New Book: Les emprunts à l’hébreu et au judéo-araméen dans le Coran

by Catherine Pennacchio*

My new book, Les emprunts à lhébreu et au judéo-araméen dans le Coran, builds on Arthur Jeffery’s work, The Foreign Vocabulary of the Qur’an (Baroda, 1938), the last major study of Qur’anic loanwords. This lexicon identifies 325 loanwords and gathers all that had been written by Muslim and Western scholars about them. My book addresses the need pennachio_emprunts_rectofor this earlier work to be revised, updated, and supplemented. Progress made in comparative linguistics and the discovery of thousands of inscriptions in the Arabian Peninsula invite us to reconsider Qur’anic loanwords in their linguistic and historical contexts. This new publication examines 189 loanwords from Hebrew and Aramaic, checking the status of these terms and scrutinizing arguments about them, starting from Jeffery’s work.

First, Les emprunts provides some definitions and typologies of loanwords, and describes previous works about lexical borrowings by both Muslim and Western scholars. Then, it classifies loanwords into two main classes: loans prior to Islam and loans related to the message of Islam. The loans before Islam, coming from Akkadian, Aramaic, Persian, Greek, and Latin, reflect the historical, political, and trade contacts of the Arab tribes with their neighbors. These loans are common words that seem to have been imported with the concept or object that they denote (e.g. furāt, tijāra, rummān). The loans related to the message of Islam correspond to religious technical terms. Those borrowed from Hebrew and Judeo-Aramaic seem to come from direct contacts of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions with Hijazi Jews (e.g. muʾtafika, rāʿinā), from the Hebrew Bible (e.g. asbāṭ, baʿīr), or from rabbinical scriptures (e.g. jubb, darasa). Some were also known in Arabia long before Islam (e.g. ʿabd, khātam, raḥmān, zakāt). I also added to Jeffery’s list loans that are already known (e.g. ummī, ḥajj, sabʿ, miḥrāb) and a completely new one that I discovered (jalāʾ in Q 59:3).

The identification of a loanword comes from an intuition, a feeling that a word calls to mind another culture. The uncertainty of the meaning and the form allows us to say that it is probably a loanword. For borrowings external to Semitic languages, their morphology enables us to identify them. It is easy when such loanwords display characteristics typical of the original non-Semitic language (such as firdaws and majūs). It is more difficult for loanwords belonging to the Semitic language family. The difficulty is to distinguish those roots that are common throughout the Semitic family tree from roots that are actually loans from one branch of the family tree to another. As a rule, a term is considered common if it is represented with the same phonetic and semantic values in the majority of the Semitic family. But some loans also have these characteristics (e.g. miskīn, sikkīn, safīna).

The next step is to determine the origin of a loanword. Religious words are often considered as borrowings to Hebrew or Syriac because Judaism and Christianity often use the same concepts and texts, and because Hebrew, Judeo-Aramaic, and Syriac are very similar. I relied on grammar, rules of comparative linguistics, and contexts to trace the history of these loans. I looked for the key that reveals the loan and its origin, a detail that can be a linguistic feature (as in the cases of kursī, zujāja, and qaṭirān), or the words themselves, as those who are definitely Jewish could be sufficient to prove a Jewish origin (such as sabt and minhaj). Some previous errors in loan attribution have been detected, and the number of loans has been lowered: some are in fact common to the Semitic languages (e.g. ḥabl, ʿankabūt), while others are properly developments within the Arabic language itself (e.g. maʿīn, kāhin).

* Pennacchio is a participant in the Glossarium Coranicum Project revising Arthur Jeffery’s The Foreign Vocabulary Of The Qur’an. This project is coordinated by the CNRS (UMR 8167 – Orient et Méditerranée) and the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities. She also participates in the ETYMARAB project about an etymological dictionary of the Arabic language, and will soon release software about the vocabulary of the Qur’an.

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2014. All rights reserved.

CFP: International Conference on “Religions and Political Values”*

The Adyan Foundation, in partnership with the Lebanese American University (LAU), invites papers for a two-day conference on “Religions and Political Values,” to be held at LAU’s Byblos campus, 26-28 November 2014.

scholars in library_maqamat haririResponding to widespread interest in a values-based paradigm for engaging religions in the public domain, the goal of the conference is to create a forum for diverse sectors of society to reflect on how political values are defined and activated in Muslim and Christian discourses, and to explore and promote dialogue about these values across diverse worldviews. In so doing, the conference seeks to put recent scholarship in the humanities and social sciences in direct conversation with social-political and scriptural theologies, in Christianity and Islam specifically, and to confront questions and recommendations from public leaders and policy makers.

The conference will be conducted in English and Arabic. The deadline for abstract submissions is 1 September 2014. For more details and submission instructions, you can download the full call in PDF here: CFP: Religions and Political Values.

* Thanks to Nayla Tabbara, Director of Cross-Cultural Studies at Adyan, for sharing this CFP.

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2014. All rights reserved.

Archaeologists Discover Oldest Known Arabic Inscription in South Arabia*

Frédéric Imbert, professor at Aix-Marseille Université and researcher with IREMAM, and a French-Saudi team of archaeologists have recently discovered the oldest known example of Arabic inscription in South Arabia, about 100 kilometers north of Najran.

Map of Najran in the Arabian peninsula; image accessed from Wikimedia Commons.

Map of Najran in the Arabian peninsula; image accessed from Wikimedia Commons.

The text is dated to 469-470 CE, and is written in an intermediate Nabatean-Arabic script, the earliest phase in the development of Arabic writing. Previously this script had been attested only in the north of the Hijaz, the Sinai, and the Levant. This newest discovery, made possible with funding from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Development, has significant implications for the history of the Arabian peninsula and of the Arabic language, including the study of Qur’anic Arabic from the first centuries of Islam.

*This post is adapted from the 31 July announcement of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2014. All rights reserved.

On the Qur’an and Modern Standard Arabic

by Gabriel Said Reynolds*

Moses Set Out on the Nile in a Reed Basket. Engraving by Bernhard Rode, ca. 1775; photo accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

Moses Set Out on the Nile in a Reed Basket. Engraving by Bernhard Rode, ca. 1775; photo accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

Qurʾan 20:39 recalls how God instructed Moses’ mother to place her infant son in a tābūt and set him upon a river, that he might escape Pharaoh. In Modern Standard Arabic, tābūt can mean “box, case, chest, coffer” or “casket, coffin, sarcophagus,” and many translators render tābūt in the Qur’an in light of one or another of these meanings. Asad (“chest”), Hilali-Khan (“a box or a case or a chest”), Yusuf Ali (“chest”), Hamidullah (“coffret”), and Paret (“Kasten”) all choose the first meaning; Quli Qaraʾi (“casket”) chooses the second.

The awkward image of the infant Moses floating on the Nile in a casket illustrates the problem of understanding Qurʾanic terms in light of their meanings in Modern Standard Arabic. Not all translators do so. Pickthall and Arberry, among others, render tābūt, “ark.” This dramatically different translation presumably reflects the influence of Qurʾan 2:248, where the Qurʾan uses tābūt for the Ark of the Covenant.

In fact, Q 2:248 is the key to understanding tābūt in Q 20:39. Tābūt reflects the Hebrew term tebā (itself a borrowing from Egyptian), the term used for the basket in which Moses’ mother places him (Exodus 2:3; tebā evidently means “basket” here because it is made Q2out of reeds). Tebā is also used for the ark that Noah builds (Genesis 6:14, 15, passim). As Arthur Jeffery (Foreign Vocabulary, 88-89) notes, Qurʾanic tābūt is closer in form to Aramaic tībū (used in Targum Onkelos for both Noah’s ark and Moses’ basket) and even more so to Ethiopic tābot. The connection with Ethiopic tābot might be particularly important since it (like Syriac qebūtā) is used for Noah’s ark, Moses’ basket, and the Ark of the Covenant.

In any case, my point here is not to make an argument about a particular etymology for tābūt but rather to illustrate the danger of relying on Modern Standard Arabic in our reading of the Qurʾan. The way in which the Qurʾan uses tābūt for both Moses’ basket (Q 20:39) and the Ark of the Covenant (Q 2:248) reflects the Biblical background of this term. Therefore, in Qurʾan 20:39, tābūt might be understood in light of this background to mean simply “basket” (even if this meaning is not found in Hans Wehr’s dictionary).

Tābūt is not the only example of the problem of Modern Standard Arabic understandings of the Qurʾan. Qur’an 3:44 alludes to the account of the contest between the widowers of Israel over Mary. In the version of this account in the (2nd century) Protoevangelium of James, all of the widows hand their staffs (as lots) to the priest Zechariah, in whose care Mary has been kept in the Jerusalem Temple. From the last staff, that of Joseph, a dove emerges, indicating that he is God’s choice. The term that the Qurʾan uses for these staffs is qalam (pl. aqlām), from Greek kalamos (“reed”). Yet qalam also came to mean “pen,” and indeed this is its common meaning in Modern Standard Arabic. Thus if one reads the Qurʾan in light of Modern Standard Arabic, Q 3:44 would seem to involve throwing pens around.

A final case, the term dīn, has theological consequences. As Mun’im Sirry points out in his recent work Scriptural Polemics: The Qurʾan and Other Religions (esp. 66-89), many modern commentators understand Qurʾanic occurrences of dīn to denote “religion,” and indeed translators almost always render dīn “religion” (for Q 3:19 I did not find any cases where it is translated otherwise). This has important consequences, especially with verses such as Q 3:19 and 85, which can be read to mean that Islam is the only acceptable religion. Yet in light of Semitic and non-Semitic cognates (such as Syriac dīnā), Qurʾanic dīn might have—in some instances at least—a more general meaning of “judgment” (hence the phrase yawm al-dīn). In other instances, dīn might mean something closer to religious disposition, rather than religion in the modern sense of a communal system of faith and worship. Accordingly, students of the Qurʾan should be wary of reading dīn, or any Qurʾanic term, through the lens of Modern Standard Arabic.

* Gabriel Said Reynolds researches the Qur’an and Muslim/Christian relations and is Professor of Islamic Studies and Theology in the Department of Theology at Notre Dame.
© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2014. All rights reserved.