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16. Who Started Islam: Abraham or the Arabs?
Chapter 4. Who were the Arabs that started Islam?

4.3. How Arabic is the Koran?

Islam started with the first "revelation" that the Arab man Muhammad received. The language, which was used by the angel Jibril (Gabriel) in these "revelations" to Muhammad was Arabic. Also, Muslims believe that the Koran is completely in Arabic. They base this their faith on verses of the Koran itself: "We (i.e. Allah) have caused it (i.e. the book) to descend (as an) Arabic Koran so that you may (possibly) understand." (Sura Yusuf 12:2) And they view this Arabic of the Koran as being clear: "191 It (i.e. the Koran) has come down from the Lord of the worlds, 192 the faithful Spirit has come down with it 193 upon your heart (o Muhammad), for you to be one of the warners, 194 in a clear Arabic language." (Sura al-Shu'ara' 26:191-194)

In spite of this stress of the Koran itself that it is in a clear Arabic, Muslim interpreters of the Koran from early on realized that not all words in the Koran were really Arabic. In addition to inscrutable letters at the beginning of some Suras (e.g. ALM in Sura al-Baqara 2:1 or KHY'S in Sura Maryam 19:1), which have no meaning in Arabic, they found words in the Koran, which are similar to words in non-Arabic, i.e. foreign, languages and which often make no sense in Arabic. This was highlighted by Muslim scholars of the Koran, who did not only know Arabic but also other languages of the Middle East (which in turn was the result of the fact that Islam had spread to parts of the world, where Arabic was not the native language). The result of such findings led to lists of foreign (ajami) words of the Koran, which seem to contradict the statements of the Koran that it was in clear Arabic. The Muslims, who highlighted this non-Arabic vocabulary in the Koran, pointed out that this is what must be expected, because the Koran itself says: "And we (i.e. Allah) have not sent a messenger except in the language of his people." (Sura Ibrahim 14:4) 'And since the Koran refers to such previous revelations through other prophets and messengers of God, it is to be expected that the Koran does use such non-Arabic words.

As a result, Muslim authorities have found that the Koran contains words from more than 10 languages, including: Hebrew, Syriac, Greek, Roman, Persian or Coptic. A famous listing of such "foreign" words in the Koran can be found in the well-known book by Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti (who died in 1505 AD) "al-Itqan fiy 'ulum al-Qur'an" (literally meaning "Precision in the Science of the Koran" -- this list can be found in chapter 38 of this book by Suyuti). Here are examples of such non-Arabic words in the Koran, which we took from a more recent study on this subject by Arthur Jeffrey, The Foreign Vocabulary of the Koran (published in 1938 at the Oriental Institute in Baroda, India):

a) Hebrew words in the Koran: sakeena in Sura al-Baqara 2:248 (from Hebrew shekhinaa, meaning the indwelling of God's glory in his sanctuary, i.e. in the Tabernacle in the desert and later in the Temple in Jerusalem) or hajja in Sura al-Baqara 2:158 (from Hebrew hagg, meaning a feast) or ahbaar in Sura al-Tawba 9:31 (from Hebrew habeer, meaning teacher) or asbaat in Sura al-A'raf 7:160 (the plural of sibt from Hebrew sheebet meaning tribe) or allahumma in Sura al-Zumar 39:47 (from Hebrew elohim the plural form of Hebrew eloah, both meaning God) or tuufaan in Sura al-'Ankabut 29:14 (from Hebrew tuufaanaa meaning flood) or yamm in Sura al-Dhariyat 51:40 (from Hebrew yaam meaning sea).
b) Greek words in the Koran: darahim in Sura Yusuf 12:20 (the plural of dirham from Greek drachma, meaning a Greek coin) or injil in Sura al-Ma'ida 5:47 (from Greek euangelion meaning Gospel) or iblis in Sura Ta Ha 20:116 (from Greek diabolos meaning the Slanderer, i.e. the Devil).
c) Roman (Latin) words in the Koran: deenaar in Sura Al 'Imran 3:75 (from Latin denarius meaning a Roman coin) or siraat in Sura al-Fatiha 1:5.6 (from Latin strata meaning road) or qintaar in Sura Al 'Imran 4:20 (from Latin centenarium meaning a measure of volume).
d) Syriac words in the Koran: khardal in Sura Luqman 31:15 (from Syriac hardal meaning mustard seed) or khinzeer in Sura al-An'am 6:145 (from Syriac hazeeraa meaning pig or swine possibly through the Amharic hanzeer meaning wild boar) or zujaajah in Sura al-Nur 24:35 (from Syriac zegogithaa meaning glass or crystal) or sibgha in Sura al-Baqara 2:132 (from Syriac saba' meaning to dip and thus baptism) or tuur in Sura al-Mu'minun 23:20 (from Syriac tuur meaning cliff or mountain) or al-noon in Sura al-Anbiya' 21:87 (from Syriac noonaa meaning fish).
e) Persian words in the Koran: istabraq in Sura al-Kahf 18:31 (from Persian istabraq meaning silk brocade, a kind of elaborate silk cloth) or barzakh in Sura al-Rahman 55:20 (from Persian parsang meaning a barrier or partition) or sijjeel in Sura al-Feel 105:4 (from Persian sangk meaning stone) or firdaws in Sura al-Mu'minun 23:11 (from Persian firdaws for the Garden of Paradise) or majuus in Sura al-Hajj 22:17 (from Old Persian magush meaning the Magians or Zoroastrians).
f) Ethiopic words in the Koran: burhan in Sura al-Nisa' 4:174 (from Amharic birhan meaning light or illumination and thus meaning proof) or bighaal in Sura al-Nahl 16:8 (plural of Arabic baghl from Amharic bekelo meaning mule) or jalaabiib in Sura al-Ahzaab 33:59 (the plural of jilbaab from Amharic gilibebi meaning to cover or cloak) or al-awthaan in Sura al-Hajj 22:30 (plural of wathan from Ethiopian weteni meaning idols).

What do these findings mean? Certainly, most of the words in the Koran are in a pure and original Arabic. And yet there are also listings of Arabic words and expressions in the Koran, which are thought to reflect the differences in dialect that existed at the time of Muhammad between different kinds of Arabic in Arabia (see for example Suyuti, Itqan, chapter 37). Aside from this aspect, the Koranic words with non-Arabic roots mean that the Koran is not totally in Arabic, as many Muslims and non-Muslims believe. And we have not even addressed the many names from the Bible and other religious books, which have been included in the Koran and are therefore also not Arabic in their origin (for example: Adam, Nuuh for Noah, Ibrahim for Abraham, Musa for Moses, Dawuud for David, Isaa for Jesus or Maryam for Mary). Many of these foreign ('ajami) words in the Koran have been in a certain sense Arabicized in that their spelling was adjusted to correspond to the Arab alphabet. But nonetheless they do not fit into the system of grammar, which governs the variations of normal Arabic words (the morphology of words in Arabic). This means that not only the Arabs of the time of Muhammad have contributed to the text of the Koran, but also non-Arabs.

The Arabs at the time of Muhammad were to a large degree idolaters. For them to be able to understand what Muhammad said, the Arabic of the Koran had to be in this language of a people worshipping a plurality of gods. This is how names of some of their gods, which specific Arab tribes worshiped as idols or spirits, entered the Koran (e.g. the names of the three female goddesses of Ta'if "al-Laat, al-'Uzza and Manaat" in Sura al-Najm 53:19-20). In addition, the usage of non-Arabic words in the Koran brought with it the influence of other polytheists (through Greek, Roman), of Jews (through Hebrew and Aramaic), of Christians (through Greek, Syriac, Coptic, Ethiopic) and even of Zoroastrians (through Persian) into the Koran. So, was the Islam of the Koran begun exclusively by the Arabs? In a sense no, because also non-Arabs contributed to the text of the Koran through non-Arabic words, which can evidently be discerned in the text of the Koran today.

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