Arabic Origins of Place names – Real & Alleged

I had previously written about a tendency of some Muslims to reproduce history and geography in their own cultural baggage. One manifestation of this is the reconstructed etymology of place names without any historical evidence. I thought it would be interesting to compile some of these names and discuss the claim of these Muslims. May Allāh guide us all to speak the truth in all matters and may we learn to verify facts before disseminating. Sadly, while most disseminate without verification, the original claimant is even worse for his lie.

Betelgeuse – the star’s name is from the Arabic for Orion’s Hand, Yadul Jawzāʾ which Medieval Europeans misread. They dropped a dot from the yāʾ and read it as Badul Jawzāʾ.
California – is in fact derived from the Arabic Khalīfah (successor, vicegerent)! The word was morphed into Calafia, a queen in a Spanish novel, and from there the name California was derived.
Hawaii – means homeland in Polynesian. The coincidental similarity with the Arabic hawāʾ has given rise to the unsubstantiated claim of it being Arabic for wind.
Iberia – has numerous names derived from the era of Muslim rule, such as Gibraltar and Trafalgar. I suppose it would be too much to ask of soccer worshippers to reflect for a few seconds on what the name changes hide in terms of Muslim forced conversions, torture and martyrdom and Masājid now used to worship Jesus as son of God. Whilst most of these names are simply Spanish or Portuguese pronunciations of the Arabic, Madrid is slightly more obtuse. You may be familiar with tajrī in the Qurʾān, referring to the rivers flowing in Paradise. The noun-place form of that verb is Majrā. The Spanish suffix for place was added to become Majret. This changed pronunciation to Madrid.
Madagascar – I am disappointed that a Muslim scholar would claim that this is actually Madīnah ʾAṣghar. Rudimentary knowledge of Arabic should have guided him to know that Madīnah is feminine, thus had there been any basis for his claim, it would have been Madīnah Ṣughrā. The name is actually derived from Marco Polo’s confusion of Mogadishu.
Manila – is shortened from ʾAmānullāh (safety of Allāh).
Portugal – from Burtuqāl (orange)

Rigel – the star’s name is from the Arabic for leg, rijl.
Siberia – An “Islāmic” TV pop star claims that it is derived from Ṣabr (patience). Although etymologists can give no conclusive origin for the name, none of the suggestions (e.g. Turkic sū birr = water land, Tartar sib irr = sleeping land, etc.) include an Arabic origin. Arabic can specifically be excluded, since old Arab records mention Ibis Shibir. Had the origin been Ṣabr, why change ص ṣād into ش shīn?

The above brief list is should point to both our forgotten history and the unfortunate tendency of some Muslims to be dishonest in concocting fictitious glory.
سليمان الكندي
Twitter: @sulayman_Kindi


3 responses

  1. […] of Mufti Musajee of Radio Islam  interviewing me on my article on Arabic origins of place names et […]

  2. How about Honolulu? According to my dad (who I recognise isn’t an Islamic source) it’s from هنا لؤلؤ which makes sense to an extent because Pearl Harbour… but is there any truth there?

    1. As far as I can determine it is of Polynesian origin meaning calm waters.

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