Every author, every reader, every person who takes part in a discussion brings to the book or to the discussion certain basic ideas which he believes to be true. Sometimes these ideas can be tested by examination or measurement as in science, other times by archaeology, or by reference to historical documents. But often they cannot be tested, and it is especially those ideas which cannot be tested which we refer to as basic assumptions.
For example, I believe that matter is real, that the paper on which this book is printed is really here, solidly present in this world. However when I took philosophy at the university, the professor told us about a Greek named Zeno who believed that the world was all an illusion. In my innocence I held up my hand and asked, "But how could he enjoy life if he thought that it was all an illusion?"
Naturally the professor answered, "Why? Can't you enjoy an illusion?"
He was right of course. On a theoretical basis there is no reason why you cannot enjoy an illusion. We spend a lot of time day-dreaming illusions. My problem was that it did not fit my basic assumption that the world is real.
This particular assumption is the same for Muslims, Christians and Jews. All three believe that there is a God who created the existing universe out of nothinga real universe which can be touched and measured.
When our basic assumptions are not the same, though, we can have all kinds of problems. One time in Morocco, a man came to see me for a medical consultation. When I asked him what his work was, he answered that he was an " alim" or religious teacher. We had a little discussion about the Gospel and then he invited me to his home to talk some more. As we talked the word "al-messiya of John 1:41 came up in the conversation. I said, "This comes originally from the Hebrew "mashiakh" which corresponds to the Arabic al-masih" and equals "the Messiah" in English.
He said, "No, this is another name for Muhammad. Muhammad has many names."
We argued back and forth a bit more and finally I said, "All right, let's look it up in the dictionary. Surely you have a Munjid (Arabic dictionary)."
"Oh no. We can't do that, he answered.
"But why not. I'm sure we'll find it in there".
"No! We can't do that!" he repeated, "You wrote the dictionary!"
"What do you mean I wrote the dictionary? " I asked, "I had nothing to do with writing that dictionary."
"Yes you did. It was written by the Christians".
And that was the end of the conversation. In Morocco 25 years ago the only Arabic dictionary sold had been made by the Catholics in Lebanon and he wouldn't agree that it was valid. If we disagreed about the meaning of a word we couldn't consult a dictionary. We no longer had the same basic assumption about the validity of that dictionary.
So how do we know the meaning of words? Who has the power to decide which meaning is correct? How do we make dictionaries?
The answer is that you and I make the dictionaries. We make them by our usage of words over a period of time. Linguists treat oral usage and written usage somewhat differently, but since we are dealing with the Qur'an and the Bible, both written documents, we will illustrate the method used for written language.
Dr. S. I. Hayakawa, Specialist in Linguistics and Professor of English at San Francisco State College, describes the process of making a dictionary as follows:
"Let us see how dictionaries are made and how the editors arrive at definitions...The task of writing a dictionary begins with reading vast amounts of the literature of the period or subject that the dictionary is to cover. As the editors read, they copy on cards every interesting or rare word, every unusual or peculiar occurrence of a common word, a large number of common words in their ordinary uses, and also the sentences in which each of these words appears, thus:
The dairy pails bring home increase of milk
Keats, Endymion I, 44-45
"That is to say, the context of each word is collected, along with the word itself...When the sorting is completed, there will be for each word anywhere from two or three to several hundred illustrative quotations, each on its card.
"To define a word, then, the dictionary editor places before him the stack of cards illustrating that word. Each of the cards represents an actual use of the word by a writer of some literary or historical importance. He reads the cards carefully, discards some, rereads the rest, and divides up the stack according to what he thinks are the several senses of the word. Finally, he writes his definitions following the hard-and-fast rule that each definition MUST be based on what the quotations in front of him reveal about the meaning of the word.
"The writing of a dictionary, therefore, is not a task of setting up authoritative statements about the "true meanings" of words, but a task of recording, to the best of one's ability, what various words have meant to authors in the distant or immediate past...The writer of a dictionary is a historian, not a lawgiver."
As an example of finding the meaning of a word from its usage let us examine the usage of the Arabic noun meaning "burden", (al-wizr), its related noun "burdened one" (al-wazira), and the root verb "to bear" (wazara) as found in the Qur'an. A Quranic concordance tells us that this word group is used 24 times.
The first passage which we want to examine is in the Sura Ta-Ha, 20:87, from the middle Meccan period where we read about the Children of Israel after they made the golden calf:
"They said: We broke not the promise to thee, as far as lay in our power: but we were made to carry the burdens of the ornaments of the people..."
If we were to place this on a 3 x 5 card, we would sort it out with other sentences showing that burden means something which you carry. Also it probably represents something heavy or difficult since they were made or forced to carry the burdens.
Next we might look at the Sura Muhammad, 47:4, from 1 A.H. where the Muslims are instructed to fight the blasphemers until subdued:
"... thereafter either generosity or ransom: until the war lays down its burdens... (God lets you fight) in order to test you, some with others. But those who are slain in the way of God, He will never let their deeds be lost."
Here burden takes on a new meaning. It is still difficult, but in the context it now refers to people being wounded and killed in battle and perhaps the sorrow of loss of friends and loved ones.
Finally we come to the following verses. The English nouns and verbs written in boldface represent the Arabic word which we are studying, and we will imagine that we are writing each verse on its own 3 x 5 card.
The Originator of Creation (Fatir), Sura 35:16, 18, early Meccan.
"If He (God) so pleased, he could blot you out and bring in a new creation ... Nor can a burdened one bear another's burden. If one heavily laden should call another to (carry) his load, not the least portion of it can be carried (by the other) even though he be closely related ..."
The Star (Al-Najm), Sura 53:36-41, early Meccan.
"Nay, is he not acquainted with what is in the books of Moses and of Abraham, who fulfilled his engagements? Namely, that no burdened one can bear another's burdens; that man can have nothing but what he strives for ... then will he be rewarded with a reward complete."
Ta-Ha, Sura 20:100-102, middle Meccan.
"If any do turn away therefrom (from God's message), verily they will carry a burden on the Day of resurrection. They will abide in this (state) and grievous will the load be to them on that daythe day the trumpet will be sounded ..."
The Cattle (Al-An'am), Sura 6:31, late Meccan.
"Lost indeed are they who treat it as a falsehood that they must meet God, until suddenly the hour is on them, and they say, Ah! woe unto us that we took no thought of it, for they carry their burdens on their backs, and evil indeed (the load) that they bear."
Sura 6:164, late Meccan.
"...Every soul gathers the result of its acts on none but itself. No burdened one can bear another's burdens. Your goal in the end is towards God. He will tell you the truth of the things wherein you disputed."
The Crowds (Al-Zumar), Sura 39:7, late Meccan.
"If ye blaspheme, truly God is rich (has no need) toward you, but He does not like blasphemy in his servants. If you are grateful He is pleased with you. No burdened one can bear another's burden. In the end to your Lord is your return when He will tell you the truth of all that ye did, for He knows well all that is in the chests (hearts)."
The Bee (Al-Nahl), Sura 16:25, late Meccan.
"Let them carry, on the day of resurrection, their total burdens, and also some of the burdens of those without knowledge, whom they led astray. How grievous (the load) they will bear."
The Children of Israel (Bani Isra'il), Sura 17:13-15, -1 AH.
"Every man's fate We have fastened on his own neck. On the day of resurrection We shall bring out for him a book which he will find spread open. (He will be told) Read your book. You are quite able to understand an account against you. Who receives guidance, receives it for his own good. Who goes astray does so to his own loss. And no burdened one can bear another's burden..."
It is very clear when we compare these verses with each other that this word is being used for another type of burden. If you deny God's message, you bear this burden. If you blaspheme or deny that there is going to be a day of resurrection, it weighs on you. This burden is a result of the acts of each person, and a record of it is kept in a book which you will read for yourself. It is spoken of as being carried on the back, but also God knows what is in your chest (heart in English). From these ideas we easily understand that this burden is our sins.
Taking our 3 x 5 cards, our definition of wizr as used in Saudi Arabia by the Quraish Tribe in the time of Muhammad might read:
When we look up the word wizr in Hans Wehr's, A Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic, this is what we find:
We didn't come up with responsibility as one of our meanings, but with "heavy load, burden" and "sin", we were right on the mark.
In a theological dictionary we would expect to find further remarks on these verses, pointing out that no sinner will be able to help another sinner even if he is a close relative. Each person will be punished according to the record book of his own sins. The only exception, is that if you lead someone astray you will have added punishment, though the one led astray will have to bear his own sin burden also. Whether a sinless onesomeone without any burden of his owncould intercede or take on the burden of another is not dealt with in these verses.
As long ago as his lectures of 1910-1911 Professor Ferdinand de Saussure, the Swiss father of modern linguistics, expressed this fact with the following strong words. He told his students,
"...language degenerates, or rather evolves, under the influence of all the agents which can reach either the sounds or the meanings. This evolution is inevitable ("fatale" in French). There is no example of a language which resists it. At the end of a certain time, one can always demonstrate obvious changes."
The French linguistic expert, Andre Martinet repeats the same idea in his Elements of General Linguistics published in 1964. He writes,
"For the present we shall merely note that languages change constantly, without, of course, ever ceasing to function; and that any language which we approach (in order) to describe its functioning, is in the process of modification" (even while we are looking at it). "A moment's reflection will serve to convince us that this holds good for all languages at every moment."
Looking under a "hood" 500 years ago would have revealed a monk. Today we find an automobile engine. In addition, a "hood" might be the thief who stole the car.
In his Semantics and Common Sense, Louis B. Solomon, Professor of English at Brooklyn College makes clear that because of this continual change there is only one way to know the meaning of a word.
"The standard meaning of a verbal symbol (word) at any given time is what the users of the symbol do with it at that time."
In summary: as time passes, some words change their meaning while others remain the same. This means that, TODAY, you and I are either confirming the previous definition or giving a new definition to each word as we use it, and usage is the ONLY thing which will affirm the former meaning or indicate a new meaning.
Dr. Solomon discusses this common misconception in the following words:
"The etymological fallacy (is) the fallacy of holding that the earliest known meaning (perhaps even the meaning of the source word in Latin or Greek or Sanskrit) is the right one and all later meanings are regrettable impurities to be filtered out at the first opportunity."
It is a fallacy to look for the meaning of a word in the root meaningin the original meaning. Rather we must find it in the people who use the word. The original meaning of a word proves nothing about present usage, and present usage proves nothing about the meaning in former times. If a word occurs only once in a single document from 500 years ago, or on one clay tablet found in Babylon, then older (or younger) known meanings might help us to guess at a possible meaning, but that is all. It could not prove a meaning. To know what a word meant to the Christians in the first century or among the Muslims in the 7th century, we must examine its usage at that time.
Dr. Bucaille, however, does not agree with these specialists. In his latest book he writes as follows,
"There exists a general rule which I have never found wrong in regard to modern knowledge: the original sense of a word, the oldest sense, is the one which suggests most clearly, the reconciliation which can be made with scientific knowledge, while the derived meanings lead to a false sense or nonsense."
Unfortunately Dr. Bucaille's rule can also lead to nonsense. As an example let us consider the Arabic word ta'ir used in the Sura of the Children of Israel (Bani Isra'il) 17:13 from 1 AH, where we read,
"And We (God) have fastened every man's fate on his neck..."
The root meaning, and one of the current meanings of this word translated fate, is bird. The Arabs, like the Romans, tried to read the future from the flight of birds, therefore the word came to mean evil omen or evil fate. To read this Quranic sentence with its root meaning that "God tied every man's bird to his neck" would lead us to absurdity.
As another example let us look at the Hebrew word rakhamah found in Deuteronomy 14:17 which comes from the root rakham meaning to love. We might expect the word to mean lover until we read an article which speaks of a rakhamah circling in the sky waiting to eat dead bodies.
The meaning turns out to be vulture, but the word was used, according to one dictionary, because these birds keep the same mate for life. In any case it is clear that the root meaning will not lead us to the present meaning, nor can one say that the root meaning is more correct scientifically.
A third example is the word alcohol. The word is derived from the Arabic word al-kuhl which stands for the black antimony powder that Arab women used for eyeliner in the distant past and now. In later Roman times it came to have the meaning of pure. When alcohol was first produced by distillation it was "pure", and therefore "alcohol". This word has now gone back into Arabic as al-kuhul for alcohol. Both words are from the same root. Both are in use today, and it would be idiotic to ask which meaning is more accurate scientifically.
Finally, to end this section on word meaning, I quote from the introduction to the very excellent translation of the Qur'an into English made by the Egyptian Abdullah Yusuf Ali. He says,
"Every serious writer and thinker has a right to use all the knowledge and experience he possesses in the service of the Qur'an. But he must not mix up his own theories and conclusions, however reasonable, with the interpretation of the Text itself, which is usually perfectly perspicuous, as it claims to be. Our difficulties in interpretation often arise from various causes, of which I will mention just a few: "(1) Arabic words in the Text have acquired other meanings than those which were understood by the Apostle and his Companions. All living languages undergo such transformations. The early Commentators and Philologists went into these matters with a very comprehensive grasp, and we must accept their conclusions. Where they are not unanimous, we must use our judgment and historic sense in adopting the interpretation of that authority which appeals to us most. We must not devise new verbal meanings."
In other words we may not lay back on a couch and dream up "new verbal meanings" just because we find ourselves confronted with a difficult passage.
We have discussed context as the way to understand the meaning of a word from its usage. Now we must discuss the importance of context in establishing the meaning of a word, or a phrase, or a sentence in a document.
As we have already seen in this chapter a word often has more than one correct current meaning. In our discussion of the Arabic word "wizr" we found that, in addition to burden and sin, it could mean responsibility. Therefore if someone asked the meaning of the phrase "wizr of the Sultan", we would not be able to answer. We could not know from those few words whether it meant the "sin of the Sultan" or the "responsibility of the Sultan". We would have to ask to hear the whole sentence, i.e. the context. For it is only by seeing or hearing the context, that we would be able to pick out the correct meaning.
De Saussure insists on this when he says,
"...language is a system in which all the terms are interdependent, and where the one has no value except from the simultaneous presence of the others..."
and Solomon expresses it in greater detail when he writes,
"Words are never used in isolation. In organic use the meaning of a word is inevitably affected by its context, which includes at the very least the other words that surround it in a sentence or a paragraph or a lengthy discourse, and actually a great deal more."
"To find out what the users of a word in 1787 meant by it we must observe (as far as written records reveal) what the users in 1787 did with it."
In his book God of Justice, Dr. Daud Rahbar gives several examples of the importance of context including the following. In the Sura of the Ranks (Al-Saffat) 37:96 we read,
This sentence will admit of two alternative translations:
How shall we choose between them? We will have to look at the sentences, and perhaps the paragraphs surrounding the phrase in question. By starting at verse 91 we find the following additional information:
"And he (Abraham) went aside unto their gods and said, Will you not eat? What ails you that you will not speak? and he attacked them hitting with his right hand.
"And they (the people of the city) rushed toward him.
"He said, Do you worship what you (yourselves) carved? When God has created you, and what you ______? " do? make?
The context of the verse reveals that the words are addressed by Abraham to idol-worshippers telling them that the idols made by them are helpless creatures of God, and that "God has created you and (the idols) you make".
By isolating this verse from its context, a great Imam like Al-Ghazali, makes it mean God has created you and what you do, thus contriving to provide Quranic support for the theological idea that God Himself is the creator of each and every deed that men do.
Sometimes, in order to study all the context, we have to include sentences on the same subject from another chapter, or even all the pertinent references in a whole book. An example of this is to be found in an article in Manar Al-Islam entitled "The Apostle Was Known Before His Birth", by Professor Hassan Abd-al-Fattah Katkat from Jordan. In order to show that the Bible gave prophecies about Muhammad before he was born, the professor quotes Deuteronomy 18:18-19 of the Torah where it reads,
"I (God) will raise up for them a prophet like you (Moses) from among their brothers. I will put my words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I command him. If anyone does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name, I myself will call him to account.
Secondly he quotes only a part of Deuteronomy 34:10 as follows,
"Since then, no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses..."
These two quotations are then summarized as follows:
a) God promised to raise up another prophet like Moses.
b) But the comment at the end of Deuteronomy itself says that no other prophet has risen in Israel like Moses.
Professor Katkat then concludes that since "no other prophet has risen in Israel like Moses", the words "their brothers" is speaking of the descendants of Ishmael, not of Isaac, and this is a prophecy of Muhammad.
In order to judge whether this deduction is right we must learn more about the usage of the phrase "their brothers" in the Torah, and how Moses is described. When we examine the context we find that there is more information available. Starting from verse 15, with the newly quoted verses in boldfaced type, Deuteronomy 18:15-19 reads,
"The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers. You must listen to him. For this is what you asked of the Lord your God at Horeb (Mt. Sinai) on the day of the assembly when you said, Let us not hear the voice of the Lord our God (at Mt. Sinai) nor see this great fire anymore, or we will die.
"The Lord said to me What they say is good. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers; I will put my words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I command him."
When we add these verses we see that Moses was speaking to those of the Children of Israel who had heard the voice of God at Mt. Sinai, and God says that He will do for them what they ask. Therefore "their brothers" can only refer to brothers of those Jews who were present. But if that is still not clear enough the preceding chapter uses the very words "from among your own brothers", and then defines it. Chapter 17:14-15 reads,
"When you enter the land the LORD your god is giving you...and you say, Let us set a king over us like all the nations around us... He must be from among your own brothers. Do not place a foreigner over you, one who is not a brother Israelite."
Here the phrase "from among your own brothers" is clearly defined as referring to a "brother Israelite", not a descendant of Ishmael.
Furthermore, this is exactly parallel to the Quranic usage in the Late Meccan Sura of the Heights (Al-A'raf) 7:65,73, where it says.
"And to the Aad people (We sent) their brother, Hud. He said, O my people, worship God..."In his French translation of the Qur'an, Muhammad Hamidullah has a special note here which reads,
"And to the Thamud (We sent) their brother, Salih..."
"The Arabic word akh signifies both brother and member of the tribe". (italics his)
The Hebrew word for brother is also "akh", and can also signify both brother and member of the tribe. In the above passages from Deuteronomy it is being used in exactly the same wayto speak of one who is a member of the same tribe. Clearly God is saying to the Children of Israel, "I will raise up a prophet from among your brothers, from your own tribe, i.e. from you the Children of Israel."
When we look at the second passage in Deuteronomy 34:10-12 we find that the context is even more necessary for a proper understanding. It reads,
"Since then, no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, who did all those miraculous signs and wonders the Lord sent him to do in Egyptto Pharaoh and to all his officials and to his whole land."
This is further explained in the Torah, Numbers 12:6-8 which says,
"And He (God) said, Hear my words. If there is a prophet among you, I the Lord make myself known to him in a vision, I speak with him in a dream. Not so with my servant Moses...With him I speak mouth to mouth, clearly",
What a difference this context makes. It tells us what characteristic of Moses was uniquein what way no other prophet was like him. It describes him as the only prophet up to that time whom the Lord knew "face to face", and with whom the LORD spoke "mouth to mouth".
Here again we find that the Qur'an confirms the Bible. This very characteristic is mentioned in the Sura of the Women (Al-Nisa') 4:163-164, from 5-6 AH where it says,
"We have inspired you (Muhammad), as We inspired Noah and the prophets after him. We inspired Abraham, and Ishmael, and Isaac, and Jacob and the Tribes, and Jesus, and Job, and Jonah, and Aaron, and Solomon, and to David We gave the Psalms...
And to Moses, God spoke directly" (takliman).
We find Moses listed separately. He is not in the same group with Muhammad and the other prophets, because God spoke to Moses "directly".
That Muhammad was a great Warner against polytheism to the people of Mecca is known by all, but the Qur'an never claims that he did miracles like Moses or that God knew him face to face, or spoke to him mouth to mouth.
Therefore, in order to claim that these verses speak about Muhammad, rather than a prophet coming from the tribe of the Children of Israel, Professor Katkat has ignored the context in both the Torah and the Qur'an.
There is only one way, therefore, to establish a new meaning for a word or a phrase used in a previous age. One must bring examples of the new usage from poetry, or letters, or government documents written during the period in questionthe first century AD for New Testament usagethe first century of the Hejira for Quranic usage. This usually happens by discovering new source material from the period under study; such as the Nuzi tabletsclay tablets from the 15th century BCwhich have helped us understand the customs of Abraham.
Secondly, if we are going to quote the Bible or the Qur'an or another book or document we must quote all of the context which bears on the subject. As a Christian I must quote the Qur'an with the same honesty that I use in quoting the Bible. A Muslim must quote the Bible with the same honesty he would use in quoting the Qur'an.
To change the meaning of a word or to quote something out of context is obviously a very serious matter when we are dealing with God's word. In reality it is changing God's word and making it into "my" word. At the least this is a form of "alteration of the meaning" (al-tahrif al-ma'nawi), a type of lying, the very thing which the Jews are accused of doing in the Qur'an; and maybe it is polytheism (al-shirk), associating myself and my ideas with God. Therefore we must make every effort to quote things completely and honestly including the necessary context.
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