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Theology: Intelligence (in Arabic)
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Intelligence (in Arabic)
by Yahya Monastra

In Arabic there are three words meaning 'intelligence' which share a similar semantic development. All of them are derived from verbs meaning 'to stop'.

Of them, the most frequently used is ‘aql, a noun derived from the root verb ‘aqala, meaning 'to hobble a camel (so it will not run away); to arrest, detain'. A related word is ‘iql, the cord used for hobbling the camel, which the Arab also uses to hold his headcloth in place. The noun ‘aql means 'sense, sentience, reason, understanding, discernment, insight, mind, intellect, intelligence'. While it commonly means 'intelligence' or 'intellect' in the ordinary sense of the ratiocinative faculty, it is not limited to this level; in traditional metaphysics it also has the higher meaning of Intellect, the immediate intuitive understanding of the highest truths. This supernal meaning of ‘aql is borne out by a hadith that states: awwala m khalaqa Allhu al-‘aql 'the first thing that Allah created was the Intellect'. Considering the highest meaning of ‘aql leads to a different analysis of its meaning, as Seyyed Hossein Nasr writes in Knowledge and the Sacred: "The Arabic word for intellect, al-‘aql, is related to the word 'to bind', for it is that which binds man to his Origin; etymologically it could be compared to religion itself, for in this case religio is also what binds and relates man to God."

Another word for intelligence is nuh, from the root n-h-y, the transitive verb nah, 'to forbid, prohibit, interdict; to restrain, hold back, prevent'. Another verb derived from the same root is the intransitive intah, 'to end, finish'.

The third intelligence word is wuqf, derived from the intransitive verb waqafa 'to halt, stop, stand still'. An extended meaning of this verb is 'to get interested in something, inquire, investigate'.

What does stopping have to do with intelligence? Careful thought is posited in opposition to mindless activity. Consider the daimon of Socrates who did not tell him what to do, only what not to do. I first got some insight into the semantic connection when I was observing my three-year-old. She had learned to do all kinds of new activities; every day she was discovering new skills with increased muscular coordination. As every harried parent knows, the child's new-found physical ability to run around, manipulate objects, and get into all kinds of mischief develops first; the good sense that keeps her from causing havoc only develops more slowly. This showed clearly the difference between the ability to perform an action and the judgment of when and how to do it properly.

In the Arabic view, intelligence is not so much being able to do things as knowing enough to restrain oneself to do the right things at the right time. The word ‘aql implies keeping the lower soul on a leash, as it were, to keep it from running wild, so that the higher mind exercises control over it. The ‘iqal holding the Arab's headcloth in place symbolizes the ‘aql that holds the mind's thoughts in order and keeps one from becoming scatterbrained. The meaning of nuh is implied in a verse of the Qur'an (79:40): wa-nah al-nafsa ‘an al-haw 'to restrain the lower soul from caprice'. The word wuqf implies pausing, curbing one's impulses, to examine and ponder a situation carefully. All these semantic structures agree that intelligence depends on having the caution and prudence to still the passions, to stop and think before rushing ahead.

In this spirit, I must pause here to note that there is another Arabic word for intelligence that has nothing to do with the above! From the verb dhak 'to blaze up' (said of a fire), comes the noun dhak’ meaning 'acumen, mental alertness, intelligence, brightness'. The life of the mind is not limited to restraint but has an active side, vigorous as a surging blaze of fire. While mental energy powers thought, to catch fire, penetrate darkness and bring facts to light, reason knows enough to hold it in check to use it as a finely tuned instrument of knowledge


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