Selections on the Created Nature of the Qur'an from
Commentary on The Five Fundamentals (Sharh al-Usul al-Khamsa)
by `Abd al-Jabbar, with the supercommentary of Mankdim

Rough translation for teaching purposes by David Vishanoff (with reference to a translation by Richard Martin) from: ‘Abd al-Jabbar ibn Ahmad, Sharh al-usul al-khamsa, with the commentary of Ahmad ibn al-Husayn ibn Abi Hashim, ed. ‘Abd al-Karim ‘Uthman (Cairo: Maktabat Wahba, 1965), 527-536.

Section on the Qur’an and mention of the dispute concerning it.

The basis for the Qur’an’s connection with the chapter on justice[1] is that it is one of God’s acts, which can be bad in one situation and good in another. The chapter on justice deals with his acts, and what is possible for him to do, and what is not possible. Furthermore, [the Qur’an] has a strong connection with what we were dealing with before. It is one of God’s singular blessings, indeed, one of the greatest blessings. The permitted and the forbidden are based on it, and by it the revealed laws and legal values [of human actions] are know. People have seriously disagreed about it.

Generations of mindless[2] Hanbalites have maintained that this Qur’an which is read in the mihrabs[3] and is written in the mushafs[4] is uncreated and not brought into being, but eternal with God (He is exalted).

The Kullabiya[5] held that the speech of God (He is exalted) is an eternal qualifier subsisting in his essence (He is exalted), a single entity [comprising] Torah and Gospel and Psalms and Furqan,[6] and that this which we hear and read is a reproduction [or report] of God’s speech (He is exalted). They differentiated between this world and the noumenal realm, and did not realize that this requires either that the reproduction be eternal or that the thing reproduced come into being. The reproduction and the thing reproduced must both be of the same genus. It is not possible to split them into eternal and contingent. /528/ They say that our speech is what we hear, rather than a qualifier subsisting in the essence of the speaker, as is God’s speech (He is exalted).

al-Ash‘ari held the same position, except that when he saw that saying “what we read in the mihrabs and write in the mushafs is a reproduction of the speech of God (He is exalted)” requires that his speech likewise be brought into being and consist of sounds and letters, because a reproduction must be of the genus of the thing reproduced, then he said “this that is heard is an expression of the speech of God (He is exalted).” He did not realize that the expression must be of the genus of the thing expressed. He did, however, proceed by analogy [between our speech and God’s], and said “speech is a qualifier subsisting in the essence of the speaker” without differentiating between this world and the noumenal realm. In his error he [at least] got this right.

As for our position in this matter, it is that the Qur’an is God’s speech and his revelation. It is created and brought into being. God sent it down upon his Prophet that it might be a sign and an evidence of his prophethood. He made it for us an indicator of legal values, that we might refer to it concerning what is permitted and forbidden. For this he deserves our praise and thanks, magnification and glorification. Accordingly, that which we hear and recite today is rightly attributed to God, even though it is not being brought into being by him, just as the poems of Imru’ al-Qays that we recite today are rightly attributed [to their author], even though he is not now bringing them into being himself.

[`Abd al-Jabbar's definition of speech.]

Since we have now concluded our description of the state of the controversy on this matter, we return to disputing the issue, and we mention the true nature of speech, that it consists of ordered letters and articulated sounds.

/529/ This cannot be meant as a strict definition, however, since the ordered letters are the articulated sounds, and the articulated sounds are the ordered letters, according to the correct view chosen by our shaykh Abu Hashim. Muhammad engages in a pointless repetition.[7] This is made clear by the fact that if the articulated sounds were something in addition to the ordered letters, they could be separated from each other, because there would be no relationship between them.

[Another reason that this cannot be meant as a strict definition is] that ‘letters’ is plural, and the plural indicates at least three,[8] which entails that two letters do not constitute speech; but this is not so, since if we say mur, or sus, or qul, or kul,[9] this is two letters, yet it is speech.

It is preferable to define [speech] as: ‘two or more well-ordered letters,’ or ‘letters which have a certain kind of ordering.’

This does not prevent someone’s saying qi, or ‘i,[10] from being speech, because qi and ‘i are [each] two letters, as you can see from the fact that if you say them in pausal form[11] you say at the pause qih or ‘ih. This is proven to you because they have determined that one can only begin [speech] with a letter carrying a short vowel, and one can only pause with a letter carrying no short vowel (with sukun.) If qi and ‘i were not two letters [each], how could [speech both] begin and end with them? What we have said is therefore correct.

We should not be faulted for our definition of speech on account of its including the notion of ordering. The most that can be said about it is that it is a figurative definition, and that is allowed.

It is not necessary that [speech] convey meaning, contrary to what our shaykh Abu Hashim held. Otherwise, [people] would not consider unused [verbal forms] to be speech, when [in fact] they do count them as speech. Furthermore, if speech were what conveys meaning, as is reported from Abu Hashim, beckoning with the fingers and indicating with the head would have to be speech; but we know this is not so.

/530/ This is the nature of speech. It makes no difference whether it is an unused [verbal form] or one that is used. Neither does it matter if it does not consist of two different letters, as Abu Hashim has said in several places [that it must], because what is composed of two identical letters can also be speech. Do you not see that his saying (God’s blessing and peace be upon him) “I have nothing to do with amusement (dad), and amusement is not of me” is speech, even though it is composed of two dals (d’s)? Similarly, you hear people say kak[12] for a certain animal, and shash for a certain number, and sas for the sound, and kak for gnats, and such instances are too numerous to count or enumerate. As for the grammarians’ position that speech is that which conveys meaning, by which they mean that which is composed of a preposition and a noun, or a noun and a noun as in “Zayd [is] standing,”[13] or a verb and a noun as in “Zayd stood up,” they are only referring to ‘speech’ in a technical [grammatical] sense, not in its ordinary linguistic sense.

Now that you have come to know the nature of speech, know that it is one of God’s great blessings (He is exalted), because communication and inquiring are inconceivable without it. The same cannot be said of anything else, and nothing else has the same range of possibilities as speech, because the only other things this might be thought of are beckoning with the fingers and indicating with the head, and there is no doubt that these do not have the same range of possibilities, since it is well known that a mute person cannot indicate God’s oneness and justice, and that this is not feasible for him to the same extent that it is for one who speaks. As for writing, though we benefit greatly by it, yet it does not attain to the level of speech, and its usefulness derives from the usefulness of speech. Had not God (He is exalted), because of his favor and the abundance of his generosity, inspired us to establish speech by convention, we would be unable to do any of the things we have mentioned.

Once all this has become clear to you from our discussion, then God’s speech (He is exalted), which was sent down upon his Prophet, has been shown to be a blessing, because by it the permitted and the forbidden are known, and to it one refers concerning the revealed laws /531/ and legal values. This is why we said that God’s speech (He is exalted) cannot fail to convey meaning. He cannot even address us by an address and then not mean anything by it, or mean by it something other than its apparent meaning without making that clear, for that would be just as bad as addressing a Zanji[14] in Arabic, or an Arab in Zanjiyya. Just as this is not good, but rather is considered pointless, so it is in the matter [of God’s speech].

The result of all this is that God’s speech (He is exalted) is only a blessing if it is as we have defined it. If the matter were as those Compulsionists[15] claim, then [God’s speech] would be characterized by none of those [benefits], especially if they claim that it is eternal. It is well known that it is not possible to benefit from something eternal, especially if they allow that [God] might lie, or that he might make an address without meaning anything by it at all, or that he might not clarify what is stated summarily until after the time of the address, or even until after the time when [the clarification] is needed.
After all this, we return to refuting these positions.

[Refutation of the Hanbalites.]

As for the argument against the first type, those who say that the Qur’an is eternal with God (He is exalted), we say to them: You have reached the utmost limit of ignorance. Parts of the Qur’an precede others, and anything of which this is true cannot be eternal, since the eternal is that which is not preceded by anything else. This is clear from the fact that the ‘a’ (hamza) in his saying al-hamdu lillah (praise be to God) precedes the ‘l’ (lam), and the ‘l’ precedes the h (ha’). This is incompatible with eternity, and the same is true of the whole Qur’an. It is divided into chapters and broken up into verses. It has a beginning and an end, halves, quarters, sixths, and sevenths. How can something of this description possibly be eternal?

God has indicated this in a clear verse of Scripture, saying “there comes not to them from their Lord a remembrance that has been brought into being . . . ,”[16] and the remembrance is the Qur’an, as is shown by his saying “it is we who have sent down the remembrance, and it is we who preserve it.”[17] /532/ He has described it as brought into being, and he has described it as sent down, and what is sent down can only be brought into being. [These verses] also contain another way of proving that it is brought into being, because he said “it is we who preserve it,” and if it were eternal it would not require a preserver to preserve it.

[Then the same point is argued from surat hud 11:1 and surat al-zumar 39:23, the only new point of importance being that the Qur’an is there characterized as precise (muhkam) and good (hasan), both of which are qualities of actions.]

[Refutation of the Kullabiya and Ash‘ariyya.]

As for the argument against those who say that God’s speech is a qualifier subsisting in his essence, we say that this is an entry into complete ignorance on your part, because the speech that you have asserted to exist cannot be comprehended, and there is no way to know it. To affirm the existence of something that there is no way to know opens the door to complete ignorance, and requires you to admit absurdities, such as that there may be a qualifier in a substrate without there being any way to know it, or that there could be life and power and desire in the body of a dead person, only there is no way to know they are there. He who reaches this extremity has attained the utmost ignorance.

/533/ If it is said, why do you say that there is no way to know it, we say: because the way to know a qualifier (ma‘na), if it is not know ineluctably, must be either an attribute (sifa) arising from it, or a quality (hukm) that it entails. But in this case there is no attribute arising from the speech that you have asserted to exist, nor does it [entail] any quality by which one could manage to establish its existence. To affirm its existence, in this case, leads to [the absurdities and ignorance] that we have mentioned.

If it is said: when one of us wants to speak, before he actually speaks he finds within himself something, and that something is what we affirm to be speech; and what a person finds within himself is the most obvious of things. It is said to him: What you have mentioned can be traced to something else, namely the intention to speak, or the desire to do so, or the resolution to do so, or the knowledge of it, or reflection on how to order it. If it can be traced to one of these things, then it is not permissible to consider only the possibility you have mentioned.

It is related that one of the later figures of their school, namely Ibn Furak al-Asfahani, held that speech is traced to thought. This entails that God is characterized by the act of talking, or that he is reflecting -- exalted is he above that! This represents an entry into Magianism on their part, for the Magians are the ones who allow that the Creator may be characterized by thought, when they say “He thought an evil thought and Satan was born of his thought.” This is but one of the ways in which they resemble the Magians.

If it is said: Do not the native speakers of Arabic say “there is a speech within me”? How then can what you say be correct? Then we say: What you have mentioned is the opposite of what is required. The [correct way of establishing a claim] is that what is meant must first be established, and then it can be expressed by an expression. But you have made the expression [i.e. “there is a speech within me”] a way of establishing what is meant [i.e. the claim that speech is a qualifier subsisting in the speaker], and a way of arriving /534/ at it. But this has no basis, because if God had not created the Arabs, or had created them dumb, it would still have to be possible for us to know speech and its nature, but based on what you said this is inconceivable. Furthermore, just as the Arabs say “there is a speech within me,” so they could also say “there is the building of a house within me,” or “a pilgrimage to the house of God,” or “a visit to the grave of the Prophet of God.” It would then be necessary for all these actions to be qualifiers within the subject, subsisting in the essence of the one who performs them; but we know this is not true. If it is said that what they mean by these things is “there is within me the resolution to build a house,” or “to make a pilgrimage to the house of God,” etc., then we say, be content with the same answer [i.e. then you must accept that what is found within the speaker is not speech, but only the resolution to speak.]

If it is said: you have not denied that there is a way to establish the existence of speech, namely its being the contrary of dumbness and silence. Then we say: speech has no contrary, whether of the same genus or of another genus. Furthermore, if dumbness and silence were contraries of speech, then they would only be contraries of that which you and we hear; but they do not consider that speech. It is also said to them: dumbness is due to an impairment that afflicts the organ of speech, and silence is not using the organ of speech even though one is capable of using it. If these things were the contraries of speech, then it should not be legitimate for God to create speech on the tongue of a dumb or silent person, otherwise the two contraries would have been combined; but we know that this is not so. So their argument is invalid in every respect.

[There follows a section showing that the expression ‘a qualifier subsisting in God’s essence’ has no legitimate meaning unless it is interpreted as identical with ‘Abd al-Jabbar’s position.]


After all this, he [‘Abd al-Jabbar] has proved that the speaker is the doer of speech, so as to disprove what they have held on this topic.

This is proved correct by the fact that when the native speakers of Arabic believe that speech depends on its doer, they call him a speaker, but when they do not believe that the speech depends on him, they do not call him a speaker. Accordingly, they attribute the speech of an insane person to a jinn, and they say that the jinn is speaking through his tongue, when they see that the speech does not depend on him as an act depends on its doer. If it were possible to say that a speaker /536/ is not the doer of his speech, then the same would be possible in the case of one who vilifies [another], or strikes [him], or breaks [something], or the like -- the reasoning is the same for all of these, even though some cases are more obvious than the others. But we know that this is not so.

[The discussion continues to page 563.]


[1] This discussion appears as part of ‘Abd al-Jabbar’s discussion of God’s justice.

[2] al-Hashwiyya was a contemptuous nickname the Mu‘tazila gave to Traditionalists who accepted anthropomorphic descriptions of God “without asking how.”

[3] The mihrab is the niche indicating the direction of prayer in a mosque.

[4] A mushaf is a bound, written copy of the text of the Qur’an.

[5] Named after ‘Abd Allah ibn Kullab (d. 854), a precursor of the Ash‘arite tradition of kalam.

[6] I.e. the Qur’an.

[7] I.e., Muhammad Abu ‘Ali al-Jubba’i, Abu Hashim’s father (both were leading figures of the Mu‘tazila), treated the letters and sounds separately, which was unnecessary.

[8] In Classical Arabic the plural implies three or more, as there is a special dual form that indicates two.

[9] These four imperatives (pass! rule! say! eat!) each consist of only two letters (the middle vowels are not real letters in Arabic), because their middle root letter drops out in the imperative form.

[10] These are unusual imperative forms that consist of only one real letter (protect! pay attention!)

[11] That is without running the word’s pronunciation together with the word that follows it, as when pausing at the end of a sentence, or even in the middle.

[12] I have not traced these Arabic expressions, and am uncertain of their voweling. Their role in this argument is purely formal.

[13] Zayd is the Arabic John Doe. ‘Standing’ is a noun in Arabic, and is attributed to Zayd without the use of the verb ‘is.’

[14] Zanji was a term for a foreign Negro slave.

[15] ‘Abd al-Jabbar’s term for the Ash‘arites, because they held that God determines human acts.

[16] Surat al-anbiya’, 21:2.

[17] Surat al-hijr, 15:9.


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