Gharib al-Qur'an

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Gharīb al-Qur'ān (Arabic: غَریب القرآن) is the study of Qur'anic terms that sound abstruse or obscure to Muslims. The appearance of abstruse terms in the Qur'an is explained in different ways, including the use of words common among different Arabian tribes and the obsoleteness of certain terms that were once common at the time of the revelation.

Numerous books have been written concerning "gharib al-Qur'an" (study of abstruse Qur'anic terms), which led to an expansion of such words. Of the importance of such study, Zarkashi says, "An exegete of the Qur'an is required to know gharib al-Qur'an."

The Notion

Gharib al-Qur'an is the study of words and phrases in the Qur'an that sound obscure to Muslims because of their habits, mental backgrounds, social developments of the language, and the like. The word, "gharib", literally means foreign, obscure, and unfamiliar, in such a way that is difficult to understand. Thus, a few Qura'nic words are "gharib" in this sense. Terminologically, however, "gharib" does not refer to unfamiliar words.

It is said that there would be no problems if "gharib" or obscure words were limited to the two hundred words in Nafi' b. Azraq's Masa'il. However, books that were later written as "gharib al-Qur'an" began to include more words under "gharib" words such that they turned into dictionaries or lexicography of the Qur'an.

Explaining the Existence of Gharib Words in the Qur'an

Different explanations have been offered of obscure Qur'anic words, including the following,

Immigration of Non-Arab People

Like any other language, the Arabic language went under developments and changes. The immigration of people from other cultures, languages, and religions to the Arabian Peninsula significantly contributed to such developments. Thus, according to some hadiths, Jews moved to Yathrib and other surrounding places in Arabia on the belief that the Prophet of the End Time will appear in this land. Their immigration to Arabia gave rise to obscure words in Arabic in such a way that a person like Ibn 'Abbas had to ask a Bedouin Arab man about the meaning of the word, "fatir," or ask Bint Dhi Yazan about the meaning of "Fatḥ" which had become obsolete then.

Use of Words Common among Different Tribes in the Qur'an

According to Arabic dictionaries, the Qur'an uses words that were common among a variety of Arabian tribes. Thus, it is not the case that all words used in the Qur'an are those common among the Quraysh. For instance, the book, al-Lugha fi l-Qur'an, written by Isma'il b. 'Amr al-Muqri, is said to collect words common among different tribes, which were used in the Qur'an. Thus, the explanation goes on, it is no wonder that there are words from other Arabian tribes in the Qur'an which sound abstruse to Arabs from other tribes.

Time Distance with the Period of Revelation

After the Prophet (s), the Muslim community underwent many political and social developments, which led to changes in contexts in which Qur'anic verses were revealed, to the ignorance of events after which the verses were revealed, and to the oblivion of evidence that helped Muslims easily understand the meanings of Qur'anic words and verses. Thus, it came to be difficult for Arabs and Muslims who were not aware of the context of the community in Medina during the Prophet's (s) life to understand many of Qur'anic words.

Works about Gharib al-Qur'an

According to Zarkashi, an exegete of the Qur'an is required to know gharib al-Qur'an; otherwise, he would not be qualified to interpret Qur'anic verses. Others go further and suggest that it is impermissible for a person who does not know gharib al-Qur'an to talk about the Qur'an at all. Thus, excessive attention was paid to obscure Qur'anic words, which led to the inclusion of too many Qur'anic words in gharib al-Qur'an so that books concerning this turned indeed into dictionaries of almost all Qur'anic words—obscure or not. Books written in the third/nineth and fourth/tenth centuries include Ma'ani l-Qur'an by Abu Zakariyya Yahya b. Ziyad al-Farra' and Gharib al-Qur'an by Abu Abd al-Rahman Abd Allah b. Yahya. Many other works were written in later centuries, including Gharib al-Qur'an by Ibn Qutayba, and Nuzhat al-qulub by al-Sijistani.