The Qur’an’s Extra Apostrophe

Quran_ApostropheMany English readers’ will pause when reading the title of this post thinking there is a mistaken apostrophe. But as many of you know, the vogue way of spelling “the Koran” has become “the Qur’an” so two apostrophes are needed.  For though English does not allow non-possesive apostrophes we use them occasionally when transliterating words from other languages, in this case Arabic. But what the heck does the apostrophe do for pronouncing “the Qur’an”?

My diagram above shows the breakdown of the Arabic letters in the phrase “the Qur’an”. Arabic reads right to left and omits some vowels in common writing — here, the “u”. Many Arabic sounds (phonemes) are different than English sounds and thus can be transliterated in a variety of fashions.  There is not standard transliteration system: here is a list of the main ones.  Due to these complications, several common Roman spelling permutations can be seen for any given word. I grew up with “the Koran” as the standard spelling. You can see in the below google ngram that “Qur’an” is actually a new popular spelling and with this has come a change of pronunciation.  In my day, we pronounced Koran as “core – an”, but for Qur’an, the “o” was changed to a “u” and the sound is more accurate.  The “a” was kept, but is no longer the “a” in apple (or “an”) but is pronounced like the “a” in “father”.  However, the “a” in “apple” actually sounds closer to the Arabic on google translate (you tell me). And though the K became a Q, it is merely a cosmetic change with no one attempting the real lingual-glottal intended with the Q. But almost no English speaker will attempt true glottal Q least best they be thought a snob or at worse laughed at.   I am not an Arabic speaker, so corrections are welcome.


The apostrophe is called the maddah and signals a glottal stop and lengthening of the “a” and thus those permutations in spelling where the “a” is doubled (“aa”) or has a long mark over it (“ā”).  So the new Romanization, “Qur’an”, tells us a bit more about the actual underlying Arabic orthographics, but is correct pronunciation important?

Actually, the pronunciation of “al-Qur’an” even varies between dialects of Arabic. So who cares if we don’t do it right, for there is no real “right”.  Below I list the top Arabic dialects in order of number of speakers:

  • Egyptian – 50 million
  • Algerian – 22 million
  • Moroccan/Maghrebi – 19.5 million
  • Sudanese – 19 million
  • Saidi – 19 million, spoken by some people in Egypt
  • North Levantine – 15 million, spoken in Lebanon and Syria
  • Mesopotamian – 14 million, spoken in Iraq, Iran and Syria
  • Najdi – 10 million spoken in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordan and Syria

Between the pronunciations differences and these varieties of romanizations options, what is the right way to spell, “the Qur’an” in English? Well, like the myth of definitions, spellings change and are not stable or fixed except by particular groups. If you wish, you can arbitrarily choose an authority to prescribe a spelling for you: Webster’s Dictionary, The Chicago Manual of Style, The New York Times Style book, the Associated Press Stylebook.  But even their prescriptions will change over time.

The masses may not have power over much, but they certainly do over language — the only place where democracy rules.



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Boyer: Is there such thing as religion?

Pascal_Boyer-2Most of you have a full reading list, but if you don’t read anything else by anthropologist Pascal Boyer, please read these short paragraphs I have copied below from the opening to his new book, “The Fracture of an Illusion: Science and the Dissolution of Religion.” (free on-line).

On reading it this morning, I heard a succinct version of what I often try to communicate here on Triangulations. Maybe Boyer will make it clearer for some of you.

The point of this book is not to argue that religious ideas are creations of the mind. That point was conclusively argued more than two centuries ago byvKant and other Aufklarung scholars. We are all in debt to the Enlightenment - and conscious enough of that debt, that we need not restate what was so lucidly demonstrated at the time.

No, the point here is to carry on where these scholars left off- this time with the use of a better science – and show that the very existence of some thing called “religion” is largely an illusion. What I mean by “illusion” is actually very simple, but also rather counter-intuitive and therefore difficult to present in a succinct yet persuasive manner. Most people who live in modern societies think that there is such a thing as “religion”, meaning a kind of existential and cognitive “package” that includes views about supernatural agency (gods), notions of morality, particular rituals and sometimes particular experiences, as well as membership in a particular community of believers. In all this, each element makes sense in relation to the others. Indeed, this is the way most major “religions” - Islam and Hinduism for instance – are presented to us and the way their institutional personnel, most scholars and most believers think about them. By considering, studying or adhering to a “religion” one is supposed to approach, study or adhere to that particular package : an integrated set of moral, metaphysical, social and experiential claims.

All that is largely an illusion. The package does not really exist as such. Notions of supernatural agents, of morality, of ethnic identity, of ritual requirements and other experience, all appear in human minds independently. They are sustained by faculties or mechanisms in the human mind that are quite independent of each other, and none of which evolved because it could sustain religious notions or behaviors. What would seem to be integrated wholes, the Shinto system or the Islamic world-view, are in fact collections of such fragments.

So why do religions, and by extension religion, appear to be such integrated wholes, such systems? That is largely a matter of stipulation. That the package is a package is not a fact but the wish expressed, or rather the slogan put forth with great animus by the members of many religious institutions – the priests, the ritual officers, the office-holders in religious institutions. There is no reason to take this postulate at face-value. Indeed, there is every reason to think that the notions of a religion (the Hindu religion, the Islamic religion) and of religion in general, are the main obstacles to the study of why and how people come to have what we generally call “religious” notions and norms, that is, why and how they find plausible the existence of non-physical agents, why they feel compelled to perform particular rituals, why they have particular moral norms, why they see themselves as members of particular communities. These phenomena cannot be understood unless we first accept that they do not stem from the same domain, they do not actually belong together, except in what amounts to the marketing ploys, as it were, of particular religious institutions.

The notion of “religion” as a package seems so plausible that even people who intensely dislike what they see as the supernatural fantasies, odd rituals or extravagant moral exigencies imposed by religious institutions, still assume that there is such a thing as religion – which they see as nefarious set of thoughts and institutions, the influence of which has increased, is increasing and ought to be diminished. Framing the conflict as a struggle of reason or lucidity against the obscurity, indeed obscurantism, of a single enemy, “religion”, simply perpetuates the illusion that there is a domain of religion – a single fortress for the militant rationalist to assault. That it is an illusion may explain why the best efforts in this epic struggle are often in vain.

Pascal Boyer is a French anthropologist who teaches and researches at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. He is presently finishing a leave in France where he is working at the “Evolution, Cognition & Culture” team at the University of Lyons.

Boyer has written many articles (see here) and his book have been.

  • 1992 Tradition as Truth and Communication
  • 1992 Cognitive Aspects of Religious Symbolism
  • 1994 The Naturalness of Religious Ideas
  • 2001: Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought (amazon)
  • 2009 Memory in Mind and Culture
  • 2010: The Fracture Of An Illusion: Science And The Dissolution Of Religion (amazon)

See my other posts on “Defining Religion“.



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When Religion is not Religion

man-stumblingAtheists and Theist often share a similar sly language trick. They both redefine “religion” to meet their needs. Discovering those needs is far more interesting than wasting time in definition debates.  However, avoiding the stumbling block of language is difficult.

A Theist wants their religion to be unique. They want their god to be the only god — their doctrines to be the only true beliefs. So, they want to say that their religion is not really a religion. They feel this keeps them from looking generic, uninteresting and as parochial as all other religion believers.

A religion-hating Atheist sees the injustices, the deceptions, the prejudices and perverse politics in religions and hates them.  “Religion” is the word in which these atheist package their hate. When challenged with their overgeneralization about religions by pointing out religions practiced by real people that don’t contain any of the repulsive things they associate with the word “religion”, these atheists often just deny that such practices are really “religions”. You see, they are committed to hating the word “religion”.

“Religion” for many atheists and theists alike is a stumbling block to deep understanding.  The word likewise trips up others: panentheists, scholars, non-theists, skeptics and more.  For in the end, they all have feelings about the word “religion”.

Language is both our greatest friend and most cunning enemy. In my next post, I will make a simple suggestion to avoid this.


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Meditation & Weight Lifting

Med_WeightlifterBoth meditation and weight lifting offer all sorts of health benefits — both mental and physical. But perhaps many of you, like me, have seen twisted uses of each where it is clear that good things can harm us.

Imagine the weightlifters staring at themselves in the gym mirrors. I’ve seen physicians with desktop computer wallpaper of themselves doing muscle poses. OK, sure, it is their hobby. But think of the lifters who hope to be more attractive and respected by lifting — “health” is their least motivation.  Think of the hours and hours spent with such endeavors.

Imagine meditation groups where people are intentionally trying to be less talkative, intentionally trying to appear more thoughtful. Imagine meditators who run to groups looking for community, acceptance and meaning in life while chanting the orthodoxy of non-attachment. Think of those who pride is boasted because they now feel more spiritual or who feel they can see reality clearer than non-meditators. Or imagine the Tantric groups who imagine themselves sexually free, radically counter-cultural yet merely feeding their own twisted neuroses.

Ironically we can spend lots of time building a simple skill but only use it to reinforce bad habits of mind. The new beneficial skill ironically makes you weaker.

Interestingly, here is a Buddhist story that points at the foolishness of good things hurting us:

One day the Buddha met an ascetic who sat by the bank of a river. This ascetic had practiced austerities for 25 years. The Buddha asked him what he had received for all his labor. The ascetic proudly replied that, now at last, he could cross the river by walking on the water. The Buddha pointed out that this gain was insignificant for all the years of labor, since he could cross the river using a ferry for one penny!
— from Edward Conze’s Buddhism: It’s Essence and Development

Can the pursuit of science, reason and logic do the same? Absolutely. How about religion? Most certainly.  How about blogging?  Hell no.  Nothing but virtue and benefits there.


 Pic Credit: Girl in road — I added the bar bell!

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Rees on “Religion”

“Religion” is a deceptive word. When people generalize about “religion” (“religion is…”, “religions causes …”) the deceptive nature of the word soon becomes clear.

Tomas Rees reviews of an article here which tries to correlate a country’s religious diversity with unhappiness.  In his critical review Rees warns us of the deceitfulness of the word “religion”:

“I think that what this really does is show once again that it is simply too simplistic to talk about ‘religion’ as if it is a real, single entity (Voicu used a basket of different measures of religiosity, and lumped them all together). Religion is, in fact, a jumble of different cultural and psychological traits some of which (at different times, for different reasons, and in different mixes), we lump together and call it ‘religion’.”
–Tomas Rees (emphasis mine)

Many atheists misuse the word “religion” when they overgeneralize in order to support their favorite gripes.  Not that their gripes aren’t important, but their misuse of the term delegitimizes their points in their attempts to strengthen their rhetorical flare.

Whereas when discussing other issues, these same atheists may be careful about matters of sociology, linguistics, cognitive science, statistics and science. But when discussing the word “religion”, they turn off their reasoning — almost like a religious person! :-)

Theists misuse the word “religion” too.  By molding their own definition, they often want to deny that their religion is a religion. So, both Theists and Atheists misuse the word “religion”.  Each imagines their own special definition and use it to serve their agendas.  Abstractions are the favorites of rhetorical prescriptionists.


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Packaging Buddhism

Buddhism-SuperstitiousAround the world, Buddhism-on-the-ground is vastly composed of superstitions, rituals and customs aimed at improving fortune for this life – especially for the “believer” themself and for their loved ones or their clan. Only a very tiny of Buddhists in this world meditate.

Robert Wright begins his first lecture in his free Buddhismm course telling us that he is focusing on a very narrow part of Buddhism — not only is he only interested in rational, non-superstitious, meditative Buddhism, but also he only wants to explore those aspects that are testable. He defines the Buddhism he wants to explore.  This is an important step toward clarity — I wish more did this.  But we must realize, this is not a Buddhism that most Buddhist believers would recognize.

Like Buddhism, “Religion” must be defined to have a meaningful conversation about it.  Wright does this to — he likes Williams James’ definition of religion:

“a belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto.”
– William James

Remember, this is just one of many definitions of religion– and like all definers, Wright has a purpose for choosing this one. Wright wants a Naturalistic Buddhism (non-superstititious) that sees “the truth about the structure of reality” and thus allows us to “align ourselves to Moral Truth”.

“Structure of Reality” & “Moral Truth” are two ambitious goals for Wright. And I feel they are mistaken. Will some types of meditation benefit some people. Sure, but how much? And are the benefits hyped with idealism that have drawbacks? I suspect so.


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Defining “Poetry”

This_is_Poetry_img_onlyThis post supplements my series on “Defining Religion” by stepping away from “religion” and trying to define “poetry” in order to make clear the issues involved in such definitions.  Religion is a touchy issue because most people have strong emotions about religion and they intuitively feel that they know exactly what religion really is.  Poetry may help us to get around this intuitive blind-spot since most of my readers are probably not avid poetry readers, yet alone poets themselves.

Below I quote poets who tell us what they feel “poetry is”.  Reading these quotes, you will see that often they are strongly biased to define poetry so as to reflect their own personal preferences – their own favorite styles.

But when you look at the picture I photoshopped which illustrates many of the contrary styles of writing captured by the word “poetry”, you can see the limitations of these definitions.  I chose the zen empty circle (ensō) to imply the emptiness of any attempt to define all of poetry’s various forms, styles and tones into one single definition.

Anyone who tries to tell you that “Poetry is [something]“, is being more of a poetry missionary rather than a linguist or scientist.

“Poetry” is just a form of language and like many abstract words, its uses vary widely and thus it has fuzzy, flexible borders.  Platonist misunderstand the nature of language and try to discover what something is — they forget that we humans make meaning and it is constantly being negotiated. Prescriptionists, on the other hand, hate “fuzzy” quality — they think they know how things should be.

When I looked at the various definitions poets prescribe, I saw that they fell into seven major categories.  The first six categories has axes-to-grind or ideologies that people use to fuel their poetry prescriptions.  The 7th category is broad and not prescriptive.

    1. Elitisms:  poets are better than prose writers, non-poets or others
    2. Anti-Reason: some form of anti-reason, anti-rationalism, anti-reductionism, anti-science
    3. Idealism/Romanticism: some form romanticism, mysticism or idealism. Idealize nature, the Absolute, Love, Beauty or some ideal as the true object of poetry
    4. Soul-Searching, Emotionalism: some form which emphasizes understanding the true self, reaching into the soul, self-discovery
    5. Style Prejudice: poetry should rhyme, be terse …
    6. Activism: Unique Voice/ ‘Seeing Truly’: some form of self-righteous activism or unique voice in society to help all us poor blind people
    7. Uniquely Broad:  These definition are far less confining or biased.  They are often playful.

1. Elitism

  • However, if a poem can be reduced to a prose sentence, there can’t be much to it.
    [James Schulersource]
  • He who writes prose builds his temple to Fame in rubble; he who writes verses builds it in granite.
    [Edward Bulwer-Lytton]
  • The crown of literature is poetry. It is its end and aim. It is the sublimest activity of the human mind. It is the achievement of beauty and delicacy. The writer of prose can only step aside when the poet passes.
    [W. Somerset Maugham]

2. Anti-Reason

  • Poetry heals the wounds inflicted by reason.
  • Even when poetry has a meaning, as it usually has, it may be inadvisable to draw it out… Perfect understanding will sometimes almost extinguish pleasure.
    [A.E. Housman, source]
  • Science sees signs; Poetry the thing signified.
    [Augustus and Julius Hare]

3. Idealism/Romanticism

  • Poetry should… should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a remembrance.
    [John Keatssource]
  • Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.
    [T.S. Eliotsource]
  • Poetry is the art of uniting pleasure with truth.
    [Samuel Johnsonsource]

4. Soul-Searching Emotionalism

  • All good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.
  • If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way?
    [Emily Dickensonsource]
  • Poetry is plucking at the heartstrings, and making music with them.
    [Dennis Gaborsource]
  • A poem might be defined as thinking about feelings – about human feelings and frailties.
    [Anne Stevensonsource]
  • Poetry is a mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted.
    [Percy Bysshe Shelleysource]

5. Style Prejudice

  • One merit of poetry few persons will deny: it says more and in fewer words than prose.
  • One distinction between poetry and prose is that poetry should be memorable.
    [Karin Gustafsonsource]
  • Poets are soldiers that liberate words from the steadfast possession of definition.
    [Eli Khamarovsource] **not epic poems or plain language poetry
  • Poetry is the rhythmical creation of beauty in words.
    [Edgar Allan Poesource]
  • Poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful.
    [Rita Dove source]
  • No poem is easily grasped; so why should any reader expect fast results?
    [John Barton,  source]
  • Poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful.”
    [Rita Dove]
  • I would as soon write free verse as play tennis with the net down.”
    [Robert Frost]
  • Poetry, like the moon, does not advertise anything.
    [William Blisset]
  • A poet must never make a statement simply because it is sounds poetically exciting; he must also believe it to be true.
    [W.H. Auden]

6. Activism

  • … one of the definitions of poetry might be that a poem freshens the world.
  • [Ted Kooser, The Poetry Home Repair Manuel.  In excerpt here (p6-7), Kooser gives an example of Jared Carter's poem: "Fire Burning in a Fifty-Five Gallon Drum" (also at googlebooks .]
  • The aim of the poet and poetry is finally  to be of service, to ply the effort of the individual work into the larger work of the community as a whole.
    [Seamus Heaney, quoted by Ted Kooser in The Poetry Home Repair Manuel.]
  • A poet’s work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep.
    [Salman Rushdiesource]
  • Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.
    [Percy Byshe Shelley]

7. Pleasantly Broad

  • Painting is silent poetry, and poetry is painting that speaks.
  • Poetry is a deal of joy and pain and wonder, with a dash of the dictionary.
    [Khalil Gibransource]
  • Poetry is an echo, asking a shadow to dance.
    [Carl Sandburgsource]
  • Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.
    [Robert Frostsource]
  • Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting.
    [Robert Frost]
  • The poem… is a little myth of man’s capacity of making life meaningful. And in the end, the poem is not a thing we see — it is, rather, a light by which we may see — and what we see is life.
    (Robert Penn Warren, Saturday Review (22 March 1958), source)
  • Poetry is what makes me laugh or cry or yawn, what makes my toenails twinkle, what makes me want to do this or that or nothing.
    [Dylan Thomassource]
  • Poetry is the impish attempt to paint the color of the wind.
    [Maxwell Bodenheim]


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