Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Semitic Semantics -

I'm a bit of a linguist, I think languages are cool (and useful). Semitic languages are particularly useful and/or interesting to me since 1) I am a Jew, 2) I was born in and live in Israel, 3) have grandparents from Libya (who spoke Arabic), and 4) learn in a yeshiva, where both Hebrew, Aramaic, and a hybrid "dialect" known as "Mishnaic Hebrew," (Hebrew of the Mishnaic period, which is mixed with a lot of Aramaic and a good amount of Greek) are almost must-haves. Whenever I find some linguistic fact of interest I'll post it here.

Rashi, the Jewish Sage of 11th Century France, is famous for his commentaries on the Tanakh Scripture and sometimes he analyzes linguistic associations. For example, in Bereshit (Genesis) in the Torah, Abraham buys a field from a Hittite named "Ephron," in order in which to bury Sarah. The name of the town where the field is located is called "Padan-Aram" in Samaria (the "West Bank") and the name of the cave in which both Sarah and Abraham are buried is called "Machpela." Now here's the interesting thing. The first letter of "Padan" in Hebrew is a "pey," which can only be pronounced "fey," depending of the vowelization. Rashi notes that the Arabic word for "field" is "fadan," and so if one were to say "Fadan Aram" in Arabic, it would mean "the field of Aram." It seems to me, although I cannot confirm this without further study, and certain words in the Arabic language have been pulled over from pre-existing Hebrew and Aramaic words or names and have been slightly adjusted in their meaning and tone. "Fadan" is a perfect example of that and to a degree confirms, through its usage of that word into its lexicon, that Abraham and Sarah were indeed buried in a field in Padan-Aram.

The Hebrew "Akeidah," which means "the binding (of)" in the Torah refers to Abraham's binding of Isaac on the altar on Mt. Moriah in Jerusalem to sacrifice him. As I have said before, Muslim tradition rejects that this occurred and state that Abraham actually went to sacrifice Ishmael in Mecca. The word "Akeidah" in Arabic (aqeedah) is the word for the central religious doctrine of Islam (although I will do some more research on this word). This is interesting in that it does not mean "to bind," or "the binding (of)" but rather is a word delineating a statement of faith. Indeed, in Jewish though the "Akeidah" was an expression of faith, but it was not a word expressing the central religious doctrine of Judaism.

"Al Quds" is another interesting one, meaning "the holy (place or thing or one)," but in this case it's the Muslim name for Jerusalem. The word in Jewish lexicon for Jerusalem is not "Ha Kadosh," the holy place, but the Temple in Jerusalem is known as the "Beit Hamikdash," "the Sanctified House," and in Arabic it has been called "Bait al Maqdis." During the very beginning of Islam, as is historically reported, Jerusalem was not yet an important site for the budding religion of Islam. There would not be a reason for it yet since Muhammad was focusing his resources and manpower on establishing a name for Islam in Mecca and Medina, facing harsh opposition by Jews and Arab pagans there. After Mecca and Medina effectively became the holiest sites of Islam, in which it was centered, Islam incorporated the holy sites of Judaism, which means the incorporation of the Beit Hamikdash as an important site for Muslims. Much of this incorporation of Jerusalem into Islam was not initiated by Muhammad or the heirs from his family, but rather by the Caliph of the Muslim Umayad dynasty. This dynasty was based in Syria, which then ran Palestine as a province. A rift arose between the Umayad Dynasty of Syria and Muhammad's heirs (dynasty) located in Saudi Arabia, and Umar, the Umayad Caliph, took the on the corporation of Jerusalem into Islam as a political project. His intent was to draw power into his own dynasty and to elect himself as the new representative of Islam. Muhammad's family saw this as a deviation from the grass roots-based religion of Islam, a religion of pure faith, as well as from the legacy of Muhammad that should stay within the family. Those who supported the notion that the legacy should stay within Muhammad's family later gained the title "Shi'a" Muslims, and those who rejected dynastic rule later gained the title "Sunni."

The lie of history inherent in the Arabic names for these places lies in the fact that Umar retroactively worked them into the Quranic narrative (by reinterpreting a text) for political reasons after the death of Muhammad. Although I've been told that Sunni's and Shi'ites still pray together, a residual of mutual tension still exists between them. Nevertheless, even the Sunni, who make up the majority of Muslims, have come to fully accept the holiness of Jerusalem, regardless that it was never a part of Muhammad's efforts and certainly against the will of his family. If we can imagine for a moment the status of Jerusalem and Islam today had Umar not done what he did. The Jews would likely be running Jerusalem (as they should) and Islam would be uninterested in controlling it. Had Umar not done this, and had the Jews still established the State of Israel in 1948, it is accurate to say that perhaps the Israeli-Arab-Palestinian conflict, which is based in Jerusalem, would not exist today. The deviation from Islam through Umar is the cause of strife between Jews and Muslims today, and the entirety of the Muslim world accepts this status quo. Therefore, "Al Quds" is not holy.