Is the Qur’an indeed in Arabic or is it a mixture of multiple languages?

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.”

62 years before Luxenberg published his work, an eminent Australian Christian scholar of Semitic languages wrote a book on the subject called ‘The Foreign Vocabulary in the Qur’an’. And before Luxenberg or those incipient Christian missionaries were even born, he refuted them. Professor Arthur Jeffery* helps clear the fog of confusion that they create as he astutely writes the following:

“The Qur’an itself states that when a Prophet was sent to any people he preached in the language of that people so as to be understood by them. Thus, e.g. we read in xiv, 4,

وَمَآ أَرۡسَلۡنَا مِن رَّسُولٍ إِلَّا بِلِسَانِ قَوۡمِهِۦ لِيُبَيِّنَ لَهُمۡ‌ۖ

“and we have sent no Prophet save in the tongue of his own people that (his message) might be plain to them “. So it is obvious that the Qur’an, being sent to the Arab people, must be in Arabic, but since it sums up and completes all previous revelations, it is only to be expected that technical terms of Hebrew and Syriac or other origin which were used in previous revelations should be included in this final revelation. Moreover, as the Qur’an is intended for all peoples, one should not be surprised to find in it something from all languages, a point which is sometimes emphasized by a reference to the claim that the Qur’an contains all previous knowledge, and information about everything, which would not be true if it did not contain all languages. Obviously all of all languages was not contained, but what was sweetest, most pleasant, and most suitable.

The most sensible statement on this whole question, however, is that suggested by as-Suyuti, Itq, 316, and expounded by ath-Tha’alibi in his Kitab al-Jawahir, i,17: ” In my opinion the truth of the matter is this. The Qur’an is in plain Arabic containing no word which is not Arabic or which cannot be understood without the help of some other language. For these (so-called foreign) words belonged to the (language of the) ancient Arabs, in whose tongue the Qur’an was revealed, after they had had contact with other languages through commercial affairs and travel in Syria and Abyssinia, whereby the Arabs took over foreign words, altering some of them by dropping letters or lightening what was heavy in the foreign form. Then they used these words in their poetry and conversation so that they became like pure Arabic and were used in literature and thus occur in the Qur’an. So if any Arab is ignorant about these words it is like his ignorance of the genuine elements of some other dialect, just as Ibn ‘Abbas did not know the meaning of Fatir, etc. Thus the truth is that these words were foreign, but the Arabs made use of them and Arabicized them, so from, this point of view they are Arabic. As for at-Tabari’s opinion that in these cases the two languages agree word for word, it is far-fetched, for one of them is the original and the other a derivative as a rule, though we do not absolutely rule out coincidence in a few exceptional cases.”

If challenged as to how, on this view, the Qur’an could be called قرآن عربي مبين a plain Arabic Qur’an “, its defenders reply with as-Suyuti,. that the presence of a few foreign words therein no more makes it non-Arabic than the presence of many Arabic words in a Persian ode makes the ode non-Persian. In any case the reference of عربي مبين is to the Qur’an as a whole, and not to individual words in it.” [1]

In short, the Qur’an contains “foreign words” insofar that the origin of those words, which we may call etymology, can be traced to other languages, but they have been incorporated into the text of the Qur’an as they had undergone a process of naturalization into the Arabic language.

Commenting on Noldeke’s** treatment of the subject the late Muslim historian and scholar Professor Mohar Ali makes the same point:

“Even if the words furqan, millah and illiyun are admitted to be derived from Aramaic originals, it is important to note that they would have modified and changed meanings after naturalization in Arabic. A very simple illustrative instance from English is the word “catastrophe”. which is composed of the Greek terms kata, down and strophe, turning. In strict literal sense “catastrophe” should mean only a down-turning or decline; but in its acquired meaning it is used in a much more serious sense of disaster of calamity. This latter word, calamity, is also a naturalized one in English from the French calamite’, originally from the Latin calamitas, calamitatis. More importantly, “catastrophe” is used by Shakespeare in a very strange sense of “rear”. Again, the English word “category” (a class or order of things, people, etc. having similar characteristics), is derived from the Greek kategoria, meaning assertion, predication, accusation (kata, down, and agora, assembly). It is hard to see the link of sense between the Greek meanings and English meaning. Hundreds of such instances may be cited from the English alone. It is difficult to assume that Noldeke and his like are unaware of this very well-known linguistic phenomenon of naturalized words in any language. Their hunt for “foreign” words in the Qur’an and their persistence in giving these words their supposedly original meanings in total disregard of theme and context are thus indicative only of their prejudice and determination to misinterpret the text of the Qur’an.” [2]

From our discussion thus far, we can basically conclude that the Qur’an is well within its right to be called a “pure Arabic text” as it conforms to a well established linguistic phenomenon whereby one language imports other words into its vernacular and those words then become just as integral to the language as the other words in its vocabulary. The process of borrowing may retain the essence of the original meaning or certain modifications may occur but in both instances the words become naturalized in its new parent language. But what is amazing is the fact that those modern analytical scholars conveniently leave out a crucial fact: the foreign words are but a handful. Unbeknownst to the lay reader is that these so called foreign words account for an extremely minute amount of the total number of words in the Qur’an. Al-Suyuti lists 108 of such words in his al-Mutawakkili and 118 in his al-Muhadhhab (both works were mentioned earlier). In another seminal work called al-Itqan fi ‘Ulum al-Qur’an, he lists 124 items. More than half a millennium after him, Arthur Jeffery came up with his own list amounting to 270 words other than proper names. [3] Even if we go by the highest bidder, that is not even a fraction of a fraction of the total number of words in the Qur’an that according to al-Suyuti amount to 77 934. [4] How can such a minuscule figure cause such consternation on master intellects to the extent that some of them have to even mask their identity and publish their works under pseudonyms (e.g., Christoph Luxenberg)?In the grand scheme of things, it is but an insipid argument against the Qur’an. In view of this, Mohar Ali rightly remarks, “…the assumption that the Prophet was unable to express his ideas “in the common language of his countrymen” is totally unwarranted and untenable. The literary Arabic of the time was very developed and expressive; and a passage of the Qur’an which does not contain any of the alleged “foreign” words is as much a masterpiece of composition as any other passage. How wrong and unreasonably generalized is Noldeke’s remark is clear from the fact that the ‘ayahs containing the alleged “foreign” words do not constitute even one per cent. of the total volume of the Qur’anic text. Apart from this, the rest still remains a masterpiece of Arabic literature and gives a loud lie to the absurd statement that the Prophet could not express his ideas in his own language. (This is by way of rebutting Noldeke’s allegation, not by way of admitting that the Prophet himself composed the Qur’an).” [5]

The extremely minor fraction of “foreign words” of the Qur’an cannot possibly demean the Arabic nature of the book (or revelation) and to this effect, we call to memory Jeffery’s wonderfully astute remark, “that the presence of a few foreign words therein no more makes it non-Arabic than the presence of many Arabic words in a Persian ode makes the ode non-Persian. In any case the reference of عربي مبين is to the Qur’an as a whole, and not to individual words in it.”

In any case the Qur’an remains a pure Arabic speech, because those comparatively few words that are supposedly foreign in the Qur’an are in fact Arabic words as they had been used and assimilated into the language to become part and parcel of it.

We end with the Qur’an’s 1400-year-old refutation of Luxenberg and those naughty missionaries:

وَلَوۡ جَعَلۡنَـٰهُ قُرۡءَانًا أَعۡجَمِيًّ۬ا لَّقَالُواْ لَوۡلَا فُصِّلَتۡ ءَايَـٰتُهُ ۥۤ‌ۖ ءَا۠عۡجَمِىٌّ۬ وَعَرَبِىٌّ۬‌ۗ قُلۡ هُوَ لِلَّذِينَ ءَامَنُواْ هُدً۬ى وَشِفَآءٌ۬‌ۖ وَٱلَّذِينَ لَا يُؤۡمِنُونَ فِىٓ ءَاذَانِهِمۡ وَقۡرٌ۬ وَهُوَ عَلَيۡهِمۡ عَمًى‌ۚ أُوْلَـٰٓٮِٕكَ يُنَادَوۡنَ مِن مَّكَانِۭ بَعِيدٍ۬

“And if We had appointed it a Lecture in a foreign tongue they would assuredly have said: If only its verses were expounded (so that we might understand)? What! A foreign tongue and an Arab? – Say unto them (O Muhammad): For those who believe it is a guidance and a healing; and as for those who disbelieve, there is a deafness in their ears, and it is blindness for them. Such are called to from afar.” (Surah Fussilat, verse 44; Marmaduke Pickthall’s translation)

Who would have thought that the calumnies of the ignorant pagan Arabs would resurface in the far-flung future painted with the veneer of scholarly erudition? God most certainly did.


*Arthur Jeffery was a professor of Semitic Languages at the School of Oriental Studies in Cairo. He was a Protestant Christians and he also taught at Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary in New York.

Though we may strongly disagree with many of the assertions that he makes about Islam and the Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. in the book in question, he nevertheless gets the point on the naturalization of so called foreign words into Arabic correct.

[1] Jeffery, A. (1938). The Foreign Vocabulary of the Qur’an. Baroda, India: Oriental Institute. pp. 9-11

** Theodore Noldeke was a pioneering orientalist figure in the field of western Qur’anic criticism and he made certain assertions on the Qur’an in an essay on the Qur’an that was published in the ninth edition of the Encyclopedia Brittanica that Mohar Ali responds to in his book. The quotation on the foreign vocabulary in the Qur’an from Mohar Ali’s book given above is a portion of that response.

[2] Muhammad Mohar Ali (2004). The Qur’an and the Orientalists: An Examination of their Main Theories and Assumptions. Ipswich, Suffolk: Jam’iyat ‘Ihyaa’ Minhaaj al-Sunnah. pp. 310-311

[3] Afnan H. Fatani (2006). Language and the Qur’an. In Oliver Leaman (Ed.), The Qur’an: An Encyclopedia. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge. p. 361

[4] Rippin, A. (2015). Al-Mubarrad and Polysemy in the Qur’an. In Andrew Ripping & Roberto Tottoli (Eds.), Books and Written Culture of the Islamic World: Studies Presented to Claude Gilliot on the Occasion of His 75th Birthday. Leiden, The Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill. p. 58

[5] Muhammad Mohar Ali (2004). Op. Cit. pp 308-309

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2 Responses to “Is the Qur’an indeed in Arabic or is it a mixture of multiple languages?”

  1. abdulrazaq says:

    Yet another brilliant write up. Jazakallah khair

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