Academic journal article Islam & Science

Preserving the Semantic Structure of Islamic Key Terms and Concepts: Izutsu, Al-Attas, and Al-Raghib Al-Isfahani

Academic journal article Islam & Science

Preserving the Semantic Structure of Islamic Key Terms and Concepts: Izutsu, Al-Attas, and Al-Raghib Al-Isfahani

Article excerpt

This article compares the elucidation of the semantic structure and fixity of a number of key terms and concepts of the Qur'an by two contemporary scholars, Toshihiko Izutsu (1914-1993) and Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas (1931--), with that of al-Raghib al-Isfahani (d. ca 443/1060), the author of the celebrated Kitab al-mufradat fi gharib al-Qur'an. By 'key terms and concepts' are meant those words used by the Qur'an which play a decisive role in making up the basic conceptual structure of the Qur'anic worldview. The article shows how the Qur'an profoundly changed and subsequently fixed the meaning of Arabic terms, particularly those key terms relating to religion and ethics, and it highlights the fact that the contemporary semantic analysis of the Qur'anic vocabulary has its precedent in the fifth/eleventh century.

Keywords: Semantic structure of the Qur'an; key concepts and key terms of the Qur'an; semantic analysis; Toshihiko Izutsu; Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas; al-Raghib al-Isfahani.

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1. Izutsu's Legacy

The Qur'an through its vocabulary gives expression to a concrete and dynamic ontology, rather than an abstract and static metaphysical vision of the universe. Izutsu demonstrated this employing a semantic approach in a series of thought-provoking studies, published in the 1960s, in which he laid bare the conceptual scheme of what he justifiably called the Qur'anic Weltanschauung, and made clear its differences from the pre-Qur'anic or Jahiliyyah worldview. (1) According to Izutsu, the Qur'an is "a large semantic field, a self-sufficient system of words into which all words, whatever their origins, have been integrated with an entirely new systematic interpretation."

Izutsu describes his method as "an analytic study of the key words of a language with a view to arriving eventually at a conceptual grasp of the Weltanschauung or worldview of the people who use that language as a tool not only of speaking and thinking, but, more important still, of conceptualizing and interpreting the world that surrounds them." The term "Weltanschauung" gives a clue to Izutsu's understanding of semantics as a kind of sprachliche Weltanschauungslehre, "a study of the nature and structure of the worldview of a nation at this or that significant period of its history, conducted by means of a methodological analysis of the major cultural concepts the nation has produced for itself and crystallized into the key words of its language." (2)

By analyzing over two dozen such key words as Allah, islam, iman, kufr, nabi, wahy, karim, taqwa, and so on, (3) Izutsu is able not only to contrast pre-Islamic (Jahiliyyah) and post-Qur'anic theology and ethics but also to expose the conceptual network underlying the semantic worldview of the Qur'an. He points out, for example, how the known term Allah underwent a radical semantic change and conceptual transformation. In pre-Islamic times, the word Allah was understood by the Arabs as referring to a certain deity among numerous deities, sometimes also identified as the one responsible for the creation and maintenance of heaven and earth. But He was, after all, but one of the gods worshipped by the pagan Arabs. With the coming of Islam a profound change of far-reaching consequences was brought to this conception. The Qur'an introduces Allah as the absolutely supreme (a'la) and unique (ahad), that is, the one and only God in existence, dismissing thereby all other 'gods' as false (batil) and mere names having neither reality nor authority (asma' sammaytumuha antum wa Aba'ukum ma anzala Allah biha min sultan), and nothing but products of human fancy and whims (zann wa ma tahwa'l-anfus). (4) More importantly, as is evident from the earliest verses revealed to Prophet Muhammad, the Qur'an declares Allah the ultimate source of knowledge and teacher of mankind ('allama'l-insan ma lam ya'lam). All this is complemented with the ubiquitous mentioning of the 'exquisite names' (al-asma' al-husna) belonging to Allah alone. …

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