The Grammar of Reality

Grammar is often viewed as a tedious and unimaginative subject, pertaining merely to our means of mundane communication. Squeezed dry of any life, outwardly it appears to be an endeavor devoid of any inspiration. Even more so for a traditional student of knowledge, memorizing obscure aberrant verses of poetry to deliver grammatical points, parsing the construction of sentences (al-iʿrāb) and dwelling on the niceties of the disagreement between grammarians can seem daunting. Understanding the grammatical cases of sentences, be it nominative, accusative, or genitive may not be the most important thing that pops out of an English grammar textbook. However, for a student of classical Arabic, it is all that matters. 

The first time I heard my senior colleague practicing the opening verses of the chapter on speech (al-kalām) from Ibn Mālik’s (d. 1274) Alfiyya after his day’s classes, I was intrigued. Sensing my keenness, he went on to explain what he had just recited.

كلامُنا لَفظٌ مُفيدٌ كَاسْتَقِمْ         واسْمٌ وفعلٌ ثم حرفٌ الكَلِمْ 

“Speech, for the grammarians, is a meaningful word like isṭaqim.” 

Even for a beginner like me who was just getting my tongue accustomed to Arabic morphology (ṣarf), I was already wide-eyed. The idea that the grammatical rules of this language could be strung together into a thousand rhyming verses was a wondrous thought. Later on, I learned that grammar was one of the hallmarks of our civilization. The illustrious ʿulamāʾ or scholars of our dīn had preferred poems over prosaic manuals at times to aid the memorization of knowledge for students. For a pedagogy that valued rote memorization, our textbooks flourished with mnemonic devices and “tips and tricks” to hack our memory into remembering the must-knows in each discipline. 

Nevertheless, my friend refused to stop there. Our mutual love for knowledge prompted him to further divulge something he had learned from his teachers. 

He asked me, “Why do you think Ibn Mālik chose isṭaqim (lit. “Be straight!”) out of all singular imperative verbs to convey his point?”

I was baffled. For my artless mind which had just learned how to derive imperative verbs from imperfect conjugations, I was sure that there was no dearth of other verbs in the Arabic lexicon to make imperatives from. Relishing in the pregnant pause, he continued:

“The great grammarian Ibn Mālik wasn’t merely a scholar of language. His deftness in crafting the magnanimous Alfiyya enabled him to conceal dual meanings in his verses.

Have you heard of this verse from Surah Hud ‘So be steadfast (isṭaqim) as you are commanded?’ It is said that the Prophet ﷺ told his companions that ‘Surah Hud and its like have greyed my hair.’ Hence, alluding to this verse and the hadīth and to warn the seeker of knowledge right at the outset of his journey to be on the straight path, Ibn Mālik chose this word.”

He furnished this delightful reply elaborating on how almost every classical Arabic commentary on grammar referred to the literal meaning of naḥw as “a direction, way or manner.” This pursuit of correct speech was only beneficial in tandem with the pursuit of the correct “way” in purifying the heart.

That night I grew awestruck, recognizing the possibilities of speech itself. There was the literal expression (ta’bīr) on one hand, and then there was the allusive meaning (ishāra) of the literal expression on the other. When it was finally time for me to study the Alfiyya, I went looking for commentaries that explained these dual meanings of Ibn Mālik’s clever verses. After a little research and asking around, I came to realize that such commentaries were not available anymore, lost to the vagaries of time. However, I would occasionally glean a reference here and there while talking about the spiritual implications or exposition of Ibn Mālik’s verse. A dear friend of mine sent me one such photo of a portion from an unnamed book. It explicated the first hemistich of a verse forbidding the usage of an indefinite noun (nakirah) as the subject of a sentence. 

وَلاَ يَجُوزُ الاِبتدَا بالنّكِرَه         مَا لَم تُفِد كَعِندَ زَيدٍ نَمِرَه

“Starting with an indefinite noun is impermissible…”

The following explication employed a brilliant wordplay on the word for indefinite which also meant “to be unknown.” Exploiting the polysemic nature of words in the Arabic language, the exposition inferred from the verse that it was not acceptable for the spiritual wayfarer to seek ascension or the beginning of his guidance from the world of the unknown, i.e. the world of ultimate realities (‘ālam al-ḥaqāʾiq). It was first incumbent upon them to pass through the world of knowledge, or the world of the sacred law (‘ālam al-sharīah). It went on to demonstrate how those ignorant about the fundamentals of the sacred law fell into heresy and apostasy trying to grasp the knowledge of the ultimate realities. 

This verse recalled to mind my discovery of an exceptional work from a certain genre of literature called the naḥw al-qulūb (lit. “the grammar of the hearts”) during my hiatus from Arabic grammar before studying the Alfiyya. ʿAbd al-Karīm al-Qushayrī (rh) an Ash’ari theologian and one of the foremost Sufi luminaries of our dīn, authored this book. A true spiritual master, he is also the author of Laṭāʾif al-ishārāt, a mystical exegesis of the Qur’an, and the famous Risala, a guidebook of saints and terminologies. He belonged to a historical milieu in the development of taṣawwuf where the lines between the correct and extreme practices of the religious virtues were increasingly blurred. To showcase the way to higher stations of proximity to the Most Exalted, Qushayrī was keen on disseminating the right knowledge and practice for spiritual wayfarers.

What is so phenomenal about Qushayrī’s text is that it has no grammatical goal per se. He uses grammar as a tool to guide the seeker to the divine. Detailing the four kinds of grammatical cases or al-iʿrāb, he likens them to the motions of the heart.

There are four kinds of grammatical case: raising [al-rafʿ], rectification [al-naṣb], diminution [al-khafḍ], and curtailing [al-jazm]. Hearts likewise have these categories.1 

He deploys his creative sufi method to glean otherworldly meanings from the non-grammatical usages of these words. For instance: 

As for the nominative [raising] of hearts, it could be that you raise your heart above the world, which is characteristic of the ascetics [al-zuhhād]. It could also be that you raise your heart above following lusts and desires, which is characteristic of devotees [al-ʿibbād] and those who practice devotions [al-awrād] and pious exertion.2 

Qushayrī utilizes the words’ semantic domain to evoke a meaning, centered around spiritual practice:

As for the accusative [al-naṣb, rectification] of hearts, it could be the righting of the body in order to bring it into line, and thereupon the righting of the heart in the place of witnessing by the goodly bowing of one’s head in silence, and furthermore the righting of the inmost soul through the attribute of solitude and purification from moments of disunion.3

This observation is akin to what I described earlier with the spiritual commentary offered by my enthusiastic senior colleague. The so-called suggestive or allusive method of interpretation is manifest in full action in the foregoing excerpts. The classic pithy definition of an i’rāb is that it is a visible effect (aṯhar ẓāhir), just like how expression (ta’bīr) is the outward literal expression. The Sufis, or the people of the inward, draw out hidden or concealed (bāṭin) meanings from this ẓāhir-bāṭin dichotomy. 

Qushayrī belonged to a more sober style of Sufism that saints like Junayd al-Baghdādī (rh) espoused. He was a vociferous proponent of adhering to the Sacred Law and did not consider the Sufis exempt from it. The inner meanings of revelation in no way superseded the outward meanings. As every Muslim had their standards of comportment (adab), the Sufis had their own rules of conduct for the spiritual wayfarer as he progressed through the different stages of his journey. 

In one section, Qushayrī discusses the concepts of sound and broken plurals. The former is made by merely adding a suffix while the latter’s form is irregularly reconstituted. He plays off the grammatical word for plural (jam’) which is identical to the Sufi term for mystical union. In both the realms of grammar and Sufism, there are two types of jam’:

There are two kinds of plural [jamʿ]: sound plural and broken plural, and likewise in symbolic expression: What the Sufis call mystical union [jamʿ] are of two sorts: There is the mystical union whose possessor is faultless. This is the one who observes the religious law in the time when mystical union has come over him.There is also the mystical union in which the possessor’s soundness is broken. This is the one who does not observe the proper conduct [ādāb] of spiritual knowledge in line with what he is called to [do].4 

However, when both these kinds of jam’ are grammatically sound, only one kind of mystical jam’ is correct. Perhaps here lies hints to his dislike of the ecstatic and more “drunk” Sufis who went to aberrant extremes in their spiritual practice. Qushayrī’s dedication to developing a harmonious adherence to the outward meaning of the revelation and the inner insights is clear. The latter does not override the former in any way. True mystical union with God is construed in accordance with the Sacred Law and Sufi adab, both of which are not broken under any overwhelming circumstances. Recall the Alfiyya verse that prohibits beginning with the indefinite noun (nakira).

The translated passages I have taken the liberty to copiously cite come from F. Dominic Longo’s work of comparative theology called Spiritual Grammar: Genre and the Saintly Subject in Islam and Christianity. If you think the phenomenon of infusing spiritual meanings into grammar is unique to the Islamic civilization, it could not be further away from the truth.

Jean Gerson (d. 1429), a Catholic Christian preacher, a French speaker writing in Latin and the Chancellor of University of Paris wrote Moralized Grammar for a widely-known school book which went by the Latin title “Donatus.” However, there is no evidence that Gerson had any knowledge of the works of the Nishapurī Sufi master. For Longo, these two distinctive texts showcase two instances of the marrying of a grammatical textbook with a didactic spiritual manual. He recognizes this “genre of cross-breeding” as a mode of literary production called “spiritual grammar” and categorizes them as belonging to the same genre of religious writing. 

There are other instances of works treating religious and grammatical issues together. Indian traditions are rich with such examples. Bhartṛhari (c. 450-500 C.E) in the first few verses of the “section on Brahman” in his major work called the Vākyapadīya roughly translate as “a treatise on the sentence and the word” displays these profound relations between language as manifested in grammar and revelation. David Carpenter, a specialist in Sanskrit grammar says, “Bhartṛhari was to examine the problem of revelation from the point of view of the language of revelation as language, which was for him both a form of dharma, the socio-cosmic order of the Brahmanical universe, and a self-manifestation of ultimate Reality that underlay that universe, Brahman.”5

Another different kind of Indian religious grammar was the Harināmāmṛta-vyākaraṇam of Jīva Gosvāmī (d. 1608) that focused on teaching one of his fellows the Sanskrit language without diverting them from praising Lord Krṣṇa. Jīva’s grammar is an example where actually teaching grammar is the central purpose while Vākyapadīya aims for a complete integration of theological and grammatical discourse.6

The Sufi tradition of commentating on grammatical texts did not begin or end with Qushayrī. One of the most widely read primers on Arabic grammar to this day, the Ājurrūmiyya by Ibn Ājurrūm (d. 1323), has merited several commenters, among them Sufis. One such example is Al-Risāla al-Maymūniyya fī Tawḥīd al-ʾĀǧurrūmiyya, the well-known primer written by the Sufi Ibn Maymūn (d. 1511). The famous Moroccan mystics Abū al-ʿAbbās Aḥmad ibn ʿAjība (d. 1809) and Aḥmad al-Zarrūq have also produced Sufi commentaries on the primer. Their tasks were somewhat more challenging as they had to creatively interpret the entire maṭn through allusive meanings. One can also refer to a paragraph from none other than the Proof of Islam Abū Ḥamīd al-Ghazālī’s Minhāj al-Ārifīn in which he interprets the four grammatical cases in his own idiosyncratic way:

The i’rab of the hearts is of four types: raf’, fatḥ, khafḍ and waqf. The raising (raf’) of the heart is in the remembrance of Allah. The opening (fatḥ) of the heart is in the contentment concerning Allah. The diminishment (khafḍ) of the heart is to be occupied with other than Allah. The curtailing (waqf) of the heart is in the heedlessness regarding Allah.7 

From the above, we can understand these commentaries are not mere regurgitations of passed down knowledge. Each Sufi master exercised his own faculties of divine inspiration (fuṭūhāt) to explicate the meanings of grammatical texts. However, they were all united in stressing the importance of reforming the hearts and becoming spiritually eloquent alongside correcting speech and becoming linguistically proficient. For adorning oneself with beguiling language was prone to the trappings of the devil. Qushayrī and his like, cleverly used grammar, one of the most exoteric sciences pertaining to a susceptible organ to imbibe esoteric meanings in it and ultimately, to reform the hearts of their readers.

The question persists: Why choose grammar, of all disciplines, as a vehicle to convey these theological and religious meanings to the reader? One of the cornerstones of the Sufi worldview is to see the traces of God in everything. The Sufis never saw something except that they saw Allah before it, in it and after it. Our mundane modes of communication, so far seemingly only mere forms of communication, were a fertile ground to sow the seeds for mystical introspection. Given that our language structures our reality, it was inconceivable for these scholars to think that even human speech could not help but serve as a reflection of the divine. The grammar of hearts is a grammar of the ultimate reality, mirrored in the grammar of our tongues. 

Could it be mere arbitrariness or coincidence? In the age of postmodernism and deconstruction, when the linguistic signifier has become arbitrary and with the constant slippage of meanings failing to cohere into a “presence,” the Sufi’s approach to language asks us to think otherwise. Even a diacritic is not spared of spiritual exegesis. It is often said in our circles that the fā’il or doer of an action is given the nominative mark (raf’) because it is the  heaviest diacritic mark in contrast to the object of the action which is given the accusative mark (naṣb) or the weakest diacritic.8 Since a sentence cannot be formed without a verb and a doer of the action, it is indispensable (‘umda) unlike the objects which we are allowed to do away with (faḍla). Why does the doer of the action accrue such importance? The Sufi would immediately reply, embellishing it with the reason, that there is no true doer of actions in ultimate reality except Allah (lā fāi’la illa Allah). 

In the field of spiritual grammar lies immense potential for research into how it informs Qur’anic exegesis, Sufism and language itself. The several works in this field merit attention, understanding how these different spiritual masters spanning different historical milieus interpreted grammatical texts. How did they expound their claims of sapiential or experiential truth through the path as demonstrated by Sufism? What is the theory of the Arabic language that forms the basis of such interpretations? How does the Sufi method inform the larger conversations around the philosophy of language? Hopefully, these pressing questions yield fruitful answers but at the very least they definitely deserve discussion, just as they did for two seekers of knowledge in a dars going about their day memorizing verses from Ibn Mālik’s Alfiyya.

Photo by Jude Al-Safadi on Unsplash

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  1. F. Dominic Longo, “Forming Spiritual Fuṣaḥāʾ Qushayrī’s Advanced Grammar Of Hearts,” chapter, in Spiritual Grammar: Genre and the Saintly Subject in Islam and Christianity (Fordham University Press, 2019), 179.[]
  2. Ibid, 179.[]
  3. Ibid. 180.[]
  4. Ibid. 198[]
  5. Ibid. 19[]
  6. Ibid. 20[]
  7. Minhāj al-Ārifīn, my own translation[]
  8. Abū ‘l-Barakāt ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Ibn al-Anbārī, Kitāb Asrār al-‘Arabiyya, 77-78.[]
Muhammed Raazi

Muhammed Raazi is an undergraduate student at WIRAS, Markaz Knowledge City, Kerala. He currently studies Islamic law, Hadith, theology, Arabic grammar and rhetoric. 

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