The Use of Qur’anic language in everyday speech: Politeness and Face Arabic style!

Back from my short break! Meanwhile I read this very interesting  journal article about how Arabs and non-Arab Muslims use Qur’anic phrases in their everyday speech. This post is a bit linguisticy [if that word exists?] and slightly academic but I have tried making it read like a short comment on a paper/book. I you are a linguist hopefully you will enjoy this! Below I will offer a summary and discussion of it, and provide a link for the article:


Title: The Pragmatic functions of the recitation of Qur’anic verses by Muslims in their oral genre: The case of Insha’Allah, ‘God’s willing’.

Author: Nazzal, A.                    Year: 2005

JournalPragmatics, 15(2–3), 251–274.

Abstract: This study affords one the opportunity to study Muslims who happen to come from diverse cultural, ethnic, and linguistic backgrounds and their worldview through one of their discursive patterns. This study spares one the opportunity to see how the use of the Qur’an, the bedrock of Islam, as a communication resource provides Muslims with an opportunity to execute their action without staking their self-image or their interlocutor’s. The significance of this study can be presented in four points: First, it points out the motivations and reasons that induce Muslims to invoke the recitation of Quranic verses in their ordinary discourse. Second, it underlies the multifaceted pragmatic functions that Muslims associate with the use of Quranic verses to further their own personal goals. Third, it underscores the significance that Muslims attach to the use of Quranic language as a communicative resource to guard against staking the self-image of their Muslim interlocutors. And fourth, it spares us the opportunity of minimizing misunderstanding in inter/cross-cultural communication by pointing out the different communicative practices that specific ethnic groups are inclined to use in invoking universal notions such as indirectness and politeness.


This is an interesting study in the sense that the author has linked the use of Qur’anic verses/phrases to the Pragmatic notions of Face and Politeness. Nazzal here analyses the function Qur’anic terms serve in conversation and the contexts within which they occur.A major contribution of this study is that it focuses on explaining indirectness linguistically and then applying linguistic tools to account for it. The paper highlights the significance of the ‘linguistic implications that closely pertain to the notion of indirectness on the ground that indirectness is a discourse feature more than it is a cultural variation that manifests itself variably in the utterances of speakers of various cultures’. [see: Levine 1985; Hall 1976, 1982, 1959; Gumperz 1982a, 1982b; Gudykunst & Kim 1984, 1997].

What are his findings?

One of the great aspects of this paper is that it avoids generalisations and sweeping conclusions about how different languages employ politeness strategies. Here Arabic language is investgated in a scholarly way and Nazzal makes an important contribution to Pragmatics because of the lack of data on the Arabic language in the field of linguistics generally. Before reading the paper I had not considered whether the use of ‘Insha’Allah’ was Classical Arabic or Qur’anic recitation or slang Arabic- it was always a phrase used without such a tag.  I am lifting [in bold] the next part directly from the paper so that you can see the point made here, this is one example:

The following is an English translation of an excerpt of an Arabic tape-recorded conversation in which the participants (two spouses: Husband is referred to hereafter as speaker H and wife is referred to hereafter as speaker W) use Insha’ Allah as both a communicative resource and mitigating device for rejecting or turning down a request. That is to say, one of the major pragmatic functions of the recitation is used as an indirect speech act of rejection.

The discussion that transpires between the participants in the following tape-recorded material occurred as a result of the husband’s reluctance to use his van on an impending trip from Albany, New York to New Jersey. The wife wants to go to New Jersey to buy some items from an Arab market in Paterson, since she expects some company and wants to buy them some nice gifts. Apparently, H’s reluctance to go on this trip has angered W who seems eager to go on this trip. It seems that H’s reluctance is due to his apprehension that his van is too old and may break down on the highway. As we read the following excerpt, we realize that the debate between the spouses becomes so heated to the point that the wife accuses her husband of ruining everything. That is to say, the wife asserts that her husband’s reluctance to use his van on that very day has apparently spoiled the atmosphere in her house. The most interesting instance in this tape-recorded interview is the instance in which the husband uses many Quranic verses, primarily the recitation of Insha’ Allah in line 6, as a mitigating device to turn down his wife’s request.

1.            W.           You ruined everything.

2.            H.            May God forgive you. I did not ruin anything.

3.                            Don’t say you wanted to go. Say everything is in the hand of God.

4.            W.           Of course.

5.            H.            Don’t say I want to go. Everything is in the hand of God and you should not say you

6.                               want to go. You should say If God wills (Insha’ Allah) that is all. 

7                             I did not interfere or say anything and as you told me to warm up the van

8                             which I did so that they could drive it instead of overusing their car

9             W.           Our car is more spacious than theirs.

10           H.            I started the van and warmed it up and gave it to them.

11           W.           But why

12                           Did you change your mind?

13           H.            I did not change my mind or said anything.

14           W.           You kept saying the van the van.

Before analyzing the participants’ use of Insha’ Allah, I would like to dwell on the talk (primarily the recitation of other Quranic verses that appear to be relevant to the recitation of Insha’ Allah) that has preceded in order to provide the social context or matrix that has prompted the husband H to recite Insha’ Allah. As we pay closer attention to what has transpired between the two spouses in the above tape-recorded conversation, we become more convinced that the participants seem to be aware of the pragmatic functions of the Quranic verses they are enacting.

It is rather obvious from the way the participants use these Quranic verses that they are aware of the fact they can be used to perform specific actions which are destined to produce some effect on the behavior of the participants. By virtue of that, the initiator appears to be able to mitigate the force and consequences of his/her action on the addressee, which may result in producing some influence on the addressee’s behavior. Therefore, the enactment in and of itself is being used as a powerful strategy with which one participant exerts some influence on others’ action and perception and at the same time skews one’s understanding and perception of the social world in a way one would like it to be.

 It is clear to see the strategic use of Qur’anic recitation in such a creative and novel way, at least as far as linguistic records are concerned. To most Arabs this is normal, this is how they speak and this is how they are indirectly polite whilst they refuse or disagree with their addressee. This is evidence of the powerful use of a linguistic tool in order to yield power and influence of some sort without having an argument or directly abusing the other- quite shrewd I would say! But once again the lesson here is that Arabic as a language affords its speakers such a tool, as I am sure there are different and similar strategies in other languages.

It seems from the data that this is some evidence of the use of overt Classical Arabic or Qur’anic Arabic in everyday speech TODAY! Without such use making the speakers feel uncomfortable or as if they have rehearsed what they are to say. Usually we [as linguists] like to compartmentalise everything ‘this is Classical Arabic, this is Egyptian slang, this is Gulf slang, this is….’ but perhaps the truth is that the diglossic nature [a topic that really needs looking into both from the inside out and outside in- Reem Bassiouney has written an excellent chapter in her book on this titled: ‘Arabic Sociolinguistics’ Georgetown University] of Arabic is so complex that to understand it one needs to review the whole issue of how Arabic is used by its speakers. Here the use of such classic words/ phrases coupled with the slang/ vernacular shows perhaps how comfortable users are when it comes to mixing the different types of Arabic.  The other important issue that arises from this is the idea that perhaps we should label such phrases and words under the realm of religious formulas, and because of this such pragmatic functions, as mentioned above by Nazzal, are available for the speak to use. It is a superposed, highly codified, static, non-changing phrase that when used in normal conversation it has a dramatic and unique effect- just a thought?!  Well those are my thoughts on it, overall the paper is excellent and the author has done an extensive relevant literature review on face and politeness. In addition to sharing with the readers something unique about Arabic.

To read the paper, you can get it here:  


General and introductory resources for Politeness and Face: