Syriac Influence on the Style of the Koran

The time has surely come to subject the text of the Qur'an to the same criticism as that to which we subject the Hebrew and Aramaic of the Jewish Bible, and the Greek of the Christian Scriptures. Apart from some stray comparative remarks by a few eminent scholars, the only comprehensively critical work on the subject is still that of Noldeke, printed in 1860. It is to be regretted that in the new edition of Noldeke's classical work undertaken by Schwally and Bergstrasser- which contains most useful references to an astounding number of Arabic printed books and manuscripts-the editors have not seen fit to multiply the critical and comparative remarks on the sacred text itself. Much useful information can also be gathered from another classical study of Noldeke: the Neue Beitrage.l

A very recent study on the historical narratives of the Qur'an has lately been written by J. Horovitz.2 The section dealing with proper names (pp. 85-155) is a hill of erudition, but I think that in some places he has built too much on the Muslim tradition and on the so-called preIslamic or early Arabian poetry. Setting aside as irrelevant the South Arabian and other inscriptions-I believe that we have not a single Arabic page on which we can lay our hands with safety and say that it is preIslamic, and I hold with Margoliouth3 that all the edifice of pre-Islamic poetry is shaky and unstable, and that the Qur'an is the first genuine Arabic book that we possess. It is in place here to repeat what I wrote on this subject in 1920:

Before the seventh century we are not in a position to know how the Arabic poetry was constituted. The numerous poetical compositions known as "early Arabian poetry," and represented chiefly by the wellknown Mufaddaliyat, Mucallagat, Hamasah and Jamharah are enveloped in a thick mist of prehistoricity and spuriousness, and in the present state of our knowledge we may assert that till fuller light dawns they can hardly stand in the domain of a positive study.4

As we believe the Qur'an to be the first Arabic book,5 its author had to contend with immense difficulties. He had to adapt new words and new expressions to fresh ideas, in a language that was not yet fixed by any grammar or lexicography. The risk of not being understood did probably deter him from coining many new words. The best policy was to use for his new idea of Islam the words that were understood by his hearers and found in a language akin to his that had become an ecclesiastical and religious language centuries before his birth and the adherents of which were surrounding him in all directions in highly organized communities, bishoprics, and monasteries. This is the reason why the style of the Qur'an is so unlike that of any other classical Arabic book.

In this respect, the author of the Qur'an has certainly much merit and originality, and his linguistic difficulties were much more formidable than those experienced, for instance, by Paul and by the first Christian evangelists, who had to express their new ideas in the language of Homer. The language of Homer had a fine literature behind it; the language of the Qur'an had not. As the first Christian writers have left in their lucubrations stylistic peculiarities that clearly point to their country of origin, which was not the old Athens but the Syrian Hellenistic Palestine, so the author of the Qur'an has exhibited stylistic idiosyncrasies that stamp his work as being somewhat different from the classical Arabic known to us from the eighth century downward; his style suffers from the disabilities that always characterize a first attempt in a new literary language that is under the influence of an older and more fixed literature. This older and more fixed literature is, in our judgment, undoubtedly Syriac more than any other.

Among modern scholars who have treated of the question of the foreign words found in the Qur'an mention should here be made of Fraenkel,6 and Dvorak,7 in the publications of the Vienna Academy. If I do not refer more often to these two scholars it is simply because I am loath to multiply footnotes without great necessity, but it is hardly necessary to state that I do not always consider all their conclusions as irrefragable; this applies more specially to the second work. Some good information may also be gathered here and there from A. Siddiki's Stuthen fiber die Persischen Fremdworter im Klass. Arabisch, 1919.

So far as the Muslim authors are concerned, the number of those who treated of stray the Qur'anic words of foreign origin is indeed considerable, and there is no need to mention them here by name. Among those who attempted to collect such words in a more or less systematic way, we will refer to the short poetical pieces of Taj ud-Din b. Subki and abul-Fadl b. Hajar. Both of them, however, have been easily eclipsed by Jalal adDin Suyuti-the best Qur'anic critic of Islam-who devoted to the subject a special chapter of his well-known Itgan,8 and wrote on it a short and precise treatise entitled Mutawakkili.9 We must remark, however, that the very restricted knowledge that all the Muslim authors had of the other Semitic languages besides Arabic often renders their conclusions very unreliable and misleading, and the critic should use great caution in handling their books, which at best are only good as historical preambles to the subject under consideration.

I am convinced that a thorough study of the text of the Qur'an independent of Muslim commentators would yield a great harvest of fresh information. The only qualification needed is that the critic should be armed with a good knowledge of Syriac, Hebrew, and Ethiopic. In my opinion, however, Syriac is much more useful than Hebrew and Ethiopic, as the former language seems to have a much more pronounced influence on the style of the Qur'an. The only Hebrew textual influence I was able to discover bore on the biblical Hebraisms already found in the Syriac Peshitta.10 We are also apt to exaggerate in our Qur'anic studies the legendary biblical element that emanates from Jewish folklore beliefs, and to overlook the fact that these legends were already found in scores of apocryphal books circulating among the members of the Syrian churches of South Syria and Arabia. In this connection we may state with some confidence that taking the number 100 as a unit of the foreign influences on the style and terminology of the Qur'an Ethiopic would represent about 5 percent of the total; Hebrew, about 10 percent; the Greco-Roman lan guages, about 10 percent; Persian, about 5 percent; and Syriac (including Aramaic and Palestinian Syriac), about 70 percent.

In the following pages we propose to discuss very briefly a first list of words bearing on some aspects of this Syriac influence on the linguistic peculiarities of the Qur'an. The list ought to be carefully examined, because if its points are established they will modify to a large extent our Qur'anic conclusions, which are mainly derived from Muslim writers, the best of whom flourished some two hundred years after the events.

The Syriac influence on the phraseology of the Qur'an may be considered under six distinct headings: (a) proper names, (b) religious terms, (c) common words, (d) orthography, (e) construction of sentences, and (f) foreign historical references.

For the sake of conciseness and in order to save our limited space, we shall not add any critical remarks to the words that to us seemed to be self-evident and clear even to the nonexpert eye.' 1 We propose to deal with the logical conclusions to be drawn from the present pages at the end of the second list of words, which we will publish in the near future.

So far as the etymology of the common words is concerned, it is, of course, always difficult to decide with tolerable certainty whether a given Arabic word used in the Qur'an is derived directly from the Syriac, Hebrew, or Ethiopic languages, or not derived from any of them at all. There are thousands of concrete lexicographical words that are identical in all the Semitic languages, and no responsible scholar will ever contend that any of them is derived from this or that Semitic language. This applies especially to primitive vocables such as "head," "hand," and the like. Such words belong to the common Semitic stock found in all the Semitic languages. For the words that are not primitive and common to all the Semitic languages but found in some of them only, to the exclusion of others, I have found the following considerations worthy of attention:

(a) With all words, whether concrete or abstract, we must consider first the grammatical and lexicographical genius of this or that Semitic language and see how the Qur'anic words fit in with it; and second, the nearest form presented by the Qur'anic words as compared with the corresponding words found in this or that Semitic language.

(b) With exclusively concrete words we must consider the history, and the geography and topography of the land, of this or that Semitic people, and examine the extent to which the Qur'anic words fall in harmony with them.

(c) With exclusively abstract words we must consider which of the Semitic nations first acquired literary civilization, and which of them by force of circumstances or by its proximity to the Hijaz was more likely to exercise a direct influence on its language in this or that special branch of literature.

For a general view of the mutual relations that bind all the Semitic languages together, the following works need no special recommendation from me: Wright's Comprehensive Gram. of the Sem. Lang., Brockel- mann's Grundriss, Zimmern's Verg. Gram. d. Sem. Sprachen, and the well-known works of Noldeke on the subject.


The proper names of biblical personages found in the Qur'an are used in their Syriac form. Such names include those of Solomon, Pharaoh, Isaac, Ishmael, Israel, Jacob, Noah, Zachariah, and Mary. The other biblical names used in the Jewish sacred books have the same spelling in Syriac and in Hebrew. The following names need some explanation.

Solomon and Pharaoh. The Hebrew names are slomoh and pr'h with a final he, and for Solomon with two vowels o; so the Arabic Sulayman and Fir`awn (with a final nun) of the Qur'an could only have emanated from the Syriac forms of the two names glymwn and pr`wn. (The Ethiopic form of the last name has the vowel i under the pe.) The penultimate aliph of the modern pronunciation Sulayman is a later addition of the scribes. We must here remark that the penultimate waw of the Syriac name is also missing in many ancient books, and the name appears as §lmn in manuscripts written before the time of Muhammad. See the Brit. Mus. Syr. MS. Add., 14, 602 ff., 82a and 84b.12 The manuscript itself is of the end of the sixth or at the latest of the beginning of the seventh Christian century.

Isaac. Here also the Arabic Ishaq is without doubt derived from the Syriac 'yshq and not from the Hebrew yshq or yshq (with a y5dh).13

Ishmael and Israel. The same remark applies to Ishmael and Israel. Their Qur'anic equivalents, Ismail (or Ismail) and Isra'il (with or without hamzah), are exactly the Syriac 'am'yl and 'sr'yl or 'Sr yl and not the Hebrew y9 m,11 [yi. `ma`e'l] and ysr'1 [yL'ra'el]. For references to some Arabic inscriptions bearing on the name "Ishmael," see Horovitz, Koranische, p. 92, and Hartmann's Arabische Frage, pp. 182, 252 sqq.

Jacob. To a certain extent the form of the name of Jacob is also more Syriac than Hebrew: Ya`qub (Arabic) = y'gwb (Syriac), but in Hebrew y'qb [yacagob] with a short patah for the 'e and without a long vowel. The name occurs five times only in the Hebrew Massoretic text with the long vowel [ya'gob] and a quiescent 'e as in Arabic and Syriac, and it is very probable that they represent a more modern pronunciation of the name.

Noah. The Hebrew noha is somewhat remote and the Arabic Nuh is exactly the Syriac and the Ethiopic: nwh.

Zachariah. Here also the Arabic Zakariyya' is the Syriac zkry' with an alaph and not its Hebrew form with a he, or the Ethiopic Zakarias (taken from the Greek).

Mary. Note the difference in the first vowel of the word; Arabic and Syriac Mar, but the Massoretic text Mir. It should be observed, however, that according to the Massorah to the Targum of Onkelos14 on Exod. 15:20, Maryam was also the Targumic pronunciation. In Ethiopic both syllables are long; Maryam.

There is not a single biblical name with an exclusively Hebrew pronunciation in the whole of the Qur'an. So far as the names Ishmael, Israel, and Isaac are concerned, we may remark that their deviation from the Hebrew pronunciation is all the more remarkable because in them the author (or the editor of the Qur'an) is running counter to the genius of the Arabic and Hebrew languages to follow that of Syriac. It is well known that the letter of the third person singular of the aorist is both in Hebrew and Arabic a yodh, which in Hebrew precedes the above proper names, and it would have been much more natural that their Arabic form should have been, for instance, YasmaCil, and Yashaq with a yd' than 'Ismail and 'Ishaq with an aliph-forms which have been used by the Syrians in order to retain as much as possible the original pronunciation of the Hebrews, inasmuch as the letter of the third person singular of the aorist is in their language a nun and not a yodh as in Arabic and Hebrew.

Another very remarkable fact emerging from all the above words is their pronunciation. I am at present engaged in the study of the early his tory of Christianity in Arabia as a sequel to my Early Spread of Christianity in Central Asia, and Early Spread of Christianity in India, published in 1925 and 1926, respectively. From that study it will be seen that the majority of the Christians round about Hijaz and South Syria belonged to the Jacobite community and not to that of the Nestorians. This was the state of affairs even in the middle of the ninth Christian century, in which a well-informed Muslim apologist, 'Ali b. Rabban alTabari, was able to write: "What (Christians) are found among the Arabs except a sprinkling of Jacobites and Melchites."15

Now the pronunciation used in the Arabic proper names mentioned above is that of the Nestorians and not that of the Jacobites. The latter say ishmo'il, isroil and Ishoq, etc., and not Ishma al, Israel, and Ishaq, as they appear in the Qur'an.

The Greco-Roman world is seemingly represented by two names only: that of the prophet Jonas, who figures as yunus, and that of the prophet Elijah, whose name is written Ilyas, and once as Ilyasin (sic) for the sake of the rhyme (XXXVII. 130). It is highly probable, however, that these two names were borne by Christian Syrians and that they were taken direct from them; indeed, many men of the Jacobite, Nestorian, Melchite, and Maronite Syrians had from the third Christian century names either completely Greek or with a pronounced Greek termination only. The number of such men literally amounts to thousands. As an illustration of the final sin, we may remark here that many Syrians were called Yohannis for Yohanna (John), Mattaeus for Mattai (Matthew), Thomas for Thoma (Thomas), and so on.

That the view we have here exposed is the only right one is borne out by the fact that in Palestinian Syriac the form of the two names is Ilyas16 and Yunus,17 as in the Qur'an. In Ethiopic both names appear also as Ilyas and Yunus, but from the Syriac vocable (dhu-n) nun, "(he of the) fish," by which the Qur'an names Jonah (XXI.87), it is more probable to suppose that he got his name also from the Syrians.

By applying the Syriac method of proper names, we will be able to throw light on some strange forms of names used in the Qur'an. To express "John" the Qur'an of our days has the strange form Yahya. I believe, with Margoliouth,18 that the name is almost certainly the Syriac Yohannan. In the early and undotted Qur'ans the word stood as _, which could be read Yohanna, Yohannan, or Yahya, and the Muslim qurra' who knew no other language besides Arabic, adopted the erroneous form Yahya. I am absolutely unable to agree with Lidzbarski19 that this curious name is an old Arabic one.

So far as the word `Isa (the name given to Jesus in the Qur'an) is concerned, it was apparently in use before Muhammad, and it does not seem probable that it was coined by him. A monastery in South Syria, near the territory of the Christian Ghassanid Arabs, bore in 571 C.E. the name 'Isaniyah, that is to say, "of the followers of Jesus," i.e., of the Christians. See fol. 84b of the Brit. Mus. Syr. MS. Add., 14, 602, which is of the end of the sixth, or at the latest of the beginning of the seventh century.20 The Mandean pronunciation 4so21 is of no avail as the guttural `e has in Mandaic the simple pronunciation of a hamzah. The Mandean pronunciation is rather reminiscent of `Iso, as the name of Jesus was written in the Marcionite Gospel used by the Syrians.22


Almost all the religious terms found in the Qur'an are derived from Syriac. In this category we will include such terms as:

This dependence of the Qur'an upon Syriac religious terms is also visible in the theological expressions, such as light upon light (= light from light), of XXIV.35 (where nur from nwhr'), and in all semibiblical quotations or inspirations, such as the story of the camel and the eye of the needle (VII.39), where jamal like gml' in Matt. 19:24, and the idea of God causing to die and to live (LIII.45), where 'amata and 'ahya, like myt and 'hy in 1 Sam. 2:6, where the Hebrew is in the second form.

The same applies to biblical events and facts, such as tufan (VII.130; XXIX. 13), flood, from twpn', and salaba from slb, to crucify, as applied to Christ (IV.156). As such we will also count, manna, from mn'27 (11.54; VII.160; XX.82), salwa, quail, from slwy (ibid.), 'asbat, tribes, from Tbt'. Another category of verbal Syriacisms is to be found in the literally translated Syriac words; as such we will count the frequently used rasul, Apostle, from . lyh', and, kalima, Word (of God) from mlt' (IV.169 and passim).

I believe that in the above list, the words, the Syriac origin of which could be denied, are very few. The list could be increased by scores of other words, but the above vocables are sufficient for the purpose of this first list. The only Qur'anic religious terms that betray Hebraic influence are the two technical terms of taurat-Torah, and Tabut, "ark" (11.49; XX.39).28 The same may to some extent be said of the late Aramaic, Jahannam, "hell," which lacks a mim in Classical Syriac. The word Mathani, in XV.87 and XXXIX.24, is obscure, and its connection with the technical word mishnah is quite possible but not certain. On the other hand, habr, "doctor," is both Syriac and Hebrew, with a slight change in the meaning.

The Jewish influence on the religious vocabulary of the Qur'an is indeed negligible.

In spite of the close and intimate relations that existed between Hijaz and Abyssinia, relations that were strengthened (if we are to believe the Muslim historians on this subject) by the fact that the early Muslims took refuge with Najashi, the King of Abyssinia, the only Ethiopic religious influence on the style of the Qur'an, is in the word hawariyun, "Apostles." It is also possible that the word suhuf, "leaves, sheets," may have been inspired by the corresponding Ethiopic word.

Here also we must remark, as we did in the case of the Qur'anic proper names, that the pronunciation of the above Syriac religious terms is that in use among the Nestorians and not the Jacobites. The latter say furgon and not furgan, qurbon and not qurban, qashish and not qashshish (with a shaddah), and so on.


There are words in the Qur'an that are somewhat uncommon in Arabic but quite common in Syriac. As such we will count:

Many of the above words are wholly Syriac, and no amount of lexicographical and grammatical subtlety will, in our judgment, succeed in Arabicizing nun, Tu r, or muhaymin, and the like. I believe also with Fraenkel31 that the word asatir in VI.25, etc., is the Syriac 'qtr', "writing, archives, any written thing." The meaning of "legends, stories," given to the word by the Muslim commentators, is arbitrary, a device to give a sense to a sentence that they could not understand, and is not warranted either by the etymological meaning of the root, or by its comparison with the other Semitic languages.32

Another Syriac word in the Qur'an is rahman, compassionate, from rhmn', and the recently discovered Book of the Himyarites33 shows that the word was used in Yaman before the time of the Prophet.

The Palestinian form of Syriac is represented in the Qur'an by the word sadiq, sdyq, a just man, and its derivatives. In Classical Syriac the first letter is a Zayn [z] but in Hebrew a Sadhe [s].

The Greco-Roman world is indirectly represented by the three following words, which refer to the state technicalities of currency, weight, and measure: denarius (111.36), drachm (XII.20), and, Qintar (111.68, etc.). These are of no importance, and it is highly probable that dinar and Qintar have passed into the Qur'an through the intermediary of the Syriac dynr' and gntr'. This has actually taken place with girtas xapllc (VI.7 and 91), which has almost certainly passed into the Qur'an through the Syriac qrtys'. The same may possibly be said of gistas (XVII.37; XXVI.182), balance, measure. The spelling 49ai71S, however, is nearer to the Arabic form with a final sin (s) than the corresponding Syriac qst'; on the other hand, what about the first Qaf [q], which is decidedly Syriac? The word, however, represents a technical term of weight as used in the Near and Middle East, and the editor of the Qur'an wrote it as it was pronounced in his day probably by the Palestinian Syrians. Can the same be said of sundus, from 6av8u4, red colored cloth (XVIII.30)?

We believe it to be quite possible that the word 'iblis, "the evil one," is derived from diabolus, through a confusion of the initial dal [d] with an aliph by an early gari, or the first editor of the Qur'an. This is not absolutely impossible with some ancient forms of the above two letters. The connection of the word with the verb balasa is artificial, and, if accepted, would throw us into a non-Arabic and an altogether nonSemitic form of substantives that would baffle a critic. Still more remarkable is the frequently used word jinn, Jinns, which is closely associated with the Latin genii; and equally remarkable are the words galam, pen, which is reminiscent of KaI.aµoc, calamus, and the word sijill (XXI. 104), which is undoubtedly taken from atyiX? tov, sigillum, through the Syriac sygylywn. The words used to express precious stones such as marjan (LV.22), and yaqut (LV.58), are cosmopolitan, and may have been taken either from Syriac or from Greek, but more probably from Syriac.

As an instance of the curious relation that often exists between the Semitic languages, we may remark that it is possible that saut (LXXXIX. 12)-if it can be taken in the sense of "outpour, flood"-has some connection with the Ethiopic s5ta.34 The commentators, however, give to the word the sense of "lashes, strokes of a whip" from the Syriac (Nestorian) Shauta. Perhaps the word may also be compared with the Syriac Shubta (Nestorian pronunciation: Shuta), "molten metal."

Another instance of the curious results that arise from a linguistic comparison of the Semitic languages with one another is to be found in the root fataha (XXVI.118; XXXI1.28), which seems to require in the context the sense of "to judge between, judgment"; a meaning that the word possesses in Ethiopic.35

As in the case of religious terms, the list of Arabic common words represented in, or derived from, Syriac could be increased literally by scores of others.

No other language is represented in the Qur'an. Here as in the two previous categories the pronunciation of all the above Syriac words is Nestorian and not Jacobite.


There are numerous words in the Qur'an that by their orthography betray Syriac influence. The following grammatical features will be sufficient for our purpose.

(a) hayawa, "life," from hywt'; salawat, "prayer," from slwt'; and so on.

(b) The elimination of the aliph of prolongation, answering to the Syriac vowel Zagapha, for example, hint, "daughters," for banat under the influence of the Syriac bnt. All such plural words are written without aliph in the ancient manuscripts of the Qur'an.

(c) The retention of the yd' [y] in the defective verbs when joined to pronouns, for example, 'ajtabiyah (however, in Egyptian Stansdard text = verse 122 [Flugel]/121 ='ajtabahu) (XVI.122), "he chose him," for 'ajtabdh (Syriac gbyhy). The ya' [y] as a substitute for the aliph is written in all the ancient manuscripts of the Qur'an in the cases under consideration, and is undoubtedly under Syriac influence.

(d) We all know that in the oldest manuscripts of the Qur'an, thick dots take the place of the short (and occasionally of the long) vowels. I believe that these dots are almost certainly derived from the Syriac Massoretic puhha mes or nugze, which fill the same purpose in difficult or ambiguous words.


(a) There is a sentence in which the use of kull denotes a well-known Syriac expression by means of the corresponding kl, an expression absolutely foreign to the Arabic language.

Sura XI.121 says: wakullan naqussu `alayka min 'anba'i-r-rusuli ma nuthabbitu bihi fu'daka, which translated literally means: "All we relate to thee from the stories of the Apostles is to confirm thy heart thereby." This kull betrays the Syriac kull used in phrases with the above Qur'anic meaning and construction, for example, klh gyr dnht lLywly dnh' myt'.36 To explain away the difficulty the commentators resort to absolutely useless compromises.

Tabarl (Tafsir, XII.87) says that the basriyun think that kull is in the accusative because it is a masdar to naqussu, (a queer masdar!), but he prefers the opinion that the word is an idafah,37 which is obviously inaccurate. The same thing may be said of Zamakhsharl's opinion (Kashshaf, p. 637) that the word nab' is understood after kull. The same is asserted by Nisaburi (Ghara'ib, XII.90) and by Baydawi (Anwar, 1.582), edit. Bulak, 1296 A.H.). That the resort to idafah is a worthless compromise is borne out by the fact (a) that there is no second term of idafah, (b) that the aliph and tanwin of kull render the existence of any idafah almost out of the question.

(b) There is a sentence in which the demonstrative pronouns are used immediately after the personal pronouns, in the same way as they are used in Syriac, but not in Arabic

Sura 11.79 has: thumma'antum ha'ula'i tagtuluna 'anfusakum. "Then are you the very persons who kill yourselves." The use of hawila' is here very peculiar and denotes the Syriac halain. The use of demonstrative pronouns without the relative pronouns, when followed by a verb the action of which they tend to corroborate, is Syriac and not Arabic.

Zamakhshari (Kashshaf, p. 87) has no good reason to offer for the anomaly. Baydawi (Anwar, i., 95) evades the difficulty by giving an example of a demonstrative pronoun (anta dhaka), which is obviously irrelevant. Tabari (Tafsir, 1.314) quotes Abu Ja'far, to the effect that a vocative yd or such word as qaum are understood after antum, and refers to some other devices which are really useless. Nisaburi (Ghara'ib i., 328) believes that antum is a "mubtada'," and "hawila' " its "khabar," by inserting between the two some such words as ba'da dhalika, and quotes also the Kufiyun to the effect that the demonstrative pronoun has replaced here the relative in a way that they cannot understand.

(c) There is a sentence in which the word shay', "something," is under the influence of the Syriac mdm, something, used in a meaning not sanctioned by the genius of the Arabic language.

Sura LX. 11 says: wa in fatakum shay'um min 'azwajikum 'la-l-kuf- fari. "And if any of your wives escape from you to the unbelievers." I believe that the word shai' applied to a human being is not Arabic at all, and betrays the Syriac middaim, which is applied to reasonable beings (n 9'mdm).

This shai' is an unsurmountable difficulty to the commentators, who resort in it to worthless compromises. To avoid the difficulty Ibn Mas'ud (in Zamakhshari's Kashshaf, p. 1475) changed shai into ahad. Baydawi (Anwar, 11.516) believes that it refers to the dowry of the wives (shai'un min muhurihinna), which is obviously against the context. Tabari (XXVIII.49) evades the difficulty and speaks only of the dowry. Nisaburi (Ghara'ib, XXVIII.45) says that shai ' means here ahad, but like Baydawi makes also mention of the fact that it may refer to the dowry of the wives, and he finally registers the opinion of some linguists that shai' is here used for "emphasis" or "derision." This uncommon interpretation is also found in Zamakhshari and Baydawi (in loc.).

(d) There are in the Qur'an many sentences in which the Arabic word used does not fit in with the meaning required by the context, but when compared with its Syriac equivalent its right meaning becomes clear; for example:

Sura XLVIII.12 says: wa zanantum zanna -s-saw'i wa kuntum qawman buran. "(But you believed that the Apostle and the believers would not come back to their families, and this appeared pleasing in your hearts), and you believed wrongly and you were ill advised people."

The word bur has been translated as meaning "worthless, rogue" or "an undone people," which does not suit the context. Is it not the transliteration of the Syriac bur that means "ignorant, ill advised"? The same meaning seems also to be more suitable in XXV. 19.

In Sura XXXVIII.2, occurs the sentence: fanadu wa lata Nina manasin. "And they cried but no time was it of escape." Let us admit frankly that this lat is a barbarous anomaly in the Arabic language, and scores of pages have been written about it by Muslim commentators and grammarians without advancing our knowledge one iota. I believe that it is almost certainly the Syriac, lyt, "there is not, there was not," a contraction of 1''yt. This is also the opinion of Suyuti (Mutawakkili, p. 54) and of some other Muslim writers.38 In many ancient manuscripts of the Qur'an, the word is spelt lat or layt, and the aliph of prolongation has been added or substituted for the ya' by later qurra', as they have done for thousands of other words with a medial yd'. See above the mark (c) in section 4, "orthography" (p. 184).


(a) In Sura XVIII.82 sqq., there is an account of the well-known legend of Alexander the Great. The Macedonian conqueror first went westward and found the sun setting in a black muddy spring, and then he journeyed eastward and discovered that below the two mountains between which he was standing lived people who could scarcely understand speech. They implored Alexander to set a rampart between them and a wicked people called Yajaj and Majaj. Yielding to their entreaties, Alexander erected a wall of pig iron across the opening between the two mountains, fused it into a solid mass of metal, and strengthened it by pouring molten brass over the whole.

The Romance of Alexander is found in many languages; in Greek (that of Pseudo-Callisthenes, about 200 c.E.); in Latin (that of Julerius Valerius, about 340 C.E., and of Leo the Archpresbyter, eleventh century); in Armenian (unknown date, but probably from the Greek); in Syriac (written about the beginning of the seventh, but known at the beginning of the sixth century); in Ethiopic (unknown date, but centuries after the Arab invasion); and in Coptic (about the ninth century). Later versions include the Persian, the Turkish and, mirabile dictu, the Malay and the Siamese.

The best study of the Romance is to our knowledge that of N6ldeke,39 who wrote after the publication of the Syriac text of the story by Budge.40 From the works of Jacob of Serug we know, however, that the story was well known in Syriac circles prior to 520 C.E. Of all the above peoples to whom the Romance was known in one form or another, the only ones who could have influenced the Qur'an were the Syrians and the Ethiopians; but since we have no evidence that the Ethiopians knew anything of the story in the Prophet's lifetime,41 we have only the Syrians left from whom the Prophet, or the editor of the Qur'an, could have derived his information. This may be corroborated by the following considerations:

(1) All the early versions write the word "Gog" only as Gog, while the Qur'an writes it as Agog41 or, more generally, ya-gog (with an aliph or with a ya' and an aliph at the beginning). In a poem by Jacob of Serug written toward the beginning of the sixth Christian century on the Romance of Alexander and Gog and Magog, the word constantly occurs with an initial alaph as A-gog.43 This Syriac spelling has probably influenced the Arabic form of the word as used in the Qur'an. There is even a verse in the Syriac text44 in which the author seems to derive A-gog from Agoga = aywydq, "stream, aqueduct."

(2) In the Greek of Pseudo-Callisthenes, Alexander is a pagan king. In the Qur'an Alexander becomes a pious man and a messenger of Allah. This idea could have emanated only from Syrians, with whom, I do not know for what reason, the Macedonian jahan-gusha had become a messenger and a prophet of God. All the poem of Jacob of Serug mentioned above is based on such an assumption.45

(b) In Sura XXII. 17, occurs the word majus, Magians. I believe that this word is from Syriac mgw3" 46 and that the Prophet or the editor of the Qur'an had heard of Magians only from Syrians and not from Greeks, Persians, or any other people, because curiously enough the word is meant in the Qur'anic text to be in the plural form from an hypothetical singular, the nature of which we cannot guess with certitude. Now in Syriac, contrary to Greek and Persian, the form of the word does not change in its consonants when passing from singular into plural, and the Prophet or the editor of the Qur'an used the term in the plural of Syriac and not that of Arabic, as he heard it pronounced in his time. This difficulty was so keenly felt by post-Qur'anic Muslim authors that from the plural form of the word as used in the Qur'an they created (as if it was a gentilic and ethnic vocable) a singular form, majusi.

Etymologically, the Syriac word itself is derived from the Persian mugh (in Zend Moghu), "a fire worshipper."

(c) The Christians are called in the Qur'an nasara, which I take to be from the Syriac nsry'. Indeed there is no other language besides Syriac in which the word "Christians" is expressed by the word nasara or anything near it. Further, in many ancient documents, the Syriac word nasraya is applied exclusively to Christians without any reference at all to the "Nazarenes." The Martyr, Simon bar Sabba,e, the great Patriarch of the East, is in 341 C.E. called the "head of the Nasraye,"47 that is, of the Christians. All Christians are called nsraye in the life of the same saint written about the end of the fourth century.48 The same name is also applied to them in more than one hagiographical piece emanating from writers whose country was situated within the boundaries of the Sassanian Empire. Saint Pethion was asked in 447 c.E.: "Which benefits have accrued to thee from thy connection with the Nasraye?"49 that is, Christians. A Zoroastrian Persian general living before the Arab invasion sends a word to his Byzantine Christian opponent to observe a certain feast "because of the Jews and Nasraye (i.e., Christians) that are found in my army."50 There is no need to give more examples, but we will allude to the fact that in the Romance of Julian the Apostate alone Nasraya is used several times to express a Christian.51

There is no doubt whatever that in the Persian Empire, and to some extent also in the Roman Empire, the Christians were called by nonChristians nasrdye (the Nasdra of the Qur'an), and that the Prophet took the word from the Syrians.

(d) In XI.46, mention is made of the fact that the ark of Noah stood on a mountain called Judi. Few scholars will be inclined to deny the fact that this queer word is the Syriac qrdw, the mountain on which according to the Peshitta Version (Gen. 8:4) and the Targum (contrary to all the other versions of the Bible which call the mountain Ararat) the ark of Noah stood above water. The Prophet or the editor of the Qur'an had heard, therefore, the story of Noah and his flood only from Syrians. The reading of a waw for a ra' (the difference between the two letters is very slight in Arabic script) may be ascribed to an early kari or to the editor of the Qur'an himself. The pronunciation of the initial Qaf as Gaf is used even in our days by almost all the Arabs of the desert, with whom every Qaf is invariably a gaf. No other explanation of the word Judi seems to me worth mentioning.

(e) Frequent use is made in the Qur'an of the word hanif, which I take to be derived from the Syriac hnp', pagan. This is also the opinion of some Muslim writers themselves.52 In its singular form the word is used as follows: in 11.129; 111.89; VI.79 and 162, XVI.121 and 124, all in connection with Abraham being a hanif and not a mushrik; in 111.60 in connection with Abraham being neither a Jew nor a Christian, nor a mushrik, but a hanif. In IV.124 Abraham is a hanif. In X.105 and XXX.29 the Prophet himself is ordered to be a hanif. In its plural form the word is used in XXII.32, where the faithful are ordered to be hanifs but not mushriks, and in XCVIII.4, where they are ordered to be hanifs and pray and give alms.

The Syriac derivation of the word offers to my mind no difficulty at all. The real difficulty lies in the fact that the word is used in a good sense in the Qur'an wherein it is almost synonymous with "Muslim." To this difficulty I can offer no decisive solution, but I will tentatively propose the following considerations:

(1) On the one hand, the Prophet must have heard many Christians say of him that since he was neither a Jew nor a Christian, he was by necessity a hanfa; on the other hand, he must have also heard from them that Abraham was likewise a hanfa: a perfectly true assertion. By its association with the great Patriarch Abraham, revered and respected by both Christians and Jews, the word hanfa came to acquire with Muhammad a good and praiseworthy meaning. This is the reason why the Prophet is at some pains to emphasize the fact that Abraham was neither a Jew nor a Christian, but a hanfa, and wishes also his own religion to be hanfutha.

(2) To express "idolatry" and "idolater," the Qur'an uses some forms of the root sharaka, which means "to associate." Now this "association" is always meant an association or a partnership of other beings with Allah, the true God, and never with any pagan deity, and this in spite of the fact that to express "idols" the Qur'an knows of authan (XXII.31; XXIX.16 and 24), asndm (passim), and tamdthil (XXI.53; XXXIV.12). This bad meaning of the root sharaka is naturally held to be as unworthy of Muhammad as it is of Abraham, and this is the reason why so much stress is laid on the fact that Abraham was not a muskrik.

No solution of the difficulty offered by Muslim commentators or historians is worth mentioning. All their stories concerning a class of hanifs and the good works of the so-called tahannuf appear to me to be unhistorical and purposely invented to explain the difficulty created by the Qur'anic verses under consideration.

(f) In XXX. 10 the word Rum is used to express the Byzantines, the Greeks of Constantinople, the "New Rome" (Pwµrl vea). Whatever our views may be as to the linguistic peculiarities of the word, we are not at liberty to deny that it is derived from the Syriac Rumdya. Indeed the Syrians went so far in their application of the word to Byzantines that they often called simple "soldiers" Rumdye,53 as if the only soldiers they knew were Byzantine soldiers.


1. T. Noldeke, Neue Beitrage zur semitischen Sprachwissenschaft (Srass- burg, 1910).

2. J. Horovitz, Koranische Untersuchungen (Berlin, 1926).

3. D. Margoliouth, "The Origins of Arabic Poetry." JRAS (1925): 415-49.

4. A. Mingana, Odes and Psalms of Solomon (1920), ii.125.

5. The Qur'an itself testifies to this with emphasis in XLVI.8; LXVIII.37 LII.41; LXI1.2; XXXIV.43; XXXV.38; XXXVI1.156.

6. S. Fraenkel, De Vocabulis in ant. Arab. caret. et in Corano peregrinis (Leiden, 1880).

7. Dvorak, Ueber die Fremdworter im Koran, in the publications of the Vienna Academy.

8. Jalal ad-Din Suyuti, Itgan (Calcutta, 1856), pp. 314-27.

9. Jalal ad-Din Suyuti, Mutawakkili, ed. W. Y. Bell (N.p.: Nile Mission Press, 1924).

10. The official text of the Bible in Syriac-speaking Christian lands from the early fifth century C.E.

11. We can, however, assure the benevolent reader that no Qur'anic word has been asserted as derived from Syriac, Hebrew, Ethiopic, Greek, Latin, or Persian except after deep thought and consideration.

12. Pp. 709 and 714 in Wright's catalogue. On the gods Shalman and Solomon see Clay, The Empire of Amorites, pp. 91, 156, and Meyer, Die Israeliten, p. 295.

13. See Fraenkel, ZA, xv., 394.

14. Ed. Berliner, 1875.

15. Kitab ad-Din wad-Daulah, p. 157 of my translation.

16. Palestinian Syriac Lectionary, p. 289 (ed. Mrs. Lewis and Mrs. Gibson).

17. Ibid., p. 24.

18. Moslem World (1925): 343.

19. Johannesbuch, ii., 73: cf. also Noldeke in Z.A., xxx., 158 sq.

20. P. 714 in Wright's catalogue.

21. Noldeke's Mand. Grammar, xxix and 55; Lidzbarski, Mand. Liturgien, 191.

22. Mitchell's St. Ephraim's Prose Refutation of Mani, Marcion, and Bar- daisan, vols. 1-2 (1912-21) (as in index), and see my study on same in JRAS (1922): 530.

23. It is in place here to remark that the Syriac word Qashshish was used as a proper name by many Ghassanid Arabs of South Syria. See "Mar Qashshih, the Arab," in Brit. Mus. Syr. MS. Add., 14, 458, p.48, in Wright's catalogue. The manuscript was copied before the death of Muhammad.

24. Many worthless conjectures have been put forward concerning this word by Muslim commentators who knew no other Semitic language besides Arabic.

25. Ibid.

26. Ibid.

27. It could not have been taken from Hebrew because of its mention with Salwa. See Fraenkel, De Vocabulis, p. 24. With this scholar I am in perfect agreement concerning some other words in this section.

28. The word Sarah is of unknown origin, and its right etymology is in our judgment still obscure.

29. There is not much doubt in my mind that the word Qur'an is imitated from the Syriac Qiryan. All the biblical lessons to be read in the churches are called by the Syrians Qiryans. The Prophet called simply his book by the word that was used to name the pericopes of the Revelation in the Christian churches of his day. We should also remember that in the oldest manuscripts of the Qur'an, the word is simply written qrn which may be, and has already been, read Qur'an or Quran without hamzah. I suspect that this reading of the word without hamzah is reminiscent of an earlier pronunciation, Quryan or Qiryan (with a ya'), and that the hamzah pronunciation is a late reading adopted to make the word more Arabic and in harmony with the root of the verb Qara'a.

30. Ibid., p. 250.

31. See Fraenkel, De vocabulis, p. 25, who refers to Lagarde's Gesammelte Abhandlungen, p. 13. So also Siddiki, Studien, p. 8.

32. Cf. Noldeke-Schwally, Ges. d. Qor., i., 16, and especially the references given by Horovitz, Koranische, p. 70, to the South Arabian inscriptions.

33. A. Moberg, ed., Book of the Hymyarites (Lund, 1924), p. 10.

34. Barth, Etymologische Studien, p. 14; Horovitz, Koranische, p. 13.

35. Cf. Horovitz, Koranische, p. 18; Noldeke-Schwally, Geschichte, i., 219.

36. Breviarium Chaldaicum, i., 383.

37. See W. Wright, A Grammar of the Arabic Language, 3d ed. (Cambridge, 1967), vol. 2, p. 198 C: idafah is essentially the relation subsisting between a determined noun and a determining noun.

38. On the expression haita la-ka, "come hither," in XII.23, see Suyuti, Mutawakkili, p. 54, and Itgan, p. 325. He believes the phrase to be Syriac, which is perfectly true so far as la-ka is concerned.

39. Beitrage zur Gesch. des Alexanderromans in the Vienna Academy's publications of 1890.

40. The History of Alexander the Great (1889).

41. The Ethiopic story published by Budge in 1896 under the title of The Life and Exploits of Alexander the Great is clearly a post-Islamic production and is undoubtedly under the influence of the Qur'an and of late Muslim writers.

42. See examples in Noldeke's Geschichte des Qorans, p. 270.

43. Ibid., p. 378.

44. Edit. of Budge in Zeitsch.,f. Assyriologie, vi., pp. 376, 382, 389, 391, 393, 398, 400-401, and 403.

45. About Alexander's wall see the Chronicle of Dionysius of Tellmahre, ed. Chabot, p. 24 sq.

46. Cf. Noldeke, Persische Studien, ii., 37.

47. Pat. Syr., ii., 792, 818, and 867.

48. Ibid., ii., 799. Cf. Horovitz, Koranische, p. 145.

49. Acta Martyrum et Sanctorum (ed. Bedjan), ii., 576.

50. Land's Anecdota Syriaca, iii., 258.

51. See the index of Hoffmann's edition, Julianos der Abtruennige, p. xiv.

52. Mas udi's, Tanbih, in Bibl. Georg. Arab. (ed. De Goeje), viii., 6, 90, 122, 136; cf. Encyclopaedia of Islam, ii., 259-61.

53. See the remark of Wright in Chronicle of Joshua the Stylite, p. 30.

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