Issue 137, page 1

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During the past month we have had many enquiries regarding words and phrases in the news.  One reader asked if we agreed that holy war is an oxymoron.  We do.  At the same time, we deplore the use of this phrase to describe the Arabic word jihad which means "struggle".  As understood in Islam, this struggle is permitted only in self defense if one's person, home or family is attacked.

Another reader asks for "...the meaning of -istan, as in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Istanbul, etc".  The implicit assumption in this question is that each -istan is used in the same way.

The -stan in Afghanistan is from the Old Persian word ostan indicating "country" and, like our English word stand, derives from the Indo-European root *sta- ("to stand").  Afghanistan thus means "country of the Afghanis", where Afghani is assumed to refer to an ancestor of the Afghanis called Afghana.  

In the other examples, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan take their names from the Turkmen, the Uzbek and and Tajik people, respectively.  One might guess that Turkmen means "Turk-men" but it comes from Persian tork "Turk" and mandan "to resemble". Turkmenistan is thus "the land of the Turk-like people".  They're not Turkish, you understand, just Turk-ish.

Then there's the Tajiks.  They take their name from the Sanskrit word tajika "Persian".  The Tibetans also call Persia sTag.Dzig (Pronounced "Tajik") but in Tibetan this means "tiger-leopard".  This could explain why so many Tibetan legends about their western neighbors feature tiger/leopard combinations.  It hardly explains why, in some old Persian epics, the hero wears a leopard-skin cap and a tiger-skin coat.  Just to complicate matters further, some say that tajik originally referred to the Tay, who were not Persians at all but Arabs.

Pakistan does not follow this model at all: 

It is well known that the term Pakistan, an acronym, was originally thought up in England by a group of Muslim intellectuals. P for the Punjabis, A for the Afghans, K for the Kashmiris, S for Sind, and the "tan," they say, for Baluchistan. (No mention of the East Wing, you notice; Bangledesh never got its name in the title, and so, eventually, it took the hint and succeeded from the secessionists...)

- Salman Rushdie, Shame (New York: Aventura/Vintage, 1984).

The Istan- in Istanbul is purely coincidental.  Stories abound concerning this city's name.  One, wrong though often repeated, is that it comes from eis ten polin, Byzantine Greek for "to the city".  

Another suggestion is that it's from Islam-bul, where the -bul represents the Greek polis, "city".  Apart from the trifling matter of the city being called Istanbul before the Muslim conquest, this was a nice try.  The bit about -bul being the Greek word for "city" was not all bull. [Sorry - eds.]

Remarkably, Istanbul still bears the name given to it by Emperor Constantine the Great when he made it his capital - Konstantinopolis.  It's just that the locals pronounce it funny these days.  After 1,600 years at the crossroads of Middle Eastern trade, its name has been garbled by myriad tongues and, as a result, Constantinople was slurred from conSTANtinoPLE to 'Stan'p'l to Istanbul.

Here's a name to conjure with: Gandhara.  Formed after the break up of Alexander's empire, this ancient kingdom had a Sanskrit name (Gandhara = "perfumed") but was actually the furthest outpost of Greek culture in Asia.  Gandhara's art flourished after King Menander (the "Milinda" of Buddhist texts) converted to Buddhism and its graceful sandstone sculptures reflect the cool rationality of this religion.  Gandhara was so influential in the Buddhist world that, to this day, Buddhist monks as far away as Sri Lanka and Cambodia wear the Gandharan version of Greek dress.  Have you guessed the modern name of Gandhara yet?  It's Kandahar.

How do we know all this stuff?  Why not visit our bookstore and find out?


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Last Updated 10/31/01 06:18 PM