Quran & Sunnah

Verse 10, Chapter 53 (سورة النجم): A Case of Mistaken Referential Ambiguity

فَأَوْحَى إِلَى عَبْدِهِ مَا أَوْحَى

Thus He conveyed to His servant whatever He conveyed

Quoted above is a verse from the 53rd chapter of the Holy Quran titled ‘The Star’. Unfortunately, due to a failure to realize a literary tactic employed by our Lord, our commentators have made a real mess of the interpretation of the verse. Resultantly, they have been unable to remove a ‘referential ambiguity’ from the pronouns used (highlighted in red) therein.

Just to give some perspective to my readers, the verse is part of a reply Allah (سبحانه و تعالى) is giving to certify the message that our Holy Prophet (صلى الله عليه وسلم) was pronouncing to the disbelievers of Mecca. The disbelievers, to confuse honest simpletons of the society, were alleging that perhaps this person i.e. Muhammad (صلى الله عليه وسلم) had mistaken some ‘hallucinations’ for divine communication; as in their era was a trademark of sorcerers and soothsayers who spent their days and nights endeavouring to establish contact with Jinns (Spirits) to acquire from them some news of the unseen that they had managed to eavesdrop in the heavens above, and pass it on to people to prove their superiority over them. Among other arguments in order to discredit their claim, Allah is narrating the two incidents when in broad daylight the Holy Prophet, up until that time, had witnessed the messenger i.e. Archangel Gabriel, in person. Moreover, to negate the possibility of any loss or change of the message in the messenger’s possession, the ‘Immaculate’ intellectual and bodily perfection of the Archangel as a medium, is also alluded to in the preceding verses. Thus the verse in question occurs in the account of one of those ‘Witnessing Incidents’ when the Archangel revealed himself to the Holy Prophet in order to deliver the message. After he revealed himself and came close to the Holy Prophet, Allah narrates that ‘Thus He conveyed to His servant whatever He conveyed’. And since all the pronouns up until this verse were pointing to the Archangel Gabriel, there appears to be a ‘dispersal of pronouns’ (إنتشار ضمائر), since the expression ‘عَبْدِهِ’ (His servant) is undoubtedly referring to Allah – and this way of dispersing the pronouns is considered to be a flaw of eloquent speech, as it engenders ambiguity.

The ambiguity occurs because their seems to be a possibility of two ‘subjects’, i.e. Allah and Gabriel, in this verse. According to one subject it could mean ‘Thus Allah conveyed to Allah‘s servant whatever Allah conveyed‘; and according to the other it could mean ‘Thus Gabriel conveyed to Allah‘s servant whatever Gabriel conveyed‘. As you can see that in this latter case, dispersion of pronouns is inevitable. Although, most of the prudent commentators have adopted the first interpretation, nevertheless, not only have they accepted the possibility of the 2nd interpretation, the fact of the matter is, due to the flow of the narration, prima facie it seems more plausible for the pronouns to be pointing to Gabriel and not Allah – as done by Maudoodi Sahab and many other commentators. Apropos, the presence of a syntactic ambiguity is, consciously or unconsciously, acceded to by commentators having either of the two opinions; that is because the bigger question of why there is an ambiguity in the pronouns is left unanswered and thus the preference of one interpretation over the other seems merely artificial. When in point of fact, no such syntactic ambiguity is there altogether – for anyone with a literary eye. Allow me to elaborate……

What Allah is trying to instill in the minds of the audience is that His message is transported by such a mighty ‘messenger’ that the authenticity of the message is guaranteed down to every dot. In order to do this, the ‘stalwartness’ of the delivering angelic messenger and the ‘non-repudiated physical experience’ of the recipient human messenger are discussed in detail. But what a layman might miss out here is the fact that both of these aren’t the issue here – The issue is the authenticity of the message. That is to say that Allah is discussing the two factors to show that the message is delivered with absolute fidelity to the Holy Prophet through an error-free ‘medium’. The security and fidelity of the medium is assured to such an extent that on reaching the verse in question Allah has purged the existence of the medium altogether. Instead of factoring in the medium, a linguistic tactic is adopted whereby the fidelity of the medium is implied to be mutually-understood due to the explanation given by the Speaker by taking the pronouns back to the originator and the recipient: intentionally leaving out the medium to allude to its perfection. We do it all the time. Even if we have spoken to someone over the phone or internet, while narrating the experience to someone else, after mentioning the medium at one odd time, we resort to saying ‘I told him to go for it’, or ‘I asked him to mail me that file’; and by adopting this method we are removing the fidelity of the medium as a factor from our conversation, because it is understood.

The visible cue for this purging is the presence of the expression ‘عَبْدِهِ’ (His servant). If alternatively, the intention of the speaker would have been to simply narrate that the angelic messenger delivered the message to the human messenger, a much better way of saying this would have been:

فَأَوْحَى إِلَيْهِ (إِلَى عَبْدِهِ) مَا أَوْحَى

Thus he conveyed to him whatever he conveyed

And it would have made perfect sense; and the arrangement would have been more appropriate, since the subject and object would have been consistent throughout the narration that started with ‘عَلَّمَهُ شَدِيدُ الْقُوَى’ (He is taught by one with extreme powers). But instead, by adding an otherwise redundant fact i.e. ‘عَبْدِهِ’ (His servant), Allah has visibly “set-up’ed” the verse for the literary minded people.

One might think that isn’t spotting this literary tactic a bit difficult? Well, it wasn’t certainly for the Arabs it was revealed towards! Coz, they were really adept in eloquence. Despite lack of their worldly education, their ‘eye’ for literary Arabic was extraordinary. What to talk of their metropolitan dwellers, even their illiterate shepherds used to conceive and chant poetic couplets as a matter of routine. Hence, none of them raised any concerns about the ‘ambiguous’ and in effect ‘flawed’ speech herein, ever. In fact, as is popularly quoted by historians, every one in the audience literally fell on their faces (i.e. prostrated) driven by an uncontrollable urge to bow to the literary excellence, once this ‘composition’ was read unto them by the Holy Prophet. I’ll try and tend to this point in another essay, God willing.


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