One of the most titillating of post-Ottoman Turkey’s “modernization” efforts was the institution of the beauty pageant. The pageants were one way to show that Turkish women were not locked up in their houses; Turkish women were educated, modern, stylish and HOT! If the Muslim “establishment” today had a scholar pageant, Muḥammad ibn Jarīr al-Ṭabarī (d. 923) would walk away as Mr. Universe. We wouldn’t want to dislodge the turban with a crown, of course. However, the great sage would definitely win at least a sash – “Mr. Sunnī Universe.”
Ṭabarī remains the scholar everyone loves to quote and invoke. Ṭabarī’s tafsīr is considered one of the greats, and academic giants like al-Qurṭubī (d. 1272) relied on this text as a basis for their own works. But Ṭabarī borrowed a lot from the writers who came before him, in particular an expert on grammar named Abū Zakaria Yaḥyā ibn Ziyād al-Farrā’ (d. 826). So, although you assumed I was going to launch into a snide diatribe about the evils of beauty pageants, I really want to discuss Arabic grammar.
Sisters! Know this: In fighting for intellectual space within our religion, we cannot pay enough attention to grammar. Take it as an axiom, embroider it on a pillow, or tattoo it on a discreetly-covered limb: The believer with the best grammar wins. I’m talking about winning liberation from erroneous and oppressive interpretations, winning room to breathe, think and soar.
Scholars began to pore over the language of the Qur’ān when it became evident that there were differences of opinion emerging from attempts to understand the text. Early on, the Qur’ānic text was written with only a vague consonantal outline. Vowels and dots were inserted based on the opinions of scholars. Differences in vowels and differences in where dots were placed on or under letters, meant differences in meaning. The Arabic script that we encounter when we open the Qur’ān today was not hammered out until grammarians in the late-9th century defined a precise system of marks – fatḥahs, kasrahs and dammahs – to indicate the different vowel sounds .
An eminent expert in the early variant readings of the Qur’ān was the sister of the scholar, Muḥammad ibn Sīrīn (d. 728), Ḥafṣa. Her brother would often refer his intellectual peers to her as the definitive voice on the subject of variant readings. What would Ḥafṣa bint Sīrīn say if she learned that all other readings had been forgotten and Muslims have been left with just one? What would she have to say about our Qur’ān, “preserved perfectly,” in the form which sits in the top shelves of our mosques and homes, the source of many well-intentioned sermons and policies by earnest, God-fearing men? In this version, there is a verse that has been used as a weapon against our sisters in places like Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Houston and West Philly.
Wa qarna fī buyūtikunna wa lā tatabarrajna tabarruj al-jāhilīyah al-ūlā… (33:33).
Abdullah Yusuf Ali translates: “And stay quietly in your houses, and make not a dazzling display, like that of the former times of ignorance…”
The rest of the verse goes on to command women to pray, give charity, obey God and the Messenger, and so forth. These commands are followed by “Truly the Muslim men and the Muslim women, the believing men and the believing women…” (33:35). This verse stands as an awesome affirmation of our spiritual equality with men. Why then is it preceded by a verse that instructs us to “Stay home”?
Mr. Sunnī Universe (Ṭabarī) thinks that’s bunk, and so does Mr. Grammar (al-Farrā’) before him. Both believed that this verse does not say, “Stay home” but instead translates into, “Behave with dignity in your homes.”
Now for the grammar – with which you have to be armed, because if we can’t explain it like these guys did, no one will listen to us. For most men, 33:33 has nullified 33:35 before their eyes can even travel down the page.
At the heart of the debate is the root word waqara, which means to be dignified. It is a “weak” verb in Arabic, which means that it drops its first radical (i.e., the letter waw here in the command form). Here’s how al-Farrā‘ explains it:
“’Wa-qirna fī buyūtikunna’ comes from waqār, dignity. You say for men, ‘he has behaved with dignity within his home’ or ‘qad waqara fī manzilihi’.”
Sisters! “Stay home” (qarna), the word we find in our reading of the Qur’ān, is not the word that some of the most learned and renowned early experts believed was correct (“be dignified” – qirna). Al-Farrā’ does not even suggest that his interpretation is a variant. It is the BASIS from which others depart.
He goes on to address the alternate reading:
“ʿĀṣim and the Medinans have read it with a fatḥah. This is not from waqār (dignity). We see that they intend [its meaning to be]: ‘And stay in your homes,’ (w-a-qrarna fī buyūtikunna), so they have dropped the [first] ‘rāʾ’, and its fatḥah has transferred to the ‘qāf.’”
The root here is from qarr, (to remain, to be sedentary, to settle). Even if the root word were qarr, al-Farrā’ shows us what the command form would look like: aqrarna, not qarna. In other words, if you want to use the root verb which means to remain sedentary, it takes a lot of dodgy grammatical wiggling to get it to match the consonantal outline found in the early Qur’āns.
Who is the one espousing this iffy approach – who is this ʿĀṣim? He is one of the famous “Seven Readers” of the Qur’ān from the eighth century. Considered a “Follower” (one of the pious first generation which followed on the heels of the Companions), he headed the renowned school of Qur’ānic study in Kufa, Iraq, and died around 745. The majority of our Qur’āns are, according to his reading, via his pupil named Ḥafṣ. Ḥafṣ died around 805, some 70 years after his teacher.
In the early 10th century, a fellow named Ibn Mujāhid used the agreed upon script system to limit the ever-expanding number of readings of the Qur’ānic text to just the seven from the “Seven Readers.” By rejecting all other readings, even those of other famous scholars (such as ‘Abd Allāh ibn Mas‘ūd and ‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib), Ibn Mujāhid hoped to curtail bickering over what this or that meant based on how it was read. ‘Āṣim was one of the lucky Seven, and his is the version most popular today.
But the question remains: if, in the instance of 33:33, ‘Āṣim’s reading was deemed grammatically incorrect by early experts, why can’t we press their same point here and now?
Consider this: one little word, voweled differently from the way these early experts suggested, has made countless women prisoners of their homes… One little kasrah.
Carolyn Baugh is a PhD candidate in Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, where she is writing her doctoral dissertation on the subject of forced prepubescent marriage in early Islamic legal texts. She is also the author of a novel entitled “The View from Garden City” (Forge, 2008).
Photo Credit: Fadzly’s Eyes