Islam

The Iranian Presence in Classical Arabic and Medieval Islamic Learning

Written by Afsheen Sharifzadeh, a graduate of Tufts University focusing on Iran and the Caucasus. This article surveys the Iranian presence in pre-Islamic Arabia and the medieval Islamic world, addresses Classical Arabic loans in Modern Persian and features an exclusive English-language listing of 200 Middle Iranian loans in Classical Arabic and their etymologies, compiled by the author.

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A library in present-day Baghdad, named after Bayt al-Hikma; courtyard view, Abbasid-era portion.

On the Prevalence of Classical Arabic Loanwords in Modern Persian

Whereas pre-Islamic Iranian languages are all virtually free of Semitic vocabulary, Aramaic, Syriac, Hebrew, and Arabic have borrowed a remarkable number of words from Iranian (as did late Babylonian, Achaemenid Elamite, Armenian, Georgian, most Turkic languages, and later, Urdu). Historical linguists have afforded the majority of these languages exhaustive pedigrees of Iranian borrowings, but regrettably few authors have paid attention to the Iranian loans in the Arabic language and literature, and in doing so, have ignored a rich narrative of cultural contact and appropriation.

1024px-Sassanian_Empire_621_A.D
The Sassanid Empire (224 A.D.-651 A.D.) was the last Zoroastrian Iranian polity before the arrival of Islam. Sassanian and Byzantine antecedents formed the creative backbone of early Islamic material and visual culture. 

It is no mystery that following the conquest and Islamization of Sassanid Persia throughout the 7th and 8th centuries AD, Iranian languages were shot through, even to the most far-flung dialects, with Arabic loanwords. But never did Arabic attain a currency of a lingua franca in the Iranian world. Instead, knowledge of the Arabic language in Persia throughout the Islamic period was limited to educated city-dwelling Muslim circles, and it was from this stratum of society that Classical Arabic lexica were gradually and purposefully incorporated—often undergoing abstract semantic shifts—into “erudite speech”, which became the basis of New Persian literature, scholarship, and poetry. These Iranian religious figures, literateurs, linguists, poets, historians, mathematicians, chemists, alchemists, astronomers, physicians, geographers, musicians, and philosophers became preeminent contributors to the canonization of the Arabic language and its transformation from a regional nomadic tongue into a universal vehicle of both doctrinal and secular learning. Acculturation was taking place along the same vector– whereby medieval Islamic architecture, horticulture, cuisine, attire, court culture, political offices, etc. were systematically appropriated from earlier Persian and Byzantine models.

USSR 198355294463
Al-Khwārizmi was a Persian mathematician, astronomer, and geographer during the Abbasid Caliphate. The English word “algorithm” is his namesake, and the word “algebra” derives from al-jabr, an operation he used to solve quadratic equations. Here he is pictured on a postal stamp issued by the USSR in 1983 (left) and immortalized in statue at Khiva, Uzbekistan (right).

Knowledge of Classical Arabic was essential and indispensable for religious worship, and the correct reading of the Qur’an was impossible without it. But in the first century of Islamic ascendancy, the Arabs did not produce anything of literary value. If any poetry was composed, it was on the old pagan models and celebrated the poets’ amatory adventures, in stereotyped fashion, rather than the victories of Islam. As Reinhart Dozy notes:

Mais la conversion la plus importante de toute fut celles des Perses. Ce sont eux, et non les Arabes qui ont donné de la fermeté et de la force à l’Islamisme, et en même temps, c’est de leur sein que sont sorties les sectes les plus remarquables. (Dozy, L’Islamisme, p. 156)

It follows that the first grammar of the Arabic language, al-Kitāb, was written by the Persian author Sībūyeh (Arabic: Sībawayh) in the 8th century AD, and many of his Iranian contemporaries with masterful command of Arabic, including Ibn al-Muqaffa’, translated thousands of Indian, Greek, Syriac, and Persian literary works from Middle Persian into Classical Arabic. The epicenter of these intellectual activities was Bayt al-Hikma (literally “House of Wisdom”) in Baghdad, which was the Abbasid Caliph al-Ma’mun’s appropriation of the Sassanid Persian Academy of Gundishāpur, the world’s first center of both religious and secular higher-learning. The Caliph had the contents of Gundishāpur and its world-renowned hospital transported to Bayt al-Hikma, which was staffed by graduates of the Academy of Gundishāpur and wherein the methods of the older Persian academy were to be emulated. The Bukhtishu-Gundishāpuri family were Nestorian Assyrian physicians from Persia who served at the Abbasid court through the 7th, 8th, and 9th centuries, spanning six generations. The Caliph al-Mansur’s new capital and crown jewel, Baghdad (“God-Given” in Persian), was no exception to this trend; the city had been modeled off of the quintessential Sassanid round city plan (such as at Firuzābād) by a Persian architect and planner, Mashallah ibn Athari, and the auspicious location had been determined by Nawbakht, a Zoroastrian priest. The Abbasid and Fatimid bourgeoisie were patrons of Persian garments, etiquette, court culture, and cuisine, and relied heavily on Persian viziers such as the Barmakid family to oversee crucial matters pertaining to finance and state administration. As such, they adopted the Sassanid postal system and bureaucratic system (diwān).

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Persian gardens (top) have influenced the design of gardens from Andalusia to India and beyond. The gardens of the Alhambra show the influence of Persian Garden philosophy and style in a Moorish Palace scale, from the era of Al-Andalus in Spain (bottom). 

Persian influence increased at the Court of the Caliphs, and reached its zenith under al-Hadi, Harun al-Rashid, and al-Ma’mun. Most of the ministers of the last were Persians or of Iranian extraction. Afshīn Kheydār b. Kāvūs, the all-powerful favorite of the Caliph al-Mu’tasim and a scion of the Buddhist princes of Osrushana in modern-day Uzbekistan, was appointed Abbasid Supreme General and Governor of Sindh, Jebāl, Libya, Armenia and Azerbaijan. In Baghdad, Persian fashions continued to enjoy an increasing ascendancy, and the old Persian festivals of Nowruz and Mihrigan were celebrated. Persian raiment was the official court dress, and the tall black conical Persian hats (qalansuwa) were already prescribed as official by the second Abbasid caliph in 770 A.D. At the court, the customs of Sassanians were imitated and garments decorated with golden inscription were introduced which it was the exclusive privilege of the ruler to bestow.

The Islamic Golden Age reached its peak during the 10th and 11th centuries, during which Persia was the main theater of academic activity, eclipsing al-Andalus (Muslim Spain) in volume and significance. Persian scholars and polymaths in various fields produced their masterpieces in Arabic—an Arabic whose lexicon they had made applicable to their respective fields in pioneer ways and for which they had popularized phrases, word forms, and grammatical structures through the dissemination of their works. Among the most prominent of these individuals were al-Khwarizmi, Abu Sina (Avicenna), al-Tusi, al-Biruni, Omar Khayyam, al-Haitham, al-Shirazi, and Naser Khusraw. Ironically enough, we can imagine that a rather pure, eloquent spoken form of Classical Arabic was probably in use among Iranian scholarly circles in Khwārezm (a historic Iranian region roughly corresponding to modern day Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan), while the Arabic vernaculars spoken in major Arab-inhabited urban centers around the Islamic realm such as Baghdad, Damascus, and Cordoba were of colloquial provenance and were undergoing gradual deviation from Classical pronunciation, grammar and lexicon under the influence of regional linguistic factors. These colloquial transformations are reflected in contemporary literary productions such as 13th century manuscripts of “Arabian Nights” or “1001 Nights” (Arabic: Elf Leyla wa Leyla, based on an earlier Persian work Hazār Afsāna, literally “1000 Myths”) recovered from Syria and Egypt.

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The story of “1001 Nights”, also popularized under an orientalist misnomer “Arabian Nights”, is a series of adapted stories based on a mythical Persian king Shahryār and a storyteller Shahrzādeh. The core characters and structural framework of the Arabic language version are inextricably akin to an earlier Persian work, Hazār Afsāna, with the addition of a few Abbasid-era stories and Arabian motifs such as the Jinn.

This trend did not escape the observation of the 14th century Arab historiographer, Ibn Khaldun, who elaborately explains the primacy of Iranian culture and learning in the nascent Islamic world:

It is a remarkable fact that with few exceptions, most Muslim scholars…in the intellectual sciences have been non-Arabs. Thus the founders of grammar were Sibawayh and after him, al-Farisi and Az-Zajjaj. All of them were of Persian descent…they invented rules of (Arabic) grammar…great jurists were Persians… only the Persians engaged in the task of preserving knowledge and writing systematic scholarly works. Thus the truth of the statement of the Prophet becomes apparent, ‘If learning were suspended in the highest parts of heaven, the Persians would attain it…The intellectual sciences were also the preserve of the Persians, left alone by the Arabs, who did not cultivate them…as was the case with all crafts…This situation continued in the cities as long as the Persians and Persian countries, Iraq, Khorasan and Transoxiana (modern Central Asia), retained their sedentary culture. [Translated by F. Rosenthal (III, pp. 311-15, 271-4 [Arabic]; Frye, R.N. (1977). Golden Age of Persia, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, p.91)].

taj-mahal-1
Mughal India, like the Ottoman Empire and the Timurid Empire, was a Persianate society (a society that is either based on, or strongly influenced by the Persian language, culture, literature, art, and/or identity.). Emperor Shāh Jahān (literally “King of the World” in Persian), commissioned a Persian architect from Badakshān named Ustād Ahmad Lāhauri to construct the Tāj Mahal (“Crown Place” in Persian) for his Persian wife and lover, Mumtāz Mahal (née Arjumand Banu Begum.) The Taj Mahal is one of the largest Persian Garden interpretations in the world.

It was via this initially exclusive medium of scholarly and artistic expression promulgated by Muslim Iranian intelligentsia that Middle Persian began to assume a new form throughout the medieval Islamic period. Middle Persian words became archaic and even obsolete in favor of abstract Classical Arabic loanwords, a feature that was characteristic of the speech of the Muslim Persian city-dwelling elite. A modified Arabic orthography was applied to this transforming tongue in place of the Aramaic-based alphabet used to write Middle Persian. This new form of the Persian language became a prestige dialect and would later enjoy widespread patronage and even official currency in the royal courts of the Ottomans, the Timurids of Central Asia, and the Mughals in India. What are modern-day Turkey and the Indian subcontinent even became important centers of Persian literary and poetic production. In Persianate societies, Arabic words were indirectly transmitted via Persian influence into languages such as Urdu, Turkish, Uzbek, Azerbaijani, Kurdish, Turkmen, Pashto, Uyghur, as evidenced by the retention of Persian phonological modifications to Classical Arabic pronunciation in these languages. Sarti Uzbek (but not Khorezmian or Kipchak Uzbek) even lost vowel harmony—a rudimentary feature of Turkic phonology—as a result of Persian substratum and bilingualism.

But this was by no means the first golden age for the Persian language—pre-Islamic Iranian languages likewise exerted a remarkably pervasive influence on neighboring tongues under the aegis of Iranian suzerains and civilized elite in those territories. Classical Armenian contained an impressive sixty percent of its general vocabulary derived from Iranian languages, and most Aramaic languages had been heavily Persified by the time of the Islamic conquest—even serving as media of transmission for Iranian borrowings into Arabic.

486e2d09a6dApaxT 631fc995ad Khanaka (Sufi monastery) of Nadir Divan-Beghi {1620}, Bukhara09-Bukhara-2013raw1640b registan-v-samarkandeshahi-zinda-samarkand022_Klub_puteshestviy_Pavla_Aksenova_Uzbekistan_Samarkand_Registan_Medrese_Sherdor_Foto_efesenko_-_Depositphotos-1024x623
[From top, left-right: 1. Chahār Minār, Bukhara  2. Bukhara, view of old city and wall  3. Nādir Divan-Begi Khānaqāh, a Sufi monastery featuring depictions of Simurgh from Ferdowsi’s Shāhnāmeh on its pishtaq, Bukhara  4. Bālā-Hauz, Bukhara  5. Gūr-i Amīr, Tamerlane’s mausoleum, Samarqand  6. Rēgistān square, Samarqand  7. Shāh-i Zinda, Samarqand  8. Shērdār Madrasa at Rēgistān, Samarqand]
Bukhara and Samarqand are still natively Persian-speaking (Tajik) cities in modern-day Uzbekistan; the former traditionally boasted a sizable Persophone Jewish element as well that has since relocated to Israel. The structures depicted are architectural heirlooms to the region’s robust Persianate past and former economic prosperity under the Samanid, Ghaznavid, and later Timurid empires. From a philological standpoint, we can imagine that it was in urban centers like these that incoming Turcophone groups interacted with the autochthonous settled Persian-speaking populations in Transoxiana, in turn giving rise to the modern Uzbek yoke, and wherein the Uzbek language (Sart dialect; progenitor of the modern literary language) gradually lost features typical of Turkic—notably the vowels /ü/, /ö/ and vowel harmony—and adopted thousands of Persian words and phrases. (*note the Khorezmian Uzbek language is of Oghuz provenance but features a heavy admixture of Uyghur-Uzbek elements; the Kipchak Uzbek language is closely related to Kazakh. Both of these languages are vowel-harmonized and feature relatively fewer Persianisms in their lexicon and morphology) 

Thus the prevalence of Arabic loanwords in Persian is largely the fruit of a medieval scholarly tendency among Iranian intelligentsia who were composing their works in Classical Arabic to then incorporate Arabic words and phrases into their speech, perhaps in an attempt to “enrich” the non-Islamic Middle Persian tongue and thereby delineate their stratum in society (city-dwelling, educated Muslim families) on the basis of their prestigious vernacular. Iranian scholars and polymaths also played a pivotal role in the standardization and diffusion of Classical Arabic, and Persians, Greeks and Syriacs served as cultural brokers in the Abbasid court.

List of Middle Iranian Loanwords in Classical Arabic (Compiled by the Afsheen Sharifzadeh)

Ahmad Amin writes “at a glance one can see that the Arabs in every point or every way they turned or for every necessity of life were obliged to use Persian words. Besides the words themselves they adopted the phrase-making ideas and expressions used by the Persians in explaining various matters or in defining things.”

Hundreds of Iranian words and terms began to enter into Arabic language, sometimes via an Aramaic milieu, and were Arabicized (ta’rīb) in eccentric ways according to the phonetic and morphological system of that language. Verb derivatives were even formed from Iranian nouns according to the Arabic patterns (awzān). It follows that Iranian lexical borrowings in Classical Arabic (mu’arrabāt) pertained to all domains of civilized society, including botany, culinary matters, administration, architecture, minerals, philosophy, zoology, musical instruments, and items of luxury and power adopted from Sassanian Persia. The following are some notable and readily-recognizable Eastern Iranian/Parthian, Middle Persian (MP) loans, and Early New Persian (NP) that remain in Modern Standard Arabic (اللغة العربية الفصحى) as well as most dialects, although borrowings in Classical Arabic and Mesopotamian/Gulf dialects are far more widespread and numerous.

LIST


abad- eternity (MP: a-pād “without foot, endless”)

‘abqari- genius, highest perfection, unsurpassed (MP: abargar “superior, highest”)

adab– literature; courtesy, civility (constructed from MP: dab)

‘anbar- ambergris (MP: hambar)

anbār– warehouse, depot (MP: hambār)

argīla– waterpipe (NP: nārgīl “coconut”)

‘askar, ‘askari- army, military (constructed from MP: lashkar)

‘atr, ‘attar, mu’attar– perfume, perfumist (constructed from MP: atr)

azraq, zarqā’- yellow (constructed from MP: zargōn “golden”)

Baghdād (MP: baga+data “Given by God”)

bahlawān- clown, gymnast (MP: pahlawān “champion”)

bakht- luck (from MP: bakht)

banafsaj- purple, violet (MP: wanafshag, NP: banafsha)

bandar– port, harbor (MP: bandar)

baqshish- tip, gratuity (MP: bakhshish “gratuity”)

bāriz, baraza– prominent; to elevate (constructed from MP, Parthian: borz “high; elevate”)

barīd– post, mailing (constructed from MP: burida-dum “a docked mule appointed for the conveyance of messengers”)

barnāmaj- program (MP: abarnāmag)

bas- (coll.) but, enough, stop (NP: bas)

bashkīr– hand towel (MP: pēshgir)

bathinjān- eggplant (MP: bādengān)

baTT- duck (MP: bat)

bayān- statement, report, accouncement (MP: payām)

baydaq– a footman [in chess] (constructed from MP: payādag, NP: piyāda)

bulbul- bird (MP: bulbul)

bulūr- crystal (MP: bolur)

bunduq– hazelnut (MP: pondik)

bunj- anaesthetic (MP: pōng)

burj– tower (MP: burg)

burwāz- frame (MP: parwast “enclosure”)

bustān- garden (MP: bostān)

bāmiya- okra (MP: bamiya)

bārija- battleship, flagship (MP: bārūja “flower pot”< “a deep-hulled vessel”)

bāzār– market (Parthian: wahāchār, MP: wāzār, NP: bāzār)

būsa- kiss (MP: bōs)

dabīr, dabbara- manager; to oversee, plot (constructed from MP: dipīr)

daftar- notebook, office (MP: dabtar)

darb- gate (MP: darpân “gatekeeper”, Arabic reflex of this term)

darwīsh- ascetic, particularly Sufi (MP: dreyosh “one who lives in holy indigence”)

dashin, yadshin– dedicate (constructed from MP: dashn “gift”)

dumbek– drum (MP: tumbag)

dukkān– shop (MP: dukan)

dulāb– wheel (MP: dol-ab “water wheel [machine]”)

dunyā- world (MP: dunya)

dustūr- constitution (MP: dastwar, NP: dastūr)

dīn, diāna, tadayyun- religion, piety (constructed from MP: dēn> OP: daēna)

dīnār– unit of currency (MP: denār)

dīwān- high governmental body, council (MP: dēwān “archive”)

falak- orb, sphere (MP: parak “the star Canopus, brightest star”)

Fārsī, Bilād al-Furus– Persian, Persia (MP: Pārsīg)

fattash, taftīsh, mufattish- inspect (constructed from MP: pitakhsh “viceroy”>p-t-kh-sh>f-t-sh)

fayj– courier (MP: payg, NP: payk)

fayrūz- turquoise (MP: pērōzag, NP: firuza)

fihris, fahrasa- index, register (constructed from MP: pahrist)

finjān- cup (MP: pengân)

firdaws- paradise (MP: pardēs)

fiSfiSa- alfalfa (MP: ispist)

fustuq- pistacchio (MP: pistag)

fīl- elephant (MP: pil)

filfil– pepper (MP: pelpel)

fūlādh– steel (MP: polad)

fūTa- towel (MP: pusha)

handasa, muhandis- engineer (constructed from MP: [h]andāzag “measure, quantity”, NP: andāza)

hawā’- air, atmosphere (MP: havā> OP: hvayāv “good current”)

haykal- framework, outline (MP: paykar)

Hind- India (Persian name for Sindh, product of h>s Iranian/Indo-Aryan isogloss)

hindām– symmetry (MP: [h]andām “symmetry, arrangment”)

ibrīq- jug (MP: abrēk)

īwān- a chamber or vault, often at the exterior entrance of a building (MP: aywān)

jāmūs– buffalo (MP: gāwmēsh)

janzīr– chain (MP: zanjīr)

jaSS, jaSSās- gypsum; plasterer (MP: gach)

jawhar- essence, substance (constructed from MP: gōhr)

jawhara, jawahir- jewel (constructed from MP: gōhr)

jawz- walnut (MP: gōz)

jazar– carrot (MP: gazar; descendents Larestani: gazrak, Armenian: gazar))

jund, jundīyya, tajannud, tajnīd- army, military service, enlistment (constructed from MP: gund “army”)

jāsūs, tajassus- spy, espionage (constructed from MP: goshash>g-sh-sh>j-s-s, “hearer, listener”)

julnār- pomegranate blossom (MP: gulnār)

jūrāb- socks (NP: jawrāb)

ka’ak– a type of pastry (MP: kāk)

kabāb, kubba- roasted meat on skewers (MP: kabāb)

kahrabā’- electricity (MP: kāhrubā, “yellow amber”)

kamān, kamānja- a musical instrument (MP: kamān “bow”, kamāncha “little bow”)

kānūn- campfire, furnace (MP: kānun)

kanz- treasure (MP: ganj>OP: ganza)

khām- raw [materials], ore (MP: khām “raw, crude”)

khandaq- moat, pit (MP: kandag)

khanjar- dagger (MP: khōngar)

kharj, kharrāj– tribute, duty, work (constructed from MP: harg)

khiār- cucumber (MP: khyār)

khurda- scraps, fragments (MP: khurdag)

khammana, takhmin- guess, speculate, value (constructed from MP: gumān g-m-n > kh-m-n)

khān- shelter, rest stop (MP: khān “house”)

khashin, khushūna- rough, harsh; severity (constructed from MP: khashen)

khazīna, makhzan- treasury (constructed from MP: ganjēna g-j-n > kh-z-n)

kīmīā’– chemistry (MP: kimiā)

kīs- bag (MP: kisag)

kisra- idol (from MP: Kasra, Khosrow)

kūz- vase, storage vessel (MP: kōz)

laymūn: lemon (MP: lēmōg)

lāzaward: lapis lazuli (MP: lajward)

lubiya- bean (MP: lobiya)

mahara, muhr- stamp, seal (MP: muhr)

mahrajān- festival (MP: Mihrigân, Zoroastrian autumnal equinox celebration)

al-Māristān– premier hospital complex of Abbasid-era Baghdad (from MP: wēmāristān; NP: bimārestān)

marj – field (Parthian: marg, MP: marv)

marjān- pearl, coral (MP: margān)

mās– diamond (MP: almās)

masaka, massaka, amsaka, tamassak– adhere, stick, cling, take hold (constructed from MP: mashk “musk”)

mask– musk (MP: mashk)

mawz– banana (MP: mōz)

maydān- city square, field (MP: mēdān)

mezza– taste, starter (MP: mizag, NP: mazza)

mihrāb- niche in the wall of mosque indicating the qibla or direction of Mecca (MP: Mihrāba “Mithraeum”)

miswāk– toothpick, toothbrush (constructed from MP: sawāk, from MP sūdan “to rub, scrape”)

muzarkash, zarkash- colorful, decorated (constructed from MP: zarkesh “gilded”)

nabāt- sugar crystals, “sugar candy” (MP: nabat)

nabīdh– wine (MP: nabēd)

nadhar, intidhār, munādhir, mandhūr– to look, watch, wait (constructed from MP: negar, negaristan)

nafT- oil, petroleum (MP: naft)

namr- cushion, pillow (Parthian: namr “meek”, NP: narm)

naqsh, munāqasha, niqqāsh, naqqāshi, manqūsh- painter, artist (constructed from MP: nakhsh)

narjis- narcissus flower (MP: nargis)

nasrīn- sweetbriar flower (MP: nasrēn)

nishān- badge (MP: nishan)

numūdhaj- exemplary (MP: namudag)

nākhudhā- ship captain (MP: nāv-khudā)

nāranj: orange, clementine (MP: narang)

nāy: reed flute (MP: nay)

nīlūfar: nenuphar, lotus, water lily (MP: nilōpal)

qabr- grave, coffin (MP: gabr “hollow, cavity”)

qafaS– cage (MP: kafas)

qahramān- champion (MP: kār-framān, “manager, overseer”)

qas’a- serving pot (MP: kāsa)

Qazwīn- Caspian (MP: Kasbīn)

qirmiz– crimson, scarlet (MP: kermest)

qubba- vault, dome, cupola (MP: gunbad)

qumbula- bomb (MP: kumpula)

raSāS- lead, tin (constructed from MP: arziz > Parth: archich)

rizq, razaqa, istarzaqa, rezzāq- daily wage, sustenance; to bestow or endow (constructed from MP: rōzig, Parthian: rōchik “daily bread”)

Saidala, Saidaliyya– pharmacy (constructed from MP: chandal “sandalwood”)

Saqr- hawk (MP: chark)

Salīb- cross (MP: chalipa)

Sandal- sandals, sandalwood (MP: chandal “sandalwood”)

Sandūq– chest, crate; treasurer’s office (MP: sandūk)

Sanj– harp (MP: chang)

sarādiq- pavillion, canopy (MP: srādag)

sardāb- basement (MP: sardāba)

sarīr- throne, bed (MP: sarir)

sawsan– lily (MP: sōsan)

shakush- hammer (MP: chakuch)

shāhīn- falcon (MP: shāhēn)

shatranj- chess (MP: chatrang)

shā’ib, shā’ibа, ashīb – grizzly (constructed from MP: āshub)

shāwīsh– sergeant (MP: chāwush “seargent, herald; the leader of a caravan”)

shāy- tea (MP: chāy)

shibbith– dill (MP: sheved)

shīsha- waterpipe (NP: shīshag “bottle, flask”)

siāl, sayl, musīl– flowing, runny (constructed from MP: sayl, i.e. saylāb)

sifir- zero (MP: zifr)

simsār, samsara- middleman, broker (MP: samsar)

sirāj- lamp, light (MP: chirāgh)

sirāT– path, way, custom (MP: srat, “street”)

sirdāb- tunnel, cellar (MP: sardāb)

sirwāl- pants, trousers (MP: shalwār)

sufra- dining table (MP: supra)

sukkar- sugar (MP: shakar)

Sīn- China (MP Chin, name for China, from the Qin dynasty)

sādej- plain, simple (MP: sādag)

sīkh- skewer (MP: sikh)

Sīnīyya- tray (MP: chini, in reference to imported chinaware from the East)

sīra: juice (MP: shirag)

Tabaq- plate, dish (MP: tābag “frying pan”)

Tābūr- line, queue (MP: tabur)

Tarāz- type, brand (MP: taraz)

Tarbūsha– a type of hat, “red fez” hat (NP: sar “head” + pūsh “wear”)

takht, takhta- platform, bench (MP: takht “throne”)

tanbal- lazy (MP: tanparvar)

tannūr- oven (MP: tanūr)

tannūra- skirt, dress (MP:tanvar)

tarjuma, mutarjim– translation (constructed from MP: targumān)

tarzī- tailor (MP: darzi)

tāj- crown (MP>Parthian: tāg)

tāzej– fresh, new (MP: tāzag)

tūt- mulberry, berry (MP: tut)

ustuwāna- disc, cylinder (NP: ostovāna)

ustādh- teacher, master (NP ostād>MP: avistād “master, skillfull man”)

waqt- time (from Parthian, Eastern M.Irn: bakht)

ward, warda- flower, rose (Parthian: ward, Early MP: varda> OP: varda)

wazīr, wizāra- vizier (MP: vichira “bureaucrat, member of Sassanian court”)

yasmīn- jasmine (MP: yasmēn)

yāqūt- ruby (MP: yākand)

Yūnān- Greece (MP: Yonan, Persian name for Ionia)

za’farān– saffron (MP: zarparōn)

zaman, zamān- time [abstract] (MP: zamān, zamanāg, Parthian: zhamān, zhamānak)

zandīq- heretic (MP: zandik)

zanjabīl- ginger (MP: singibir)

zayt, zaytūn– olive (MP: zayt)

zilzāl- earthquake (MP: zilzilag)

zinzāna- prison, dungeon (MP: zindānag)

zumurrud– emerald (MP: uzumburd)


Persian Factors in pre-Islamic Arabia and the days of the Prophet Muhammad

The contacts between Arabia and the Sassanian Persian Empire were very close in the period immediately preceding Islam. The Arab Kingdom centered at al-Hira on the Euphrates had long been under Persian influence and was a headquarters for the diffusion of Iranian culture among the Arabs. Throughout the titanic struggle between the Sassanids and the Byzantine Empire, where al-Hira had been set against the Kingdom of Ghassan, other Arab tribes became involved in the conflict and naturally came under the cultural influence of Persia. The Court of the Lakhmids at al-Hira was in pre-Islamic times a famous center of literary activity, and Christian poets such as Adi ibn Zaid lived long at this court and produced poems containing extensive Persian loanwords. But the Iranian influence was not merely felt along the Mesopotamian areas; it was an Iranian general and Iranian influence that overthrew the Abyssinian suzerainty in southern Arabia during Muhammad’s lifetime.

640px-Kamal-ud-din_Bihzad_001
A Persian manuscript from the 15th century describing the construction of Al-Khornaq castle In Al-Hira, the Arab Lakhmids’ capital city. The Lakhmids were a Christian Arab tribe of Yemenite stock who established their center in southern Iraq in 266 A.D., near the Sassanid capital of Seleucia-Ctesiphon.

In the early days of the Prophet’s mission, there were only seventeen men in the tribe of Quraysh who could read or write. It is said that an Iranian man, known as Hammad ar-Rawiya, seeing how little the Arabs cared for poetry and literature, urged them to study poems. In fact it was Hammad who selected the Mu’allaqāt, the seven Arabic poems written in pre-Mohammedan times and inscribed in gold on rolls of coptic cloth and hung up on the curtains covering the Ka’aba. In this period, Hammad knew more than any one else about the Arabic poetry. According to Edward Browne, before the advent of Islam, the Arabs had a negligible literature and scant poetry. It was the Iranians who after their conversion to Islam, feeling the need to learn the language of the Qur’an, began to use that language for other purposes.

Ph. Gignoux hypothesizes that the Quranic phrase bismi’llahi’l-rahmani’l-rahim was modeled on the Middle Persian pad nam-i yazdan. Although there were antecedent Jewish and Christian parallels, a similar formula was also current among Zoroastrians and Manichaeans.

In The Vocabulary of the Quran, Arthur Jeffrey enumerates over 40 words of Iranian origin in Qur’an, among them the following: ebriq, estabraq, barzakh, burhan, tanur, jizya, junah (from gonah), dirham, din, dinar, rezq, rauza, zabania, zarabi, zakat, zanjabil, zur, sejjil, seraj, soradaq, serbal, sard and zard, sondos, suq, salaba, ‘abqari, efrit, forat, firdaus, fil, kafur, kanz, maeda, al majus, marjan, mask, nuskha, harut and marut, wareda, wazir, yaqut.

In addition, many terms in Classical Arabic literature are transliterations or calques of the Persian: Khamsa Mustaraqa from Panjeh-ye DozdidehMushahira from MahianehNisf an-Nahar from Nim-ruzan-Namal al-fares from Murcheh-SavariMaleeh (origin of Levantine Arabic mniih “good, well”) from NamakinBeyt an-Nar from AteshkadehBalut al-Moluk from Shah-balutSamm al-Himar from Khar-zahrehLisan al-thawr from Gav-zabanReyhan al-Mulk from Shah-Esperam.

Sources: 

Eilers, Wilhelm. Iranisches Lehngut im arabischen Lexikon: Über einige Berufsnamen und Titel. Gravenhage: Mouton, 1962.

Lane, Edward William. An Arabic-English Lexicon.
http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A2002.02.0021%3Aroot%3Dxmn

Hovannisian, RIchard G.; Sabagh, Georges. The Persian Presence in the Islamic World. Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Tafazzoli, A. Arabic Language ii. Iranian loanwords in Arabic.
http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/arabic-ii.

Browne, Edward. A Literary History of Persia, Vol. I. 

MacKenzie, D.N. A Concise Pahlavi Dictionary. Psychology Press, 1971.

Shir, Addi. Al-Alfâz Al-Fârsîyya Al-Mu`arraba (A Dictionary of Persian Words in the Arabic Language). Library of Lebanon, 1980.

Gharib, B. Sogdian Language i. Loanwords in Persian.
http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/sodgian-language-i-loanwords

Agius, Dionisius A. Classic Ships of Islam: From Mesopotamia to the Indian Ocean. Brill Academic Pub, 2007.

Cheung, Johnny. Etymological Dictionary of the Iranian Verb. Brill Academic Pub, 2007.

علي الثويني. التائه بين التأثيرات اللسانية و عقدة الخواجة 2-9/محمد مندلاوي
http://www.hekar.net/modules.php?name=News&file=print&sid=8603

تاثیر زبان فارسی بر زبان و ادبیات شبه قاره هند. محمد عجم.
http://www.hozehonari.com/PrintListItem.aspx?id=22896

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Vainakh — A Bridge to the Chechen people, their Language and Culture

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Written by Afsheen Sharifzadeh, a graduate of Tufts University focusing on Iran and the Caucasus. The goal of this article is to familiarize the reader with the looks and feels of Chechnya, its people and language in a historical and modern setting. 


Traditional Chechen dance among youth. Many Chechens in the Russian Federation live outside of the Chechen Republic in other subdivisions of Russia, particularly Daghestan, Ingushetia, Rostov, Moscow and Tyumen in Siberia. Note that the Chechen dance repertoire is typologically Caucasian in style, bearing close resemblances to folk dances found in Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and other Russian federal subjects in the North Caucasus. The Chechen repertoire is distinguished by a double-step stride; each dancer taps first with the point of the foot followed in rapid succession by a heel stomp to compose a single stride, in effect creating a gallop-like aesthetic. 

The Chechen Republic in Russia

Forced population movement is a bitter and tantalizingly familiar memory in the Caucasus. For centuries, neighboring superpowers have used the Caucasus as a playground for showcasing grand military gestures and executing socio-strategic gambits vis-à-vis each other, all the while imperiling the condition of the region’s native inhabitants. It is nonetheless a grave misfortune—both socio-economically and psychologically—for any human being to be uprooted from his or her home and forcibly resettled in a far away land, and indeed the act can have dire consequences for the continuity of a people and culture. In the Soviet Union in 1944, the entire Chechen (and Ingush) nationality was deported en masse from their home of 6,000 years in the North Caucasus and dispersed throughout sparsely-populated Siberia and Central Asia. Death estimates range between 20%-50% during removal, which took the form of a month-long exodus packed in cattle cars ridden with disease and starvation. Survivors began returning sporadically after Stalin’s death, especially after 1957 when return was officially permitted although discouraged. This is the setting in which the Chechen-Ingush ASSR was born, and later the Chechen Republic at the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Since then, Chechnya gained de facto independence from Russia after the First Chechen War in 1996, only to have Russian Federal control restored after the Second Chechen War three years later in 1999. This article builds a bridge to the Chechen people and their history, bypassing politics and modern history, and instead relying on culture, language and tradition to serve as the golden diplomats between the reader and the Chechens.

caucasus-mountains-erzi-village-ingushetia-nakh-vainakh-towers-north-caucasus
Defense towers in the village of Erzii in Dzhayrakh, Ingushetia. According to local ethnogenesis myths, the town of Erzii, which is an Urartian loanword meaning “eagle” (also survives in Armenian: արծիվ “artsiv”), is the spawn of the Chechen and Ingush people, who are together self-designated “Vainakh”. 

The Chechens and their Language

It is said that when God created the world, he sprinkled nations over the globe, but clumsily dropped his shaker over what ancient travelers called the “mountain of languages”. Pliny wrote that the ancient Greeks needed 300 interpreters to conduct business in the North Caucasus, while later, “we Romans conducted our affairs there with the aid of 130 interpreters.”

In general, when mountains are inhabited by settled farming and herding people, they harbor unusual diversity of language families and grammatical structures relative to nearby lowlands. It thus follows that the Caucasus is as distinct linguistically as it is geographically and biologically. In fact it is the one of the most ethno-linguistically diverse regions by area on the planet. Packed in the tight valleys and coniferous thickets of the Caucasus mountain system connecting “Europe” to “Asia”, flanked on either side by the Caspian and Black seas, live humans who speak languages and dialects belonging to no less than six (or seven, depending on the informant) unrelated linguistic macrofamilies. In comparison, mainland Europe is inhabited natively by speakers of a total of three. Indo-European, Semitic and Altaic are minorities here, while Northeast Caucasian (Daghestanian), Northwest Caucasian (Abkhazo-Adyghean), North-Central Caucasian (Nakh), and South Caucasian (Kartvelian) are the dominant families and only exist here on Earth. The genetic affinities between these four groups are uncertain and improbable, although some—including this author—posit a remote relationship between Daghestanian and Nakh and postulate a split at the Proto-language stage some 5,000-6,000 years ago. The only Caucasian language with an old literary tradition is Georgian (belonging to the South Caucasian or Kartvelian family) with its own alphabet dating back to the 5th century A.D., while the others have acquired Cyrillic-based alphabets and literature within the past century or so (Note: Armenian, an Indo-European language native to the Caucasus with its own alphabet, also has a literary tradition dating back to the 5th century A.D. alongside Georgian, coinciding with the spread of Christianity to those peoples).

Image

Map of ethno-linguistic groups in the Caucasus region. The Caucasus (Transcaucasia and Ciscaucasia) is one of the most ethno-linguistically diverse regions in the world. 

Chechen belongs to the North-Central Caucasian (Nakh) language family, along with Ingush and Bats (spoken in one small village in the Kakheti plain in Georgia). The Batsbi people, whose language is about as related to Chechen and Ingush as English is related to Dutch and German, do not follow Vainakh customs and law and consider themselves Georgians. The Chechen-speaking Kisti people of northeastern Georgia have also been Georgianized in their surnames and national consciousness and do not identify with the Batsbi or Vainakh.


A Georgian group singing an Ingush (Nakh family; close relative of Chechen) folk song in Georgian (Kartvelian family) about a Kisti maiden. The Kisti descend from Chechen tribes that migrated into eastern Georgia (Pankisi) from the highlands in the middle of the 19th century, and have retained their language. The tune is typical Caucasian ballad repertoire. 

Chechen (Nokhchii muott) and Ingush (Ghalghaa muott), the two main members of the Nakh language family, are mutually unintelligible although inextricably akin to each other. They have 83-84 percent retention of strict cognates on the Swadesh 100-word list, so their date of separation is roughly twelve hundred years ago, around 800 A.D. As such, there is much passive bilingualism between their speakers, so the two languages function as a single speech community (See Table 1). Chechen and Ingush also feature many loanwords and areal features (phonetic and morphological) from surrounding languages– particularly Daghestanian languages, Russian, Arabic, Turkic languages, Georgian, Armenian and Iranian languages.

English Chechen Ingush
“Friend” Dottagh Dottagh
“Mountain” Lom Loam
“Man” Stag Q’uonakh
“Black” ärzh Wearzh
“Scary, terrifying” Inzari Unzari
“Ant” Dzintg Dzungt

Table 1: Language comparison table prepared by the author illustrating relationship between Chechen and Ingush

800px-Batsbi_people
A Late 19th century Batsbur wedding in the village of Zemo Alvani in eastern Georgia. The Batsbi speak a Nakh language about as akin to Chechen and Ingush as English is to German or Dutch.

To speakers of most modern Eurasian languages, Chechen appears to contain a number of unusual features. Phonologically, the language contains a wealth of sounds similar to Arabic and Swedish–namely 44 vowels and between 40 and 60 consonants depending on the dialect– far more than any European language. Chechen nouns belong to one of six “genders” or “classes” and can be declined using eight cases. The verb “to be” follows a particularly unique pattern: all nouns are assigned a set form: du, vu, yu, bu, (“is”) which must be memorized along with the noun and in turn colors all corresponding adjectives and verbal constructions.

Chechen: Ha byargsh haz bu
English: “Your eyes are beautiful”

Chechen: Ho sun 1elch yoghur yu
English: “You (f.) are coming to me”

Chechen: Sa dog q1andel hozun dog san dats’
English: “My heart is not like that of an old bird”


A traditional wedding in Chechnya, according to a mixture of Chechen and Muslim customs. Brides throughout Central Asia and the Caucasus follow a custom of refraining from smiling or showing joy on the wedding day, so as to keep away others’ envy of their fortunateness.

Origins and Ethnic Identity
The Chechen people call themselves Nokhchii; the ethnonyms “Chechen” and “Ingush” are Russian designations. Together the Chechen and the Ingush (self-designated Ghalghaa) compose Vainakh (literally “our people”), recognizing an overarching ethnic and linguistic kinship despite their longstanding distinct national consciousnesses and self-designations. Clan origins or ethnogenesis myths among the Vainakh all feature immigrant progenitors who traveled northward, married into a preexisting Caucasian ethnic group, and founded a new highland village among prior inhabitants. Most clans claim roots in Arabia, Syria, and Persia, and the Chechen nationality as a whole claims descendance from one such Syrian immigrant.

From a strictly evidential standpoint, the question of when and wherefrom the Nakh people (Chechens, Ingush, Batsbi and Kisti) arrived in the Northeast Caucasus remains shrouded in what seems to be impenetrable uncertainty for linguists and anthropologists. Aside from a few moderately-convincing attempts to pin a remote link with Daghestanian languages at the Proto-language stage, Nakh appears to be unrelated to any other attested primary language family on the Eurasian landmass, even at the magnitude of ~15,000 years. It is nonetheless widely held by some authors such as Amjad Jaimoukha, Johanna Nichols and Bernice Wuethrich that the Nakh peoples represent a periphery group that migrated (or perhaps, returned) out of the Hurro-Urartian-dominated Fertile Crescent and into the Caucasus some time after 10,000 B.C., perhaps displaced there by push factors such as the overuse of land and subsequent creation of vast deserts in Mesopotamia. This in turn places the ancestors of the Nakh peoples before the Sumerians and archaic Semitic-speaking peoples of Akkad and Babylon as the proprietors of Mesopotamia by several thousand years, and corroborates Igor Diakonoff’s suggestion of remote ties between Hurro-Urartian languages and Northeast Caucasian.

Migration_on_Nakh_Peoples
Mounting linguistic evidence suggests that the Proto-Nakh peoples who would later differentiate into the modern Chechens, Ingush, Batsbi and Kisti may have migrated to the slopes of the Caucasus from the Fertile Crescent some time between 10,000 B.C.-8,000 B.C., although the issue of their origins still remains shrouded in mystery. 

Following a supposed trajectory of Nakh transhumance into the Caucasus mountain system after 10,000 B.C., the empirical evidence we have indicates that the historical region inhabited by Nakh tribes was much larger and included areas now dominated by Ossetians (Iranian branch, Indo-European family) and Georgians (Kartvelian family). An isogloss map reveals that the original Nakh-Daghestanian center of gravity probably lies in modern day Georgia, south of the Great Caucasus range, but these peoples were gradually displaced to the highlands by Kartvelian transhumance prior to the late Middle Ages. Historically then, modern Chechen-Ingush descend from nonfrontier languages that show no evidence of contact with exotic languages throughout their prehistory, indicating that they were once surrounded by now-extinct sister languages also belonging to the Nakh-Daghestanian language family (of which Bats in Georgia is the only survivor). Indeed, Nakh language-speaking clans were historically far larger in spread and influence south of the Caucasian piedmont.

Keselo,_Tusheti
Tusheti and Khevsureti, the proposed homeland of Nakh-Daghestanian peoples (including Chechens and Ingush), lies south of the Great Caucasus range in modern-day Georgia.

 Religion and Social Organization

The Chechens are divided into clans, or taips (from Arabic طائفة Tā’ifa) which then belong collectively to a grand alliance of familial clans called tukhkhums (from Armenian տոհմ tōhm, itself a Middle Persian borrowing). At the moment, the Chechens are united in 9 tukhkhums, comprising more than 100 taips.

Chechens are predominantly Sunni Muslim following their recent conversion to Islam between the 16th and 19th centuries, and belong primarily to the Shafi’i school of jurisprudence (fiqh). Of note, Sufism is popular among Chechens, and many Chechens belong to the Qadiri and Naqshbandi orders. Most of the conversion took place in the 19th century during the Russian imperial invasion of the then Persian-controlled Caucasus, with the intent of bringing groups together in anti-colonial resistance movements, in turn giving them state-like forms of organization. In the 19th century, the tribes to the west and east Caucasus became Muslim (Chechens, Ingush, Circassians, Avars, Lezgins, Dargins, etc.), while the millennium-old Eastern Orthodox Christian communities in the central section (Ossetians, Georgians, Abkhazians, Armenians) remained Christian in their majority through the present. The Jewish Lak people of Daghestan and the Judeo-Tats of Azerbaijan retained their religion from prior to the mass conversions.

Prior to their conversion to Islam just two centuries ago, the majority of Chechens and Ingush followed their own polytheistic tree-worshipping religion or were affiliated with Eastern Orthodox churches.  At the center of the indigenous Vainakh religion was the pear tree, and adherents belonged to a mixture of different cults, including animism and polytheism, familial-ancestral and agrarian and funeral cults. Interestingly, in modern Chechen the name of the supreme pagan god, Dela, is still in use alongside Allah as a word to denote the Abrahamic God, not dissimilar to the Turkic and Mongol usage of tenri/tengri.

rebuilt-grozny-city-russia-view-17
The Akhmad Kadyrov Mosque in Grozny, capital of the Chechen Republic, Russia. Modeled off of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, it is the biggest mosque in Russia. 

The Nart Saga
The Nart saga is a series of tales about a mythical race of giants shared among the peoples of the North Caucasus. The term Nart is most likely Iranian (Ossetian) in origin, although some posit a Mongolian etymology. Nonetheless, it is generally known that all the Nart corpora have an Iranian core, inherited from the Scythians, Sarmatians and Alans (ancestor of modern Ossetians)– all of whom were Iranian peoples that once dominated the Eurasian Steppe in modern day Russia, Central Asia and and Eastern Europe. These tales played a vital role in the indigenous religions and cults of the peoples of the North Caucasus, including Circassians, Abkhazians, Ossetians, Chechens, Ingush, Daghestanians, and others, and continue to occupy an important position in the folk traditions of those peoples.


A Kabardian (Circassian; Northwest Caucasian) dance group performing a tale from the Nart Saga. The Nart saga is shared among the folklore of the Adygheans, Cherkess, Kabardians, Abkhaz, Abaza, Chechens, Ingush, and Ossetians in the North Caucasus.

Chechen Diaspora in the Middle East

Within subdivisions of Russia outside of the Chechen Republic, Chechens mainly descend from refugees who were forced to leave Chechnya the 19th century Caucasian War, the annexation of Chechnya by the Russian Empire, and the 1944 Stalinist deportation to Soviet Siberia and Central Asia (discussed above). These peoples are centered in neighboring Daghestan, Moscow Oblast, Ossetia, Kazakhstan, Georgia (excluding the Kisti and Batsbi people), Sweden and the United States.

However, there is a fascinating narrative surrounding Chechen diasporas now located in the Middle East. In the middle of the 19th century, approximately 1 million 400 thousand North Caucasians Muslims–Chechens, Circassians and Daghestanis–were forced to migrate out of the Orthodox Christian Russian territories and settle with their coreligionists in the Ottoman Empire. Only the Chechens of Jordan, particularly a community of 450 souls in al-Suknah, have retained their language, as well as clothing and marriage customs. This is in great part due to royal favoritism on the part of the Hashemite family of Jordan. Chechens in Turkey, Syria, Egypt and Iraq have been assimilated linguistically, but continue to practice a few customs and identify as Chechens. In the 16th-17th centuries, Caucasians (particularly Georgians, Armenians and Circassians) were also forcibly uprooted, oftentimes converted, and resettled throughout Persia and the Ottoman Empire. But any Nakh deportees from that period have completely assimilated, and no traces remain of their language or culture.


Documentary on the tight-knit Chechen community of Jordan (in Russian and Chechen)

Sources

Jaimoukha, Amjad. “The Chechens: A Handbook.” Caucasus World: Peoples of the Caucasus. Taylor & Francis, 2004.

Kailani, Wasfi. “Chechens in the Middle East: Between Original and Host Cultures.” Caspian Studies Program.

Nicols, Johanna. The Origins of the Chechen and Ingush: a Study in Alpine Linguistic and Ethnic Geography. Anthropological Linguistics. Vol. 46, No. 2 (Summer, 2004), pp. 129-33

Wuethrich, Bernice. Peering into the Past, With WordsScience 19 May 2000: 
Vol. 288 no. 5469 p. 1158