The power of a kasrah

Since we were discussing feminist theology in the previous post I thought I’d share something with you all and see what you think about it.

Here is the article

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 withdignity 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.

from here.

What do you think?


28 thoughts on “The power of a kasrah

  1. susanne430 says:

    “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.”

    The pen is mightier than the sword?

  2. Becky says:

    Wow, this just once again confirms what I’ve been convinced of from before even converting to Islam, that pretty much all the things I disagree with are culturally based, and founded on misconceptions and misinterpretations of the holy scriptures. Thank you so much for sharing!

  3. Sumera says:

    I wonder how people expect Muslim women to contribute to society if they only stay within the 4 walls of their homes?

  4. mariam says:

    this article means , until we have not fully understood Quran, we can not and should not implement it as Islamic law.turning our misread or misunderstood assumption to laws has not any benefit except distorting message of Quran by ourself!

  5. Metis says:

    Yes, Susanne, exactly!

    Becky, it is an interesting perspective and I would have liked to read more on her findings to see if there is a recurring pattern of such grammatical misuse.

    Sumera, who wants women to participate?!

    Mariam, interesting observation but how long will it take us to understand the Quran? I mean we have already spent 1400 years.

    • Zuhura says:

      I agree with Mariam. We only need our own lifetimes to understand the Qur’an. Let each person interpret it in a way that makes sense to her or him. Let’s not use it to make laws to control other people’s behavior and relationship to Allah. Let there be no compulsion in religion.

    • unsettledsoul says:

      I have been told Muslim women need to stay home, just recently for some reason. I spoke about it in one of my own blog posts, how before I converted I was told about the radical and beautiful khadijah as this symbol of the Muslim woman, and now suddenly the story has flipped and I am told “no, no, it is best for a woman to stay home and be caretaker.”

      I assume this line of thinking comes from this “one little kasrah.” lol Amazing what ideology can do, isn’t it!?

  6. Metis says:

    Zuhura, that is something I want to explore too because we, in Islam, have still not come out of the ‘scholars-know-Quran-best’ mode and I don’t think I will live long enough to see a revolution against that mentality which is sad to say the least.

    Unsettled Soul, I have heard that too about Khadijah all my life even though I was born into the faith! But the problem with that argument is that ‘the radical and beautiful’ Khadijah was Muslim in only the last 13 years of her life and even in those 13 years she was actively Muslim in somewhere between 6-8 years because revealations to the Prophet were interrupted after the first one for some 3-5 years. She was independent, bold, radical, owned business and property, gave a house to her daughter Zainab out of her own free will, supported and employed the Prophet and even proposed marriage to him all as a heathen Arab woman, not a Muslim. (Doesn’t this negate our popular views that heathen women were always oppressed, supressed and depressed? LOL!). In fact, strangely we know little about her radical views after Islam. The Prophet’s other wives – all of whom came into his household when he was a prophet – neither worked nor owned bussinesses. I suspect (it is just my hypothesis!) that those who ask women to stay at home like the good old Wahiduddin Khan I am reading) use these historical facts to come to their conclusions even if they don’t openly claim it.

    • Zuhura says:

      In Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate, Leila Ahmed argues that Khadijah’s pre-Islamic progressiveness vs. the way the Prophet’s other wives lived shows that Islam is not as progressive towards women as it’s been made out to be.

      I agree that revolutionizing Islam is not going to happen any time soon. However, we can each choose to ignore and/or critique the ‘scholars-know-best’ mentality and seek out like-minded folks. Revolutions start small.

      • Metis says:

        Al Fassi in Women in Pre-Islamic Arabia makes the same argument although since she is from a highly influential Meccan family she can say things others in Saudi Arabia can’t and she is most PC when stating it. She argues that Heathen women from ancient Arabia were far superior in status and had greater privileges than Muslim women today. Her study is based on archaeological findings, inscriptions on ancient coins and pre-Islamic poetry and manuscripts. It was a real eye-opener for me to hear it from a very traditional and religious woman.

    • unsettledsoul says:

      Metis, yes, I am told that after she converted she “gave her business to the prophet.” That opens an entire new line of questioning for me…

      Possibly all of these admirable things about Khadijah were also things that “Islam” took away from her? I would like to hope not, but do not have the answer to that question.

      • Metis says:

        She gave her business to the Prophet after converting? I never heard that before. I hope she didn’t! I do know that all her property, business and money was inherited by the Prophet upon her death but I didn’t know she gave it all to him when she was alive.

  7. Zuhura says:

    PS: Have you seen this?

    “The agency chose to tackle gender inequality in the Arabic language. Spoken and written words in the media which would otherwise be addressed to men by default, were altered with a “kasra” accent, making them addressed to women. This was extremely relevant to the client which had been heavily researching the depiction of women in the media. With a call for action line that encouraged women to “make your mark”, the target audience that included every Lebanese woman from every possible demographic, was inspired by such a simple idea. The meaning behind literally changing the word empowered them to actually change their reality with their own hands.”

    • Metis says:

      Thanks Zuhura! This is very interesting. Wow!

      “The meaning behind literally changing the word empowered them to actually change their reality with their own hands.”

      How much is lost because a kasrah failed to empower women!

  8. Lat says:

    I’ve read this post too at altmuslimah and I was really beyond surprised that 7 other readings were available in the 8th century and that Arabic words had no signs of vowels and dots then.And we were only left to deal with one Quran now.All because of some visionary decisions by some early scholars who decided to play god .That’s why I don’t take scholars words for everything.Be it Quran or the hadiths.I really appreciated the author for bringing up this article.

    • Metis says:

      Lat, most people argue that since the Quran has always been memorised from the beginning, the lack of dots and accentuations are compensated when a person correctly memorises and recalls the verse. There are on-going debates, nevertheless, on how Aisha and Umar had recited a verse Vs how Ibn Masud recited it, for example. I think we generally don’t talk about these things out of fear that we would be pointing fingers or saying that there are loopholes, where as such discussions lead to very healthy outcomes, IMHO.

  9. wafa' says:

    wow, my head is spinning from reading this. It’s just adding to so many things i have started to realize lately. wow

  10. Sophia says:

    Thank you for sharing this, Metis. I have been researching the historical development of the Quran, as well as some alternate interpretations – such as the notorious Christopher Luxemburg’s book, “the Syro-Aramaic Reading of Qur’an”. However, I often feel that this line of research is over the head of someone like me, who hasn’t even finished a two-year college degree! Now I feel like I’ll have to become an Islamic scholar myself if I ever want to understand this religion.

    Sometimes I feel like the scholars and translators have let the rest of us down. They provide conclusions, but not the process or the possible alternatives… leaving us laymen in the cold.

    • Metis says:

      Oh Luxemburg’s book! I love his/her vision and admire the effort and study that has gone into it. I also accept that Quran, although according to tradition is written in the Quraishi dialect, contains several foreign words. But I don’t think it was written in Aramaic. Luxemburg surely tries to ‘read’ it in Aramaic and it is entertaining but I don’t think it is correct.

      I realised eight years ago that if I didn’t read Quran for myself I would be forever craning my neck to look up at the ‘scholars’ who were making me miserable anyway. It was hard work. I won’t lie.

  11. sarah says:

    I think that there is much more to be discovered about the Quran and that one verse can have more than one meaning. I disagree so much with sticking to only one interpretation. How does anyone get the confidence to inisist that only thay are right unless backed up by multiple sources and evidence.

    Also, I have always been reading the verse in question as ‘and stay in your houses with dignity’. Can’t this also mean – behave with dignity in your home? Does it have to mean ‘only stay in your home’. The examples of the early Muslim women demonstrate that they did not do this. Even after the death of the prophet Hadhrat Aisha rode into battle (definately outside her home) yet she is the very one being addressed in this verse. The preceeding verse starts ‘oh wives of the prophet’. If niqab is only for them and not for all Muslim women then why is this verse though to be for all and not just for them? What is the basis for deciding whether it is general or just for the wives of the prophet?

    As for the status of Hathen women – maybe it was higher but Islam gave set laws about inheritance and rights wheras those heathen laws were arbitrary according to birth/tribe/ social status. Islamic rights are for all women regardless of class or income therefore they are truly equal between the women themselves. They are intra-equal if that is even a concept. Islam made us one body of women with no divisions – truly equal sisters. The only exception I can think of is the slave women who had different categoris for marriage than free women and such women do not legally exist today even if culturally they are there.

  12. luckyfatima says:

    I didn’t know any of this. I thought the Quran (in Arabic) that we have today is complete, and although it wasn’t compiled and transcribed until after the Prophet’s (pbuh) death, its transcription was done with the utmost care and with a system of checks and balances with people who had memorized the entire text. So supposedly there are no errors in it. So this is not so? I don’t remember learning about this when I learned how the Quran was compiled…I mean, this is very earth shattering for me. We easily point out that other religions’ text based revelations are flawed because of their untimely and unchecked transcription. So we are the same and the Quran we have is NOT the exact word of God as revealed to our Prophet, pbuh? Do you have any online English language sources that talk about this more, or is there a book (accessible to non-academics) that you would recommend that discusses this? Does everyone know this and I was just in the dark, or is this something long lost deep in Islamic history?

    As for the qarna vs. qirna issues, I qirna (be dignified) is obviously more in line with my beliefs and my own life.

    • Metis says:

      I am sure care must have been taken but what do you do when there is no damma and kasrah and no dots?! I mean /bayt/ (House) could actually have been /bayat/ (command) and /baab/ could have been /nab/ or /thaab/ or /baat/ or /baath/ – if there were such words (these are just silly examples). Perhaps that is why it is believed that Quran can be read in seven different ways? Plus, Quran is believed to have been written down in the dialect of the Quraish upon Uthman’s orders but the parts of Quran incorporated from the copies brought in from Yemen and Syria were not in the Quraishi dialect so perhaps (I am assuming) they were first translated into the specific dialect. Something is often lost in translation.

      The fact that all other copies were burnt makes one wonder about the nature of differences between the copies. In the end what we have is the choice of a group of people who had the power to select what goes into the compilation. I don’t doubt their sincerity or honesty for a second; just making an observation.

      I think our abrogation is a non-Muslim’s contradiction; our metaphor is their error; our perfect word is someone else’s borrowing. It depends on who is reading the Quran.

      There are books but I don’t know if you read non-Muslim sources? Muslims generally don’t want to write on this topic but there are several books by non-Muslims that trace the history of Quran’s documentation and point to some grammatical errors that even most Arabic speakers may ignore.

  13. luckyfatima says:

    I thought the diacritics on consonants were part of ancient semitic languages, and only the vowels were missing/newer in history. That is really interesting as well. But I can imagine that a fluent literate Arab or Hebrew speaker can still read without any diacritics at all. I have read and do read texts on Islam written by non-Muslims, and as long as the text is of a historical or historical linguistic bend, and not some purposefully disrespectful ‘this proves Islam is a lie’ theme, I am open to reading any book. Please do let me know which books you mean and I will see if my local library has them.

    • Metis says:

      The earliest Quranic manuscript (see here available doesn’t have diacritics or vowels. If I can recall correctly I think these were added in the 9th century. In fact early manuscripts did not use diacritics for vowels or to mark the rasm. The harakat weren’t invented until the early 8th century.

      A fluent Arabic speaker today can definitely read without the diacritics of the consonants but I don’t think it is possible today to fluently read without the dots for the shorter vowels at least. Plus, most contemporary readers don’t fully understand the Quran anyway. There are words with which they struggle, for example, I have talked to a number of Arab women about /adha/ mentioned in 2:222 and even though it is related to women and their well being, they cannot pinpoint exactly what it means and at least all the women I have asked this, none has given me the correct meaning. They try to collocate it with purify and say /adha/ means pollution. Adha is written as اذي and if there were no markers as dots, I don’t think a contemporary Arabic reader who doesn’t even know what it means *with* the dots would have read it without the dots.

      Books are:
      Quran: the Text and its History by C.E. Adams
      Introduction to the Quran by R. Bell and W.M. Watt
      The Foreign Vocabulary in the Quran by A. Jeffery
      Koran by T. Noldeke in EB 11th Ed, 5th Vol.

      The books are passionate and honest in approach even if in the end their conclusions are somewhat the same. They don’t say that “Islam is a lie” but they all do conclude that Quran is not perfect. So there is the warning 🙂

  14. luckyfatima says:

    Thanks, I do appreciate this.

  15. […] when we thought we have read the Quran in whatever manner possible we had the recent study that a kasra has the power to incarcerate women in their houses.  Just when Muslim Feminists were beginning […]

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