Jerusalem and Islam

The city of Jerusalem and the religion of Islam are more closely associated than many residents of the Mideast like to admit. The Semitic root SLM (Semitic had no written vowels) means “peace”, “well-being”, or “surrender” (in other words, make peace). The Arabic word Islam literally means “submission” (to the will of God), and a Muslim (Arabic uses prefixes in many places where English would use a suffix) is “one who submits, one who acknowledges God’s rule”. (Note the Christian use of “the Peace of God” in a similar sense.) In an obvious extension, the root acquired the transferred meaning of “safety”, and in Hebrew place names ending in -salem, the word might mean “fortress” or “refuge”. (In Arabic, the name “Jerusalem” is normally not used; they say al-Quds, “The Holy [City] instead.) In Arabic, the salaam is a deep bow of submission. In Hebrew, meanwhile, the sense of “peace” led to the normal 20th-century Israeli greeting of shalom, while the similar salaam alaikum (peace be with you) is a common Arabic equivalent. As noted above, the phrase aleyhi salaam (“peace be unto him” or PBUH), is an Arabic honorific, required after mentioning the name of the Prophet.

While Solomon means “peaceable” in Hebrew and Salim and Salma mean “safe” in Arabic, the biblical Salome was somewhat less peaceful than her name would imply.

The biblical Absalom, another son of King David, means “father of peace”. The Semitic ab- root, meaning father (abba), is also in the monastic abbot and abbey, as well as the Arabic title of respect abu and its Swahili equivalent, bwana, our father. Other Semitic personal names containing “father” include Abraham, Abigail, Ahab, Barabbas, and possibly Job.

In addition to Muslim, other loan-words using the same /M-/ “agent” prefix to Arabic verbs include muezzin (adama, to proclaim), mufti (fetwa, to legally decide, also seen in fatwa, a legal decree), mahdi (hada, to lead), Muhammad (hammada, to praise), magazine (khazana, to store), minaret (nar, to shine or burn — the original meaning was a lighthouse or candlestick), mafia (hajas, to brag), mattress (taraha, to throw down; Arabic matrah means “cushion”), mohair (khayara, to choose), mosque (sajada, to bow down), and mullah (waliya, to govern, used as an honorary title — master — for doctors of sacred law. Cf. Hebrew rabbi, from rabh, master). Mujahideen has been in the news lately; that’s the agent form of Arabic jihad, struggle. (Although “jihad” is commonly used in English to mean “holy war”, in the Qur’an it has the more general definition of “struggle to do good” or “struggle against evil”.) Note that mujahideen is a plural; one such fighter is a mujahid. Cf. taliban, another plural.

Although “mosque” is certainly Arabic, some Muslim countries don’t use the word. The common Arabic phrase for a large mosque was masjid jami, public mosque. The phrase got clipped to plain jami, and some variation of that word is often used in North Africa and is the normal term for a mosque in Turkey and its former provinces Albania, Serbia, and Bulgaria.

Moving along, mat does not seem to be closely related to mattress, but seems to have been borrowed by Latin from Phoenician mittah, a derivative of the verb natah, to spread out. Mask probably is Arabic maskhara, buffoon, from sakhira, to ridicule, with the sense transferred from the stage jester to his costume. The Italian form is maschera, which ultimately led to English mascara. Monsoon is perverted from Arabic mawswim. This means “appropriate season” in Arabic, and is the agent form of wasama, to mark. Medina, city, is from dan, to administer. A Semitic MLK root means to possess or dominate. Hebrew melk- means king, as in the names Melchizidek and Moloch. The agent /M/ prefix created Mameluke meaning “slave” — one who is owned.

Many cities in the USA have streets, schools, etc. honoring Martin Luther King, Jr. These are usually abbreviated to MLK — MLK Boulevard, MLK High School, and even a “Milky Way” or two. Since “MLK” means “king” in Arabic and Hebrew, we have perpetrated quite a few unwitting multi-lingual puns.

Hebrew words in English using the same formation — /M/ plus a verb — include maven, an expert, borrowed from Yiddish. It is Hebrew mebhin, from bin, to understand. A menorah is a lamp stand and thus the same word as a minaret, q.v. Mitzvah, a commandment, is from siwah, to order. In modern Hebrew it can mean both a ceremonial duty and a good deed. The proper name of the six-pointed star as a symbol of Judaism is the Magen David, the Shield of David. The first word is the agent form of Semitic GNN, to cover, which means it’s related to the Arabic jinni, a (concealed or invisible) demon. (These days, one usually sees the spelling “Mogen David”; that’s the Ashkenazi pronunciation, and there are a lot more of them than Sephardim.) Megillah is another borrowing from Hebrew though Yiddish. Properly it means a scroll, from the root galal, to roll, but it’s used ironically (the whole megillah) to mean something interminable. (The megillah of Esther is read in its entirety at the festival of Purim, for example.) Mossad is a Hebrew word meaning “organization” or “institute”; the common use for the Israeli intelligence agency is shortened from the first word of Mosad leModiin U-leTafkidim Miyuhadim, the Organization for Intelligence and Special Operations. Mossad is an agent noun from the SDR root, to arrange or organize. Another Hebrew word from the same root is Seder, an [organized] feast.

On the political front, since both sides in the Middle East dispute have thought for thousands of years that “peace” and “surrender” are synonyms, this does not bode well for a long-term cease fire or a stable treaty! Another Middle East linguistic irony is the controversy over the territories on the West Bank of the Jordan, because the biblical Israelites’ name for themselves, rendered as Hebrew in English, is Semitic ’ibhri, “dweller on the other side”. The original reference was to the West Bank of the Euphrates. Cf. the Germanic Alsatian, “dweller on the other side”, i.e., the West Bank of the Rhine. Rumor hath it that residents of New York City have little respect for those who dwell on the West Bank of the Hudson.