Friday, October 20, 2023

Being "upon the truth"

It's not too hard to think of words that are characteristically used in English almost exclusively by Muslims - salat, namaz, wudu, shahada, masjid... There are even a few such words that aren't borrowings from Arabic or Urdu: circumambulation comes to mind. It is much more difficult, at least for me, to think of characteristics of "Islamic English" that go beyond the lexicon.

I was recently struck, however, by the expression "upon the truth". Searching for "upon the truth" yields plenty of mainstream English examples like "hit upon the truth", "lay hold upon the truth", "an essay upon the truth of the Christian religion"... However, searching for "be upon the truth", "are upon the truth", "is upon the truth", etc. yields a very different picture. Suddenly almost every single search result is specifically Islamic:

You get the idea. The rare exceptions, like "their ultimate dependence is upon the truth", reflect quite a different construction, as the inanimate subject shows. In English, referring to people or groups being "upon the truth" appears to be unique to Islamic discourse (perhaps even to some genres thereof; most of the hits seem to have a vaguely Salafi vibe).

While this construction uses only well-known English vocabulary, it literally translates the Arabic expression على الحق ʕalā l-ḥaqq "on the truth/right". Within Arabic, this expression has a bit of an archaic ring to it, but is familiar from a number of hadith, e.g:

فَجَاءَ عُمَرُ فَقَالَ أَلَسْنَا عَلَى الْحَقِّ وَهُمْ عَلَى الْبَاطِلِ
At that time `Umar came (to the Prophet) and said, "Aren't we on the right (path) and they (pagans) in the wrong?" (Bukhari 65.365)

Being "upon the truth" is thus a calque into Islamic English from Arabic. No doubt a wider investigation would reveal other such cases.

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