Between Grammar And Rhetoric (Balāghah): A Look At Qur'ān 2:217

Mustansir Mir

Islamic Studies, 1990, Volume 29, No. 3, pp. 277-285.

© Islamic Awareness, All Rights Reserved.

I. The Problem

The Qur'ānic verse 2:217 raises a problem which has been exercising the minds of Muslim scholars. The problem has to do with the case-ending of the phrase wa'l-masjidi 'l-harāmi in the verse. As Abū Hayyān says: wa qad khabata 'l-mu`ribūna fī i`rābi wa 'l-masjidi 'l-harāmi.[1] Rudi Paret calls the verse "rough,"[2] and, although he does not explain where the roughness lies, he probably has in mind the aforementioned problem and the attempts of earlier writers to come to grips with it. In this paper we shall argue first, that the traditional attempts to solve the problem have not been very successful, and, second, that a more satisfactory alternative explanation of the problem does exist. In doing so, it will be suggested that the traditional views on the above-mentioned verse are indicative of a general weakness of the traditional approach to Qur'ān interpretation.

II. Traditional Solutions

The problematic phrase occurs in the first part of the verse. For purposes of reference, we shall divide that part into the following units:

  1. yas'alūnaka `ani 'l-shahri 'l-harāmi qitālin fīhi
  2. qul qitālun fīhi kabīrun
  3. wa saddun `an sabīli 'llāhi
  4. wa kufrun bihī
  5. wa'l-masjidi 'l-harāmi
  6. wa ikhrāju ahlihī minhu
  7. akbaru `inda 'llāhi

The issue is: What is the genitive case-ending of al-masjid in E due to, or which is the same thing, to which preceding phrase is E joined by conjunction? We shall begin by reviewing some of the answers given by traditional scholars.[3]

Tabarī: Tabarī solves the problem by supplying the preposition `an before al-masjid al-harām, and gives the underlying construction (ta'wīl al-kalām) as: wa saddun `an sabīli 'llāhi wa kufrun bihī wa `ani 'l-masjidi 'l-harāmi wa ikhrāju ahli 'l-masjidi 'l-harāmi . . . akbaru `inda 'llāhi mina 'l-qitāli fī 'l-shahri 'l-harāmi.[4] Simple as this explanation is, it raises a problem which Tabarī neither discusses nor alludes to. It makes `ani 'l-masjidi 'l-harāmi the silah of sadd, a masdar (in C), `an sabīli 'llāhi becoming the mawsūl, with wa kufrun bihī interposed between the two. But this violates the well-known rule of grammar that nothing may come between a silah and a mawsūl. It may also be asked why, in the Qur'ānic construction itself, al-masjid al-harām succeeds wa kufrun bihī instead of preceding it, for its precedence would have made the verse problem-free?

Zamakhsharī: As if sensing the objection that might be made to Tabarī's explanation, Zamakhsharī, in his paraphrase of the verse, transposes D and E: . . . ya`ni, wa kabā'iru qurayshin min saddihim `an sabīli 'llāhi wa `ani 'l-masjidi 'l-harāmi wa kufrihim bi 'llāhi wa ikhrāji ahli 'l-masjidi 'l-harāmi . . ..[5] This, however, is not a fresh solution, for the received sequence of the phrase-units in the verse remains unexplained, as in Tabarī's.

Farrā': Farrā' holds that E (wa'l-masjidi 'l-harāmi) is joined by conjunction to al-shahr al-harām in A. In other words, the question asked was about the Sacred Months and the Sacred Mosque both. Thus, the sequence of B-D could be explained in one of the two ways: (i) Qitālun fīhi in B is the mubtada', whereas the khabar is made up of kabīr in B and of C and D.[6] In other words, fighting during the Sacred Months is not only a great sin in itself, it is also equivalent to keeping people from the path of God and disbelieving in Him.[7] (ii) Qitālun fīhi kabīrun (B) is a complete sentence, containing both the mubtada' and the khabar; wa saddun `an sabīli 'llāhi is a mubtada', and so is kufrun bihī, the khabar of each (= kabīr) having been omitted since thc context points to it. In other words:

qitālun fīhi kabīrun

wa saddun `an sabīli 'llāhi kabīrun

wa kufrun bihī kabīrun[8]

Farrā's explanation of the syntax of thc verse is open to several objections: (1) An ordinary reading of thc verge suggests that the question asked was about fighting during thc Sacred Months, not about fighting in the Sacred Mosque; (2) on (i), fighting during the Sacred Months would constitute disbelief in God, which is obviously wrong; and (3) on (ii), it would follow that expelling the believers from the Sacred Mosque would be a graver sin than disbelieving in God, another unacceptable conclusion.

Rāzī: Rāzī takes up thc cudgels on Farrā's behalf, making three points. First, it is quite conceivable that people had asked the Prophet (peace be on him) about fighting in the Sacred Mosque as well. To fight in the Sacred Mosque was held to be as heinous as to fight during the Sacred Months, and so the question could pertain to both. Second, if (i) makes fighting during the Sacred Months tantamount to disbelief in God, then this, too, is understandable. For the word qitāl in qul qitālun fīhi kabīrun, being indefinite, is not the same as the indefinite qitāl in the preceding yas'alūnaka `ani 'l-shahri 'l-harāmi qitālin fīhi.[9] This being so, it is conceivable that at least one kind of qitāl - that which aims at uprooting Islam - is kufr. Third, if, on (ii), it follows that expelling the believers from the Sacred Mosque is a graver sin than disbelief in God, then there is a sense in which this is true: to expel the Prophet (peace be on him) and the Companions from the Ka`bah constitutes not only disbelief - for only disbelief could have motivated one to do so - but unwarranted persecution as well, and this double act of disbelief and persecution is surely graver than the single act of disbelief.[10]

Rāzī, while showing great ingenuity in responding to the objections against the interpretation presented by Farrā', does not vindicate the syntax of the Qur'ān itself. With E taken to be ma`tūf on al-shahr al-harām in A, the verse comes to have a highly convoluted structure. And Rāzī's attempt to equate fighting during the Sacred Months with disbelief in God, or to establish that the double act of disbelief and persecution is worse than the single act of disbelief, is a sleight of hand, and not a very good one at that.

Abū Hayyān: Abū Hayyān prefers to make al-masjid al-harām the ma`tūf of the pronoun in bihī.[11] The objection (made by Basran grammarians) that for the `atf on a genitive pronoun (damīr majrūr) to be valid, the preposition should, as a rule, be repeated with the ma`tūf (that is, the wording should have been wa bi 'l-masjidi 'l-harāmi) is refuted by Abū Hayyān on the strength of a number of illustrations from thc Qur'ān and the classical Arabic poetry.[12] But there remains the objection that the resulting notion of "disbelief in the Sacred Mosque" appears to make little sense,[13] and that one has to resort to tortuous interpretation to make it meaningful.

None of the four writers discussed above - Tabarī, Zamakhsharī, Farrā', and Abū Hayyān - offer a completely satisfactory explanation of the problem raised by the Qur'ānic verse 2:217.[14] The interpretations of Tabarī and Zamakhsharī make sense in themselves, but they ignore the sequence of the phrase-units in the verse. Farrā's explanation hardly makes a case for Qur'ānic eloquence; it is, to use Abū Hayyān's words: mutakallafun jiddan wa yab`udu `anhu nazmu 'l-Qur'āni wa'l- tarkību 'l-fasīhu, and Rāzī goes to needless lengths to defend it. Abū Hayyān's own explanation, which requires one to swallow the phrase "disbelief in the Sacred Mosque," is no less mutakallaf. Of all these interpretations, the one by Zamakhsharī would make the most sense - if the Qur'ān had actually used the sequence of phrases suggested by Zamakhsharī. Is some other explanation possible?

III. An Alternative Solution

The real problem, thus, is not the case-ending of masjid in E, but phrase D (wa kufrun bihī), for no matter how one explains the case-ending of E, one still will have to explain the location of D in the verse. The task, therefore, is to explain why D has been placed between C and E. Is D an intrusion? It seems that D is not an intrusion, and that its peculiar location in the verse is quite significant. A brief general observation is offered before explaining the phenomenon.

The treatment of the Qur'ānic verse 2:217 shows that the traditional scholars regard the question of the relationship between A and B-G essentially as a question of grammar, whereas it is, in fact, a question of balāghah. The are are concerned with establishing proper syntactic relationships between the various phrases of the verse - they try to identify antecedents, the two terms of a conjunctive phrase (ma`tūf and ma`tūf `alayh), and so on - but it does not occur to then to ask whether the apparently unusual construction of the verse is meant to highlight a point which an ordinary, grammatically more acceptable construction would fail to highlight.[15] In the paragraph that follows an attempt will be made to explain the role of D in the verse by highlighting four points. [16]

First, D (wa kufrun bihī) stands to C, E, and F to the relation of cause to effect. Thus the verse is saying that the acts of preventing people from taking the path of God (saddun `an sabīli 'llāhi), preventing them from entering the Ka`bah (wa'l-masjidi 'l-harāmi), and expelling its residents[17] (wa ikhrāju ahlihī minhu) can be committed only by those who have no faith in God. The word kufr, though it may be said to signify, in its present context, the disbelief that is opposed to belief in Islam, really is quite general and signifies the absence of any meaningful belief in God. The verse is thus saying that God-fearingness in any degree, and a belief in God that is genuine in any degree, would be sufficient to keep one from committing such acts, but that the Quraysh, in committing them, are providing evidence of their utter faithlessness, or rather of the utter meaninglessness of whatever belief they have in God. That D bears to the three acts, C, E and F, the relationship of cause to effect is borne out clearly in the case of C and E and implicitly in the case of F, by several other Qur'ānic verses. For example, the verse 8:36 says that those who disbelieve, spend their wealth to prevent people from taking the path of God: inna 'lladhīna kafarū yunafiqūna amwālahum li-yasuddū `an sabīli 'llahi. The verse 48:25 reads: humu 'lladhīna kafarū wa saddūkum `ani 'l-masjidi 'l-harāmi. The verse 5:2, addressing those who believe - that is, those who have not committed kufr - says that their faith keeps them from stopping a rival people from visiting or entering the Ka`bah (yā ayyuhā 'lladhīna āmanū . . . lā yajrimannakun shana'ānu qawmin an saddūkum `ani 'l-masjidi 'l-harāmi).[18] D is thus a key phrase in the verse.

Second, D is a parenthetic remark, which means that, essentially, the verse is supposed to be read as if D were not there. If we leave D out for the moment, the verse presents no problem. Besides, the omission of the preposition `an before al-masjid al-harām becomes very meaningful. For it implies that keeping people from the Sacred Mosque (E) is so intimately connected with keeping people from the path of God (C - or, to put it differently, the latter act is such a clear instantiation of the former - that the same preposition which governs sabīl Allāh is considered still operative and thus governs al-masjid al-harām as well.

Third, to recognize the intimate connection between C and E is to recognize the significance of the interposition of D between C and E. By first establishing a close connection between C and E, and then deliberately breaking that connection through the insertion of D between them, the Qur'ān accomplishes something that a more "regular" construction would not: it creates the right psychological moment for focussing the reader's attention on the root-cause of the three criminal acts mentioned in the verse (C, E, and F).

Fourth, the interposition of D is justified not only from the psychological, but also from another viewpoint. Unlike the other verses, cited above, in which the cause - disbelief - is cited first and the effect - preventing people from taking the path of God, and so on - later, in the verse 2:217 the cause is sandwiched between the several effects. The unusual arrangement is due to the fact that, of all the verses that deal with this theme in the Qur'ān, the verse 2:217 alone is satirical. "O yes," the verse says, addressing the Quraysh, "if you want to know why you are led to commit these acts, then here is why: you have no faith in God!" We should think of the phrase as written in parentheses and punctuated with a sardonic exclamation mark:

They ask you about fighting during the Sacred Months.

Say: Fighting during them is a great sin. But keeping others from the path of God (and disbelieving in Him!) and the Sacred Mosque and expelling its residents from it is a much greater sin in the eyes of God.

Seen in this light, the placing of D between C and E no longer appears to be jarring or intrusive. Not only D seems to be appropriately located, any other sequence of the phrase-units in the verse - whether it is (with the necessary pronominal and other adjustments made) - B, D, C, E, F, or B, C, E, F, D, or B, C, E, D, F would fail to underscore effectively the importance of the root cause - disbelief - of the acts condemned in the verse, and would also fail to convey the force of the satire intended.

IV. Concluding Note

In the opening paragraph, a general weakness of the traditional approach to Qur'ān interpretation was referred to. The weakness was hinted at in Section III. Here are a few more words about it.

The yoke of grammar lies heavy on traditional Qur'ān interpretation. Knowledge of Arabic grammar is of course essential for interpreting the Qur'ān and its syntax, and an inability to follow discussions of the Qur'ānic grammatical issues in traditional works can be very costly. But in reading those works, for example, Abū Hayyān's Al-Bahr al-Muhīt, one sometimes feels that the grammatical categories have become an end in themselves.[19] I have tried to show, with reference to a single Qur'ānic verse and hence on a very small scale, that grammar has its limitations, and that there are situations where considerations of balāghah may override those of grammar, lending power to the discourse. Precisely where considerations of balāghah should take precedence over those of grammar is not easy to decide. In general, however, a seeming departure from the normal rules of grammar should alert one to the possibilities of balāghah. "This is the most unkindest cut of all," says Julius Caesar in Shakespeare's play about the man. Irrespective of whether the use of the double superlative was or was not known in Shakespeare's time, Caesar's remark has, in the particular context in which it is uttered, a force and logic of its own, and even if Shakespeare were writing today, it is unlikely that one would wish his Caesar to use the grammatically correct single superlative. The question to be asked in connection with wa kufrun bihī in the verse 2:217 is: Does the position of D in the received arrangement of the verse carry any significance, and whether that significance would be lost if D were placed differently? To this question the answer is: yes.

Notes & References

[1] Abū `Abd Allāh Muhammad ibn Yūsuf, known as Abū Hayyān, Al-Nahr al-Mādd min al-Bahr, on the margin of his Al-Bahr al-Muhīt, 8 vols., (Riyadh: Maktabāt wa Matāba` al-Nashr al-Hadīthah, 1389?/1969?), 2:146.

[2] Rudi Paret, "The Qur'ān - I," in A. F. L. Beeston et al., eds., Arabic Literature to the End of the Umayyad Period (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1983), p. 205.

[3] It should be noted that the verse gives rise to a number of other problems also. While these do not have a direct bearing on our discussion, some of them will be mentioned and treated briefly later in the paper.

[4] Abū Ja`far Muhammad ibn Jarīr al-Tabarī, Jāmi` al-Bayān `an Ta'wil āy al-Qur'ān, 30 vols. in 12 (Cairo: 1373/1954), 1:347.

[5] Abu'l Qāsim Mahmūd ibn `Umar al-Zamakhsharī, Al-Kashshāf `an Haqā'iq al-Tanzīl wa `Uyun al-Aqāwīl, 4 vols., (Beirut: Dār al-Ma`rifah, n.d.), 1:131.

[6] Or, the three (kabīr C, and D) make up khabar ba`da khabar. Fakhr al-Dīn Abū `Abd Allāh ibn `Umar al-Rāzī, Al-Tafsīr al-Kabīr, 32 vols., (Cairo: 1353- t381/1934- 1962), 6:34.

[7] As for F and G, they make up a new sentence, F being the mubtada', G the khabar. The pronoun in minhu in F in this case will have a specific referent: qitālun fīhi in B.

[8] Ibid. 6:34. As for F and G, they will again make up a new sentence (see previous note). But in this case the referent of the pronoun in minhu will be the entire combination of qitālun fīhi (in B), C, and D.

[9] The argument here is that, having occurred in the verse already, the word qitāl in its second occurrence (that is, in qul qitālun fīhi kabīrun) ought to have been definite. For more details, see Rāzī, 6:32-33.

[10] Ibid., 3:35.

[11] Abū Hayyān, Al-Bahr al-Muhīt, 2:148. Abū Hayyān not only prefers this construction, he regards it to be the one intended, though the only support he offers for it is the rather subjective statement: li-anna wasfa 'l-kalāmi wa fasāhat al-tarkībi taqtadī dhālika (ibid).

[12] Ibid., 2:147-48.

[13] Shihāb al-Dīn al-Sayyid Muhammad al-Alūsī, h al-Ma`āni, 30 vols. in 15, (Beirut, n.d.), 2:109.

[14] Many other scholars accept one or the other of the explanations given by these four commentators.

[15] We have noted above the problem of the separation of a silah from its mawsūl: those who take E to be governed by the preposition `an in C, have to explain why D stands wedged between C and E. Traditional writers do address this question, but their solutions to it continue to make grammatical heavy weather. Thus attempts have been made to explain the wāw between saddun `an sabīli 'llāhi and kufrun bihī in such a manner as to make the two an integral unit, so that the issue of D's being an intrusion is avoided. The said wāw could, for example, be taken as the wāw of explication (li 'l-tafsīr) (cf. Rāzī, 6:34: . . . anna 'l-sadda `an sabīli 'llāhi wa 'l-kufra bihī ka 'l-shay'i 'l-wāhidi fī 'l-ma`nā fa ka'annahū lā fasla.) It has also been suggested (ibid.) that D, though it really belongs after E, has been placed before it because of the greater significance attached to it (li fart al-`ināyah). The problem with the first explanation is that it is an explanation of convenience. After all, why should C and D alone should be held to be identical? Why not E and F as well? The problem with the second explanation is that it is too vague and lacks substance. What, in the present context, does fart al-`ināyah consist in, and precisely why does it necessitate putting D between C and E?

[16] In making these points I shall devote too much attention to B (which is a preliminary and brief answer to the question asked in A), or to G (which is khabar of B-F).

[17] The word ahl has been used in two senses in the verse: (1) residents and (2) those to whom Ka`bah rightfully belongs, or who have a legitimate claim to it.

[18] See also the verses 4:167; 8:34, 36; 16:88; 22:25; 47:1, 32, 34.

[19] Of course, the traditional writers do not completely neglect balāghah in interpreting the Qur'ān; far from it. It is somewhat excessive pre-occupation with grammar to which I have tried to draw the attention.

The Qur'anic Studies