One of my most shameless abuses of this blog’s category of “opinion blog” is that I link to Wikipedia quite frequently, and there’s a very good reason for this.
In my post-college life, nothing has been more difficult than finding information. Wikipedia is easy to access, easy to explore, and easy to share. Yet still my academic background does twinge with a little guilt at how often I rely on Wikipedia to fill out background for some of the concepts I mention in my blogs posts.
Today I’d like to explain Wikipedia: why I use it, how to read it, and how to make it better.
Surah Ṭah Ha provides us a good opportunity to discuss the difference between proper nouns and common nouns. In general principle, for a noun to be “proper” it must apply to one and only one person, place, or thing. Everything else is a common noun, even if it can’t be used in Scrabble. Common nouns usually get used in combination with some other qualifier like “a” “any” “some.” To make a common noun specific, you need to add the definite article “the” to the front of it, whereas a proper noun never needs a “the” because specificity is implied. Sure, you might say “the Agatha Christie” in some conversations, but such application would be for emphasis (it was signed by the Agatha Christie) or stylistic choices (like implying a joke that there might be another Agatha Christie out there in the world but you are referring to, you know, the Agatha Christie). It isn’t good grammar to blend definite articles and proper nouns, but it can be good style.
The difference and usage between proper and common nouns is the same in English and Arabic. Notice that most suwar have Arabic’s definite article “al-” or some elided version in the title, like Surah al-Anfal, but when the title features a name there is none, like Surah Hud. That is because specificity with a proper name is already implied. So in Surah Ṭah Ha, we have two names whose grammatical use raise some controversial questions: as-Saamiriyy and Firʕawn. The first name is a common noun, but often gets translated as if a proper noun. The second name is always seen as a proper noun, but should probably function at times as a common noun.
What to make of this? Does it matter?
Last week I spent a lot of time on a little content because I was combing details to compare with the Exodus account. It was more achievable to do that comparison with material from the origin stories alone. Moving forward today it is more useful to compare how Surah Ṭah Ha narrates Moses and Aaron’s ministry versus the account in Surah al-Aʕraaf 103-154. Through the details you can see that each is telling the story with a different purpose in mind. Al-Aʕraaf is a little more concerned with societal judgement, linking Moses’ ministry in with the judgements of a whole community like the prophets before him. Today’s surah will set up more emphasis on the influence of wicked leaders, setting up the concept of the anti-prophet.
Though this surah exemplifies and condemns anti-prophets, it still continues the normal sermon that each person fully responsible for earning their own fate. Though there are individuals to blame for removing large masses of people from guidance, God allows no excuses or intercessors at the Day of Judgement, and so the individual should watch for the trap of such false leaders.
English has problems. Given. One specific problem can be found in our alphabet: how do you spell the letter “H”? It’s odd, but I really couldn’t figure out how to do it. Aich? Aitch? Eighch? Blech, that’s ugly. Also, English letter names don’t necessarily inform us about the letter itself. Looking at you again, “eitch,” what sound do you represent? Oh, “hhhh,” …..wonder where that came from. Arabic’s alphabet boasts clarity on these two levels. Not only do Arabs know how to spell the name of their letters, all their letter names start with the sound they produce. Today’s surah starts with another set of mysterious letters, the names of which are chanted in recitation, and this set was unique enough to become the surah’s title. To Arabs, this is Surat Ṭah Ha. In keeping with my custom of translating the titles, I thought about translating and spelling out the letter names in English but realized very quickly that there was no way on earth I was going to title my post “Ṭah Aitch.”
But this digression, like the letters themselves, does not contribute to the content of the surah. Ṭah Ha is retelling the story of Moses and Aaron, the Fall of Man, and the process of judgement. If you feel fatigued with this material and are expecting to be bored with old rehash, you are forgiven, but the surah is actually going to give us much more novelty than you’re expecting. We shall start today with ayat 9-55. In The Traditions, Part 2 I eschewed comparing the Quran’s account of Moses’ ministry with the Exodus account because their scope and scale were too different to cover. Today I’m going to reverse that decision and indulge in a comparison for just the shorter and more manageable sections of Moses’ origin stories.