The god of Abraham is a talker. He reveals himself to humanity through his voice. Presumably omniscience entails fluency in all languages. (How, sans glottis, does one make a glottal stop?) But is one preferred? Are the divine thoughts couched in a particular language, an original native tongue? While these questions may strike some as imponderable at best, the nature of God’s speech was the subject of one of the fiercest controversies of medieval Islamic theology, the repercussions of which still echo around the globe.
The controversy assumed two theological desiderata: observance of the principle of tawhid, the Oneness of God, and avoidance of the sin of shirk. Often translated as “idolatry” or “polytheism,” the latter term is formed from a verb root that pertains to “sharing” or “association.” It encompasses not just the worship of deities besides Allah—a contraction of al-ilah, literally “the god”—but the inappropriate association of anyone or anything with God. In the hands of the rationalist theologians of the Mu‘tazilite movement, the avoidance of shirk became a kind of Occam’s razor that could slice away accretions of anthropomorphism and revealed theology.
The Mu‘tazilite school, which flourished during the Abbasid Age (800-1050 CE), embraced a vision of persons as free and morally responsible, and a vision of a deity as beholden to standards of justice. Steeped in Greek philosophical learning, it asserted that the Quran was revealed for a particular historical context, and must be interpreted by independent, speculative reason. Tawhid entails that God, being unique, has attributes that no creature shares with him. Therefore, the language of the Quran that attributes human-like properties to God—“The Hand of God is above their hands” (48:10)—must be understood allegorically or figuratively. If God had a body, even an incorporeal body, He would be divisible and therefore not absolutely unitary and simple.
What of the properties essential to God—being powerful, knowing, and willing? The Mu‘tazila reasoned that even these must not be metaphysically distinct from God. Universal terms like “knowledge” do not refer to a separate “mode” that inheres in the divine substance any more than “The Hand” means a hand. To their critics, this amounted to unbelief, a denial of God’s attributes. But the critics could also be accused of propping up an idol alongside God, and thus courting shirk. The Mu‘tazila believed they were guarding against the idolatrous error of allowing a sign—even a linguistic sign—to misdirect one’s attitude of worship away from the essence of the divine.
What about God’s speech? All were in agreement that the Quran is the speech of God. But when did he speak it? Did the Quran—literally “the Recitation”—have a beginning in time, at which God created it by speaking it, or did it coexist with God, uncreated for all eternity? At stake were the doctrines of predestination and free will—if the Quran existed eternally, then it seemed that the content of the revelation would have been complete before the beginning of human history—and the doctrine of the absolute unity and simplicity of God. In 833 CE, the Calif al-Ma’mun wrote in denunciation of the “masses and the great multitude of the mean people and the lowest classes”:
They do not know God, . . . they are unable to understand the real greatness of God, to know Him as He really is, and to see the difference between Him and His creation; so weak is their insight, so defective their intellect, and so great their distaste for reflection and recollection. They show this most clearly by putting God—the Blessed and Exalted—on the same level with the Quran, which He has sent down . . . .For their part, opponents could declare, “Whoso sayeth that the speech of God is created, he is an infidel regarding God . . . .” However, if the divine speech of the Quran is a sacred object, always existing, uncreated by God, with final authority for belief—it begins to sound dangerously like an idol. Instead, to put a modern gloss on Mu‘tazilite doctrine, one could hold that the language of the book represents what God had to say to humanity at the time.
These medieval disagreements over the speech of God are never far from the present. Some contemporary commentators celebrate the eventual defeat of the Mu‘tazilite side for ensuring that Muslims across cultures would be united in their veneration of Quranic Arabic. According to what is now a widespread traditional understanding, the eternal, “original” language, the sound of God’s phonemes, has a special spiritual power that cannot survive translation. The exquisite art of pitched recitation or incantation of the Quran, or tajweed, attempts to capture this power. The belief in the sacred aura of Quranic Arabic, however, comes with heavy encumbrances, both theoretical and moral. It stands in the way of understanding the book and its origins as human, historical phenomena open to empirical investigation. And it makes for a troubled relationship between text and art, between tajweed and song.
In 1999, the Lebanese singer and oud player Marcel Khalife was put on trial in Beirut for “insulting religious values” after releasing a song that contained a portion of a Quranic verse. The lyric of “Oh My Father, I am Yusuf,” based on a poem by the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, weaves a story of Yusuf (Joseph) into a meditation on suffering the betrayal and hatred of brothers. It appropriates the Quranic words, “Father, I saw eleven stars, and the sun and the moon; I saw them bowing down before me.” Speaking before the court, Khalife, a Maronite Christian, asked, “Why do you persecute me?”
I shall not believe that quoting or incorporating a fragment of a Quranic verse in a poem, and reciting it with reverence and spiritual sensitivity, justifies this lawsuit . . . . Quranic citations and allusions have been a constant cultural and literary tradition that Arabs have kept alive from the time of the emigration to Yathrib to our time of emigration to the unknown in the twentieth century. . . . It is our hope that Lebanon will not succumb to insulting itself and insulting Arab culture by insulting the song ‘Oh My Father, I am Yusuf.’Although he was eventually acquitted, Khalife has been followed by controversy in Tunisia, Bahrain, and elsewhere. His alleged offense was the use of Quranic language for extra-devotional purposes. Elevating the language as culture and politics, the singer and the poet were at the same time implicitly raising the possibility that conservative believers had made an idol of it by insisting that it must be associated with nothing but itself. If the Mu‘tazila were correct, the Quran was made in the world and for the world.