After I wrote a column on hajj in The Express Tribune, titled “The annual pilgrimage” (November 1, 2012), a scholar from Israel kindly got in touch with me to offer some aspects of the word ‘hajj’ that I did not know. In him, my prayers have been answered. Avrom Yarolshalmi is truly an enthusiast of the Semitic heritage of Hebrew-Arabic tradition.
I asked him a question that had troubled me. I referred to him a word that I had read in a paragraph in Jewish Literacy by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin (William Morrow & Co 1998) p.40: “That night while sleeping, Jacob is attacked by an angel in the form of a man. Jacob wrestles with the angel and although this otherworldly spirit wounds him in the thigh Jacob ultimately succeeds in pinning the angel. The angel awards Jacob with the additional name of Israel (in Hebrew Yisrael). You have wrestled with God and men and prevailed.”
My Lughatul Quran says, ‘Israel’ literally means “(brave) man of God”. Israel is written with ‘seen’ in the Quran. There is another word ‘sar’ (with ‘suad’ and ‘ain’) which means ‘wrestling’. Hence, in my view, if you wrote Israel with ‘suad’ instead of ‘seen’, the meaning would be ‘wrestling with God’. I wanted to know if Hebrew ‘Yisrael’ was written with ‘suad’? Avrom Yaroshalmi disabused me in my view that Hebrew spelling had somehow preceded the Arabic spelling.
He wrote: “The grammar and phonetic rules of classic Hebrew were compiled much later between 3rd to 8th century AD when Hebrew was no longer a spoken or vernacular language by scholars known as masoreh (hence the term masoretic tradition) in Palestine and Babylonia.
“The influence of Arabic as well as Arabic grammatical traditions cannot be ignored. You will be astonished to know that the first books of classic Hebrew grammar were written in Arabic; the first lexicon by Saadia Gaon in present-day Iraq in 10th century AD namely kitab ul usul wal sir al ibrania and later translated in Hebrew by the author himself with the Hebrew title ‘aragon’ meaning ‘compendium’. And also, simultaneously, in Muslim Spain by Dunash ibne Labrat and Menahem bin Suraq in Arabic and also in Hebrew”.
Yaroshalmi went on to clarify that the Arabic ‘seen’ in Israel, as it appears in the Holy Quran was correct since, in Hebrew the root was not as clear: “The letter ‘S’ in Hebrew can be either ‘suad’ or ‘seen’. Both have the same sounds, at least according to Masoretic tradition, and Israel is written with ‘seen’ which is then the same as ‘seen’ in Arabic”.
Thus, were doubts about the orthography adopted by Muslims removed? Another issue that became clear was this. In Arabic, the two senses are represented by two separate letters. With ‘suad’ it meant wrestling. At the Olympics, the wrestling event is written as ‘sar’ in Arabic. Therefore, Israel would have to be written with ‘suad’ and ‘ain’ to denote the third syllable. The Urdu word ‘misra’ (one half of a couplet in poetry) shows the two lines as ‘wrestling’ with each other.
There is another root close to the two discussed. The root swr in Arabic means ‘to be on top’. It is used to express Sura as the section of text of the Holy Quran. A Sura is so called because of its high position.
Yaroshalmi’s final verdict: “The spelling of Israel in Arabic, if deliberate, was undertaken by those who must be very well versed in biblical tradition and targumim and the comparative philology of Semitic languages especially Aramaic”.
Generally, the text of the Holy Quran is more deferential towards the prophets of God and presents them in a better light than the text of the Old Testament.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 12th, 2012.
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