The Sin Tax of Ignoring Syntax

Hamza Yusuf
Posted from Medina Munawara, the City of the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him. March 26/2011 “If a profligate comes to you with news, make sure you understand it (tabayyanu) and make sure you know it indeed happened (tathabbatu), or else you will attack people out of ignorance and end up in great remorse” (Qur’an 49:6).1 How many fault-finders of statements Yet the fault is faulty understanding – al-Mutanabbi Upon seeing one of his students reading a difficult book, a teacher said, “Don’t read that book yet.” The student replied, “I promise only to take from it what I understand from it.” “It is not what you understand that concerns me,” responded the teacher, “but what you think you understand.” – Shaykhna b. Mahfudh “How quick people are to condemn things they don’t understand.” – Lady Aishah, the wife of the Prophet, peace be upon him. Sahih Muslim, Chapter on Funerals

I want to write about the importance of proper reading and writing, as well as the importance of proper adab (manners) when one criticizes or debates another. This topic was partly inspired by the general debasement of our public discourse taking place these days and partly by some comments from readers of my recent blog posts. These comments, some published and some not, concerned statements I wrote regarding Islam and politics, so I shall also take this opportunity to elaborate on those statements. First, we have to understand that one aspect of language, even in its most simple usage, is ambiguity. Anyone who has ever used a dictionary knows that words often have multiple meanings. (For that reason, Wikipedia has a “disambiguation” option.) In rhetoric, amphibolyrefers to the phenomenon of ambiguous syntax. In the Islamic tradition, the prerequisites of debate include a mastery of grammar, rhetoric, logic, and a branch of logic that involves the comportment of research and dialectic (adab al-bahth wa al-munadharah). Those ill prepared in these areas fall prey to common misunderstandings. In the past, such people did not debate with or challenge statements made by an erudite person because they knew well the verse in the Qur’an, “Are those who know and those who don’t equal?” (39:09) – a rhetorical question, needing no response, as the answer is obvious. Furthermore, in the Islamic tradition, a long-standing convention of glosses exists whereby scholars would shed light on the abstruse language used by their predecessors. The Maliki scholars, in particular, preferred to write in such abstruse language in order to prevent ill-equipped readers from venturing into their books. (In the West, legal books often use a similar tactic so that only jurists can comprehend the text with ease.) Sometimes, glosses were written on previous glosses, and



if one says. giving your reasons for dissent. “I began my journey from Mecca. For instance. so he interpreted the hadith to mean Shawwal as the time when the fasting may begin and then continue on into the following months.” which does not include eating from other foods. demanding I resort to another larger dictionary. which.” and multiple meanings can be inferred from this statement. Imam al-Ghazali is noted for saying.” it means one initiated travel from Mecca but continued beyond Mecca.” which means. and evidence supporting them. scholars mention the hadith of the Prophet.” The original Arabic contains the phrase. is the most difficult level of reading. “Laysa fi al-imkaan abda’ mimma kana. peace be upon him. Readers can marvel at the sundry possibilities of words on their own or in order. The fact that language allows so many meanings and multiple possibilities reveals its richness. but this last and problematic phase of reading is entirely predicated upon the mastery of the first three. I spend a good deal of time reading such texts as a result of my own dependence on far more knowledgeable scholars.) Ibn Hisham lists fifteen possible meanings of the preposition “min” when used in a sentence. the disambiguation is simply choosing one interpretation over the other. explore the possibilities of meaning in their attempt to exhaust meaning. All of the above were ways in which highly capable scholars removed ambiguity from previous texts in order to enable educated but less capable scholars to understand the texts. but reading well is an exhausting effort of one’s mental faculties. Recently. Imam Shafi’ believed the hadith to mean that the days of fasting must be only within the month of Shawwal and not extend to the later months. it is as if he has fasted constantly. This last phase. indeed. or they can misread and subsequently fall victim to anger and confusion. A serious student of knowledge must work to grasp the ambiguities of the text she is reading. Imam Shafi’ understood the preposition “min” to be partitive. provided the appropriate meaning. To use a classical example of an ambiguous statement in usul. responding with the appropriate etiquette. their arguments. “min Shawwal. which may be translated from the Arabic as. Some go even further by responding with vituperative diatribes. Ibn Hisham’s famous Mughni al-labib is an exhaustive compendium of Arabic prepositions and particles.some works contain marginalia that involve three or four books in one. even using foul language. It is the ability to criticize with understanding. or conclusions based upon an accurate and contextual reading of his work. In this case. sometimes for the sheer pleasure of exploring nuances and other times to make sure I understand the word correctly. (Despite his exhaustive study.” “Min” is a preposition in Arabic. Imam Malik believed the “min” in the context of this hadith is initiative. understanding the propositions. “from [the month of] Shawwal. One of my own teachers said that reading has four levels: understanding the outline of the piece.) However. (as in “I ate from the bread. Both interpretations of this hadith are valid. I came across an unusual word and looked it up only to find that the meanings provided in one Arabic dictionary did not make sense within the context of the poem. such people are known affectionately as   2   . Indeed. and finally. “Whoever follows up Ramadan with six days from Shawwal. commentaries on this book further explain what he meant. whole books were penned in an attempt to pin down Imam al-Ghazali’s precise meaning. along with a few verbs and adverbs that he felt needed to be included. which is what Muslim scholars and exegetes tended to do. At this level. which Mortimer Adler describes as “talking back” to the author. (For example. coming to terms with the author’s terms (meaning that one understands terms as the author intended). I also frequently look up a word in my readings.) Hence. logic. reading an Arabic poem. Reading is an activity largely of the mind. and supporting them with counter arguments. criticism means disagreeing with all or part of an author’s assumptions.

if not. or tradition. It comes from a French term that was used in the revolutionary period to articulate a new way of thinking not encumbered by metaphysics. “disambiguation” for others was clearly necessary. But for those involved in politics and especially those who have political power. there is a component in the Islamic sciences known as ‘ahkam al-sultaniyyah.” most educated Westerners would view it pejoratively. Indeed. So. all the better. The Internet provides another albeit dangerous option. religion. The Qur’an describes those who know the literal Torah. For most adherents of the faith. there are several Islamophobic websites now which claim that Islam is not a   3   . and several uncouth remarks were made in response to that statement. when a humble person finds words that ring false or challenge his own assumptions. Their self-conceit leads them to believe that they simply know. also informed a Bedouin that if he only practiced the five pillars. not an ideology. rules that relate to power that they are obliged to follow.” I wrote. “Am I understanding this correctly? Did the author mean what I think he means?” If they can ask the author. So in the interest of disambiguation. and Iam right. as in “world-view. To negate politics as a subject matter that is part of Islam is to deny a rich tradition of scholarship known as siyasah shari’iyyah.  In my previous blog on Egypt’s “revolution. My knowledge surpasses his.” On the other hand. and asks himself.” This is the path Iblis chose: “I am better than Adam. or just too lazy to probe further in order to grasp the subtleties or nuances of the language. ignorant.” Some people responded defending my statement and clearly showed me that many people did understand what I meant by that term. An Arab poet once wrote. peace and blessings be upon him. I want to delve further into the issue of Islam and politics. Islam is apolitical in that politics or political systems they may happen to live under do not affect their personal faith in God or their personal practice of Islam. the politics of sacred law. peace and blessings be upon him.“trolls” in internet jargon. Islam shares nothing with what can be called an ideology if we understand the term both etymologically and in modern usage. he would have salvation. they simply reveal their own ignorance. “Only the wearer knows what’s under his cloak. told Hudhayfah that if there was no clear leader of the Muslims to “disengage from all the sects and cling to a private Islam. In actuality. “Islam is not a political ideology and hence does not offer a political solution per se. However. a revelation from God. But to say that politics is essential to the practice of an individual’s Islam is to deny the hadith in al-Bukhari’s collection in which the Prophet. “I understood it. and only an author knows what’s the meaning of his book. Hence he is wrong. they may seek a second opinion from an intelligent friend or resort to a good reference book or dictionary.” While it has a neutral meaning.” Misunderstanding with the assumption of understanding is common to people who are arrogant. let me explain my usage of the ambiguous term “ideology” and why I think it has nothing to do with Islam. as reading and understanding are two distinctly different phenomena. I am superior to him. due to their failure to understand as opposed to their ability to read.” This caused great consternation in some people. thinks. he pauses. seeking shades of meaning they may have missed. Islam is wahy. Napoleon derogatively referred to the proponents of ideology as “ideologues. It appears from the comments I received that the reason so many people had trouble with that sentence I wrote is because they did not understand the term “ideology” in my usage. but do not understand it as being like “donkeys carrying books.” The Prophet. as it has several possible usages.

and it is certainly nowhere to be found in the Qur’an or hadith. you can’t even find a word in classical Arabic that expresses the meaning of “ideology”. And how he calculated. Neither the Salaf nor any of the scholars for that past 1300 years of Islam used that term.” However. Furthermore. began to re-form Islam as a colonial and post-colonial resistance movement Since the Arabs don’t even have a word for this phenomenon in their classical language. he later quotes Reagan saying. and unlike “tafakkur. he has plenty of uneducated Muslims that will provide him with quotes to support that thesis. Islam. extreme leftists notwithstanding. an ideology. If you have ever had a political discussion with a Marxist. “mandhur fikri” is a closer rendering. in order to convey their intended meaning.” When I explained its meaning. both conservatives and Marxists originally used it pejoratively. “That is very different from how the Salaf would have understood Islam.” In the same entry. which is translated. “fikr” has a negative connotation. “I think ‘ideology’ is a scare word to most Americans.” In Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. to his doom. In fact. on the other hand. if we use classical Arabic to attempt to translate this word.” which carries a positive meaning in the Qur’an. When I used the word “ideology. Pat Robertson said. even though some modern writers have used the term fikr Islami (Islamic thought). under “ideology. a book on Islamic manners related to research and discussion.   4   . which invariably have ambiguity.” I was referring to something that comes from thought that entails an all-encompassing absolutist view. Gert Wilders. a system of ideas for political or social action. in current political attacks. a master of Arabic and Islam. but it’s not a religion. an upside down version of reality … ideology is then abstract and false thought. “Fikr” is not an attribute of God. in a recent book. “Mufakkir” is not one of God’s 99 Names. Lisan al-Arab. Unfortunately. “This Islamic – I want to say religion. hence. In his Political Dictionary. Lenin departed from Marx’s use of the word. or argument based on what the author or speaker meant by it. fa qutila kayfa qaddara” (74:18-19). Failure to realize this produced ideology. it only becomes widespread after ideologues in the Islamic world. “What does fikr Islami mean? I have never seen that in an old book on Islam. infected with Marxist thought. they had to make one up to express the idea. it is a requisite of discussion that when terms are introduced. To use ideology to describe our religion is worse still.true religion but only an ideology. in a sense directly related to the original conservative use…. an interlocutor may request a definition if it is ambiguous.” William Safire says. Raymond Williams mentions that Marx used the term in a pejorative sense saying that ideas were “nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships…. is far more nuanced than any ideology. According to Adab al-bahth wa al-munadharah. no equivalent word can be found in Ibn Manzur’s authoritative dictionary of classical Arabic.” A reader must try to understand the terms of any article.” Thus. “Originally. when we look up “ideology” in any modern English-Arabic dictionary. And we will continue to hear the detractors of Islam refer to Islam as an ideology rather than a religion. once said to me. One of my teachers in Mauritania. as in “Innahu fakkara wa qaddara. “For he thought and calculated. we find. book. as writers use words.e. our tradition has glosses and super-glosses. you will understand exactly what “ideology” means. and “ideology” is the word he uses when referring to Islam. It is a political system.” i. he said.” Islam is not an idea. “idiolojiyyiah. and it later became a common word in Leftist vocabulary to mean a political worldview. a mental straightjacket or rigid rules for the philosophically narrow-minded. argues that Islam is not a religion but rather an ideology. as most educated Americans consider “ideology” a pejorative term. such as found in Marxist ideology.

mutual consultation [parliament or congress. is an accusative of purpose. as the jihad is attributed to God. This form. a political solution to the problem of presidential corruption is that a president may not earn money or take any monetary remuneration outside of the state salary.” Hence. and not to give positions of power to those who seek them or desire them. what it means is that without the foundational morality of Islam.   5   . to argue with the disbelievers in a big jihad. the solution fails. “Surely.e. as not all of the usuli scholars stipulate a negative before an indefinite to mean a generality (people who know usul will know what that means). in the Egyptian constitution. that is a reasonable political solution. but actually means for God’s sake. In Sura Hajj. the rulers have made the people their servants. i. will not work.) “Per se. The Lamp of Rulers (Siraj al-muluk). quoted several Qur’anic verses that used various derivations of the verb “jahada. In one of my favorite books. especially rules of engagement. using the superior proofs of the Qur’an.” If those three were implemented. in today’s language]. Imam al-Tartushi says. The construct is unusual. I once said on a radio program.e. which is in the accusative of purpose and therefore refers to the action of the heart and not the limb. Therefore. we wouldn’t need so called revolutions to change the status quo. A person with a corrupt heart will not abide by the rulings of any constitution. it says to not obey the disbelievers and to struggle with the Qur’an against them. the relations of one polity with another. In Sura al-Furqan. the focus of Islam has never been on rectifying the state.After stating that Islam was not an ideology. it is used in the indefinite form. For example. Islamic or not.  I also want to expound on one of the most important aspects of the Islamic polity known as ahkam al-siyar.” Many people misunderstood my statement and. in the context of the sentence I wrote.” means “by or of itself. This is also the form of the word jihad in Sura Mumtahanah. which means.” The operative idiom here is “per se. We need an Islamic state of mind more than an Islamic state. although in the genitive construct. inherently or in isolation. semantics is precisely what is needed to discern the meaning of this sentence. (One commentator wished to set “semantics aside”. in response. As such. Hence. as Imam al-Nasafi and others said. i. God does not change the state of a people until they change the state of their own souls” (Qur’an 13:11). it is for generality. In Sura Taubah. any political system.” Anyone who missed the meaning of “per se” missed the meaning of the whole sentence. however. and the grammarians agree that any noun in that form relates to the action of the heart and not the limbs. “Jihad is never used in the Qur’an to mean war. it is mentioned in the context to struggle for the sake of God. I said that hence it “does not offer a political solution per se. the jihad is in one’s intention and not in the action itself. why you are doing something. which are discussed in the section on jihad. which is also part of Islam. and so it refers to the general struggle of Muslims. but without the moral basis within the heart of the president. but rather on rectifying the state of the souls that make up the state. various forms of the word occur four times.” In the Qur’an. which obviously includes going out to defend themselves but is not limited to that type of struggle only. “The qualities necessary from our religion that are necessary for an Islamic polity are three: gentleness and not roughness with the populace. according to some of the great usuli scholars. which can be understood to exalt it. Instead of serving the people. however.

Disambiguation is sometimes in accepting ambiguities. “Let none of you pray ‘Asr except in Bani Quraydha’s dwellings. who was the most articulate and eloquent human being who ever lived. and to deny that is to deny something known by all in our faith. peace and blessings be upon him. as he did. We honor our Prophet.   6   . peace and blessings be upon him. and he accepted both understandings as ways to interpret his words. peace and blessings be upon him. of what happened.” The first group said. and that is something Muslims have always known and revered. “He meant for us to hasten so we would be there by ‘Asr. and some of them said.  Language is the crowning achievement of human beings. under the right conditions. which is part of Islam. 1 Tabayyanu and tathabbatu are two different recensions of the same word and thus carry both meanings in this verse. We also honor him in honoring. But martial jihad is conditional – it must be in the right time.” The other group took his statement literally and did not pray until they reached Bani Quraydha. and according to the rules of engagement. though misunderstood. they informed the Prophet.” As the Companions were on their way to Bani Quraydha. “We need to pray. peace and blessings be upon him. my statement about jihad. the time of ‘Asr came in. “No. When they arrived at their destination.Hence. The opinion that all jihad is defensive is not a dominant opinion but is a valid one that does not deny pre-emptive offensive defense. We are a literate people whose miracle is a Book from an unlettered man. the Prophet. where war was the normal state and peace was the anomaly. unlike today when peace is the norm and war is the anomaly. told us to only pray it at Bani Quraydha. the ambiguities of language so beautifully expressed in the hadith in al-Bukhari. was accurate without denying martial jihad. That was relevant in the pre-modern world. in honoring language that he loved so much and used so well.” Others said.

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