The doings of American philologasters are, in truth, a curious study.

Archive for the tag “Qur’an”

Mandaeans and Tajiks

Lately, I’ve been engaging the centuries of scholarship (both Muslim and non-Muslim)  that defines Mandaeans as Sabians, and both as Chaldaeans. I’m fairly certain that the Mandaeans are a real people, practicing a real religion, at least as far as I am able to discern with my own eyes and ears; scholars who don’t work directly with the Mandaeans or read Mandaean texts aren’t so certain about them, at least not in the ways that really matter to them, and have spent the better part of the last 13 centuries measuring them against these other categories, and finding them lacking.

The question of the Sabians, and particularly how they relate to the Sabians of the Qur’an, is especially fraught. Suffice it to say that we have one extant group that identifies as “Sabians,” who are in turn acknowledged as “Sabians” by their neighbors, and by those scholars who have the privilege to work directly with them and have mastered their language so that they can read their texts, in order to learn more about the various ways in which they have identified themselves throughout recorded history, but there is a small group of revisionist scholars who are not so certain of the authenticity of Mandaean claims, and never miss an opportunity to remind the rest of us. For these scholars, the term “Sabian” has a kind of occult meaning, one that is not obvious to the uninitiated, but which can be discerned through careful analysis (of course, not of the texts of the Mandaeans themselves, who can safely be disregarded as self-interested, but rather of the famously disinterested accounts of Islamic and Christian theologians).

I find it instructive to compare both to the term “Chaldaean,” which has meant different things to different people at different times, but eventually acquired a kind of romantic significance in European scholarship, referring to a discrete nation (the “Chaldaeans”), living in a discrete territory (“Chaldaea”) who practiced a discrete religion (“Chaldaism”) and who spoke a discrete language (“Chaldaic”) before it was eventually retired in the first half of the 20th. This is, for example, the sense in which Adolf von Harnack uses the term.  The valence of this term is not quite so compact outside of European scholarship. “Chaldaea” is to some extent coterminous with Mesopotamia, which appears in the Chinese sources as 条支 Tiáo zhī, a land to the West of Persia either reached overland via the Silk Road or overseas via the Gulf. This term Tiáo zhī is apparently derived from the Middle Persian term Tāzīg, “Arab,” which today bewilderingly survives as the demonym of the inhabitants of the former Soviet republic of Tajikistan, at least the ones who aren’t Uzbeks and Turkmen and members of other national groups that emerged as a consequence of Soviet policy and the scholarship that informed it. In the geographic region in which scholars have situated this term, it today means “fresh,” an attribute of fruits and vegetables rather than people.

When Arabic and Syriac sources discuss “Chaldaeans,” on the other hand, they exclusively intend either the famous star-worshipping astrologers of yore, or those Christians who follow the East Syrian Rite, two groups that are apparently connected only by the different languages they speak, or in the case of the latter, in which their liturgy is preserved. For obvious reasons,  the inheritors of this scholarship tend to regard “Chaldaea” and the “Chaldaeans,” at least in the romantic national sense to which their intellectual forefathers referred, and painstakingly elaborated over course of several the centuries, to be as much of a fiction as “Narnia” and the “Narnians.” This is not unexpected, considering that socially constructed categories such as “Chaldaeans” and “Sabians” can be surprisingly evanescent, and require constant attention on the part of their communities to maintain. In the absence of this effort, the impressive edifice of scholarship on Chaldaism has completely collapsed, and ownership of the term “Chaldaean” has reverted to the one community still engaged in maintaining its identity, the Chaldean Catholic Church, descendants of those aforementioned Chaldaeans who follow the East Syrian Rite. The continued relevance of “Sabians” as a subject of discourse is ensured by their appearance in the sacred literature of Islam, and by the living example of the Mandaeans, even though the scholarly debate over their meaning in the former has brought the continued existence of the latter into question in a very real way.

The Peacock’s Lament

The Mandaeans and the Yezidis, two  groups that fascinated Stefana Drower and continue to fascinate the generations of scholars who have followed her, have recently made the news, but unfortunately not in a good way. Coincidentally, I’ve been working on Prayer 75 of the Doctrine of John, in which Ṭausa, the Peacock, laments how far he has fallen in the world. At first he is bitter and resentful for having been humbled and forced to guard the kimṣa, a somewhat contested term that is likely related to the Aramaic and Hebrew root קמץ, and evidently refers to a place.

Drower, Macuch, and Rudolph identify this term with the Gnostic πλήρωμα pléroma, the totality of the spiritual universe, as opposed to the material world, which is known as the tibil in Mandaic, and with which it contrasts in this text (šauiun naṭar kimṣa / alma ḏtibil baṭla, lit. “[The Great Life] made me guardian of the Kimṣa/until the Tibil perishes”). If this is accurate, then the Peacock stands not within the pléroma but rather on “our side” of the boundary, which is to say that he has been separated from the Godhead and exiled from the world of light.

Eventually, he acknowledges his own faults (chief among them his pride) for having brought him so low, at which point his father, the Great Life, sends him a “letter of truth” (engirta ḏkušṭa), which Sundberg identifies as a letter containing within it Gnostic truths, in his monograph on the word kušṭa. In it, the Peacock earns that his father is extending him the ritual handshake (also known as kušṭa), which is a sign of reconciliation. Relieved by this news, he praises his father wholeheartedly.

Although short, this is one of a very few passages to which scholars such as Drower point when discussing the shared traditions of the Mandaeans and the Yezidis, the two groups with which I began this entry. Our Peacock is identified by the Mandaeans with the lightworld being Yushamin who, just like the Peacock Angel of the Yezidis, is an emanation of the Godhead who defies Him out of pride and is exiled, but eventually becomes reconciled with Him and is redeemed. 

The Peacock Angel of the Yezidis is most frequently compared with the figure of Iblis in the Qur’an (7:11–13), but the obvious parallels between the Mandaic Ṭausa and the Yezidi Tawûsê Melek cannot be discounted. As all of the written traditions surrounding the Yezidis and Tawûsê Melek are comparatively late, this account (in the Doctrine of John) may well be considered the earliest surviving tradition about this enigmatic figure.

The translation follows.

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The Retreating Whisperer

The Hebrew word nāḥāš “serpent” appears to come from a common Semitic root *n/l-ḥ-š (compare Aramaic lḥaš and Geez laḥasa) meaning “to hiss” and “to whisper,” and by extension “to intone in whispers = cast a magic spell.” BDB suggest that the root is of onomatopoeic origin. The related languages have l in the place of n  for the most part; the root n- “to whisper; mutter” is indeed found in Aramaic, but most frequently appears in the D-stem and the reflexive of the same. It is therefore likely back-formed from one of the various nouns from this root relating to magic and more specifically divination (e.g. mnaḥḥǝšā or mnaḥḥǝšānā, “diviner;” nuḥḥāšā “divination;”  nāḥšā “prophet;” naḥḥāšā “soothsayer”). 

Whenever I consider this root, and the semantic extension from “whispering” or “hissing” to “soothsaying” and “incantations,” I am invariably reminded of Sūrat Al-Nās (114), since it not only talks about a “whisperer” but also does so with a hissing sibilance, as you can hear for yourself here. Al-Nās is one of the shortest suwar in the whole Qur’an, and frequently used as an incantation to ward off evil, either recited or written on amulets. In this surah, the worshiper seeks refuge from “the evil of the retreating whisperer (al-waswās al-khannās).” The term “whisperer” (al-waswās) is of transparent origin, but the origin of the following term is less evident. It is not a typical adjective at all, but rather a noun in the faʕʕāl pattern, which is generally reserved for occupations and professions, among other activities in which one might characteristically or habitually engage.

Lane’s Arabic-English Lexicon derives this word from the base form khanasa, which he defines in his customary prolix fashion as “He went, or drew, back or backwards; receded; retreated; retired; or retrograded; or he remained behind; held back; hung back; or lagged behind.” Consequently al-khannās (in the faʕʕāl pattern) would be the one who habitually or professionally hangs back, and this is said to be an epithet for the Devil, as he allegedly shrinks, or retires, or hides himself. This word is identified as an epithet for the Devil precisely because it so appears in al-Nās; in fact, it it apparently has no other referent in the entirety of Arabic literature, and so we are left to consider whether this is not a common noun that came to be applied as an epithet, but rather the convenient etymologizing of a proper noun that is otherwise lacking in a clear or convincing etymology.

Now that I think about it, I wonder whether khannās might not be related to the same root as Heb. nāḥāš, making it a synonym of waswās, with the metathesis of the first two radicals, which is not at all uncommon in the Semitic languages, particularly when dealing with liquids and nasals. At first glance, it does not appear terribly likely, as the equivalent root would have to be laḥasa / naḥasa, with a pharyngeal fricative (ħ) rather than an uvular one (x).  Both exist; the former means “he licked (something)” and the latter means “he is unlucky” (and is indeed suggested by BDB as a potential cognate for the Hebrew root), but neither make much sense in this context. On the other hand, if it entered Arabic from, say, Syriac, in which the reflexes of Proto-Semitic *ħ and *x have merged, that might explain the use of the uvular fricative, as this is the usual articulation of this sound among the East Syrians, and indeed we do have a potential candidate: Syriac naḥḥāš(ā), whose stock in trade is whispering, after all. It makes sense, on some level, that an Arabic epithet for the Devil would relate to the Hebrew word for “serpent,” especially given the associations of both words with whispering.

Ultimately, however, this hypothesis risks drifting into Luxenbergian waters, due to the two unconditioned sound changes that it requires. The first is the metathesis of the first two radicals (naḥḥāš > khannāš), and the second is the articulation of the sibilant, which we would expect to be postalveolar (ʃ) rather than alveolar (s). Neither on its own would be particularly fatal, but combined they require too much special pleading to be plausible.

Update: As Nizar Habash points out, though, one of the words for snakes and other such varmints in Arabic is infuriatingly similar: حنش ḥanaš-.

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