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Anyone who reads the Qur'an will always come across things that are very strange at first glance. For example, the expression: لَمْ نَكُ which means we were not; we did not. Is this a special verb or fossilized expression? No, it isn't.
It looks strange because we only have one (root) letter left here, the ك. So, what happened? It is the verb كانَ in the jussive mood (مجزوم), but the letter ن was deleted.
Deletion of the ن in the verb كان Hide
- When would it be possible to delete the ن of كان?
- Examples of deleting the ن of كان
- What's the idea of deleting the نون of كان?
Many grammar books no longer go into this because such stylistic devices are not used in Modern Standard Arabic today. That is why Arabic learners may fail to understand and explain certain verses of the Qur'an properly.
Such finesses of the Qur'an are fascinating, and probably there for reasons of sound harmony or meaning or emphasis. We can only speculate about that; there is no definite answer. Let's jump right in the water.
When would it be possible to delete the ن of كان?
We can only delete the ن of كان provided that the following prerequisites are fulfilled:
- The verb كانَ is used in the present tense (فِعْلٌ مُضارِعٌ), i.e., يكون. You cannot delete the ن of كان in any form of its morphological past tense (فعل ماضٍ).
- The verb must be in the jussive mood (مَجْزُومٌ). In our situation, this means that we need to negate the verb with لَمْ or need a conditional particle before it.
- The jussive is marked by سُكُونٌ on the final letter.
- Since the verb in question is كانَ, we have to find a way how to deal with the weak letter in our initial situation يَكُونُ. If we just add the سُكُونٌ, we would get يَكُوْنْ. In Arabic, however, the collision of two سُكُونٌ is impossible! Therefore, we drop the و of the present tense (indicative) and get: يَكُنْ
- Most important thing: There is no pronoun (ضَمِيرٌ مُتَّصِلٌ) attached.
This may all sound a bit abstract. So let's look at examples from the Qur'an.
Examples of deleting the ن of كان
The hidden meaning which they express is almost always lost in translation. It is therefore important, especially when reading the Qur'an, to think about possible reasons why this construction is used at certain points. That is what we are going to do now in the following paragraphs.
|…He doubles any good deed and gives a tremendous reward of His own (4:40)||..وَإِن تَكُ حَسَنَةً يُضَاعِفْهَا وَيُؤْتِ مِن لَّدُنْهُ أَجْرًا عَظِيمًا|
|…and they will answer, “We did not pray; (74:43)||قَالُوا لَمْ نَكُ مِنَ الْمُصَلِّينَ|
|…we did not feed the poor;” (74:44)||وَلَمْ نَكُ نُطْعِمُ الْمِسْكِينَ|
What's the idea of deleting the نون of كان?
There is one big problem: We do not have a lot of data (= examples). Thus, we don't actually know why the letter nun of the Arabic verb kana was deleted in certain verses of the Qur'an. We can only make a few guesses, mostly related to the situation and context of the Quranic verses. And we can learn from well-known experts on Tafseer (تفسير), i.e., the explanation and interpretation of verses of the Qur'an, and see what they had to say about it.
Four possible reasons for deleting the Nun of Kana
- to give emphasis
- to express that something is incomplete
- to distance the speaker from a certain event or thing
- to make it lighter, to remove heaviness from the content. The removal of the ن makes the pronunciation a little bit lighter.
Let's see some examples.
Emphasis and concentration – comparison between Sura 27:70 and 16:127
In two verses of the Qur'an, we find the same words – with one difference. The letter Nun.
|[Prophet], do not grieve over them; do not be distressed by their schemes (what they conspire)… Sura al-Naml (27:70)||وَلَا تَحْزَنْ عَلَيْهِمْ وَلَا تَكُن فِى ضَيْقٍۢ مِّمَّا يَمْكُرُونَ|
|[Prophet], do not grieve over them; do not be distressed by their scheming (what they conspire)… Sura al-Nahl (16:127)||وَلَا تَحْزَنْ عَلَيْهِمْ وَلَا تَكُ فِى ضَيْقٍۢ مِّمَّا يَمْكُرُونَ ١٢٧|
Circumstances of verse 27:70
In this verse of Sura al-Naml – The Ant (سورة النمل), Allah speaks to the Islamic prophet Muhammad. Allah tells Muhammad not to fear any pressure and restrictions from the Meccans, who are constantly plotting against him.
This is a kind of general verse. Therefore, you find the regular and standard application of the grammar. لَا تَكُن
Circumstances of verse 16:127
Most commentators have suggested that the last verses of Sura 16 al-Nahl – The Bee (سورة النحل) were revealed during the Battle of Uhud (غزوة أحد). During this battle, Muhammad's uncle Hamza ibn Abd al-Muttalib (حمزة بن عبد المطلب) was killed. According to Islamic sources, the Quraish (specifically: Hind) mutilated Hamza's body and took out his liver.
This is a specific situation. Allah wants to address Prophet Muhammad in a very peculiar situation. Therefore, the ن is omitted: لَا تَكُ
Distancing a thought: Maryam talks to the angel – Sura 19:20
Sura 19 is named after Maryam (سورة مريم) and tells us the story about Maria (Maryam) and Jesus (Isa) in the Qur'an. Maryam has discovered that she is pregnant. She talks to the angel and wants to express that she is not a fornicator (prostitute).
|She said, “How can I have a son when no man has touched me? I have not been unchaste“||قَالَتْ أَنَّىٰ يَكُونُ لِى غُلَـٰمٌۭ وَلَمْ يَمْسَسْنِى بَشَرٌۭ وَلَمْ أَكُ بَغِيًّۭا|
Maryam (مريم) wants to reject any connection between herself and the fact that she could be a prostitute. She wants to completely distance herself from that idea/thought. In the manner of: Discard that thought! And also: I never gave a thought to being a prostitute. Hence, eliminating the letter Nun is like cutting off that thought.
Idea of incompleteness – Sura 75:37
This Sura is devoted almost entirely (except for verses 16-19) to the concept of resurrection, which also explains the title of the Sura: al-Qiyama (القيامة).
|Was he not just a drop of spilt-out sperm||أَلَمْ يَكُ نُطْفَةًۭ مِّن مَّنِىٍّۢ يُمْنَىٰ|
The deletion of the letter نون here could express here the idea of incompleteness. Because the sperm is not yet connected to the egg.
Allah might want to express: Man was not yet a human being in any form. He was a drop of liquid (= sperm) and that is incomplete, because to be a human being, you need a sperm and an egg. This could express the following hidden meaning: he is not even half. He is incomplete.
In Arabic for Nerds 2, I cover such things about the verb كان in detail.
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