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 or 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, 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?
Setting the Precedents
We have lots of proper nouns in the Quran: Gabriel, Michael, Iblees, Adam, Noah, Idrees, Hud, Shuʕayb, Lot, Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Jonah, Saleh, Moses, Aaron, Job, Talut, Goliath, David, Solomon, Elijah, ʕuzair, Imran, Zechariah, John, Maryam, Jesus, Muhammad. I’ve linked each of those names to a concordance documenting their appearances in the Quran. None of those names ever appear with a definite article before them, so we can see that the Quran does not use any sort of stylism of calling someone “the Muhammad” or “the Abraham” in its text. No two people in the Quran share the same name, and so all names are implied to be definite. Many people are called by common nouns in the Quran, but we’ll make two case studies to set our precedents. Firstly “the prophets” is a category containing a lot of individuals. Muhammad is always called “the prophet” because he is the current individual wearing that mantle for the Quran’s audience. All those who are not Muhammad are referred to as “a prophet,” or “their prophet.” Secondly, in Surah Yusuf, young Joseph is bought by a man who we only know as al-ʕaziiz, which translates as “the strong” or “the governor.” These words are not the man’s name, but rather his position in society, as shown by Joseph later rising to be called al-ʕaziiz himself.
When called to attention, proper nouns always use a vocative yaa prefix, as in “O Abraham.” Common nouns can also addressed with a simple yaa, as in when Moses says “O people.” Unfortunately, “O” or yaa are too short for my search engines and concordances, so without manually cataloguing each incident myself I cannot vouch for the fullest case of how this greeting is used. Sometimes common nouns are greeted with a more eloquent and elaborate phrase, yaa ‘ayyuhaa, “O you.” This more eloquent vocative is always used when addressing Muhammad in his role as prophet, yaa ‘ayyuhaa an-nabii, “O you, the Prophet.” When Joseph becomes governor, his brothers address him with “O you, the Governor.” The grammar there is very formal and mostly restricted to the Quran’s usage, which makes its full potential hard to pinpoint. In all 149 usages in the Quran (18:19 is unrelated), Lane’s Lexicon (entry for أيّ, page 134, middle column), and this collection of hadith (someone please check my work, it gets dizzying after a while) this eloquence is combined exclusively with common nouns, never proper nouns.
So in short, the Quran features characters who are titled with proper nouns and common nouns. Proper nouns never receive the definite article in the Quran’s usage. Common-noun titles employ many kinds of qualifiers and uses definite articles when talking about specific individuals or groups. The vocative “O ___” can be found addressing proper nouns and common nouns. The vocative “O you ____” has only been found in combination with common nouns. With that much established, let’s look at our two cases.
“The Pharaoh”? Or “Pharaoh, the One and Only”?
So, anti-Muslim sources like to accuse the Quran of misunderstanding the word Firʕawn, “Pharaoh,” as a proper name exclusive to the ruler of Egypt who Moses was confronting. After all, Joseph also faces a ruler of Egypt, but Surat Yusuf only calls that specific ruler al-malik, “the king.”
Technically the original term that comes forward to English as “pharaoh” had an evolving relationship with the Kings of Egypt. The boil down is this: the word “pharaoh” was initially only applied to the capitol residence, then sometime within the 18th dynasty it extended to apply to the ruler, and then in the 19th dynasty became a common reverential title like “Your Majesty,” and then later on as a title combined with a personal name like “King Henry.” The king of the Patriarchs’ timeframes would not have been called Pharaoh. So indeed that the Quran calls Joseph’s ruler “the king” is probably more correct and it is Genesis’ use of the term “pharaoh” that is anachronistic.
There’s also a high risk that the king in Moses’ time would not have been called Pharaoh either. It all depends on where you place Moses in history, and such placement is only speculative without archeological evidence. The first confirmed instance of “pharaoh” being applied to a human is in a letter to Amenhotep IV, whose reign falls after when many speculate Moses could have lived. There is a possibility, depending on how one inscription gets dated (see page 160), that Thutmose III was also called “Pharaoh” and that would put use of the term closer to the speculated time of Moses. Naturally, I would hold many arguments on this topic suspect because people are approaching it from many angles and there is lots of bias at play. Most of the qualified sources are either sealed behind copyright barriers or are so direct with the archeological evidence that I cannot critique them. The Quran may or may not be using the words appropriate to the times of its respective stories, but such a thing is hard to pinpoint anyways since we don’t have any non-Biblical, non-Quranic records of Moses’ ministry.
The grammar of the Quran does seem to show a lack of awareness that “Pharaoh” functions as both a proper and common noun. “Pharaoh” is applied many times in the Quran to one and only one individual, and only appears as a proper noun: 79 times as “Pharaoh” and never “the pharaoh,” “their pharaoh,” or “a pharaoh.” If the Quran perceived the title Pharaoh as a position or mantle we might expect to see some common-noun usage similar to the example of an-nabii. This never happens. I also went further by checking common hadith collections for instances of “Pharaoh,” and regardless of how they get translated, the Arabic always presents Firʕawn (فِرْعَوْن) without articles or such qualifiers. And while Joseph’s brothers, in the formality of the Egyptian court, address him with the more eloquent “O you, the Governor,” Moses in Al-Aʕraaf 104 and Al-Israa’ 102 addresses the king of all Egypt merely with “O Pharaoh.” This is appropriate if Pharaoh is a proper name, but seems curt if the role of Pharaoh was understood to be a passing title (like “the prophet”) that should have been combined with the more formal address reflecting this.
The Samaritan or Samiri?
The Israelites are led into idolatry by a man titled As-Saamiriyy, “the Samaritan.” There is a big difficulty with calling someone contemporary to Moses a Samaritan: chronology. Samaritans and Jews are offspring of the same community. They believe many of the same things, but the most obvious difference between the two is that Samaritans believe that Mount Gerazim outside of Shechem –not Mount Moriah outside of Jerusalem– was God’s original location for the temple. Though Christians are maybe accustomed to thinking of Samaritans as a relic from Jesus’ time, their community is still alive today, though struggling. Their temple is in ruins, but the Samaritans still practice their Torah-based religion and defend their own righteousness.
When in time the schism happened is a source of debate. Jewish history always links it with events of the Assyrian Captivity, the Babylonian Captivity, and the re-establishment of Judea under the Persians. As the story goes, the Kingdom of Samaria (Northern Israel) was conquered by Assyria and its population was disseminated across the world into oblivion, becoming known as “the Ten Lost Tribes.” New people were resettled into Samaria, integrated with the remaining population, and became known as “Samaritans” after the name of the region and its capitol. The Kingdom of Judah (Southern Israel) later had its own season of subjugation and dissemination at Babylon’s hands. Once Babylon was conquered by Persia, however, the Judaeans were granted permission to return to their homeland. They did, and conflict arose between them and the Samaritans. Somewhere in this history, the Samaritans built a temple on Mount Gerazim either through syncretism with the pagan cultures imported/pre-existing in Israel, or out of spite to the returning Judaeans and their precious Jerusalem temple. The two communities declared each other anathema kept resentful distance.
There is some positive data available for this story, as it happens, with genetic testing confirming that the Samaritans are mostly Jewish and suggesting that ethnic divergence started after the exiles. The ruins of their temple do date to around the timeframe of the events listed. However, it should be noted how deep and resentful that policy of anathema was. Most Western understanding of Samaritans derives from Jewish sources, or from Christian sources derived from/biased towards the Jewish sources, and they seem to be generally unflattering or libelous. “Interlopers, idolaters, backstabbers” are all gists of how Samaritans get represented, and you can even see this in the Book of Ezra-Nehemiah. This is part of what makes Jesus’ “Parable of The Good Samaritan” so subversive to the people he spoke to.
However, Samaritans say that their name means “protectors [of the Torah]” and that the region is named after them. They have their own edition of the Torah which has a command to build the temple on Mount Gerazim nestled right within the Ten Commandments. They’ve survived subjugation to Jews, pagans, Christians, and Muslims. Back in the late 1800s their high priest was asked to write a description of the Samaritan history and tradition, the first chapter of which was translated from Arabic into English and can be read here. The editor’s introduction on pages 6-7 gives a spark-note summary, which asserts that the Samaritan schism actually started before there were kings established over Israel. The high priest uses perfectly nebulous points in the Bible to claim that Eli and Samuel ran a cultural coup, setting up a new government and religious capitol in Jerusalem for their own advantage. It’s a fascinating document, and while I’m not inclined to believe its claims it did still teach me interesting things about Shechem, Gerazim, and overlooked history.
For all the disagreements and mudslinging of these accounts, they both place the schism long after the time of Moses. I can’t confirm whether there would be anyone called a Samaritan in Moses’ times either, since that region appears to have been known at that point as Canaan. This is perhaps why many translators of the Quran avoid the word Samaritan and leave it untranslated like a proper noun, As-Samiri or Samiri. The latter option conflicts with how the man in question gets called “the” Samiri, as that breaks the stylistic rules we’ve seen the Quran establish with its other proper nouns, nor is there another Samiri who would need to be distinguished from. It’s hard to embrace the former option when Moses later addresses the man without the definite article. When Moses addresses Samiri, he does use the simpler address “O Samiri” just as he and Aaron called the Israelites “O people” in the preceding ayat. So there Moses could be saying “O Samiri” or “O Samaritan” with equal probability. Moses does sentence this individual with anathematization, which does match the status quo between the Samaritans and the Jews of late antiquity. There is every possibility the Quran thinks it’s presenting an origin story. Either that, or the Quran’s intended meaning for saamiriyy has been lost to time.
[Note: If one argues that the Quran uses “Pharaoh” according to historical usage, then for consistency one should also expect it to use as-saamiriyy according to historical usage. This would mean accepting that Samaritans existed in Moses’ time and were exiled from the Israelites as unrepentant idolaters.]
More or Less Understanding
So at the back of this conversation is a question of what the Quran means when it declares that it was deliberately sent down in Arabic. This was mentioned in ayah 113 today, but has been mentioned elsewhere. The most pertinent other occurrence that we have yet seen is in Yusuf 2, where the Quran’s existence in Arabic is declared to be for the sake of scrutability. If the Quran’s priority in language choice is to be understood, can we interpret from this a reason for as-saamiriyy and Firʕawn to be used the way they are? Do the choices that the Quran has made in regards to these names create more or less understanding?
Perhaps the two kings of Egypt are called different names in the Quran in order to spare Muslims the confusion of conflating them. No characters in the Quran share names with each other, and the Quran might choose not to apply the word pharaoh to two kings for the sake of clarity. The Quran does not concern itself with recording any other interactions between Hebrews and the kings of Egypt, and so does not need to worry with context that Moses’ enemy was only one pharaoh in a chain. Yet there is a downside to presenting this pharaoh as “Pharaoh, the one and only.” Such a portrayal links the suffering of the Hebrews to the identity and ego of one person. In Exodus (the only other source attesting to this story), Egyptians fear the growing quantity of Hebrews and thus set up a system of exploitation that is implied to last some generations. Moses is born under the rule of one pharaoh and frees the Hebrews from the under rule of another. In treating the word “pharaoh” only as a proper noun, the Quran represents the evil of a nation as stemming from the identity of one wicked man and loses this wider view. A modern parallel would be representing the condition of North Korea as a product of Kim Jong Un.
And as for the Samaritan, Arabs of Muhammad’s time would’ve likely known through their trade and mercenary work that there was an area inhabited by Shamerim, “Samaritans.” Muhammad’s audience mightn’t have recognized an older word like “Canaanite.” If the Quran’s priority is to be understood, then maybe it deliberately represents “Canaanite” as “Samaritan” in order to communicate to its audience the region where this individual came from. Yet this creates a conflict in that it also leads to misunderstanding. Canaanites and Samaritans maybe share a region, but are different in terms of ethnicity, religion, and culture. To represent them in the same terms is as misleading as saying “Australians have inhabited their continent for millennia.” Maybe all people who lived in Australia could be called “Australians” on some superficial level, but it does a grave injustice to blend the vastly different histories and identities of the aboriginals and the colonists. A similar thing happens when blending Samaritans and Canaanites. Not only is there the injustice of naming the conquered after their conquerors, but blaming the golden calf story upon “the Samaritan” also imposes a legacy of deceit and idolatry –not to mention exclusion from the covenantal relationship of Israel and God– upon a real, monotheistic, scripture-holding people.
So this long episode of sticklerism doesn’t seal the debate of whether the Quran is right or wrong, it just questions whether the Quran actually accomplishes what it claims. The Quran declares its intent to be understandable, so how it struggles or fails to be understood is an easy point for contention. How clear is it if it must rely on the weaker resources of tradition for clarity? How understandable is it if so few people are qualified to interpret it? But for Muslims, if they can more or less accept some kind of understanding about what the Quran says, do a few grammatical and fine-detail nitpicks really make that much difference? But also, like I said in Part 1, if words are your source of guidance, then even small details get mined for meaning –all the more so if you believe God handpicked the language and words for that purpose.