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Fa-ummuhu hawiyah: a note on Surah 101:9.

It is suggested that the phrase fa-ummuhu hawiyah (Surah 101:9), which is usually translated "His mother shall perish" or "His mother shall be bereft," should be emended to read fa-ummatun hawiyah, which means "Then a steep course downward (sc. into hell shall be his)."

A longstanding problem in Koranic exegesis is the meaning of the words fa-ummuhu hawiyah in Surah 101:9.(1) The whole passage runs as follows: fa-amma man thaqulat mawazinuh (6) fa-huwa fi ishatin radiyah (7) wa-amma man khaffat mawazinuh (8) faummuhu hawiyah (9) wa-ma adraka ma hiyah (10) narun hamiyah (11), "As for him whose scales are heavy, he shall be in a pleasing way of life, as for him whose scales are light, fa-ummuhu hawiyah, but how should you know what that is!? a hot fire." Even though the phrase is defined in v. 11, neither Muslim commentators nor Western orientalists have been able to agree on just how the phrase means what it surely must mean.

The literal meaning of the words is "his mother shall perish" or "his mother shall be bereft" (i.e., he shall perish), but neither of these fits the context since they cannot be explained by "hot fire" as is done in v. 11. Moreover, both persons, not only the man whose scales are light, must die before going either to heaven or hell, and every mother who outlives her children is bereft, regardless of where they go. Finally, it is not in accord with Koranic ethics for a mother to perish because of the sins of her son.

The most important study that has been done on this passage is by A. Fischer.(2) Although his solution of the problem (see below) cannot be accepted, his article is very useful in that it brings together all the pertinent comments by exegetes and lexicographers on the words umm and hawiyah. Fischer summarizes their views as follows (p. 41). (1) Umm is here short for umm al-ra s skull, brain," and hawa means "to fall." (2) Umm is metaphoric for dwelling-place (maskan), refuge (ma wa), or abode (mustaqarr), and hawiyah designates hell. (3) Umm means mother," as usual, and hawiyah is the act. part. of hawa, meaning "she shall perish" or "shall be bereft of her children." This explanation is the one preferred by Fischer, who relies on Zamakhshari's Kashshaf, but it forces him to conclude that the last two verses of the Surah are an interpolation, since ummuhu hawiyah, in the sense that he takes it, cannot be explained by narun hamiyah.

Fischer's conclusions were rejected by C. C. Torrey.(3) who, however, adds to the discussion only that he thinks that hawiyah is derived from the Hebrew howa "disaster," found in Isaiah 47:11 and Ezekiel 7:26, which can hardly be correct. However, his rejection of the idea of an interpolation is sound, since the explanation proposed below will prove that the two verses are not only not interpolations, but are in fact necessary to the sense of the whole passage.

The only scholar who has made any progress toward the solution of this problem is Regis Blachere, who translates the verses as follows: "[tandis que] celui dont legeres seront les oeuvres s'acheminera vers un abime, "with the following explanatory note: "ummuhu hawiyatun n'offre plus de sens clair. Les Commt. glosent: sa mere s'abimera, tombera [dans le desespoir]. Mais il est plus simple de penser que umm (peut-etre a lire amm) est un nom verbal derive de amma 'se diriger vers', 'aller vers un but'."(4)

I believe that Blachere was essentially on the right track although I disagree with his reading. Umm is nowhere attested as a masdar of amma, and even if we read amm, feminine masdars are so rare that it would be very risky to take the word here as such. What is called for is an ordinary fem. noun, which, of course, was supplied by ummuhu, but which, as noted, is inappropriate here. I believe that the phrase should be read fa-ummatun hawiyah, "then a steep course downward (sc. into hell shall be his)."

The word ummah (sometimes vocalized immah), which is a noun, not a masdar, means, among other things, sunnah "path, way" and tariqah "way, course." It is found in this meaning in the Koran; in commenting on the passage inna wajadna aba ana ala ummatin (43:23), the grammarian al-Farra says that if one reads ummah, it is like sunnah, or if immah, it means tariqah. Immah also means "shape" (hay ah), "condition" (hal), and "affair" (sha n).(5) Hal and sha n could make sense here, but I have preferred sunnah, tariqah, and have read ummah, retaining the traditional vocalization. The fact that ummah in the meaning sunnah, tariqah does not immediately suggest hellfire made necessary the explanation introduced by ma adraka ma, a common Koranic device used in several similar instances. Consequently, ma adraka, etc., cannot be an interpolation.

To justify the emendation proposed above I shall first show that the phrase is in keeping with the grammar and rhetoric of the Koran, then discuss briefly the paleography, and finally attempt to show how the error occurred in the first place.

Ummatun hawiyah is an incomplete nominal sentence, the sense of which can easily be made complete by reference to the context. Such sentences are frequent in the Koran. A good example occurs in v. 11 of the Surah under discussion, narun hamiyah "a hot fire," which one can take to mean hiya narun hamiyah, though no addition is necessary to make the sense clear. Another example occurs in Surah 12:18, 83, fasabrun jamilun, spoken by Jacob, which means approximately, "One must (or I must) be patient." Such incomplete nominal sentences occur most commonly, however, in the apodoses of conditional sentences, such as we have in 101:9. In 2:265 we read: fa-in lam yusibha wabilun fa-tallun, "And if no rain strikes it (i.e., the garden on a hill) then dew," that is, dew will strike it, or, there will be dew. Surah 4:92: wa-man qatala mu minan khata an fa-tahriru raqabatin mu minatin wa-diyatun mussallamatun ila ahlihi, "Whoever kills a believer by accident, then the freeing of a believing slave and bloodwit delivered to his family," that is, he must expiate his sin by these measures. In Surah 56:88-94 we find a series of three such sentences: fa-amma in kana mina l'muqarrabin (88) farawhun wa-rayhanum wa-jannatu na im (89) wa-amma in kana min ashabi l-yamin (90) fa-salamun laka min ashabi l-yamin (91) wa-amma in kana mina l-mukadhdhibina d-dallin (92) fa-nuzulun min hamim (93) watasliyatu jahim (94), "And if he is one of those who are brought near, then a breeze and sweet-smelling herbs and a garden of bliss, and if he is one of the companions of the right hand, then 'Greetings to you from the companions of the right hand,' but if he is one of the deniers who go astray, then a meal of boiling water and burning of hellfire." This example is particularly significant since, like Surah 101, it deals with the rewards and punishments of the hereafter, and each protasis is introduced by amma, as in vv. 6 and 8. Although other examples could be cited,(6) these should be sufficient to prove that fa-ummatun hawiyah is good grammatical Arabic and completely in accord with the rhetorical style of the Koran.

The emendation also clears up a minor grammatical problem, apparently felt by Zamakhshari, namely, is ummuhu or hawiyah the antecedent of hiyah? He takes it to be the dahiyah or "catastrophe" implied in ummuhu hawiyah.(7) However, with ummatun hawiyah the latter word becomes an attributive adjective, and not a predicate, so the antecedent is clearly ummatun. Zamakhshari's feeling for the language came close to leading him to the correct solution of this problem, since he clearly sensed that hiyah could not represent either ummuhu or hawiyah. Given the meaning accepted by him, his solution was not bad at all.

Paleographically, the emendation presents no problems, since the consonantal outline (rasm) remains unchanged; it is necessary only to alter the vocalization slightly and place the dots above the h to make it ta marbutah. This in itself is a good argument for the correctness of the emendation; diacritics were not used in the earliest copies of the Koran, and vowel-signs were not invented until many years later, which means that we are not changing the earliest form of the text at all. Anyone who doubts this reading should ask himself whether, if an old manuscript of the Koran should be found with dots over the h, he would be so sure of fa-ummuhu that he would be willing to delete them.

Turning now to the question of how the mistake occurred, its origin must lie in the common expression hawat ummuhu, of which ummuhu hawiyah is simply a restatement in the form of the nominal sentence. Fischer collects a number of examples of this expression,(8) which means, as noted above, "May his mother perish," or, "May his mother be bereft of him," which is a wish for his death, or for his mother to die of grief at his passing, which amounts to the same thing. Hawat ummuhu must have been well known to every speaker of Arabic; on the other hand, ummatun hawiyah was unusual enough to require the clarification that follows. The copyist or reciter who first made the error, on seeing the phrase without diacritics, immediately thought of the familiar phrase, and shaped the passage accordingly, which he could do without misgivings since the rasm was not altered. Since whatever it meant, it must be something bad, he was not troubled that narun hamiyah did not give a precise equivalent or that hiyah was somewhat ambiguous. In fact, he probably did not puzzle over the problem at all.

The mistake in Surah 101:19 resulted from the substitution of something familiar for something strange, a common source of error in manuscripts, which textual critics call "trivialization." Many corruptions in manuscripts are too deep to be healed. Fortunately the text of the Koran at this point was accurately transmitted so the mistake could be corrected by a relatively simple critical examination.

(1) For bibliography see R. Paret, Der Koran: Kommentar und Konkordanz (Stuttgart, 1971), 518-19; he also gives a brief summary of orientalists' opinions. See also R. Blachere, Le Coran: Traduction nouvelle (Paris, 1949), 25. (2) A. Fischer, "Eine Qoran-lnterpolation," in Orientalistische Studien Theodor Noldeke zum siebzigsten Geburtstag gewidmet, ed. C. Bezold (Giessen, 1906), I: 33-55. (3) C. C. Torrey, "Three Difficult Passages in the Koran," in A Volume of Oriental Studies Presented to E. G. Browne, ed. T. W. Arnold and R. A. Nicholson (Cambridge, 1922), 470. (4) Blachere, 26. (5) Ibn Manzur al-Ifriqi, Lisan al-Arab (Beirut 1374-76/1955-56), xii: 23. (6) A complete list of references will be found in Renate Tietz, Bedingungssatz und Bedingungsausdruck im Koran: Inaugural-Dissertation (Tubingen, 1963), 27; for non-Koranic examples, see H. Reckendorf, Arabische Syntax (Heidelberg, 1921), 356. (7) Fischer, 50. (8) Fischer, 46f.
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Author:Bellamy, James A.
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Date:Jul 1, 1992
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