1. Signs, Omens, and Semiological Regimes in Early Islamic Texts

David Larsen
In his 1983 article “Sêma and Nóēsis: The Hero’s Tomb and the ‘Reading’ of Symbols in Homer and Hesiod,” Gregory Nagy describes one of the channels through which communication between gods and mortals takes place in the Homeric poems:
For example, there is the sêma sent by Zeus to the Achaeans, as reported in Iliad II (308): the event of a snake’s devouring eight nestlings and their mother (II.308–19) requires the mantic interpretation of Kalkhas the mántis ‘seer’, who recognizes it as a portent of Troy’s impending destruction (II.320–32). Or again, there are all the Homeric instances of lightning sent by Zeus as a sêma (II.353, IX.236, XIII.244, xxi.413, etc.)—one might say as a code bearing distinct messages that are to be interpreted in context by both the witnesses and the narrative itself. [1]
While the gods address direct speech to some mortals in dreams and waking visions, to the collectivity their will is made known through signs and omens requiring the hermeneutic intervention of a skilled decoder. The faculty demanded of this decoder is above all noos, translatable as ‘mind’ or ‘mindfulness’ but shown more specifically by Nagy to consist in the allied powers of recognition (distinguishing the signifier from a welter of ambient phenomena) and interpretation (rendering into speech the information signified by it). And as Hector will hear from his comrade Polydamas, it is a faculty not equally present in all people:
οὕνεκά τοι περὶ δῶκε θεὸς πολεμήια ἔργα,
τοὔνεκα καὶ βουλῇ ἐθέλεις περιίδμεναι ἄλλων·
ἀλλ’ οὔ πως ἅμα πάντα δυνήσεαι αὐτὸς ἑλέσθαι.
ἄλλῳ μὲν γὰρ ἔδωκε θεὸς πολεμήια ἔργα,
ἄλλῳ δ’ ὀρχηστύν, ἑτέρῳ κίθαριν καὶ ἀοιδήν,
ἄλλῳ δ’ ἐν στήθεσσι τιθεῖ νόον εὐρύοπα Ζεὺς,
ἐσθλόν, τοῦ δέ τε πολλοὶ ἐπαυρίσκοντ’ ἄνθρωποι,
καί τε πολέας ἐσάωσε, μάλιστα δὲ κ’αὐτὸς ἀνέγνω.

Just because the god granted that you excel in deeds of war
you wish also to excel in planning by knowing more than others.
But there is no way you can get everything all to yourself.
The god grants that one man excel in deeds of war
and another in dancing and another in playing the lyre and singing.
And for yet another man, far-seeing Zeus places nóos in his breast,
a genuine one; and many men benefit from such a man,
and he saves many of them, and he himself has the greatest powers of recognition.
Iliad XIII 727–734 (trans. Nagy 1990a:204)
The truth-value of divinely motivated sēmata as interpreted by a qualified hypokritēs is generally upheld in the Hesiodic and Homeric poems, so that while a given speaker (such as Hector at Iliad XII 237–243) may question the validity of omens in general, the narrative itself tends overwhelmingly to confirm it. [2] This is not to deny any of the sēma’s well-known potential for ambiguity and polyvalence, but to declare that the oracular sēma is not a site of robust ideological conflict in Homer and Hesiod. “Consider the bird-omens and avoid transgressions” (ornithas krinōn kai hyperbasias aleeinōn) is the closing admonition of Works and Days. [3] Nor is there any perceptible conflict between poetic and oracular tradition in the Homeric poems. Oracular practice is quite favorably memorialized throughout—a circumstance dryly noted in Augustine’s remark that the ancient poets were fonder of commemorating the mantic arts than of actually teaching them. [4]
Far from being in competition with the oracle, then, Homeric poetry appears to draw on oracular tradition as a source of authority and legitimacy. In a later article Nagy goes so far as to argue that “Homeric poetry equates its own performance with that of a seer or mantis who performs oracular poetry in responding to questions about omens” (Nagy 2002:142). It does this in the sense that the narratives of the Iliad and Odyssey both end in fulfillment of key omens whose revelation and translation into speech are staged within the epics themselves. As interpreted by Nestor (and recollected by Odysseus at Iliad II 308–332), the devouring of eight nestling sparrows and their mother by a giant snake emblematizes the very plot being narrated by the Iliad—just as the rightward flight of the goose-killing eagle at Odyssey xv 160–165 combines with the interpretation performed immediately afterward by Helen to encapsulate the denouement of the Odyssey itself. If the omen is read as an emblem of the story being narrated in the poem, the seer’s interpretive performance is a figure for the poem itself, with which it is coextensive. Or to put it another way, “the prophecy of the seer is not only fulfilled by the epic but also becomes the epic.” [5]
The mise en abîme that resounds in these scenes of omen-reading depends on the identification of one performance medium (that of the Homeric singer) with another (the medium of oracular speech). For what makes this identification possible a number of ideas might be advanced, but none with more certainty than that performers of Homeric poetry (and, presumably, the institutions that sponsored its performance) did not see themselves as being in conflict with institutionalized divination, and furthermore that the alignment of their medium with that of the oracle was felt to be an ennobling one. For a contrasting, antagonistic relationship to the oracle one need only look ahead to fifth-century Athens, and the conflict
openly expressed in the reflections of those who, in their intellectual activity, entered into the same territory of knowledge in more or less direct competition with oracles and seers. These are, first of all, of course, sophists and philosophers, but they are also historians, doctors, and wise men. In professing to teach the art of rhetoric that could give the power to win the decision on any debated question, what else did the sophists finally claim, if not to substitute a secular technique for an oracular type of procedure, one wholly different but equally efficacious, which in the sectors where it was applied corresponded to a similar final result? [6]
This essay will show how oracular concepts and vocabulary may be co-opted in the service of an oppositional stance toward divination itself. It is likely that such a study could be performed on any number of cultural traditions and historical periods; here it will be carried out on the early Arabic texts of Islam, primarily the Qurʾān. Whereas Homeric poetry affirms an identity between its own performance and that of a seer, the Qurʾān rejects any such identity, and with it the authority of the soothsayer—even as it adapts the Arabian soothsayer’s own performance medium (the rhymed speech known as sajʿ) to a new Islamic mandate.
The comparison between the Homeric poems and the Qurʾān is far from frivolous. Both could with justice be called the master-texts in which the Greek and Arab nations were first addressed as such. Also, both make use of oracular models and vocabulary in staging their own reception and interpretation by their hearers, with the key difference that the Qurʾān does so in opposition to the divinatory practices it cites. The perceptible forms of this opposition range from negative representations to outright prohibitions, and to the bellicose appropriation of oracular concepts and practices. Prophetic co-option of the hermeneutic and political authority of the pre-Islamic kāhin (variously translated as ‘soothsayer’, ‘diviner’, and ‘seer’, and cognate to Hebrew kōhēn, ‘priest’) will in any theory of Islam’s Meccan origins be granted as inevitable; what remain to be pointed out are the traces of this co-option in the Qurʾān, and in the Prophet’s speech and practice as represented in ḥadī th and sīra (biography). My examination of these traces will demonstrate the superscription of prophetic authority over oracular semiology as it was enacted in the earliest texts of Islam.

Prophecy vs. Divination

The formal similarity between oracular and Qurʾānic discourse has been observed by Western Orientalists ever since Julius Wellhausen’s still-startling declaration that the best evidence for what pre-Islamic oracular speech was like is located in the earliest sūras of the Qurʾān itself. [7] Relative to the expansive verbiage of the later sūras, these are distinguished by their cryptic, incantory style and overall brevity, and as such are grouped toward the end of the Qurʾān (whose chapters are arranged in descending order of length). [8] The precise extent to which they actually resemble pre-Islamic oracular speech cannot be judged, as no authentically pre-Islamic sources for this have survived. But the Qurʾān’s insistence on its own distinction from oracular speech will alert us that some ritual and/or formal correspondence between them was observable to the Qurʾān’s early hearers, as in the Meccan-era Sūrat al-Ṭūr (“The Mount”):
52:29. Fa- dh akkir fa-mā anta bi-niʿmati rabbika bi- kāhinin wa-la majnūn
52:30. Am yaqulūna Shāʿirun natarabbaṣu bi-hi rayba ’l-manūn

52:29. So make it known that you, by the grace of your Lord, are no soothsayer, nor are you possessed by jinns.
52:30. Or do they say [of you] “Poet! for whose downfall we lie in wait”? [9]
Being more frequent, the denial that the Qurʾān was the work of a sh āʿir (‘poet’) has attracted more attention than the concomitant disavowal of soothsaying. Whereas kāhin occurs only twice in the Qurʾān (52:29 and 68:42), sh āʿir occurs four times, its plural once more, and the affiliated verbal noun sh iʿr once again, each time in an unambiguously negative context. [10] This circumstance has led Michael Zwettler to remark that “the charge that the Prophet was a kāhin seems not to have been thought so grave or to have required so vehement a refutation as the one that he was a poet” (Zwettler 1978:157). Though this observatation rings true, it requires some explanation in light of the Qurʾān’s lack of similarity in form or content to the extant corpus of pre-Islamic Arabic poetry, and its resemblance to Arabian oracular speech. In resolution of this difficulty, Zwettler argues that what made Qurʾānic recitation confundible with poetic performance was not a generic resemblance but a linguistic one, in that the Qurʾān was delivered in the “non-vernacular, classical” Arabic language which was up to that point an exclusive vehicle for the performance of poetry, and thus “to the minds of Muḥammad’s hearers (and of Muḥammad himself) inextricably bound up with their total experience of poetry, so that they were quite unprepared to hear it enounced competently and coherently in any other genre of comparable length and artistry” (Zwettler 1978:158–160).
Thankfully, it is not my purpose to unravel the long-running debate about the origins of Classical Arabic and its relationship to the tribal dialects in which Zwettler’s argument takes its place. I will note that his linguistic turn does not yield the only possible explanation for the Qurʾān’s self-distancing from poetry, nor necessarily the most persuasive. [11] But the premise that Qurʾānic revelation must have shared some traits with both poetry and divination for its recurrent disavowals to make sense is quite well founded, and suggestive of other points of likeness than the poetic form and linguistic idiom he adduces. Social and ritual context is another. Another homology between poetry and Qurʾānic recitation is that both are for performance aloud before an assembly of hearers, and the Qurʾān’s antagonism toward poets may well have been motivated (at least in part) by this homology.
The office of the sh āʿir (literally, ‘knower’) is likely to have comprised an oracular function at some early point, and as a matter of course involves privileged contact with an invisible muse (sh ayṭān). [12] In the received folklore of the pre-Islamic period, however, the sh āʿir is most often encountered as a group spokesman and a dispenser of intertribal praise and blame. Despite the clear formal remove between them, the public performance context of Qurʾānic recitation (which mobilizes a good deal of praise and blame of its own) must have been similar enough to that of poetry to call for the denials that Muḥammad was in any way a poet. The Qurʾān may be further comparable to pre-Islamic poetry in its function as an instrument of group formation, toward the end of superimposing a universalized Islamic community over the tribal kinship structures of traditional Middle Eastern society. By insisting on its remove from poetry, the Qurʾān places itself outside the arena of inter-tribal conflict, and indicates a newly universalized ritual context for its own recitation and reception. [13]
Nor is it the case that divination is treated indifferently in the Qurʾān, or that its treatment is limited to two fleeting occurrences of the word kāhin. In fact the Qurʾān’s engagement with oracular language is complex and quite tendentious, as one might expect from its assumption of the form most characteristic of the oracular utterance: namely, the stylized rhyming speech called sajʿ. [14] As a genre of perfomed speech, sajʿ is formally distinguished from sh iʿr by its variable line length and lack of a fixed metrical structure. It was also in use as a vehicle for kh uṭba, that is, ‘oratory’ in the general sense; the Prophet is said to have recollected this piece of sajʿ by the orator Quss b. Sāʿida, whom in his youth he had heard speak at the market-fair of ʿUkāẓ:
Ayyuha ’n-nāsu ijtamiʿū
man ʿā sh a māt
wa-man māta fāt
wa-kullu mā huwa ātin āt

O people, gather together
and listen
and keep [this] in your memory:
Who lives, dies
and who dies is done with
and all the future holds will come to pass.
al-Jāḥiẓ 1968: I 308–309
The utility of sajʿ was described by the orator ʿAbd al-Ṣamad b. al-Faḍl b. ʿĪsā b. Abān al-Raqāshī (d. ca. 200/815–816), as related by ʿAmr b. Baḥr al-Jāḥiẓ (d. 255/869):
[When asked] “Why do you esteem sajʿ over prose, when it obliges you to [speak in] rhyme and measure?” he responded, “When my hope is only [to reach] the hearing of those present, my speech differs little from yours. But I am concerned with what is absent and what is past as well as what is present, and [with sajʿ] the recollection of it is faster, and its appeal to the hearing is keener, and it is fixed more truly [in the recollection] and less of it escapes. The Arabs find it easier to express themselves correctly in unconstrained speech than poetry, but no more than one tenth of what is said in unconstrained speech is remembered, and it is diffused only a tenth as widely as measured speech.
al-Jāḥiẓ 1968: I 287
In the pre-Islamic period, sajʿ was principally identified as the performance medium of the kāhin. “Heathen incantation” is clearly the word’s meaning in ḥadī th where the Prophet dismisses a litigant’s statement with the remark, “Is this a sajʿ of the Time of Ignorance and its soothsaying?” (a-sajʿu ’l-Jāhiliyyati wa-kahānatuha). The dismissed statement was a rhymed couplet protesting that no recompense was due in the case of a miscarriage induced by a hurled stone:
Innahu kā dh ibun innahu wa-’llāhi mā istaḥall
Wa-lā sh araba wa-lā akala fa-mi th luhu yuṭall [15]

He is lying! He is! By God, I swear that it never raised its voice
Nor did it drink nor eat. Such a death calls for no vengeance.
Several features of the above statement could have invited the comparison to ritual kāhin speech—notably, its indulgence in repetition (“innahu . . . innahu”), oaths (“wa-’llāhi”), and, above all, rhyme. As such they hallmarks not only of the kāhin’s performance but, according to Toufic Fahd, of the oracular trance itself: “In origin, sajʿ denoted the kāhin’s entry into a trance, the oracular utterance issuing from this state, and then the stylistic form of this utterance.” The description given in Fahd’s landmark study La divination arabe is worth quoting in full:
In the lexica, al-sajʿ denotes the formal expression of the oracle. Some have sought to see in them an imitation of the repeated, jerky and monotonous cooing of a pigeon or dove, or the drawn-out and monotonous moaning of a camel. But in our traditional sources the term is recognized as a specific designation for the oracular utterance of the kāhins, formulated in short, rhymed phrases, with rhythmical cadences and the use of an obscure, archaizing, bizarre and cabalistic vocabulary.
In its most ancient sense, however, sajʿ denoted a state of ecstasy, as we see in Akkadian šegû (root š-g-ʿ), Hebrew š-g-ʿ and Arabic s-j-ʿ. The root’s meaning in the the Akkadian texts is in fact “fury” or “rage,” said most typically of a dog; in Hebrew it serves to designate a state of dementia or unconsciousness, and is in particular used against the prophets by their opponents as an abusive epithet. [16] And some forms of the Arabic root s-j-ʿ, which commonly expresses the idea of courage and audacity, still conserve the ancient meaning of “demented, insensate, unbalanced.” … Nor is a Sumerian origin excluded, given that šugîtu, a feminine form of šegû borrowed by Akkadian from Sumerian, denotes the hierodule, whose duties included serving as oracle in the temple where she officiated. [17]
Many examples of oracular sajʿ could be culled from the literature at large. Fahd quotes a number of them in La divination arabe, including one by the early Khuzāʿite soothsayer ʿAmr b. Luḥayy, which he singles out as an especially archaic specimen. [18] Alan Jones’s 1994 article “The Language of the Qurʾān” collects several more (Jones 1994:33–37). Below I offer an example of oracular sajʿ as represented in a tale from the Kitāb al-A gh ānī (ʽBook of Songs’) of Abu ’l-Faraj al-Iṣbahānī (d. 371/981), in which a man consults the soothsayers Shiqq and Saṭīḥ about his son-in-law’s identity. Saṭīḥ and Shiqq were kāhins of pre-Islamic renown to whom Islamic legend attributed fantastically long lives in order to draft them into stories of the Prophetic nativity (traditionally dated to 570 CE). The meaning of Saṭīḥ’s name (‘He who lies stretched out’) is variously understood to suggest prostration, fainting spells, or outright paralysis; early or late, Saṭīḥ came to be described as lacking the ability to move under his own power, or even lacking solid bones altogether (al-Ḥalabī 1989: 131–132). Shiqq’s name, meaning ‘Cleft’, appears all along to have denoted a being with only one arm, one leg, and one eye. [19] And yet the bizarrerie of these personages does not invalidate the following as a representative sample of pre-Islamic oracular speech:
Ibn al-Kalbī (d. 206/821) said: I was told by my father on the authority of Abū Ṣāliḥ, who was told that Ibn ʿAbbās said Thaqīf and al-Najaʿa were descended from Īyād. [20] Thaqīf’s name was Qasiyy b. Munabbih. . . . [He and] al-Najaʿa had set out together, bringing with them a goat whose milk they were drinking, when they encountered a tax-collector of the king of Yemen who sought to take the goat from them. “But we live on its milk!” they said, and killed him in the act of seizing it. He who fired the arrow said to the other, “You and I must not be found in the same land.” Al-Najaʿa journeyed to Bīsha, where he remained; Qasiyy arrived at an area near al-Ṭāʾif. There he saw a slave-girl watching over a flock belonging to ʿĀmir b. al-Ẓarib al-ʿAdwānī, which he coveted. “I will kill the slave-girl,” he said, “and take possession of the flock.” But the slave-girl prevented his plan when she said to him, “I see that you intend to kill me and take the flock. If you do this you will yourself be killed, and the flock will be taken from you. [If you refrain,] I will treat you as a hungry stranger.” She led him to her master, and Qasiyy came before him and asked for permission to reside in the area. ʿĀmir gave him his daughter in marriage, and Qasiyy settled at al-Ṭāʾif. It was said: “How easily was he made master!” [Li-’llāhi darruhu mā a th qafahu] when Qasiyy became ʿĀmir’s master [th aqifa ʿĀmiran] and neighbor. . . . And ʿĀmir was upbraided for having married his daughter to Qasiyy. “You have married [your daughter] to a slave,” they said.
So he set off to consult the kāhins. The first one he arrived at was Shiqq ibn Ṣaʿb of the Bajīla, who was closest. On arriving before him, he said, “We have come about a certain matter. What is that matter?” Shiqq said,
Jiʾtum fī Qasiyy
wa-Qasiyyu ʿabdu Ībād
abaqa laylata ’l-wād
fī Wajjin dh āti ’l-andād
fa-wālā Saʿdan li-yufād
th umma lawā bi- gh ayri muʿād

“You have come about Qasiyy.
Qasiyy is a slave of Ībād
who fled by night to the the river
in the valley of Wajj of many idols
and joined with Saʿd in order to be free.
Then he concealed his unfriendlike behavior.”
(Saʿd was a branch of [ʿĀmir's tribe,] Qays b. ʿAylān b. Muḍar.)
ʿĀmir then went to consult Saṭīḥ of Dhiʾb. (Dhiʾb [‘Wolf’] was either a tribe of Ghassān, or a Quḍaʿite tribe living among the Ghassān.) [21] He said to him: “We have come about a certain matter. What is that matter?” Saṭīḥ said,
Jiʾtum fī Qasiyy
wa-Qasiyyu min waladi Th amūda ’l-qadīm
waladathu ummuhu bi-’ṣ-ṣaḥrāʾa Barīm
fa-’ltaqṭahu Īyādun wa-huwa ʿadīm
fa-’staʿabdahu wa-huwa mulīm

“You have come about Qasiyy.
Qasiyy is a descendant of the Thamūd of old
whose mother bore him in the desert of Barīm.
Īyād took him in when he was destitute,
then punished his behavior by enslaving him.”
ʿĀmir b. al-Ẓarib returned home, still not knowing what to do about the whole affair. He was held fast in the pact he had made and the marriage agreement, for despite their being deprived of Islam, the men of his day were bound by their word.
al-Iṣbahānī 1969: IV 75 (1517–1519)
What echoes of the early Qurʾānic style we find in these sajʿ passages (including brevity of line, indulgence in parallelism, and the predominance of the oath) are perhaps unsurprising, given its preservation by generations of transmitters who had the Qurʾān before them as a stylistic model. Of greater interest are the narrative details surrounding the soothsayer’s office, beginning with his isolation from society. The kāhin is either summoned from elsewhere or made the goal of a long journey, but is in all cases remote from the matters on which he or she (feminine kāhina) is consulted. [22] Zwettler observes that “the pre-Islamic kuhhān, with few exceptions, were frequently depicted as something of social misfits, sometimes deformed or defective in body, dwelling outside the pale of normal urban and nomadic communities.” [23] This isolation seems key to the kāhin’s authority, for above all we find the soothsayer resorted to as an arbiter. In addition to his judgments on genealogical matters, Saṭīḥ is elsewhere shown handing down interpretations of dreams and omens, and in one account dividing an inheritance. [24] Fāṣil al- kh uṭṭa, he is called in one story, that is, ‘Divider’ or ‘Adjudicator of the case’. [25] Poetic flourish though this may be, it is quite in the spirit of the agnomen that the Prophet Muḥammad declared off-limits: Abu ’l-Qāsim, or ‘Father of the Apportioner’. In the collection of Muslim b. al-Ḥajjāj al-Qushayrī (d. 261/875) appear several versions of the following ḥadī th:
ʿUthmān b. Abī Shayba and Isḥāq b. Ibrāhīm relate that Jarīr heard from Manṣūr on the authority of Sālim b. Abī Jaʿd that Jābir b. ʿAbd Allāh said: “A son was born to a man in our community, and he named him Muḥammad. His people told him: ‘We urge you not to call [your child] by the name of God’s Prophet, God’s blessings and peace be upon him.’ So he set off with his son on his back and brought him to the Prophet (God’s blessings and peace be upon him) and said: ‘A son is born to me, and I have named him Muḥammad. But my people urge me not to call him by the Prophet’s name.’ The Prophet (God’s blessings and peace be upon him) said: ‘You may call [your sons] by my name but not by my agnomen, for Qāsim am I who divide the apportionments among you’ [fa-innamā anā Qāsimun aqsimu baynakum].”
Muslim 2007 (K. al-Ādāb): 1006
To the extent that soothsayers were resorted to as a juridical authority, that authority was by definition in conflict with the institutions of early Islam, beginning with the establishment of Muḥammad’s legal mandate at Medina. The Prophet’s assumption of any and all juridical authority excerised by the kāhin forms a suggestive parallel to the Qurʾānic adaptation of sajʿ, and raises the question of what other ritual and political functions formerly played by soothsayers were taken over by Islam, and which were neutralized outright. The question is hardly scandalous, as the kāhin’s spiritual authority is acknowledged by the traditional sources and modern scholarship as a predecessor to the Prophet’s own. [26] The Qurʾān’s delivery in saj ʿ in fact telegraphs the kāhins’ institutional displacement by the Prophet, as do his reported prohibitions against consulting them and paying them tribute. [27]

Āya vs. ṭāʾir

The formal analogies between pre-Islamic sajʿ and Qurʾānic revelation are perhaps of secondary interest, for what really draws attention is the Qurʾān’s transformation of the oracular medium, and the transvaluation of semiological concepts that accompanied it. Toshihiko Izutsu makes the same point in his 1964 study God and Man in the Koran: “Old concepts are there, but they have undergone a drastic semantic transformation by having been put into a new system of values. Something similar happened to sajʿ: the old traditional form of supernatural communication is used, but it is used as a vehicle for conveying a new content” (Izutsu 1964:184). There being no way to check the Qurʾān against the forms of oracular speech that preceded it, we are left to examine the transformations in Arabian semiological concepts as they are enacted within the text of the Qurʾān itself. Foremost among these concepts is that of the āya (pl. āyāt, āy), or ‘sign’. The Arabic word is cognate with Hebrew oth, also ‘sign’ (and rendered as σημεῖον in the Septuagint), which is used for the mark of Cain, the rainbow of Noah, and the miracles performed by Moses before Pharaoh. [28] Oth also occurs in the Lachish ostraka of the sixth century BCE, in reference to the beacon-fires (massu’oth) by which coded messages were passed over long distances. [29]
In the pre-Islamic corpus of poetry, āya shows a similar flexibility. It can mean ‘trace,’ as in the traces of an abandoned campsite in the poem by ʿAbīd b. al-Abraṣ (d. ca. 555 CE):
Ta gh ayyarat ad-diyāru bi- Dh ī Dafīni
fa-ūdiyati ’l-Liwā fa-rimāli Līn
fa-ḥarjay Dh irwatin fa-qafā Dh ayālin
yuʿaffī āyahu salafu ’s-sinīn

Altered are the abodes at Dhū Dafīn,
and in the valleys of al-Liwā, and on the sands of Līn,
and in the two narrows of Dhirwa, and on the far side of Dhayāl
the bygone years have effaced their traces.
ʿAbīd b. al-Abraṣ 1994:97
Or the āya can be an abstract ‘proof,’ as in the Muʿallaqa of al-Ḥārith b. Ḥilliza:
Man la-nā ʿinda-hu min al- kh ayri āyā-
tun th alāthun fī kullihinna ’l-qaḍāʾ
Āyatun sh āriqu ’ sh - sh aqīqati i dh jā-
ʾat Maʿaddun li-kulli ḥayyin liwāʾ

He has had three proofs of our excellence,
each of them decisive:
One proof was [our valor at] the pass’s eastern end, when came
[the tribe of] Maʿadd with a banner for each of their clans.
al-Zawzanī 1972:163–164
It can also mean an intentionally deployed ‘signal’ as in the verse of al-Aʿshā (d. ca. 4/625):
Bi- āyati tuqdimūna ’l- kh ayla sh uʿ th an
ka-anna ʿalā sanābikihā mudāman

At the signal with which you drive on the horses, uncombed
as if their hooves had never known rest from their burdens …
Lisān I 283
Some archaic uses of the word āya appear to have persisted into the early Islamic period. “The signs of the hypocrite are three,” begins a ḥadī th in the first book of Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim, a case in which āya means ‘identifying mark.’ [30] This general meaning is seldom found in post-Qurʾānic Arabic–perhaps in emulation of the specific uses of al-āya in the Qurʾān, where (with two exceptions) it is used strictly to indicate a sign of God’s agency. [31] Thus it refers to teratological interventions (such as catastrophes and prophetic miracles), as well as quotidian phenomena such as the sun and moon (10:5), rainwater and the growth of plants (16:10–11), and the safe passage of ships upon the sea (31:31). At the same time, each individual verse of the Qurʾān is called an āya, as at 2:106 and in Islamic usage ever since. [32] Unlike omens, which require the intervention of an interpreter for their latent content to be revealed, the āyāt of God are named as clear and unmistakable signs, which only those whom God prevents will fail to read as such. The Qurʾān does not interpret these signs so much as it proclaims them, and affirms their source in the Creator whose mastery they in turn signify.
If a mapping of Qurʾānic semiology onto modern Western terms were asked for, one might align the signifying capacity of the āya with that of C. S. Peirce’s “index,” that sign “which refers to its object not so much because of any similarity or analogy with it, nor because it is associated with general characters which that object happens to possess, as because it is in dynamical (including spatial) connection both with the individual object, on the one hand, and with the senses or memory of the person for whom it serves as a sign, on the other hand.” [33] In other words, the relationship between the index and its object is fundamentally metonymic, motivated not by likeness (as is Peirce’s “icon”) or convention (Peirce’s “symbol”), but by virtue of causal association—enforced in the āya’s case by the Qurʾān’s repeated declarations of God’s responsibility for the creation of the heavens, the earth and everything between them. The Qurʾān’s application of the word āya to all verbal and non-verbal manifestations of God’s will effected a permanent transformation in the concept as known in the pre-Islamic poetry. No longer would āya be used to mean “sign” in a general sense, but only for those signs indicating God’s agency and might. As such it is the basis for the semiological regime ushered in by Prophetic revelation (and by “semiological regime” I mean the set of semiotic norms that govern a community’s interaction with the divine). How much Judeo-Christian residue al-āya brought with it into Arabic (borrowed, it is thought, from Syriac ā t ā) is difficult to judge, but any recognizable affiliation to Hebrew oth would seem only to have confirmed the āya as the preferred vehicle for communication between the God of Moses and His Muslim worshipers.
That the āya was not the only semiological model available to the Qurʾān’s early hearers is verifiable on internal evidence alone, for alongside it may be observed a set of idioms drawn openly from the lexicon of divination. These are constructed on the verb ṭayara (‘to fly’) by virtue of its being the root of ṭāʾir, the word for ‘bird’ and hence any ‘indicator of fate’ in the double sense familiar from Greek ornis and Latin avis. The analogy to Greek and Roman ornithomancy is upheld by Fahd, whose elucidation is again worth quoting in full:
The technique of ṭīra or ṭayr (= ὄρνις) consists in observing the spontaneous flights of birds (auspicia oblativa) and drawing from them knowledge of future outcomes. It is carried out upon confrontation with the ominous sign, limited not to the activities of birds but drawing on calls, flights and all the other displays made by animate and inanimate beings. Originally the word referred to all portents good and bad, but early Islam—anxious to purify itself of the remnants of paganism and at the same time striving to retain by conversion the good that inheres in fiṭra, “la bonne nature”—condemned the ṭīra as an ornithomantic technique and an omen of fate equally, while adopting the beneficial omens under the rubric of the faʾl. [34]
The Qurʾān’s repudiation of al-ṭīra is most forcefully expressed in a single narrative template engaged in three separate sūras. This is the primal confrontation between God’s earlier messengers (two drawn from Hebrew scripture and one from Arabian tradition) and the disbelieving nations they were sent to warn. [35] Repeatedly, the disbelievers of old are heard to reject the prophetic warnings with the remark “We take you to be a bad omen,” paying for it in the end with their own destruction. Thus we hear of the Egyptians:
7:130. Wa-la-qad a kh a dh nā āla Firʿawna bi-’s-sinīna wa-naqṣin min a th - th amarāt laʿallahum ya dhdh akkarūn
7:131. Fa-i dh ā jāʾathumu ’l-ḥasanatu qālū La-nā hā dh ihi wa-in tuṣibhum sayyiʾatun yaṭṭayyarū bi-Mūsā wa-man maʿahu a-lā inna-mā ṭāʾiruhum ʿinda ’llāhi wa lākinna ak th arahum lā yaʿlamūn
7:132. Wa-qālū Mahmā taʾtinā bi-hi min āyatin li-tasḥaranā bi-hā fa-mā naḥnu la-ka bi-muʾminīn
7:133. Fa-arsalnā ʿalayhimu ’ṭ-ṭūfāna wa-’l-jarāda wa-’l-qummala wa-’ḍ-ḍafādiʿa wa-’d-dama āyātin mufaṣṣalātin fa-’stakbarū wa-kānū qawman mujrimīn
[. . .]
7:136. Fa-intaqamnā minhum fa-a gh raqnāhum fī-’l-yammi bi-annahum kadhdhabū bi- āyātinā wa-kānū ʿanhā gh āfilīn

7:130. We beset the house of Pharaoh with famine and failure of crops in order that they might take heed.
7.131. For when good things came to them they said, “These are our due,” but when bad things befell them they augured ill of Moses and those who were with him. But no, the indicator of their fate lay with God, though most of them were unknowing.
7.132. And they said, “No matter what signs you bring in order to deceive us by, we will not believe in you.”
7.133. So We unleashed the flood over then, and the locust and the vermin, and the frogs and the blood: a variety of signs. But they remained proud, for they were a sinning people.
[. . .]
7.136. We took Our vengeance on them, and drowned them in the sea, because they challenged the truth of Our signs, and disregarded them.
Of the Thamūd who dwelt at al-Ḥijr we are told,
27:45. Wa-la-qad arsalnā ilā Th amūda a kh āhum Ṣāliḥan an Iʿbudu ’llāha fa-i dh ā hum farīqān ya kh taṣimūn
27:46. Qāla Yā qawmi li-ma tastaʿjilūna bi-’s-sayyiʾati qabla ’l-ḥasanati law lā tasta gh firūn Allāha laʿallakum turḥamūn
27:47. Qālū Aṭṭayyarnā bi-ka wa-bi-man maʿaka qāla Ṭāʾirukum ʿinda ’llāhi bal antum qawmun tuftanūn
[. . .]
27:51. Fa-unẓur kayfa kāna ʿāqibatu makrihim annā dammarnāhum wa-qawmahum ajmaʿīn
27.52. Fa-tilka buyūtuhum kh āwiyatan bi-mā ẓalamū inna fī dh ālika la- āyatan li-qawmin yaʿlamūn

27:45. To Thamūd we sent their brother Ṣāliḥ [commanding] that they “Worship God!” But they were a people divided into two warring factions.
27:46. He said, “O people! Why do you hasten what is evil, instead of what is good? Though you do not [now] seek God’s pardon, you may [yet] be forgiven.
27:47. They said: “We augur ill of you and those who are with you.” He replied: “Your fate’s indicator lies with God, but you are a people beguiled away.”
[. . .]
27:51. See, then, what sort of end their delusion came to: We destroyed them and their people altogether.
27:52. Yonder lie their dwellings, vacated on account of their sins. Truly, there is a sign in this for a knowing people.
Finally, the story is told of “the Village” (al-Qarya) identified with Antioch in Syria:
36:13. Wa-’ḍrib la-humu ma th alan aṣḥāba ’l-Qaryati i dh jāʾaha ’l-mursalūn
36:14. I dh arsalnā ilayhim i th nayni fa-ka dhdh abūhumā fa-ʿazzaznā bi- th āli th in fa-qālū Innā ilaykumu mursalūn. . . .
[. . .]
36:18. Qālū Innā taṭayyarnā bi-kum la-in lam tantahū la-narjumannakum wa-la-yamassannakum minnā ʿa dh ābun alīm
36:19. Qālū Ṭāʾirukum maʿakum a-in dh ukkirtum bal antum qawmun musrifūn

36:13. As an example, tell them of the people of the Village when messengers came to it.
36:14. When We sent them two, [the villagers] called them liars, and so We strengthened [them] with a third. They said, “Truly have we been sent to you as messengers”. . .
[. . .]
36:18. [The villagers] said, “We augur ill of you. If you do not desist we will truly stone you, and grievous punishment will befall you at our hands.”
36:19. [The messengers] said, “Your fate’s indicator is with you, if you only knew it—but you are a people who go too far.”
The pattern is clear: in each case, unbelievers fail to interpret the messengers as bringers of divine āyāt, instead taking the messengers’ very appearance in their midst as a bad omen, and so reject the message they were sent. Their failure is one of interpretation, in that it is caused by applying the wrong code—the oracular code—to the āyāt presented to them.
These citations of oracular vocabulary can be construed in two ways. One is to understand the omen as a “dead metaphor,” that is, as an archaic concept fossilized in the language as a figure of speech. The other is to conclude that if the Qurʾān persists in dramatizing the superscription of the Islamic āya over the ornithomantic ṭāʾir, it is because the practice of divination was general enough to pose a challenge to the semiological mandate of Islamic prophecy. From this conclusion there follows a second, which is that a doctrinal and political conflict between the early Muslim community and the oracular institutions indigenous to the Ḥijāz did in fact take place.
The office of the kāhin might be better imagined with the help of Toufic Fahd’s Encyclopaedia of Islam entries for “Faʾl” and “Kāhin.” Spurned by Alan Jones for their speculative daring (Jones 1994:32–33), they are here quoted for the same reason:
Ṭīrah is in effect a technique whose origin is pastoral and nomadic; Arabia was therefore a very propitious region for its development, as Cicero had already commented: “Arabes (et Phryges et Cilices), quod pastu pecudum maxime utuntur, campos et montes hieme et aestate peragrantes, propterea facilius cantus avium et volatus notaverunt.” [36] Its technical character made it the prerogative of a privileged class of men, which in an organized and developed society enjoyed the status of a priesthood. [37]
The Arab kāhin had not developed beyond this stage when the advent of Islam brought about his disappearance because of the absence, in the nomadic environment in which he lived, of a permanent stable kingship which, as in neighboring kingdoms and elsewhere, would have organized the priesthood if only to keep it under control. [38]
Conjectural though it is, Fahd’s description is hard to dismiss. Al-kihāna was, it seems, no monolith, but a constellated and localized field of practice, and perhaps for this reason figures less prominently in the narrative of emergent Islam than do the more organized tribal and mercantile institutions of the Ḥijāz.
And yet this is no grounds for disregarding the terms of conflict between early Islamic institutions and their oracular counterparts, as Fahd himself comes close to doing. After his articulation of the kāhin’s numerous functions in Arabian society on the eve of Islam, he gives surprisingly little space to the Islamic ban on divination in its political and juridical aspects. [39] In Fahd’s account, it is chiefly for “its pagan character” that divination in most of its forms is banned under Islam, “in the sense that it is conceived as an act of faith in blind forces of nature and the gods which represent them” (Fahd 1966:436–438). I suggest that the Islamic interdiction of divination had not only this cosmological motivation but a political one as well, which was the need to deny all claims to hermeneutic and juridical authority that competed with the Prophet’s own, or the claims made in his name by Islamic institutions. I furthermore submit that the Qurʾān’s citations of the language of divination may be read as artifacts of an historical struggle that took place between the new institutions of Islam and the indigenous oracular institutions that preceded them. As such, the Qurʾānic narratives quoted above are not inert “reflections” of this struggle, but programmatic and performative representations mobilized within the selfsame struggle for hermeneutic and political jurisdiction.


The ṭāʾir is deployed in a variety of contexts within the Qurʾān, and is not always so polemically marked as in the passages above. In one remarkable example, we find it named as an eschatological indicator:
17:13. Wa-kulla insānin alzamnāhu ṭāʾirahu fī ʿunuqihi wa-nu kh riju la-hu Yawma ’l-Qiyāmati kitāban yalqāhu man sh ūran
17:14. Iqrāʾ kitābaka kafā bi-nafsika ’l-yawma ʿalayka ḥasīban

17:13. To every man’s neck We have fastened an indicator of his fate, and on the Day of Resurrection we will issue him a text which he will find spread open.
17:14. [And he will be told,] “Read your text! On this day it is all the accounting you need.”
Here the ṭāʾir is not only placed under God’s jurisdiction (as above at 7:131 and 27:47), but accompanies the text each person will be issued on the Day of Resurrection, indicating their earthly deeds and fated afterlife. If this usage does not exactly amount to an Islamic rehabilitation of the omen, it does at least show another rhetorical use for oracular vocabulary within the Qurʾān, which is to say a co-optional use. For even as the practice of al-ṭīra is forbidden to the Muslim community, the ṭāʾir is claimed by the Qurʾān as an indicator over which God’s control is complete. [40]
Of the twenty-four Qurʾānic occurrences of ṭāʾir and its quasi-plural ṭayr, there are few that cannot be construed as having some oracular sense. Even references to “birds” that do not explicitly engage their semiological function do not exclude it, as in Sūrat al-Naḥl:
16:79. A-lam yaraw ila ’ṭ-ṭayri musa khkh arātin fī jawwi ’s-samāʾi mā yumsikuhunna illa ’llāhu inna fī dh ālika la- āyātin li-qawmin yuʾminūn

16:79. Have they not seen that the birds in the upper air are subservient [to Him]? They are held [aloft] by none but God: truly there are signs in this for those who believe.
Where ṭayr are mentioned in connection with any of the Biblical prophets, it is always in an oracular or magical context. David and Solomon were favored with armies of ṭayr who fought on their behalf (21:79); Solomon was even taught their language (27:16). Abraham is told to perform a rite involving four tame birds when he asks God about raising the dead (2:260), and (as at Genesis 40:16–19) Joseph is called on to interpret his cellmate’s ill-omened dream about birds (12:36–41). Most suggestive of all is the ṭayr of Jesus, which God will recollect in Sūrat al-Māʾida:
5:110. I dh qāla ’llāhu Yā ʿĪsa ’bna Maryama ’ dh kur niʿmatī ʿalayka wa-ʿalā wālidatika i dh ayyadtuka bi-Rūḥi ’l-Qudusi tukallimu ’n-nāsa fi ’l-mahdi wa-kahlan wa-i dh ʿallamtuka ’l-kitāba wa-’l-ḥikmata wa-’t-Tawrāta wa-’l-Injīla wa-i dh ta kh luqu min aṭ-ṭīni ka-hayʾati ’ṭ-ṭayri bi-i dh nī fa-tanfu kh u fī-hā fa-takūnu ṭayran bi-i dh nī wa-tubrīʾu ’l-akmaha wa-’l-abraṣa bi-i dh nī wa-i dh tu kh riju ’l-mawtā bi-i dh nī wa-in kafaftu Banī Isrāʾīla ʿanka i dh jiʾtahum bi-’l-bayyināti fa-qāla ’lla dh īna kafarū minhum In hā dh ā illā siḥrun mubīn
5:110. [The Day] when God will say, “O Jesus son of Mary, remember My blessing upon you and your mother: when I fortified you with the Holy Spirit, and from the cradle you spoke to the people, and as a full-grown man; when I taught you the book and and the proverb, and the Torah and the Gospel; when out of clay you molded the likeness of a bird, with My sanction; and you blew into it and with My sanction it became a bird, and you healed the blind and leprous, with My sanction; and when you caused the dead to emerge [from the tomb], with My sanction; and when I held the children of Israel back from you, when you brought the clear proofs to them, and the disbelievers among them said, ‘Clear sorcery, this, and nothing more.’ ”
This verse draws notice for its summary of the so-called “Infancy Gospel of Thomas,” a collection of anecdotes about the boyhood deeds of Jesus whose Greek recension dates to the sixth century. [41] Along with its near double at Sūrat Āl ʿImrān 3:49, it may be numbered among several Qurʾānic engagements of post-canonical Christian material, of which Sūrat Kahf’s take on the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus (18:9–22) is perhaps the best-known example. As faithfully as the Qurʾān encapsulates these Christian stories, our attention is more attracted to the way they are Islamicized in their new setting, and made consistent with the ongoing semiological project of the Qurʾān. In the first place, God is heard to specify that Jesus’s miracles are performed “with My sanction” (bi-i dh ). This phrase (a variation on the formulaic affirmation bi-i dh ni ’llāhi: “with God’s sanction”) is here found in series with the phrase bi-Rūḥi ’l-Qudusi, Arabic for τῷ πνεύματι τῷ ἁγίῳ, viz. “[fortified] with the Holy Spirit” (as at Luke 10:21). [42] One might say of this nod to Christian usage that it eases the absorption of monotheist narrative into the fabric of the Qurʾān, and furthermore that it achieves this in a contained way that equates Jesus’s teachings to Islam instead of the other way around.
At the same time, the episode of the ṭayr is framed so as to keep its ever-present divinatory valences subordinate to the normative semiological mandate of Islam. The necessity of this containment is not hard to comprehend: to the extent one allows the ṭayr of 5:110 its continually attested sense of “indicator of fate,” it will insinuate the concept of the omen alongside the literal bird made out of clay. It was this sense that led Ahmed Ali (in apparent ignorance of the prior Infancy Gospel) to venture a figurative translation: “when you formed the state of your people’s destiny out of mire and you breathed [a new spirit] into it, and they rose by My leave.” [43] With reason does Khaleel Mohammed single out this passage for critique in his review of Ali’s Al-Qurʾān: A Contemporary Translation; but this does not invalidate Ali’s apprehension of the ṭayr as a semiotic entity, and furthermore one that operates as a “proof” (bayyina) of Jesus’ prophetic mission. English-language translators have variously rendered al- bayyināt at 5:110 as “clear proofs” (Pickthall), “clear signs” (Arberry), and “tokens” (Ali). As semiological vehicles, al-bayyināt appear in the Qurʾān to be a subspecies of āyāt, naming those signs that are adduced in confirmation of a given prophet’s authority (nubuwwa). [44] In the later Islamic period, this concept would come to form the basis for an entire category of hagiographical narrative devoted to cataloguing the “Signs of Prophecy” (ʿalāmāt al-nubuwwa), i.e. the many miracle-tales indicating Muḥammad’s divine appointment as the messenger of God. The figure of a kāhin was occasionally deployed within these tales in order to dramatize Prophetic supercession of the kāhin’s pre-Islamic hermeneutic authority (Fahd 1966:83n8). And at 5:110 we see the ṭayr deployed to a similarly subordinated effect.
As evidence for the intricacy and pervasiveness of the concept of the ṭayr in classical Arabic culture, two entries from Lisān appear in translation as an appendix to this essay. These are the entries for the roots √snḥ and √brḥ, commonly understood to denote the “auspicious” (sāniḥ) and “sinister” (bāriḥ) values that a given omen can embody. In other words, they constitute the two main kinds of ṭayr. A look at the entry for √snḥ will show that these values are by no means fixed, and that Arabian divination is a system of shifting valences where a single sign will indicate different meanings to different beholders. In part this is explained as a function of geography: Ibn Barrī (d. 582/1187) says that the sāniḥ was considered a sign of bad omen in the Ḥijāz and a good omen in the Najd, but that Ḥijāzī usage spread to the Najd resulting in the sāniḥ’s transvaluation, as is seen in the verse by Najdī poet ʿAmr b. Qamīʾa (d. ca. 540 CE):
Fa-bīnī ʿalā ṭayrin sanīḥin nuḥūsuhu
wa-a sh ʾamu ṭayri ’z-zājirīna sanīḥuhā

Get away from me then, at the winging of the ill-omened sanīḥ;
al-sanīḥ is the worst omen known to diviners.
Lisān VI 386
Nor is there total agreement on which direction the sāniḥ and the bāriḥ take in their flight, but the leftward departure is usually indicated for √brḥ and a rightward one for √snḥ. Ibn Manẓūr explains this in terms of relative difficulty for the bow-hunter:
The desert Arabs take al-bāriḥ as a bad omen because of the difficulty it presents for [the right-handed archer], who must contort his torso in order to get a shot at it. Meanwhile the sāniḥ is what passes in front of you from your left to your right; this they interpret as a good omen, because of the ease it presents to hunters and archers.
Lisān I 363
The valences sāniḥ and bāriḥ are not limited to omens but apply to a wide range of phenomena that appear out of nowhere, to the practical advantage or disadvantage of the one experiencing them. An idea may “occur” to one as a sāniḥ; so also may a surprise attack. Al-bawāriḥ are violent, dust-laden winds that blow in summer, and active participle al-bāriḥ means “yesterday”—pointing out that disappearance into nowhere is also another key to the occurrence of an omen. Indeed, rapid alternation of presence and absence, as described by Martin Heidegger, would appear to be the hallmark by which an omen may be recognized as such:
The rising of animals into the open remains closed and sealed in itself in a strangely captivating way. Self-revealing and self-concealing in the animal are one in such a way that human speculation practically runs out of alternatives when it rejects mechanistic views of animality—which are always feasible—as firmly as it avoids anthropomorphic interpretations. Because the animal does not speak, self-revealing and self-concealing, together with their unity, possess a wholly different life-essence [Lebe-Wesen] with animals.
Heidegger 1984:116
The binary valence given to the non-domestic in its self-revealing and self-concealing is from this perspective not surprising. The startled animal may be said to embody pure contingence, to which assigning negative and positive values is an irresistible reflex of “human speculation” (menschliches Auslegen). This same reflex will also explain why disagreement on their signification is so widespread.
There are other variables in al-ṭīra besides which direction an animal takes in its flight. Species is another, and here it will suffice to point out the crow’s strict valuation as an omen of separation and departure. [45] For a wider-ranging résumé of ṭayr and their interpretations, the reader is referred to Fahd’s appendix on “Les animaux de présage chez les Arabes” in La divination arabe (Fahd 1966:498–518). But to return to Sūrat al-Māʾida, if any particular branch of Arab divination is referenced in Jesus’s animation of the ṭayr at 5:110, it is the well-attested technique of al-zajr, as is seen from Fahd’s description:
Al-zajr was a method of divination which essentially consisted of throwing a stone at a bird and shouting at it. A bird which flew away to right of the thrower (zājir) was taken to be a favorable portent (tafāʾala bi-hi), while the leftward-flying bird was taken as an unfavorable one (taṭayyara). Testimony for the antiquity of this practice is found in a verse of Labīd, which also indicates that al-zajr was practiced by women. [46] This is supported by a ḥadī th related by one Umm Karz, who said: “I went before the Prophet and heard him say: ‘Let the birds stay in their places’ (var. ‘in their nests’).” Asked about the meaning of this ḥadī th, al-Shāfiʿī (d. 204/820) said: “The Arabs were masters at the technique of inducing birds to fly. When one of them wished to make a journey, he would exit his dwelling until he came upon some perching birds, which he would then cause to fly away. If they flew off to the right, he would continue on his journey; but if they flew off to the left, then he would go back home.” [47]
The Qurʾān’s most obvious reference to this practice is in the eschatological motif of al-Zajra, the apocalyptic “Blast” or “Shout” that will ring out on the Day of Judgment (as at 37:19 and 79:13). If the Qurʾān does not name al-zajr in direct connection with Jesus at 5:110, his animation of the ṭayr may still be felt to recollect the traditional practice. The other miracles listed in the verse—revival of the dead, restoration of the blind and leprous—follow either by metonymy (where they are ranked in series with the animation of Jesus’s ṭayr) or by metaphor (where they are what is heralded by its miraculous flight).
What this brings us to is basically an inversion of the logic of divination. If, as Gregory Nagy writes, “to interpret is really to formalize the speech-act that is radiating from the dream or omen,” then what Jesus does is to produce the encoded omen, with God’s sanction (Nagy 1990b:168n95). It is here that we might locate the difference between divination and prophecy as represented in early Islamic texts: where the kāhin is an interpreter of signs, the prophet is the medium through whom signs are themselves performed. The subordination of the mantic ṭayr to the prophetic āya is more explicitly enacted at 3:49, where the same narrative is referenced within the annunciation to Mary:
3:49. Wa-rasūlan ilā Banī Isrāʾīla Innī qad jiʾtukum bi-āyatin min rabbikum annī a kh luqu lakum min aṭ-ṭīni ka-hayʾati ’ṭ-ṭayri fa-anfu kh u fī-hi fa-yakūnu ṭayran bi-i dh ni ’llāhi wa-ubriʾu ’l-akmaha wa-’l-abraṣa wa-uḥi ’l-mawta bi-i dh ni ’llāhi wa-unabbiʾukum bi-mā taʾkalūna wa-mā tadda kh irūna fī buyūtikum inna fī dh ālika la-āyatan la-kum in kuntum muʾminīn
3:49. “[He will be] a Prophet unto the Children of Israel, [saying] ‘I bring you an āya from your Lord, which is that out of clay I will mold the likeness of a ṭayr, and that with God’s sanction it will become a ṭayr when I breathe into it. I will heal the blind and the leper, and with God’s sanction I will bring the dead to life, and I will inform you of what you are eating and hoarding in your homes. Truly, there is an āya for you in this, if you are believers.’ ”
Here the ṭayr’s co-option is complete, its semiological charge fully grounded in the normative sign of the āya. As mantic “omen” and Christological “proof” equally, the Qurʾān claims the incident of the ṭayr as an āya, bracketing the ṭayr within that claim, and announces the supercession of the pre-Islamic semiological regimes in which it formerly circulated.
The implications of this transvaluation are sweeping. Disengaged from the occult sign-system of the diviners, the ṭayr is established as a clear monument whose decoding hinges not on interpretive technique, but correct belief: “Truly there is an āya for you in this, if you are believers.” The contrast here presented to Homeric semiology, where reception of the sēma requires the combined noetic powers of anagnōrēsis (‘recognition’) and hypokrisis (‘interpretation’), is most instructive. For one thing, a wider range of faculties is involved in recognizing the āya, as is seen in the many variations on the formula inna fī dh ālika la-āyatan li-qawmin X (“Truly, there is an āya in this for people who do X”): throughout the Qurʾān, āyāt are in this way said to present themselves to those who ‘contemplate’ (li-qawmin yatafakkarūna, 16:11), who ‘remember/reflect’ (li-qawmin ya dhdh akkirūna, 16:13), who ‘listen’ (yasmaʿūna, 16:65), ’are cognizant’ (yaʿqilūna, 16:67), ‘have knowledge’ (yaʿlamūna, 6:97), ‘understand’ (yafhamūna, 6:98), and ‘believe’ (yuʾminūna, 6:99). This last term stands out from the other verbs in the series by virtue of its being a matter of doctrine, not cognition; furthermore, in the Qurʾān’s every negative iteration of the formula, we find that āmana is the only verb used: “Truly, there is an āya in this, but most of them are not believers” (inna fī- dh ālika la-āyatan wa-mā kāna ak th aruhum muʾminīn; 26:8, 67, 103, etc.). The failure to interpret the āya is presented as a failure of belief, not intellect; alternately, it could be said that belief is effectively merged with intellect in the conditions the Qurʾān establishes for the āya’s reception. It is as if no gap existed between the recognition of the āya and its interpretation, or as if no interpretation were needed at all. The only precondition for the correct understanding of the āya is acknowledgement of God’s supremacy as the transcendent signified of every semiological event. [48]

“A beneficial word”

It would be difficult to prove whether the distinction between the āya and the omen long predated its expression in the Qurʾān. The question of divination by earlier prophets does arise as a matter of concern to Muḥammad: when, on entering the Kaʿba, he discovered images of Abraham and Ishmael clutching the featherless arrows used in pre-Islamic divination, he is said to have exclaimed, “By God, never did those two practice divination by arrows!” (Wa-’llāhi, in istaqsamā bi-’l-azlāmi qaṭṭ). [49] And yet for the Prophet himself some form of casting lots as a way of determining a course of action was not unthinkable, as is seen in the opening of ʿĀʾisha’s account of the slander against her in the year 6/627–628:
Whenever the Prophet (God’s blessings and peace be upon him) was planning a journey, he would choose between his wives, taking with him the one whose arrow emerged [from the bundle]. When the quarrel with Banu ’l-Muṣṭaliq broke out, he chose between his wives as was his custom, and my arrow came out over the others’ [aqraʿu baina nisāʾihi ka-mā kāna yaṣnaʿu fa- kh araja saḥmī ʿalayhinna maʿahu]. So he took me on his journey, the Prophet on whom be God’s blessings and peace. [50]
In the Qurʾān, oracular vocabulary is cited in to order to contain it—that is, to foreclose on the mantic sign-systems and institutions with which Prophetic revelation was in direct competition. In this connection it is worth contemplating the one oracular sign the Prophet is said to have praised, namely al-faʾl (pl. fuʾūl). The Prophet’s predilection for the faʾl is reported in a number of ḥadī ths, such as: “‘There is no ṭīra. The best thing of its kind is the faʾl’ [lā ṭīrata wa- kh ayruha ’l-faʾl]. He was asked, ‘O messenger of God, what is faʾl?’ He said: ‘A beneficial word [al-kalimatu ’ṣ-ṣāliḥ] any one of you may hear’ ” (Muslim 2007 [K. al-salām]: 1041). Toufic Fahd, who calls faʾl “a term peculiar to the Arabic,” nevertheless explains it by analogy to the Hebrew neḥashīm as well as the Greek phēmē and klēdōn. [51] He writes that it once embraced both good and bad portents:
[B]ut with early Islam’s condemnation of bird divination (“The Messenger of God loved the faʾl and never practiced al-ʿiyāfa,” runs another ḥadī th), al-faʾl came to signify the favorable omen and aṭ-ṭīra was applied strictly to the unfavorable—to the point where it can be said [as in the Ka sh f al-ẓunūn of Ḥājjī Khalīfa (d. 1067/1657)]: “The meaning of the faʾl is to continue moving forward. The meaning of the ṭīra is to abstain and retreat.” [52]
The faʾl “appears in very varied forms, ranging from simple sneezing, certain peculiarities of persons and things that one encounters, to the interpretation of the names of persons and things which present themselves spontaneously to the sight, hearing and mind of man.” [53] As such, fuʾūl are semiological events that, like āyāt, need no mantic interpretation for their meaning to be made manifest. They wear their content on their faces, or rather in their beholder’s: any name or word or thing that pleases or displeases can be interpreted as a positive or negative indicator of some endeavor’s advisability. Thus we read in al-Sīrat al-nabawiyya of one of the Prophet’s military campaigns:
On his approach to al-Ṣafrāʾ, a village located between two mountains, he asked what the names of the mountains were. They told him: “The first one is called Musliḥ (‘Crappy’), the other is called Mukhrī’ (‘Dung-hill’).” When he asked who lived there, he was told: “Two clans of the Banū Ghifār named Banu ’l-Nār (‘Sons of Fire’) and Banū Ḥurāq (‘Sons of Kindling’).” The Prophet, God’s blessings and peace be upon him, found the mountains hateful, even to pass between, detecting an omen in their names and the names of the people living there [wa- tafāʾala bi-asmāʾihimā wa-asmāʾi ahlihimā]. So he departed, God’s blessings and peace be upon him, keeping al-Ṣafrāʾ on the left-hand side.
Ibn Isḥāq 1936: II 614
Two reasons stand out as to why this method of divination would be accommodated in Islam where others are rejected. The first is that the faʾl leaves no gap between sign and sign-reader requiring a soothsayer’s hermeneutic intervention. The nature of the faʾl is to be instantly apprehended by its “addressee,” which is to say anyone who feels warned or encouraged by it. It neither requires interpretive mediation nor allows it, but is to all appearances transparent, and thus poses no threat to Islam’s semiological hegemony.
The second reason is that unlike the decisive casting of lots or the minatory activities of wild animals, the faʾl could be deliberately managed by fiat of Prophetic authority. So we read in Fahd’s EI2 entry for “Faʾl”:
Furthermore, he made a considerable number of changes in proper names, with the double design of effacing all traces of Arab paganism from Muslim terminology, and even more of removing from any shocking or unsuitable names of followers which he must hear around him, all baleful influences which might emanate from their meanings. It was for this reason that he changed Qalīl [“paltry”] into Kathīr [“plenty”], ʿĀṣī [“disobedient”] into Muṭīʿ [“compliant”]; and thus also that he gave the future Medina the name of Ṭayyiba [“agreeable”] in place of Yathrib, whose root contained the idea of “calumny” [ta th rīb]. [54]
If the faʾl is a semiological event that the Prophet is empowered to produce or control, it finds its antecedent in the ṭayr Jesus animates in the Qurʾān. These irruptions of oracular idioms within the Qurʾān and sunna (i.e. the precedent of the Prophet’s behavior) demonstrate that even as Islamic spiritual authority defined itself in opposition to the oracular institutions of the Ḥijāz, some manipulation of contemporary oracular codes was nevertheless allowable. Insofar as the Prophet’s intervention into Arabian toponymy is explained as a safeguard against inauspicious fuʾūl radiating from the ignoble or insurrectionist place-name, we see the oracular code being manipulated in defense of Islam’s political legitimacy. In other cases, as where the Prophet is said to have disallowed the name Ghurāb (“Crow”) because of its negative ornithomantic associations, the oracular code is shut down altogether. [55]
“The oracle,” Joseph Fontenrose wrote, “is a device that one storyteller needs and another does not” (Fontenrose 1978:92). Of legend and folk narrative this is true, but the story of Islam’s historical development can scarcely be told without examining the semiological practices and institutions against which it defined itself as a religious and political movement. Though less well explored than the Qurʾān’s engagement with the institutionalized traditions of Judaism and Christianity, the Islamic encounter with Arabian oracular tradition was hardly less formative. Indeed, an antagonism toward the prevailing oracular institutions of his day would seem to be a constitutive feature of the Prophet’s mission from its very beginning. It is my conclusion that the oracular idioms engaged in the Qurʾān are traces of an historical struggle for hermeneutic and religious authority that took place between indigenous Arabian soothsaying and the new institutions of Islam—a struggle for which, as with so much of early Islamic history, our only surviving evidence is textual.

Appendix: Good and Bad Omens in Lisān al- ʿ arab [56]

1. √SNḤ

[Active Ist form participle] al-sāniḥ is what comes at you from your right-hand side in the way of gazelles, birds, and things like that. And al-bāriḥ is said of any of those things that come upon you from your left. [However,] Abū ʿUbayda (d. 209/824) says that he was present when Yūnus [ibn Ḥabīb (d. 182/798)] asked Ruʾba [ibn al-ʿAjjāj (d. 145/762)] about al-sāniḥ and al-bāriḥ, and that Ruʾba’s answer was “Al-sāniḥ is what is what turns toward you its right side, and al-bāriḥ is what turns toward you its left side.” [Alternately,] it is said that al-sāniḥ is what comes from your right side so that its left side is brought next to your left. Abū ʿAmr al-Shaybānī (d. 213/828) says, “Al-sāniḥ is what comes from your right-hand side toward your left and turns its left side toward you, also called “the human side” [al-insiyy]. Al-bāriḥ is what comes from your left-hand side toward your right, turning its right side toward you, also called “the wild side” [al-waḥ sh iyy].” Saying, “Al-sāniḥ is preferred to al-bāriḥ, insofar as it is [the sign] of good fortune,” Abū ʿAmr cites the verse by Abū Dhuʾayb [al-Hudhalī (d. ca. 28/649)]:
Aribtu li-irbatihi fa-inṭalaqtu
urajjī li-ḥubbi ’l-liqāʾi sanīḥan

My need for him was such that I left off
hoping for an omen, so great was my wish for [the actual]
The meaning here is “paying no attention to bird-omens, whether sāniḥ or bāriḥ.” But the verse has also been said to mean “I left off wishing for a good omen.” [57] Abū ʿAmr also says that for others the sāniḥ is a portent of evil, as in the line by ʿAmr b. Qamīʾa (d. ca. 540 CE):
Wa-a sh ʾamu ṭayri ’z-zājirīna sanīḥuhā

The worst omen known to diviners is the sanīḥ.
And also in the verse of al-Aʿshā (d. ca. 4/625):
Ajārahumā Bi sh run min al-mawti baʿdamā
jarā la-humā ṭayru ’s-sanīḥi bi-a sh ʾami

Bishr protected them both from death, after
the bird of sanīḥ sped its ill omen to them.
The Bishr mentioned in this verse is Bishr b. ʿAmr b. Marthad, who was a hunting companion of al-Mundhir Māʾ al-Samāʾ (d. ca. 554 CE). On his [yearly] “Day of Evil,” it was al-Mundhir’s custom to kill the first person he came across. On that day, when two of Bishr’s cousins (sons of his father’s brother) appeared, al-Mundhir wanted to kill them, but Bishr pleaded their cause before him, and al-Mundhir gave them over to him. [58] And from Ruʾba come the rajaz verses:
Fa-kam jarā min sāniḥin yasnaḥu
wa-bāriḥātin lam taḥri tabraḥu
bi-ṭayrin ta kh bībun wa-lā tabraḥu

How many of those which present as sāniḥ
and those presenting as bāriḥ, which are not fulfilled!
In the omen is deception, and no indicator of ill fortune.
Shammar [b. Ḥamdawayh (d. 255/869)] said that Ibn al-Aʿrābī (d. 231/846) recited these lines with the last word as yasnaḥu, indicating good fortune and a blessing, as in the verse cited by Abū Zayd [al-Anṣārī (d. 215/830)]:
Aqūlu wa-’ṭ-ṭayru la-nā sāniḥun
yajrī la-nā aymanuhu bi-’s-suʿūd

When the omen presents itself to us as a sāniḥ, I say
that its good fortune runs in our favor.
Abū Mālik [ʿAmr b. Kirkira] said that the sāniḥ is what blesses one, and that the bāriḥ is what announces a calamity, but that Zuhayr [ibn Abī Sulmā (d. early 7th c. CE)] interpreted them the other way around, as in the verse:
Jarat sunuḥan fa-qultu la-hā Ajīzī
nawan ma sh mūlatan fa-matā al-liqāʾ

[The gazelles] presented as omens, and I said to them, “Oblige me
to cross the distance swept by the north wind—but when will
the encounter be?”
Here sunuḥ are glossed as gazelles of good omen, as well as bad. Among the Arabs, there were differing schools of interpretation brought to such portents; some understood the sāniḥ to bode well, and others took it as an evil portent. Al-Layth [ibn al-Muẓaffar (d. ca. 187/803)] cites the line:
Jarat la-ka fī-ha ’s-sāniḥātu bi-as ʿ ad

The omens present you with the happiest of fortunes in the
“Who will be my sāniḥ, after my bāriḥ [has flown]?” is a proverbial expression [discussed ahead in art. √brḥ].
As is seen in the verse by al-Aʿshā, [IIIrd-form verb] sānaḥa and [Ist-form] sanaḥa have the same meaning:
Jarat li-himā ṭayru ’s-sināḥi bi-a sh ʾam

There came upon the two of them a bird signifying bad fortune.
There are some who dispute this. The plural of sāniḥ is sawāniḥ; [adjectival form] sanīḥ is its equivalent, as in the verse:
Jarā yawma ruḥnā ʿāmidīna li-arḍihim
sanīḥun fa-qāla al-qawmu Marra sanīḥ

On the day we departed on course for their land, there flew
a sanīḥ, and the people said, “A sanīḥ passes by.”
Its plural is sunuḥ, as in the verse:
A-bi-’s-sunuḥi ’l-ayāmini am bi-naḥsin
tamurru bi-hi ’l-bawāriḥu ḥīna tajrī

Do they come as auspicious sunuḥ, or as bad omens
do the bawāriḥ pass by, when they present?
Ibn Barrī said: “The Arabs differ in their reading of omens, that is, in the good or bad fortunes of the sāniḥ and bāriḥ. The people of Najd [north-central Arabian Peninsula] hold the sāniḥ as a good omen, as in the verse by Dhu ’l-Rumma (d. 117/735–736), who was from Najd:
Kh alīlayya lā lāqaytumā mā ḥayaytumā
min aṭ-ṭayri illa ’s-sāniḥāti wa-asʿadā

My two friends, you did not encounter and did not witness
any omens, except for the sāniḥ and [signs] happier still.
“And al-Nābigha [al-Dhubyānī (d. 602 CE)], who was also from the Najd, held the bāriḥ as an ill omen:
Zaʿama ’l-bawāriḥu anna riḥlatanā gh adan
wa-bi- dh āka tanʿābu al- gh urābi ’l-aswad [59]

The bawāriḥ claim that our journey is tomorrow,
and that is the subject of the black crow’s croaking.
“And Kuthayyir [ʿAzza b. ʿAbd al-Raḥmān (d. 105/723)], who being from the Ḥijāz read the ill omen in the sāniḥ, has the verse:
Aqūlu i dh ā ma ’ṭ-ṭayru marrat mu kh īfatan
Sawāniḥuhā tajrī wa-lā asta th īruhā

When bird-omens pass in a threatening way, I say,
“Their sawāniḥ are presenting,” and I do not rouse them.
“These are the original values. Ḥijāzī usage was later to spread to the Najd, from which we get the verse by Najdī poet ʿAmr b. Qamīʾa:
Fa-bīnī ʿalā ṭayrin sanīḥin nuḥūsuhu
wa-a sh ʾamu ṭayri ’z-zājirīna sanīḥuhā [60]

Get away from me then, at the winging of the ill-omened sanīḥ
sanīḥ is the worst omen known to diviners.”
The verbal nouns of sanaḥa (imperfect yasnaḥu) are sunūḥ, sunḥ, and sunuḥ, and name the passing of a gazelle from your left to your right. Al-Azharī (d. 370/890) relates that during the Jāhiliyya there was a woman who frequented the market at ʿUkāẓ, and that she was a reciter of sayings and a coiner of new ones, and that she used to ridicule men in the marketplace. One day a man came up to her, and after she had spoken as was her wont, he responded:
Askatāki jāmiḥun wa-rāmiḥu
ka-’ẓ-ẓabyatayni sāniḥun wa-bāriḥu

Shut up, you fractious hurler of barbs,
darting this way and that [in your speech] like two ominous gazelles!
—whereupon the woman went away, herself humiliated. Sanaḥa is also used of a thought or a line of poetry, meaning “it presented itself” or “occurred” [to the mind]. In one ḥadī th, ʿĀʾisha spoke of [her distaste for] passing in front of the Prophet when he was at prayer: Akrahu an asnaḥahu, [“I hate to pass before him”]. Where it is reported that [the first Caliph] Abū Bakr said to Usāma: A gh ir ʿalayhim gh āratan sanḥāʾa [“Make a surprise attack on them”], it means to “fall upon” someone, or to “occur,” as is said of an idea. (Of this instance, Ibn al-Athīr [d. 606/1210] says that saḥḥāʾan [“Make your attack an inundation”] is better attested.) Ibn al-Sikkīt (d. 244/858) has remarked: “Sanaḥa and sāniḥ are said of a thing which deters someone from their goal, repelling them and turning them away.”
When the particles bi- and ʿalā are interposed between sanaḥa and its object, it means to dispossess or otherwise afflict someone. It also means to allude or reveal obliquely, as in the verse by Sawwār b. al-Muḍarrib:
Wa-ḥājatin dūna u kh rā qad sanaḥtu la-hā
jaʿaltuhā li-’llatī a kh faytu ʿunwānā

Such a need, like no other! I showed it to her,
concealing its object from her for whom I conceived it (?).
Al-sanīḥ is also the thread on which pearls are strung, before the pearls are strung on it. Afterwards, it is called an ʿiqd. Its plural is sunuḥ. According to al-Liḥyānī, in the expression sunuḥ al-ṭarīq it means “the middle” of a road. Al-Azharī says that for some speakers sanīḥ means “pearls and ornamentation”; and in speaking of women Abū Dūʾād [al-Iyādī, fl. 6th c. ] spoke the following verse:
Wa-ta gh ālayna bi-’s-sanīḥi wa-lā yasʾalna
gh ibba ’ṣ-ṣabāḥi ma ’l-a kh bār

They are excessive in ornament, and have no care for
what the breaking day’s news might be.
The derived [Xth- and Vth-form] verbs istasnaḥa and tasannaḥa are spoken in rare instances, as are [their anagrams] the similarly formed verbs istanḥasa and tanaḥḥasa. Their meaning is “to seek an explanation.”
The redoubled noun sanaḥnaḥ is attributed by Ibn al-Athīr to ʿAlī, who called himself “sanaḥnaḥ of the night,” meaning “I never sleep at night, but remain watchful.” Samaʿmaʿ is also related. [61] Of Abū Bakr it is said that his home was in an elevated area of Medina called the Sunuḥ, where the Banu ’l-Ḥārith b. al-Khazraj made their homes. It is also called Sunayḥ and Sinḥān.

2. √BRḤ

Baraḥa (verbal nouns baraḥ and burūḥ) means “to cease.” When its second radical is voweled with kasra—i.e. bariḥa, meaning “to quit” one’s place or station—its verbal noun is barāḥ. [There follows a lengthy discussion of the idiom lā barāḥa—“There will be no departure/quitting of place”—which can be voweled in the accusative or the nominative.]
[Vth-form] Tabarraḥa is similar in meaning to [Ist-form] baraḥa, occurring negatively in the verse by Mulayḥ [al-Ḥakam al-Qirdī] al-Hudhalī:
Maka th na ʿalā ḥājatihinna wa-qad maḍā
sh abābu ’ḍ-ḍuḥā wa-’l-ʿīsu mā tatabarraḥu

[The ladies] are still troubled by their need, when the youths of the morning
have decamped, and the white-haired camels have stayed behind.
[IVth-form] Abraḥa is a transitive form. According to al-Azharī, bariḥa is said of a man when he leaves his place. The negative expression mā bariḥa, followed by an imperfect verb, is equivalent to mā zāla, meaning “to persist” in that action or state. (This expression also occurs in the imperfect—i.e. lā yabraḥu with following verb also in the imperfect, much like lā yazālu.) And when its object is a land or territory, as in bariḥa ’l-arḍa, it means to depart from it. In revelation [at Sūrat Yūsuf 12:80, Joseph’s brother says]: Fa-lan abraḥa ’l-arḍa ḥattā yaʾ dh ana lī abī: [“I will not depart from this land until my father gives me permission”]. And, God be Exalted [at Sūrat Ṭā Hā 20:91, Moses’s people say of the golden calf]: Fa-lan nabraḥa ʿalayhi ʿākifayni [“We will not relinquish it, but remain devoted”].
Ḥabīlu barāḥin [“Who fights to the end”] is an epithet of the lion or the hero who does not retreat, as if bound to the spot by cords [ḥibāl]. [62] And barāḥ can mean a manifestation or appearance. Bariḥa ’l- kh afāʾu [“secrecy departed”] is a synonym for ẓahara: “it appeared,” and Ibn al-Aʿrābī says the voweling baraḥa also applies in such cases as the line:
Baraḥa ’l- kh afāʾu fa-mā ladayya tajalludun

Secrecy was dispelled, for I could endure it no longer.
Here the poet’s disclosure of the matter is characterized as the departure of secrecy, or in other words its cessation. According to al-Azharī, the meaning of bariḥa ’l- kh afāʾu is that “secrecy came to an end.” It is also explained as “what was hidden became revealed, and was uncovered,” and that this sense comes from barāḥ al-arḍi, which means ground with no cover. The phrase is also glossed as “what I was concealing became revealed.” From this comes the expression found in ḥadī th: Jāʾa bi-’l-kufri barāḥan [“He made no concealment of his unbelief”], in which adverbial accusative barāḥan means “distinctly” or “openly”; another such expression is Jāʾanā bi-’l-amri barāḥan [“He made no concealment of the matter from us”]. Barāḥ (used adjectivally and substantively) is said of open land that is free of trees, dwellings, tillage or vegetation of any kind. And Barāḥi is a name of the sun, formed upon bariḥa as the indeclinable name Qaṭāmi is formed from qaṭama; [63] it is a name that describes the sun’s open visibility. The following lines were transmitted by Quṭrub (d. 206/821):
dh ā maqāmu qadamay Rabāḥi
dh abbaba ḥattā dalakat Barāḥi

Here stood the two feet of Rabāḥ
who prolonged his journey until the sun went down.
Al-Farrāʾ (d. 207/822) gives this verse’s ending as bi-rāḥi, where rāḥ is the plural of rāḥa, i.e. the hand. The meaning here is that people’s hands were held to their eyes as they watched the setting sun. [There follows more debate on the verse’s original sense and vocalization.]
[IInd- and IVth-form verbs] barraḥa and abraḥa both mean “to bother persistently,” where the object is introduced with the particle bi-. And in the Tah dh īb of al-Azharī it says “to be persist in being bothersome and wearisome.” Verbal nouns barḥ and tabrīḥ are used to describe a wearisome affair, as for example in the verse [by Dhu ’l-Rumma] that ends:
bi-nā wa-’l-hawā barḥun ʿalā man yu gh ālibuhu [64]

… passion is a drag for the one overcome by it.
The expression barḥun bāriḥun [“a bothersome bother,” “grievous grief,” etc.], like barḥun mubriḥun, is redoubled for emphasis and intensity. When used in an optative sense, the accusative case is preferred, but the nominative is allowable, as in the verse:
A-munḥadiran tarmī bi-ka ’l-ʿīsu gh urbatan
wa-muṣʿidatan barḥun li-ʿaynayka bāriḥu

So the white-haired camels hurry away with you, carrying you off
and bringing you back? Grievous grief in your eyes!
[This last phrase] functions as a curse and a proposition equally. Al-barḥ is malignance and vicissitude of fate. With the particle bi- before its object, [IInd form verb] barraḥa means to harass. And al-tabārīḥ [the plural of barraḥa’s verbal noun al-tabrīḥ] are “calamities.” Al-tabārīḥ are also defined as hardships of a toilsome life. The tabārīḥ of desire refer to its burning. The redoubled expression “I encountered from him barḥan bāriḥan” indicates “a great deal of vexation.” In ḥadī th we find the phrase “We met with al-barḥ from him”—that is, “harshness”—and in an account the people of Nahrawān [site of the Khārijites’ defeat at ʿAlī’s hands in 38/658], “They met with al-barḥ.” A poet said:
A-jaddaka hā dh ā ʿamraka ’llāhu kullumā
daʿāka ’l-hawā barḥun li-ʿaynayka bāriḥu

Does this inflame you? God grant you long life! All that
passion calls you to is grievous grief in your eyes.
A blow that is mubarriḥ [present active participle of IInd-form verb barraḥa] is a forceful one. *Mubarraḥ [passive participle of same] is not used. Also found in ḥadī th is the phrase “a blow that was not mubarriḥ,” i.e. not grievous. Abraḥ, the comparative form, means “more grievous” and “harsher,” and is found in the verse by Dhu ’l-Rumma:
Anīnan wa- sh akwā bi-’n-nahāri ka th īratan
ʿalayya wa-mā yaʾtī bi-hi ’l-laylu abraḥu

By day, I am overcome by much wailing and grief,
and what the night brings is more grievous still.
Although its lexical meaning derives from barraḥa, abraḥ is formed upon the root baraḥa. Otherwise it must be understood as an anomalous form like aḥnak, as in the phrase “the hungrier [aḥnak] of the two sheep” [anomalous in that there is no prior adjectival form like *ḥanīk for aḥnak to be the comparative of].
Al-buraḥāʾ is harshness and difficulty. More specifically, it is held by some to mean the extremity of a fever, and burāḥāyā is of this same meaning. In connection with a fever or any other complaint, buraḥāʾ refers to its intensity. Of a person afflicted with fever, one says, “Al-buraḥāʾ has struck him.” According to al-Aṣmaʿī (d. 213/828), “When a fever is of long duration, it is called al-muṭawwī [‘the enfolding’]. If the fever recurs, it is called al-ruḥaḍāʾ [‘the sweats’]. If it becomes more intense, it is al-buraḥāʾ.” In ḥadī th we find the phrase “I was afflicted with an extremity of fever” [barraḥat bī al-ḥummā]. And in a ḥadī th of the Slander we find al-buraḥāʾ used for the intensity of the distress provoked in the Prophet by the weightiness of the Revelation. [65]
In a ḥadī th relating the assassination of Abū Rāfiʿ al-Yahūdī comes the phrase “His widow assailed us [barraḥat bi-nā] with her cries.” One says barraḥa tabrīḥan of a matter that taxes one’s endurance. And we hear the expression “I met with the daughters of harshness [al-barḥ] from him,” as well as “the sons of harshness.”
Al-biraḥīn, al-buraḥīn and al-baraḥīn all mean “calamaties and disasters.” Their singular form would be *biraḥ, but this word is never used. [Much discussion of this follows.] Also heard is “I met with barḥun bāriḥun from him,” and “I met with the son of barīḥ from him.” Al-barīḥ, like al-barḥ, means “toil” [taʿab], as in the line:
bi-hi masīḥun wa-barīḥun wa-ṣa kh ab

with him are sweat, toil and tumult.
Al-bawāriḥ (singular al-bāriḥa) are strong north winds prevailing in summer that bring no rain. It is also said that al-bawāriḥ are strong winds that because of the violence of their blowing carry dirt with them, and that their singular is al-bāriḥ, which by itself means a hot wind in summer. Abū Ḥanīfa (d. 150/767) named several who defined al-bawāriḥ simply as “storms,” but himself denied this unspecialized meaning. Abū Zayd relates: “Al-bawāriḥ are north winds particular to the summer,” on which al-Azharī comments, “I have found that the desert Arabs’ usage corresponds with Abū Zayd’s.” Ibn Kunāsa (d. 209/824) said, “All the winds that blow at the height of summer are called by the Arabs al-bawāriḥ. The most plenteous of these are called al-simāʾim [sg. al-simūm] and blow when the stars of Libra are in ascendance.” And Dhu ’l-Rumma said:
Lā bal huwa ’ sh - sh awqu min dārin ta kh awwanahā
marran saḥābun wa-marran bāriḥun taribu

Nay, it is only longing provoked by an encampment defaced
by the passage of rainclouds and dust-laden wind.
The epithet tarib [“dusty”] shows that al- bāriḥ is a summer wind and not a vernal wind. The winds of summer are always dusty.
Said of [the flight of] a gazelle or bird, al-bāriḥ is the contrary of the sāniḥ. When used in this sense, the verb’s second radical is voweled with ḍamma in the imperfect [i.e. baraḥat tabruḥu] and given the verbal noun burūḥ, as in the rajaz verses:
Fa-hunna yabruḥna la-hu burūḥan
wa-tāratan yaʾtīnahu sunūḥan

[At one moment] they present as ill omens, and bad augury
is his,
and [at another] they come as good omens.
In ḥadī th we find the expression baraḥa al-ẓaby: “The gazelle presented as bāriḥ,” i.e. inversely to the sāniḥ. Al-bāriḥ is that bird or beast that passes in front of you heading from your right toward your left. The desert Arabs take al-bāriḥ as a bad omen because of the difficulty it presents for [the right-handed archer], who must contort his torso in order to get a shot at it. Meanwhile the sāniḥ is what passes in front of you from your left to your right; this they interpret as a good omen, because of the ease it presents to hunters and archers. The saying “Who will be my sāniḥ, after my bāriḥ [has flown]?” [man lī bi-’s-sāniḥi baʿda ’l-bāriḥi] became proverbial when it was uttered by one man who was wronged by another. “He will do right by you in the future,” he was told by a third, and he responded with the now-proverbial expression. But it originated with a man whose path was crossed by a bāriḥ gazelle. When someone said to him, “It will turn sāniḥ on you,” he responded, “Who will be my sāniḥ, after my bāriḥ [has flown]?”
In its oracular sense, the verb baraḥa is voweled exclusively with fatḥa. The bāriḥ gazelle is the one that shows its left flank to you as it runs from your right to your left. The saying “Little seen, like the bāriḥ of the mountain goat” [Innamā huwa ka-bāriḥi ’l-urwiyyi qalīlan mā yurā] was coined to describe the [infrequent] generosity of a man whose hand is slow to open. Its sense comes from the fact that the mountain goat makes its home on the peaks of mountains, and therefore does not present its flank to the viewer, so that people hardly ever see it as either bāriḥ or sāniḥ.
In the phrase qatalūhum abraḥa qatlin [“They made a surprise attack on them”], abraḥ means “most astonishing” [aʿjab]. In a ḥadī th related by ʿIkrima (d. 105/723–724), we are told that the Prophet (God’s blessings and peace be upon him) prohibited al-tabrīḥ together with al-tawlīh [“laying waste”]. Tabrīḥ refers to slaughter that does the animal needless harm, as when one throws a living fish into fire; further commentary on it may be found in ḥadī th. We are told by Shammar that Ibn al-Mubārak (d. 181/797) mentioned this ḥadī th in the course of describing his revulsion at encountering a fish cooked live in fire, saying, “The food was eaten, but I took no pleasure in it.” Shammar also tells us that some authorities also refer to the live burning of lice as tabrīḥ. And al-Azharī says, “I saw some desert Arabs who filled a vessel with live locusts. They dug a pit in the sand where they kindled a fire, [into which] they dumped the still-vigorous locusts, spilling them into the fire until they were all dead. Then they gathered the locusts from the ashes and set them out under the sun to cure. And when they were throroughly dessicated, they ate them.” The root meaning of al-tabrīḥ is “grief and violence,” after barraḥa’s sense of “to cause grief” for someone. In the exclamation Ma abraḥa hā dh a ’l-amra [“What an affecting matter!”], mā abraḥa has the sense of mā aʿjaba [“How extraordinary!”]. And in the verse by al-Aʿshā,
Aqūlu la-hā ḥīna jadda ’r-raḥīlu
abraḥti rabban wa-abraḥti jāran

I say to [my mount] at the beginning of the journey:
“You have astounded your lord and neighbor.”
Abraḥa’s meaning here is “to inspire wonder” and “to perform admirably.” Others give its meaning here as “You served nobly,” where the transitive meaning of abraḥa is “to honor” and “to magnify.” In his commentary on this same line of al-Aʿshā’s, Abū ʿAmr says that a thing or an event is said to have barḥā when it delights or astounds the speaker, and that marḥā is used the same way. Opinions differ as to whether abraḥti rabban here means “You ennobled your master,” “You have astounded your master,” or “You have served your master well.” Al-Aṣmaʿī’s judgment was for the meaning “You have gone beyond what was demanded.” Another gloss is that it means “to excel in stinginess or generosity”; abraḥa is said of one man who gives preference to another, or anything that confers a benefit.
The expression Barraḥa ’llāhu ʿanka means “May God dispel your troubles.” Mā a sh adda mā baraḥa ʿalayhi [“How great was what provoked him!”] is said of a man who gets angry with his companion. Al-bāriḥa is used by the Arabs to mean “last night,” said after the sun has begun descending from its highest point in the sky. Until that time the previous night’s events are still discussed as things that happened “on this night” [al-laylata]. In the line by Dhu ’l-Rumma:
taballa gh a bāriḥiyya karāhu fīhi

… last night’s slumber got the best of him
some have said that bāriḥiyy [a relative adjective derived from al-bāriḥa] refers to the oppressive drowsiness that muddled his vigil. Others have commented that it simply means “the previous night.” The saying Mā a sh baha ’l-laylata bi-’l-bāriḥati [“How like this night is to last night!”] means “How like last night, most recent of the nights past and done with, is the night in which we find ourselves tonight.” Al-bāriḥa is the most recent of all the nights that have passed. “I met with him on al-bāriḥa,” or “al-bāriḥa the first.” Its meaning comes from bariḥa’s sense of “to pass or come to an end.” It has no diminutive form. Thaʿlab [b. Yaḥyā (d. 291/904)] said, “I am told that Abū Zayd said, ‘In the period between the rising of the sun and the beginning of its descent, you say [of a dream], “In my sleep tonight I saw . . .” After midday you say, “Last night I saw . . .” ’ ” In his Tales of the Grammarian of Baṣra, [al-Ḥasan b. ʿAbd Allāh] al-Sīrāfī (d. 368/979) reports these words of Yūnus: “The Arabs say, ‘Such and such a thing happened tonight’ until morning is over. At that point they say, ‘It happened last night.’ ”
According to al-Jawharī (d. ca. 400/1009–1010), “The word barḥā, construed after the form faʿlā, is said for the missed shot of an archer or anyone aiming for a target, and marḥā is said for a hit.” And Ibn Sīda (d. 458/1066) says, “The Arabs have a pair of words used for shooting and throwing. For the shot that hits its target, they say marḥā; and for the shot that misses, they say barḥā.” And [yet] an utterance that is barīḥ is one said [by others] to have hit its mark, as in the line by Abu Dhuʾayb al-Hudhalī:
Arāhu yudāfiʿu qawlan barīḥan [66]

I saw him fending off a harsh talking-to.
Al-burḥa means “the best” of anything, and its plural is al-buraḥ. One says, “This one is al-burḥa of the buraḥ” to mean that it is the best of the best. Said of a she-camel, it means that of all the camels she is the finest. And according to the Tah dh īb, it is said of a male camel also.
Ibn [“Son of”] Barīḥ and Umm [“Mother of”] Barīḥ are epithets of the crow, so called because of its call. A flock of crows is called Banāt [“daughters of”] Barīḥ. Ibn Barrī says that only Ibn Barīḥ is heard, and that it may also be used as a general expression for hardship. One says, “I met with the son of Barīḥ from him,” as in the anonymous verse:
Salā al-qalbu ʿan kubrāhumā baʿda ṣabwatin
wa-lāqayta min ṣu gh rāhima ’bna Barīḥi

After a dalliance, your heart turned away from the elder of the two [sisters]
but you met with Ibn Barīḥ from the younger.
Another form of this expression is: “I met with Banāt Barḥ,” or “Banū Barḥ.”
Yabraḥ is a man’s name. In a ḥadī th related by Abū Ṭalḥa [it is related that the Prophet said], “Of all the territories in my possession, Bayraḥāʾ is the one I love best.” Ibn al-Athīr reports differing versions of how this name should be voweled. It is the name of an area of Medina. In al-Fāʾiq fī gh arīb al-ḥadī th, al-Zamakhsharī (d. 538/1144) states that it is built on al-barāḥ, the word for “open land.”


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[ back ] 1. For their helpful critique of this essay, I thank Margaret Larkin, Leslie Kurke, James Monroe, Jack Mitchell, Rodney Merrill, and Dan Sofaer. Thanks also to Mohammed Sharafuddin and Edgar W. Francis for their responses on its delivery at the 2003 conference of the Middle East Studies Association in Anchorage, Alaska. I also thank the Al-Falah Program of U. C. Berkeley’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies for awarding it the 2004 Abduljawad Prize for Best Paper on an Islamic Subject. [ back ] “Sêma and Nóēsis” first appeared in Arethusa 16 (1983): 35–55; text as quoted here is from Nagy 1990a:203–204.
[ back ] 2. Collins 2002:17–41 concludes otherwise, reading the various expressions of distrust in omens that occur in Homer as an outright critique of mantic authority. Like the suitor Eurymachus’ spurning of the omen at Odyssey ii 146–207, however, Hector’s disbelief seems rather a function of his role within the narrative than a critique of divination by the narrative.
[ back ] 3. A scholiast notes that Works and Days stops at the beginning of a long discourse on bird divination athetized in the third century BCE by Apollonius Rhodius. See Hesiod Works and Days 364–365.
[ back ] 4. [Q]ualia sunt molimina magicarum artium, quae quidem commemorare potius quam docere assolent poetae. De doctrina christiana II 20.30 (Augustine, De doctrina christiana 33).
[ back ] 5. Nagy 2002:145. This is a new way to frame mise en abîme in Homer, which is one is more used to thinking about in connection with the Odyssey’s scenes of epic singing on Phaeacia and Ithaca. See Foucault 1977:53–67.
[ back ] 6. Vernant 1991:307.
[ back ] 7. Wellhausen 1897:137n4. See also Jones 1994:32–37, Fahd 1966:149–176, Frolov 2000:105–108, Zwettler 1978:157–159, and Zwettler 1990:80–84.
[ back ] 8. Known together as al-Muʿawwidatayn or “Sūras of Refuge,” the last two (al-Falaq and al-Nās) are renowned as charms against illness and malevolent sorcery.
[ back ] 9. Translations, except where noted, are my own.
[ back ] 10. It will further be noticed that three of sh āʿir’s four occurrences (21:5, 37:36, and 52:30 quoted above) fall within in the quoted speech of those who dismiss the Qurʾān as the invention of a “poet.”
[ back ] 11. Least convincing is his downplaying of the ritual speech of soothsayers, on the grounds that “their short, enigmatic and highly occasional utterances offered no real precedent for recurrent and sustained use of the poetic idiom outside the realm of poetry, as represented by the Qurʾān.” Zwettler 1978:160.
[ back ] 12. Although al- Sh ayṭān is regularly identified in Islamic usage with Satan, the name is also given to airborne spirits coeval with the jinn. As impish companion spirits, sh ayāṭīn (pl.) may be thought of by analogy to the Socratic daimōn—the Prophet is said to have affirmed that everybody has one in Muslim 2007 (Kitāb Ṣifāt al-munāfiqīn): 1272—or, in the case of poets, to the muse. “Muse” is clearly its operative sense in the remark by the early poet Jarīr to his rival Farazdaq: “Did you not know we share the same sh ayṭān?” (a-mā ʿalamta anna sh ayṭānanā wāḥid). Al-Ḥātimī 1979: II 47.
[ back ] 13. This is demonstrated in an episode from al-Sīrat al-nabawiyya (‘Life of the Prophet’) by Ibn Isḥāq and Ibn Hishām (discussed by Zwettler 1978:158–159), describing an assembly of Muḥammad’s Meccan opponents convened by al-Walīd ibn al-Mughīra in order to determine the exact nature of the Prophet’s mission. To their first conjecture that he is a kāhin, al-Walīd responds, “No, by God, he is no kāhin, for we have seen kāhins, and his is not the cryptic muttering [zamzama] of the kāhin, nor the kāhin’s sajʿ.” “Then he is majnūn [possessed by demons],” they say, to which al-Walīd replies, “He is not majnūn, for we have seen demonic possession, and are acquainted with it, and he shows none of the convulsions, choking, or devilish whispering [waswasa] of the possessed.” “Then he is a poet [sh āʿir],” to which al-Walīd says, “He is no poet, for we know poetry in all its forms and meters, and [the Qurʾān] is not poetry.” “Then he is a sorcerer [sāḥir].” “No, he is no sorcerer, for we have seen sorcerers and their magic, and [Muḥammad practices] none of their spitting and tying of knots.” And yet al-Walīd concludes, “Your guess that he is a sorcerer comes closest, in that he has the sorcerer’s power to separate a man from his father, his brother, his wife, and his tribe” (emphasis added). Ibn Isḥāq 1936: I 270–271 ; alluded to in Sūrat al-Mudda thth ir (74:18-25).
[ back ] 14. As Dmitry Frolov has indicated, it was a concern for scholars of the Ashʿarī school to deny the presence of sajʿ in the text of Qurʾān, but even Abū Bakr al-Bāqillānī (d. 403/1013) “had to concede that speech can be patterned as sajʿ ‘without turning into it’ ” (qad yakūnu ’l-kalāmu ʿalā mi th āli ’s-sajʿi wa-in lam yakun sajʿan). Frolov 2000:107–108 (with references).
[ back ] 15. Thus in Abū Dāʾūd 1996 (Kitāb al-Diyāt): IV 196, with multiple versions in Muslim 2007 (Kitab al-Qaṣāma): 796–797; cited also in al-Jāḥiẓ 1968: I 287, and noted by Frolov 2000:113.
[ back ] 16. See 2 Kings 9:11, Jeremiah 29:26, and Hosea 9:7; also Deuteronomy 28:34 and 1 Samuel 21:14–15. If I am not mistaken, Yiddish meshuggeneh is formed upon this Hebrew word.
[ back ] 17. Fahd 1966:151–153; see also Fahd art. “Sadjʿ (1)” in Encyclopaedia of Islam, 2nd ed. (henceforth EI2) VIII 732–733.
[ back ] 18. Fahd 1966:162–169; for an English translation see Ibn al-Kalbī 1952:46–47.
[ back ] 19. See Levi Della Vida’s article “Saṭīḥ b. Rabīʿah” in EI2 IX 84–85.
[ back ] 20. The Banū Thaqīf inhabited the mountainous area of al-Ṭāʾif, south of Mecca.
[ back ] 21. The Ghassānids were a tribal alliance retained as foederati of the Byzantines along the empire’s Arabian borders. By virtue of their service, the Banū Ghassān rose to semi-aristocratic status among the northern nomads.
[ back ] 22. The Prophet’s grandfather ʿAbd al-Muṭṭalib resorts to the arbitration of female soothsayers in two separate incidents related in Ibn Isḥāq 1936: I 144–145 and 153–154; English translation by Guillaume 1955:67–68 and 91–92.
[ back ] 23. Zwettler 1990:78. Vernant 1991:306 makes a similar point about the civic marginalization of oracular activity in classical Greece. Kuhhān is the plural of kāhin.
[ back ] 24. The story of Saṭīḥ’s interpretation of a dream for the king of Yemen is narrated in Ibn Isḥāq 1936: I 15–19, trans. Guillaume 1955:4–6. In another well-known story Saṭīḥ interprets omens for Chosroes, King of Persia, narrated in Kitāb al-ʿIqd al-farīd by Ibn ʿAbd Rabbih 1940: II 28–31, the Lisān al-ʿarab (henceforth Lisān) of Ibn Manẓūr 1988: VI 254–256 (article √sṭḥ), and al-Ḥalabī 1969:130–133. In this last source we read that “Some have said Saṭīḥ lived in the days of Nizār b. Maʿadd b. ʿAdnān, and that it was he who divided Nizār’s inheritance among his sons, who were Muḍar and his brothers” (132).
[ back ] 25. Ibn ʿAbd Rabbih 1940: II 29, Lisān VI 255.
[ back ] 26. “The kuhhān were widespread among the Arabs before Islam, due to the absence of Prophecy [al-nubuwwa] among them” (Fayyūmī 1979:291). For an ancient Hebrew analogue, see 1 Samuel 9:9: “Formerly in Israel, when a man went to inquire of God, he said, ‘Come, let us go to the seer [ro’eh]’; for he who is now called a prophet was formerly called a seer.”
[ back ] 27. Specifically forbidden in more than one ḥadī th is the fee paid to the kāhin for his or her services; in an echo of Deuteronomy 23:18, the Prophet is said to have ranked such payment with “the price paid for a dog and the wages of a prostitute.” Al-Bukhārī 2004 (K. al-Ṭalāq): 1121, (K. al-Ṭibb): 1194, etc.
[ back ] 28. Genesis 4:15, 9:12, and Exodus 4:8; see Keller 1946:7.
[ back ] 29. Torczyner et al. 1938: I 79 (Letter IV). We find the massu’oth described in the Mishnah Rosh Hashanah (II 2–3), as translated by Herbert Danby: “They used to take long cedarwood sticks and rushes and oleander wool and flax tow; and a man bound these up with a rope and went up to the top of the hill and set light to them; and he waved them to and fro and up and down until he could see his fellow doing the like on the top of the next hill. And so, too, on the top of the third hill” (quoted in Torczyner et al. 1938: I 83).
[ back ] 30. The ḥadī th continues: “When he speaks, he lies; when he makes a promise, he breaks it; and when trust is placed in him, he betrays it” [Āyat al-munāfiqi th alā th un: i dh ā ḥadda tha ka dh aba wa-i dh ā waʿada a kh lafa wa-i dh ā uʾtumina kh āna]. Muslim 2007 (K. al-Īmān):87; also in al-Bukhārī 2004 (K. al-Īmān): 20.
[ back ] 31. The exceptions are in Sūrat al-Baqara (2:248), which speaks of the “sign” of Saul’s kingship, and Sūrat al- Sh uʿarā (26:128), wherein the prophet Hūd chastises his people: “In vain you build an āya on every hill-top.”
[ back ] 32. Not until the mid-twentieth century would Āyat Allāh (‘Sign of God’) be adopted as a title by Shīʿite clergy; see Momen 1985:205–206.
[ back ] 33. Peirce 1955:107; see also Zwettler 1990:214n38.
[ back ] 34. Fahd 1966: 436; see also Fahd’s article “Faʾl” in EI2 II 758–760.
[ back ] 35. As such these narratives unite a number of themes listed in the Motif-Index of Folk-Literature of Stith Thompson (1989), among them J652, “Inattention to warnings”; J2051, “Wise man short-sightedly scorned for his advice”; and J2285, “Foolish interpretation of omens.”
[ back ] 36. On Divination I 42: “Arabs, Phrygians and Cilicians, who are mostly engaged in herding flocks, and wander over the fields and mountains through winter and summer, have therefore found the songs and flights of birds easier to take note of.” Collins 2002:19 reminds us that Cicero actually held the augur’s office in 53 BCE.
[ back ] 37. EI2 II 759.
[ back ] 38. EI2 IV 421.
[ back ] 39. “In Islam, the principle is continually affirmed: La kihānata baʿda ’n-nubuwwa, or ‘After the Prophet there is no divination.’ When the Prophet was sent, it became impossible for soothsayers to dispense knowledge of hidden matters, as these were made obscure to them by the glory of the Prophet’s lamp: here one descries the duel between the monotheist prophet and the polytheist diviner.” Fahd 1966:64.
[ back ] 40. In one ḥadī th it is recorded that the Prophet said: “ ‘Divination by omens is idolatry [Aṭ-ṭīratu sh irkun]. Divination by omens is idolatry.’ Saying it a third time, he then said, ‘Not one of us is unsusceptible [to belief in them], but God will cause it to pass if we trust in Him.’ ” Abū Dāʾūd 1996 (Kitāb al-Ṭibb): III 16.
[ back ] 41. The incident of “Jesus and the sparrows” is the very first related in this Infancy Gospel: [ back ] Τοῦτο τὸ παιδίον Ἰησοῦς πενταέτης γενόμενος παίζων ἦν ἐν διαβάσει ῥύακος, καὶ τὰ ῥέοντα ὕδατα συήγαγεν εἰς λάκκους, καὶ ἐποίει αὐτὰ εὐθέως καθαρά, καὶ λόγῳ μόνῳ ἐπέταξεν αὐτά. καὶ ποιήσας πηλὸν τρυφερὸν ἔπλασεν ἐξ αὐτοῦ στρουθία δώδεκα · καὶ ἦν σάββατον ὅτε ταῦτα ἐποίησεν. ἦσαν δὲ καὶ ἄλλα παιδία πολλὰ παίζοντα σὺν αὐτῷ. [ back ] Ἰδὼν δέ τις Ἰουδαῖος ἃ ἐποίει ὁ Ἰησοῦς ἐν σαββάτῳ παίζων, ἀπῆλθε παραχρῆμα καὶ ἀνήγγειλε τῷ πατρὶ αὐτοῦ Ἰωσήφ· Ἰδοὺ τὸ παιδίον σού ἐστιν ἐπὶ τὸ ῥυάκιον, καὶ λαβὼν πηλὸν ἔπλασεν πουλία δώδεκα, καὶ ἐβεβήλωσεν τὸ σάββατον. [ back ] Καὶ ἐλθὼν Ἰωσὴφ ἐπὶ τὸν τόπον καὶ ἰδὼν ἀνέκραξεν αὐτῷ λέγων· Διὰ τί ταῦτα ποιεῖς ἐν σαββάτῳ ἃ οὐκ ἔξεστι ποιεῖν; [ back ] Ὁ δὲ Ἰησοῦς συγκροτήσας τὰς χεῖρας αὐτοῦ ἀνέκραξε τοῖς στρουθίοις καὶ εἶπεν αὐτοῖς· Ὑπάγετε, πετάσετε καὶ μιμνήσκεσθέ μου οἱ ζῶντες. καὶ πετασθέντα τὰ στρουθία ὑπῆγον κράζοντα. [ back ] “When this boy, Jesus, was five years old, he was playing at the ford of a rushing stream. He was collecting the flowing water into ponds and made the water instantly pure. He did this with a single command. He then made soft clay and shaped it into twelve sparrows. He did this on the Sabbath day, and many other boys were playing with him. [ back ] “But when a Jew saw what Jesus was doing while playing on the Sabbath day, he immediately went off and told Joseph, Jesus’s father: ‘See here, your boy is at the ford and has taken mud and fashioned twelve birds with it, and so has violated the Sabbath.’ [ back ] “So Joseph went there, and as soon as he spotted him he shouted, ‘Why are you doing what’s not permitted on the Sabbath?’ [ back ] “But Jesus simply clapped his hands and shouted to the sparrows: ‘Be off, fly away, and remember me, you who are now alive!’ And the sparrows took off and flew away noisily.” Trans. Hock 1995:104–106. [ back ] The Infancy Gospel’s ascription to “Thomas the Israelite” would appear to be a medieval development, and indicates no affiliation to the better-known Gospel of Thomas.
[ back ] 42. Qudus has been identified as another Arabic borrowing from Christian Aramaic (Jeffrey 1938:232). In the Qurʾān it appears only within the phrase bi-Rūḥi ’l-Qudusi, and in exclusive connection with Jesus (as here and at 2:30, 2:87, and 16:102).
[ back ] 43. Ali 1990:112. Ali’s gloss, “Apart from ‘bird’ and other things, tair also means ‘omen’ as in 7:131, 27:47, 36:19, and ‘actions’ or ‘good or evil fate’—‘the register of deeds’—as in 17:13. It also means ‘destiny’ or ‘fortune.’ As Apostle to the Jews at a time when their state was most deplorable, Jesus instilled new life into them, and raised them up from the mire” (56n1). For a critique, see Mohammed 2002:47.
[ back ] 44. In particular that of Jesus, as is seen at Sūrat al-Baqara 2:253.
[ back ] 45. Ibn Manẓūr gives Ibn Barīḥ and Umm Barīḥ (‘Son’ and ‘Mother of Barīḥ’] as epithets for the crow; “a flock of crows is called Banāt (‘daughters of’) Barīḥ.” Lisān I 364.
[ back ] 46. The verse runs: La-ʿamruka mā tadri ’ḍ-ḍawāribu bi-’l-ḥaṣā wa-lā zājirātu ’ṭ-ṭayri mā Allāhu ṣāniʿu (“By your life, the men who toss pebbles and the maids who rouse birds do not know what God designs”), Labīd b. Rabīʿa 1962:172. “The men who toss pebbles” refers to another divinatory technique of the Arabs known as al-ṭarq; see Fahd 1966:195–196.
[ back ] 47. Fahd 1966:438. As Fahd points out, the name Umm Karz means ‘Falcon-keeper,‘ or more literally, ‘Mother of a Falcon’.
[ back ] 48. Thus we are brought back to Peirce’s tripartite taxonomy of the sign. If the āya’s signifying capacity was said above to be indexical, its predication upon belief qualifies it for Peirce’s third category of the conventional “symbol”: the sign that “refers to the Object that it denotes by virtue of a law, usually an association of general ideas, which operates to cause the Symbol to be interpreted as referring to that Object. It is thus itself a general type of law. . . .” Peirce 1955:102. That the āya should span two of Peirce’s categories says more about semantics in general than about the āya itself, as pointed out by Sebeok 1976:120 (citing Umberto Eco): “It should be clearly understood, finally, that it is not signs that are actually being classified, but, more precisely, aspects of signs: in other words, a given sign may—and more often than not does—exhibit more than one aspect, so that one must recognize differences in gradation.”
[ back ] 49. Al-Bukhārī 2004 (K. Aḥādī th al-anbiyāʾ): 680 (K. al-Ma gh āzī): 864 and with slightly different wording in Ibn Isḥāq 1936: IV 413. Mantic sortition of arrows (known as maysir) is forbidden in the Qurʾān at Sūrat al-Māʾida 5:3 and 5:90–91.
[ back ] 50. Ibn Isḥāq 1936: III 297. Other such scenes take place in al-Sīrat al-nabawiyya, as when Surāqa b. Mālik is dissuaded from detaining the Prophet in his Flight by the judgment of his divining arrows (II 488–489, noted by Fahd 1966:187).
[ back ] 51. Its best Homeric parallel may be found in the phēmē (‘prophetic utterance’) Odysseus prays for and is vouchsafed in Odyssey xx 98–121; see Nagy 1990a:221.
[ back ] 52. Fahd 1966:451 (with references). Thus we read that in the Murūj al- dh ahab of al-Masʿūdī 1965: IV 110 that al-Jāḥiẓ’s nephew Yamūt (whose name in Arabic means “He is dying”) avoided paying visits to sick people, lest they take his name as a bad omen. For al-ʿiyāfa, see Fahd 1966:432–450.
[ back ] 53. EI2 II 758.
[ back ] 54. EI2 II 758–759
[ back ] 55. Tāj al-ʿArūs III 466 (article √gh rb).
[ back ] 56. Lisān VI 385–386 and I 361–364, respectively.
[ back ] 57. In his edition of Abū Dhūʾayb’s dīwān, S. al-Miṣrī makes note of Lisān’s version but gives the second hemistich as uzjī li-ḥubbi ’ l-īyābi ’s-sanīḥā: “Scanting the omen, longing instead for [his] return” (Abū Dhuʾayb 1998:63). As noted in al-Iṣbahānī 1969: VI 58–59 (2345–2346), this verse is in praise of the future anti-Caliph ʿAbd Allāh b. Zubayr (d. 73/692).
[ back ] 58. Nicholson 1930:43–44 gives the story as follows: “It is related in the Aghānī that he had two boon companions, Khālid b. al-Muḍallil and ʿAmr b. Masʿūd, with whom he used to carouse; and once, being irritated by words spoken in wine, he gave orders that they should be buried alive. Next morning he did not recollect what had passed and inquired as usual for his friends. On learning the truth he was filled with remorse. He caused two obelisks to be erected over their graves, and two days in every year he would come and sit beside these obelisks, which were called al- Gh ariyyān, i.e. the Blood-smeared. One day was the Day of Good [yawmu naʿīmin], and whoever first encountered him on that day received a hundred black camels. The other day was the Day of Evil [yawmu buʾsin], on which he would present the first-comer with the head of a black polecat, then sacrifice him and smear the obelisks with his blood. The poet ʿAbīd b. al-Abraṣ is said to have fallen a victim to this horrible rite.”
[ back ] 59. K. Al-Bustānī’s edition of al-Nābigha al-Dhubyānī 1963:38 has wa-bi- dh āka khabbarana ’l-ghudāfu ’l-aswadu (“and that was what the black raven informed us”).
[ back ] 60. In C. Lyall’s edition of the Poems of ʿAmr Son of Qamīʾah this verse is given as Fa-bīnī ʿalā najmin shakhīsin nuḥūsuhu / wa-a sh ʾamū ṭayri ’z-zājirīna sanīḥuhā (1919:14). Lyall’s translation: “Go thy way then, with a star that ceases not to carry an evil influence: the most ill-omened bird of the diviners is that which passes form left to right.”
[ back ] 61. Note by editor ʿAlī Shīrī: “Sanaḥnaḥu and samaʿmaʿu are formed upon sanaḥa and samaʿa by redoubling their second and third radicals. As a noun, sanaḥnaḥ means a thing frequently in view which presents itself often. Its being appended to al-layl [‘the night’] means that his nighttime attacks on the enemy were many” (Lisān VI 386n3).
[ back ] 62. This idiom recalls an incident in Herodotus’ account of the battle of Plataea wherein an Athenian named Sophanes is said either to have fastened himself to the battleground with an anchor and chain, or to have borne the device of an anchor on his shield (Histories IX 74).
[ back ] 63. For this form see Wright 1967: I 243D, 244AB.
[ back ] 64. At Dhu ’l-Rumma 1995:85 the full verse appears as Matā taẓʿanī yā Mayyu ʿan dāri jīratin / li-nā wa-’l-hawā barḥun ʿalā man yu gh ālibuhu: “When, O Mayya, you leave the house in our neighborhood, passion is a drag for the one overcome by it.”
[ back ] 65. “The Slander” (al-Ifk) refers to the well-known accusation of infidelity against the Prophet’s wife ʿĀʾisha, in consequence of which āyāt 11–20 of Sūrat al-Nūr were revealed. The speaker in this ḥadī th is ʿĀʾisha herself : Fa-a kh a dh a mā kāna yaʾ kh u dh uhu min al-buraḥāʾ (“He was seized by one of the fevers that used to seize him”). al-Bukhārī 2004 (K. al-Ma gh āzī):, etc. Interestingly, the word does not not occur in her account as given by Ibn Hishām (on the authority of a separate chain of transmitters), but the expression mā bariḥa does: “God’s Prophet (God’s blessings and peace be upon him) did not move from where he sat until he was overwhelmed by what used to overwhelm him [when receiving a revelation] from God” (Mā bariḥa Rasūl Allāh . . . min majlisihi ḥattā ta gh a shsh āhu min Allāhi mā kāna yata gh a shsh āhu). Ibn Isḥāq 1936: III 302.
[ back ] 66. From the same poem of Abū Dhuʾayb’s quoted above in article √snḥ (n57); see Abū Dhuʾayb 1998:61.