The saying usually goes “like father like son”. However, in the case of Abraham and Ishmael it should be “like son like father”. In the Qur’an, their names are written as ʾIsmāʿīl (إسماعيل) and ʾIbrāhīm (إبراهيم). It seems rather banal to those of us used to reading these names, it is an etymological peculiarity. In the original Hebrew, these names are Yišmaʿel (יִשְׁמָעֵאל), meaning “God Heard”, and ʾAbrāhām (אַבְרָהָם), meaning “Father of Nations”. While Yišmaʿel is Arabicized typically from Hebrew, ʾAbrāhām is not. The initial alef is pronounced with a kasrah in the Arabic rather than a fatḥah like in the Hebrew. More notably, the final alef becomes a yāʾ in the Arabic. This has even confused Muslim philologists who have listed such variants of the name as ʾAbrahām, ʾAbrāhum, and ʾAbraham. The philologist and orientalist, Arthur Jeffrey, in his “The Foreign Vocabulary of the Qur’an”, records several theories as to why this might be the case concluding that the best possibility is that ʾIbrāhīm was put onto the same pattern as ʾIsmāʿīl’s name when being Arabicized – something the Qur’an has done with other names.
Though it seems semantical, it is relevant to understanding the style of the Qur’an. This topic and others like it have to do with the history of Arabic, which, like the history of any language, is important in providing context to linguistic phenomena, and consequently better cementing our understanding of the Qur’anic text. While great efforts are made by Muslims to have mastery over Arabic grammar, there seems to be a gap in our collective understanding of this topic.
Arabic is now a global language spoken by 290 million native speakers found from Morocco to Khuzestan and Central Asia, and it is used as a liturgical language by over a billion people. In the 9th-century BC, though, it was an obscure Semitic language spoken by an equally obscure ethnic group of nomadic herders and mercenaries from the South Syrian desert.
As such, I intend on writing a series of brief blog posts, which will give an overview of the history of the Arabic language. In due course, we shall also examine interesting features of and notable oddities in the language, such as the one I mentioned at the beginning of my introduction. These posts will not necessarily be chronological so that the task of writing is easier.
Since a language exists only due to people being there to speak it, I will also be writing general points about the history of the Arab people. This will not be comprehensive, rather, it will simply complement our primary discussion on the Arabic language. I hope that by reading this series you will grow to love the subject as much as I do, and by its completion, have deepened your knowledge of the Arabic language and the Qur’an.