Saturday, 21 February 2015

The Persian who recognised his Lord in Arabic Grammar

إِنَّ فِي خَلْقِ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ وَاخْتِلَافِ اللَّيْلِ وَالنَّهَارِ لَآيَاتٍ لِّأُولِي الْأَلْبَابِ
Indeed, in the creation of the heavens and the earth and the alternation of the night and the day are signs for those of understanding. [ʾĀl-ʿImrān: 190]

I have stated before that Muslim intellectuals should endeavour to recognise the Creator in whatever field they study. This is the purpose of knowledge. Serving humanity and using one’s degree to acquire wealth to distribute as charity is certainly good. However, it is not the primary purpose of knowledge. The purpose of knowledge is to recognise your Creator.

The most proper Noun

Arabic grammarians discussed the division of nouns in terms of common and proper nouns. It was agreed that هم – hum – they – is the most common noun. Its application is so vast and general it can encompass so many, it is really the least specific of all nouns. Hum is indeed a most nebulous creature.

Technically speaking hum may not be used until a reference is given of who is being referred to. I imagine the Arabic grammarians of days past would be amazed at how nebulous the English “they” has become, way beyond what they considered for hum. Consider how many conversations mention an all-encompassing “they” without once referencing a solid identity. “They should pass a law to…” Who is this they? Why do you not say “parliament”? “They should add this into the syllabus” “They should build a road.” “They should do something about all this crime” They, they they…..etc.

On the other end of the scale انا – ana – I – was defined as the most specific proper noun. It refers to the most specified individual about whom there is no sharing of identity. I am myself, I am nobody else.

Seybawayh was a Persian. He was born in Hamadan, Persia. He did not know Arabic and had to learn it. Yet he became one of its greatest masters. In response to the above discussion, he disagreed that ana is the most specific proper noun. For to each person ana is him or herself. Out of a million people each is an ana, thus there are a million ana. What then is the most specific and proper of nouns? Seybwayh made a declaration which is so deep in import, I cannot fully convey what little I understand from this mental titan. He averred, “Allāh is the most proper of nouns!” For Allāh is One, Absolute. There is no sharing whatsoever in the identity of Allāh, which is possible in “I” or “me”.
This single sentence so profoundly affected me, I wept more in thinking over it than over lengthy spiritual discourses.

Some Food for Thought

• Consider how a non-native speaker mastered Arabic and was then studied for centuries. The early Muslims would not have accomplished much had they had the racism – open and hidden – which contemporary Muslims suffer from.
• Every field is a means of recognising Allāh, even grammar.
• “Allah is the most proper of nouns” reflects pure monotheism. By believing and living a life of Monotheism, it is but natural that what filled the inner being of Seybwayh would flow from his pen.
• Seybawayh did not arrive at this conclusion solely due to his own mental acumen. Such brilliant insights are the fruits of a civilization built by Muḥammad صلى الله عليه وسلم who initiated not just a revolution in deeds, which has become our sole focus, but a revolution in the mental outlook of humanity. It was such a revolution, that a descendant of a people who married their biological mothers before Islam, now had such a mind coloured with Islamic thought, by which he recognised his Creator in another people’s grammar. Is there any other culture which had such a constant love relationship with Allah, that for them there was recognition of Allah, not just in places of worship, but in their engineering, their navigation, their architecture, their astronomy, their chemistry….their grammar?

Salutations and peace be on he who built such a civilisation.

سليمان الكندي
Twitter: @sulayman_Kindi

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Arabic Origins of Place names – Real & Alleged


I had previously written about a tendency of some Muslims to reproduce history and geography in their own cultural baggage. One manifestation of this is the reconstructed etymology of place names without any historical evidence. I thought it would be interesting to compile some of these names and discuss the claim of these Muslims. May Allāh guide us all to speak the truth in all matters and may we learn to verify facts before disseminating. Sadly, while most disseminate without verification, the original claimant is even worse for his lie.

Betelgeuse - the star’s name is from the Arabic for Orion’s Hand, Yadul Jawzāʾ which Medieval Europeans misread. They dropped a dot from the yāʾ and read it as Badul Jawzāʾ.

California – is in fact derived from the Arabic Khalīfah (successor, vicegerent)! The word was morphed into Calafia, a queen in a Spanish novel, and from there the name California was derived.

Hawaii – means homeland in Polynesian. The coincidental similarity with the Arabic hawāʾ has given rise to the unsubstantiated claim of it being Arabic for wind.

Iberia – has numerous names derived from the era of Muslim rule, such as Gibraltar and Trafalgar. I suppose it would be too much to ask of soccer worshippers to reflect for a few seconds on what the name changes hide in terms of Muslim forced conversions, torture and martyrdom and Masājid now used to worship Jesus as son of God. Whilst most of these names are simply Spanish or Portuguese pronunciations of the Arabic, Madrid is slightly more obtuse. You may be familiar with tajrī in the Qurʾān, referring to the rivers flowing in Paradise. The noun-place form of that verb is Majrā. The Spanish suffix for place was added to become Majret. This changed pronunciation to Madrid.

Madagascar – I am disappointed that a Muslim scholar would claim that this is actually Madīnah ʾAṣghar. Rudimentary knowledge of Arabic should have guided him to know that Madīnah is feminine, thus had there been any basis for his claim, it would have been Madīnah Ṣughrā. The name is actually derived from Marco Polo’s confusion of Mogadishu.

Manila – is shortened from ʾAmānullāh (safety of Allāh).

Portugal – from Burtuqāl (orange)

Rigel – the star’s name is from the Arabic for leg, rijl.

Siberia – An “Islāmic” TV pop star claims that it is derived from Ṣabr (patience). Although etymologists can give no conclusive origin for the name, none of the suggestions (e.g. Turkic sū birr = water land, Tartar sib irr = sleeping land, etc.) include an Arabic origin. Arabic can specifically be excluded, since old Arab records mention Ibis Shibir. Had the origin been Ṣabr, why change ص ṣād into ش shīn?

The above brief list is should point to both our forgotten history and the unfortunate tendency of some Muslims to be dishonest in concocting fictitious glory.

 سليمان الكندي
Twitter: @sulayman_Kindi