Deep Tafsirs

Cherry-Picked Pronouns

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Put every word on trials of its life; let it justify its position on the page.

A quote scrawled beneath other syntactical gems and journalism notes. It meant something three years ago, and today, it rings with even greater relevance. A quote calling for “linguistic precision”-—every word, cherry-picked to perform some sacred labor, cherry-picked among hundreds of competing synonyms seeking spotlight in your piece. A great writer riffles through the choices and cherry-picks the most perfect one. The end effect is that precise meaning inhabits this word, packed like water behind a dam. You’ve seen it. You’ve seen it every time you slip into a recitation of surat al-Kahf. Here, let me show you…
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Grab a muṣḥaf and flip three stories in. You are journeying with Musa and Khidr to learn a little something about divine decree, and you are staring, struck at the events unfolding: Khidr breaks a boat. He kills a boy. He rebuilds a wall for a seemingly cold, uninviting people. Tucked between these three scenes of absurdities is the most unusual language. Khidr illuminates the wisdoms of these scenes, and as he speaks, he cherry-picks his pronouns precisely:
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أما السفينة … فأردت أن أعيبها
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وأما الغلام … فأردنا أن يبدلهما ربهما خيرا
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وأما الجدار … فأراد ربك أن يبلغا أشدهما
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A reader needs only two keen eyes to note the nuance in these three explanations: فأردت، فأردنا، فأراد ربك. When he broke the boat, Khidr takes the reins of responsibility as though all the damage done to the boat was his doing, his planning. “I intended,” he says. Yet when he slew the boy, Khidr shares the reins with his Rabb and claims for himself only half credit. “We intended,” he says. And when he rebuilt the wall generously for the city-folk, Khidr forfeits the reins altogether and attributes his act of selflessness to Allah, and Allah alone. “Their Lord intended that they reach maturity and inherit their treasure, a mercy from your Lord,” he says. A true student of the writing craft grips his pen and pits these pronouns against a single question: Why? What sacred labor are these words performing, what divine lesson inhabits these words like water behind a dam?

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