Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Why would "qaswarah" be claimed to be Ethiopic?

In the Qur'ān, 74:51, an interesting word occurs:

{ كَأَنَّهُمْ حُمُرٌ مُّسْتَنفِرَةٌ } * { فَرَّتْ مِن قَسْوَرَةٍ }
ka'annahum ħumurun mustanfirah * farrat min qaswarah
As if they were wild donkeys. Fleeing from a Qaswarah.

This tends to be rendered as "lion" in English, but the early commentators indicate that that is only one of several possible meanings of the word. al-Ṭabari (d. 310 AH), gives four (all supported by chains of transmitters whose reliability I am not competent to judge): الرماة archers, القُنَّاص hunters, جماعة الرجال a group of men, الأسد a lion. The point of interest here is that two of these explanations are supported by allusions to Ethiopic:
حدثنا هناد بن السريّ، قال: ثنا أبو الأحوص، عن سِماك، عن عكرِمة، في قوله: { فَرَّتْ مِنْ قَسْوَرَةٍ } قال: القسورة: الرماة، فقال رجل لعكرِمة: هو الأسد بلسان الحبشة، فقال عكرِمة: اسم الأسد بلسان الحبشة عنبسة.

...[`Ikrimah] said: "al-qaswarah is archers." Then a man told `Ikrimah: "It is 'lion' in the language of the Ḥabashah (Ethiopians)." Ikrimah said: "The name of the lion in the language of the Ḥabashah is `anbasah."

حدثني محمد بن خالد بن خداش، قال ثني سلم بن قتيبة، قال: ثنا حماد بن سلمة، عن عليّ بن زيد، عن يوسف بن مهران عن ابن عباس أنه سُئل عن قوله: { فَرَّتْ مِنْ قَسْوَرَةٍ } قال: هو بالعربية: الأسد، وبالفارسية: شار، وبالنبطية: أريا، وبالحبشية: قسورة.

...[Ibn `Abbās] said: It is 'asad (lion) in Arabic, and in Persian šēr (شير), and in Nabataean 'aryā (ܐܪܝܐ), and in Ethiopic: qaswarah.
The thing is, it looks like `Ikrimah was right: in Ethiopic, "lion" is indeed `anbasā (ዐንበባ), and no Ethiopic word qaswarah has been found. Qaswarah is most likely an originally Arabic word. But these were intelligent people, and the saying attributed to Ibn `Abbās above is obviously right about Persian and Nabataean; why would they say that qaswarah was the Ethiopic word for "lion" if it wasn't? One obvious possibility is that they were referring to another language of the Ethiopia region. This cannot be ruled out, since many languages of the area have no doubt gone extinct without documentation since then; but it looks as though the words for "lion" in Somali, Oromo, Beja, Agaw, Sidamo, Nubian, Nara, and Kunama are rather different. One might momentarily be tempted to think of Berber, cp. Nafusi war, but that's certainly not long enough.

Could the idea that qaswarah is "lion" in Ethiopic have derived from a misreading of `anbasa at some point? That certainly wouldn't be plausible in Arabic. It doesn't look all that plausible in Ethiopic either: ዐንበባ doesn't look all that similar to ቀስወራ. But there is another alphabet that might conceivably have been involved: the musnad, the Old South Arabian letters that continued to be used in Yemen into the Islamic period. In this alphabet, ` ع is quite similar to q ق, and n to s. The other two letters are rather less similar, but I can imagine b plus the right side of s being miscopied as w, and the remainder of s being reinterpreted as r. Here's roughly how the two words (qswr on the left, `nbs on the right) would have looked (ignoring the possibility of a final feminine -t):

Suppose this is right. Why then would someone at the time have learned an Ethiopic word from a text written in the musnad, rather than by asking an Ethiopian? Histories and travelogues are both genres attested in the Middle East of the time, and might have found occasion to mention in passing the Ethiopian word for "lion", given its cultural importance (it is a common theme in Aksumite art, and in later Ethiopia was adopted as a royal title.) Some Yemeni scholar who's never been to Ethiopia reads a miscopied version of such a history, thinks: ah, this must be the same word as in the Qur'ān, and goes on to tell everyone he knows, including (if the attribution is correct) Ibn `Abbās.

But there's a difficulty here: all that's ever been discovered in the musnad is stone inscriptions and occasional letters. No books have survived at all, much less histories or travelogues. And if there were books, you would think they would be written in the cursive script used in the letters, rather than the monumental script of the inscriptions - which reduces the similarity of the two words even more (see the table on p. 13 of History of the Arabic Script for cursive forms.)

On the other hand - anyone have a better idea?


Temaharay said...

Hey Jabal al-Lughat,

I was reading your post and I wanted to tell you that there is no language named Ethiopic; however there is a language called Ge'ez.

Temaharay said...

Oh, I almost forgot to tell you that I enjoyed your post; I just wish I could be more helpful. Cheers,

Anonymous said...

People called Ge'ez Ethiopic, anyway.

Learn Arabic said...

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Keith said...

Here's a case where Ancient Hebrew may shed light on the word in question.

The root Q-SH-R in Hebrew means "to tie/bind."

Since the point here is that these are *wild* donkeys, perhaps qaswarah is an otherwise unattested word for "lasso" or "bridle."

illan said...

Well, I wouldn't vote for the letter-similarity suggestion, simply because they are not similar, especially if one knows the script(s).

This word might be a little too long to be Semitic, as it has 4 consonants. From my little knowledge of Amharic, I would suggest two guesses:
A) it might be a blend of two words, as Amharic tends to do (by influence of non-Semitic languages, I believe). The 1st part might be qes 'priest', or qEs 'slow' or sth else; but the 2nd part might very well be 'awre 'untamed animal' (see

B) Greek loanwords in Amharic shifted the aspirated (Ancient?) Greek consonants to Amharic ejectives, e.g. p'ap'p'as 'pope', so I might suspect this multi-consonantal word as a loanword, so perhaps Greek experts might be able to think of a word similar to "khasuara" or whatever.

Lameen Souag said...

4 consonants is really not all that unusual in Semitic - I can't think of any Semitic language that doesn't have 4-consonant roots. If 'awre is attested in Geez, it could be an interesting comparison, but only if a plausible first half can be found.

Anonymous said...

qaswaratun means a mighty thing or a hunter. i thinks its the latter it could also mean lion because a lion is a hunter

Alienne Laval said...

A compositum... interesting, maybe an analogizing synthetical term to describe a Simurgh? A being that cannot be described in its wholeness by analytical humans because of its complexity?

Alienne Laval said...

Also interesting... some days ago I researched about the Khazars:

...wagon people.

I came to that while considering the Arabic kazari*n (is) like a seed... (48:29:32)

I then named the magpie birds "kazari"... because they eat sunflower seeds on my balkony...

coincidence or not: the dispersal area of these birds is similar to that of the Khazars... up to Korea...

Alienne Laval said...

Today I came to another idea... Cassowary... wading birds, unable to fly. Today they are restricted to New Guinea and Australia, but there is much evidence that variances of these sometimes man attacking birds were far more spread once. Shamans etc. like/d to use their feathers as part of their dresses, and some are said of to shape shift into cassowary in dream state.

Anonymous said...

Posted by Shibli Zaman from

1) Qaswara – According to the majority of the exegetes on this subject (markedly, from the Sahaba, may Allah be pleased with them) this word is clearly East African (“Habashi as it was simplistically referred to by the Sahaba) in origin in reference to either a hunter or a lion. Research substantiates that both “lion” and “hunter” are plausible according to analyses of Proto-Highland Eastern Cushitic wherein “kas” is to stab, pierce or cut and the suffix of “wara” creates “agent nouns”. In modern “Ethiopic” languages such as Tigrinya and Ge’ez (as well as in some other African languages) the word “Wagatwara” means “hunter” and in earlier etymons of this word the “g” is rendered a “q” and the “t” is rendered an “s”. This is much akin to some modern dialects of Arabic that render the letters “Qaaf” and “Thaa” as a “gaaf” and “saa” respectively.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Interesting suggestion – I'll check it out inshallah. That said, I don't see how either analysis would support the meaning "lion".