Sunday, June 24, 2018

Yūnus/Jonah viewed through hapaxes

The Qur'ān is not intended as an account of events. Rather than being organised around narratives, it typically brings up apparently familiar narratives in support of points being made. Yūnus/Jonah, for example, is mentioned by name 4 times, and by epithet another 2 times. Two of these mentions give no details of his story at all (4:163, 6:86). 10:98, 21:87-88, and 67:48-49 only briefly summarise specific aspects of the story. 37:139-148 recounts the story as a whole, but in such an abbreviated form as to presuppose that at least part of the audience had already heard a fuller version. Can anything about that version be determined from the text of the Qur'ān?

Hapaxes - words that occur very rarely or only once in the text - offer an interesting window on the problem (see also previous posts: ضريع, قسورة). Apart from the name Yūnus (Jonah) itself, four words are attested in the Qur'ān only within accounts of Jonah. The oldest attested form of his name is Yônāh, which in Greek yields Iônas (ιωνας) in the nominative (the -s is a widespread Indo-European nominative singular suffix); the final s in Yūnus thus suggests that the audience's knowledge of Jonah came in part via Greek intermediaries at some remove. "Fish" is normally ḥūt حوت in the Qur'ān, including in accounts of Jonah (Standard Arabic samak سمك is unattested in the text), but in 21:87 Jonah is alluded to as ḏā n-nūn ذا النون "he of the fish", the only occurrence in the Qur'ān of the Aramaic loanword nūn. The fish swallowed (iltaqamat التقمت) Jonah in 37:142; the only other mention of swallowing in the Qur'ān uses a word much better attested in modern Arabic dialects, balaʕa بلع (11:44:3). After praying to God for release, he is then cast out onto the shore, for which both 37:145 and 68:49 use the more specific term ʕarā' عراء, ie barren land. Eventually God causes a gourd - yaqṭīn يقطين - to grow over his head; this is the only Qur'ānic mention of the plant in question.

Compare the relevant terms in various early Semitic versions of the Book of Jonah:

Jonahfishswallowland sp.plant sp.
ArabicYūnus يونسḥūt حوت / nūn نونiltaqama التقمʕarā' عراء (barren land)yaqṭīn يقطين (gourd)
HebrewYônāh יוֹנָהdāḡ דָּגbālaʕ בָּלַעyabbāšāh יַבָּשָׁה (dry land)qîqāyôn קִיקָיוֹן
Babylonian Jewish AramaicYônāh יוֹנָהnūnā נוּנָאblaʕ בְּלַעyabbeštā יַבֶּשׁתָּא (dry land)qîqāyôn קִיקָיוֹן
SyriacYawnān ܝܘܢܢnūnā ܢܘܢܐblaʕyaḇšā ܝܒܫܐ (dry land)qar'ā ܩܪܐܐ (gourd)
GeezYonas ዮናስʕanbari ዐንበሬ (whale)wəxṭä ውኅጠmədər ምድር (land)ḥamḥam ሐምሐም (gourd)

One immediately notices that none of them match the Qur'ān as a whole at all well. For "Jonah", only Geez (Ethiopic) offers a similar Greek-influenced term, contrasting with the obvious Aramaic source of nūn for "fish". For "swallow", the Hebrew and Aramaic/Syriac versions all use a word whose direct cognate - balaʕa - is attested elsewhere in the Qur'ān, and is very familiar in Arabic; why then does the more vivid term iltaqama (something like "take in as a morsel") appear? For the land onto which Jonah is cast, the Qur'ān twice uses a specific term incorporating a detail absent from any of these versions of the Book of Jonah, all of which use a generic term for "dry land" or even just "land"; why is this used rather than 'arḍ or even the cognate yābisah?

The conclusion seems obvious: none of these translations were at all prominent for the Arab audience to whom the Qur'ān was first addressed. Whatever its distant roots may have been, the account of Jonah they knew best was something orally transmitted in Arabic, and not directly based on any one of these.


Whygh said...

How does Hamel's hypothesis of a Greek origin for Jonah strike you?

See his article here:

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Interesting. That article is incredibly strained in its efforts to clutch at every scrap of potential connection. The strongest narrative link, the swallowing of Jason, seems to be attested only in iconography, making comparison even harder. It is tempting to see qiqayon as connected to the Greek term, though.

Anonymous said...

great article guys great topic lameen

Whygh said...

Tottoli's Biblical Prophets In The Qur'ān And Muslim Literature discusses this a little, with some references. Could it be that nūn came to mean only 'whale' in Qur'anic Arabic, as Tottoli has it?

Anonymous said...

وَذَا النُّونِ إِذْ ذَهَبَ مُغَاضِبًا فَظَنَّ أَنْ لَنْ نَقْدِرَ عَلَيْهِ

(21:87:2) l-nūni
وَذَا النُّونِ إِذْ ذَهَبَ مُغَاضِبًا فَظَنَّ أَنْ لَنْ نَقْدِرَ عَلَيْهِ

al-nuni: Yunus

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Anon 1: That's a characteristically shaky etymology. I mean, the NW Semitic part is fine of course, but it simply doesn't correspond regularly to the Amharic form, much less the Geez one; the Egyptian form's meaning is unknown; and the Yaaku form refers to a bird nothing like the turtledove.

Whygh: Thanks for the link. Al-Tabari simply says "nūn means ḥūt", an equation seemingly confirmed by the equivalence of ḏū n-nūn and ṣāḥib al-ħūt.

Anon 2: I assume you mean "ḏā l-nūni: Yūnus".

Imad said...

Lameen, this is very interesting. I have one question: why do we translate hūt in the Quran as fish whereas it means whale in classical arabic ? This also leads me to another - somewhat unrelated? - question: why is fish (samak) called hūt in North African arabic dialects ?

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

The question needs further research, but my best guess is that before the Islamic expansion, the word for "fish" was ḥūt around the Red Sea and samak around the Gulf. Later on, as Classical Arabic was normalised - largely in Iraq - samak became the default word, and ḥūt, because it was used in the tale of Yūnus, got reinterpreted as "whale".