Friday, July 12, 2013

Diversity in Islamic prayer names and its roots

(Traduction en français)

Practically all Muslims whatever their sect or language, and all Arabs, refer to the five daily prayers of Islam by versions of the same names: Fajr / Ṣubḥ before sunrise, Ḍhuhr at noon, `Aṣr in the afternoon, Maghrib at sunset, and `Ishā’ in the evening. West of Egypt, however, things look very different: there we often find quite different names for the five prayers. For example, contrast the familiar names above with those used in the largest Berber language, Shilha (southern Morocco): ṣṣbaḥ, tizwarn, takʷẓin, tiwutsh, and tin-yiḍs. Except for the first, there seems to be no relation.

However, Middle Eastern Islamic prayer names haven't always been so uniform. Al-Bukhārī reports the following hadith (#516):

“... from Sayyār b. Salamah: “My father and I entered into the presence of Abū Barzah al-’Aslamī. My father asked him: “How did the Messenger of God, blessings and peace be upon him, pray the prescribed (prayers)?” He replied: “He used to pray al-hajīr, which you (pl.) call al-’ūlā, when the sun declines (from the meridian), and pray al-‘aṣr such that one of us could return to his home at the far end of Medina while the sun was still lively.” I forget what he said about al-maghrib. “And he used to prefer to delay al-‘ishā’, which you (pl.) call al-‘atamah, and he used to hate sleeping before it or speaking after it. And he used to return from the ghadāt prayer when a person could recognise the one sitting next to him, and read sixty to a hundred (verses.)””
Siwi, the Berber language of Egypt, still uses a series of mostly Arabic-derived prayer names that might as well be taken straight from this hadith: they call the five prayers sra (morning), luli, la`ṣaṛ, mməghrəb, and l`ətmət. Traces of these names are found further afield too: in Songhay (Mali/Niger), Dhuhr is referred to as aluula.

It turns out that this hadith also explains the Shilha name for Dhuhr: tizwarn literally means "the first ones (f.)", a literal translation of Arabic al-’ūlā. This form is not just widespread in Berber, but is also (via Zenaga) the source for Wolof tisbaar. In Soninké, the language of the medieval Ghana Empire between Mauritania and Mali, another literal translation yields sállì-fànà (“prayer-first”), which has been borrowed into Bambara and many other West African languages.

A similar, much less well-sourced hadith (Maṣḥaf `Abd al-Razzāq 2067) likewise explains the Shilha name for Isha:

“From Yaḥyā b. al-‘Alā’, from al-A‘mash, from Abū Wā’il who said: I asked for Ḥuḏayfa, and he said: Why have you asked for me? I said: For conversation. He said: “‘Umar b. al-Khaṭṭāb, may God be pleased with him, used to warn against conversation after ṣalāt al-nawm (the sleep prayer).”
Comparison to other versions makes it clear that the prayer being referred to is Isha. As it happens, Shilha tin-yiḍs means, literally "that (f.) of sleep". This form is widespread in Berber, and was literally translated into Soninke as sákhú-fó (sákhú "sleep", fó "thing"). The resulting form was borrowed into Songhay (saafoo) and several other regional languages.

All of this tells us three things:

  • Berber Islamic terminology was created very early in Islamic history, before these variants disappeared from Arabic usage;
  • Soninké and Wolof speakers adopted Islam in large part from Berbers, not directly from Arabs;
  • Soninké speakers played an important role in the spread of Islam to other ethnic groups in Mali and Niger.
It also has a wider moral, though: that we shouldn't be too hasty to dismiss region-specific Islamic traditions as innovations.

(This post summarises about half of an article of mine which is forthcoming in the Bulletin of SOAS, under the title of "Archaic and innovative Islamic prayer names around the Sahara".)


François de Blois said...

A very interesting contribution. Let me add this: the tradition cited by al-Bukhari indicates that the liturgical day began at sunrise, unlike the civil day, which began at sunset. I mentioned this in the EI2 article “Taʼrīkh”. The noon prayer is thus the “first” prayer after sunrise. In early New Persian the noon prayer is called pēšīn “former” and the mid-afternoon prayer is called dīgar “second”. By the way: in the last line of the quotation وَيَقْرَأُ means “recite”, not “read”.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Fascinating! What dates would that be – 8th century? I wonder if any parallels are to be found in, say, early Turkic usage...

In Islamic contexts I would typically use "read" for the meaning of "recite" as well as "absorb information from a text", but that may be a calque from Arabic.

François de Blois said...

The earliest texts in (Muslim) Persian are not until the 10th century, but these names for the prayers are very common in the earliest texts (e.g. Bayhaqī’s history of the Ghaznavids). I forgot to mention that there is a nice parallel also in namāz i xuftan “the prayer of sleep”.
My comment about “reciting” is in the context of the Islamic doctrine that the prophet was ʼummī.

Chris said...

Thanks for this post! I'm always fascinated in the Muslim world and its great heritage. Their language is indeed a must try.

Alex said...

The parallels with Wolof continue: tak(w)Zin - takkusaan, tiwutsh - timis. This is some really amazing work you've done here.

John Cowan said...

The Eastern Yiddish verb 'pray' is davnen, which lacks a secure etymology, and there is the usual hairball of folk etymologies for it. One that seems decent, however, is that it is a Lithuanian calque on מנחה minkha, the name of the afternoon prayer specifically, which means 'offering, sacrifice'. The Lithuanian for 'gift' is davana, which is an excellent match phonologically and semantically, and the only real objection is that Lithuanian loanwords are rare in Yiddish. Another idea, considerably less likely IMO, is that it is Germanic and a calque on שַחֲרִת shakharit, the name of the morning prayer, which means 'dawn'. But the change /g/ > /v/ is not naturally motivated. Also, it is much more likely that Jews would need to refer to the afternoon prayer in the presence of Gentiles than the morning prayer, which is generally prayed at home.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Reading Anonby & Yousefian 2011, I just noticed the Kumzari prayer names, still in use today in Musandam:

nwāẓ pīšin u paštin = Dhuhr and Asr prayers
nwā bangō u nwāxastin = Maghrib and Isha prayers.

Clearly pīšin = Persian pēšīn. paštin is translated elsewhere as "afternoon", and bangō as "sunset". The name of Isha looks like a compound, but I'm not sure of the components.

Sophie Paine said...

I am joining the conversation late, but this is truly fascinating. Chinese traditionally use names derived from Persian too: 抛失尼:paoshini from pishin for zuhr, 底盖 雷: digalei (digar) for asr, 沙目: shamu for maghrib. However more recently, mosques tend to write the Chinese transliterations of the Arabic names (fa-ji-er, etc...)