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Volume 3, No 2, Spring 1993 [back]

Word Constellation "Millet" in the Qur'an

A. H. Kocabas, S. Kocabas


This is a grammatical study on a group of words which occur in the verses (ayats) of the Qur'an. We call these group of words "Millet Constellation". The words in this constellation, namely: millet, din, ummet, qawm have particular political significance in their uses. They have a rich word-relational structure and therefore high and detailed expressional power which is not seen in the socio-political languages of today.

A. H. Kocabas, S. Kocabas
London 1986


There seems to be a great deal of confusion in effect among the contemporary writers and scholars about the use of language in many domains. Partly because of the neglect of research in formal sciences (logic, mathematics, linguistics) and theoretical sciences (physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy, etc.), human sciences (psychology, sociology, economics, etc.) and philosophy over the last 600 years, available methods and structures of formal and theoretical knowledge of other cultures have been gradually adopted by Muslim writers (with mere replacement of some terms while retaining the structures) as valid forms of method, thinking and expression.

In order to eradicate the confusion in the language, a deeply responsible approach is needed. This approach must first of all be based on the Qur'an itself, and the actions and saying of the Prophet (s.a.w.), and must recognize the merits of the Muslim scholars of the classical period.

2.1 How does Language Function and Start Losing its Function?

In a language "symbols", "words" and "sentences" have countless different kinds of use. And this multiplicity is not something fixed, given once and for all; but new types of language, new activities in a language may come into existence, and others may become obsolete and forgotten. Language is part of many activities in our lives. Here are some examples for the multiplicity of this activity [1]:
describing the appearance of an object, or giving its measurements,
constructing an object from a description,
reporting an event,
speculating about an event,
forming and testing a hypothesis,
presenting the results of an experiment in tables and diagrams,
making up a story, reading it,
play acting,
singing catches,
guessing riddles,
making a joke; telling it,
solving a problem in practical arithmetic,
translating from one language into another,
asking, thinking, cursing, greeting,
praying to Allah...
To do all these activities and many others we use a multiplicity of tools in the language suitable to that particular activity. By proper tools and proper use of these tools we may build mosques, hospitals, computers, space-crafts, governments and empires by the leave of Allah.

In a given way of life, we develop these linguistic tools, use the language in a functional way and communicate with each other to do all these activities. What happens when a tool is used outside its purpose? For example, if we sharpen the point of a screwdriver to use it to pierce objects, then when we need it as screwdriver to tighten loose screws, we are faced with the fact that it is not quite possible to use it for that original purpose any more. Also, instead of keeping the tools in a workshop in an orderly way ready for future use, if we throw them inside the workshop arbitrarily after each use, then when we need a particular tool we will not be able to find it in its place and be forced to use something else instead. Then either the tools we have used become blunted or we begin to forget what tool is for what task and end up with only a few usable tools around. By the misuse or non-use of these tools or by neglecting the development of new tools, we may end up destroying fortunes of empires and retreat to the language of beggars.

2.2 What are the Sources of Confusion in the Language?

According to Christian sources confusion started in Babylon, where, once, the language was functional.

"And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the sons of men had built. And the Lord said, "Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another's speech." (The Bible. Genesis 11.1-10)

St. Augustine comments on this verse as follows:

"And Cush had a son called Nimrod; he began to be a giant on the earth. He was a gigantic hunter against the Lord God. Hence the saying: 'like Nimrod, a gigantic hunter against the Lord.' And the beginning was made of his kingdom, Babylon..." (Genesis 10, 8 ff.) [2]

"The scripture then goes on to say, 'these are the sons of Shem in the tribes, according to their languages, in their regions and their nations'; and then similarly about all Noah's line we are told, 'these are the tribes of the sons of Noah according to their generations and their nations. From these the islands of nations were dispersed on the earth after the Flood.' Hence we gather that there were at that time seventy-three nations (or rather, as will be shown later, seventy-two) not seventy-three men. The list of Japhet's sons, given earlier, also concluded with these words: 'From these the island of nations were separated, each in its own land, everyone according to language, with their own tribes and their own nations.' [3]

"Now those nations, according to the narrative, possessed 'their own languages'. But despite that statement the narrator goes back to the time when all men had the same language; and then he explains how the diversity of languages arose. 'The whole earth,' he says, had one language and all men had the same way of speaking, then it happened that, as they migrated from the East, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And one man said to the next man: 'Come, let us make bricks and bake them in the fire.' And so bricks were used for stone, and they had bitumen for mortar; and they said: 'Come let us build a city for ourselves, and a tower, whose top will reach to the sky; and let us make a name for ourselves, before we are scattered over the face of all the earth.' And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built. And the Lord God said, 'Behold, the people are one race, and all of them have one language; and they have begun to build, and from now on they will not fail to achieve anything they may try to do. Come let us go down and bring confusion in their speech, so that no one may understand what the next man says.'... That is why the name 'Confusion' was given to the city; because it was here the Lord confused the languages of all the earth." (Genesis 11,1-10) [4]

One of the prominent virtues of man which distinguishes him from other creatures is his ability to use language. This is something in which man is distinguished even from angels in some way.

"He said: O Adam! Inform them of their names, and when he had informed them of their names, He said: Did I not tell you that I know the secret of heavens and the earth? And I know that which you disclose and you hide," (The Qur'an 002.033)

On the contrary, the diversion in languages may be regarded as a positive sign. For people of different cultures can develop languages to understand each other.

"And of His signs is the creation of heavens and the Earth, and the difference of your languages (lisan) and colours. Lo! herein indeed are portents for men of knowledge." (The Qur'an 030.022)

2.3 Foundation of the Development of Political Concepts in Ancient Greece

Plato had identified the priority of functionality of some words and sentences to others. For instance, in his Laws Plato says that laws in a society would have been based on a firm base if they could be referred to the decrees of gods.

"ATHENIAN: It's not difficult to see how to cast these and similar matters in the form of a law, and making this or that alteration won't help or harm the state very much. But now for something which is not a triviality at all. It is a point on which it is difficult to convince people, and God himself is the only person to do it - supposing, that is, we could in fact somehow get explicit instructions from him." [5]

This is an important insight about the conceptual order in a language. This can be contrasted with the language of law-givers and political scientists of today. This is only one example that Plato's language is much more meaningful than many of the modern thinkers.

Aristotle too, had a functional language with respect to politics. He took the practical course of identifying a group of concepts which play a different role from the others in the Athenian way of life, namely the ethical concepts. He studied these concepts in two ways. [6]

a. Their formal structure in the language.
b. Their significance in relation to the way of life, (Athenian way of life).
This is why Aristotle's Ethics is a meaningful study in comparison with its like that were developed since the 17th century, because we do not know how to make sense of the latter due to the obscurity of their grounds. On the other hand, Aristotle was doing this study without differentiating between the formal structure of these concepts and their uses in the language. This is where our study differs from Aristotle's in the sense that we try to describe the grammatical structure of these terms as we see them in the Qur'an, but not their uses in the language present or past.

2.4 The Problem of Multi-Culture Politics

Like Plato, Aristotle too did not have to deal with the problem of multi-culture politics. He was not concerned with the inter-cultural interaction problems of language. Ancient Greek societies were conglomerated in the form of cities, and each were of a uniform culture. Based on some form of republic and democracies and with laws based on a uniform tradition, they did not face the problem of developing inter-cultural languages to provide communication between different cultures. They identified all other cultures with one word: 'barbarians'.


The method we introduce here is based on the fact established by the verses (ayats) in the Qur'an, that the Qur'an is a guidance. A word-relational study of the Qur'an on any related area of knowledge could guide us out of the darkness of conceptual confusion. Such a study will not provide an interpretation of the Qur'an, but a conceptual map for future interpretations. Classical Muslim commentators invariably knew the Qur'an by heart and when they gave explanations of the verses of it, they would naturally go through the ayats in which a particular word (or words) occurred in order to consider the contextual relationships relevant to their commentaries. In this respect, we would not say that this method is new. However, classical Muslim commentators do not seem to have looked at this as a distinct method, based solely on the investigation of word-order relations in the Qur'an. On the other hand, we must remember that during the classical period, language of Muslims was never in such a confused state as it is today. Consequently, they would not have needed such a study for their language was functional as we can see from the monumental works we inherited from them.

3.1 Necessary Preliminary Studies

Classical Arabic, Tafseer, Tafseer Methodology, Logic, Linguistics, Philosophy, Mathematics, Physics, Computer Science, Literature, History. We will not go into the details here as to why preliminary studies in these fields are necessary.

3.2 How does this Method Differ from Prior Methods?

The method differs from the conceptual studies of Aristotle, R. Carnap and T. Izutsu.

Aristotle's method as applied to the 'ethical concepts' in the Athenian way of life and language aims at explicating and defining these concepts based on their uses in that society. [6]

Carnap's method is based on a formal concept of language in which the meaning of words and statements are their references to objects and method of verifications respectively. He has applied his relational logic to several mathematical and theoretical systems. [7]

Izutsu's method, based on a formal concept of meaning and language is more akin to Carnap's. He erroneously applied this method to the Qur'an, aiming at providing interpretations of it. He failed to understand the function of the centrally important word "sha" (will) in the Qur'an. [8]

Our method is based on a functional, not formal concept of language. We did not start our investigations to interpret the Qur'an, but to be guided by it. Not as an astrologer, but as a navigator. We were ready to abandon our ill-formed concept system for a better one. We saw the impossibility of understanding the Qur'an correctly with our existing ill-formed conceptual structure, and that instead of trying to understand it as such, we let ourselves be guided by it and let our concept system be reorganized by itself in harmony with this superior word-order.


4.1 Isolate each ayat which contains the word or words to be investigated and contextually related ayats to them in the Qur'an. Some of the context related sentences which do not contain the investigated word or words might be in different ayats. Search and bring them together.

4.2 Identify each other keyword concurrent in the isolated ayats with the words under investigation. This will help to discover other members of the family that the word or words under investigation belong to.

4.3 Isolate ayats with same context.

4.4 Isolate the word with relations that bind it to other words in the context in a context dependence situation. The differences in contexts should be carried over by the differences of the dependencies. For this reason, extend the relations to show the difference even if it is necessary to quote the whole sentence or sentences or ayats etc..

4.5 To discover the nature of the relationship between two or more words, above-mentioned procedures must be completed. After that, search and isolate common contexts and common relations, if there is any. If there is none, search for words with which a direct or distant relationship is established that has common context(s) and common relations with the word that is being investigated.

4.6 Draw a family-tree like diagram to represent the relational bond structure between the words.

4.7 Draw a comprehensive star map like diagram including the strength and feature of relational bonds and the order of importance.

4.8 Indicate 'sura' and 'ayat' numbers as (sss.aaa) for proof and points of entrance.

4.9 Do the same analysis for any given text in any language. Compare structures to discover the words with similar features. To mark and see the structural differences, start experimenting by replacing star-words with the corresponding selected words to create lexical 'photo-fits' and see how well they fit to the general picture of the text under investigation. Repeat the procedure until reaching the most representative lexical 'photo-fits'. Now, identify the structural differences in detail to create the base of interaction. After every interaction check and update the map of words for better interaction regularly.



5.1 One can avoid every intuitive understanding and paraphrasing of the content of the ayats in the Qur'an, on the bases of implicit presuppositions or information from outside. This will facilitate a better understanding. If one does not want to avoid it, this must be added explicitly.

5.2 The words and ayats of the Qur'an can be discussed in a precise manner. This can help to find refinements or alternative ideas and to discover contradictions in the understanding of the Qur'an.

5.3 One has an overview of the ayats in the whole structure by seeing connections. In this way, in a 'local' discussion of a 'sura' or group of 'ayats', losing the idea of the Qur'an is avoided.

In conclusion, word-constellation maps refer to all possibilities and give a precise rigid bases on the Qur'an for the discussion of different interpretations. They offer a tool for the interpreter to approach the 'ayats' in a formal way without falling at once into the trap of subjective understanding.

5.4 In further investigations, after discovering the structure of word groups used by other cultures, it will be possible to identify their system of working concepts and to describe the differences between cultures to make comparisons and contrasts. This will help in the development of means of communication among cultures to convey the Message to them more effectively.


1 Wittgenstein, L., Philosophical Investigations, tr. by G.E.M. Anscombe, Basil Blackwell, p.11e-12e.
2 St. Augustine, City of God, Penguin Classics, 1984, p.653.
3 Ibid. p. 655-656.
4 Ibid. p. 656.
5 Plato, The Laws, Penguin Classics, 1984, p. 332-334.
6 Aristotle, Ethics, Penguin Classics, 1985.
7 Carnap, R., Introduction to Symbolic Logic and its Applications, Dover, 1958, p. 197-225.
8 Izutsu, T., Quranic Concept of God.

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