Notes on the Semantic Range of "Deliverance" in the Quran.

Author:Rustom, Mohammed
Position:Critical essay

    In The Ends of Philosophy of Religion Timothy Knepper argues for a wide-ranging and globally inclusive approach to a sub-discipline of philosophy that has largely been confined to, and defined by, Anglo-American and Continental philosophical traditions on the one hand and Christian philosophical theology on the other. (1) Knepper's central contention is that "philosophy of religion" is far too constrained in its scope and focus, and thereby is unable to truly tackle the complexity inherent in the philosophy and religion nexus. Since there is not just one religion (i.e., Christianity) or one religious tradition (i.e., the Judeo-Christian tradition), a much broader approach to the relationship between philosophy and religion is in order--that is, an approach that accounts for the theological worldviews and respective philosophical problems of other religious traditions, such as Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, Taoism, etc. At minimum, bringing in other traditions would not only enrich the discussion but would also reframe the problem-sets that have historically defined philosophy of religion in largely Christian terms (the so-called problem of evil is a case in point).

    Knepper's observations vis-a-vis philosophy of religion are, of course, symptomatic of a wider problem that still informs many modern academic studies of religion--the inability to extricate non-Christian religious traditions from Christian religious categories and lines of inquiry. With respect to Islamic studies in particular, this translates into the assumption of Christian or Christian-inspired terminology to account for an array of problems that have cognates with Christianity but are unique to Islam. Let us take, for example, the notion of "revelation." Although this term is used with respect to the Quran, it necessarily imposes certain limitations upon the Quran's self-perception; after all, the word tanzil (Q 17:106, passim) does not literally mean "revelation" but "causing to descend," "descending," "going down," "coming down," etc. Something of a concrete vertical hierarchy is implied in this Arabic verbal noun, which is not necessarily present in the English word "revelation." (2)

    Another equally vexing case with respect to the Quran is that of "salvation," which, as Walid Saleh notes, is "a fundamentally Christian term and concept." (3) Or, as Frederick Denny puts it, "Unlike Christianity, Islam does not possess a strong rhetoric of salvation, whether in the Quran or later." (4) What is normally understood to refer to "salvation" in the Quran is encompassed by a range of concepts, from God's freeing his servants from harm in the life of this world, to his emancipating them from hell and granting them felicity in the afterlife. These two poles are accounted for by four Arabic root structures (in at least one of their inflected forms), namely, n-j-w ("to deliver, set free"), h-y-s ("to flee, escape"), r-w-h ("to comfort"), and n-q-dh ("to rescue").

    It is rather customary in modern scholarship to uncritically subsume these and related roots under the umbrella term "salvation." (5) Yet the English term "deliverance" has a scope that is more elastic, general, and far-ranging. This is best evidenced by the fact that, unlike "salvation," one of the primary senses of "deliverance" is the notion of "setting free." (6) Thus, in the context of the Quran in particular, the term "deliverance" more readily denotes the sense that is shared by the aforementioned semantic fields of meaning, while also allowing the important nuances among them to stand on their own. (7)


    The most frequently employed Arabic root structure in the Quran to denote "deliverance" is n-j-w, which appears some eighty-four times. (8) According to the classical Arabic lexicographers, this root carries with it the notion of separation of one thing from another, being saved from perdition, and, most importantly, "Freedom (khalas) from fear (makhafa), the opposite of which is safety (salama)." (9)

    The most commonly used verbal noun from the n-j-w root, namely, najat, appears only once in the Quran (Q 40:41, for which, see below). A number of major Islamic works have this term in their titles, typically conveying the notion that the book in question will deliver its readers from ignorance in general and the incorrect means of obtaining the science that is the subject matter of that book in particular, e.g., the philosophical work Kitab al-Najat (The Book of Deliverance) by Ibn Sina (d. 428/1037) (10) and the influential primer in Shafi'I law, Safinat al-najat (The Ship of Deliverance), by Ibn Sumayr al-Hadraml (d. 1854). (11)

    There is one Quranic verse that speaks of deliverance in general, and this verse helps frame our understanding of the other senses in which the n-j-w root appears. The first and more general of these senses in some way links deliverance to the afterlife, whereas the second, which accounts for the overwhelming majority of cases, frames deliverance in the context of God's saving his servants or setting them free from imminent danger, harm, and destruction in this life.

    Deliverance in General

    Perhaps the single most indicative verse concerning the Quranic perspective on the nature and function of deliverance is Q 10:103: "Then we deliver our messengers and those who believe. Thus is it incumbent upon us to deliver the believers." (12) The first clause is generally understood to refer to God's rescuing the previous messengers and their followers from those who were oppressing them. The second clause is informed by the first, since it specifically refers to Muhammad and his Companions, who are promised deliverance from the Meccans "just as," al-Tabarl (d. 310/923)...

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