Over the past several weeks I have had a number of conversations with a variety of people made the choice to become Muslim (I’m purposely not saying ‘convert’ here). Among some of our discussions arose the need for (new) Muslims to better understand Revelation. Many disparaged at not having sufficient skills in the Arabic language, others not having the means or the resources to even pursue Arabic studies. Some felt that the way the religion is discussed amounts to a myriad of bewildering symbols and technical “insider” terms which leave them left out. So I thought I might, in a modest and humble effort, start a (ongoing?) series of short posts helping to decipher some of these words and catch phrases to work towards making Islam accessible and operational. I’ve chosen the phrase, “I seek protection in Allah from the accursed Devil/أعوذ بالله من الشسطان الرجيم” as my first attempt. And with God belongs all success.
Thus far, I have talked about some general approaches to learning the Arabic language for those on that path. I wanted to drive home the point of just how difficult it is to learn this language for most folks, a difficulty that is partially theirs [what are you study skills like? Are you able to focus? Do you have a foundation in English grammar, etc.?] and a difficulty that is imposed on students of the language through cumbersome books, teaching methods, etc. I will now begin to post a few breadcrumbs on the path; they won’t sustain you but hopefully they will wet your appetite and provide some general directions for you to head in.
Arabic is a language of verbs. This isn’t to say that there aren’t nouns, but to simplify your approach, think of Arabic as a language of verbal roots. Most of these roots are, what we call them in the English language, trilateral roots.
|سجد||to bow/prostrate||حد||to sharpen/hone||فعل|
|سجاد||a prostrator/one who does prostration||حداد||a blacksmith/one who does ironsmithing||فعال|
|سجادة||a rug/something that is prostrated on||حدادة||the art of blacksmithing or ironworking||فعالة|
|مسجد||a mosque/place where prostration if performed||مفعل|
|مسجد||a prostration mark/the result of prostration||مفعل|
|ساجد||a prostrator/someone doing prostration||مفعل|
Let’s look at this small chart above. This is what’s known as awzan al-af’al أوزان الأفعال, or the forms of verbs. It’s also the beginning of the science of morphology or sarf علم الصرف. I mention these to you here not to scare you with burdensome taxonomy, but to begin to open some doors.
You should also know that Arabic is a language of patterns, just like the mosaics we see in the tile work of Muslim artisans. In the first row, we have the verbs “sa-ja-da” and “ha-d-da”. They are on the form or wazn of “fa-a-la”. Don’t worry about conjugation [also known as ‘i’rab اعراب] for now. Just concentrate on the “patterns”. Let’s look at the shared morphology between these two verbs: look at lines 1, 2, 4, and 5. Notice how the first line [the root] informs the other inflections of the word: to bow becomes prostration which becomes one who does the act of prostration [as a matter of habit or habitual action!] to the place of prostration and finally, to the result of prostration [line 6 is pronounced “masjid“ while line 7 is pronounced “masjad“ – the latter being the mark you see on people’s forheads from years of prostration].
Now, look at “ha-d-da”: to sharpen or hone becomes sharpness or distinctiveness [which is interesting: the act of sharpening a knife, for example, “distinguishes” the blade from a dull one of that the edge, upon sharpening, becomes “distinct”], which becomes the one who sharpness/hones/works with metal [a.k.a., a blacksmith – again, habitual action!], which becomes smithing. Line one is on the form of “fa-a-la” while line four is “fa’aal”; one simply exchanges the “fa”, “‘ayn”, or “lam” for the three roots letters in the form [in the case of a root like “ha-d–da”, the “dal” is doubled up and therefore is also “doubled” in the form: “fa’aal” becomes “ha-daad“. This form of “fa’aal” is a common form to connote livelihoods, because, especially in the “olden days” a person’s profession was something that did habitually, over and over again: sajjaad سجاد is someone who makes sajdah all the time, or a Muslim. Likewise, the verb to cook: “ta-ba-kha” طبخ, becomes in this form, “ta-b–baa-kh” طباخ“a cook” or a chef; to bake: “kha-ba-za” خبز, becomes in this form, “kha-b–baa-z” خباز”a baker”. This form is even seen in the Qur’an, as Allah says:
إن بطش ربك لشديد إنه هو يبدئ ويعيد و هو الغفور الودود ذو العرش المجيد فعّال لما يريد
“Indeed your Lord’s Assault is severe! . He originates and renews . He is the Ever-Forgiving, the All-Loving , the Possessor of the Throne, the All-Glorious , the Doer of whatever He desires .” [Qur’an: 85: 12-16]
And again, in this passage:
قل إنما أنا منذر وما من إله إلا الله الواحد القهّار
“Say: ‘I am only a warner. There is no diety except God, the One, the All-Conquering.” [Qur’an: 38: 65]
The point here is to show that one, this form is a common form and two, to highlight the importance of pattern recognition. Pattern recognition is extremely importance to becoming competent at understanding Arabic and the nuances of the language. In the above examples, “fa’aal” demonstrates Allah’s majesty and power that Allah does what Allah wills constantly. Similarly, al-Qahhar—one of the Ninety Nine Names of God—is emphatic of God’s attribute as the Conqueror of creation at all times, perpetually.
So work on pattern recognition and in the next post, we’ll begin to talk about the awzan al-af’al أوزان الأفعال and how the meanings morph and change as we move through the different “baabs”.