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The foreign vocabulary in the Qur’an (Arthur JEFFERY)

The foreign vocabulary in the Qur'an (Arthur JEFFERY)

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Little further advance can be made in our interpretation of the Qur’an or of the life of Muhammad, until an exhaustive study has been made of the vocabulary of the Qur’an. It is interesting to note how recent work at Islamic origins, such as that done by the late Professor Horovitz and his pupils at Frankfurt, and in the books of Tor Andrae and Karl Ahrens, has tended to run to a discussion of vocabulary. The Qur’an is the first Arabic book, for though there was earlier poetry, it was not written down till much later, and some doubts have been raised as to the genuineness of what did get written down. For the interpretation of this first Arabic book, we have been content until recently to turn to the classical commentaries, but the tendency of the commentators is to interpret the book in the light of the Arabic language of their own day, and with few exceptions their philological lucubrations are of more interest for the study of the development of Muslim thought about the Qur’an, than they are for settling the meaning the words must have had for the Prophet and for those who listened to his utterances.

Some day, it is to be hoped, we shall have a Glossary to the Qur’an comparable with the great Wörterbücher we have to the Old and New Testaments, in which all the resources of philology, epigraphy, and textual criticism will be utilized for a thorough investigation of the vocabulary of the Qur’an. Meanwhile this present Essay attempts to make one small contribution to the subject by studying a number of the non-Arabic elements in the Qur’anic vocabulary.

Emphasis has been placed in recent years on the too long forgotten fact that Arabia at the time of Muhammad was not isolated from the rest of the world, as Muslim authors would have us believe. There was at that time, as indeed for long before full and constant contact with the surrounding peoples of Syria, Persia, and Abyssinia, and through intercourse there was a natural interchange of vocabulary. Where the Arabs came in contact with higher religion higher civilization, they borrowed religious and cultural terms. This fact was fully recognized by the earliest circle of Muslim exegetes, who show no hesitation in noting wonts as of Jewish, Christian, or Iranian origin. Later, under the influence of the great divines, especially of ash-Shafi’i, this was pushed into the backgr6und, and an orthodox doctrine was elaborated to the effect that the Qur’an was a unique production of the Arabic language. The modern Muslim savant, indeed, is as a rule seriously distressed by any discussion of the foreign origin of words in the Qur’an.

To the Western student the Jewish or Christian origin of many of the technical terms in the Qur’an is obvious at the first glance, and a little investigation makes it possible to identify many others. These identifications have been made by many scholars whose work is scattered in many periodicals in many languages. The present Essay is an attempt to gather them up and present them in a form convenient for the study of interested scholars both in the East and the West.

The Essay was originally written in 1926, and in its original form was roughly four times the size of the present volume. It would have been ideal to have published it in that form, but the publishing costs of such a work with full discussion and illustrative quotation, would have been prohibitive. The essential thing was to place in the hands of students a list of these foreign words which are recognized as such by our modern scholarship, with an indication of their probable origin, and of the sources to which the student may turn for fuller discussion. Our own discussion has therefore been cut down to the minimum consistent with intelligibility. The same reason has made it necessary to omit the Appendix, which consisted of the Arabic text, edited from two MSS. in the Royal Library at Cairo, of as-Suyut i’s al-Muhadhdhab, which is the original treatise at the basis of his chapter on the foreign words in the Itqan and of his tractate entitled al-Mutawakkili.

In making a choice of such references to the old poets as remain, was thought better to retain those used in the older works of reference which would be generally accessible to students, rather than make a display of learning by references to a host of more modern works dealing with the early poetry. In the case of references to Iranian sources, however, the author, for lack of library facilities, has been compelled to limit himself to the few texts, now somewhat antiquated, which were available to him in Cairo.

No one is more conscious than the author of the limitations of his philological equipment for the task. A work of this nature could have been adequately treated only by a Nöldeke, whose intimate acquaintance with the literatures of the Oriental languages involved, none of us in this generation can emulate. With all its limitations and imperfections, however, it is hoped that it may provide a foundation from which other and better equipped scholars may proceed in the important task of investigation of the Qur’anic vocabulary.

For reasons of general convenience the verse numbering of the Qur’an citations is throughout that of Flügel’s edition, not the Kufan verse numbering followed in the Egyptian standard text.

The thanks of the author, as of all students interested in Oriental research, are due in a special manner to the kindness and generosity of H.H. the Maharaja Gaekwad of Baroda, which have permitted the work to appear in the series published under his august patronage.

Caire, décembre 1937.