5-The significance of root words

Languages are constantly evolving, new words are introduced into the vocabulary by way of colloquialism and slang every generation. Here are some examples of evolution in the English language: https://ideas.ted.com

  • Nice: This word used to mean “silly, foolish, simple.” Far from the compliment it is today.
  • Naughty: Long ago, if you were naughty, you had naught or nothing. Then it came to mean evil or immoral, and now you are just badly behaved.
  • Clue: Centuries ago, a clue (or clew) was a ball of yarn. Think about threading your way through a maze and you’ll see how we got from yarn to key bits of evidence that help us solve things.

How a word is used evolves over time, giving rise to new meanings. The etymology of a word (the study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history) is a very important factor to consider.

Arabic words have a trilateral root, the core of the word, which preserves the word’s original intent. These three letters serve as the foundation of the word, onto which prefixes and pronouns are attached to form a phrase.

An Arabic word is derived from the characteristic of its root word. Because language changes over time, studying the Quran through Its root words is critical to understanding and preserving Its original message.

Literary devices.net explains colloquial language as follows: In literature, colloquialism is the use of informal words, phrases, or even slang in a piece of writing. Colloquial expressions tend to sneak in as writers, being part of a society, are influenced by the way people speak in that society. Naturally, they are bound to add colloquial expressions to their vocabulary.

A simple analogy would be that of a tree. The root of the tree is always the same, while the tree itself changes with the seasons.

For example, the root word سمع (sin-mim-ayn) is described in Lane’s Lexicon as:
He gave ear, hearkened, listened, – intentionally; he understood its meaning, the meaning of a person’s speech. So from this meaning, the words hear, listen, are derived.

And since the root word قلب (qaf-lam-ba), means to turn something over and over; he turned the thoughts over and over in his mind meditating what he should do. The word heart is derived, since a heart turns over and over emotions.

Another example is the root نظر (nun-zua-ra), meaning to regard, compare, or examine something intellectually in order to adduce an opinion about it. From these characteristics, the word look is derived.

These examples showcase the difference between the deep meaning of a root and the simplicity of the word derived from it. Insert these simple meanings into the verses and you lose the realization, perception, and the message behind the word.

Evolution of the word Nisa and Rijal:

Now a look at the word nisa- نسا (nun-sin-alif) and how it evolved over time: Lane’s lexicon page 2785- the root word means to postpone or delay a thing. A few sayings from tradition: نسا الله اجله means God postponed the end of his life; ie, prolonged his life. ماله نساه الله means may God render him ignominious, or put him backwards. غريمه استنسا he asked his creditor to grant him a delay in his payment or debt.

So from this root word meaning of postponement, delay, a woman who was pregnant was called nisa due to her menses being postponed, or delayed.

But eventually the word nisa evolved to mean all women, reagardless of pregnancy. The original meaning, the postponement of a thing, was lost.

And so nisa, erroneously, became translated as women in the Quran. I say erroneously since the following translations makes no sense:

The Monotheist Group Translation (The Quran): 49:11 -O you who believe, let not any people (QAWM) ridicule other people (QAWM), for they may be better than they. Nor shall any women (NISA) ridicule other women (NISA), for they may be better than they…

Muhammad Asad (The Message of Quran): 49:11 -O you who have attained to faith! No men (QAWM) shall deride other men (QAWM): it may well be that those are better than themselves; and no women (NISA) shall deride other women (NISA): it may well be that those are better than themselves…

If QAWM means people then aren’t NISA (women) people? Why are they addressed separately? It makes no sense to compare people (QAWM) and women (NISA) since women are people. Mohammad Asad, however, saw the contradiction in this and his solution was to just change the word QAWM into men, to try and make sense. But QAWM does not mean men.

3:14 –Beautified for people (NAS) is the love of that which they desire of women (NISA) and sons, heaped-up sums of gold and silver, fine branded horses, and cattle and tilled land. That is the enjoyment of worldly life, but Allah has with Him the best return.

People (NAS) would mean all people, so kids, men, and women. So how does that make sense that Quran is saying women desire women and kids desire sons? This is a contradiction. It doesn’t fit. And note the translators translated both QAWM and NAS as people.

Women (and children) are being put in with commodities like silver, gold, horses, cattle and land?

Nisa does not mean women. Translating as women makes no sense unless you change other words around it to fit like Mohammad Asad did. Nisa, from the root word, would mean someone or a group of people who are postponed/ delayed/ left behind/ lag behind/ perhaps a weaker segment that are not in power because they are postponed and not put first, or not in the forefront (the leading or most important position or place). This root will be revisited based upon further studies.

The same goes for the word rijal, which is translated as men in the Quran. The root word رجل (ra-jim-lam) page 1043 Lane’s Lexicon: To go on foot on a journey, without a beast to ride on, and continue, in other words he was strong, so he walked not rode. ترجيل – the making or rendering strong. راجل strong, perfect, or complete. A woman who is strong is also called rijal. This root word will be revisited based on further studies.

In verse 22:27 rijal is translated as “on foot” because man would not fit here:
Muhammad Asad (The Message Of Quran):

22:27 Hence, [O Muhammad,] proclaim thou unto all people the [duty of] pilgrimage: they will come unto thee on foot (RIJAL) and on every [kind of] fast mount, coming from every far-away point [on earth],

2:239 -But if you are in danger, [pray] walking (RIJAL) or riding;* and when you are again secure, bear God in mind – since it is He who taught you what you did not previously know.

In verse 17:64 rijal is translated as infantry, or foot soldiers. Eighteen times in Quran it is translated as foot/feet, and 55 times as men/man. They change the meaning into one which suites their interpretation. These contradictions are highlighted in a horizontal reading (tasreef).

Through time, rijal evolved into meaning man. But from the root word, strong, powerful, and how Quran addresses the rijal; it is someone or a segment of society which is strong, powerful mentally, physically, or societally.

Now the infamous translation of verse of 4:34 which endorses a divinely ordained misogyny: Sahih International translation: Men (RIJAL) are in charge of women (NISA) by [right of] what Allah has given one over the other and what they spend [for maintenance] from their wealth. So righteous women are devoutly obedient, guarding in [the husband’s] absence what Allah would have them guard. But those [wives] from whom you fear arrogance – [first] advise them; [then if they persist], forsake them in bed; and [finally], strike them. But if they obey you [once more], seek no means against them. Indeed, Allah is ever Exalted and Grand.

Aside from the interpreter’s own opinions, which appear in the parenthesis, the change of nisa and rijal into women and men, resulted into one of the most contentious misogynistic verses in the Quran. Based on the roots words, however, it would translate as such: The stronger are responsible for the weaker…. And this corresponds to the Quran’s theme of justice. The rest of the verse is also in dire need of root word translations, and will be addressed in a later post based on further studies. The take away from this is to rule out the possibility of translating as men and women.

Understanding the root word removes the strong misogyny introduced by man, ingrained in the Muslim world, through theses translations. By clearing the mind of preconceived notions, recognizing confirmation bias, root words, horizontal reading, and the rationale embedded in Quran, one paves the way towards understanding Its timeless universal message of justice, social coherence, and human rights.

32 thoughts on “5-The significance of root words

  1. I love your blog! I caught sight of it a couple of days ago and have read through it all during free time at work. It sheds a whole new light on the Quran and it is so refreshing to know that other people think about their religion in the logical, open-minded way that I try to.

    This post completely changes the 4th Surah and it makes more sense.

    I am really curious about what you think about the statement of ‘those who your right hand possess’.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words!
      I plan on studying the words in this phrase soon. But one thing is : in lanes lexicon under the root ملك near the end they describe ملكة as the faculties of your mind. You possess these faculties. Such as your sense of reason, thought etc.
      And Quran speaks in the world of ideas and through our faculties of reason and thought. So I know that this is not a physical possession over someone else as in today’s translations.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. One question. Do you think weak and strong are in regards to faith? Like strong or on foot meaning “on the path” and weak or delays, like lagging behind in the path? So Rijjal would mean strong in belief and Nisa would mean delayed or weaker in faith? Maybe those aren’t the right words. Further along on the path and delayed along the path? I don’t want to put any negative connotation on Nisa because I don’t know every occurrence.

    I wonder if you could make your own translation going with the roots and substituting out all the roots at once to see if they work in every instance of that specific word. Starting with the simplest version of that word then working your way out to the derivations from a translated root that works in all cases. This would only work if a specific word was the perfect work and not like the way we use words but more like the way a wordsmith like a contract lawyer uses words. It’s have a feeling this could work. Especially given the nature of a perfect author.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Keeping in mind the recurring themes of justice, human rights, social coherence, and a logic/reason based approach in the Quran, I do not think the strong and weak relate to faith. I believe it relates to society’s strong and weak. And I do believe a new translation using root words, consistent throughout, is a huge task but something we are in dire need of. Yes it is very important that the root word fits in each circumstance, in each noun form, and each verb form. I go through the list of verses with each derivative. I hope I was able to answer your question,

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Praise God this is really really enlightening. I had a hunch that the roots would be important in understanding because it was the natural evolution in correcting what seems to make no sense in the verse. Especially with so many differences in translating the same verse. It seems that we have to let go of our pre-conceived notions to even begin. No assumptions can be made. Just getting to that pure state of mind will be a journey. I look forward to it. BTW I thought this was my blog at first since I had picked a similar theme. I might switch it up because I will be subscribing. Keep up the good work.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. If there is anything I can do to help just ask. I have been working on a mindmap of topics and people in the Qur’an and, with this little bit of study, my notions of Islam have been flipped on their head. It is much more beautiful than I imagined. I told my wife about that verse allowing me to “hit her” but I told her I didn’t like the idea and would do it. It’s good to know that, at least, it’s questionable. I will share this with her God-willing.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Thank you so much! Yes the Qurans message is so beautiful. It slowly unfolds when you study it and it is nothing like the status quo version. And daraba does not mean strike. I will dedicate a post on that in near future.

          Liked by 2 people

  4. What is zina according to you, is it just adultery, adultery and fornication, or all types of extramarital sex?
    Would homosexual sex fall under zina?
    I think zina is just adultery or cheating on your spouse.
    Also, what is the punishment, is 100 lashes the correct translation?
    Thank you

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This makes more sense, especially looking at the verse that talks about how a women’s testimony for a business transaction is less than a man’s.
    It makes more sense to say the weaker one’s testimony is worth less than the stronger ones.
    What do you think of this?

    Liked by 1 person

            1. The Arabic English Lexicon by Edward Lane is a great resource to look up root word meanings. And Quran Corpus to look up root words, although not perfect, but it’s all there is. Quranix.org offers four different interpretations.


  6. If rijjal meant strong and nisa meant weak, then the verse which talked about how a man’s and women’s testimony for a business transaction are different could now make more sense.

    Someone who is strong in the business field will have a testimony worth more than someone weak in the field.


  7. It would mean a group postponed or something of that nature. Not simply women. And I do not believe nikkah here means marriage or talaq means divorce. They mean contract and the breaking of a contract. The Quran is not micromanaging people’s lives it’s about the entire humanity about good and bad. Marriage and divorce is up to state laws.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. This post was addressing root words and their importance. The purpose of the post was to highlight that NISA does not mean women, based on a horizontal reading and root word definition, the intent of the post was not to translate 4:34. That will be addressed in a later post. The rest of the words in the verse must be subjected to the same scrutiny: root word definition and horizontal reading.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The word daraba (strike) does not mean strike, physical strike. It means to direct, show the way. I will address this in another post. This word is very important- daraba – It has been grossly misinterpreted.

      Liked by 1 person

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