Issue 136, page 1

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Arabs, Afghans, Muslims and Islam

Since the recent tragic events in New York the media have provided us with a deluge  of information on the subject of Arabs, Islam, Afghans and sundry Middle-eastern topics.  Unfortunately, not all of it is correct.

First of all, Afghans are not Arabs.  For instance, Arabic is a Semitic language but Pashto (a.k.a. Pashtun, or Pakhtun), the major language of Afghanistan, belongs to the Indo-European language group, just like English.  Then again, not all Arabs are Muslim; many Palestinian Arabs are Christian.

Muslim belongs to a fascinating constellation of words which relate to the religion of Islam.  The word islam (Arabic for "resignation" or "surrender [to the will of God]") comes from aslama ("he surrendered"), a form of the verb salama ("he was safe or free").  Salama is also the origin of salaam, "peace" (used as a greeting among Muslims) and muslim itself.

Until the last few years English, that sponge of a language, had picked up very few words from Afghanistan and those were mostly obscure words for peculiar mountain formations.   Then, in the 1980s we acquired mujahideen and, in the last few years, taliban.  The Arabic mujahid (plural mujahideen) means "one who conducts a jihad (i.e.  'holy war')" and was a term used to describe Afghans who resisted the Soviet occupation.  After the Soviet withdrawal on February 15, 1989, the various mujahideen factions turned against one another and the faction which managed to wrest power in the prevailing chaos called itself the Taliban.  Again, this word is borrowed from Arabic.  In this case, the Arabic word talib "theological student" (from the root *tlb "to seek") has been given a Pashto plural (-an) suffix.  

In older writing one may come across the word Mussulman used instead of Muslim but this is the same word which has taken a slight detour through Persia (Farsi musulman).  Oh, by the way, despite having borrowed a few Arabic words, the Persian language, Farsi, is Indo-European too.

Muslin, the fine cotton cloth, has no connection with muslim.  Instead, this word comes from the name of an Arabic town, Mosul, where it was produced, via Italian mussolina and French mousseline.

The grimmest possible use of the term Mussulman was in the Nazi concentration camps. In the final stages of physical and emotional exhaustion, some inmates became fatalistic and lost all initiative.  These poor wretches the sadistic (but erudite) guards called Muselmänner ("Muslims") in a cruel mockery of the Islamic ideal of "surrender".

On a more cheerful note, many of us may have eaten a "Muslim-style" meal without knowing it.  There are Thai restaurants everywhere these days and most of them feature mussamun (i.e. "Mussulman", "Muslim") curries.

[Thanks to Abdulaziz Althukair for inspiring this week's column.] 

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