June 20, 2004

"Under God" as "Inshallah"

In support of Geoff Nunberg's uncovering of the old meaning of the phrase "under God" as "contingent on God's will" or "God willing", I observe that Robert Browning clearly intended it in this sense in the passage that I quoted a few days ago from his 1855 poem An Epistle Containing the Strange Medical Experience of Karshish, the Arab Physician:

1 Karshish, the picker-up of learning's crumbs,
2 The not-incurious in God's handiwork
3 (This man's-flesh he hath admirably made,
4 Blown like a bubble, kneaded like a paste,
5 To coop up and keep down on earth a space
6 That puff of vapour from his mouth, man's soul)
7 ---To Abib, all-sagacious in our art,
8 Breeder in me of what poor skill I boast,
9 Like me inquisitive how pricks and cracks
10 Befall the flesh through too much stress and strain,
11 Whereby the wily vapour fain would slip
12 Back and rejoin its source before the term,---
13 And aptest in contrivance (under God)
14 To baffle it by deftly stopping such:---
15 The vagrant Scholar to his Sage at home
16 Sends greeting (health and knowledge, fame with peace)

As I wrote:

I take "under God" in this passage to be modifying "contrivance", to express the conventional caveat "inshallah" meaning "God willing". It might be objected that this is an adverbial use -- but it is such a loose sort of adverbial that it could be placed nearly anywhere, including in the pledge. "One nation (God willing) with liberty and justice for all". Thus we've found another interpretive option!

The point of Browning's usage -- put in the mouth of the Arab physician Karshish -- was that Abib, "all-sagacious" in our art", is "aptest in contrivance" to save his patients' lives, but only "under God"; that is, subject to God's will. This expression of divine contingency would have been required by the linguistic culture of Islam, or at least seemed so to Browning; but it is imposed (or at least recommended) by other theologies as well.

Posted by Mark Liberman at June 20, 2004 04:36 PM