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.

The Search for Heretics: Christianity and the Qurʾan

By Gabriel Reynolds

The tradition of western scholarship on the “sources” of the Qurʾan is usually traced to Abraham Geiger’s 1833 work, Was hat Mohammed aus dem Judenthume aufgenommen (“What did Muhammad Take up from Judaism?”).  While Geiger’s work is focused on the Jewish sources of the Qurʾan, others would soon write works focused on the Christian sources of the Qurʾan.  Yet there was something different about works devoted to Christianity and the Qurʾan.  While neither Geiger nor others interested in Judaism showed any particular concern for Jewish heresies or heterodox Jewish doctrine, scholars who wrote on Christianity and the Qurʾan were often fascinated with Christian heresies.

Arius (d. 336) (

Arius (d. 336)

This fascination seems to be connected with a phrase that is (falsely) attributed to Theodoret of Cyrrhus (d. 458 or 466), in which Arabia is described as haeresium ferax, the “bearer” (or “mother”) of heresies.  Scholars, inspired in part by this phrase, often seem to imagine that in the Prophet Muhammad’s day the deserts of Arabia were teeming with Christian heretics who had fled the merciless enforcers of Chalcedonian orthodoxy in Byzantium.  In 1900, for instance, the Protestant missionary Samuel Zwemer wrote:

Not only was religious life at a low level in all parts of Christendom but heresies were continually springing up to disturb the peace or to introduce gigantic errors. Arabia was at one time called “the mother of heresies.”  The most flagrant example was that of the Collyridians, in the fourth century, which consisted in a heathenish distortion of Mariolatry. Cakes were offered to the Holy Virgin, as in heathen times to Ceres. (The Cradle of Islam, 306–7)

Richard Bell, writing in 1925, felt that Arabs were particularly susceptible to heresies:

Arabia (by which probably is meant the Roman province of Arabia, not the land of the nomads) had a reputation in the early Church as a source of heresies. That is perhaps not to be wondered at if we remember that in these regions the Greek and the Semitic mind were in contact, and in a manner in conflict. For the Semitic elements of the Church all along had difficulty in following the subtleties of the Greek intellect. . . . It is possible, however, that some of the heretical movements persecuted in the Empire may have sought refuge in Arabia and helped to form the soil out of which Islam grew. (The Origin of Islam in Its Christian Environment, 20)

In this sort of historical context it seems that, wherever he turned, Muhammad couldn’t have helped bumping into a heretic.  Robert Speer, speaking at the 1911 Lucknow missionary conference, blamed the influence of Christian heretics for Muhammad’s failure to convert to Christianity:

The view of Christianity which lies at the base of Islam and which led Muhammad to repudiate it was a false view.  He had never met the Christianity of Christ and the Apostles. The Qur’an shows what a travesty of the Gospel had come to him. (“The Attitude of the Evangelist toward the Muslim and His Religion,” 233-34)

It is rare to find this sort of fanciful speculation in scholarship these days, but scholars continue to have recourse to Christian heresies in their efforts to explain the Qurʾan.  Geoffery Parrinder wonders whether the manner in which the Qurʾan insists that God would not “take” a son (Q 2:116; 10:68; 17:111; 18:4; 19:35; 19:88, 91, 92; 21:26; 23:91; 25:2; 39:4; 72:3) is a rejection of “Adoptionist and Arian heretics” (Jesus in the Qurʾan, 127).  Scholars regularly refer to al-Nisaʾ (4) 157, the Qurʾanic verse on the Crucifixion, as “Docetist”—even if Docetists were long gone by the seventh century.  Francois de Blois argues that al-Maʾida (5)116—which has Jesus deny ever telling people to worship him and his mother—takes us on a path “which leads directly to the Nazoraeans of Christian heresiographers”  (“Nasrani and Hanif,” BSOAS 65 [2004], 14).

Yet all of this begs the question of whether there is truly any need to follow a path to Christian heretics.  Other passages suggest that the Qurʾan intentionally employs rhetorical tools such as irony and hyperbole.  When the Qurʾan announces to the Prophet, “Give the good news of a painful punishment” to the unbelievers (Q 44:49), it is employing irony (and to good effect).

How are we to understand al-Tawba (9) 31, where the Qurʾan says of the Jews and Christians, “They have taken their rabbis and monks as Lords”? We could take this verse as a sign that Muhammad met some mysterious clergy-worshipping heretical sect in the Arabian desert—we might call them “Sacerdolaters.”  Or instead we might recognize that the Qurʾan is here using hyperbole. So too for other verses, such as al-Nisaʾ (4) 157 or al-Maʾida (5) 116.

Indeed, perhaps in general we should be less concerned with heretics, and more concerned with rhetoric.

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2013. All rights reserved.