FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

What Does ISIS Really Stand For?

by

The Islamic extremists known as ISIS are a great deal more dangerous than most of us realize. The reason for this is hidden in plain sight in the name itself: ISIS. In English, this stands for Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, but that’s not what it stands for in Arabic: ad-Dawlat al-Islamiyya fī’l-‘Iraq wa’sh-Sham: The Islamic State in Iraq and Ash-Sham.

The crucial difference is the word Sham, a word that resonates in the Arabic-speaker’s mind on multiple levels. To see why, let’s step into a time machine. All we have to do is start to read any passage of written Arabic, and we find ourselves traveling down that passage, all the way back to a certain day in the Arabian desert circa 630 A.D. It doesn’t matter whether what we are reading is from a novel or from today’s headlines, it is — and always will be — written in exactly the self-same Arabic, letter for letter and dot for dot, that was used almost 1,400 years ago.

That seventh-century day in the desert is the heart and soul of the Islamic religion: the moment, and the only moment, when God spoke to man. It is the foundation of the Islamic faith; accept this truth and Islam accepts you. Recite the words, la illaha illa Allah wa Muhammad rasul Ullah (“There is no god but God and Muhammad is the Messenger of God”) and abracadraba, you’re a Muslim. In other words, all you need to do to become one of the faithful is to truly believe that — through the Angel Gabriel — God spoke to one man, and one man only out there in the sand dunes when he dictated “The Reading”: al-Qur’an. Since this is the one and only time God spoke to man since the universe began, and since He chose to use the language of the desert dwellers of the day, at that instant that particular desert dialect froze as solid and immutable as the Ka’aba itself in Holy Mecca. The power of one: one God, one man, one moment, one tongue. If the Jews are the chosen people, Arabic is the chosen language.

This fact has many ramifications. For one thing, the ancient desert dwellers hadn’t yet evolved any letters for vowels, so vowel letters could never be allowed to evolve. This makes reading Arabic script challenging, to say the least. You have to mouth the words to read them at all; you have to sound them out. In a sense, if you don’t already know the word — or at least its context — you can’t read it. It’s like trying to read a word spelled “bk” — is it book or beak or bike or bake? The only solution is to throw yourself into the deep end, drown yourself in the written words, gulp them down into your vocal chords, never quite knowing what’s going to happen next — until you hear your own voice telling you. You can’t skip ahead to see what’s coming ’round the next sentence, you just have to plough on, one or two words at a time. So it’s very difficult to be objective about what you’re reading; the very act of decoding the words is so deeply involving, you simply don’t have time to weigh their meaning coolly and unemotionally.

When the spoken words did eventually get written down, they immediately took on the same divine power as speech, which has also had some interesting consequences. In rural Egypt, up until surprisingly recent times, one of the surefire ways of curing disease was to “drink the Qur’an” — or rather the ink in which it was written. Recipe: copy suitable verses from the holy book onto the inner surface of an earthenware bowl, pour in some water, stir it around until the words are absorbed into the water, then let the patient swallow this inky concoction, which the sacred words have now transformed into sacred medicine.

The divinity of the script has also meant that to this day it has to look as if it were handwritten, for there were no printing presses in Muhammad’s time. Until our computer age, this obliged printers to cast three different versions of each Arabic letter, for use at the beginning, middle and end of words, so that when all the letters in the word are strung together it looks as if the word has been written in a flowing cursive hand.

Moving through our Roman script landscape is Roman in every sense of the word, with its forbidding inorganic columned typeface, with the more important text spelled out in the sternest shape of all: the eponymous Times Roman of the august newspaper, its capital letters standing guard over the culture, serifs cocked at head and foot like so many epaulettes and spurs. Moving through an Arabic script landscape, on the other hand, is to saunter through an organic, lazy-lettered world where even the stop sign – qif – instead of standing at attention, lies flat on its back like a lizard basking in the sun with flies bobbing up and down on its nose.

There are other consequences of Arabic’s celestial origin. The desert dwellers all those hundreds of years ago not only lacked vowel letters, they had no capital letters, which fact coupled with an absence of any kind of punctuation made it impossible to indicate the beginning or end of what Westerners would call a “sentence.” This, too, hardly changed until fairly recent times. For God didn’t divvy up His wisdom into discrete little fragments, He spouted it in one continuous stream with no beginning and no end.

The only permissible means that was devised to indicate a new thought was to begin it with the Arabic word for “and” — wa — a practice the desert wanderers had absorbed from Aramaic and Hebrew-writers, whose Old Testament habit of beginning almost every sentence with “and,” produced that unstoppable rolling thunder of continuous biblical prose:

“And the earth was without form and void and darkness was upon the face of the deep and the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters and God said let there be light and there was light and God saw the light that it was good and God divided the light from the darkness and God called the light day and the darkness he called night and the evening and the morning were the first day…”

Now imagine the effect of that same unstoppable divine thunder rolling through even the most mundane paragraph of everyday Arabic, whether it’s telling you what’s playing at your local theater or how to make tomato soup – or most alarmingly – why you should drive Israel into the sea. In any other language, you might have a chance to analyze the message, to criticize it. But in Arabic, whether you are Tunisian or Egyptian, Lebanese or Iraqi, it is irresistible stuff, by definition uncriticizable. For every word and phrase uttered by a charismatic Arab leader is in the language of the Qur’an, the voice of God ringing down the centuries. There were even echoes of the Almighty in the delusional Saddam Hussein’s declaration that the Gulf War was the “Mother of Battles,” Umm al-Ma’arik, paralleling the phrase Umm al-Kitab, Mother of the Book: the way the Holy Qur’an describes itself.

No wonder the Arab world confounds so many Western journalists. If you don’t know the language, it is impossible to understand what is really going on in the listener’s mind when an Arab leader addresses his people, what levels and depths of meaning and feeling are being plumbed. No translation can get close. It’s not like going from German to English, or even from Hindi to English. It’s like going from another galaxy to ours. In every sense of the word, Arabic is a different script that tells a different story. And all because of that moment nearly 1,400 years ago that deified both its spoken and written form.

So back to Sham, and all the ponderously heavy cultural baggage this word entails. What in God’s name does it mean? Well, one thing it does NOT mean is the truncated Syria that was created by the French in 1922. Rather, it means the “North,” the “Greater Syria” that encompasses, not only Cyprus and part of southern Turkey, but also the artificial states the British and the French carved out of the Ottoman Empire after World War One: Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Transjordan, Palestine – and subsequently Israel. For most of the last three thousand years, all these regions were one, not only under the empires of the Ottomans, the Caliphs, the Byzantines, the Romans, the Greeks and the Persians, but also under the AsSYRIAns, and even more ancient civilizations before that, dating all the way back to 2,500 B.C.

Sham’s roots run very deep – and very dangerously – indeed. Roses may smell as sweet by any other name, but Syria does not.

David Stansfield is an Arabic scholar trained at the universities of Durham, Cambridge, the Sorbonne and Toronto, who has lived in many parts of the Arab world. He is also the writer-producer of the 14-part TVOntario/Encyclopedia Britannica television series: “The Middle East.”

 

 

David Stansfield is a former PBS writer-producer and the author of “Take Nothing For Granted,” a thriller set against the backdrop of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

More articles by:
May 31, 2016
Miguel A. Cruz-Díaz
Imperial Blues: On Whitewashing Dictatorship in the 21st Century
Vijay Prashad
Stoking the Fires: Trump and His Legions
Patrick Howlett-Martin
Libya: How to Bring Down a Nation
Uri Avnery
What Happened to Netanyahu?
Corey Payne
Reentry Through Resistance: Détente with Cuba was Accomplished Through Resistance and Solidarity, Not Imperial Benevolence
Bill Quigley
From Tehran to Atlanta: Social Justice Lawyer Azadeh Shahshahani’s Fight for Human Rights
Manuel E. Yepe
Trump, Sanders and the Exhaustion of a Political Model
Bruce Lerro
“Network” 40 Years Later: Capitalism in Retrospect and Prospect and Elite Politics Today
Robert Hunziker
Chile’s Robocops
Aidan O'Brien
What’ll It be Folks: Xenophobia or Genocide?
Binoy Kampmark
Emailgate: the Clinton Spin Doctors In Action
Colin Todhunter
The Unique Risks of GM Crops: Science Trumps PR, Fraud and Smear Campaigns
Dave Welsh
Jessica Williams, 29: Another Black Woman Gunned Down By Police
Gary Leupp
Rules for TV News Anchors, on Memorial Day and Every Day
May 30, 2016
Ron Jacobs
The State of the Left: Many Movements, Too Many Goals?
James Abourezk
The Intricacies of Language
Porfirio Quintano
Hillary, Honduras, and the Murder of My Friend Berta
Patrick Cockburn
Airstrikes on ISIS are Reducing Their Cities to Ruins
Uri Avnery
The Center Doesn’t Hold
Raouf Halaby
The Sailors of the USS Liberty: They, Too, Deserve to Be Honored
Rodrigue Tremblay
Barack Obama’s Legacy: What Happened?
Matt Peppe
Just the Facts: The Speech Obama Should Have Given at Hiroshima
Deborah James
Trade Pacts and Deregulation: Latest Leaks Reveal Core Problem with TISA
Michael Donnelly
Still Wavy After All These Years: Flower Geezer Turns 80
Ralph Nader
The Funny Business of Farm Credit
Paul Craig Roberts
Memorial Day and the Glorification of Past Wars
Colin Todhunter
From Albrecht to Monsanto: A System Not Run for the Public Good Can Never Serve the Public Good
Rivera Sun
White Rose Begins Leaflet Campaigns June 1942
Tom H. Hastings
Field Report from the Dick Cheney Hunting Instruction Manual
Weekend Edition
May 27, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Pilger
Silencing America as It Prepares for War
Rob Urie
By the Numbers: Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are Fringe Candidates
Paul Street
Feel the Hate
Daniel Raventós - Julie Wark
Basic Income Gathers Steam Across Europe
Andrew Levine
Hillary’s Gun Gambit
Jeffrey St. Clair
Hand Jobs: Heidegger, Hitler and Trump
S. Brian Willson
Remembering All the Deaths From All of Our Wars
Dave Lindorff
With Clinton’s Nixonian Email Scandal Deepening, Sanders Must Demand Answers
Pete Dolack
Millions for the Boss, Cuts for You!
Gunnar Westberg
Close Calls: We Were Much Closer to Nuclear Annihilation Than We Ever Knew
Peter Lee
To Hell and Back: Hiroshima and Nagasaki
Karl Grossman
Long Island as a Nuclear Park
Binoy Kampmark
Sweden’s Assange Problem: The District Court Ruling
Robert Fisk
Why the US Dropped Its Demand That Assad Must Go
Martha Rosenberg – Ronnie Cummins
Bayer and Monsanto: a Marriage Made in Hell
Brian Cloughley
Pivoting to War
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail