The House of David

"dawnbreak in the west"

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

The man on the horse

Among the observations in Bernard Lewis's The Political Language of Islam is a comparison of Greek terms of statecraft to Arabic. But both Greeks and Arabs changed over time.

(I reviewed and commented on that book over Sunday; and I've been going back to tweak those comments over the last couple days. A short note-gathering under this present essay's title was first posted 10:05 AM, and was the first blogpost on this book. Subsequent comments over that day built up a textwall, difficult to read through. And I have some important new data today. So I've bumped the essay to today, and rewritten it.)

My interest is the Qur'an so I'll start with Arabic. The Arabs' idiom for statecraft is "siyâsa". Its root is native to the language: it has to do with horses. Horses do appear in the Qur'an, somewhat poetically in sura 38; but siyâsa the political term is not Qur'anic. So how did it get into the classical lexicon?

Lewis will in p. 19 compare that non-Qur'anic equestrian idiom to the Vulgar Latin (he says Italian) "manage", "to handle" - that is, horses again. Eighth-century Byzantine Greek had taken on some Vulgar Latin as well, among them a clear cognate to "caballero" which I find in Theophanes and Symeon the Logothete. The Arab habit with Late Antique chivalric terms was to calque them into Arabic, as p. 19 furûsiya.

The Arabs had contact with Greeks and with Romans long before the Byzantine era. But in those days, North Mediterranean statecraft jargon tended to the nautical, like Latinate "governor" which derives from steering a ship. (I'd say, from old Ionian; if from classical Attic, the Romans would surely latinise what they heard as "cybernator".) The early suras also have a nautical focus, as Fred Donner noticed in Narratives of Islamic Origins; they impressed Donner so much his first chapter set Islam's birth by the Red Sea, if not in it. These terms in Arabic did not contribute to a theory of governance.

What we find in the Qur'an instead are several references to guidance, hudâ. From Michael MacDonald, "Romans go Home? Rome and other 'outsiders' as viewed from the Syro-Arabian Desert" (2014) and as I remember from Ahmad al-Jallad (2015), the old "Safaitic" dialect of what has become Arabic had its own idioms for leadership. These dealt with exactly this: guidance, as in - through the desert. Such idiom survived until the Umayyad era, given how John bar Penkaye calls Muhammad, in closely-related Syriac, the Arabs' mhaddyânâ.

Those Arabs who owned fine horses and discussed the finer points of politics attended upon the royal courts, like those in Jabiya in Syria and in the Hira of Iraq. I suggest - tentatively - that it was under Byzantine influence that the Arabic language took on the word siyâsa as - already - a literal translation of "management". Meanwhile the Qurra' caste of Muslim holy men (and women?) were close to the Safaitic-speaking men of the desert, or at any rate pretended to be. If they knew the word siyâsa, which is quite possible, they refused it. Sura 38 might even preserve, in its critique of Solomon's early years, a critique of secular Arab siyâsa.

posted by Zimri on 17:30 | link | 0 comments

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