InsightNovember December 2005

The language of Islam and how Osama bin Laden betrays it

Dr. Navid Kermani

The Prophet Muhammad lived from 570 to 632. At the age of forty he had his first visions and, more importantly, his first auditory revelations. These continued until his death twenty-two years later. He recounted them to the people of Mecca and to the Arab people as a whole. What he conveyed to this audience is characterized as an “Arabic recitation”, Qur’anan arabiyyan (the word Qur’an meaning “that to be recited”). In the early suras (chapters or sections) the word often occurs without an article, showing it was not yet used as a proper noun. It is notable, in this connection, that the Qur’an distinguishes consistently between “Arabic” and “foreign language” (a´jami) revelations, that is those that are and are not specifically addressed to Arabs. No other historical religious text accords such importance, so often and so explicitly, to the specificity of the language it is written in. As Sura 41,44 has it:

If We had made it a non-Arabic Qur’an (quranan a´jamiyyan), they would assuredly have said: “Why are itsverses not clear? What! A non-Arabic Qur’an and an Arabic Messenger?”.

The identification between the revelation of Islam and the specific language in which it was received has implications that extend from seventh-century Arabia to the present time. It has crucially affected the development of literature in Arabic and the nature of political rhetoric. And it is vital to an understanding of the ideological disputes currently being played out in the Islamic world.

In the Arabian Peninsula in the seventh century, it was language that provided the unifying element. While many tribal dialects were mutually unintelligible, the formalized language of poetry, the arabiyya, towered above all dialects. Poetry forged a common identity, overcoming this fragmentation to provide the basis for a homogeneous memory. The situation might be compared to Germany at the start of the nineteenth century, when literature helped small states to develop a cohesive, specifically “German” identity. And yet it was different. The Arabs of the early seventh century were Bedouins or desert nomads. The only links between communities were trade caravans and inter-tribal wars; the written word was not widely disseminated; and most people were illiterate. Yet, throughout the Arabic region, which was a third of the size of all Europe, and spread from Yemen in the south to Syria in the north, from the borders of modern Iraq to the borders of Egypt, old Arabic poetry with its formal language, sophisticated techniques and extremely strict norms and standards was identical. “How this was achieved, we do not know”, the great Israeli orientalist Shlomo D. Goitein remarked, “and most probably shall never learn.”

Thus Muhammad grew up in a world which revered poetic expression. The vocabulary, grammatical idiosyncrasies and strict norms of Arabic poetry were passed down from generation to generation, and only the most gifted students fully mastered its language.

Initially, the Qur’an was an unwritten work, consisting of a variety of separate recitations which were later compiled in a single text. (Muhammad himself had not studied the craft when he started reciting verses publicly.) The first suras were dominated by gripping, apocalyptic scenarios, appeals for a return to spiritual and moral values, the equality of man and his responsibility to himself and others. The powerful language they used captivated contemporary audiences with its pulsating rhythms, striking use of sound patterns, and fantastical images. Still, Muhammad’s recitations differed both from poetry and from the rhyming prose of the soothsayers (the other conventional form of inspired, metrical speech at that time). The norms of old Arabic poetry were transformed, the subjects developed differently, and the metre abandoned.

The message differed too. While poetry was, in political terms, generally conservative, reinforcing the moral and social order of the day, the whole impetus of the early Qur’an, its topics, metaphors and ideological thrust, was towards revolutionary change. All this was new to Muhammad’s contemporaries, but the way the verses were used conformed to the rules of old Arabic poetry and were of great aesthetic fascination. And, more important, the Qur’an was written in the arabiyya, the code of contemporary poetry. Therefore, despite discrepancies in form and content, many listeners initially perceived Muhammad as a poet.

The Qur’an traces its own reception and reports the reactions of both believing and unbelieving audiences, so we know that the criticism that incensed the Prophet most was the claim that he was a mere poet. The minuteness of detail, especially in early accounts, indicates that this suggestion must have been seen as a real threat. Muhammad’s opponents might have made other accusations, that he was a liar, say, or a charlatan. But what they chose to say, according to Sura 21,5, was “he just composes poetry, he is a poet”.

Early Muslim sources regularly note that the people of Mecca consulted poets and other literary masters for advice on how to categorize Muhammad’s recitations. These experts -both astonished and fascinated -most often replied that the Qur’an was neither poetry nor rhyming prose. “I know many Qasides and rajaz verses”, remarked one famous poet, Walid ibn Mughira, “and am even familiar with the poems of the Jinnee. But, by God, his recitation is like none of them.”

Yet ordinary people found it hard to distinguish between poetry and revelation.

Tradition tells how the Prophet’s companion, Abdallah ibn Rawaha, was surprised by his wife as he was leaving a concubine’s chambers. She had long harboured the suspicion that he was having a clandestine affair. Knowing that Abdallah had sworn never to recite the Qur’an unless he was ritually pure (which he wouldn’t have been after an act of adultery), she asked him to read from the Qur’an in order to show him up. He immediately read three verses of a poem that sounded so like the Qur’an that his wife exonerated him.

The polemic against poets found in the Qur’an needs to be understood in this context. The danger of being wrongly identified as poetry forced the Qur’an to distance itself from it. Poets were its direct rivals: both used the same formal language, the arabiyya; both invoked heavenly powers; and both claimed to be the supreme authority for their communities. So the Qur’an argument against poets had nothing to do with literary rivalry; it was a contest for leadership. And it was not just a question of the leadership of a single tribe, as enjoyed by the poets. Muhammad’s revelation threatened the entire structure of Arabic society. The poets, more than any other social group, represented this social order, of the pre-Islamic era, the Jahiliyya, which was characterized politically by tribalism, and spiritually by polytheism. The Qur’an, by contrast, proclaimed the principle of unity, both of God and of the community.

In the Western view, the success of Muhammad’s prophetic mission may be ascribed to social, ideological, or even military, factors. Yet Muslim sources paint a different picture. They emphasize the literary quality of the Qur’an as a decisive factor in the spread of Islam among seventh-century Arabs. They refer to the numerous stories in Muslim literature that recount the overwhelming effect of Qur’an recitation on Muhammad’s contemporaries, tales about people spontaneously converting, crying, screaming, falling into ecstasy, fainting, or even dying, while hearing verses from the Qur’an. One story tells of a nobleman and poet who came to Mecca to investigate mysterious tidings of some new prophet. He had been warned against the prophet’s magic tricks and advised to plug his ears before listening to people reciting his message. The man roamed the streets of Mecca and met a group of believers who were listening to a reading from the Qur’an. He thought to himself: I am a man of intelligence and experience, so why should I make myself ridiculous and block my ears just because someone is reciting a text? He took out the “ear plugs”, heard the words of the Qur’an, screamed, “By God, never before have I heard a word more beautiful”, and converted to Islam on the spot. The Sirens in the Twelfth Book of Homer’s Odyssey could not have been more seductive.

The phenomenon of a conversion inspired -in the narrow sense -by an aesthetic experience, which forms a permanent motif in Islamic history, is found relatively seldom in Christianity. As far as we know from autobiographical testimonies, the legendary conversions and initiation events in Christian history -Paul, Augustine, Pascal, or Luther, for example -were triggered by remarkable experiences, but not primarily aesthetic ones. This does not mean that the evolution and practice of Christianity -or any other religion -can be imagined without the aesthetic fascination of specific sites, texts, hymns, images, scents, actions, gestures and garments. Protestantism would certainly never have spread so quickly in the German-speaking regions if it had not been for the rhetorical force of the Lutheran Bible. Yet in the portrayal of their past by the Christian, or more specifically, Protestant community, the aesthetic momentum is less significant, however relevant its role in religious practice. Few Christians would claim that the disciples followed Jesus because he was so handsome or spoke so eloquently, or suggest that the triumph of Christianity was due to the stylistic perfection of the Gospels. There were doubtless conversions to Christianity inspired by the beauty of the Scriptures, but these are not treated as a literary topos in the body of testimony to the propagation of Christianity.

For Muslims, however, the aesthetic fascination with the Qur’an is an integral part of their religious tradition. It is this collective reflection on the aesthetics of the text which specifically defines the religious world of Islam. It is not the aesthetic experience as such -this seems to occur during the reception of any sacred texts. Rather it is the rationalization of aesthetic experience, culminating in a distinct theological doctrine of poetics, the i´jaz, based on the inimitability of the Qur’an. This line of reasoning -highly peculiar from a Christian perspective -involves believing in the Qur’an because the language is too perfect to have been composed by man.

For centuries, the relationship between revelation and poetry in Arabic cultural history remained as close as at the start of the Revelation of the seventh century. In fact, literary studies owed their existence to the Qur’an: if the miracle of Islam is the language of revelation, then the language of the Qur’an must be analysed in literary terms. To prove its superiority, it should be compared to other texts and, specifically, poetry. Thus the initial thrust of Arabic poetics was apologetic, but it soon moved on. Between the tenth and twelfth centuries, great works on Arabic poetics were produced, in which the Qur’an and poetry were discussed together; they did not play one off against the other. Perhaps the most fascinating example of this kind of scholarship is the work of the Iranian Abd al-Qahir al-Jurjani, a leading theologian and literary scholar of the eleventh century, who focused on the specific merits of poetic language as such. Anticipating many findings of twentieth-century structuralism and semiotics, al-Jurjani analysed the poetic use of language by comparing the Qur’an with poetry -an interweaving of theology and literary studies hardly conceivable in today’s Arabic world, both in terms of academic precision and theological legitimacy.

The Qur’an had a paradoxical effect on poetry itself: it secularized it. Following the triumph of Islam, poets initially focused on love, court and urban life. Later, in the eighth and ninth centuries, they repositioned themselves in the courts and cities of the Abbasids by distancing themselves from Islam. In deliberate rivalry to prophetic revelation, they sought other sources of inspiration than the concept of a single God, invoking other supernatural entities such as Jinnee and Satan.

The most famous Satanic verses were written by Abu Nuwas, probably the most celebrated poet in Arabic literature. As in modern Europe, the recourse to transcendental powers was more a literary motif than one based on real experience. The aim was to break Islam’s monopoly on inspiration. Poets competed with the Qur’an, striving to surpass it stylistically.

In the eighth century, poets and other writers such as Bashar ibn Burd, Salih ibn Abd al- Quddus and Abd al-Hamid ibn Yahya al-Katib spurred each other on with comments such as “your poem is better than this or that verse in the Qur’an”, or “that line is more beautiful than such and such a verse in the Qur’an”, and so forth. Up to the middle of the eleventh century, intellectuals such as al-Mutanabbi and al-Ma’arri continued to challenge the superiority of Qur’an language. Nevertheless, the Qur’an remained a model or yardstick even for those who denied the miraculous character of the language it is written in. Thus Bashar ibn Burd reportedly boasted that one of his own poems, recited by a singer in Baghdad, was superior even to the Sura 59.

The relationship between the Qur’an and poetry was, and in some ways still is, highly ambivalent. As much as poets contested the Qur’an, theologians criticized poetry. Arabic poetry was held to pose a greater threat than other religions.

Poetry was the only medium apart from the Revelation itself -and later mystical discourses -that was acknowledged to have access to supernatural inspiration, even when poetry was seen as dangerous and blasphemous.

The view of poetry as potentially blasphemous became one of the fundamental themes of Arabic literature. As long as it remained secular, it was rarely subjected to moral or political restrictions in Muslim culture. Yet, once poets competed directly with religion, either through reference to divine sources of inspiration or attempts to imitate and surpass the Qur’an stylistically, they became the target of religiously motivated criticism and sometimes persecution. Poets’ attacks on orthodox or traditional religion link them to “the Promethean enterprise of modern poetry”, as Octavio Paz described it, that is the wish to create “a new sacred order to challenge the modern Church”.

The contemporary Syrian poet Adonis is one of the major figures in the Arabic world committed to this undertaking. His work can be read as a passionate, at times violent, at times tender, exploration of his own intellectual and aesthetic tradition. There is a religious thrust to his work but one that makes it impious.

Adonis does not write religious poetry; his poetry actually contests the status of religion. In this, he identifies with the role of the poet in the pre-Islamic Jahiliyya, whose prophetic claims are rejected by Islam, and with mystical poets such as al-Hallaj and al-Niffari who wrote in the tenth century. These mystical poets helped reinstate the metaphysical seriousness of poetry, which had been more or less secularized by Islam. They elevated poetry to the level of prophetic vision. At the same time, they dismissed the canon of rules governing Arabic poetic tradition in an effort to forge a new linguistic and intellectual reality. This, Adonis argues, is what the Qur’an itself did in bygone times. Unlike mystical poets, who saw themselves as Muslims and justified their breach of conventional aesthetic and religious norms in religious terms, Adonis rejects any Islamic connotation. In his theoretical work, he analyses the language of the Qur’an in detail, its literary and aesthetic power, and its breach with traditional norms. In his poetry too, he explores this process of shedding the past:

Today I burnt the phantom of Saturday I burnt the phantom of Friday Today I threw away the mask of the house And replaced the blind God of stone And the God of seven days With a dead God.

Adonis epitomizes the ambivalence surrounding the Qur’an and poetry. For the God of seven days he substitutes a dead God. Yet this is the very poet who praises the Qur’an as the source of modernity in Arabic poetry. In fact, the Qur’an enriched Arabic poetry more than any other text, liberating it from the narrow framework of existing genres and inspiring new approaches to language, imagery and the use of motifs. Conventional standards and the theoretical analysis of language and literature in the Arabic canon are both rooted in Qur’an hermeneutics. Just as theologians referred to poetry to analyse the language of the Qur’an, the reverse also happened and still does: poets and literary scholars refer to the Qur’an in order to analyse poetry. One example is the movement of so-called “modernists” (muhdathun) in Arabic poetry, who dominated literary debate in the eighth and ninth centuries. The imagery of the Qur’an and its stylistic departures from the strict formal rules of poetry inspired the “modernists” to introduce new rhetorical devices and replace traditional ones. In the purely literary-aesthetic discussion of poetry conducted by the modernists, the Qur’an was the obvious key reference point because of its poetic structure.

Adonis’s writings exemplify its literary power anew. The language of his poetry absorbs the language of the Qur’an, then dismantles and reconstructs it from within. And the language he writes is the arabiyya, the 1,500-year-old literary language of the Arabs. It is both a curse and a blessing: to use a language which even in pre-Islamic times had already matured into a structure of breathtaking complexity, regularity and semantic density, largely removed from the vernacular, which consisted of dozens of dialects. It is a language that still retains virtually the same form and structure almost unchanged. Its durability is mainly due to the Qur’an, whose use of the idiom of old Arabic poetry has given it unique normative power.

Roman Jakobson once asked how Russian literary language would have fared “if the Ukrainian poet Gogol had not appeared on the scene speaking poor Russian”. The Arabic world may have had its Gogols, but they did not prevail: the existence of a divine model prevented the transformation of its linguistic norms, as happened with Russian. Uniquely, Arabic grammatical rules and the aesthetic norms are scarcely affected by the passage of time.

Instead, for centuries, a historical form of expression has been enshrined as the ideal form of the language. Yet, at the same time, colloquial language continues to evolve just as in every other culture; external influences, for example, seep into the language, keeping lively forms of perception and description alive in a dynamic environment.

Clifford Geertz spoke of a “linguistic schizophrenia” when the formal language is upheld as the only true language, though it may be increasingly removed from the everyday and has to be learnt almost as a foreign language. No Arabic dialect developed into a formally distinct language, as happened, say, with Latin and Italian, although the differences between the local vernacular and educated language are greater in the case of Arabic than they are with Italian and Latin. The reason is that Arabs still think of themselves -Muslims, Christians and, well into the twentieth century, Jews – as a community defined by the language of poetry and the Qur’an.

Unlike Latin, classical Arabic is still a living language, existing parallel to the dialects. It is the official language, the language of poetry and the language of science. Modern educated Arabic is not identical to the language of the Qur’an; it is grammatically, morphologically and acoustically far more simple.

Nevertheless, the listener unconsciously perceives modern high Arabic as a venerable language and tends to equate it with ancient Arabic literature. As a result, Arabic poets who have mastered the subtleties of classical Arabic find it easy to generate a mythical aura. It is far harder to imbue the classical Arabic with a sense of contemporaneity. Modern Arabic poetry regularly attempts this, often with considerable success.

As evidence that the Arabic language may generate a form of verbal magic, one need only attend a Qur’anic recitation or a performance by one of the greatest contemporary poets. The fascination of such figures, even for listeners who do not speak fluent Arabic, is partly due to the fact that the entire acoustic range of classical Arabic has been preserved only in poetry and in Qur’anic recitations: a succession of highly differentiated, compressed consonants culminate in a semantic-acoustic explosion, with the vocalization extremely drawn out to achieve an air of solemnity. Both the differentiation of the consonants and the melodic vowels are rare, and do not occur in colloquial Arabic. Colloquial Arabic languages have, naturally, reduced the variety of nuances and cropped the vowels to a manageable length.

Yet this fascination contains its dangers. God chose Arabic. This makes Arabic particularly open to stagnation, mythologization, formalization, kitsch, and demagoguery. It is the fascination and danger of all verbal magic, a theme that has preoccupied thinkers such as Gershom Scholem, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Walter Benjamin and Karl Kraus. Anyone who has witnessed a well-phrased, rousing public speech in an Arabic country has felt the effect of the language on the audience. A politician, theologian, or poet who speaks in classical Arabic, provided he is a good orator, is sure to captivate a wide audience. It is difficult to imagine how such a speech might sound in a different language, removed from the constant presence of a 1,400-year-old language with strong sacral overtones in society, its theology, literature and politics. Language operates here as a kind of time machine, effectively transporting all present back to a mythical epoch. Even television broadcasts of a speech by, say, Qaddafi, Yassir Arafat, or Saddam Hussein may have this effect. And how much more impressive were the great speeches by Gamal Abdal Nasser, whose success in leading an uprising in Egypt was due to his extraordinary rhetorical skill.

In the Egyptian film Nasser 57, broadcast throughout the Arabic world some years ago, it became clear just how consummately Nasser, portrayed by the actor Ahmad Zakki, could manipulate the various levels of the Arabic language, shifting from popular to high Arabic, captivating and persuading audiences by the sheer power of his rhetoric. He showed how the dramatic delivery of formal Arabic phrases at a crucial moment, even a simple “old-fashioned” turn of phrase such as ya ayyuha I-ikhwa (“Oh, brethren”), can electrify audiences and link the orator to a 1,400-year line of ancestors. Even the crowded cinema in Beirut, where I saw the film in 1996, vibrated with excitement. When, in the final scene, Nasser addressed his audience in the classical vocative, emitting familiar classical phrases from a masklike face, the tension in the audience was palpable. And, at the end of the speech, when, from the pulpit of Azhar University, Nasser, the socialist, cries out “Allahu akbar” four times punctuated by short, pregnant pauses, the wheel comes full circle and he is back where his own history began: he becomes a prophet.

More recent Arabic leaders do not possess Nasser’s rhetorical skill, which accounts for their lack of effect. Thus, rival leaders are driven even more to resort to the arabiyya, the ancient language of the poets and the Qur’an. This is particularly the case with Islamists, for the fascination of fundamentalism is also bound up with language. Islamist leaders try to speak pure Arabic, untainted by dialects or foreign words. But the Arabic spoken by them is often trite, puritanical, conformist and, in fact, artificial. It is, however, perceived as pure and religious, mythical and, in a banal sense, sublime. The mere code of the language becomes a tool used to legitimate a claim to sacred authority.

Watching Osama bin Laden’s first video broadcast after the start of the American air offensive on Afghanistan, I was struck by the exquisite Arabic he spoke. Not once did he slip into dialect, as usually happens with the modern generation of Arabic leaders, nor did he confuse the complicated flexional endings, a mistake made even by intellectuals. He chose antiquated vocabulary, familiar to educated Arabs from religious literature and classical poetry, and avoided neologisms. It was indeed the stiff, puritanical, conformist, artificial Arabic as described above, but it was immaculate. And for the first time, watching bin Laden’s broadcast, I found myself falling under its spell.

It sounded like a traditional speech, but it represented a break with tradition. Arab theologians speak very differently -if they are rhetorically well educated with an exquisitely varying enunciation of high Arabic consonants, precise modulation and length of vowels, the result of many years of learning rhetoric and Qur’anic recitation. Osama bin Laden, being a businessman by profession, lacks this training, and although he speaks antiquated Arabic, it sounds simple, clear and modest. In fact, his rhetoric works precisely because of the absence of rhetorical ornament, and a conscious modesty of expression. This linguistic asceticism marks a rejection of the burden of tradition, a return to roots. In the video his prophetic aura was reinforced by his austere attire and location in a cave in Afghanistan, a clear reference to the cave in which the Prophet received his first revelation. Even the lack of accentuation in bin Laden’s rhetoric echoes the puritanical Wahabitic spirit, which is allegedly identical with the divine spirit of the Prophet. This break with prevailing tradition was most obvious when bin Laden cited phrases from the Qur’an: while other speakers grotesquely raise and lower their voices when they recite the Revelation, Osama bin Laden proceeded in the same solicitous tone, as if he wished to persuade his audience through the clarity of his message alone.

Osama bin Laden rejects the real history of Islam in order to return to an alleged primordial form of the religion; he also rejects the predominant rhetorical tradition -and the entire history of interpretation of the Qur’an -in order to return to the unadulterated, original wording, the pure, naked scripture. It is no coincidence that, in Christianity, this explicit eschewal of aesthetic splendour is found in Protestantism, particularly Pietism. And the rejection by the new Muslim puritans of excessively musical Qur’anic recitations, notably in Saudi Arabia, is likewise significant. A fundamentalist reading of a source text in literary terms could be defined as the assertion of a single, eternally valid, literal interpretation. Thus, a fundamentalist exegesis negates the diversity of possible interpretations.

Yet in the theological tradition of Islam, as in Judaism, diversity of interpretation was always seen as a merit. Classical Muslim interpreters agree, in fact, that no verse of the Qur’an can be reduced to one single, absolute meaning. They insist that the Qur’an is dhu wujuhin, meaning that it has many faces, similar to the many panim, or faces, that Jewish scholars find in the Torah.

Virtually all secular readings by modern Muslim scholars subscribe to this principle of Muslim exegesis, insisting on the heterogeneous meanings of the text.

This includes -implicitly or explicitly -the poetry of the Qur’an. In fact, the very heterogeneity of meaning is what defines the text as poetic. Once it becomes unambiguous it ceases to be poetry; it is reduced to a mere treatise, an ideological manifesto, or -in the case of the Revelation text -a book of laws.

For scholars such as the Egyptians Nas’r H’amid Abu Zaid or the Iranian Abdolkarim Soroush, insistence on the plenitude of interpretation is linked to an emphasis on the aesthetic features of the text. They know that if the Qur’an is listened to as a revelation and as a literary monument and body of sound, this will open up a whole cosmos of signs, meanings and interpretations, and allow it to be read in a multitude of different ways. It is an approach diametrically opposed to the monopoly of interpretation advocated by Islamists.

The intellectual conflict concerning the Qur’an that is being played out today in the Islamic world -and the violence that issues from it -turns out to be, inter alia, an argument about aesthetics. There is a danger that the knowledge of the tradition of plenitude, a sense of the wealth and beauty of the text, may be lost.

I spoke earlier of the Sirenic effect of Qur’anic recitation. As Franz Kafka remarked, “Now the Sirens have an even more terrible weapon than singing: their silence”.

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