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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.”