The article of reflection

The definite article al- (alif and lām) in Arabic can denote several different things. One of its uses is to direct the reader’s or listener’s attention to the origin of a particular word. Most personal names had a known original meaning before they came to be used as names. Once these words begin to be used as names, they lose their original meanings and are simply used to refer to a particular person. For example, the name ʿādil means “just”. But when it is used as a given name – rather than as an active participle describing a notably just and equitable person – it can refer to anyone who happens to have the name ʿādil, whether he be just or otherwise. In order to use the word ʿādil to refer to both a particular person as well as a specific character trait, we can attach al- to the beginning of the name. While Al-Hasan is the name of a particular person, the alif and lām at the start ensure that our attention is also drawn towards the word’s original meaning (i.e. “the handsome, the good”).

Much the same phenomenon can be seen in our understanding and usage of language in general. We seldom reflect over the words we use, and this result in them losing their dynamic quality. When we hear a word we rarely think about its origin, what other words it is related to, what form the word has, etc. Rather, the word is used only to refer to a specific thing, whether concrete or abstract, and our thoughts rarely, if ever, go beyond this. When we hear the word miḥrāb, for example, we usually only think about the particular object that this word refers to today, without giving thought to its original meaning in terms of the relationship between its root and form.

It is the job of all of us who are interested in languages to adopt a reflective attitude towards language by, metaphorically speaking, adding the definite article to all its words. This way, we will be able to move beyond the superficialities of language and plunge into its meaningful depths.

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Ibrah – lesson

لَقَدْ كَانَ فِي قَصَصِهِمْ عِبْرَةٌ لأُوْلِي ٱلأَلْبَابِ

Verily there is in their stories a lesson for people of understanding (Q. 12: 111).

The Qur’an contains many stories about historical events and people. Obviously, these stories only account for a very limited selection of all the events of human history. But there is a reason why specific stories are recounted in the Qur’an to the exclusion of many others. The social and cultural conditions for mankind’s life are constantly changing. When we read about the lives of historical people, it can sometimes feel as though we are reading about another species altogether; their life conditions seem completely alien to us and incomparable to our own. While this may be true of certain aspects of life, the simple fact that we are all humans means that we do in fact have a great deal in common. The great existential questions, for example, have always played a central role in our lives and will continue to do so in the future. As the Qur’an states, “their hearts are alike”. The same arguments that were put against earlier prophets were later used by Quraysh and are visible even in our times. The historical narratives in the Qur’an should thus be seen as archetypes; stories that can be taken from their original social and cultural contexts and applied to our own current situation. All that is required is some thought and reflection.

In the Qur’an, we are often called upon to reflect over past events in order to learn from them, and one of the Arabic words used in this context is iʿtibār. This word stems from the root ʿaynbā’rā’ which connotes the basic meaning of “to pass from one condition to another” (al-Isfahānī). It thus refers to a kind of movement, physical or abstract. For example, the verb ʿabara means “to cross”, and can refer to the crossing of a river but also to death (as dying is the crossing over from this life to the next). So, when we read stories of past peoples in the Qur’an, we are expected to lift the stories from their original historical contexts and transport them into our own time [1].

In some cases, this does not require much thought; we can, for example, quite easily identify Pharonic traits among those in power in Muslim countries today. Other stories require deeper reflection, and an understanding of symbols. The art of interpreting dreams is called taʿbīr al-ru’yah, where the verbal noun taʿbīr is from the aforementioned root. Most dreams are full of symbols and to be able to interpret them correctly, one must understand how the symbolism of the dream relates to the world as experienced when we are awake; water is often a symbol for life, feces can represent money, and so on. To understand one’s dream, it is usually necessary to consult somebody who is knowledgeable in the field, one who can transcend the boundary between dream and reality in search of the meaning of the dream. In the same way, some scholars are able to find new layers of meaning in the verses of the Qur’an by interpreting them on the symbolical level and thereby derive timeless interpretations. As an example, consider the following verse:

Kings, when they enter a country, despoil it, and make the noblest of its people its meanest; thus do they behave. (Q. 27:34)

This verse recounts a historical fact, but it also represent a deep spiritual reality. Historically, it tells us of the words uttered by the Queen of Sheba as she consults with her advisors. The symbolic reading of this verse, however, interprets the word “kings” as wealth and riches, “a country” as a person’s heart, and “the noblest of its people” as good thoughts inspired by God. When the love of wealth and riches penetrates into the heart, these good thoughts receive a lower status and are no longer given priority.

These sudden insights that a reader sometimes experiences while reading the Qur’an can be so powerful that they bring tears to the eyes [2]. One Arabic word for tears is ʿabrah. The Prophet – peace and blessing be upon him – said: “Verily, patience is at the first stroke of a calamity, and no one can control his tears (cabrah).”. (The first part is found in al-Bukhari and the second was related by al-Hasan al-Basri as mentioned in al-Jami’ al-Saghir). [3]

[1] The third post by Shaykh Amr inspired me to write this text

[2] A beautiful speech by Shaykh Hamza where he deals with the relation between tears and lessons

[3] This text was translated to English by brother Yaqub, may Allah reward him!

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Help and punishment

The verbal noun ”taczīr” is derived from the radicals cayn, za and ra and it means both “help” and “a disciplinary punishment”.

It’s not difficult to find a relation between help and punishment. The latter meaning can be derived from the first, since a disciplinary punishment aims at helping the individual. The difference between the two is that the first one includes helping someone by averting an evil from him, while the latter includes helping someone by averting him away from evil. In both cases the aim is to help the individual. In this regard the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him and his family, said:

“Help your brother, whether he is an oppressor or oppressed. Someone asked, “O Allah’s Apostle! I help him if he is oppressed, but how can I help him if he is an oppressor?” The Prophet replied, “By preventing him from oppressing others.”  (al-Isfahani, Mufradat alfadh al-Quran)

The underlying idea is that there is right and wrong and that we should help others to do the right thing, whether they like it or not, because it will benefit them in the hereafter.

When the Arabs wanted to give medicine to a camel they used to tie a cord upon the upper parts of the nostrils of the camel, and then put the medicine into his mouth. This process is called “cazr” and it contains the same radicals as the word “taczīr”. One might assume that this was done in order to force the camel to open its mouth, making it possible to give it the medication. This, for the camel, unpleasant procedure ultimately aimed at alleviating its pain or cure it from a disease. Similarly, a disciplinary punishment is considered an unpleasant procedure aiming at removing the pain and the disease that causes the heart to do evil things.

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Why is a family important? There are of course many answers to this question, but here I would like to answer the question from one particular perspective. The following has been related from the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him:

When a man marries, he has fulfilled half of his religion, so let him fear Allah regarding the remaining half.

But how can marriage possibly make up half of a person’s religion? Al-Qurtubi answers this question relating to the following hadith “Whoever can guarantee (the chastity of) what is between his two jaw-bones and what is between his two legs, I guarantee Paradise for him.” When you marry you protect your private parts. If you can control your tongue you will enter Paradise in sha Allah.
There are several names for family in Arabic, one of them is usrah. According to al-Isfahāni  asr means to fetter strongly and he and Ibn Mandhūr writes that family is called usrah because man gains strength from his kin. According to this interpretation a family is something positive.
Ibn Jinni writs that the radicals hamza, sīn and can be related to one meaning, habs, i.e. obstruction, confinement etc. If we take this meaning as a starting point in order to understand the word usrah it would be possible to say that a family is something that fetters its members and limits their freedom. Every member of the family watches the other members and blames them if they don’t do what they are supposed to do or if they do what they aren’t supposed to. From a modern perspective this seems to be the problem with families; they prevent the individual from fulfilling himself. Accordingly families are obstacles and it’s important to diminish their influence. This, unfortunately, is true in some cases. There are people, especially women, who are treated really badly by other family members.
But social fetters need not to be something negative, on the contrary. It has been said that religion consists of two parts; commands and prohibitions. In order to do some things and refrain from others you need to control yourself. When you are living alone or when family relations are weak you don’t need to consider other people. You can come and go to your house as you wish, eat and drink whatever you want etc. When you marry and get children this is no longer possible. You need to control your desires and listen to the needs of your wife/husband and children. If you become accustomed to this it means that you become accustomed to control your lower desires and this is something desirable:

But as for he who feared the position of his Lord and prevented the soul from [unlawful] inclination, then indeed, Paradise will be [his] refuge. (Q. 79: 40-41)

Some people consider marriage a prison, and the word for prisoner, asīr, is derived from the same radicals as usrah, but even if you feel that way you shouldn’t forget that, after all “The worldly life is a prison for the believer”.

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Intellect – ‘aql

وَلَدَارُ الآخِرَةِ خَيْرٌ لِّلَّذِينَ اتَّقَواْ أَفَلاَ تَعْقِلُونَ

The abode of the Hereafter is far better for those who are aware. Do you not use your intellect? (K. 12: 109)

Although intelligence is a concept that is highly valued in most, if not all, cultures there are different opinions on how to define it. The following correspondence illustrates this point. A North American Indian gave the following answer to a colonist who offered the Indians European education:

We know that you highly esteem the kind of Learning taught in those Colleges, and that the Maintenance of our Young Men, while with you, would be very expensive to you.  We are convinced, therefore, that you mean to do us good by your proposal; and we thank you heartily. But you, who are wise, must know that different Nations have different Conceptions of things; and you will therefore not take it amiss, if our ideas of this kind of education happen not to be the same with yours.  We have had some experience of it; several of our young people were formerly brought up at the colleges of the Northern provinces; they were instructed in all your sciences; but, when they came back to us, they were bad runners, ignorant of every means of living in the woods, unable to bear either cold or hunger, knew neither how to build a cabin, take a deer, or kill an enemy, spoke our language imperfectly, were therefore neither fit for hunters, warriors, nor counselors; they were totally good for nothing. We are however not the less obliged by your kind offer, thou we decline accepting it; and, to show our grateful sense of it, if the gentlemen of Virginia will send us a dozen of their sons, we will take care of their education, instruct them in all we know, and make men of them.

A broad and inclusive definition of intelligence is: “The ability to acquire knowledge, to think and reason effectively, and to deal adaptively with the environment.” This definition argues that intelligence is related to the ability to survive. From a religious perspective, the earthly life is an environment that requires us to behave in a certain way in order to survive in the Hereafter. According to this perspective it can be concluded that the intelligent person is the one who behaves in a way that brings him or her closer to God, and who avoids all types of  behavior that drives him away from God. Imam al-Shafi’i said: “If someone, in his will, expresses a desire to give away his wealth to the most intelligent of people, we distribute his wealth to the ascetics.” The reason he said so is because the ascetics gives precedence to the Hereafter, and thereby show clear signs of intelligence.

‘Aql is the Arabic word for intellect. This word is related to the word ‘iqāl denoting the cord or rope that is used to tie the feet of camels to prevent them from running away. Many scholars have said that a well-functioning mind prevents people from approaching things that might ruin them in this life and in the next. Intelligence is thus an ability to constrain the human ego and prevent it from following the lower desires.

In the Odyssey it is related that Odysseus ordered his men to put wax in their ears and that they should tie him to the mast before they passed the Sirens’ island. He did this in order not to be seduced by their song. He was determined to return home and therefore he wouldn’t allow himself to be distracted by anything or anyone on his journey.

The one who forgets his final home doesn’t allow himself to be bound or restricted by anything, quite the opposite. Many people today are reluctant to commit themselves or to place any boundaries that might restrict their passions. When the ultimate destination is forgotten, denied or repressed, the individual is no longer tied to the mast. Instead you will find him hanging on the rail longing and looking for the songs of distraction. To use the intellect in order to tie oneself is today perceived to be an act of stupidity.

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How is punishment related to sweetness? These two words seem to be total opposites, since as Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzi says human beings look for pleasure and do their outmost to avoid pain, but in spite of this both words are derived from the same root, ‘ayn, dhāl and ba. The word for sweet is ‘adhb and its often used to describe the quality of water. For example, when drinking water the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, used to say:

الحمد لله الذي جعله عذبا فراتا برحمته و لم يجعله ملحاً أجاجاً بذنوبنا

All Praise is due to Allah who, out of his mercy, made it sweet and pleasant, and didn’t make it salty and bitter because of our sins.

The word for punishment is ‘adhāb and the verb ‘adhdhaba (with a shaddah above the letter dhāl) means to punish. This verb is used often in the Quran and it belongs to the second verb form (according to the Western categorization). There are many meanings tied to this particular form, one of them is al-izālah, the removal of something. The word for shell in Arabic is qishr and the verb qashshara (with a shadda above the letter shīn) means to peel, i.e. to remove the qishr. Thus the verb adhdhaba means to remove something sweet, because when you are punished the sweetness of life is taken from you. This is true in the hereafter as well as in this life. The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

“There are three things, whoever attains them will find the sweetness of faith: if Allah and His Messenger are dearer to him than anyone or anything else; if he loves a person solely for the sake of Allah; and if he would hate to return to kufr after Allah has rescued him from it, as much as he would hate to be thrown into the Fire.” (Bukhari and Muslim)

Muslims are on different levels. Some are close to Allah and others are distant. Sinning generally moves people away from Allah and good deeds bring them closer to Him, the Exalted. When people are close to Him they taste the sweetness of faith, but if they stray from His way He might punish them by removing this sweetness from their hearts.

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So the angels called him while he was standing in prayer in the chamber (al-miḥrāb), “Indeed, Allah gives you good tidings of John, confirming a word from Allah and [who will be] honorable, abstaining [from women], and a prophet from among the righteous.”

As we have seen before the Arabic language employs different templates in order to convey specific meanings. Some templates are used to express the instrument or tool by which the action is performed. One of the common templates for this purpose is mif’āl  مِفْعال.

For example, fatḥ is a verbal noun meaning”opening”. It consists of the root letters fa, ta and ḥa and if we put these letters in the above mentioned template we get miftāḥ, i.e. the instrument that is used to open things; in this case, a key. One of the meanings of nashr is sawing and minshār is a saw. Qarḍ means cutting and consequently miqrāḍ are scissors etc.

The Arabic word for war is ḥarb. This word contains the root letters ḥa, ra and ba and if we apply the above mentioned template to these letters we get miḥrāb. But what is a miḥrāb? Ibn ‘Ashūr writes that a miḥrāb is a type of construction [often a room] designed for solitude, worship and prayer. This room is often located on a high place and many times a ladder or stairs are required in order to reach it. Furthermore, he writes, it has been said that the word miḥrāb is derived from the word ḥarb, since the one who worships God in such a place can be compared to someone waging war against Satan. It is as if this place becomes a tool that can be used in the struggle against Satan (al-Taḥrīr wa al-tanwīr sura 3: 37). To specify a place, like a room in the house, intending to regularly worship God in it, is to equip oneself with a mihrab; an instrument that can be used as a weapon in the spiritual struggle against Satan and the lower desires.

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