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The Language of God

December 4, 2009

by Ayesha Saldanha

To learn Arabic is to learn to speak of the divine. God enters every conversation, whether you intend Him to or not. Thanks be to God. If God wills. God’s blessings upon you. May God give you health. Thank God for your safety. God be with you. God forbid. Only God knows.

To learn Arabic is to enter a world of formulas, expressions of the sacred, which frame life, its events and actions. Everything is rooted in His will. Formulas give every interaction a reassuring structure. Their repetition bestows power, reminds you that God is ever-present, central to all. Yet repetition can also remove meaning — for these are words it is impossible not to say.

To learn Arabic is to learn to introduce these formulas of the divine into your speech. And after Arabic has become part of your thoughts, has carved new patterns of language in your mind, when you speak English those formulas leave an echo in your conversations. Imagine sneezing, and not hearing ‘Bless you.’ It is that absence, magnified.

As I look at a copy of the Qur’an, the Arabic accompanied by the English ‘interpretation’ — for God’s words are believed to be a miracle, inimitable, and impossible to translate — I see the Arabic words tightly curled, compact and potent. The English words sprawl loosely beside them. A word in the Qur’an can become two, three, four, five words, even a sentence, in English.

The recitation of a single letter of the Qur’an is considered a form of worship, and worthy of reward.

Twenty-nine of the Qur’an’s chapters start with short sequences of letters, called muqatta’at. If their meaning was ever known to humankind, that knowledge has been lost, and scholars over the centuries have put forward various theories with no consensus reached. The one point of agreement is that only God knows the exact meaning of the muqatta’at.

Alif Lam Ra. Alif Lam Mim. Ha Mim. Ta Sin. Ya Sin. Ta Ha.

Baha’u’llah, founder of the Baha’i faith, which has its roots in Islam, wrote a commentary on the muqatta’at. In it he described God’s creation of the Eternal Alif by the Primordial Pen. After being called by God to set down the mysteries of pre-existence upon the Perspicuous, Snow-White Tablet, the Pen was first stupefied by intense yearning for 70,000 years, then wept crimson tears for 70,000 years. Then, as it stood erect between the hands of God, a black teardrop fell from it upon the Tablet — and the Divine Point took on the form of the Eternal Alif.

In the beginning was —

 

 

Ayesha Saldanha is a writer and translator based in Bahrain who blogs as Bint Battuta. She has requested no audio for this post.

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  1. Wray Cummings
    December 7, 2009 at 10:58 am

    Muqatta’at” sound eerily like DNA, a sequence of letters revealing the secret of life when read with proper authority. Words of Power, indeed.

  2. elizabeth
    December 19, 2009 at 8:30 pm

    Ayesha, this is lovely. Thank you.

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