Foreign Vocabulary and Loan Words in the Quran: Historical Facts
One repeated assertion by Muslim scholars defending the government’s ban on the use of the word ‘Allah’ by Christians is that Quranic Arabic is the ‘purest’ and most appropriate language of divine revelation. As such, Christians are not allowed to use the word ‘Allah’ on the assumption that improper usage of the word by Christians will lead to corruption of language – to use the emotive words of a Muslim scholar – it amounts to raping the soul of their race (“Pemerkosaan Jiwa Bangsa”).
Such an assertion is intellectually questionable. It is evident that there is no such thing as a pure language which would presuppose a self-contained and self-sufficient linguistic community, hermetically sealed from interactions with neighboring linguistic communities – a historical impossibility by any account. Indeed, the Arabic language coexisted and dynamically interacted with other cognate Semitic languages like Nabatean, Hebrew and Aramaic (Syraic) in its early history. We only need to point out the phenomenon of loan words in (Quranic) Arabic to prove the point. As the Encyclopedia of the Quran puts it,
From the earliest period of Islam down to the present day, attentive readers have observed that there are words in the Quran which appear to be of non-Arabic origin. Such observations, motivated by varying factors, have been the source of controversy, discussions and extensive study in traditional Muslim and Euro-American scholarship.(See the entry, “Foreign Vocabulary” written by Andrew Rippin found in Encyclopedia of the Quran vol 2 E- I ed., Jane Dammen McAullife (Brill 2002) pp. 226- 237).
Naturally many Muslim scholars have tried to rationalize away this phenomenon on theological grounds by asserting that God sends a prophet in the language of his community. As such the Quran is sent down in the a form which the Arabs will easily understand – “la’allakum ta’qiluna”- and how, they ask, could the Arabs have been expected to understand it, were it sent down in a non-Arabic tongue? [Note: the original Arabic script is here transliterated for readers of this post: The phrase occurs at different verses in the Qur’an, e.g. Su 2:73, 242; 6:151 and means “for that you may understand” (from ‘aql, reason)]
Other Arabic scholars argued that since Arabic is the widest and richest of the languages, it should not be surprising that they exists similar words between Quranic Arabic and other languages. That is to say, while similarities may exist, they are there simply by coincidence and not because of a relationship between the words.
Finally, Abu ‘Ubayd (d. 224/838 AH), argued that words of foreign origin are to be found in the Quran but they had been incorporated into Arabic well before the revelation of the Quran and are thus to be considered Arabic. Furthermore, the nature of the Arabic usage of such words is superior to their usage as found in other languages. (Encyclopedia of the Quran, vol 2, p.230).
Not surprisingly, these explanations remain contested by historians. Still, it is undeniable that there are numerous words in the “Foreign Vocabulary in the Quran.”
One of the most helpful studies of this phenomenon of Foreign Vocabulary in the Quran is Arthur Jeffrey book, The Foreign Vocabulary of the Quran (Cairo. Oriental Institute Baroda, 1938). LINK
Arthur Jeffrey wrote, “Closer examination of the question [foreign words in the Quran] reveals even further and more detailed correspondences than these which appear on the surface, and forces on one the conviction that not only the greater part of the religious vocabulary, but also most of the cultural vocabulary of the Quran is of non-Arabic origin… By tracing these words back to their sources we are able to estimate to some extent the influences which were working upon Muhammad at various periods in his Mission, and by studying these religious terms in their native literature contemporary with Muhammad, we can sometimes understand more exactly what he himself means by the terms he uses in the Qur’an (p. 2, 5).
Arthur Jeffrey’s introduction was followed by an extensive discussion (from page 43 – 297) of the following words:
|Abb abba? father
Allahumma call to God
|Al Yasa’ name
Bara’acreation, or free
Barzakh isthmus, obstacle
Banna (adopt Coffebrown?
Buhtan false accusation
Jalabibkind of clothing
Hanif searcher for God
|Khalam /qalam? feather
Khamr whine (red)
Rabb lord, tuhan
Rabbani my lord (hebr./aram
|Zabania group of angels
Zabur PsalmZujaja bottle, glass
Zaka clean (morally)
Zakat social offer
Zur ly, falsehood
Sijill list, scroll
Suhl ?soft ground?
Siraj sesam oil
Sakana to rest
Sakina presence of God (hebr.)
Salwa entertainment, comfor
Siwar necklage (arm)
Sura letter, picture
Shi’ra Sirius (star)?
Shaitan devil, satan
seat (on camel)Suwa’equal
Sura chapter, letter (mail)
Tabaq cover, plate
Tuba ?His Blessedness (addressing)
‘Aliq food ?
‘Illiyun highest heaven
‘Imran pers. name
Fajir lyer, naughty
Furqan the Divider (name of Qur’an)
Fulk ship (of Noah)
Qurun horn, edge
Quraish name of tribe
Qist just, correct
|Kibriya pride, greatness
Kafara unthankful, unbelieving
Lat ?name of goddess
Madina (place of religion; dwelling
|Milla (= umma) religious community
Nabiy prophet, nabi
Nasara “Christians” (Nazoreans)
Harut wa Marut (name)
Hawiya deep valley ?
Wazir minister (government)
|Yajuj wa Majuj
Undoubtedly the origins of these words remain disputed by Muslim scholars. Still, it should be instructive for us to consider how recognition of the fact of loan words clarifies some puzzles in Quranic exegesis.
It is granted that the 13th century Arabic dictionary, Lisan al-Arab, was a great feat of scholarship. But the fact was that the meaning of many words of Quranic Arabic as used in Muhammad’s time was lost when Arabic scholars began compiling the dictionary. Therefore, the compilers of the Lisan could not make sense of these words in the Qur’an even though they collected and analysed everything Arabic they could obtain, especially from old Arabic poetry.
These scholars may have inkling that some of these words (labeled as of “dark, or unknown meaning”) which still are discussed in Ulum al-Qur’an today, might have come from another Semitic language, particularly Aramaic/Syriac even though they deny such possible origins. But some troubling linguistic problems remain: Why, for example, does khalîfa end with an “a” which should denote it as a feminine? There is no answer from Arabic, but in Aramaic it is the article which usually in that language comes as an “a” (alif in Aramaic/Syriad spelling, ta’ marbuta in Arabic) at the end of the word, e.g. meshîha, the Messiah. These scholars would have been able to account for the “feminine” gender of khalîfa if they admit to its origin in the cognate Semitic languages.
More appropriate to the current controversy – we can consider the words ‘salat’, or ‘zakat’ which the Malaysian authorities banned from being used by non-Muslims, even though these words are of Christian origin. How is it that in Qur’anic Arabic they are spelled with a “w” in the middle, and not, as outside of the Qur’an, with ‘alif’ to make it sound a long “a” (salât), while the Qur’anic spelling makes it sound like ‘salôt’,or ‘zakôt’? There is no answer from Arabic grammar for this observation, but the phenomenon is easy to explain if we take them to be loan words from Aramaic/Syriac, which uses a long ‘o’ where the Arabic uses a long ‘a’. The same explanation applies to the word, ‘salâm’ and ‘shalôm’.
In passing it should be noted that the Quran attributes the origin of salat and zakat to Jesus Christ’s teaching to his disciples (Qur’an, Sura Maryam (19) v. 31) – and irony of ironies – Christians are now banned from using these words!
In short, so long as it is assumed that everything Qur’anic must be based on the assumption of ‘pure’ Arabic, a position assumed by the Lisan al-Arab, the modern discipline of comparative philology will be rejected as irrelevant by present Islamic scholars in their insistence that certain ‘pure Islamic’ words should be banned from being used by Christians. But then should theological dogmatism trump over historical facts?
More significantly, Muslims scholars cannot deny the fact that the earlier linguistic communities did not protest when these loan words where incorporated into the Quran. These Semitic communities also respected the freedom and the right of early Muslim believers to redefine the loan words according to the newly emerging Islamic theological framework.
Of course, many government Muslim scholars argue that the early Muslims were merely purifying the Arabic language of their time. Whether it is a case of purification of language (which can only be a non-objective theological judgment), it cannot be denied that from the perspective of historical analysis, it was a case of borrowing of words to be adapted for theological purposes of an emerging religious community. That being the case, does not a sense of integrity and fair play require Muslims in Malaysia to respect the right and freedom of other religious communities (e.g., the Malay speaking Christian communities) to use any word they deem suitable to express their beliefs?
Given below are some examples taken from Arthur Jeffrey’s Foreign Vocabulary in the Quran
which the Arabs will easily understand – -“la’allakum ta’qilūna” and how, they ask, could the Arabs have been expected to understand it, were it sent down in a non-Arabic tongue? [Note: the original Arabic script is here transliterated for readers of this post: The phrase occurs at different verses in the Qur’an, e.g. Su 2:73, 242; 6:151 and means “for that you may understand” (from ‘aql, reason)]