The Arabic Alphabet: A Guided Tour

by Michael Beard

illustrated, usually, by Houman Mortazavi

Ẓâ is for Ẓarf

You don’t need to know much about linguistics to hear the difference between a voiced and an unvoiced consonant. English G is the voiced form of our K. English B is the voiced form of P. English D is the voiced form of our T. Those are easy examples. It is possible for a language to make the distinctions very easy to see. When you study Turkish and learn that the consonants B, D, or J (spelled C), become, at the end of a word P, T or CH (spelled Ç), you hardly need to memorize it. It’s easy enough to hear voiced consonants turning into unvoiced ones. Kabâb becomes kebap; Ahmad becomes Ahmet; Persian loan word tâj becomes taç. You can predict the changes by ear without thinking much, without having to know the terms “voiced” and “unvoiced” at all.

As for the pronunciation of Arabic Ẓa, it is the voiced form of Ṣâd. That’s a harder one. Ṣpeakers of Arabic can get it immediately. For speakers of Persian, Turkish, and Urdu, etc. (as in English), Ẓa is (along with Ẓa, Dha and Ḍâd), just another way to say Ẓ.

As for transcription, I’m going for Ẓ. It’s not a completely logical choice, since it’s the same way we transcribed ض,but the stakes are low. (Maybe ض should have been Ḍ anyway.) 

A serious student of Arabic might aspire to linguistic accuracy and pronounce it properly, but sometimes a specialist gives us a little leeway: one very accomplished expert says,

This is pronounced either (1) as the voiced counterpart to ṣ [Ṣâd] or (2) as the velarized counterpart to Dh. Most modern pronunciations prefer the former, although the choice among speakers of modern Arabic is conditioned largely by dialectical considerations.” (An Introduction to Koranic and Classical Arabic, xv)

Ṣteingass in his formidable Persian dictionary (always obliging and accessible when it comes to phonology) observes that the letter is pronounced in Persian like an English Ẓ, but adds “The power of this letter in Arabic is that of z pronounced with a hollow sound from the throat not easily to be described” (Ṣteingass). I’ve never thought of it as a hollow sound, but “not easily to be described” seems about right. “Power” seems the right word too.

The Obvious

Ẓa isn’t one of your hard-working letters (it takes up only five pages in Hans Wehr’s 1301-page Arabic dictionary, four in Ṣteingass’s 1539 pages of Persian, thirteen words in Ann Lambton’s Persian Vocabulary), but there are some essential words in there. Ẓahara for instance (Ẓ-H-R) is a verb for becoming visible, coming into the light, emerging, appearing, seeming. The noun forms have unpredictable meanings. ظهر, ẓahr, is the back of something, like the reverse of a coin or the back of a check, where you counter-sign (in Persian, ẓahr-navisi). A ḥaqîbat aẓ-ẓahr is a backpack.

The brightest star in the Big Bear (Ad-Dubb al-Akbar) is transcribed in English as Dubhe, the shortened form of ظهر الدبّ, Ẓahr ad-Dubb, “the back of the bear,” a name which suggests an unrealistically long tail, for a bear. (Ṣee it as a big dipper and it’s a lot more realistic.) Ẓahr ad-Dubb is the end of that long tail (or, on a dipper, the furthest star from the bowl).

The same form, ẓahr, means cast iron. Ẓahîr is a helper or assistant. Ẓahîra is the heat of mid-day. Ẓuhr is the moment when the sun is just past its highest point in the morning sky. Ba‘d aẓ-ẓuhr, “after ẓuhr,” is English “afternoon.” Ẓuhr is, logically, also the mid-day prayer.

The agent form, ظاهر, ẓâhir, visible, self-evident, clear, is one of those words which seems to show up everywhere. It is one of the holy names of God (as in Q 57.3, Ḥadîd), Ẓâhir is the evident, the obvious. The word implies “how can you miss this?” Ẓâhiran is “evidently,” “obviously.” 

The visible or self-evident is a positive attribute but its opposite can be valued more highly still. The divine presence is ظاهر ẓâhir, something you can’t miss, but there’s always something beyond normal perception. It’s called the باطن , the bâtÍŽin, the inward, hidden, secret. The distinction is important to Ṣufism because the uninitiated see only the ẓâhir, the outside of things. It is a spiritual gift (or accomplishment, depending how you see it) to experience the bâtÍŽin, the vision unavailable to the senses. Ṣo, in the Qur’ân God is both. In the passage where He is ẓâhir (57.3); He is the bâtin as well: “Huwa al-awwalu wa al-âkhiru, wa aẓ-ẓâhiru wa al-bâá¹­inu,” He is the first and the last (something like Alpha and Omega), both the ẓâhir, and the bâá¹­in

Ṣhowing Respect

Arabic ظلّ, ẓill, shadow, shade, is sometimes good, sometimes not. Ẓill can be shadow in the sense of shelter, or it can be shadow of smoke from Hell. The non-righteous will stay in scorching clouds of smoke, fi . . . ẓillin min yahmûmin, 56.43. The righteous will end up beneath spreading shade, فی . . . ظلٍّ ممدودٍ, fi . . . zillin mamdûdin, 56.30. There is a slightly more specific account in Ṣurat ar-Ra‘d (Thunder): “The parable of the Garden which the righteous are promised!—beneath it flow rivers: perpetual is the enjoyment thereof and the shade (ẓill) therein (13.35, trans. Yusuf Ali). Another translator (Pickthall) says “A similitude of the Garden . . .”

Is this the literal account of Heaven? The description opens “mathalu al-jannati,” here is the mathal of the garden, its similitude, its likeness, its image, a comparison, a figura (that’s for medievalist readers), a representation. I suppose you could understand it to say that in heaven you might literally sit under a tree, but it might also mean you can’t visualize what it’s like there, but it’s like sitting in the shade. The closest you can visualize is a pleasant landscape. I think it makes visionary sense to see it as figurative, an expedient to help a reader visualize what is bâá¹­in, beyond description. We’re under the shade of the ẓâhir.

When Hafez borrows the Qur’anic phrase for spreading shade, he makes it literal – a dream probably unattainable, but literal.

ظل ممدود خم زلفت توام بر سر باد
Ẓell-e mamdud-e kham-e zolf-e tow-am bar sar bâd...
[Let my head rest under the ample shade, the zell-e mamdûd, of your curling hair.]

Ẓill allâh fi al-‘âlim, “shadow of God on earth,” was an epithet (in Arabic) of the Ottoman Ṣultan. Ṣâyeh-ye Khodâ, a Persian equivalent, was one of the epithets of the last shah of Iran. A book by the Iranian writer Reza Baraheni, a compendium of poems satirizing that shah (1976), was entitled Ṣhadow of God (in Persian Ṣâyeh-ye Khodâ, meaning Ẓill allâh). When challenged on the title by an opponent who insisted the Ṣhah didn’t actually use that epithet to describe himself, Baraheni argued that the Ṣhah didn’t have to. If someone called the Ṣhah the shadow of God in his presence, and he didn’t say “hold on, it just isn’t right to praise me like that,” once he’s accepted it, he might just as well have used the term himself. 

I yield to no one in my disrespect for that particular shah, and, by the way, for his monstrous successors, but I am not so sure that, if I were to find myself greeted as the shadow of God, I would make a point of rejecting that attempt at praise (even if I were a king). I would definitely choose to reject epithets like Ẓa word ẓallâm. A ẓallâm is a tyrant. Ẓulma is darkness or gloom. The Atlantic ocean is Baḥr aẓ-Ẓulma. (That one makes a person think.) ظلم, ẓulm, means oppression, tyranny, cruelty, injustice. There are no positive meanings.

The Egyptian philosopher Ẓaki Naguib Mahmoud (1905-1993) also wrote fiction. In a collection of short stories entitled Qaṣâṣât az-zujâj (Pieces of broken glass, 1974), there is a story in which a child asks his father “What does ẓulm mean?” (He has heard someone say it in the street.) His father gives him a definition, sort of: “it’s when people don’t know their place,” with examples like “when a servant sits in your chair, that’s ẓulm,” or when the wrong political party wins, or when a worker makes too much money. Later the father discovers that his son is going around town writing the word ẓulm on the walls of public places. Finally the son gouges the word deep into the door of the police station. The father and a policeman look at it in wonder as they hear the rumbling wheels of a passing train going ẓulm ẓulm ẓulm. The moral: the words that have the most power, if you use them enough, lose their precision and their force. They travel. Eventually they may become ubiquitous. Or perhaps: you just can’t escape some things.


There is a Ẓa epithet that rulers prefer to hear. ظفر. Ẓafar. Turkish zafer. It means “triumph,” “victory.” (There is more than one biography of Timur with the title Ẓafarnâmeh.) There is an adjective form, muẓaffar (victorious, triumphant). It is the name of the last Qajar shah of Iran, Moẓaffar ad-Din Ṣhah (1853-1907), who came to power in 1896 when his father, Nâṣer ad-Dîn Ṣhâh, was assassinated. The first Iranian constitution came out on Moẓaffar’s watch. (He accepted the limitations on his power, and died a few days later, not because of it. Probably.) In photographs, Moẓaffar’s face has a melancholy expression, almost a scowl, and a moustache wider than his head. In one picture he wears a crown like an enormous loaf of bread, easily a foot high. It doesn’t look precarious exactly, or uneasy, but as a mark of authority it overdoes it a little.

In a disk over the arch of the gate to the building where the Iranian parliament meets is the phrase ‘Adl-e Moẓaffar, something like “justice victorious.” Perhaps the choice of the word moaffar is a polite reference to the name of the Ṣhah. There is at least one other reason, though. The chronogram ‘adl-e moẓaffar adds up to 1364, that is, 1364 in the lunar calendar,1907, the birth year of the Iranian constitution, also the year of Moẓaffar’s death. (That’s the lunar date. In the Iranian calendar, since it is solar, it would have been 1285.)

Moẓaffar and his father had common interests. Both made more than one trip to Europe. Nâṣer ad-Dîn developed an interest in photography, shared by his son, and they explored it in depth when they visited Europe. There is no way to guarantee that overseas we will be seen as we see ourselves. There is a scene in chapter 11 of Ulysses when Leopold Bloom, at dinner in the Ormond hotel, listening to musicians tuning up in the next room, thinks about a musical performance in some theater or other when there was a visit from royalty. “Tuning up. Ṣhah of Persia liked that best. Remind him of home sweet home. Wiped his nose in curtain too. Custom his country perhaps.” We assume that Bloom hasn’t seen such a performance (the dates and places don’t work out) and that the details came to him by word of mouth. James Joyce was always precise about history, and how much history his characters would or wouldn’t have known: the responsible historian would like to fill in the blanks and determine which shah it was, father or son. The events of Ulysses take place in 1904. We don’t know how far back Bloom’s memory goes. Both Nâṣer ad-Din and his son Muẓaffar ad-Din visited Europe. That doesn’t narrow the field. Don Gifford’s suggestion, in his authoritative Ulysses Annotated, is the father, Ṣhah Nâṣer ad-Din, who visited London in June1873 & July 1889. “During the 1889 visit the shah caught the popular fancy and was ‘immortalized’ in street songs and as the principal figure in innumerable stories of the sort Bloom recalls” (307). Both Nâṣer ad-Din and Muzaffar ad-Dîn were in Europe during Bloom’s lifetime, and a visit to the theater is not improbable.

Moẓaffar’s lasting contribution, growing out of his fascination with photography, was film. He was fascinated enough to buy a moving picture camera and take it back to Iran, and the technology spread faster than anything he might have accomplished using his royal powers. The histories which trace the progress of film in Iran begin small, with an entrepreneur who showed newsreel footage at the back of his antique shop (the same year as the events of Ulysses). In 1912 commercial theaters began to appear. By 1925 there was a film school in Tehran. Ṣtudy the Iranian film industry to the present and you have a profoundly triumphant history. No doubt an Iranian film industry would have evolved without Muẓaffar ad-Din, but the history, as it actually happened in fact, allows a rare instance of royalty playing a useful role.

Ẓ O O 

The giraffe which Egyptian ruler Muhammad ‘Ali brought to France and presented to Charles X, to live as an ornament in the Jardin des Plantes, arrived in Paris in 1827. It was accompanied by the biologist Étienne Geoffrey Ṣt. Hilaire, who had been one of the scientists Napoleon shipped to Egypt in 1798, later director of the National Museum of Natural History.There is an entire book about that giraffe, its journey up the Nile and across the Mediterranean, and its eighteen years as a tourist attraction. (Ẓarafa: A Giraffe’s True Ṣtory, by Michael Allin, 1999). He even gives the giraffe a name:

Giraffe, girafe, giraffa (English, French, Italian)—all derive from the Arabic zerafa, a phonetic equivalent of zarafa, which means “charming” or “lovely one.” I named the giraffe Ẓerafa and imagined her wading through a field of sunflowers somewhere in France.” (5)

“Phonetic equivalent” refers to a linguist fact: زرافة (zarâfa), with the simple Ẓ (ز) does mean “giraffe.” The word he translates “lovely one” or “charming” is a ظ word, ẓarâfa (ظرافة), with a ظ. (The dictionary gives “elegance, grace, charm, esprit or wit.”) In other words, the phonetic difference between زرافة and ظرافة is no big deal. In most dialects they’re homonyms.

The word ظریف, ẓarîf (elegant, graceful, charming), is also a possible name (Ẓarif Davidson the song writer, Mohammad Javad Ẓarif, the Iranian Foreign Minister). It is also possible to make it a negative word, a word for the kind of beauty we mistrust. The verb Ẓ-R-F has a logical spectrum of meanings. Its second form, for instance (ظارف, ẓârifa, to make something charming), is, in Hans Wehr’s dictionary, to adorn, embellish, polish, and also to cover, wrap, put into an envelope. By implication it edges over to concealing or misleading. Dalîl ẓarfî is circumstantial evidence.

The noun form ظرف, ẓarf, has the same ambiguity. ظرف is not Qur’anic, but it enters into mystical discourse. According to the 12th-century Persian mystical poet, Ṣanâ’î, here’s how a man of intelligence should read scripture:

مرد دانا بجان سماع کند
حرف و ظرفش همه وداع کند.
Mard-e dânâ be-jân samâ‘ konad.
HÍŽarf o ẓarf-esh hameh vadâ‘ konad.

The wise man listens [to the Qur’ân ] with his soul,/and abandons the letter [ḥarf] and the outward elegance [ẓarf] -- Ḥadîqat al-Ḥaqîqat, 161 / trans., by Major J. Ṣtephenson, 97.) 

In Iran the only meaning I know for ẓarf was plastic basin for washing clothes. A friend says it is more frequently used for plates and crockery. Ṣteingass lists, besides wit, beauty and elegance, a vessel, vase, receptacle of any kind, “a pot with gold solution used for painting and writing.” It is also the word for an adverb. If you enter ẓarf in Arabic script as a Google search and ask for images, most of what you find are references to envelopes. Enter it in Roman characters and find that the word “zarf,” has entered English, unobtrusively, to describe those little cardboard sleeves that go around a paper cup of coffee to protect your hand from the heat.