|And No One Had The Name Yahya (= John?) Before: A Linguistic & Exegetical Enquiry Into Qur'an 19:7And No One Had The Name Yahya (= John?) Before: A Linguistic & Exegetical Enquiry Into Qur'an 19:7|
|Written by mquran.org|
|Monday, 20 November 2006|
In the chapter of the Qur'an that carries the name Mary (Surat Maryam), the story of the miraculous birth of Jesus (19:16-34) is immediately preceded by the story of the miraculous birth of the Yahya to the aged Zechariah and his old and barren wife (19:1-15). Yahya has been traditionally identified as being none other than John the Baptist. The some people have pointed to a difficulty arising at verse 19:7 where the birth of the Yahya is announced:
They claim that this verse is in error. According to their understanding of verse 19:7, the name Yahya (John) is unique, and no human being prior to the birth of Yahya (John) ever had such a name, yet in the Old Testament there are more than twenty-five references to the name John:
Thus the name John (Yahya) is neither unique nor exceptional and the Qur'anic error is clearly apparent. It seems that the original source of this controversy is Abraham Geiger who wrote a book entitled Was hat Mohammed aus dem Judenthume aufgenommen?:
Geiger did not cite any Muslim commentators to support his claims, and, as will be demonstrated in the sections below, one has to wonder whether the claim that "this mistake must have been obvious to the Arabic commentators" is purely his own invention.
As those are unable to shed any further light on this issue, it is left to us to investigate and supply the essential missing information. Are the names Yahya and John one and the same? Does the ayah (verse) actually means what the translation says? This paper will examine the various issues surrounding the name Yahya:
According to the Christian Missionaries the name Yahya is the Arabic form of John:
The fact is that the Arabic equivalent of John of the New Testament is Yuhanna not Yahya. And similarly, the Arabic equivalent of John of the Hebrew Bible is Yuhanan not Yahya. Anyone who possesses a basic knowledge of Semitic languages will straight away point out that the names Yahya and John (Yuhanan or Yuhanna) are two entirely different names. One do not need to be an expert in Semitic languages to verify this claim; a simple Arabic translation of the Bible will suffice.
The name John of the Hebrew Bible as listed in Strong's Concordance is Yowchanan in Hebrew:
In Arabic Bibles this name is rendered as Yuhanan as shown in the texts below
I Kings 25:23
I Chronicles 3:15
I Chronicles 3:24
Let us now take examples from the New Testament. The name John (the Baptist) in Greek is Ioannes according to Strong's Concordance :
In Arabic Bibles the name John, as used in the Maccabees and the New Testament, is Yuhanna:
1 Maccabees 2:2
Needless to say, the Gospel according to John, is also Yuhanna:
Gospel according to Yuhanna (John)
Thus the Arabic equivalent of John (Yowchanan) of the Hebrew Bible is Yuhanan not Yahya, and the Arabic equivalent of John (Ioannes) of the New Testament is Yuhanna not Yahya. By blindly following every cheap anti-Islamic polemic, such as those of Abraham Geiger, some people have been lead astray.3. The Meaning Of The Name Yahya
The names "Yahya" and "John" (Yuhanan or Yuhanna) are entirely different names. The Qur'an speaks of Zechariah's son as Yahya not John. The Qur'an does not mention the name John whether Yuhanna or Yuhanan.
Biblical scholars stress that the names Yuhanna and Yuhanan are one and the same. In the Hebraic translation of the Gospels they do not make use of Yuhanna but they revert it to the original Yuhanan. They also give both names the same meaning. Both names contain "Yu", the short form of Jehovah, the Hebraic name of God. As for hanan or hanna, both derive from the Aramaic root hanan (the same as the Arabic root for hanna) which means "tenderness/indulgence of God" exactly like the Hebraic name Hanania.
Is the name Yahya Arabic or foreign? In Arabic, the present form Yahya is the third person of the Arabic root haya. The Arabic root haya (which could be written with a lean alif or an upright alif in both the present and past form) has two meanings:
However, there seems to be a difference of opinion among the Muslim scholars concerning the origin of this name. Al-Suyuti states in his Al-Itqan fi `Ulum al-Qur'an:
The name Yahya has also perplexed many orientalists. Paul Casanova is of the opinion that Yahya is an "error" which needs to be "corrected":
Mingana, following the footsteps of Margoliouth, believed that the pre-Islamic poetry is a post-Islamic forgery (a theory which has now been well-refuted by Muslim and non-Muslim scholars alike). Therefore, for Mingana, the Qur'an is the first book in Arabic whose "author" had:
Mingana resorted to heavy application of Syriac in order to understand the "origin" of word Yahya: He states:
He also makes a rather strange pronouncement that in the early and undotted Qur'anic manuscripts, the Arabic letters y-h-y of the name Yahya could be read as:
Arthur Jeffery believes that the above suggestion is worthy of endorsement but at the same time he informs us that:
A rhetorical question should be asked: If there is no trace of the name Yahya in the pre-Islamic Arabic literature, then why should the undotted text be read as Yahya (y-h-y)? Why can it not be read as something else, such as t-h-t?
C. C. Torrey, like Casanova and Jeffery, also believes that the Qur'anic Yahya is a misreading of Yuhanna, but all the Qira'at are unanimous in stating that the undotted y-h-y can only be read as Yahya and not as Yuhanna or Yuhanan.
Furthermore, these Orientalists whose opinions are cited above also believe Yahya to be of foreign (i.e., non-Arabic) origin, but their suggestions that the name Yahya is an "error" is stated without any proof what-so-ever! Although most Western scholars (unlike Geiger or some people) are aware that the names Yahya and John (Yuhanan or Yuhanna) are two entirely different names derived from two different roots, they can only conjecture at the origin of the name.4. The Mandaeans - "The Christians Of St. John"
Has John the Baptist ever been known as Yahya by any group of people?
The Mandaeans are a community that live in Iraq and Iran, and speak a dialect of Aramaic (or Mandaic as it is usually referred to in the literature). They claim to be the followers of John the Baptist and are sometimes (wrongly) referred to as "Christians of St. John" a title first used by Portuguese some people. They are colloquially known as Subba (singular Subbi). The appellation Subba is accepted as referring to their principal religious ritual - Baptism by immersion. The name used by themselves to described their religion and race is Mandai, or Mandaeans.
Before we go further, let us deal briefly with the identification of Sabians or Sabi'un. There has been a great deal of speculation about the identification of Sabi'un, a religious group, mentioned thrice in the Qur'an. The Qur'anic commentators had theorized about the possible identity of this group. We will only sum up the various viewpoints. Interested readers may consult this subject that has been dealt with at length by Jane Dammen McAuliffe.
Some of the Qur'anic commentators have credited Sabi'un with worshipping angels and some with monotheism; the Sabi'un praying towards the qibla, and they are different from Jews, Christians and Magians. They were usually identified with a group of people from Iraq.
The Western scholarship on the identification of Sabi'un of the Qur'an perhaps began with the encyclopaedic work of Daniel Chwolson. A brief summation of Chwolson's view was done by John Pederson. Chwolson postulated a two fold identification of Sabi'un. Mandaeans, who are monotheists, was one such group and the other was thought to be the pagan star-worshippers in Harran whom Muslim historians claimed to have adopted the name Sabi'un in order to be included in the category of People of the Book.
Pederson, however, took an exception to Chwolson's two-fold identification. He says that Sabi'un should be identified with the hanifs as
This identification by Pederson came about by equating hanif and gnostic. The result of this is that he harmonizes between the common designation of Mandaeans and Harranians as Sabi'un.
Pederson's harmonization is also supported by E. S. Drower; but she recognizes within the latter community a division between the the priestly class, known as Nasoraeans, and the ignorant or semi-ignorant laity who are called Mandaeans. Bayard Dodge's position is that there is insufficient evidence for this identification. He is quite comfortable with the correlation of Sabi'un and the Mandaeans, but beyond that he is not willing to go by admitting that
Mandaeans call their teacher John the Baptist Yahia Yuhana. In their canonical prayer book one can read:
A Mandaic Dictionary throws further light on the names "iahia" and "iuhana" as used in their holy books:
Note the absence of the emphatic "h" in Yahia Yuhana (the "h" sound in Yahia Yuhana is soft) unlike its Arabic and Aramaic counterparts. In the Aramaic dialect of Mandaeans, the emphatic "h" did exist at one time; but its vocalisation now has vanished.
The name Yahia in Yahia Yuhana has puzzled many Western scholars. According to them, Yahia is not an Aramaic name but rather an Arabic one but as we have already discussed, there is a difference of opinion among Arab linguists concerning the origin and meaning of the name Yahya. The Arabic word haya, has its counterpart in Aramaic and Hebrew, and are certainly cognates, identical in origin.[24,25] In Syriac, the verb hy, (that's the past tense) is "to live; recover; lighten (of pain)"; the present/future tense third person singular being nehhe. And in many other forms of Aramaic it is yehye or yahye; the latter is similar to the Arabic Yahya and with imalah (in Arabic) it is read Yahyei. We present the various Qiraa'aat of verse 19:7 as audio files in the Real Audio format.
Coming back to Aramaic, adjective hayya is "alive, raw (uncooked), pure (unmixed), flowing (water)", hayye is "life, salvation", hayutha "life", haywtha "animal", haytha "midwife" etc.
In order to resolve this puzzle (i.e. the presence of the name Yahia in Yahia Yuhana) Western scholars have suggested various explanations ranging from the name Yahia being inserted into the scriptures at a later date to Muslims forcing its use upon Mandaeans! None of these theories are supported by any historical evidence.
This is perhaps the right time to discuss the significance of name Yahia in Mandaic literature. Every Mandaean has two names, his malwasha, or Zodaical name, and his laqab or the worldly name. E. S. Drower explains the difference between the malwasha and laqab names.
So, in Yahia Yuhana, Yahia is a malwasha name or the real name and Yuhana is a laqab or a lay name as one can see from the entry in the Mandaic dictionary. What is interesting here is that the Qur'an uses only the real and spiritual name, i.e., Yahya; but what about Yuhanna?5. Wa hananan min ladunna.... : Attributes Of Yahya As Mentioned In The Qur'an 19:13
The Mandaean use of Yahia Yuhana for John the Baptist is quite interesting as we have seen in the earlier section. Here we will briefly digress and discuss some of the attributes of Yahya as mentioned in the Qur'an. The Qur'an mentions Yahya but what about Yowchanan/Yuhanna? We know that Yowchanan/Yuhanna means tenderness of God or Jehovah (the Hebraic name of God) is a gracious giver. It is composed of two words "Yu", short form of Jehovah in the Hebrew Bible and "hanna", derived from "hanan". Incidently God says in the Qur'an:
In other words, Yahya was a hananan from God; this is nothing but a paraphrase of what Yowchanan/Yuhanna actually means, i.e., Jehovah [or God] is a gracious giver! What is even more interesting is that the word "hananan" occurs only once in the Qur'an, i.e., in connexion with Yahya in the above verse (19:13). It is to be reminded that the root word "hanan" has a similar meaning in Aramaic, Hebrew and Arabic.
Attention should also drawn to the name Yuhanna. Etymologically speaking, "Yu" in Arabic does not mean God unlike in Hebrew; hence making the word "Yuhanna" quite meaningless. The Arabic word for the God is "Allah". It appears that Yuhanna was borrowed into Arabic either from Syriac or Hebrew for the sake of usage.
Let us now see what the tafsirs say concerning verse 19:13. Below is an excerpt from Tafsir of Ibn Kathir about verse 19:13.
Many Islamic references like Tafsir of al-Qurtubi and Al-Itqan by al-Suyuti and others narrated similar reports from Ibn `Abbas concerning "hanan".6. Exegesis Of Verse 19:7
Ibn Kathir said in his tafsir concerning this verse:
The translation of which is:
The key word here is samiyya and a detailed analysis of this word is given in the Appendix A. The word samiyya occurs only twice in the Qur'an: at verse 19:7 in connection with Yahya and in 19:65 in reference to Allah.
Using the method of using the Qur'an to explain the Qur'an, Ibn Kathir drives home the point that the birth of Yahya was unlike the birth of any other. This explanation is also supported by the hadith from Ibn `Abbas. Ibn `Abbas said that what is meant here is that there had never been a boy similar to Yahya in the sense of being born to an aged father and a barren mother. Although Isaac was born to parents who were also old, neither of them were infertile. It is for this reason that Isaac was unlike Yahya in his birth.
And al-Suyuti says the following in his tafsir:
The translation of which is:
From the above discussion, we see that scholars hold two opinions concerning the verse lam naj`al lahu min qablu samiyya:
Al-Tabari provides reports for both interpretations, but opines that the latter seems to be more correct. Al-Qurtubi mentions both opinions but did not express a preference. And Ibn Kathir, who cites al-Tabari's opinion (see above), also does not express any preference.7. Conclusions
Geiger and some people have pointed to a difficulty arising at verse 19:7 where the birth of the Yahya is announced. According to their understanding, the name Yahya is the Arabic equivalent of the name John. They also understand that the name Yahya is unique, and no human being prior to the birth of Yahya ever possessed such a name. However, in the Old Testament there are more than twenty-five references to the name John, and it is for this reason that the Qur'an is in error.
This study has shown conclusively that the names Yahya and John (Yuhanan or Yuhanna) are two entirely different names derived from two different roots. Geiger and those have failed to investigate the linguistic origins of the two names, and have wrongly concluded that the Qur'an is in error.
The verse at 19:7 which reads lam naj`al lahu min qablu samiyya may be interpreted in two ways:
Was Yahya also called Yowchanan [or Yuhanna]? It appears to be so, and God knows best. It is through the Mandaeans we get the dual name Yahia Yuhana. According to Mandaic literature Yahia is a malwasha name or the real name and Yuhana is a laqab or a lay name. The Qur'an uses only the real and spiritual name, i.e., Yahya; Yuhanna is expressed as a paraphrase in the verse 19:13 perhaps due to the fact that "Yu" in Arabic does not mean God, hence making the word "Yuhanna" etymologically meaningless. Presumably, "Yuhanna" was borrowed into Arabic through Hebrew or Syriac sources.
Interestingly, the Encyclopaedia Judaica under the entry 'John the Baptist' mentions only the Arabic name: Yahya ibn Zakariyya. There follows no discussion concerning the name, unlike the entries for Moses, Jesus etc.
The use of the name Yahia Yuhana among the Mandaeans is certainly interesting. It should also be noted that much of their surviving literature is relatively late. There do exist Mandaean incantation bowls that are dated from pre-Islamic period. Further research and discoveries would throw more light on the origins of Mandaic literature, insha'allah.
Once again some people have failed to show a "historical" contradiction in the Qur'an. Had they bothered to probe this controversy, even slightly, they would never have made such blunders. But as it stands, there is a preference among some people to blindly follow each and every cheap polemic, and had this "contradiction" not been so widely circulated, we would not have bothered with its response.
And as always Allah knows best!
One of the authors (MSMS) would like to thank Professor Robert Hoberman, Dr. Geoffery Khan and Mr. Shibli Zaman for stimulating discussions on comparative linguistics.
Professor Robert Hoberman and Dr. Geoffery Khan are not associated with Islamic Awareness.
The note made by al-Tabari in his tafsir regarding the pattern of samiyy being fa`il pushed us to look up its root in an Arabic lexicon. Below are some interesting excerpts from the famous Arabic lexicon Lisan al-`Arab. We do not quote it in its entirety, due to unnecessary length:
The translation of which is:
Further we read:
The translation of which is:
And going further we see:
From the above quotations, we learn that samiyy is derived from the root "sin+mim+waw" which refers to highness and elevation. Besides all the linguistic details, when we get to the root, we learn that the word samiyy has two meanings. It means "namesake" and it can also refers to a like or someone equivalent. Both these meanings are discussed in tafsir literature.
 A. Geiger, Judaism And Islam (English Translation Of Was hat Mohammed aus dem Judenthume aufgenommen?), 1970, Ktav Publishing House Inc.: New York, pp. 19.
 Jalaluddin `Abd ar-Rahman al-Suyuti, Al-Itqan fi `Ulum al-Qur'an, 1987, Dar al-Kutub al-`Ilmiyyah: Beirut, First Edition, Volume 2, Section 69: "The Names, Surnames and Titles that Occur in the Qur'an", pp. 304-305.
 P. Casanova, "Idris et Ouzaïr", Journal Asiatique, 1924, Volume CCV, p. 357. Since ours in not the official translation, we publish the original.
 D. Margoliouth, "The Origins Of Arabic Poetry", Journal Of The Royal Asiatic Society, 1925, pp. 417-449.
 A. Mingana, "Syriac Influences On The Style Of The Kur'an", Bulletin Of The John Rylands Library Manchester, 1927, Volume II, p. 78.
 D. Margoliouth, "Textual Variations Of The Koran", The Moslem World, 1925, Volume XV, p. 343.
 A. Mingana, "Syriac Influences On The Style Of The Kur'an", Bulletin Of The John Rylands Library Manchester, 1927, op. cit., p. 84.
 Arthur Jeffery, The Foreign Vocabulary Of The Qur'an, 1938, Oriental Institute: Baroda, p. 290.
 Ibid., p. 291.
 C. C. Torrey, The Jewish Foundation Of Islam, 1967, Ktav Publishing House, Inc.: New York, pp. 50-51.
 J. D. McAuliffe, "Exegetical Identification Of The Sabi'un", The Muslim World, 1982, Volume LXXII, pp. 95-106.
 D. A. Chwolson, Die Ssabier und der Ssabismus (In two volumes), 1856, St. Petersburg.
 J. Pedersen, "The Sabians" in T. W. Arnold & R. A Nicholson (editors), A Volume Of Oriental Studies Presented To Edward G. Browne On His 60th Birthday, 1922, Cambridge At The University Press, pp. 383-391.
 See also Vaux's article for some support to this hypothesis. B. Carra De Vaux, "Al-Sabi'a", Encyclopaedia Of Islam (Old Edition), 1934, E. J. Brill Publishers: Leyden & Luzac & Co.: London, p. 387.
 J. Pedersen, "The Sabians", in T. W. Arnold & R. A Nicholson (editors), A Volume Of Oriental Studies Presented To Edward G. Browne On His 60th Birthday, 1922, op. cit., p. 387.
 E. S. Drower, The Secret Adam: A Study Of Nasoraean Gnosis, 1960, Oxford At The Clarendon Press, p. ix.
 B. Dodge, "The Sabians Of Harran" in Fu'ad Sarruf & Suha Tamim (Eds.), American University Of Beirut Festival Books, 1967, p. 63.
 E. S. Drower, The Mandaeans Of Iraq And Iran, 1962, E. J. Brill: Leiden, pp. 2-3.
 E. S. Drower, The Canonical Prayer Book Of The Mandaeans, 1959, E. J. Brill: Leiden, p. 106. See also p. 152.
 E. S. Drower & R. Macuch, A Mandaic Dictionary, 1963, Oxford At The Clarendon Press, see p. 185 for 'iahia' and p. 190 for 'iuhana'.
 ibid., p. 171.
 C. Brockelmann, Lexicon Syriacum, 1928, Halix Saxonum, Sumptibus Max Niemeyer, pp. 228-229. See also p. 220.
 J. Payne Smith (ed.), A Compendious Syriac Dictionary, 1967, Oxford At The Clarendon Press, pp. 138-139.
 We are grateful to Professor Robert Hoberman for pointing this out.
 `Alawi Ibn Muhammad Ibn Ahmad Bilfaqih, Al-Qira'at al-`Ashr al-Mutawatir, 1994, Dar al-Muhajir, p. 305. In the Qiraa'aat, for example, of Hamzah, al-Kisa'i, Warsh and Khalaf, with imalah it is read Yahyei. In the Hafs Qiraa'aat, it is read as Yahya without imalah.
 E. M. Yamauchi, Gnostic Ethics And Mandaean Origins, 1970, Harvard University Press: Cambridge (MA), p. 5.
 E. S. Drower, The Mandaeans Of Iraq And Iran, 1962, op. cit., p. 81.
 Muhammad Fu'ad `Abd al-Baqi, Al-Mu`ahjam al-Mufahris li al-Fadh al-Qur'an al-Karim, 1997, Dar al-Fikr: Beirut (Lebanon), p. 279.
 We are grateful to Professor Hoberman and Dr. Geoffery Khan for a detailed discussion on the etymological issues surrounding the word "Yuhanna" in both Hebrew and Arabic.
 Tafsir Ibn Kathir, available online.
 This is a rather strange assertion by Ibn Kathir unsupported by any evidence.
 Tafsir Ibn Kathir, available online.
 Muhammad Fu'ad `Abd al-Baqi, Al-Mu`ahjam al-Mufahris li al-Fadh al-Qur'an al-Karim, 1997, op. cit., p. 451.
 Jalaluddin `Abd ar-Rahman al-Suyuti, Al-Durr al-Manthur, downloadable from al-Muhaddith website.
 Under "John the Baptist", Encyclopaedia Judaica (CD-ROM Edition), 1997, Judaica Multimedia (Israel) Limited.
 W. S. McCullough, Jewish And Mandaean Incantation Bowls In The Royal Ontario Museum, 1967, University Of Toronto Press. Five terracotta bowls are discussed in this book.
 Ibn Mandhur, Lisan al-`Arab, downloadable from al-Muhaddith website.
M S M Saifullah, Muhammad Ghoniem & Elias Karim
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