Origin of Meaning
Speech and language are miracles from Allah. Allah says:
And of His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the diversity of your languages and your colors. Indeed in that are signs for those of knowledge.Quran 30:22
Speech is a collaboration between two parties: the speaker and the audience. The speaker says words intending some meaning, and the audience tries to interpret what he meant.
However, words are only sounds before they are given meaning. So, the only way for speech to work is for the two parties to agree on what these words mean. They don’t hold meaning inherently but because the speaker or audience understand them to have a certain meaning.
Interpretation of Meaning
The problem is that it is possible for a speaker to believe a word means something and the audience to believe it means something else.
To solve this problem, the speaker may explicitly tell his audience what he means by his words. In other cases, the speaker may tell his audience explicitly how to interpret his words.
But, most of the time, the speaker says nothing.
How should the audience understand what he meant?
This problem is what language exists to solve.
Language is a shared assumption of a large group on what words, phrases, and grammatical constructs mean. So, when a speaker speaks to his audience, the audience does not need to mull over what the speaker might have intended by his words. They interpret it according to what people in general would mean by those words. That is language.
The audience interprets according to the shared assumption of people only when the speaker doesn’t explain himself. When he explains explicitly, that is the meaning. You cannot go to a biology textbook that uses the word “cell” in a specific way and interpret it according to the normal usage of the word.
In summary, a word is interpreted in three ways: 1) Explicit definition by the author, 2) Explicit explanation by the author of how it should be interpreted, or 3) Implicit assumption of language.
It is a fallacy for an audience to interpret the speaker according to their own definition of a word which is different from the speaker’s definition. There is no such thing as a more correct definition, even if the definition is from a subject assumed to have authority like science. Science can coin its own definition of a word, but that does not force other people to use it.
For example, the word fish is applied to most sea creatures that swim in conventional usage while it is used to refer specifically to a vertebrate that breathes with gills in scientific vocabulary.
Firstly: Interpret people based on their definitions.
When a person discussing with you explicitly tells you what he means by a word, understand his speech according to his definition.
A large amount of people talking past each other happens because of people’s inability to exchange word definitions. One person uses a word in one way, and his opponent interprets it in another way. That is fallacious argumentation.
Secondly: Don’t argue over definitions.
A lot of arguments devolve essentially into arguing over definitions. Much time would be saved if people simply used a common definition for a word when arguing each other over it.
Arguing over what a word should mean is entirely useless. At that point, your argument would be more linguistic than actual. Simply accept that your opponent means XYZ by the word and tell them why he is wrong even after assuming the word means XYZ.
A common example in this vein is when people argue over whether a certain historical event is considered a “genocide.” What they really want to argue about is whether that event was evil and immoral. But, the discussion devolves into a linguistic discussion due to both sides. One side may quote international treaties and their definitions of genocide. Another side may think genocide is a term that has too much connotation like being similar the Holocaust (and this surely isn’t similar to the Holocaust).
A better method for both sides is to actually describe what happened and whether they agree on that. The first person should say: “They killed XYZ thousands of people through ABC methods intending to kill them.” Then, the second person can either agree and explain why they still don’t see this as an extreme evil or disagree and explain which part they disagree with. Perhaps they disagree that there was intention to kill them or they disagree with the number of people.
This leads to a more fruitful discussion.
The above advice is not meant to disregard the fact that some people may simply give terrible definitions to some words. That is a real concern, and definitions or words that are disrespectful enough will indeed cause people to argue against it. This may even be used as an intentional strategy by some provocative people.
Fourthly: People assuming the scientific definition is the “correct” definition is a common fallacy.
I gave the example of fish, but this occurs in a lot of topics. Other examples are the definitions of fruit, stomach, and stars.
All of these are situations where the word had a conventional meaning before the scientific definition was coined. Then, scientists found the word and thought it applied well to the category they wished to create so they used it.
Western culture is unhealthily obsessed with science, hence you will commonly find the dictionaries define words in the scientific way rather than the conventional way people use them.
So, know that it is fallacious to argue that someone is wrong because their statement is wrong in a scientific definition of a word.
In the case of the Quran, Allah tells us explicitly how it should be interpreted:
And indeed, the Qur’an is the revelation of the Lord of the worlds. The Trustworthy Spirit has brought it down Upon your heart, [O Muhammad] – that you may be of the warners – In a clear Arabic language.Quran 26:192-195
He tells us the Quran was revealed in the clear Arabic language. Hence, it must be interpreted according to how the Arabs would use it or understand it by default, unless there is an explicit explanation of a word by Allah Himself or by the Prophet (SAW).
Many people would add that the Quran’s usage itself is the perfect representation of the Arabic language, so other usages of the Quran can be used to explain itself.
It would be a mistake to interpret the Quran in today’s Arabic, because the language has changed.
An example of this is interpreting Allah saying “star” with the scientific definition of star.
The Quran was revealed to the Arabs in the 7th century. It can only be interpreted in their language, and they made no distinction between planets, stars (in our usual definition), and comets. In fact, we today also often don’t make distinctions like when we say “shooting star.”
Definitions and Dictionaries
Definition is speech explaining the meaning of a word or phrase in different, less ambiguous words. Having less ambiguity means more people agree what they mean and more people easily understand what the speaker is referring to when they use them.
A dictionary is a book written to provide definitions for words in a language.
Language is defined by the understanding and usage of people, so a dictionary doesn’t make a language. It does not dictate what the language must be. It simply records what the language (i.e. the usage of people) was at the time it was published (or at the time it claims to represent).
Telling a person he should only use a specific word to mean what a dictionary says or what an authority says is the appeal to authority fallacy. You can, however, criticize a speaker for being imprecise with his vocabulary: using words in meanings that are not well-known without noting it explicitly.
Words mean whatever the speaker intends by them if they specify it.
Firstly: Dictionaries are not infallible.
Dictionaries should not be understood as final authorities over the Quran. Dictionary authors may simply be wrong. If the Quran uses a word in a particular way and you know it is meant in that way, the dictionary cannot be used to alter it.
It is unclear to me how much the Arabic linguists understood the theory of language and how it evolves, so it is unclear to me whether they took that into account when writing their dictionaries. They clearly had some understanding of it like them recognizing that the Bedouins have purer Arabic than others.
What we expect from dictionaries during tafsir is for them to represent Arabic as spoken by Quraish to whom the Quran was revealed. Dictionaries are only as useful as much as they accomplish this.