Politics: the art of riding people?

Published: March 6, 2012
The writer is Director South Asian Media School, Lahore 

The writer is Director South Asian Media School, Lahore khaled.ahmed@tribune.com.pk

Politics is usually another name for horse-trading. When elections are held for the Senate or National Assembly, news about horse-trading dominates the media. Why should the noble animal horse be used to explain the low activity of buying and selling candidates? If you investigate the Urdu word ‘siyasat’ (politics), you will realise that politics was once considered a noble profession.

Bernard Lewis, in his book The Political Language of Islam (OUP), tells us how horse-riding came to mean privilege in all parts of the world, including the world of Islam. The word ‘siyasa’ or ‘siyasat’, used by Muslims in their different languages is derived from an ancient Middle Eastern word for ‘horse’. In classical Arabic, it means to ‘groom the horse’ or to ‘train the horse’.

The word in Urdu for the groom of the horse is ‘saees’, but we don’t connect it to siyasat. It is a tragedy that siyasat today has a pejorative aspect and Urdu sometimes uses it as an insult. The implication that men of siyasat ‘ride the people’ rather than the horse is quite strong.

The horse became the symbol of power, bravery and status all over the world. The horse entered the territory of the camel from Central Asia. The Arabs bred the best horse and today, the most sought after racing breed is called Arabian.

In Hebrew, the word for horse is ‘soos’. This relates directly to ‘siyasat’. But in Arabic, the word for horse is ‘faras’. Hence, the other epithet of praise derived from the horse is ‘furusiya’ meaning ‘being knowledgeable about the horse’. Its derived meaning is ‘being gifted in intellect’. The Urdu word we use to describe intellectual gift is ‘farasat’ (horse-sense). The epithets are rooted in the Arabic word for horse, ‘faras’.

Horse used to imply dignity. There was an entire dynasty in ancient Persia that named its best sons after the horse. The Persian word for horse is ‘asp’. The ancestor of Zoroaster was Haechadaspa, (one who sprinkles the horse with water). It is from him that the ending ‘–asp’ became fashionable. Zoroaster, however, means ‘yellow camel’, Zartusht.

The Kayani dynasty had many kings with the horse suffix. Gushtasp (having an alert horse), was the Kayanid with whom Zoroaster began his mission. The son of Shah Ismail, the founder of the Safavids, was Tahmasp (owner of a strong horse). In Pakistan, many Kayanis are still named with the horse suffix; for instance, Lahrasp.

In India, because of the Aryan background of the Hindu religion, the name Ashvini recalls the link with Persia. ‘Ashva’ (horse) in Sanskrit is a changed form of Persian and Avestan ‘asp’. ‘Ashvin’ in Sanskrit means ‘mounted on horseback’. It is also the name of the Zodiac sign Gemini, and one month in the Hindi calendar is Ashvina, known in Punjab as ‘Assu’. Ashvini also means ‘wealthy’ because of possession of horses.

In Europe, horse not only bestowed respect, but also gave rise to a code of decent behaviour called ‘chivalry’. Chivalry is derived from ‘cheval’, which is French for horse. The original Greek ‘kaballes’ was considered alien (more familiar was hippos) but in Latin, it took root as ‘caballus’ or ‘packhorse’.

Roman soldiers made the word respectable by using it for horses as a slang word. The Italian version of the name is ‘cavallo’ from where another English word ‘cavalier’ is taken. If ‘chivalry’ is attention to good manners, a ‘cavalier’ attitude may mean a disregard for form. ‘Cavalcade’ and ‘cavalry ‘are the other derivatives where horse may no longer be in evidence. Cavalry today, is made up of tanks.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 7th, 2012.

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Reader Comments (12)

  • arif khan
    Mar 6, 2012 - 11:26PM

    politics is the art of looting the country for over 4 years and then becoming a siyasi shaheed and a masoom bichara victim in the last year.


  • Mar 6, 2012 - 11:31PM

    Liked it :) something new to learn


  • Mar 7, 2012 - 12:13AM

    The horse-traders do not tell us that they trading in futures(of the country) but think they are performing in a Rodeo arena.
    Spectators have greater horse sense, they are not cheering, they are booing.


  • kaalchakra
    Mar 7, 2012 - 2:43AM

    “Bernard Lewis, in his book The Political Language of Islam (OUP)”

    Marvelous. I have long been fascinated with the way Islam deploys human language (and logic). It was clear that some others must have noted that as well, but never had time to research that area. Thanks for providing a starting point. Best regards.


  • Haniya
    Mar 7, 2012 - 3:03AM

    Quite enlightening. There is a good justification behind things. :)


  • zalim singh
    Mar 7, 2012 - 8:41AM

    good article.


  • Ahmed
    Mar 7, 2012 - 11:00AM

    But in Arabic, the word for horse is ‘faras’.

    In Arabic, according to P K Hitti, there are more than a thousand words for horses for their different breeds and stages of growth, a number rivaled only the number of synonyms for Camel and Sword.
    Source: History of the Arabs P. K. Hitti.


  • Ashvin Thakur
    Mar 7, 2012 - 1:35PM

    What a beautiful article. One learns a lot from reading Khalid Saab’s articles. He is a gem!!


  • Firaaq
    Mar 7, 2012 - 5:42PM

    Very Interesting.
    As an aside, the Spanish word for gentleman is Caballero .. closely related to the italian cavallo and its Spanish equivalent.


  • Malik Rashid
    Mar 7, 2012 - 6:09PM

    Riding people? or governance/management? The moralist differs from the moderate and hypocrisy is condemned by the righteous. Politics is defined by the existing social relation to authority/power. This relationship differs from a feudal society into capitalism – to corporate greed – political choice between corporate interest and pragmatic/popular alternatives. The popular interest of survival of humanity on the planet has to be synchronized with the interest of the powerful capitalist corporations. The task in itself is noble. Successful tactics could invoolve a good measure of hypocrisy. Politics could mean riding people or riding corporations/capitalists. Prudence of choice will be determined by the impact on overal objective. Corruption, taking unsuspecting people for a ride, ‘thugee’, con-man is not the substitute for politician. Thanks.


  • Cynical
    Mar 8, 2012 - 5:41AM


    That’s quite a revelation.
    Where can I get this book? History of the Arabs. P.K.Hitti


  • BlackJack
    Mar 8, 2012 - 9:14AM

    Interesting article with a wealth of new information. However, the connection that was drawn between proto-Sanskrit and Avestan (ancient Persian) language is not entirely correct. The Rig Veda (dated around 1500 BC by most historians) contains around 250 references to ‘asva’ (horse); this is due to the importance of the horse to the Aryan culture as you have rightly indicated. Avestan language would not have developed earlier than proto-Sanskrit, and hence the two terms (asp and asva) are likely to have similar common origin rather than one originating from the other.


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