The Arabic Alphabet: A Guided Tour
by Michael Beard, illustrated by Houman Mortazavi
Opening of Dha is for Zildjian
It is unseemly, says a friend of the Persian poet Sa‘dî, and contrary to the judgment of the wise, for two things to happen:
ذو الفقار علی در نیام و زبان سعدی در کام
Dhû al-fiqâr-e ‘Ali dar niyâm va zabân-e Sa‘dî dar kâm—
…for `Ali’s sword to remain in its scabbard and for Sa`dî’s tongue to remain in his mouth
Sa‘dî’s friend is revving him up to write his masterpiece, the Golestân. It was clearly a convincing argument.There are readers who may say that eloquence is more powerful when the tongue operates inside the mouth rather than outside, but it’s not as if we didn’t know what Sa‘di’s friend means. It’s a powerful argument, cunningly located, since it makes the creation of the Golestân a kind of heroism, heroism without the sword.
Islamic tradition has tales of heroism and chivalry which will be understandable to western readers. As with us, a hero’s sword may have a name, in the manner of Excalibur in the Arthur stories and Roland’s Durendal. Ali, the Prophet’s nephew, was a historical figure, but he became a legendary hero with enough cachet to deserve a legendary sword. Dhû al-fiqâr (usually transliterated as Zulfiqâr) is etymologically that which possesses a backbone (from fiqâr, spine, from a stem meaning to pierce or perforate). Sa‘dî’s friend makes a clearer case: if you have a tongue with the power of Ali’s sword, out with it. En garde, miscreants.
Dhû means possessor, owner, holder or master of… You can be master of an object or a concept. Dhû al-Qa‘da and Dhû al-Ḥijja are names of months in the lunar calendar. During Dhû al-Qa‘da, military conflict was suspended (since it’s a month characterized by qa‘da, “sitting,” thus “sitting out the action”). Dhû al-Ḥijja is the month of pilgrimage (Ḥijja, the pilgrimage). Dhû ‘aql, possessing reason, understanding, is a term for an intelligent person. Dhû al-Ḥiyyâtayn, the possessor of two lives, is an amphibian. Dhû al-Qarnayn is “the one who possesses two horns” (from qarn, “horn”). In European tradition the hero with horns would be Moses (which we know from Michelangelo’s statue of a horned Moses with the ten commandments); in Islam Dhû al-Qarnayn is Alexander the Great, well known in the Islamic world as Iskandar, who is portrayed in Sura 18 of the Qur’ân, building a wall to keep out Yâ’jûj and Mâ’jûj , our Gog and Magog (Q 18.93-97). Dhû al-Nûn is an epithet of Jonah (Nûn can mean a Ḥût, “whale”): it demonstrates that dhû doesn’t always mean “possessor,” unless we think of Noah as owning the whale. “He of the whale.”
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