Syriac Influence on the Style of the Kur'an - By the Rev. Alphonse Mingana, D.D.

...In my opinion, however, Syriac is much more useful than Hebrew and Ethiopic as the former language seems to have a much more pronounced influence on the style of the Kur'an. The only Hebrew textual influence I was able to discover bore on the Biblical Hebraisms already found in the Syriac Peshitta. We are also apt to exaggerate in our Kur'anic studies the legendary Biblical element that emanates from Jewish folk-lore beliefs, and to overlook the fact that these legends were already found in scores of apocryphal books circulating among the members of the Syrian Churches of South Syria and Arabia. In this connection we may state with some confidence that taking the number 100 as a unit of the foreign influences on the style and terminology of the Kur'an Ethiopic would represent about 5 per cent of the total, Hebrew about 10 per cent the Greco-Roman languages about 10 per cent., Persian about 5 per cent, and Syriac (including Aramaic and Palestinian Syriac) about 70 per cent.

In the following pages we propose to discuss very briefly a first list of words bearing on some aspects of this Syriac influence on the linguistic peculiarities of the Kur'an. The list ought to be carefully examined, because if its points are established they will modify to a large extent our Kur'anic conclusions which are mainly derived from Muslim writers the best of whom flourished some two hundred years after the events. The Syriac influence on the phraseology of the Kur'an may be considered under six distinct headings: (a) proper names, (b) religious terms, (c) common words, (d) orthography, (e) construction of sentences, (f) foreign historical references.

Proper Names

The proper names of Biblical personages found in the Kur'an are used in their Syriac form. Such names include those of Solomon, Pharaoh, Isaac, Ishmael, Israel, Jacob, Noah, Zachariah, and Mary. The other Biblical names used in the Jewish sacred Books have the same spelling in Syriac and in Hebrew. The following names need some explanation...

...There is not a single Biblical name with an exclusively Hebrew pronunciation in the whole of the Kur'an. So far as the names Ishmael, Israel and Isaac are concerned we may remark that their deviation from the Hebrew pronunciation is all the more remarkable because in them the author (or the editor of the Kur'an) is running counter to the genius of the Arabic and Hebrew languages to follow that of Syriac. It is well known that the letter of the 3rd pers. sing. of the aorist is both in Hebrew and Arabic a yodh which in Hebrew precedes the above proper name; and it would have been much more natural that their Arabic form should have been for instance Yasma'il, and Yashak with a ya' than 'Isma'il and 'Ishak with an aliph, - forms which have been used by the Syrians in order to retain as much as possible the original pronunciation of the Hebrews, inasmuch as the letter of the 3rd per. sing. of the aorist is in their language a num and not a yodh as in Arabic and Hebrew.

Another very remarkable fact emerging from all the above words is their pronunciation. I am at present engaged in the study of the early history of Christianity in Arabia as a sequel to my Early Spread of Christianity in Central Asia, and Early Spread of Christianity in India, published in 1925 and 1926 respectively. From that study it will be seen that the majority of the Christians round about Hijaz and South Syria belonged to the Jacobite community and not to that of the Nestorians. This was the state of affairs even in the middle of the ninth Christian century in which a well-informed Muslim apologist, 'Ali b. Rabban at-Tabari, was able to write: "What (Christians) are found among the Arabs except a sprinkling of Jacobites and Melchites11." Now the pronunciation used in the Arabic proper names mentioned above is that of the Nestorians and not that of the Jacobites. The latter say ishmo'il, isroil and Ishok etc., and not Ishma'il, Isra'il, and Ishak, as they appear in the Kur'an.

The Graeco-Roman world is seemingly represented by two names only: that of the prophet Jonas who figures as yunus, and that of the prophet Elijah whose name is written Ilyas, and once as Ilyasin (sic) for the sake of the rhyme (xxxvii. 130). It is highly probable, however, that these two names were borne by Christian Syrians and that they were taken direct from them; indeed many men of the Jacobite Nestorian, Melchite, and Maronite Syrians had from the third Christian century names either completely Greek or with a pronounced Greek termination only. The number of such men literally amounts to thousands. As an illustration of the final sin we may remark here that many Syrians were called Yohannis for Yohanna, John, Mattaeus for Mattai, Matthew, Thomas for Thoma, Thomas etc.

That the view we have here exposed is the only right one is borne out by the fact that in Palestinian Syriac the form of the two names is Ilyas12 and Yunus13, as in the Kur'an. In Ethiopic both names appear also as Ilyas and Yunus, but from the Syriac vocable (dhu-n) nun, "(he of the) fish," by which the Kur'an names Jonah (xxi, 87), it is more probable to suppose that he got his name also from the Syrians.

By applying the Syriac method of proper names we will be able to throw light on some strange forms of names used in the Kur'an. To express "John" the Kur'an of our days has the strange form Yahya. I believe, with Margoliouth14, that the name is almost certainly the Syriac Yohannan. So far as the word 'Isa (the name given to Jesus in the Kur'an) is concerned, it was apparently in use before Muhammad, and it does not seem probable that it was coined by him. A monastery in South Syria, near the territory of the Christian Ghassanid Arabs, bore in A.D. 571 the name 'Isaniyah, that is to say, "of the followers of Jesus," i.e. of the Christians. See fol. 84b of the Brit. Mus. Syr. MS. Add., 14, 602, which is of the end of the sixth, or at the latest of the beginning of the seventh century16. The Mandean pronunciation 'Iso17, is of no avail as the guttural has in Mandaic the simple pronunciation of a hamzah. The Mandean pronunciation is rather reminiscent of 'Iso, as the name of Jesus was written in the Marcionite Gospel used by the Syrians18.

Religious Terms.

Almost all the religious terms found in the Kur'an are derived from Syriac...

This dependence of the Kur'an upon Syriac religious terms is also visible in the theological expressions, such as light upon light (= light from light), of xxiv., 35 ..., and in all semi-Biblical quotations or inspirations, such as the story of the camel and the eye of the needle (vii., 39), in Matt. xix, 24, and the idea of God causing to die and to live (liii., 45), 1 Sam. ii., 6, where the Hebrew is in the second form.

The same applies to Biblical events and facts, such as flood, crucify, as applied to Christ (iv., 156). As such we will also count ..., manna, (ii., 54; viii 160; xx., 82),, quail, ...tribes,... Another category of verbal Syriacisms is to be found in the literally translated Syriac words; as such we will count the frequently used ..., Apostle, ...Word (of God)...

I believe that in the above list the words, the Syriac origin of which could be denied, are very few. The list could be increased by scores of other words, but the above vocables are sufficient for the purpose of this first list. The only Kur'anic religious terms that betray Hebraic influence are the two technical terms of taurat - Torah, and Tabut, "ark"22 (ii., 49; xx., 39). The same may to some extent be said of the late Aramaic , Jahannam, "hell," which lacks a mim in classical Syriac. The word Mathani, in xv., 87 and xxxix., 24, is obscure, and its connection with the technical word mishnah is quite possible but not certain. On the other hand, habr, "doctor", is both Syriac and Hebrew, with a slight change in the meaning. The Jewish influence on the religious vocabulary of the Kur'an is indeed negligible.

In spite of the close and intimate relations that existed between Hijaz and Abyssinia, relations that were strengthened (if we are to believe the Muslim historians on this subject) by the fact that the early Muslims took refuge with Najashi, the King of Abyssinia, the only Ethiopic religious influence on the style of the Kur'an is in the word hawariyun, "Apostles" It is also possible that the word suhuf "leaves, sheets," may have been inspired by the corresponding Ethiopic word.

Here also we must remark, as we did in the case of the Kur'anic proper names, that the pronunciation of the above Syriac religious terms is that in use among the Nestorians and not the Jacobites. The latter say furkon and not furkan, Kurbon and not Kurban, Kashish and not Kashshish (with a shaddah), etc.

Common Words.

There are words in the Kur'an which are somewhat uncommon in Arabic but quite common in Syriac.

...Many of the above words are wholly Syriac and no amount of lexicographical and grammatical subtlety will, in our judgment, succeed in Arabicising nun, Tur, or muhaimin, etc.

...There is not much doubt in my mind that the word Kuran is imitated from the Syriac Kiryan. All the Biblical lessons to be read in the Churches are called by the Syrians Kiryans. The Prophet called simply his book by the word that was used to name the pericopes of the Revelation in the Christian Churches of his day. We should also remember that in the oldest MSS. of the Kur'an the word is simply written ... which may be, and has already been, read Kur'an or Kuran without hamzah. I suspect that this reading of the word without hamzah is reminiscent of an earlier pronunciation Kuryan or Kiryan (with a ya') and that the hamzah pronunciation is a late reading adopted to make the word more Arabic and in harmony with the root of the verb kara'a.

...No other language is represented in the Kur'an. Here as in the two previous categories the pronunciation of all the above Syriac words is Nestorian and not Jacobite.


There are numerous words in the Kur'an which by their orthography betray Syriac influence.

...We all know that in the oldest MSS. of the Kur'an thick dots take the place of the short (and occasionally of the long) vowels. I believe that these dots are almost certainly derived from the Syriac Massoretic puhhames or nukze which fill the same purpose in difficult or ambiguous words.


Foreign Historical References.

In Surah xviii., 82 sqq., there is an account of the well-known legend of Alexander the Great. The Macedonian conqueror first went westwards and found the sun setting in a black muddy spring, and then he journeyed eastwards and discovered that below the two mountains between which he was standing lived people who could scarcely understand speech. They implored Alexander to set a rampart between them and a wicked people called Yajuj and Majuj. Yielding to their entreaties Alexander erected a wall of pig iron across the opening between the two mountains, fused it into a solid mass of metal, and strengthened it by pouring molten brass over the whole.

The Romance of Alexander is found in many languages; in Greek (that of Pseudo-Callisthenes about A.D. 200); in Latin (that of Julius Valerius about A.D. 340 and of Leo the Archpresbyter, eleventh century); in Armenian (unknown date, but probably from the Greek); in Syriac (written about the beginning of the seventh, but known at the beginning of the sixth century); in Ethiopic (unknown date, but centuries after the Arab invasion); in Coptic (about the ninth century). Later versions include the Persian, the Turkish and, mirabile dictu, the Malay and the Siamese.

The best study of the Romance is to our knowledge that of Nöldeke31, who wrote after the publication of the Syriac text of the story by Budge32. From the works of Jacob of Serug we know, however, that the story was well known in Syriac circles prior to A.D. 520. Of all the above peoples to whom the Romance was known in one form or another the only ones that could have influenced the Kur'an were the Syrians and the Ethiopians; but since we have no evidence that the Ethiopians knew anything of the story in the Prophet's lifetime33, we have only the Syrians left from whom the Prophet, or the editor of the Kur'an, could have derived their information. This may be corroborated by the following considerations:

10. All the early versions write the word "Gog" only as Gog while the Kur'an writes it as Agog34 or more generally ya-gog (with an aliph or with a ya' and an aliph at the beginning). In a poem by Jacob of Serug written towards the beginning of the sixth Christian century on the Romance of Alexander and Gog and Magog, the word constantly occurs with an initial alaph as A-gog35. This Syriac spelling has probably influenced the Arabic form of the word as used in the Kur'an. There is even a verse in the Syriac text (ibid., p. 378) in which the author seems to derive A–gog from Agoga = "stream, aqueduct".

20. In the Greek of Pseudo-Callisthenes Alexander is a pagan king. In the Kur'an Alexander becomes a pious man and a messenger of Allah. This idea could have emanated only from Syrians, with whom, I do not know for what reason, the Macedonian jahan-gusha had become a messenger and a prophet of God. All the poem of Jacob of Serug mentioned above is based on such an assumption36.

In Surah xxii., 17, occurs the word , Magians. I believe that this word is from Syriac 37 and that the Prophet or the editor of the Kur'an had heard of Magians only from Syrians and not from Greeks, Persians, or any other people, because curiously enough the word is meant in the Kur'anic text to be in the plural form from an hypothetical singular the nature of which we cannot guess with certitude. Now in Syriac, contrary to Greek and Persian, the form

of the word does not change in its consonants when passing from singular into plural, and the Prophet or the editor of the Kur'an used the term in the plural of Syriac and not that of Arabic, as they heard it pronounced in their time. This difficulty was so keenly felt by post-Kur'anic Muslim authors that from the plural form of the word as used in the Kur'an they created (as if it was a gentilic and ethnic vocable) a singular form, Etymologically the Syriac word itself is derived from the Persian mugh (in Zend Moghu), "a fire-worshipper."

The Christians are called in the Kur'an which I take to be from the Syriac. Indeed there is no other language besides Syriac in which the word "Christians" is expressed by the word "nasara" or anything near it. Further, in many ancient documents the Syriac word nasraya is applied exclusively to Christians without any reference at all to the "Nazarenes". The Martyr, Simon bar Sabba'e, the great Patriarch of the East, is in A.D. 341 called the "head of the Nasraye38" i.e. of the Christians. All Christians are called nasraye in the life of the same saint written about the end of the fourth century39. The same name is also applied to them in more than one hagiographical piece emanating from writers whose country was situated within the boundaries of the Sasanian Empire. St. Pethion was asked in A.D. 447: "Which benefits have accrued to thee from thy connection with the Nasraye40" i.e. Christians. A Zoroastrian Persian General living before the Arab invasion sends a word to his Byzantine Christian opponent to observe a certain feast "because of the Jews and Nasraye (i.e. Christians) that are found in my army41." There is no need to give more examples, but we will allude to the fact that in the Romance of Julian the Apostate alone Nasraya is used several times to express a Christian42. There is no doubt whatever that in the Persian Empire, and to some extent also in the Roman Empire, the Christians were called by non-Christians nasraye (the nasara of the Kur'an), and that the Prophet took the word from the Syrians.

In xi., 46 mention is made of the fact that the ark of Noah stood on a mountain called.... Few scholars will be inclined to deny the fact that this queer word is the Syriac , the mountain on which according to the Peshitta Version (Gen. viii, 4) and the Targum (contrary to all the other versions of the Bible which call the mountain Ararat) the ark of Noah stood above water. The Prophet or the editor of the Kur'an had heard, therefore, the story of Noah and his flood only from Syrians. The reading of a waw for a ra' (the difference between the two letters is very slight in Arabic script) may be ascribed to an early kari or to the editor of the Kur'an himself. The pronunciation of the initial Kaf as Gaf is used even in our days by almost all the Arabs of the desert, with whom every Kaf is invariably a gaf. No other explanation of the word Judi seems to me worth mentioning.

Frequent use is made in the Kur'an of the word  which I take to be derived from the Syriac  pagan. This is also the opinion of some Muslim writers themselves43. In its singular form the word is used as follows: in ii., 129; iii.,89; vi.,79 and 162; xvi., 121 and 124, all in connection with Abraham being a hanif and not a mushrik; in iii., 60 in connection with Abraham being neither a Jew nor a Christian, nor a mushrik, but a hanif. In iv., 124 Abraham is a hanif. In x., 105 and xxx., 29 the Prophet himself is ordered to be a hanif. In its plural form the word is used in xxii., 32, where the faithful are ordered to be hanifs but not mushriks, and in xcviii., 4, where they are ordered to be hanifs and pray and give alms. The Syriac derivation of the word offers to my mind no difficulty at all. The real difficulty lies in the fact that the word is used in a good sense in the Kur'an wherein it is almost synonymous with "Muslim." To this difficulty I can offer no decisive solution, but I will tentatively propose the following considerations:

10. On the one hand the Prophet must have heard many Christians say of him that since he was neither a Jew nor a Christian he was by necessity a hanfa; on the other hand he must have also heard from them that Abraham was likewise a hanfa: a perfectly true assertion. By its association with the great Patriarch Abraham, revered and respected by both Christians and Jews, the word hanfa came to acquire with Muhammad a good and praiseworthy meaning. This is the reason why the Prophet is at some pains to emphasise the fact that Abraham was neither a Jew nor a Christian, but a hanfa, and wishes also his own religion to be hanfutha.

20. To express "idolatry," and "idolater" the Kur'an uses some forms of the root sharaka, which mean "to associate". Now this "association" is always meant an association or a partnership of other beings with Allah, the true God, and never with any pagan deity, and this in spite of the fact that to express "idols" the Kur'an knows of authan (xxii., 31; xxix, 16 and 24), asnam (passim) and tamathil (xxi, 53; xxxiv., 12). This bad meaning of the root sharaka is naturally held to be as unworthy of Muhammad as it is of Abraham, and this is the reason why so much stress is laid on the fact that Abraham was not a muskrik.

No solution of the difficulty offered by Muslim commentators or historians is worth mentioning. All their stories concerning a class of hanifs and the good works of the so-called tahannuf appear to me to be unhistorical and purposely invented to explain the difficulty created by the Kur'anic verses under consideration.

In xxx., 10 the word Rum is used to express the Byzantines, the Greeks of Constantinople, the "New Rome" . Whatever our views may be as to the linguistic peculiarities of the word we are not at liberty to deny that it is derived from the Syriac Rumaya. Indeed the Syrians went so far in their application of the word to Byzantines that they often called simple "soldiers" Rumaye44 as if the only soldiers they knew were Byzantine soldiers.


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