The Language of the Quran (Part 1): Between The Vernacular (al-lughah al-urfiyyah) and Transcendental (ma fawq al-urfiyyah)

By Shaykh Ḥaydar Ḥubbullāh[1]

Transcribed by Muhammad Jaffer

I. Introduction

What is meant when we discuss the vernacular and common rational language of the Holy Qurān?

Does the Qurān utilize a language that is supposed to be understood by all? Or does it seek to be inscrutable and inaccessible to the common man so that others must play a role in interpreting it?[2] Is the Qurānic text decipherable with resort to linguistic tools like any other literary work? Or does it require a deeper clandestine understanding that transcends the dimensions of mere mortal language?

It is vital to understand the type of language that is being employed in the Qurān in order to understand its import. This is not specific to the Qurān only, but rather applies across the spectrum of all language.[3]

When we return to the traditional exegetes of the Qurān, we find that they approach its language by returning to the words of the Arabs and to their lexicon. This clearly evinces that they understood its language as vernacular and interpreted it as such. As we will discuss, there is another perspective that believes the Qurān has multiple levels of language and meaning, some very explicit understood by all, and some more esoteric and transcendental, understood only by the elite. The question therefore imposes itself of whether the Qurān has one language or a system of languages? And if it has only one register of language, then is this language vernacular or transcendental?

What is the importance of investigating this subject?

There is a deep-set conflict latent among rational traditional scholars and various esoteric tafsīr traditions on this question (Ṣūfīs/’urafā’, philosophers, bāṭinīs/ghulāt, akhbārī Imāmites, etc.). Per traditional scholars, esoteric groups sought to take refuge in a transcendental language of the Qurān to help support their interests and views; because they found that the Qurān’s literal language did not lend credence to their beliefs, they devised this theory to free their exegesis from the limitations of lexical constraints. Therefore, they claimed that the Qurānic symbolic language is not understood except by an eclectic initiated group; in turn, they mocked those who regarded the literal wording of the Qurān. In principle, they endeavored to create a system of interpretation that would circumvent the principles of vernacular language.[4] By privatizing the language of the Qurān, they sought to monopolize the right to its interpretation to suit their interests.

This is the general polarized milieu regarding this question: we have a group who advocates for the Qurān being accessible and vernacular, and another that sees it as interpretable only for the initiated. In the view of this first group, these esoteric ideologies have no rules or principles underlying them for how they do exegesis of the Qurān. Meanwhile, the second group accuses the first of being stagnant and inflexible, incapable of seeing beyond the literal. This is the reason why this issue is extremely important, because it is very controversial and the polarity latent within it has a substantial impact on Islamic thought. The profound influence that issues from this discussion becomes apparent specifically in the conflict between the Uṣūlīs and Akhbārīs regarding the apparent meanings (ẓawāhir) of the Qurān, and the issue of the spirit of meaning (rūḥ al-ma’ānī) discussed by the mystics and philosophers.

This issue ought to be explored and analyzed in a contemporary fashion by those specializing in Qurānic studies. We ought not to simply rehash and settle for what previous scholars have said but rather we need to pioneer a new methodology for understanding this issue. As Ibn Khaldūn is reported to have said, merely imitating the system of the ancients does not mean that the dead are still alive—it means that the alive are dead.[5] We need to stop adopting this mentality of merely “standing on the shoulders of giants” and start developing a new framework. As Socrates is reported to have said, “when you see a city where small men cast long shadows, know that the Sun of its culture is on its descent.” In short, we need new giants to start making some waves in this domain.

II. The Theory of the Vernacular Language of the Quran

What is meant by the vernacular language of the Quran and what are its characteristics?

This refers to the language that was used by the common people in their daily lives at the time of revelation. It is the language that was accessible and understood as a genre to the lowest common denominator of pre-Islamic Arabian society.

There are two iterations of the theory of vernacular language in the Qurān:

a) The Puritanical View

Adherents of this viewpoint contend that the Qurān is purely vernacular without exception. They refute that the Qurān contains any verses that utilize a transcendent register of speech. Of course, this would in turn render inoperative a great deal of exegetical literature which interprets the Qurān allegorically, including many of the traditionist-based tafsīrs.

b) The Combinatorial View

This view simply seeks to affirm the existence of vernacular speech in the Qurān without necessarily claiming it is the only register of speech employed. In the view of this group, the Qurān may employ transcendent language in its description of deeper theological and metaphysical truths while otherwise adhering to a vernacular diction.

The Nine Key Features of Vernacular Language of the Qurān

1. It is generally an understandable language. Of course, there may be points where the language becomes more ornate, however in general it does not employ cryptic allusions or abstruse symbolism. The language is generally accessible to all.

2. It is not innovative. It does not aim to create novel language but rather uses the meanings already present in the context of human speech. This implies that if I can comprehend the way that humans at that time communicated, this in turn shall help me to understand what the Qurān is conveying. Of course, this does not mean that there is no evolution in the Qurānic diction relative to pre-Islamic language; it just means that the linguistic context of the Qurānic revelation is important in understanding it. As al-Sayyid al-Khu’ī has stated, the Prophet didn’t adopt a style of speech that was different from the people. He spoke with a style that was understood by all and he came with a Qurān that was meant to be understood by his people.[6]

3. Its exposition remains highly nuanced and variegated. Just because it is vernacular does not imply that it is unidimensional or featureless. Rather, it is highly enriched with metaphors, parables, analogies, and imagery, as is present in commonplace speech. Stating that the Qurān is vernacular does not mean that we are becoming superficial literalists or that we cannot appreciate figurative language. We simply mean that the Qurānic parlance does not violate the conventions of Arabic idiom relevant to that time.

4. The import of the Qurān remains profound. It is a fallacy to propose that since the language is vernacular, its message must be superficial. While the language of transmission may be simple and universally understood, its import remains profound and life-altering. Consider how many an aphorism may contain exquisite wisdom within it despite the simplicity of its language.

5. The addressees of the Qurān are the common people and not the elite. The Qurān’s primary addressees were the laity of its time and not the aristocrats; therefore, it is a mistake to presume that the Qurān is directing its discourse specifically to the philosophers, the poets, or the scientists. This implies that understanding how the laity comprehended the Qurānic discourse is important in deconstructing its meanings. Of course, this does not mean that all people of that time necessarily understood the Qurān, but it means that its language was meant to be largely accessible.

6. The language of the Qurān is consistent throughout. There are some who propose that the Qurān only utilizes the vernacular in jurisprudential verses (āyāt al-aḥkām) while its other verses are transcendent. While they may not endorse this claim outright, you see this apparent in their methodology of exegesis: when the verses are not fiqhī, they interpret the language of the Qurān completely differently. Per the adherents of this theory, this division has no basis; rather it appears that the Qurān’s language is consistently vernacular.

7. The language is very precise and exact. Some might imagine that since vernacular language is extremely permissive, this means the Qurān’s language must also be the same. Since humans employ various modes of exaggeration in their speech, this means that the Qurān also does the same. However, this is firmly rejected; the Qurān is exact in its phraseology and does not employ exaggeration.[7]

8. The Qurānic language depends on a historical and contextual understanding. It is a fallacy to assume that vernacular language implies that a mere lexical exegesis relying on Arabic dictionaries of the Qurān suffices in understanding its import. Rather the Qurānic language needs to be understood in the context of all the intratextual, intertextual, and extratextual clues which surrounded it. Therefore, this claim that vernacular language implies a superficial reading of the text is not correct.

9. This does not mean that every single person shall understand the Qurān. We do not claim that every member of the Quraysh necessarily understood all the meanings of the Qurān; rather, what we mean is that the language was generally accessible and not meant to be esoteric or cryptic. Of course, every person will vary in how much they understand of the revelation; the point is that per this theory, it remained possible for the average individual of the pre-Islamic Arabian society to extract the pearls of its meanings based on the language he or she understood.

Overviewing the Key Pieces of Evidence in Support of this View

1. The Qurānic Verses Themselves Affirm This

The Qurān defines itself in several verses as a clear exposition for all people.[8] How can the Qurān achieve this without utilizing a language that is universally understood and vernacular? If the Qurān can only be understood by an elect group, how is it an exposition for humankind?

Furthermore, the Qurān identifies itself as that by which the revelation is explained to the public.[9] It notes that he has struck similitudes for the people in order to reflect upon it.[10] How does it make sense for the similitudes within it to be for the people when it is altogether inaccessible to them? It summons people to reflect and ponder upon it;[11] but how can you ponder upon something whose meaning you cannot fathom? The Qurān was revealed as clear Arabic—in its own words—for it to be intellected.[12] How is this possible for people to intellect it when it is inaccessible to the common man? The Qurān rebukes those who hide the revelation after it has already been made clear for the people.[13] Why should this hiding carry such condemnation when the text is purportedly cryptic and transcendent anyway?

There is only one problem with this reasoning; which is that it is begging the question (al-muṣādarah ‘an al-maṭlūb). In order to understand these verses, one is already assuming that these verses are employing commonfolk language in the first place. You must first prove that the Qurān has been revealed in the vernacular before using these verses.This is a serious fallacy in this form of evidence, however perhaps it can still be utilized as possibly indicative of the nature of Qurānic discourse.

2. The Principle of Qurānic Inimitability

The pioneer in espousing this proof was Shaykh Ja’far Kāshif al-Ghiṭā’ (d. 1228 AH) said this in answer to the Akhbāris and other scholars followed suite (e.g., al-Muḥaqqiq al-Qummī, Abū al-Majd al-Iṣfahānī, Mirzā al-Nā’īnī, al-Sayyid al-Khū’ī, al-Fāḍil al-Lankarānī, etc.). This rational argument posits that if the Arabs at that time could not understand the Qurān as their common language, the inimitability of the Quran would lose all its meaning. If the Qurān was a completely cryptic language consisting of transcendent symbolism, then what is the point of challenging the Arabs to produce its like? In other words, anyone can put together meanings and words in abstruse ways; therefore, the fact that the Arabs deemed the Qurānic challenge a formidable one means that they had apprehended its language. Of course, this is simply an affirmative proof, meaning that it cannot disprove that another registry of language in addition to the vernacular could also be employed in the Qurān.

3. The Principle of Pragmatism in God’s Appointing Prophets

Similar to the previous argument, this line of reasoning was pioneered by Sayyid Muḥsin al-A’rajī (d. 1227 AH) in his introduction to al-Ḥadā’iq (he was then copied by Sayyid Muḥammad Bāqir al-Ṣadr, Sayyid al-Burujerdī, and Shaykh Jawādī Āmulī). In a simplistic form, this argument starts with the premise that God has sent a Prophet with a book that is supposed to be probative for guidance. If this book of guidance is not understandable by the people, then its probativity is negated.

In other words, the Prophet’s book would not be probative for guidance if its guidance could not be understood.

4. The Principle of the Natural Order of Things

This argument has its roots in the writings of Sayyid Muḥammad Bāqir al-Ṣadr. It is based on the principle of if there was another language to the Qurān, the Prophet would most certainly have disclosed it. Furthermore, if the Qurān was not automatically understood by the audience to which it was revealed, they would most certainly have inquired from the Prophet regarding how to understand it. In other words, the companions acted as though they naturally understood the Qurān, and this proves that it was in their vernacular.

5. Evidentiary Texts and Narrations from the Prophet, the Ahl al-Bayt, and the Companions

There are hundreds of narrations attributed to the Ahl al-Bayt where they rely on a vernacular understanding of Qurānic verses in order to issue jurisprudential edicts.[14] If a vernacular understanding of the Qurān was not primarily probative, then how would you explain this phenomenon?


[1] The material presented here is a precis of a lecture delivered by Shaykh Haydar on his Youtube channel. The original Arabic lectures can be found here: Part 1 ( and Part 2 ( When tangential points are made by Shaykh Haydar, we have included these as footnotes; our own rare footnotes are marked by TN (translator’s note).

[2] This question reminds me of an anecdote. It is said that Sayyid al-Khu’ī (rh) was asked, “Why do you make your code of edicts (al-risālah al-‘amaliyyah) so cryptic and chock-full of jargon when it is supposed to be for the laypeople?” He answered that if we made this code of edicts so clear and decipherable, where would the role be for the local clerics in clarifying the rules for the people?

[3] When one is reading texts of mathematics and physics for instance, the register of speech is more technical and concrete than literary or poetic works. In the religious sphere, we may consider how Christian (e.g., Herman Dooyeweerd) and Islamic scholars (e.g., ibn Taymiyyah and al-Ghazālī) heavily critiqued the use of the Greek philosophical worldview in understanding religious texts. For instance, in Greek logic a categorical statement (al-iṭlāq) necessitates a universal affirmative proposition (al-mūjibah al-kulliyyah); however, traditional scholars point out that religious discourse does not necessarily employ this principle. Rather, it consists of particularized allusions, not meant to paint an entire continuous theory of thought. Therefore, these scholars note that if we apply Greek logic to scripture it would appear as though its verses contradict; all the while religious experts do not perceive any inconsistency in it.

[4] It is important to bear in mind that we do not mean here those forms of exegesis that have a basis in vernacular language (e.g., the theory of figurative language employed by Mu’tazilites in understanding supposedly anthropomorphic verses of God, exegesis of Zaydites and Imāmites in interpreting verses pertaining to Imāmate, the theory of normative history (al-sunan al-tārikhiyyah) of Sayyid Bāqir al-Ṣadr, etc.).

[5] اتباع التقاليد لا يعني أن الأموات أحياء بل أن الأحياء أموات

[6] TN: The original Arabic statement of al-Sayyid al-Khū’ī as mentioned in his al-Bayān fī Tafsīr al-Qurān is as follows:

لا شك أن النبي (صلى الله عليه وآله) لم يخترع لنفسه طريقة خاصة لإفهام مقاصده، وأنه كلم قومه بما ألفوه من طرائق التفهيم والتكلم وأنه أتى بالقرآن ليفهموا معانيه، وليتدبروا آياته فيأتمروا بأوامره، ويزدجروا بزواجره وقد تكرر في الآيات الكريمة ما يدل على ذلك

[7] The adherents of this view propose that when the Qurān exposits a categorical statement, it should follow the vernacular convention of “in most cases” (fī al-a’amm al-aghlab) and should not be taken to mean “all cases” unless there is a strong contextual indicator of this. In other words, the Qurān follows the convention of vernacular speech (al-‘urf) in its categorical statements. TN: For an interesting discussion expanding on this topic, see here:

[8] “This is a plain exposition for humanity and a guide and admonition for the God-conscious.” (3:138)

[9] “And We have sent down this Reminder upon you that you may elucidate to people what has been sent down for them” (16:44)

[10] “We have certainly set forth every kind of similitude for people in this Quran, so perhaps they will be mindful.” (39:27)

[11] “Then do they not reflect upon the Qur’ān, or are there locks upon [their] hearts?” (47:24)

[12]  “Indeed We have sent down a clear/Arabic Qurān in order for you to understand.” (12:2)

[13] “Indeed, those who conceal what We sent down of clear proofs and guidance after We made it clear for the people in the Scripture – those are cursed by Allah and cursed by those who curse.” (2:159)

[14] TN: As an example, consider this narration from al-Ṣadūq’s Man Lā Yaḥḍuruhu al-Faqīh, where Imam al-Bāqir uses Arabic grammar to do exegesis on the verse of ablution:

قال زرارة: قلت لأبي جعفر عليه السلام: ألا تخبرني من أين علمت وقلت: إن المسح ببعض الرأس وبعض الرجلين؟ فضحك وقال: يا زرارة قاله رسول الله صلى الله عليه وآله ونزل به الكتاب من الله لان الله عز وجل قال: فاغسلوا وجوهكم فعرفنا أن الوجه كله ينبغي أن يغسل، ثم قال: وأيديكم إلى المرافق فوصل اليدين إلى المرفقين بالوجه فعرفنا أنه ينبغي لهما أن يغسلا إلى المرفقين، ثم فصل بين الكلام فقال: وامسحوا برؤوسكم فعرفنا حين قال: برؤوسكم أن المسح ببعض الرأس لمكان الباء، ثم وصل الرجلين بالرأس كما وصل اليدين بالوجه فقال وأرجلكم إلى الكعبين فعرفنا حين وصلهما بالرأس أن المسح على بعضهما، ثم فسر ذلك رسول الله صلى الله عليه وآله للناس فضيعوه

“Zurārah said: “I said to Abū Ja’far: “Can you inform me how you knew that wiping is only for a part of the head and a part of the feet?” He (as) laughed and said: “Oh Zurārah the Holy Prophet (saw) stated this and the Book was revealed from God like this, because God the Most High states: “Wash your faces…” Therefore we know that it is necessary to wash the whole face. Then He says: “And your hands to your elbows” in apposition with the face, so we know that you must wash the hands to the elbows too. Then He partitions with another command saying “and wipe of your heads (bi ru’ūsikum)” therefore we know that the wiping is of a part of the head, since the bā’ is employed. Then He places the feet in apposition to the head as he had done in placing the hands in apposition with the face when He states, “and your feet to the ankles” so we know that since the feet are connected to the head that the wiping is on a part of them. Thus did the Prophet do exegesis of the verse for the people, but they squandered it.”