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January 20, 2021

Language and its Depictions

Bismillah ir-Rahman ir-Raheem


A’llama al-qur’an[2]

Khalaqa al-insan

A’llamahu albayan[3]

(The Beneficent [Most Gracious])

It is He Who has taught the Qur’an.

He has created man:

He has taught him speech.

(Al Qur’an 55: 1-4)

by Motiur Rahman

Hallowed be the Supreme Light,

Higher beyond the furthest height,

Salutations to the source of lights

From whence angels and prophets delight,

Next, to my illustrious guide

The shining star in the midst of the night,

Illuminating the hearts from the light so bright,

Freely flowing from the fountain of light.

Reality of Language

Language is defined as the means of communication of thoughts and feelings through a system of signs, gestures and vocal sounds. If this definition is to be accepted, then, “language” is a vehicle for conveying meanings or ‘realities’. These realities must necessarily be objective, and exist in their own rights regardless of a perceiver being out there who can perceive and comprehend its meaning. For example, when we see an object out there, there are 3 parts to the perception, i.e. the object in itself, which is the objective reality of the thing; the means of perception and all its given conditions – that is the eye, the light and the distance which have an effect on the perception; and lastly, the perception itself, which is the subjective reality, and can be induced and influenced by past experiences, anticipations and preconceptions. The object and its perceptions are not necessarily identical – the image that is formed can be blurred and distorted by the faculties of perception. How people tend to interpret information selectively!

We must, therefore, look into language on three different levels:

1. Perceptive Language – pictorial forms.

2. Subjective Reality – mediated form.

3. Objective Reality – immutable forms.

Let us consider the English language for the sake of simplicity. The words and sentences written on the page are arbitrary signs in the first instance, organised in accordance with the rules of grammar in our given language in its conventional usage for recording, capturing and conveying meanings. It is like the analogy of John’s portrait to John. The portrait is definitely not John himself and at the same it is none other than John himself! Rather it is a signifier for John. Each word, then, signifies something quite apart from it, whether this is an object or a description of it, or a description of a relation between things. The word, however, is not the thing in itself although it may have its own realities e.g. in the case of the written word, the colour, the shape and other calligraphic features; and in case of the spoken word, the sound and the feelings it evokes.

Perceptive Language – Pictorial Forms

Each sentence captures and conveys an unit of expression or assertion of something other than the thing itself; an objective reality above and beyond itself which it only depicts, being only the pictorial form for that thing. It is not the reality of the thing itself per se, but rather a reflection of it, like the moon in the pond on a dark night. However, this reflection proves there is a thing in itself, a true form or objective reality exists out there, just as the shadow proves that there is an opaque object in front of it, least to mention the sun that casts the light which causes the shadow to appear among other things!

Letters and words in a sentence are signs and symbols of abstraction between the perceiver and the thing perceived – a means of providing meanings and making sense to the apperception. The ability to acquire a language antecedes the rules of grammar and not vice versa, the latter is only available to one who has acquired the former for the purpose of abstraction, classification and extraction of meanings. One does not learn the rules of grammar first and subsequently uses it to acquire the language but rather picks up the language then deduces the conventional rules of grammar from it. Indeed, the rules of grammar varies from language to language, however, essentially all languages are the same; had it not been the case then it would have been impossible to translate one language to another. But clearly, we can confidently and accurately translate and interpret one language to another. A mathematical analogy is that we can translate 1+5 to 6 and 4+2 to 6; this is because they are equivalent to 6. That is to say, we can only translate numbers to 6 that are absolutely equal to it, no more and no less. This holds true for all numbers, and the same is true for words and sentences!

The cognitive faculty for language needs necessarily be innate and develops over time given the appropriate conditions are met with the availability of organs of perception such as ears, eyes, nose etc. and the availability of the corresponding sense perception to the respective organ e.g. such as sounds, colours and other audio-visual sense data. A mirror is a good analogy for this – although the mirror by definition can reflect images, its abilities to reflect are impacted upon by factors such as the sufficient polish on the glass, the availability of light and the appearance of an object in front of it in order for it to reflect. The mind is a receptive mirror capable of reflecting realities other than its self! We will avoid the hair splitting arguments between the Rationalists and the Empiricists over whether all knowledge proceeds from experience or not.

Each word, nay even each single letter reflects a reality whether this is a unit of meaning or sound or a symbol of something other than these. However, it is up to the faculty of apperception to posit and abstract meanings in accordance with the conventional usages.

Subjective Reality – Mediated Forms

When one wags the finger at the dog, the dog most likely will not see that it is a signifier for something else one means, which is completely apart from the finger! One can only read according to his capabilities, conventions and customs and not beyond this. A certain gesture in one culture may be welcome while the same gesture in another culture maybe frowned upon.

“Verily We created Man from a drop of mingled sperm, in order to try him: So We gave him (the gifts), of Hearing and Sight”. – Qur’an 76:2[4]

To the service of the apperception each organ brings data relevant to its own realm – auditory data through the mediation of ears, smells through the mediation of the nose and colours and objects through the help of the eyes. All these perceptions are not immediate, but rather mediated. This can be easily demonstrated: for example, when we look at the forest from a distance and see what appear to be trees we form the visual construct that these are trees indeed that we are seeing – from the partially visible outlines we can vaguely see. These constructs are based on past experiences only, and not from definite proofs. However, they usually turn out to be correct. We know that what appears to be a short, black, bush-like structure at the first glance are not bushes at all, and definitely not black but tall green trees full of leaves. The sense data in its immediate or unmediated form cannot be trusted due to the seven defects[5] of the eye. Another example of this is when we see flat images e.g. pictures or portraits, the apperception automatically gives it the third dimension so we perceive the three dimensional picture from a linear image. The ability to produce the image from the sense data is an innate capability of the apperception – the images that are formed can only be in accordance with this capability and nothing more!

Each species of intelligence can only perceive and make sense of data in accordance with its innate potentials. And these potentials vary greatly from species to species. Individuals within a given species also differ in their capabilities for language and discernment, both in terms of potentiality and opportunity. For example, all Arab speaking peoples have the potential to pronounce the letter ‘P’, however, some Arabs cannot pronounce the sound of ‘P’ because they had not been exposed to it as the letter does not exist in their alphabet. Instead, they replace the sound of ‘P’ with ‘B’. This not because, as a race they have deficiency in an innate potentiality to pronounce a certain sound, but due to the lack of opportunity of exposure to this sound. This holds true for many other potentialities including moral, ethical and spiritual development.

In contrary to the potential of the species some individuals do have deficiencies in certain abilities e.g. partial hearing or deafness from birth, colour blindness or blindness as simple examples, however, we shall discuss in the next section pertaining to the different levels of perceptions Insha Allah. It is worth mentioning here: “But those who were blind in this [world], will be blind in the hereafter, and most astray from the Path.[6]”

Levels of Perception

I. Perception of the Ego – Animal Soul

II. Perception of the Heart – Emotions – Human Soul

III. Perception of the Spirit – Intelligence – Universal Soul

Very briefly, then, we must clarify what we mean by the term “soul” in order to explain its objects of perception. In Aristotelian terminology I suppose it is the formal cause, which is another name for the soul, an innate command which dictates a thing’s growth and development, i.e. source of life. This life source is more than the DNA of the thing – the DNA does dictate its purpose, growth and life but in itself the DNA is not the self-containing life source. This can be proven by the fact that dead things contain DNA and this DNA cannot command the life force back into action once it has died be it for a very brief period, however, the life force commands the DNA to dictate and regulate its purpose, growth and life once it is connected to it. This life force can be termed the soul.

The seven heavens and the earth, and all beings therein, declare His glory: there is not a thing but celebrates His praise; And yet ye understand not how they declare His glory! Verily He is Oft-Forbear, Most Forgiving! Qur’an 17:44[7]

Souls are of numerous types dictating and sustaining numerous forms of life, however, they necessarily must belong and partake to a common source, the source of all life, what may be termed the Universal Soul, which is the most perfect and complete mode of being. This will be too much to go into at the present moment, so we shall keep to our purpose and make the following classification:

1. Mineral soul – to its perception belong the orders of formation, chemical composition, patterns, atomic arrangements etc.

2. Vegetative soul – to its perception belongs growth, repair, nourishment, reproduction

3. Animal soul – to its perception belong: sensation, movement, procreation, self-preservation, fear, anger, pride, greed, will, power, envy, strength, language to communicate, passion, emotion, intelligence etc. memory

4. Human soul – to its perception belong: language, abstraction, art, science, culture, politics, generosity, virtue, magnanimity, patience, perseverance, philosophy, religion, friendship, love, rationality and so on.

The Universal Soul is the true soul which is the spiritual sun for all possible moons in the solar system – each class of souls are subsumed under it much alike the relationship between the mind and its individual bodily members in a direct relationship without intermediaries. Likewise, each classes of soul subsumes its previous class and so one is laid on top of the other, e.g. the human soul is subsumes animal soul, which subsumes the vegetable soul, which in turn subsumes the mineral soul. Therefore, spiritual progression is the purification and growth of the preceding soul to the next level moving towards the mirroring of the Universal Soul. This is the telos or the final end, ultimate happiness lies towards achieving this goal.

What do we mean by the word “soul”? As Shah Waliullah[8] of Delhi, may Allah exalt his rank, brilliantly stated in his book, Altaf al-Quds, the analogy of the sun and how it governs the melon seeds, turning them into ripe melons buried deep inside the earth with neither the sun being aware of the existence of the melon seed, nor the seed being aware of the existence of the sun! The soul is archetypal form that governs the particular instances as they make their appearance in the world of phenomena.

Objective Reality – Immutable Forms

The letters in the alphabet can only depict and epitomise an idea that exists in its own right. These are the immutable forms. According to Plato, “The forms are not concepts in the mind, but are existing realities apart from the mind. The forms are eternal and immutable.[9]” Although a given language and its words – the alphabet and its letters – can be and is usually arbitrary, which is governed by the rules and conventions of the given society and communicated through the customary usage, the objective language must exist out there somewhere separate from the particular instances of prevalent languages. Had this been not the case then it would have been impossible to interpret one language to another; in the latter case they would need to be independent systems of holistic languages which were devised arbitrarily on an ad hoc basis. But clearly this is not the case, all human languages are can be interpreted into one another, although it is possible that some words may not exist in a given language. For example, it is said that Scandinavians have more than scores of words for snow, however, in the languages of desert dwelling peoples they may not have come across a word which means “snow” in their own language. I can imagine a language which does not have a word for snow. But since snow exists somewhere objectively it can be translated, interpreted and explained even if one has not come across it or the term does not exist in their language. One cannot, however, signify something that is absolutely non-existent, even as an abstract form, idea or concept that is not even plausible as a potentiality. In such a case it would be unimaginable and unthinkable, therefore inexpressible through the use of language and its signs and symbols or otherwise. All that can be expressed is either actual or potential existence, whether they are material concepts relating to the visible realm or immaterial and abstract concepts such forms and ideas.

The Verification Principle is shallow and can only verify subjective reality and its data, and not more; one who has not experienced a thing, e.g. toothache or backache cannot truly form the accurate concept of these things but only through similarities and analogies. To truly understand the sweetness of mangoes one has to experience the pleasures of eating mangoes, although it may have some similarities with the taste of akin fruits, sugar and general sweetness. One who has not attained puberty cannot truly know the pleasures of sex although they certainly have ideas and concepts of many different types of pleasures! However, the subjective reality in itself is problematic – one individual’s reality is not identical to the reality of another individual – what can verify my perception of the colour red is identical to perception of red colours of others? Indeed there are people who are ‘colour blind’, i.e. their subjective perception of certain colours are not identical to the perceptions of the majority of people. All people may use the same word to define the same concept for customary usage for the same given reality; however, this reality is in the immediacy subjective one at first! From this perspective, we can only speculate and postulate on the objective reality; however, we cannot claim to know objective reality in its own right.

The universal verification of objective language is not possible due to the facts that:

a) Subjective apperception is not identical to objective reality. For example, when we look through the lenses the visual appearance of the object is tainted by the colouring of the lenses.

b) All individual members of the species do not have same or full potential capacity for the required perception.


Absolute Reality in its entirety cannot be known due to:

§ Imperfections in subjective capabilities of the perceiver

§ Absolute comprehension is tantamount to absolute expression, which is equal to absolute language.

§ Perfect being (al –Kamil) comprehends and expresses perfect and complete language.

§ Relation must exist between subjective and objective reality, i.e. between forms and their manifestations – the closer they resemble it the more perfect or complete it is.

[1] And from his narration on the authority of Ibn ‘Abbas, may Allah be pleased with him, that he said: “When the ayat (Say (unto mankind): Cry unto

Allah, or cry unto the Beneficent) [17:111] was revealed, the disbelievers of Mecca-Abu Jahl, al-Walid, ‘Utbah and Shaybah and their hosts-said: we

know no one called the Beneficent except Musaylimah the liar who lives in Yamamah. So he is this Beneficent one, O Muhammad?” And so Allah

revealed this: The Beneficent (Most Gracious) – Tanwîr al-Miqbâs min Tafsîr Ibn ‘Abbâs

Say: “Call upon Allah, or call upon Rahman: by whatever name ye call upon Him, (it is well): for to Him belong the Most Beautiful Names. Neither speak thy Prayer aloud, nor speak it in a low tone, but seek a middle course between.” [17:111]

[2] has taught, whomever He will, the Qur’ān – Tafsir al-Jalalayn

[3] “and taught him [coherent] speech (bayān)”. He said:This means: He has taught him [mankind] speech (kalām) which pertains to the spiritual self

(nafs al-rūḥ), understanding of the intellect (fahm al-ʿaql), discernment of the heart (fiṭnat al-qalb), natural intuition (dhihn al-khulq) and knowledge of

the natural self (ʿilm nafs al-ṭabʿ). God granted Adam this [knowledge] through inspiration and then explained (bayyana) it to him. – Tafsir al-Tustari

[4] Verily We created man, the species, from a drop of mixed fluid,


a mixture, that is from the [seminal] fluid of the man and the [ovarian] fluid

of the woman that have mixed and blended, so that We may test him, trying him with the moral obligations [of religion] (nabtalīhi is either a new sentence [‘We will test him’], or an implied circumstantial qualifier, meaning ‘intending to test him when he is ready’). So We made him, for that [very] reason, hearing, seeing.

[5] Pointed out by Al-Ghazzali: “You must know, further, that the light of physical sight is [p. 6] marked by several kinds of defects. It sees others but not itself. Again, it does not see what is very distant, nor what is very near, nor what is behind a veil. It sees the exterior of things only, not the interior; the parts, not the whole; things finite, not things infinite. It makes many mistakes in its seeing, for what is large appears to its vision small; what is far, near; what is at rest, at motion; what is in motion, at rest. Here are seven defects inseparably attached to the physical eye. If, then, there be such an Eye as is free from all these physical defects, would not it, I ask, more properly be given the name of light? Know, then, that there is in the mind of man an eye, characterized by just this perfection–that which is variously called Intelligence, Spirit, Human Soul. But we pass over these terms, for the multiplicity of the terms deludes the man of small intelligence into imagining a corresponding multiplicity of ideas. We mean simply that by which the rational man is distinguished from the infant in arms, from the brute beast, and from the lunatic. Let us call it the Intelligence, following the current terminology. So, then, the intelligence is more properly called Light than is the eye, just because in capacity it transcends these seven defects.” – Mishkat al-Anwar

[6]And whoever has been blind in this [world] will be blind in the Hereafter…That is, whoever is blind of heart in this world such that he does not show gratitude for the blessings, both outward and inward, that God, Exalted is He, has bestowed upon him, will be blind in the Hereafter such that he is prevented from seeing the Bestower of blessings (al-Munʿim). – Tafsir al-Tustari

[7]The seven heavens and the earth and all that is therein proclaim His praise, [they] affirm His transcendence. And there is not a thing, among things created, but proclaims, enwrapped [in], His praise, in other words,


says subhāna’Llāh wa-bi-hamdihi, ‘Glory and praise be to God’; but you do not understand their glorification, because it is not [proclaimed] in your language. Lo! He is Forbearing, Forgiving, for He does not hasten [to bring about] your punishment. Tafsir al-Jalalayn

[8] Shah Waliullah of Delhi, India, 1703 – 1762

[9] “For Plato, the Ideas or Forms are distinct from sensible things. They are completely objective entities, not simply concepts in the mind, and they exist separately from sensible things, outside of space and time. Sensible things participate in the Forms either by sharing or imitation.” – Tom Howe, Ancient and Mediaeval Philosophy Class Notes (Charlotte: Southern Evangelical Seminary), 202.

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