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Interfaith Dialogue ( 24 March 2018, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Deen, Dharma and Quran: Words in the Holy Book Indicate Semitic Contacts with Other Civilisations


By Khaled Ahmed

March 24, 2018

In India and Pakistan, where people speak Indo-European Hindi and Urdu, the words din and dharma are frequently used to mean faith/religion. Religion means that which binds, because the root “lg” means to join as in the Hindi-Urdu word, “Lagana”. Lex, which once stood in for religion, is law but becomes “leg” in legal, also in the sense of joining. Din is also Indo-European and literally means “that which is given” in old Persian. Dharma is that which you hold and carry as in the root “dhr”, or to carry.

The scholar of Islam, Karen Armstrong, has brought out a very interesting fact about the Semitic religions, Judaism and Islam. Islam uses the word “din” in the Quran to mean religion but this word is not found in the Judaic tradition. Even Christianity, according to her, doesn’t have a word for faith and uses religion, which is Indo-European — it means “to join” like league, legation. She wrote in The Guardian (September 25, 2014): “The words in other languages that we translate as ‘religion’ invariably refer to something vaguer, larger and more inclusive. The Arabic word din signifies an entire way of life, and the Sanskrit dharma covers law, politics and social institutions as well as piety. The Hebrew Bible has no abstract concept of ‘religion’; and the Talmudic rabbis would have found it impossible to define faith in a single word or formula, because the Talmud was expressly designed to bring the whole of human life into the ambit of the sacred. The Oxford Classical Dictionary firmly states: No word in either Greek or Latin corresponds to the English religion.”

Karen Armstrong repeats the argument in her book Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence. But the word “din” is used in next door Persia, whose the Zoroastrian tradition has influenced Semites given that Persia was the recipient of one diaspora of the Jews before Islam. In Old Persian, the word “din”, as used in the Quran, meant the eternal law, whose order was revealed to humanity through the Mathra-Spenta, is also used to mean religion, faith, law, and even as a translation for the Hindi and Buddhist concept of dharma.

Parsi-Zoroastrian names in India hark back to the vocabulary of the holy book, Avesta. The Complete Book of Muslim and Parsi Names by Maneka Gandhi and Ozair Husain gives us two names that contain the word, “din”: Dinshaw and Dina. The founder of Pakistan, M A Jinnah, married Ruttie, the young daughter of India’s millionaire named Dinshaw Petit. The name meant “leader of the faith” but the name was “Anglicised” in India in those days by changing shah into “Shaw”. Jinnah and Ruttie named their daughter Dina which meant the (female) follower of faith. The word in the Quran meaning “religion” is, therefore, borrowed from ancient Persia which earlier gave the idea of Satan (Ahriman) to the Old Testament.

The Quran carries words from other civilisations pointing to the contacts the Semitic civilisation had with its neighbourhood. Two important words in the Quran, “Qartas” (paper) and “Qalam” (pen) are borrowed from Greek, which was the language of culture in the area now in Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan (which is why the Gospels and the Letters of St Paul in the New Testament are in Greek). Qartas is an Arabised version of the Greek “Chartes” and “Kalam” is simply the Greek word “Kalamos” (reed).

Syed Suleiman Nadwi, in his Arab-o-Hind kay Ta’aluqaat (Indo-Arab relations), reports Sanskrit words in the Holy Quran. He went against the tradition led by the great exegete Tabari that there are no “foreign” words in the Quran. Nadwi holds that there are Sanskrit words in the Quran, which point to the Arabs’ realisation that India was the origin of perfumes and medicines. The first word is “Zanjbeel”. It is referred to in verse 76:18 when Allah describes the bounty of paradise. The inhabitants of Paradise will drink form cups mixed with “Zanjbeel”. Nadwi says it comes from Sanskrit “Zaranjaber” — being the name of the common berry in India. Zanjbeel is ginger.

The other Sanskrit word found in the Holy Quran is Kafur. Verse 76:5 further explains the quality of the wine in paradise: It will smell of Kafur. We know the word camphor in English. Some etymologists derive it from the Arabic root “kfr”. Nadwi says the word camphor comes from Sanskrit word, Kapur; that is what Nadwi says too. Many Muslim slaves were named Kafur. I have no idea why the slaves only were named thus.