The Qur’an and Pre-Islamic Arabic 1:5-6
Ibn Jarir Tabari

Translator’s Note 
    The Arabic text used is: Abu Ja‘far Muhammad Ibn. Jarir Tabari (224-310/839-923), Jami‘al-Bayan fi Tafsir al-Qur’an (30 vols. In 12: Beiruit: Daru’l-Ma‘rifah, 1406/1906; reprint of 1323 H. Bulaq edition). The reference under the title of each selection is to the volume and page number(s) of the Arabic text. The Qur’anic material cited by Tabari is identified – if an exact quote – in the translation, in brackets, by chapter and verse; otherwise in a footnote. The blessing customarily invoked upon the Prophet Muhammad (sws) when his name is mentioned, salla llahu ‘alayhi wa-sallam, is not translated. 
    In the passage preceding the one here translated, Tabari, after making a few general remarks about the excellence of speech (Fadlu’l-Bayan), establishes several premises: (1) one who is eloquent has greater merit than one who is not; (2) God’s speech is more eloquent than any other speech; and (3) it is inconceivable that God would send a message to a nation in a language other than the nation’s own. In the following passage, he argues that, for it to be comprehensible to its Arab addressees, the Qur’an had to employ the modes of expression the Arabs were familiar with. 
    Now if the difference in the degrees of excellence of speech or the distinction between the levels of discourse depends on what we have already stated, and if God, mention of Him is exalted and His names holy, is the wisest of all those who are wise and the most judicious,1 it follows that the most eloquent speech is His speech and the most excellent discourse His discourse, and that the superiority of His speech, mention of Him is exalted, to the speech of the entire creation is as great as His superiority to all His servant-creatures. This being so, and it being a fact that one of us humans2 who addresses someone else in such a way that the addressee fails to understand him would be called inarticulate, it follows that it would be inconceivable that God, mention of Him is exalted, would address any of His creation except in such a way as to be understood by the addressee, and that He would not send to any of them a messenger with a message unless it be in a language and in a discourse that would be understood by the one the message is sent to. For if the person who has been addressed and to whom the messenger has been addressed and to whom the messenger has been sent does not understand the address made to him and the message sent to him, then he will be no better off after the address and after the coming of the message than he previously was, for the address and the message have added to his knowledge nothing he was previously ignorant of – and God, mention of Him is exalted, is far above making an address or sending a message that is of no use to the one who is addressed or to whom the message is sent, for that would be considered, even among us, to be the work of those who are inept3 and whose acts are devoid of purpose, and God, He is exalted, is far above that. It is for this reason that He, His praise is high, has said in His Firm Revelation: 

    And We have not sent any messenger except in the language of his people, that he may explain matters to them. (14:4)

    And He said to His Prophet, Muhammad: 

    And we have not sent down the Book upon you except that you may explain to them what they have differed about, and as a guidance and mercy for a people who believe. (16:64)

    It is, therefore, not possible for a person to be guided by means of it when he happens to be ignorant of what he is being guided to. 
    It is thus plain from the argument we have presented that every messenger of God, His praise is high, whom He sent to a nation He sent only in the language of those he was sent to; that every book He sent down upon a Prophet He sent down in the language of those to whom He sent it down; and that every message He sent to a nation He sent in the language of those He sent it to.4 And it is clear from what we have said that the Book which God sent down to our Prophet Muhammad, was in the language, of Muhammad. And since the language of Muhammad was Arabic, it is obvious that the Qur’an, too, is in Arabic. Of this, too, the Firm Revelation of our Lord speaks, and so God, His name is exalted, says: 

     We have sent it down as an Arabic Qur’an so that you may understand. (12:2)

    And He says: 

    And Trustworthy Spirit has brought it down upon your heart so that you may become one of the warners, in clear Arabic language. (26:195) 

    Now that, on the strength of the proofs we have adduced and the arguments we have presented, the validity of what we have said has been established, it follows that the ideas and meanings of the Book of God sent down upon our Profit, Muhammad, must be in accord with the ideas and meanings of the speech of the Arabs, and that the outer form of the Book must conform with the outer form of that speech, even though the Book of God would be distinguished from the latter by virtue of the excellence which makes it superior to all other speech or discourse, as already explained by us. 
    This being so, it is clear that since5 the following features are found in the speech of the Arabs: 
    terseness and brevity; 
    suppression6 in lieu of expression, and laconism in lieu of prolixity in certain situations, but use of periphrasis and prolixity, repetition and reiteration, and explicit statement of the meanings intended through the use of names in preference to allusion to them or suppression of them. 
    the reporting of something particular in import by means of something ostensibly general, and of something general in import by means of something ostensibly particular; of something in the form of an allusion when something explicitly known is intended; of a qualifying attribute when the one qualified by that attribute is intended; and of the qualified when the qualifying attribute is intended; 
the preposing of something that is postposed in the sequence of though, and postposing7 of something that is preposed in the sequence of thought; 
the being content with citing part of something, leaving the rest unmentioned; with what is obviously indicated when something is left unexpressed;8 and with expressing what is normally suppressed – there9 have to be, in the Book of God sent down upon His Prophet, Muhammad, features similar, comparable, and analogous to every single feature of it.10 And We shall, if God wills and gives help and strength, explain all of that in suitable places. 

(Translated by Dr Mustansir Mir) 



 1. the most…judicious. The Arabic is ahlam al-hulama’. The root h-l-m denotes both sagacity and gentleness of temper, and Tabari’s use of the phrase suggests both meanings. 
 2. one of us humans. The statement beginning with these words presents an a fortiori argument. 
 3. inept. The Arabic, min ahl an naqs, literally means ‘deficient, flawed’ i.e., incompetent. 
 4. that every book… He sent it to: The Arabic, with its semi-chiastic structure, would translate: ‘Every book He sent down upon a prophet, and every message He sent to a nation, He sent it [book] down only in the language of those [to whom] He sent it down or to whom He sent it.’ 
 5. since. The correlative of this since - clause occurs, beginning with ‘there’, toward the end of the passage. 
 6. suppression. Literally, ‘making do with concealment’ (al-ijtiza’ bi’l-ikhfa
 7. preposing… postposing. For the translation of the words taqdim (preposing and ta’khir (postposing), I am indebted to Professor Ernest N. McCarus. 
 8. what is evidently… unexpressed. Reading, tentatively, ma yazharu ‘ammayuhdhafu (literally, ‘what is evident from what is suppressed’) 
 9. there. See: 5 above. 
 10. it. The speech of the Arabs.