Did the Arabic Lexicographers Invent Majāz?

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Avigail Noy



This article argues that early Arabic philologists developed a robust, if implicit, theory of metaphorical language, one that was not dictated by theological concerns, and one that took shape outside the technical term majāz (commonly: figurative speech). The starting point of the article is the oft-cited claim found in Islamic legal theory, according to which authority over matters of majāz rested in the hands of the lexicographers (or philologists more broadly, ahl al-lugha). For Ibn Taymiyya, this was a lie meant to justify the acceptance of metaphor in the Quran. But evidence from lexicographical, lexicological, and grammatical works supports the jurists’ general claim. There was a difference, however, between the lexemes that the jurists identified as majāz and the metaphorical expressions that the lexicographers pointed out, in that the former were not always codified in the dictionaries and thus more aligned with “live” or creative metaphors. Methodologically, the article proposes an updated model for the study of medieval Arabic technical terms, away from the term itself (majāz) and toward the concept behind it (metaphorical lexical extension).

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