Islam, the Qur'an and the Arabic Literature (4)

Islam, the Qur'an and the Arabic Literature (4)

The Impact of the Qur'an of the Arabic language 

Structure and content 

As has already been pointed out, scholars have gone to great lengths over the past thirteen centuries to describe and emphasize the inimitability of the verses of the Qur'an. However, the impact of the revelation of the Qur'an on the Arabic language, its structure and content, has certainly been the focus of fewer studies. Works on the inimitability of the Qur'an have mostly focused on the literary beauty of the Holy Book, its conceptual strength and precision. Another important aspect of the Qur'an, one not adequately addressed, lies in its linguistic impact on the form and content of the Arabic language. 

The Holy Qur'an has undoubtedly helped reinforce and deepen the Arab people's awareness of the richness and beauty of their tongue. From a linguistic point of view, the revelation of the Qur'an was the most important event in the history of the Arabic language. It was an event with far-reaching and lasting consequence, for the Qur'an gave Arabic a form which it had hitherto lacked. In fact, it was due to the desire to preserve the Qur'an that efforts were made to develop and refine the Arabic alphabet. It was within the same context that Abu l-Aswad al-Du'ali developed the dot system in the first century of the Islamic era in his attempt to lay the basis for Arabic grammatical theory. (1) His efforts were among the first to establish a permanent form for the Arabic alphabet and hence the Arabic writing system. As deciphered from the earliest inscriptions, the Arabic alphabet was vague, unsystematic, and inefficient. The dot system as developed by al-Du'ah helped to clarify and establish distinctions which were otherwise unclear. In fact, it can be maintained that had it not been for the strong desire to preserve the Qur'an, its form, grammar, pronunciation, and accuracy, the Arabic alphabet and writing system might not have developed as quickly as they did. 

The Arabic alphabet and writing system were only one aspect of the Qur'an's impact on the language; it also gave Arabic a rigidity of form and a precision of presentation which were novel to the language, as well as a host of new locutions, complex concepts, meanings, and arguments. Furthermore, the Qur'an enriched the lexicon of the language by bringing new words and expressions into use, and by introducing loan-words from foreign languages. It also presented a firm set of linguistic standards and directions which were instrumental in the subsequent documentation of Arabic grammar. 

The Qur'an likewise helped to expand the scope of Arabic as it was known in the early years of the seventh century. Islam and the Qur'an helped to open new horizons and fields of study which included such disciplines as philology, Islamic law (the sharia), and Islamic philosophy. The Qur'an also introduced a host of new themes and linguistic forms not only to the Arabic language but to the Arab mind as well. Taha Husayn dealt with this particular aspect of the verses of the Qur'an when he wrote: In its external form the Qur'an is neither poetry nor prose. It is not poetry because it does not observe the metre and rhyme of poetry, and it is not prose because it is not composed in the same manner in which prose was customarily composed. (2)

The Qur'an consists of verses which vary in length depending on their theme and the occasion for which they were revealed. What is most interesting about Qur'anic verses is the superb selection of words, a selection which helps to induce varying reading speeds, which render these verses most effective. On this particular point, Taha Husayn wrote: For example, those verses dealing with the dialogues that took place between the Prophet and the pagans as well as those dealing with legislation require the type of low reading speed appropriate to explanation and recapitulation. On the other hand, those verses in which the pagans are warned of the fate that awaits them require a higher speed appropriate to censuring and warning.(3)  

The varying speeds which Taha Husayn mentions appear to be achieved with remarkable spontaneity, which is the result, in Taha Husayn's words, of 'a careful selection of words and expressions.' (4) He gives surah 26, al-Shu'ara', as an example of the type of verse requiring speedy reading, and surah 28, al-Qasas, as an example of that requiring slow reading. 

Another aspect of the novelty of the Qur'an language has to do with its themes. These themes and topics represent a clear departure from those which had been hitherto familiar to the Arabs. As Taha Husayn explained: It does not deal with any such things as ruins, camels, or long journeys in the desert; nor does it describe longing for the beloved, love, or eulogy, topics most familiar to pre-Islamic Arabs. But rather it talks to the Arabs about such things as the oneness of God, His limitless power, His knowledge, which is unattainable, His will, which is unstoppable, and His creation of heaven and earth. (5)

This passage underscores yet another innovative aspect of the Qur'an, namely the presentation of novel themes through an abundance of examples all aimed at illustration and persuasion. The use of illustration is one of the most effective stylistic techniques of the Qur'an. One can hardly read a verse without experiencing the impact of this technique. 

The art of narrative style represents another innovative aspect of the Qur'an. It relates in astounding detail the stories of Noah Abraham, Joseph, Moses, and Jesus, among others. It presents the dialogues that took place in such stories and the claims and counter-claims made by each of the opposing parties. Story-telling may not have been totally novel in pre-Islamic Arabia given the significant quantity of parables, epics, and myths that were inherited from that period. What was novel, however, was the type of integrated, elaborate story involving such essential items as theme, plot, well-developed characters, and denouement which are to be found in the Qur'an, which refers itself to the benefit in telling such stories: We do relate unto thee the most beautiful stories, in that We reveal unto thee this [portion of the] Qur'an. Before this thou too were among those who knew it not. (6)

Continue in the next article: ( Islam, the Qur'an and the Arabic Literature (5) )



1. Taha Husayn, Op. Cit., p. 129. 

2. Ibid., pp. 130 ff. 

3. Ibid., pp. 129 ff. 

4. Ibid., p. 125 

5. Arthur Jeffrey, The Foreign vocabulary of the Qur'an. Lahore, 1977, pp. 5 ff. 

6. (1: 3)