Introduction to Fiqh al-Lughat

By Aswad Anwar

The following is a summary along with some added sources of a class I attended on introducing a method to investigate the meanings of words (Fiqh al-Lughat). The class can be summarized in one general rule,

When attempting to understand a word, particularly within the Qurān, one must not pay attention to any previous understandings of the meaning of the word attained from anything apart from primary sources.

It is very common to make the above mistake. One very clear and well known instance are the words, ‘īlm (knowledge/علم) and ‘amal (action/عمل). One would not be wrong to define them as knowledge and action, but one should definitely not presume a complete understanding of these words in such a case. For example, many scholars have pointed out that words formulated from the same/similar letters possess relationships in their meanings because of their morphological characteristics.

To demonstrate the above proposed rule, a thorough example may be found in attempting to analyse the verb anfiqū (أَنْفِقُوا) within the following verse.

يا أَيُّهَا الَّذينَ آمَنُوا أَنْفِقُوا مِمَّا رَزَقْناكُمْ

O you who have faith! Spend out of what We have provided you[1]

The word anfiqū has been translated across multiple translations as the command, “spend!” As mentioned above, this may be not be wrong, but at the same time it may not be a complete understanding.

In order to thoroughly understand the verb, one must look at the verb from three perspectives.

Tense

The verb is an imperative for a group of people larger than 2.

Root Letters (Matter/Māddah)

The word anfiqū, is derived from the three root letters, ن ف ق. In order to determine the meaning that these root letters come together to convey, one must refer to classical dictionaries.

Al-Nafaq: A burrow in the ground that possess an emergency exit to another place.

Al-Nāfiqā: A lightly covered hole that a Jerboa makes in its burrows. When the open side of their burrow is breached, they hit their head against the lightly covered holed and escape through it, some also call it by al-Nufaqah.[2]

A Jerboa hole[5]

A similar usage of the word can be found within the Qurān, although the translations may not convey a complete understanding of it,

فَإِنِ اسْتَطَعْتَ أَن تَبْتَغِىَ نَفَقًا فىِ الْأَرْض

…Find, if you can, a tunnel into the ground…[3]

From above it is understood that the root letters, when they come together to form a word, convey the meaning of a hole from where a Jerboa escapes or becomes apparent when under threat. The hole is lightly covered and it is barely evident, the Jerboa need only hit its head against the barrier of the hole to escape.

Form                                                                    

Arabic verbs from the same root letters can adopt different forms, and each form can offer different meanings to the verb.[4] In this case anfiqū has adopted what is known to be form IV or, in Arabic, it is on bāb if’āl. The infinitive of this verb is infāq and may be loosely translated as “to spend”.

One of the meanings that the fourth verb form/bāb if’āl offers is that of depriving/negating the meaning understood from the coming together of the root letters of the verb. That is, it negates the meaning or conveys the opposite meaning conveyed by the matter/māddah of the verb. For example, the verb nashaṭa (نشط) means “he tied” but on the fourth verb form, anshaṭa (انشط), it means “he untied”.

General meaning

In this case, the meaning of the form of the verb along with the matter of the verb may be understood as follows. Infāq (the infinitive, انفاق) means to make sure that the burrow of the Jerboa is not breached so as to ensure that the escape hole is not used and does not become open and evident.

This may be understood in the case of someone who has a debt. In one case, a person may possess a debt that they have been unable to pay and many people are aware of that situation. In such a scenario someone may come and offer to pay the persons debt. This is known as iḥsān, the benefactor has helped another person and committed a good deed. The dignity of the indebted person had been breached, it has become apparent amongst society that the person was unable to pay his debt, however the benefactor eliminated the cause for the indebted persons fall from grace.

In another case, there is a person with an impending debt that will need to be paid soon. For the person to have to pay the debt would be disgraceful because they cannot afford to pay it. In this scenario, there is a threat of an impending breach of the person’s dignity. If a benefactor were to come forward in such a case and pay the debt, they would save the person from the impending threat/breach and ensured that a case where the person’s loss of dignity became apparent did not come forward.

Thus, the verb infāq may be defined as follows, to fulfill a need in such a manner so as to ensure that the need does not become apparent to others. The meaning consists of two parts, one is to fulfill the need and the other is to ensure that the need does not become apparent. One must ensure that the escape hole is not used. It should not become evident. The other is to eliminate the threat/breach of the burrow. As such, to allow the escape hole to be used and become apparent and then eliminate the threat would not be an instance of infāq.

The above demonstrates a method used to analyse the meanings of words. Evidently, there is much more work involved. What was presented above were simply the conclusions that one would reach from their research. Such analysis would require one to thoroughly peruse classical dictionaries and investigate the usages of the word within different contexts. As such, other effective methods for analysis of the meanings of words may also exist. This was just meant to be an example and introduction to one such method.

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[1] Al-Baqarah 2:253

[2] Khalīl bin Aḥmad, Kitab al-‘Ayn, v. 5 pg. 178-179

[3] Al-An’ām 6:36

[4] A brief explanation of verb forms and some of the meanings that they can offer can be found at the Quranic Arabic Corpus

[5] See Page 515 of Rodents in Desert Environments edited by I. Prakash, P.K. Ghosh

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