ISLAM: Basis - Past - Present - Future


Part 2:

Text, Language, Dialect and Interpretation of the Koran


by Manfred Davidmann



Contents

Overview
Introduction
Written Language at the Time of Mohammed
Zaid bin Thabit's and Uthman's Koran Texts
Period of Free Choice
Different Readings, Meaning and Interpretation.
Comparing and Validating Readings.
Arabic Grammar
Diacritical and Vowel Points
Seven Different Official Readings
Translating the Koran
Syro-Aramaic Reading and Interpretation of the Koran

Relevant Current and Associated Works

Notes <..>, References {..} and Links

Relevant Subject Index Pages and Site Overview



Overview

The aim of this report is to assemble an objective picture of what took place and of its background, looking in some detail at how the Koran was compiled so as to show what Mohammed taught in the name of God (Allah), and how this was recorded.

What we have is the Koran and traditions collected many years after the death of the Prophet. However, some uncertainty remains and so we are here embarking on a journey of exploration which will take us through the accumulated dust of many centuries to what Mohammed actually taught, to the revealed word of Allah, of God.

The report consists of seven consecutive free-standing parts. The seven parts follow each other in an intended sequence in which each is aiding and contributing to understanding the following part. The parts are:

1     Prophet Mohammed's Struggle for a Better Life for All
             
       

The information brought together in Part 1 relates primarily to Mohammed's struggle for recognition of his mission and message and is limited to this. Knowing about, and understanding, Mohammed's struggle is of vital importance if one wishes to understand what Mohammed taught, the Koran and Muslim belief and practice.

Throughout his whole life as Prophet he struggled against the powerful Meccan ruling elite, against the Meccan family which dominated Mecca, the Quraysh. They first opposed and then persecuted him and his followers for ten years, following which he fought them for ten years till he won and then he died.

So we need to know just what Mohammed taught which upset the elite so thoroughly and persistently, which caused him and his followers to be so harshly opposed and so actively persecuted.

         
2     Text, Language, Dialect and Interpretation of the Koran
         
       

The first step towards understanding the intent and substance of God's (Allah's) revelations as expressed by Mohammed's teachings, is to gain knowledge about the then developing Arabic written language, that is to understand how recorded letters and symbols were used to state the meaning of words, and about the dialects of the time.

Such knowledge and understanding is particularly important when considering how the Koran was assembled and what scholars and clerics have done and are doing when they are 'interpreting' the text of the Koran.

         
3     The Divine Right to Rule
         
       

Following Parts 1 and 2 we are here looking at the struggle for power and control over the Muslim community which took place after Mohammed died and seeing how Muslim belief and practice evolved in the two hundred years under the caliphs.

These events and struggles formed Sunnism and Shiism, shaped the Koran and Muslim belief and practice, underlie today's conflicts and confrontations within Islam.

         
4     Compiling the Koran: Hadiths (Traditions) State the Underlying Reality
         
       

Hadiths (traditions) tell that Zaid bin Thabit compiled the Koran and that Caliph Uthman later had an official version prepared.

The arabic text of these hadiths recorded the underlying reality. They state that on the one hand we have the word of benevolent Allah as taught by Mohammed that people (believers) should have a good life of high quality in this life, but that on the other hand is the ruling elite's opposing viewpoint that people should be obedient and serve willingly without questioning their condition.

         
5     Uthman's Rearrangement of the Chronological (as revealed) Koran's Chapters
         
        The important chapters (suras) singled out by 'abbreviated letters' show how the chronological (as revealed) sequence was changed. The effect of the changes on the record of Mohammed's preaching and teaching is described and followed by a discussion of the doctrines of 'Abrogation' and of 'Consensus' in relation to Mohammed's teachings.
         
6     Prophet Mohammed's Word of Allah and the Voice of the Ruling Elite
         
       

Mohammed's social teachings are stated from Koran chapters (suras) singled out by 'Abbreviated Letters', statements of revelation from compassionate and caring Allah. It seems that some self-seeking doctrines were added later by the ruling elite of that time.

The content of the corresponding compassionate and benevolent teachings are described as are the Koran's stated rewards for following them and the consequences of ignoring or opposing them.

         
7     Muslims and Jews
         
       

Includes a comprehensive summary table of the struggles of the Muslims while Mohammed was alive, primarily against the Meccan ruling elite but also including their conflicts with the Jewish Medinan clans.

The unexpected but convincing conclusions are directly relevant to understanding present tensions and conflicts within Islam.

     
See    
     
1   Prophet Mohammed's Struggle for a Better Life for All
     
2   Text, Language, Dialect and Interpretation of the Koran
     
3   The Divine Right to Rule
     
4   Compiling the Koran: Hadiths (Traditions) State the Underlying Reality
     
5   Uthman's Rearrangement of the Chronological (as revealed) Koran's Chapters
     
6   Prophet Mohammed's Word of Allah and the Voice of the Ruling Elite
     
7   Muslims and Jews



Introduction

In the history of Islam there have been conflicting viewpoints about the intent and substance of God's (Allah's) revelations as expressed by Mohammed's teachings.

And the first step towards resolving such conflicts and confrontations is to gain knowledge about the then developing Arabic written language, that is to understand how recorded letters and symbols were used to state the meaning of words, and about the dialects of the time.

Such knowledge and understanding is particularly important when considering what scholars and clerics have done and are doing when they are 'interpreting' the text of the Koran.


Just why there has been so much confusion about these interrelated matters can be seen from the following short descriptions:

Text     Written work (words) being referred to.
            
Script   How text is written, the symbols used.
       
Written Arabic
  'Reading'   Choosing between likely words which fit the written groups of letters while allowing for the likely meaning of the sentence (verse) in which they appear.
  'Interpreting'   Somehow deciding between, or choosing from, alternative meanings for given written groups of letters, words or sentences.
      Interpretation attempts to suggest or provide meaning where the text itself is unclear, ambiguous, seems to have none.
       
Dialect   Pronunciation and words that are used in a particular area or are associated with a social class, and which differ from what is regarded as standard for the area as a whole.
       
Language     The vocabulary of a particular group of people, their style of wording, phrasing and jargon.

'Reading' and 'interpreting' are closely interconnected since choice of words determines the meaning of the sentence (verse).


Written Language at the time of Mohammed

So now let us look at what is known about the Arabic language at the time of Mohammed, and then at how the written language changed in the course of time.

Year      
     
622   Mohammed's emigration (hijra) from Mecca to Medina.
     
632   Mohammed's death.

In the English language, the alphabet has both consonants and vowels, but at that time the Arabic alphabet had only consonants. The consonants were represented by only seventeen symbols so that the symbol for one consonant could stand for one of two or more letters. And there was no way of indicating vowels. {1, 3, 4}

There was no Arabic grammar, that is there were no recorded and accepted grammatical rules. {4}


Zaid bin Thabit's and Uthman's Koran Texts

Year      
     
633-4   Koran compiled by Zaid bin Thabit at time of Caliph Abu Bakr (632-4) after the battle of Yamama (633), that is almost immediately after Mohammed's death.
     
650       Official text of Koran compiled by order of Caliph Uthman (644-56), about 20 years after Mohammed's death.

At the time of Caliph Uthman, there was no way of distinguishing between consonants which used the same symbol. And there was no way of indicating what vowels were to be used where, so there was no way of identifying the intended pronunciation of a word. {3}

So the manuscripts of the officially approved text of the Koran, which Uthman had prepared and distributed, consisted of bare consonantal text with marks to show verse endings, but without points for distinguishing consonants and without any marks for vowels. {2, 3}


As the text of the manuscripts Uthman distributed contained no vowel points and no points for distinguishing between consonants, they did not record, affect or determine how the written text was to be pronounced, or the meaning of words containing, or consisting of, symbols representing more than one consonant. {3}

Hence what Uthman established and fixed was the basic consonantal text. {3}

And what Uthman ordered to be eliminated were variations in the basic text, which means including some variants while excluding others, changing wording, content and arrangement {3}. This was a major review as the changes made apparently included fixing the Koran's number of chapters (suras) and the arranging of these chapters into a sequence roughly according to length of chapter rather than according to the sequence of revelation or by subject.


Period of 'Free Choice' (ikhtiyar)


Different Readings, Meaning and Interpretation

Jeffery {2} has pointed out that
'Faced with a bare consonantal text the reader obviously had to interpret it. He had to decide whether a certain sign was a shin or a sin, a sad or a dad, a fa or a qaf, and so on; and when he had settled that, he had further to decide whether to read a verbal form as an active or a passive, whether to treat a certain word as a verb or a noun, since it might be either. And so on.'

How the reader 'read' the text, that is the meaning of words and sentences the reader allocated to the purely consonantal text, was his 'reading' (interpretation) of the text.

And for three centuries after the publication of Uthman's official text there existed many different accepted 'readings' (qiraat) of the Koran. This period is called the 'period of free choice' (ikhtiyar). {2}

So we have:

Year      
     
650   Official text of Koran compiled by order of Caliph Uthman (644-56), say about 20 years after Mohammed's death.
     
650   Start of period of 'free choice' (ikhtiyar).


Comparing and Validating Readings

'Readings' of uncertain texts are interpretations, which means they amount to somehow deciding between alternative meanings, amount to suggesting or providing meaning where the text itself seems unclear, ambiguous or meaningless to the reader.

Some scholars attempted to restrict the number of circulating alternative readings by proposing rules for comparing and testing them.

According to Jeffery {2} three rules emerged, namely that a 'reading' had to:

  1. Fully agree with the consonantal text.
    "Some claimed that so long as a reading made good sense it did not matter whether it came from the Uthmanic Codex or one of the other Old Codices, since they also came from the time of the Prophet."

  2. Had to have come down from some reputable authority (isnad).
    "Some were contemptuous of isnad."

  3. Be according to the laws of Arabic grammar.
    "That a reading must be sound Arabic diction <1> was naturally accepted by all."

To me these rules for comparing and testing different 'readings' relate to form rather than substance. God's revelations are neither vague, ambiguous nor meaningless. Hence our concern about the written text and language of the Koran.


Arabic Grammar

Initially there was no Arabic grammar, that is recorded and accepted grammatical rules. About the year 780 the 'grammar of written arabic was established by the Persian Sibawayh.' <2> {4}

So we have:

Year    
     
780     Grammar of written arabic established, about 150 years after the death of Mohammed.
     
800   From about this time onwards, the then current Arabic language began to differ in some respects from that of the Koran, making misunderstandings and conflicting readings more likely, and causing them. {4}


Diacritical and Vowel Points

What took place has been researched in considerable detail by Gilchrist {3} who records that
'It was only in the later generations that vowel marks above and below the letters were introduced to give an exact representation of the vocal text. Diacritical points were then also added above and below the relevant consonants to distinguish between them. At the same time long vowels were also distinguished where appropriate from short vowels by the use of the three weak letters (alif, wa and ya) which were otherwise considered to be actual consonants and not vowels. Also introduced in time was the marking of the hamzah.

These modifications were gradually applied to the whole text and all helped to define the actual text of the Koran more accurately. {3}

The date of the final fixing of the Koran's text ('reading'), that is of the final introduction of vowel and diacritical points, is not known, and Luxenberg concludes that the process of fixing the text of the Koran took about three hundred years, that is to the end of the 'period of free choice' (ikhtiyar). {4}


Seven Different Official Readings

Year      
     
944   About 300 years after the death of Mohammed, the wazirs Ibn Muqlah and Ibn Isa, guided by a scholar, Ibn Mujahad, settled on seven systems of reading the text. They decreed that these alone were canonical, permissible ways of pointing and vowelling the text. {2}

This ended the period of 'free choice' (ikhtiyar).

The 'hamza', the 'alif' indicating 'long-a', the other vowels, and particularly the diacritical points which were added later and which fixed the underlying consonantal text, had by this time all been added to the Koran's text. Luxenberg considers that these changes to the original text by themselves resulted in the text of the Koran in many places being misread and distorted. In his thorough analysis {4} he makes the point that linguists (scholars) who inserted the diacritical and vowel points assumed that the particular 'reading' they were fixing was reliable and concludes that their assumption was now in doubt.

Jeffery {2} makes a similar point when he says
When we come to the Koran, we find that our early manuscripts <3> are invariably without points or vowel signs, and are in a Kufic script very different from the script used in our modern copies. This modernizing of the script and the spelling system, and the supplying the text with points and vowel signs were, it is true, well-intentioned, but they did involve a tampering with the text.

However,
'Over the succeeding centuries the Koran continued to be read in seven different forms until five of them largely fell into disuse. Eventually only those of Hafs and Marsh survived and, with the introduction of a printed Koran, the text of Hafs began to take almost universal prominence.' {3}


Translating the Koran

Among the main difficulties faced by Koran translators listed by Luxenberg {4} are:

1     The lack of an 'as received' text with reading symbols which are known with certainty.
     
2   Missing chronological or systematic arrangement of the suras.
     
3   Quite a few words and sentences in the Koran are uncertain and have more than one meaning. There are often more than half-a-dozen different ways of interpreting a doubtful passage.


Syro-Aramaic Reading and Interpretation of the Koran

Luxenberg {4} has put forward the following:

At the time of Mohammed, Arabic had not yet become a written language. There was no Arabic grammar, that is there were no recorded and accepted grammatical rules.

Syro-Aramaic was the most widely used cultural and written language at that time in the area where the Koran was created. But it was slowly being replaced by Arabic in the seventh century. Educated Arabs were using Aramaic as a written language until the Koran came into being as written language.

Hence the Koran at times combines both Arabic and Syro-Aramaic grammatical forms and to that extent the Koran followed other rules than the later 'classical Arabic'.

So he studied the extent to which the original Koran contains elements of Syro-Aramaic culture and language, to indicate the extent to which the Koran was consequently misread and misinterpreted.

Luxenberg concentrates on verses of the Koran which are doubtful to Arabic commentators, when the record says that 'commentators disagree about the meaning (of this expression)', or when it is concluded that 'Only God knows the meaning of this expression'.

His analysis appears to prove that the text of the Koran has to a considerable extent been misread and distorted.



Relevant Current and Associated Works

Other relevant current and associated reports by Manfred Davidmann:
     
     
Title   Description
     
Prophet Mohammed's Struggle for a Better Life for All     Mohammed's struggle for recognition of his mission and message against the powerful Meccan ruling elite. They opposed and then persecuted him and his followers for ten years, following which he fought them for ten years till he won and then he died.
     
Text, Language, Dialect and Interpretation of the Koran   How the written Arabic language developed from the time of Mohammed and how the Koran was assembled. How recorded letters and symbols were used to state the meaning of words. Compares 'readings' and interpretations.
     
The Divine Right to Rule   The struggle for power and control over the Muslim community after Mohammed died and how Muslim belief and practice evolved under the caliphs. These events and struggles formed Sunnism and Shiism, shaped the Koran and Muslim belief and practice.
     
Compiling the Koran: Hadiths (Traditions) State the Underlying Reality   Zaid bin Thabit compiled the Koran, Caliph Uthman had an official version prepared. Mohammed taught that people (believers) should have a good life, the ruling elite considered that people should serve willingly.
     
Uthman's Rearrangement of the Chronological (as revealed) Koran's Chapters   Chapters (suras) marked by 'abbreviated letters' show how the sequence of the Koran's chapters was changed. The effects of the changes on the record of Mohammed's preaching and teaching are described as are the doctrines of 'Abrogation' and 'Consensus'.
     
Prophet Mohammed's Word of Allah and the Voice of the Ruling Elite   Mohammed's social teachings are stated from chapters (suras) singled out by 'Abbreviated Letters', statements of revelation from compassionate and caring Allah. It seems that some self-seeking doctrines were added later by the ruling elite of that time.
     
Muslims and Jews   Includes a comprehensive summary table of the struggles of the Muslims while Mohammed was alive, including their conflicts with the Jewish Medinan clans. The conclusions are directly relevant to understanding present tensions and conflicts within Islam.


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Notes, References and Links


Notes

<1>    'Diction' generally refers to 'choice and use of words'.
     
<2>   Sibawayh's grammar is still valid for modern Arabic. {4}
     
<3>   The oldest manuscripts of the Koran still in existence date from not earlier than about one hundred years after Mohammed's death. {3}


References and Links

{1}    Introduction to the Qur'an
Richard Bell
Edinburgh University Press
1958
     
{2}   The Textual History of the Qur'an
Arthur Jeffery
1946, 1952
     
{3}   Jam' al-Qur'an: The Codification of the Qur'an Text:
John Gilchrist
MERCSA, 1989
     
{4}   Die Syro-aramaeische Lesart des Koran
Christoph Luxenberg
Published by 'Das Arabische Buch', 2000
3-86093-274-8.



Relevant Subject Index Pages and Site Overview


The Site Overview page has links to all individual Subject Index Pages which between them list the works by Manfred Davidmann which are available on the Internet, with short descriptions and links for downloading.

To see the Site Overview page, click Overview

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Copyright    ©    2003    Manfred Davidmann
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