It is common knowledge that the month of July 2013 this year is Ramadan, a month in which Muslims the world over fast for 30 days. In previous posts I have written about the importance of Ramadan in relation to the Arabic language (because the Quran was revealed in Ramadan and of course in Arabic). But I’ve been thinking recently, “what does the actual word ‘Ramadan’ mean?” So yesterday morning I took out my Lisaan al Arab (Ibn Mandhuur’s 12 volume master Arabic dictionary, every word that is Arabic will be in there, Hans Wehr is a smaller version of it) and looked it up, and my goodness what a treasure I found inside! The intricacy of the word, how it relates to other words and more importantly how it relates to fasting. It’s random readings like these that remind me of why I adore the Arabic language so much, it never ceases to amaze me, every word has a story, every word has a connection to another word (either similar sounding, or orthographically identical, or sharing all the letters but one!) and each word has a meaning that suits its context. Words almost always (apart from those borrowed from Persian or other languages) make sense to be ‘those’ exact words and nothing else, so a house to be called ‘bay-tun’ in Arabic can only make sense being called that (sorry if I’ve lost you, but you will see shortly what I mean) it has a back story a historical or cultural meaning. As a trilingual, I can’t say the same for my other two languages, Arabic is unique when it comes to root words and its complex semantic fields.
The word Ramadan, like many other Arabic words based on a three-letter-root template, is derived from ‘Ra-Ma-Da’ which means ” to be scorching hot” (notice that I have made all root letters bold, so we can see the root even in different derivations). How hot? Well Ibn Mandhuur was specific and made sure to describe it, as hot “as the scorching heat on stone under the hot sun” The earth can also be described as scorching hot (Ra-Ma-Du), and he goes on to give examples and similar derived nouns and adjectives to describe the “unbearable heat of the sun on stones and sand”. When inflected (to suit, gender, number and tense which is typical of Arabic) the word Ra-Ma-Du can be used to describe “unbearable heat on a people” (I think we can describe Londoners like that these days!) or to describe “scorched or sunburnt hands or feet as a result of being exposed to the very hot sun”. Then when derived as iR-Maa-Du it means “pain all over” both physical and that “which unmercifully eats the mind away with worry”. When inflected it can refer to an “upset stomach” and as a noun aRa-Ma-Diyyu it refers to the clouds and rain. Why? aha why indeed? Because rain is produced “as a result of heat from the sun” which causes evaporation and so on (the water cycle), who would have known? That’s why I said above that words almost always make sense to be ‘those’ words and those words only! Alternatively, it can also refer specifically to “rain just before Autumn at the end of summer that falls to hit the scorching hot ground” it’s that water that is produced that brings relief.
And finally, the next entry is the month of Ramadan, and Ibn Mandhuur mentions it as a name of a month (obviously), he quotes an account from a source named Ibn Durayd who says, “when the names of the months were being decided upon from the language of old, they named them based on the seasons in which they fell, it so happened that Ramadan fell during the season when it was scorching hot with unbearable heat”. It seems that at the time of naming the months Ramadan fell in the summer, but because the Arabic/Islamic calendar is based on the lunar system, the months move each year by a week or two, so the months are not fixed like the solar ones (January, February etc…). So in a period of about twenty years Ramadan will fall in the summer only 3 times (as it doing right now), and it will take another decade or so for it to fall in the spring/summer again. Another source named Al-Fara’ says that “Ramadan is derived from ‘Ra-Mi-Da’ which refers to a fasting person’s feelings of heat and dryness inside the mouth due to thirst”. Finally (because I could go on), the word ‘Ra-Ma-Da’ means to “wait for something”, it also refers to the “blunt blade of a knife that needs sharpening”. Interestingly though, none of the meanings contradict one another, it shows the versatility of the root and the many similar meanings it can carry.
In summary, the word Ramadan refers to, the month, the heat, the thirst, the waiting and the eventual ease (like that of rain after a hot day) of whatever may be the problem. An almost metaphorical way of describing the fast and the month in which it occurs is that, it’s not easy, not especially if it falls in the summer months, and people observing the fast wait until they can eat and drink, at which time they experience ease. Their beings are blunt and so need sharpening through the hardship of the fast (sounds a bit Yoga/meditation like!) and ultimately they experience relief (like the rain on the scorching hot ground) that will come with great benefits (Ibn Al ‘Arabee and others). Who would have thought that one word, would have so many associations and meanings, and yet all be suitable? I know this is not my usual post style, I wanted to share with you all another dimension of the Arabic language. It would be a shame if such a language were to be lost or unstudied, the treasures we’d lose would be irreplaceable. Your thoughts and ideas are most welcome as usual.
Ibn Mandhuur (2000) Lisaan al Arab volume 6 pages 224-225. Beirut: Dar al Sader (note: in the 1975 version the pages are slightly different 225-226).
Muhammad Al Bartajee (2002) Al Yaqoot wal Marjaan fee I’iraab al-Quran (Syntax of the Quran) Amman: Dar al-I’ilaam