(22:11) A Single Letter

وَمِنَ ٱلنَّاسِ مَن يَعْبُدُ ٱللَّهَ عَلَىٰ حَرْفٍۢ ۖ فَإِنْ أَصَابَهُۥ خَيْرٌ ٱطْمَأَنَّ بِهِۦ ۖ وَإِنْ أَصَابَتْهُ فِتْنَةٌ ٱنقَلَبَ عَلَىٰ وَجْهِهِۦ خَسِرَ ٱلدُّنْيَا وَٱلْـَٔاخِرَةَ ۚ ذَٰلِكَ هُوَ ٱلْخُسْرَانُ ٱلْمُبِينُ ١١
And of mankind is one who worships Allah on edge, so that if something good befalls him, he is reassured by it; but if a trial befalls him, he turns about-face, losing this world and the Hereafter; that is the evident loss.

Some people worship Allah ﷻ on a (حرف) – commonly translated to mean “on the edge”, making sense in the broader context of the verse and the general usage of the Arabic language. But a deeper linguistic analysis reveals some interesting observations behind this choice of word.

  1. A more literal translation of the word (حرف) would be “letter”. In both Arabic and English, there is a concept of obeying someone “to the letter”, or (حرفا بحرف) in Arabic; a positive attribute indicating absolute obedience even in the smallest of details. Yet, there is a subtle difference here; the word على is placed before it, changing the meaning to being on the edge about something. This word على is known as a (حرف) in Arabic grammar, the same word used to mean letter or edge in the verse! A single “letter” (حرف) is placed within the sentence changes its meaning entirely!
  2. The word (حرّف) is derived from the same three letter word (حرف), meaning to deviate or distort something. The difference between the two words is one additional letter (i.e. حرف) placed within it; the letter (ر). This single, small, subtle change to the words of God is enough to deviate (i.e. حرّف) a person from the truth.
  3. More interestingly, this additional letter (i.e. حرف) is not written in the word (حرّف) but rather it is hidden within it, appearing as a shaddah (ـّ) on top of the letter (ر). In the original Quranic script written by the companions, and in almost all Arabic texts till this day, the shaddah is not typically written on any word as vowels are usually omitted for the readers. As such, the two words (حرف) and (حرّف) are indistinguishable from one another unless the person is able to decipher its meaning from the context. Just like this, our deeds or faith can look perfectly sound on the outside, but the one holding them knows the true nature of their intention. A corrupt intention is invisible to everyone but Allah ﷻ and the person, yet is enough to deviate them entirely from the path to God. How we approach the words of God and the world around us will determine what it is we take from it, and that intention is hidden within us.
  4. This ability to decipher the correct meaning of the word relies on both knowledge of Arabic grammar and the context of its use. When we approach the words of God and seek to understand its application, we must be both scholars of the text and context. How many imams give rulings on things they do not understand, or activists comment on rulings they simply do not comprehend. Both are necessary to avoid deviation just like both are needed to understand the meaning of the word.
  5. In this verse, anyone with even a basic grasp of the language would instantly recognize whether the word is (حرف) or (حرّف); one is a verb and the other is a noun. The verb would make no sense in this context! Often, perversions are glaringly obvious even if they seem subtle or sophisticated. People know what is right and wrong without needing to be told. Those unwilling to see the truth would pervert the obvious just to twist the facts to suit their agenda.
  6. Finally, the word (حرف) in this form only appears once within the entire Quran. A single, subtle, hidden diversion is enough to turn a person away from their Lord, even if in just one verse within the Quran.

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