A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, May 6, 2011

Tired of Bin Ladin? How About Some Classical Arabic Etymology?

 You know I occasionally like to skew widely from the general conversation. I was checking Lameen Souag's wonderful Jabal al-Lughat linguistics blog, which I've linked to from time to time, and stumbled on this post on "An Atom's Weight of Philology," essentially about the changing meanings of words as holy books come down to us from antiquity. He laments, as do we all, the lack of a real etymological dictionary for Arabic, which, for all its richness and enormous lexicons has no equivalent of the Oxford English Dictionary, and he notes very much in passing,
Standard Arabic has no layer of prestige loanwords corresponding to Greek and Latin words in English - all the classics of the Arab world are themselves in Arabic, and great efforts have been expended to keep the grammar of Standard Arabic roughly constant since the pre-Islamic era.
Now Dr. Souag is a linguist with skills in Semitic, Afro-Asiatic, and other African languages that I cannot rival, and his statement is absolutely and unassailably true. But the annoying-guy-at-the-bar quibbler in me wants to make one point. Though Arabic in its classical form has nothing like the kinds of Classical loan words that most other languages have, it does have a handful (as I'm sure Lameen Souag knows very well). And one of them is very prominent.

To Muslims, of course, the Qur'an is the direct dictation of God through the Angel Jabril (Gabriel), and is the infallible and eternal revelation of God's own word, in the Arabic language. Even non-Arabs feel that translation of the Qur'an is commentary, not God's direct words, and that they should try to learn to read the original language, which is the direct word. (And even non-Muslim Arabs are sometimes captivated by the sonorous beauty of the Qur'an's Arabic.) Yet, with perhaps the exception of the most extreme Salafis, most commentators on the Qur'an recognize that, even at the time of Muhammad, Arabic had already acquired some loan words from other languages.

One of these occurs in a Qur'anic text recited, quite literally, millions of times daily. The first chapter of the Qur'an, Surat al-Fatiha, the "Opening," stands apart. The early Suras of the Qur'an are extremely long; the shortest are towards the end. But the Fatiha is short, a concise and elegant introduction to the whole:

al-Fâtiha - The Opening

1.  In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.
2.  Praise be to God, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the world;
3.  Most Gracious, Most Merciful;
4.  Master of the Day of Judgment.
5.  Thee do we worship, and Thine aid we seek.
6.  Show us the straight way,
7.  The way of those on whom Thou hast bestowed Thy Grace,
     those whose (portion) is not wrath, and who go not astray.

                                     -  translation by Abdullah Yusuf Ali

 It is the most commonly repeated prayer in Islam and, arguably, the most repeated prayer on earth. Not only is it used in the five-times-daily prayers of all Muslims, but also as an introduction to everything from television programs on religion to the signing of contracts.

Yet a word that is not purely Arabic, and is in fact likely Latin in its origin, appears twice in even this most Arabic of texts. The word is al-Sirat (الصِّرَاطَ), translated above as "the straight way."

If you look at any of the classical Arabic qamus or lexicon literature, you'll find that there are basically only two meanings for this word: "the straight path," as used here  in the Fatiha, and a reputed bridge passing over the fires of hell which the righteous walk on their way to salvation, which, it need hardly be said, is obviously derived from the former meaning of a straight path.. It has no elaborate Arabic cognates derived from the same root, and thus, even without other evidence, looks like a loan-word.

For a very long time it has generally been recognized that the source is almost certainly the Latin strata for paved roads, and that the paved Roman roads of the ancient world made a huge impression on those on the peripheries of empire. And not just the Arabs: compare the English street and the German Strasse, both also derived from strata. All roads may have once led to Rome; many words for road come from Rome as well.

Here's a supporting link. It's from a work by a onetime professor of mine, Irfan Shahid, who may know more about pre-Islamic Arab-Byzantine relations than anyone who's lived since the seventh century. I wish I could afford his books, which are published for a very selective scholarly community. It is not at all impossible that I first learned of this link from Professor Shahid.

This blog will return to the 21st century shortly.


David Mack said...

In your otherwise learned commentary, the Arabic of al-Fatiha leaves out several words from the end of the 5th verse and several letters from the beginning of the 6th verse. I suggest you correct this before someone decides you intended to corrupt the holy words of the Qur'an.

Michael Collins Dunn said...

Should be OK now. The image was too big.