The House of David

"dawnbreak in the west"

Sunday, July 03, 2016

Christian Arabic

The arrival of Christianity and of Christian jargon to the Arabs is a missing chapter in Nicholas Ostler's Passwords to Paradise. We get Syriac and we get the Qur'an, but we don't get how A got to B. Maybe because that's controversial. Maybe because Ostler just doesn't know. I have to admit that I don't know either. So I'll use this blog to lay out some avenues for research, here.

Supposedly Christians were in contact with Arabia since Arethas - perhaps a Hârith, without any definite-article prefix, as was the custom in the para-Arabic of that time and place. The Aramaeans as a whole were definitely in such contact; Nabataea, especially, was mixed Aramaic and Arabic. After the Syrians went Christian, the Arabs were the Semites next-door.

The various lives of saints include some contact with "saracens". We also have Philostorgios as excerpted in Photius, although that's more useful for the Himyar... para-Arabs, again.

Some of the pre-Islamic poetry delves into Christian themes. ʿAdî bin Zayd among the Nestorians was one such poet. I did a little essay on his work once, "Return to the Garden"; I thought that his poetry was non-Qur'anic so probably authentic. Some scholars swear also by Umayya bin Abi'l-Salt although the "Biblical" poetry ascribed to him is Qur'anic.

As is well known the stack o' Syriac loanwords in the Qur'an appears to have got there by way of the Syrian Christians. It's especially the interpretations of Scripture we find in the Qur'an: for instance, as Witztum teaches us, the "beast" in Genesis becomes a wolf in Sura of Joseph, an anti-Jewish reading.

Also - Ostler p. 152 points this out in another context - the Arabs' seven-day week with day one on Sunday, an unnumbered day Friday, and "Sabbath" on Saturday is Greek. This much is shared with the Jews. Ostler should, perhaps, have noted it's also Syriac, where the Friday is the day of preparation (rubté, pdf) as in Greek. The Romans and Germans, even after moving from an eight day to a seven day cycle, insisted on naming their days after the old gods. And the Slavs offset their numbers. So it was the Eastern Orthodox who defined the Arabs' week for them.

Two translations of Judaeo-Christian scripture entered the Madina for Ibn Ishaq to read. The Torah was translated from the Peshitta, per Witztum again - hardly a surprise. The Gospel, by contrast, had got to western Arabia in a Palestinian Aramaic dialect (as noted by Baumstark).

Most fatefully, somebody must have translated "monogenés" with the "wld" root, like they translate that to "only begotten son" in English. Because the suras complain about that bitterly.

After Islam had torn its way through the sectarian-milieu of Araby, the Christians revamped their Message. In the late eighth century AD, we start seeing Christian apologetic in Arabic using Qur'anic terms. Monferrer-Sala in JSS 60.2 (2015) further notes a ninth-century translation of Philemon which uses terms like "rasul" and "injil" which I think are post-Qur'anic (although I don't know if that scholar agrees).


posted by Zimri on 21:00 | link | 0 comments

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