the Qur’an) and ‘Mutawakkili fima wara fi al-Qur’an bi al-lughat al-habashiyya wal farisiyya wal rumiyya wal hindiyyah wal siryaniyya wal ibraniyya wal nabatiyya wal qibtiyya wal turkiyya wal zanjiyya wal barbariyya’ (My reliance concerning words in the Qur’an in the Ethiopian, Persian, Greek, Indian, Syriac, Hebrew, Nabataean, Coptic, Turkish, African and Berber languages). Not only did he show that the Qur’an contains words that come from Aramaic, but that it has words from ten other languages too! And that certainly did not shake his belief in the inimitability of the Qur’an as he continued to write hundreds of other books and treatises on numerous different subjects of all branches of Islamic knowledge. But since the Qur’an has all these foreign words from many foreign languages, does it not in fact contradict Surah Yusuf, verse 12 above?
In linguistics, we have this phenomenon called ‘loanwords’ and that simply means that a language borrows words from another language or other languages and the speakers of that language use those “foreign” words as they speak their language. This rather basic definition informs us that once a word from one language is incorporated and is assimilated into another language, it becomes the property of the latter. And so, when an English man says “The Liverpudlians ran amok”, he is speaking perfect English and no fool would come up to him and ask, “Why are you speaking English and Malay in one sentence simultaneously, sir?” The word ‘amok’ is perfectly English even though it is borrowed by the language from the original Malay word ‘amuk’ which means “attacking wildly”. A novice of linguistics knows full well that the vocabulary of any language is built on many vocabularies of other languages. If one were to say “John read a magazine at the cafe near my house”, is he speaking English or some other language? A jester might come and say, “He is speaking Old English, proto-Germanic, Old Frisian, Old Norse, Dutch and Slavonic…” And that’s just for the word ‘read’. Is that how we think about speech and language? Of course not. The basic rule is thus: “A word belongs to that language as long as it is intelligibly used in it by its speakers.”