The doings of American philologasters are, in truth, a curious study.

Archive for the tag “Arabic”

Famine, Plagues, and Anti-Christs, II

A colleague writes to object strenuously that it would have been anachronistic to refer to the Lakhmids as malkia arbaiia “Kings of the Arabs” during the Sasanid era, as the Syriac term ܥܪ̈ܒܝܐ ˁarbāye is never applied to Arabs, the terms ܛܝ̈ܝܐ ṭayyāye and ܣܪ̈ܩܝܐ sarqāye being employed in its place. Therefore, the text can only date from a much later period, in which it became common to refer to the Arabs as ˁarbāye in Syriac.

Leaving aside the obvious objection that Mandaic is not Syriac, if we really want to know how the Lakhmids styled themselves, we need look no further than the 4th century funerary inscription of the Lakhmid king Imru’ al-Qays (r. 295-328) from al-Namāra:


Our inscription famously begins تي (هذه) نَفسُ (شاهدة قبر) امرؤ القيس بن عَمرو مَلِكُ العرب, “this is the funerary inscription of Imru’ al-Qays, son of Amr, King of the Arabs.” It provides us with a direct witness to the fact that the Lakhmids styled themselves the “Kings of the Arabs,” of which the Mandaic phrase malkia arbaiia is an obvious calque.

Why were the Lakhmids ˁarbāye and not ṭayyāye? They formerly inhabited the region known as Arbāyistān/Bet ˁArbāye in northern Mesopotamia (stretching from Nusaybin to the Tigris, from Cizre in the north to Jabal Shinjar in the south), until they were dislodged by the Sasanids and migrated south to the area in which they encountered the Mandaeans. It was there they founded al-Hira, and from there they ruled until they were briefly expelled by the Mazdakite al-Harith al-Kindi, only to return and reign for an additional 71 years—exactly according to the chronicle in the Great Treasure.

The Peacock’s Lament

The Mandaeans and the Yezidis, two  groups that fascinated Stefana Drower and continue to fascinate the generations of scholars who have followed her, have recently made the news, but unfortunately not in a good way. Coincidentally, I’ve been working on Prayer 75 of the Doctrine of John, in which Ṭausa, the Peacock, laments how far he has fallen in the world. At first he is bitter and resentful for having been humbled and forced to guard the kimṣa, a somewhat contested term that is likely related to the Aramaic and Hebrew root קמץ, and evidently refers to a place.

Drower, Macuch, and Rudolph identify this term with the Gnostic πλήρωμα pléroma, the totality of the spiritual universe, as opposed to the material world, which is known as the tibil in Mandaic, and with which it contrasts in this text (šauiun naṭar kimṣa / alma ḏtibil baṭla, lit. “[The Great Life] made me guardian of the Kimṣa/until the Tibil perishes”). If this is accurate, then the Peacock stands not within the pléroma but rather on “our side” of the boundary, which is to say that he has been separated from the Godhead and exiled from the world of light.

Eventually, he acknowledges his own faults (chief among them his pride) for having brought him so low, at which point his father, the Great Life, sends him a “letter of truth” (engirta ḏkušṭa), which Sundberg identifies as a letter containing within it Gnostic truths, in his monograph on the word kušṭa. In it, the Peacock earns that his father is extending him the ritual handshake (also known as kušṭa), which is a sign of reconciliation. Relieved by this news, he praises his father wholeheartedly.

Although short, this is one of a very few passages to which scholars such as Drower point when discussing the shared traditions of the Mandaeans and the Yezidis, the two groups with which I began this entry. Our Peacock is identified by the Mandaeans with the lightworld being Yushamin who, just like the Peacock Angel of the Yezidis, is an emanation of the Godhead who defies Him out of pride and is exiled, but eventually becomes reconciled with Him and is redeemed. 

The Peacock Angel of the Yezidis is most frequently compared with the figure of Iblis in the Qur’an (7:11–13), but the obvious parallels between the Mandaic Ṭausa and the Yezidi Tawûsê Melek cannot be discounted. As all of the written traditions surrounding the Yezidis and Tawûsê Melek are comparatively late, this account (in the Doctrine of John) may well be considered the earliest surviving tradition about this enigmatic figure.

The translation follows.

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Arabic Loanword

I’ve encountered what could very well be the first genuine Arabic loanword I’ve yet seen in the text of the Doctrine of John. The word is hus, which appears at least twice, first on p. 4, ln. 15, and again on p. 76, ln. 14. Both contexts require something meaning the “source” of the Jordan, and have been translated by Lidzbarski as “reservoir.”

According to Nöldeke (Mandäische Grammatik, p. XXXIII, ln. 17), the word appears three times in the Doctrine of John, and comes from the Arabic حوض ḥawḍ- “basin, cistern.” On p. 670 of Book 1 of his Arabic-English Lexicon (London: Willams & Norgate, 1863), Lane identifies it with the root √ḥ-w-ḍ “to collect (water)” inter alia, which would seem to indicate that it is indeed a good Arabic root, and not potentially a loanword into Arabic from some other language. What is it related to?

Assuming no ad hoc sound changes, the PS root could only be *ħ-w-ɬʼ. This would give us Aramaic √ḥ-w-ʕ (or √ḤWQ), Hebrew √ḥ-w-ṣ, Akkadian √ʔ-w-ṣ, and so forth. The root √ḥ-w-ʕ is unattested in Aramaic; I likewise found nothing in Akkadian that would indicate the existence of this root (the expected G infinitive êṣum “to be(come) too little, small,” is actually derived through regular sound changes from Old Babylonian wiāṣum, according to the CDA, and the expected cognate to Arabic ḥawḍ-, ūṣum, only appears with the meaning “arrowhead,” which clearly comes from the unrelated PS root *ħ-ϑʼ-w).

Hebrew, on the other hand, has two roots that are potential candidates, חוץ I and II, the first of which is represented by the word חוץ ḥuṣ “outside” and the second by the word חיץ ḥáyiṣ “barrier, partition.” BDB relates the latter to Arabic root حوص √ḥ-w-ṣ, meaning “to sew” or “to contract,” but it seems to me that both could be related to the Akkadian root √ḫ-ṣ-ṣ (e.g. ḫaṣāṣum “I to snap off; II to erect (a reed hut)”), which would make them completely unrelated to PS *ħ-w-ɬʼ.

Quite apart from the question of the origin of the Arabic term is the question of how it came to be adopted into Mandaic.

  • Why would the Mandaeans, who live in a water-rich environment and have a correspondingly rich vocabulary for water features, need to borrow such a term from Arabic, which is not generally known for its aquatic vocabulary? It would represent a total inversion of the established principles by which borrowing operates, as if the Inuit were to borrow the English word for “snow,” or if New Jerseyans were to borrow the Inuit word for “hairspray.”
  • Why then, for that matter, would this stray Arabic word appear, isolated, in a text that is otherwise almost completely bare of other loans?
  • Why employ a borrowed word that means “basin,” i.e. a place where water is collected, in a context that clearly requires something like “source”? They’re not the same thing, and neither Nöldeke nor any of his followers have attempted to explain the semantic shift.
  • Finally, how can we explain the anomalous use of s to represent Arabic ض? Here is a spare list of words containing the same phoneme, borrowed into Mandaic:
Arabic Transliteration Mandaic Gloss
أرض ʔarḍ- arda earth
بياض bayāḍ- baiad whiteness
ضعيف ḍaʕīf- daeip weak
حوض ḥawḍ- hus basin

I could find no other words in Drower and Macuch, and at least one of these is dubious in the extreme, but the pattern is clear: the Arabic phoneme ḍ-, when borrowed into Mandaic, is represented by d, except for this one word.

Granted, one could easily counter that we’re not dealing with a lot of data here, and that the word hus, if it was indeed borrowed, may have been borrowed from Arabic when the articulation of ḍ- was quite different from what it was at a later date. Even so, there’s not much evidence that this was borrowed from Arabic, despite the superficial similarity between the two words, and as Mark Rosenfelder reminds us, chance resemblances between words in two unrelated languages are not at all uncommon. In the final analysis, it’s just not a good candidate for an Arabic loan word.

So, what does it mean, and where does it come from? I can’t find any good Middle Persian candidates, unless we assume it’s somehow related to xwaš “pleasant, sweet, nice,” which somehow entered nearly all the languages of Iraq, Semitic and non-Semitic, as xōš “good” and which precedes the noun it modifies in each of these. Unfortunately, this interpretation founders upon the same issue, that of the final sibilant, which is just not a match.

The “Defective Age of Bišlōm”

It is generally accepted that the Doctrine of John reached its present form sometime in the aftermath of the Islamic conquest of Mesopotamia. There are many reasons to assume that parts of it, if not all of it, are much older, but here and there within the texts are references, some oblique and some not so oblique, to Muhammad and Islam. One such reference can be found on p. 45, lns. 1-2 of the Doctrine of John, which Lidzbarski translates as follows:

ṭubẖ lman ḏbhazin dara
bṣira ḏbišlum šlim

Wohl dem, der in diesem mangelhaften
Zeitalter des Bišlom heil geblieben ist.

Blessed is he who, in this defective
era of “Bišlom,” has remained whole.

From Lidzbarski’s perspective, bišlum is a pun (or ein Calembour, as he describes it); Bišlom is an oblique reference to Islam, consisting of the Persian prefix bi- “without” and the Arabic word salām “peace,” which has been Mandaicized to šlum for some reason. I’m not convinced; bi- may be the modern Persian (“Farsi”) form, but the contemporary Middle Persian form would have been abē-, not bi-. If the joke hinges upon a Farsi preposition, either this portion of the text was composed considerably after the early Islamic period (when most scholars accept that it acquired its present form), or its author would have had to wait a long, long time for his audience to get the joke—at least two or three centuries. Talk about bad timing!

Lidzbarski’s interpretation stuck, though, and Pallis (1926, 213) went even further, suggesting that bišlum is nothing more than the word Islām influenced by the word Muslim. This strikes me as clever, but perhaps a bit too clever. For a denizen of that selfsame “defective age” to recognize Islam qua Islam as opposed to, say, the worship of the planets, “Hagarism” (as it was generally known to Syriac-speaking Christians), or “Mohammedanism” (as it was known to Europeans throughout the greater part of the last fourteen centuries), it would have required a considerably more “modern” sensibility than that which is generally attributed to the polemical tracts of Late Antiquity. As a further objection, I know of no contemporary Aramaic dialect in which the word “Islam” or any calque of this word appears, raising the question of whether pre-modern non-Muslims ever employed this term, or whether they were even familiar with it. If not, what is the point of using it in a pun?

The interpretation of the term bišlum as “Islam” (which also appears in A Mandaic Dictionary) rests wholly and squarely upon this passage. Everywhere else within the corpus of Mandaic texts, including elsewhere within this manuscript, and indeed within this very same chapter, bišlum means “peacefully” or “at peace.” As it happens, a strong case can be made that it means that here, as well. It seems to me that the only wordplay within this verse depends upon the contrast between the terms bṣir “lacking” and šlim “whole:”

Happy is the one who, in this defective / lacking
age, is the one who has come to an end peacefully / intact.

The implication being that, in the “defective age” of the author, it was more common to end in pieces than end in peace.

Of course, reading Islam out of the picture has ramifications for the dating of this portion of the text. If we accept the traditional interpretation (that of Lidzbarski, Pallis, Drower, and Macuch), then we must accept that this portion of the text is post-Islamic. If we do not accept his interpretation, then there is no reason to assume that it is post-Islamic—of course, there’s also no immediately obvious reason to assume that it isn’t post-Islamic, but there was certainly no shortage of potential candidates for the role of mangelhafte Zeitalter throughout the period of Late Antiquity.

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