Ambiguity in Arabic Philosophy of Language

A review of A Linguistic Frame of Mind: ar-Rāġib al-Iṣfahānī and What It Meant to Be Ambiguous, by Alexander Key.

Despite medieval Arabic culture’s “obsession with language,” as Alexander Key puts it, modern scholarship has not yet tried to establish a medieval Arabic “philosophy of language.” While scholars have studied medieval discussions of language’s relationship to law, grammar, and logic, Key argues that there is an overarching view of how language functions that guides medieval Arabic scholarship across disciplines. In his dissertation, Key focuses on al-Rāghib al-Iṣfahānī’s works (or Ragib, as he anglicizes it), who he argues was guided by a philosophy of language that accepted linguistic ambiguity and used it creatively to solve questions ranging from theology to poetics. He sees Ragib as belonging to what he calls an “Arabic Language Tradition,” which relied on the omnipresent dichotomy of expression (lafẓ) and idea (maʿnā), in contrast to what he calls a “Classical Language Tradition,” which relied on Aristotelian logic. The former not only tolerated ambiguity, but saw in it a solution to many problems, and the latter did not.

In the first chapter, Key gives an overview of how the question of ambiguity and certainty in relation to language has been studied by modern scholarship. Some have approached it from the point of view of Hellenistic logic (e.g. Cornelia Schöck) and grammar (e.g. Kees Veersteegh), and others from the point of view of theology (e.g. Margaret Larkin) and legal theory (e.g. Mohamed M. Yunis Ali and David Vishanoff). Key argues that Ragib and the Arabic Language Tradition’s philosophy of language applied equally well to both language production (poetics) and language interpretation (exegesis) (p. 22-23). The “ontology of language, mind, and reality” itself was at stake in this case, not just “rules for syntax and morphology (grammar) or rules for human behavior (law)” (p. 24). Because Key believes that Ragib’s works contain an overarching theory of how lafẓ and maʿnā relate to each other, he argues – contrary to other scholars (including Richard Frank, Versteegh, and others) – for translating the terms uniformly as “expression” and “idea” respectively, whether they are describing a relationship between a particle and its grammatical function or a line of poetry and the motif behind it (pp. 5-13). Nevertheless, this theory of meaning, as Key points out, is never explicitly articulated by Ragib. Key takes on the task of reading between the lines and identifying underlying assumptions about language that govern his writings and define his philosophy of language.

Before presenting his analysis of Ragib’s philosophy of language, Key provides a comprehensive overview in Chapter Two of his life, works, and the intellectual context in which he likely lived. Curiously few entries on Ragib exist in medieval biographical dictionaries. There is hence very little known about his life and much uncertainty and confusion about the dates he lived, with some dating him even a century too late (p. 39). Key establishes with certainty that he was alive in or before the year 409/1018 (p. 36).

Key goes on to discuss Ragib’s works, the best known and most easily accessible of which are his Quranic Glossary (Mufradāt gharīb al-Qurʾān al-karīm), Path to Nobility (Kitāb al-dharīʿa ilā makārim al-sharīʿa), and Littérateurs’ Ripostes (Muḥāḍarāt al-udabāʾ wa muḥāwarāt al-shuʿarāʾ). Ragib’s On Creeds (al-Iʿtiqādāt) is less widely accessible and often overlooked by scholars, Key points out, even though it helps clarify Ragib’s sectarian positions (p. 40-41). Ragib’s Exegesis (Tafsīr) has only been published in parts and his book on Innovative Figures of Speech (Kitāb min kalām al-Rāghib fi al-badīʿ) exists in the form of a single manuscript in the Landberg Collection at Yale University’s Beinecke Library. (Selections from both latter unpublished manuscripts are provided in the Appendix.)

Finally, Key tries to reconstruct Ragib’s intellectual leanings and sectarian affiliations – a difficult task given the dearth of information about his life. Nevertheless, relying on evidence from his surviving works, Key paints a picture of an idiosyncratic intellectual who, while clearly Sunnī (even though some mistook him for a Muʿtazilī (p. 83)), is hard to categorize in one school of thought or another. He did not seem to have affiliated himself with either of the two main intellectual circles of Isfahan at the time (al-Ṣāḥib ibn ʿAbbad’s court and the ḥadīth partisans). Instead he refers to himself as belonging to “Ahl al-athar wa muḥaṣṣilī al-ṣūfiyya wa’l-ḥukamāʾ,” which Key translates as “Traditionists, senior Sufis, and wise philosophers,” and concludes is “a combination in which we can trace the traditionists to the Ḥanābilah [although he differs from them on some crucial points (p. 85)], the wise philosophers to scholars such as the Ikhwān al-ṣāfā [although he never mentions them explicitly (p. 94)], and the senior Sufis to the Sufis of Isfahan” (p. 97). As a result, Ragib is defined by the combinations he made, “whether of logic and exegesis, Neoplatonic ethics and Ḥanbalī mysticism, or reason and revelation” (p. 96).

In the third chapter, Key seeks to extrapolate Ragib’s “philosophy of language and theory of meaning” by analyzing his comments about language across his works, ranging from exegesis, ethics, and creed to literary theory, and pertaining to both divine texts and literature. Ragib tried to understand the interaction between “language, mind, and reality,” as Key puts it, through the concepts of “expression” and “idea” and the relationship between them (p. 103). The basic premise of Ragib’s theory is that there is an infinite amount of ideas, but a finite amount of expressions to convey them. While proper names unambiguously refer to a physical external reality, all other expressions have the potential for ambiguity because they can refer to several ideas at once (they are polysemous). This ambiguity is managed through two factors: the intent of the speaker and the lexicon. Since truth for Ragib is “the accurate correspondence between that which is in a person’s heart and something external to that person” (p. 141) and truthfulness in expressions is the “correct prediction in a speech act” of this correspondence (p. 142), ambiguity in the Quran is primarily linguistic and does not concern contradictions regarding external physical reality. According to Ragib, therefore, Quranic ambiguity is resolved linguistically through our knowledge of God’s general overall intent (p. 145). Finally, Key argues that ambiguity for Ragib, rather than being a hindrance to communication, can in fact convey an idea more effectively: oblique speech is better than straightforward speech (p. 146).

In Chapter Four, Key shows how this philosophy of language manifests itself in practice in Ragib’s works. He argues that Ragib explains and resolves both theological and poetic questions through language and the interplay of expressions and ideas, including the theological question of whether human actions are a result of compulsion or free will, the question of God’s attributes, poetics, and figurative readings of the Quran. Key provides an account of Ragib’s unpublished manual on rhetorical figures, including a detailed description of its contents (pp. 180-82). Most interestingly, he argues that Ragib attributed eloquence and innovation to the breaking down of the direct correspondence between expression and idea: “Eloquence is the act of manipulating the relationships that idea and expression have with each other so that individual ideas and expressions no longer correspond directly to each other” (p. 185).

Chapter Five provides a historical overview of the “Arabic Language Tradition,” and those scholars within it who “used the pairing of expression and idea to manage polysemy, and whose philosophy of language accepted and managed linguistic ambiguity” (p. 260). He traces discussions of linguistic ambiguity back to 2nd/8th century Basra and Kufa, when the terminology was just beginning to be established, and follows its development up to the 5th/11th century. Authors he discusses include Sībawayh, al-Shāfiʿī, al-Jāḥiẓ, Ibn Qutayba, Ibn al-Jinnī, among others, briefly concluding with one of Ragib’s most important successors, ʿAbd al-Qāhir al-Jurjānī. He observes that the most developed accounts of language are found in scholars who worked with both hermeneutics and poetics, of whom Ragib was a good example. The story reveals a consistent tolerance of ambiguity across disciplines.

In the final chapter, Key concludes the dissertation by giving an overview of the “Classical Language Tradition” (the “Arabic Language Tradition’s” counterpart), which was guided more by Greek logic than by a concern with language. He discusses al-Kindī’s, al-Farābī’s, and Avicenna’s, as well as the Muʿtazilī theologian ʿAbd al-Jabbār’s, attitudes toward language and argues that they shared a distrust of language, downplaying its relevance and regarding its inherent ambiguity a hindrance rather than a site for a potential solution. Key closes his dissertation speculating that soon after Ragib’s death, due to a variety of factors, the two traditions meld into each other and a distinct “Arabic Language Tradition” ceases to exist (p. 254).

The dissertation contains two appendices. The first gives detailed descriptions of the various surviving manuscripts of Ragib’s works around the world. The second presents previously unpublished selections from The Book of Ragib on Innovative Figures of Speech and On Creeds.

An attempt to analyze medieval Arabic theories of meaning and ambiguity beyond the disciplines of grammar and law has been surprisingly lacking in the field. Key’s dissertation not only takes a major step toward filling this gap but also establishes al-Rāghib al-Iṣfahānī as a key figure in the debate. His description of Ragib’s still-to-be-published treatise on literary figures suggests that it would be an important addition to our repository of surviving medieval Arabic texts on literary criticism.

Lara Harb
Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Languages and Literatures
Dartmouth College


Al-Rāghib al-Iṣfahānī’s works, including:
Path to Nobility (Kitāb al-dharīʿa ilā makārim al-sharīʿa)
Littérateurs’ Ripostes (Muḥāḍarāt al-udabāʾ wa muḥāwarāt al-shuʿarāʾ).
On Creeds (al-Iʿtiqādāt)
Innovative Figures of Speech (Kitāb min kalām al-Rāghib fi al-badīʿ)

Dissertation Information

Harvard University. 2012. 331 pp. Primary Advisor: Wolfhart P. Heinrichs.


Image: Raghib al-Isfahani, Abu al-Qasim al-Husayn b. Muhammad. Ms. of Mufradat Gharib al-Qur’an al-Karim [Quranic Glossary] (dated 409/1018), in Library of Muhammad Lutfi al-Khatib, Private Collection, London. f.1a.

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