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.
(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".)