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Classical Islamic Discourse on the Origins of Language: Cultural Memory and the Defense of Orthodoxy

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Classical Islamic scholarship developed two principal theses on the subject of the origin of language (asl al-lugha). The first of these theses, commonly referred to as tawqīf, accentuated the pre-eminent role that divine agency played in the imposition of language; axiomatic within this perspective is the view that words (lafz pl. alfāz) have been assigned their meanings (manā pl. maānī) primordially by God. Presented as something of an antithesis to this position, the second doctrine, labeled istilāh, predicates that language was established and evolved via a process of common convention and agreement: words together with their meanings were assigned by human beings, although both the doctrines of tawqīf and istilāh posit that the actual relationship between words and their assigned meanings remains entirely arbitrary, rejecting any sort of natural link between the two. Although later Islamic scholarship accepted that both theses were plausible, within the course of the 9th/10th centuries opinions on the subject were ostensibly polarized between orthodox and arch-rationalist camps with the former endorsing tawqīf and the latter istilāh. In the quest to achieve a conceptual defense of traditional arguments for tawqīf it was necessary for orthodox theologians to create a connective structure, as articulated through reference to remembrance, continuation, and identity, which enabled them to anchor the construct of tawqīf in a formalized way to the scriptural exegesis and emblems of orthodoxy associated with the pious ancestors. That this was successfully accomplished through references to the past would seem to confirm the role which cultural memory played in the defense of what was deemed an orthodox belief.

Affiliations: 1: School of Oriental and African Studies, London University Russell Square, London WC1H OXG England, Email:


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