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!