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  • 8/23/2003

Between Grammar and Rhetoric (Balâghah):

 A Look at Qur'ân 2:217

Mustansir Mir

I. The Problem

The Qur'anic 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-harâmi in the verse. As AbûHayyân says: wa qad khabata 'l-mucribûna fî icrâbi wa 'l-masjidi 'l-harâmi.[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'an 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:


cani 'l-shahri 'l-harâmi qitâlin fîhiqul qitâlun fîhi kabîrun


can sabîli 'llâhiwa kufrun bihî

wa'l-masjidi 'l-harâmi

wa ikhrâju ahlihî minhu


cinda 'llâhi The issue is: What is the genitive case-ending ofal-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]

Tabarî:Tabarî solves the problem by supplying the prepositioncan before al-masjid al-harâm, and gives the underlying construction (ta'wîl al-kalâm) as: wasadduncan sabîli 'llâhi wa kufrun bihî wacani 'l-masjidi 'l-harâmi wa ikhrâju ahli 'l-masjidi 'l-harâmi . . . akbarucinda 'llâhi mina 'l-qitâli fî 'l-shahri 'l-harâmi.[4] Simple as this explanation is, it raises a problem whichTabarî neither discusses nor alludes to. It makescani 'l-masjidi 'l-harâmi thesilah ofsadd, a masdar (in C),can sabîli 'llâhi becoming the mawsûl, with wa kufrun bihî interposed between the two. But this violates the well-known rule of grammar that nothing may come between asilah and a mawsûl. It may also be asked why, in the Qur'ânic construction itself, al-masjid al-harâm succeeds wa kufrun bihî instead of preceding it, for its precedence would have made the verse problem-free?

Zamakhsharî: As if sensing the objection that might be made toTabarî's explanation, Zamakhsharî, in his paraphrase of the verse, transposes D and E: . . . yacni, wa kabâ'iru qurayshin minsaddihim can sabîli 'llâhi wacani 'l-masjidi 'l-harâmi wa kufrihim bi 'llâhi wa ikhrâji ahli 'l-masjidi 'l-harâmi . . ..[5] This, however, is not a fresh solution, for the received sequence of the phrase-units in the verse remains unexplained, as inTabarî's.

Farrâ': Farrâ' holds that E (wa'l-masjidi 'l-harâmi) is joined by conjunction to al-shahr al-harâm 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) Qitâlun fîhi in B is the mubtada', whereas the khabar is made up of kabîr 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) Qitâlun fîhi kabîrun (B) is a complete sentence, containing both thc mubtada' and the khabar; wasadduncan sabîli 'llâhi is a mubtada', and so is kufrun bihî, the khabar of each (= kabîr) having been omitted since thc context points to it. In other words:
qitâlun fîhi kabîrun
wasadduncan sabîli 'llâhi kabîrun
wa kufrun bihî kabîrun[8]

Farrâ'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.

Râzî: Râzî takes up the cudgels on Farrâ'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 qitâl in qul qitâlun fîhi kabîrun, being indefinite, is not the same as the indefinite qitâl in the preceding yas'alûnakacani 'l-shahri 'l-harâmi qitâlin fîhi.[9] This being so, it is conceivable that at least one kind of qitâl - 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 Kacbah 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]
Râzî, while showing great ingenuity in responding to the objections against the interpretation presented by Farrâ', does not vindicate the syntax of the Qur'an itself. With E taken to be mactûf on al-shahr al-harâm in A, the verse comes to have a highly convoluted structure. And Râzî'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.
AbûHayyân: AbûHayyân prefers to make al-masjid al-harâm the mactûf of the pronoun in bihî.[11] The objection (made by Basran grammarians) that for thecatf on a genitive pronoun (damîr majrûr) to be valid, the preposition should, as a rule, be repeated with the mactûf (that is, the wording should have been wa bi 'l-masjidi 'l-harâmi) is refuted by AbûHayyân on the strength of a number of illustrations from thc Qur'ân 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 -Tabarî, Zamakhsharî, Farrâ', and AbûHayyân - offer a completely satisfactory explanation of the problem raised by the Qur'anic verse 2:217. [14] The interpretations ofTabarî and Zamakhsharî make sense in themselves, but they ignore the sequence of the phrase-units in the verse. Farrâ's explanation hardly makes a case for Qur'ânic eloquence; it is, to use AbûHayyân's words: mutakallafun jiddan wa yabcuducanhu nazmu 'l-Qur'âni wa'l- tarkîbu 'l-fasîhu, and Râzî goes to needless lengths to defend it. AbûHayyân'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 Zamakhsharî would make the most sense - if the Qur'ân had actually used the sequence of phrases suggested by Zamakhsharî. 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 bihî), 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'ânic 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 balâghah. 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 (mactûf and mactûfcalayh), 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 bihî) 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 (sadduncan sabîli 'llâhi), preventing them from entering the Kacbah (wa'l-masjidi 'l-harâmi), and expelling its residents [17] (wa ikhrâju ahlihî 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'anic 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 'lladhîna kafarû yunafiqûna amwâlahum li-yasuddûcan sabîli 'llahi. The verse 48:25 reads: humu 'lladhîna kafarû wasaddûkumcani 'l-masjidi 'l-harâmi. 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 Kacbah (yâ ayyuhâ 'lladhîna âmanû . . . lâ yajrimannakun shana'ânu qawmin ansaddûkumcani 'l-masjidi 'l-harâmi).[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 prepositioncan before al-masjid al-harâm 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 sabîl Allâh is considered still operative and thus governs al-masjid al-harâm 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'an accomplishes something that a more "regular" construction would not: it creates the right psychological moment for focusing 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'an, 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'an 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'an interpretation. Knowledge of Arabic grammar is of course essential for interpreting the Qur'an and its syntax, and an inability to follow discussions of the Qur'anic grammatical issues in traditional works can be very costly. But in reading those works, for example, AbûHayyân's Al-Bahr al-Muhît, 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'anic verse and hence on a very small scale, that grammar has its limitations, and that there are situations where considerations of balâghah may override those of grammar, lending power to the discourse. Precisely where considerations of balâghah 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 balâghah. "This is the 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 bihî 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] AbûcAbd Allâh Muhammad ibn Yûsuf, known as AbûHayyân, Al-Nahr al-Mâdd min al-Bahr, on the margin of his Al-Bahr al-Muhît, 8 vols., (Riyadh: Maktabât wa Matâbac al-Nashr al-Hadîthah, 1389?/1969?), 2:146.
[2] Rudi Paret, "The Qur'an - I," in A F L Beestonet 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] Abû Jacfar Muhammad ibn Jarîr al-Tabarî, Jâmic al-Bayâncan Ta'wil Ây al-Qur'ân, 30 vols. in 12 (Cairo: 1373/1954), 1:347.
[5] Abu'l Qâsim Mahmûd ibncUmar al-Zamakhsharî, Al-Kashshâfcan Haqâ'iq al-Tanzîl wacUyun al-Aqâwîl, 4 vols., (Beirut: Dâr al-Macrifah, n.d.), 1:131.
[6] Or, the three (kabîr C, and D) make up khabar bacda khabar. Fakhr al-Dîn AbûcAbd Allâh ibncUmar al-Râzî, Al-Tafsîr al-Kabîr, 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: qitâlun fîhi 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 qitâlun fîhi (in B), C, and D.
[9] The argument here is that, having occurred in the verse already, the word qitâl in its second occurrence (that is, in qul qitâlun fîhi kabîrun) ought to have been definite. For more details, see Râzî, 6:32-33.
[10] Ibid., 3:35.
[11] AbûHayyân, Al-Bahr al-Muhît, 2:148. AbûHayyân 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-kalâmi wa fasâhat al-tarkîbi taqtadî dhâlika (ibid).
[12] Ibid., 2:147-48.
[13] Shihâb al-Dîn al-Sayyid Muhammad al-Alûsî, Rûh al-Macâni, 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 asilah from its mawsûl: those who take E to be governed by the prepositioncan 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 wâw betweensadduncan sabîli 'llâhi and kufrun bihî 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 wâw could, for example, be taken as the wâw of explication (li 'l-tafsîr) (cf. Râzî, 6:34: . . . anna 'l-saddacan sabîli 'llâhi wa 'l-kufra bihî ka 'l-shay'i 'l-wâhidi fî 'l-macnâ fa ka'annahû lâ 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-cinâyah). 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-cinâyah 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 Kacbah 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 balâghah in interpreting the Qur'an; far from it. It is somewhat excessive pre-occupation with grammar to which I have tried to draw the attention.

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