The Importance of Grammar, and Verse 33:33

I think we’ve all experienced the frustration of knowing what we mean and feel but lacking the words needed to explain ourselves. Sometimes it’s a result of too much depth and complexity in our own minds for us to organize, and especially if we are particularly disorganized people. But in some cases, it is because the words to explain did not exist–at least, not in English. Language carries its own system of self expression that can be so easily customized that it may even be possible to construct it to reflect nothing but the identity and thought process of a single individual. The languages we acquire, and even pieces of the ones that we do not completely attain, became a larger part of our identity as an individual by reshaping the way we think.

We may think without language, but once we learn it, we think (at least on the conscious level) within the margins of its grammar. What’s grammatically incorrect is “wrong” because it does not fit the order by which our thoughts are processed. In the Arabic language, the verb to be is often omitted in the present tense. Germans have three genders, and nouns are capitalized. Mandarin uses post-prepositions (“Box inside. Table on.”) and drops pronouns. The French invite confirmation by offering an opportunity for the addressee to grab the negotiation (“You’re too tired, no?”) which may be why in freezing weather a Frenchman will observe that, “It isn’t very hot.” And an American, unaccustomed to this way of understatements, (it is more suited for our culture that we exaggerate) may darkly remark, “No shit.”

I love grammar. Every sentence has a different focus, a different feel and a different image based on its grammatical construction. But it distresses me certain grammatical formulas are seen as “correct” or “incorrect” when differing between regional dialects or between the translations of a foreigner (“He is teacher” what the speaker is doing is using teacher as an adjective instead of a noun like, She’s artistic.) Think of teacher as an adjective. (You can’t just know it’s an adjective, you have to understand and code it as an adjective.) Force your brain to do it. You’ll know it when you’ve succeeded: there is a sudden sense of cloudlessness. To realize this forges new pathways into our brains, brings spring to more dendrites. The language spoken is English, but the grammar could be from a number of different languages that are foreign to us. It isn’t wrong. It’s simply “mismatched” or structured differently. Familiar words, foreign grammar.

Sometimes this happens in English, with grammar that is English. A classmate of mine in a poem had written “I go excited,” which she had changed to “I go excitedly” because “excited” felt strange to her. She was also encouraged to do so by surrounding classmates. I informed her that it was correct either way, though she refused to believe me. But depending on what she was attempting to say, it would have been correct grammar in its most basic form. Did she go excitedly, or was she excited when she went? An adjective to modify her, an adverb to modify her action. On top of this, I pointedly reminded her that she was writing poetry—the last form that should ever be restricted by grammar. In poetry, as in other writing, grammar is a tool for analysis, and not a limit. And languages should not be used as excuses to create barriers of free thought, especially since they truly do expand the mind and provide new views.

The grammar of anything is only incorrect when it fails to sufficiently communicate the intention or meaning in the writing.

ANYWAY (after that rather long and unnecessary introduction) altMuslimah posted an article emphasizing the importance of grammar when analyzing the Qur’an, especially since the language is classical Arabic–even in Arabic in general grammar and pronunciation are so crucial they can make the difference between one word an another. Not one tense and another, not variations in possessives or quantities. One complete word and another. To illustrate this, Carolyn Baugh uses verse 33:33. From her article:

[transliteration] Wa qarna fī buyūtikunna wa lā tatabarrajna tabarruj al-jāhilīyah al-ūlā… (33:33)

Abdullah Yusuf Ali translates: “And stay quietly in your houses, and make not a dazzling display, like that of the former times of ignorance…”

The rest of the verse goes on to command women to pray, give charity, obey God and the Messenger, and so forth. These commands are followed by “Truly the Muslim men and the Muslim women, the believing men and the believing women…” (33:35). This verse stands as an awesome affirmation of our spiritual equality with men. Why then is it preceded by a verse that instructs us to “Stay home”?

Mr. Sunnī Universe (Ṭabarī) thinks that’s bunk, and so does Mr. Grammar (al-Farrā’) before him. Both believed that this verse does not say, “Stay home” but instead translates into, “Behave with dignity in your homes.”

Now for the grammar – with which you have to be armed, because if we can’t explain it like these guys did, no one will listen to us. For most men, 33:33 has nullified 33:35 before their eyes can even travel down the page.

At the heart of the debate is the root word waqara, which means to be dignified. It is a “weak” verb in Arabic, which means that it drops its first radical (i.e., the letter waw here in the command form). Here’s how al-Farrā‘ explains it:

“’Wa-qirna fī buyūtikunna’ comes from waqār, dignity. You say for men, ‘he has behaved with dignity within his home’ or ‘qad waqara fī manzilihi’.”

Sisters! “Stay home” (qarna), the word we find in our reading of the Qur’ān, is not the word that some of the most learned and renowned early experts believed was correct (“be dignified” – qirna). Al-Farrā’ does not even suggest that his interpretation is a variant. It is the BASIS from which others depart.

He goes on to address the alternate reading:

“ʿĀṣim and the Medinans have read it with a fatḥah. This is not from waqār (dignity). We see that they intend [its meaning to be]: ‘And stay in your homes,’ (w-a-qrarna fī buyūtikunna), so they have dropped the [first] ‘rāʾ’, and its fatḥah has transferred to the ‘qāf.’”

The root here is from qarr, (to remain, to be sedentary, to settle). Even if the root word were qarr, al-Farrā’ shows us what the command form would look like: aqrarna, not qarna. In other words, if you want to use the root verb which means to remain sedentary, it takes a lot of dodgy grammatical wiggling to get it to match the consonantal outline found in the early Qur’āns.

This translation of “stay home” was grammatically incorrect by presenting a dishonest meaning–and everyone knew it. Not only through the grammar, but the context itself, as the following verses continue to emphasize equality. You will hear Muslim men ramble on and on about the greatness of early scholars–and yet it is the earliest they ignore, the ones who lived closest to the time of the Prophet and had a purer understanding of the Qur’an without its grammatical markings–instead adopting incorrect translations of those who came shortly after that favor patriarchy and benefit them at the cost of the freedom of women.

As Baugh says,

Consider this: one little word, voweled differently from the way these early experts suggested, has made countless women prisoners of their homes… One little kasrah.

(A kasrah, by the way, is a specific marking that signifies a specific vowel sound–it is one of the three most frequent.)

Sisters, God promised that the Qur’an would be perserved, protected, in its original form. Men have attempted to destroy it–and yet God’s Word is unconquerable still! The original is preserved–it must only be obtained. We must fight to access it. Educate yourself! Educate your daughters and your sons–it’s the best weapon against oppressors.

This is why they kept you out of school and erased you from history.

No one’s literary interpretation will ever be objective–while the true, objective, eternal message of the Qur’an exists, it is essentially unreachable because we as human beings can only understand so much, and there is an incredible amount of subconscious activity of which we are entirely unaware, and as soon as we interpret something we have changed its qualities so that we may comprehend it. We can only get closer and closer.

However, it’s a fact that some interpretations are more objective than others, especially before we have even gotten to meaning, and some points are so glaringly obvious that it is absurd there is any debate around them. Grammar is one of them. It is possibly the most inarguable one of them. Use it.

The article, which I highly recommend you go read, is titled “Language Part I: What a difference a kasrah makes“–I am guessing this means there are more parts to come, and am looking forward to them.

Update: Part II. Thanks, Zu!

16 thoughts on “The Importance of Grammar, and Verse 33:33

  1. This is a very informative post, Nahida. I've often felt that the meaning of the verses of the Quran have been twisted by men to their advantage (our disadvantage). It really is great that brave women like you are bringing it out here!! Great work :-)

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  2. Once again, you have written a great piece that has really caused me to think. Subhanallah, the more I read the Qur'an, and the more I do research on it, the more I realize how much it supports "left-wing" values. I think that it is imperative that contemporary Islamic scholars really examine all the words of the Qur'an to see what meanings may come out of it; after all, reexamination of words have shown that the Qur'an supports/foreshadows modern scientific concepts, and, like your article states, words and ayahs that have traditionally been interpreted in a patriarchal manner may on closer examination be much more woman-friendly than previously thought.

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  3. Ah, thank you Zuhura.Banana Anne, I don't believe God and Islam have anything to do with or any concern at all in the trivial politics of men (although that may be why you used quotes) or that mainstream politics have "values" really, other than to beat the other guy, but I agree with the rest. And thank you. =) The thing with "traditional interpretation" is that it isn't–it isn't traditional, and has merely been passed as traditional; it is in fact not the original. As the article by Baugh states the earliest scholars translated/interpreted the word as behave with dignity. What we are taught of tradition is fabricated.

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  4. this is concisely thought provoking. thank you for this nahida.why is this not widely accepted? that women could be so much more than just the interpretation of men.if i had read this about 4 years ago i'd have covered my eyes and said blasphemy. that learned men of knowledge where friends of God. but then i wondered where all the learned ladies where.

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  5. "Sisters, God promised that the Qur'an would be perserved, protected, in its original form. Men have attempted to destroy it–and yet God's Word is unconquerable still! The original is preserved–it must only be obtained."But this isn't what I get out of the article, instead I understand it as saying that the Qur'an was indeed changed, with the addition of signs for the vowels (such as the kasrah), which changed the meaning of the Qur'an. How can you then say it's been preserved in it's original form?"Early on, the Qur’ānic text was written with only a vague consonantal outline. Vowels and dots were inserted based on the opinions of scholars. Differences in vowels and differences in where dots were placed on or under letters, meant differences in meaning. The Arabic script that we encounter when we open the Qur’ān today was not hammered out until grammarians in the late-9th century defined a precise system of marks – fatḥahs, kasrahs and dammahs – to indicate the different vowel sounds ."

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  6. If I am not mistaken, the original vague consonantal outline still exists. (I recall seeing it in passing in documentaries.) Additionally, I don't think the promise of its preservation necessarily meant that it would be preserved in a tangible form we read, but that it is preserved in an attainable form that we could make tangible. The Qur'an isn't tangible: it was delivered as poetic oracle, which suggests that the form in which it is preserved isn't tangible either, but could be.

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  7. I asked my mom about this (she's recently going through the process of studying all ten alternate readings) and she explained this to me when I told her about the article. She said that the scholars didn't make educated guesses about what vowel and what noqat are to be used, they didn't need to, they knew Arab all too perfectly in a way that would shame us all. Meaning, they didn't *need* anything other than the consonantal outline and they knew full well what the words were. Moving on, the alternate readings are actually mutawatereen, i.e in direct transmission from the time of the prophet. All ten readings with their alternates are accurate and transitioned from the Prophet pbuh. So I don't believe that the Quran is *changed* per se. But two things. 1) is that us having only one of the readings deemed as the *ultimate* seems foolish and and pushing a certain agenda more than anything else. The perfect Quran would be having all ten readings within our grasp. Which is attainable, but you need people to know about this to begin with. 2) waqarna being an accurate transition does not justify the fact that they have used it to suppress and oppress women. As many commenters on altmuslimah and many mufassireen have pointed out; waqarna simply means settle in your homes, have a home in which you settle in, don't travel all around the world and forget about your husband and children. And when I asked my mom why would their be different readings of one verse which could possibly hold different interpretations, she paused to think about it "It's a mercy from Allah, to allow us more interpretations that suit all the times and all the places" couldn't have said it better myself.Mom: "The verse isn't even about all women, it only refers to the wives of the prophet, so people using this as an excuse to lock women up are just douchebags and such a conversation with them would be pointless anyway"

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  8. Nahida,If the Qur'an isn't tangible, and it's preservation isn't tangible either, then why do people keep harping on about how it's perfect and the absolute truth and unchanged?This perfection is used to keep people oppressed, as you aren't allowed to question anything 'because the Qur'an says so'.Zeina, if all ten readings are accurate, then how come some of them are conflicting? Who gets to decide which is "most accurate" or "valid" today?I agree with what you say, on the different readings being a mercy from Allah, but I don't see them being treated as a mercy – I see them being treated as false, and people being treated as heretics if they dare to question the truth of one interpretation/variation.Furthermore, if ten different readings are all true, I think Muslims lose a huge argument against the Bible, for having slight variations. The variations, errors, that has crept into the Bible over the past almost 2000 years, are of the same size and character. If you find fragments of the Bible that are 1800-1900 years old, they're almost identical to the ones that are used today, with minor changes which may or may not affect the meaning – in the same way as the change of vowels may or may not affect the meaning of the Arabic text.

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  9. Becky, I don't know if that last paragraph is true: the fact that the Bible has been around for centuries longer and not perserved or translated as carefully must have had some impact on the immensity of the changes; plus the Qur'an is not viewed as the Qur'an unless it is in classical Arabic whereas from what I've gathered the Bible is the Bible in any language–however, I'm not really interested in denouncing the Bible. *shrug* I never cared for the whole "this is why we're better!" argument. It's ridiculous and pathetic, let them have their religion; competitions are immature and unproductive.I agree with what you say, on the different readings being a mercy from Allah, but I don't see them being treated as a mercy – I see them being treated as false, and people being treated as heretics if they dare to question the truth of one interpretation/variation.I agree completely with this. And it is an unfortunate perspective that arises from nothing but conceit by those who believe there is only one correct interpretation and it must be theirs. It alienates Muslim from their community and is extremely toxic to the Ummah. The fact that the Qur'an has so much depth is truly mercy, and it should be perceived as such, without people accusing others of being heretics and ignoring that the Qur'an itself warns all believers to refrain from this.

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  10. "Here's hoping the html tags work:Zeina, if all ten readings are accurate, then how come some of them are conflicting? Who gets to decide which is "most accurate" or "valid" today?That's the point I was trying to make. They're not conflicting. People's misinterpretations of them are what make them seem conflicting. But Ibn Tabari and Ibn Taymiyyah both vouch that in this place waqarna and waqirna both resonate a meaning of settling down, only waqarna means settle down in your house, and waqirna means settle down as a more personal thing, calm your ego down, behave in dignity. There essence is the same. The grammar becomes ways to explore those different interpretations, but never in a way that contradicts the eternal message. I agree with what you say, on the different readings being a mercy from Allah, but I don't see them being treated as a mercy – I see them being treated as false, and people being treated as heretics if they dare to question the truth of one interpretation/variation.They aren't treated as a mercy, they are used as a tool of oppression. It's upsetting, infuriating and sad, I know. The difference in opinion is supposed to enrich the Muslim community, not divide it. But I do believe that in things as complicated as this we should try reserving a final opinion until we've learned more (I know squat about the different readings other than what my mom told me!).Furthermore, if ten different readings are all true, I think Muslims lose a huge argument against the Bible, for having slight variations.Spot on what Nahida said. The whole my Quran is better than your Bible is ridiculous and a discourse that shouldn't even exist. I think the only difference I would make between the Quran and the Bible is the fact that I believe that the Quran is the literal word of God, whereas Christians (or most of them at least) believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God. And you know what? I agree with them, being that it includes the essence of what Jesus pbuh taught.

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