A popular talking point between Muslims and Christians is the very different nature of the history of their sacred text verses ours (which from my vantage means Quranic textual history vs. New Testament textual history). The Christian canon weathers rigorous academic criticism that batters and breaks the faith of many Christians who want to feel certain of a scripture untouched by human hands. And because The West is broadly post-Christian, there is a lot of interest, history, and groundwork in textual criticism with which to challenge and test Christian self-narratives that might’ve otherwise gone untested. Many Muslims on the internet are delighted to walk into this post-Christian territory and find that the work of challenging Christian scripture is already well-worked and popularized in our culture.
But what happens when those tools so well sharpened on Christian manuscripts get turned to the Quran? Enter Textual Criticism and Qur’an Manuscripts by Keith E. Small. My review in short: a very interesting exercise in manuscript academia, but too reliant on other resources to be useful to non-academics.
The thing I find most rewarding about this series is taking journeys down the rabbit holes. If I was just doing a straight reading of the Quran, I would pass by these moments with only fleeting thought and probably leave my reading with just a dismissive, “whatever,” as I have seen in the reactions of many other people who have read the Quran. But by writing a post I am forced –or rather, encouraged– to stop, look, and put some effort into understanding the material. There are a number of great resources available for reading the Quran, resources that help interpret the language and tradition, and in consulting these resources I enjoy getting to sit in another culture and trace its puzzles and eccentricities. Within Surah al-Hajj there were a lot of little moments where I read something, paused and went, “…huh,” before reading forward further. I noted these things down, but then didn’t find a place to include them in my last post.
So today is going to be my inventory of all the little things that made me go, “…huh.”
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?
If you want to learn Arabic through written materials, you should learn the alphabet. You just should. There are some books out there that will string you along with English phonetic spellings, but that has problems. And since in writing this blog I’ve had to attempt some kind of WordPress compatible transliteration, I want to spend just a little time revealing my problems to you. If you haven’t caught on yet, I hope you’ve noticed that I try and write transliterated words in italics. Sure sometimes I emphasize English words in italics too, but I’ve decided to use an old Arabic trick and let context tell you when I’m doing what.
So be ye warned, trivia ahead.