January 15, 2009
The meaning and evolution of the word ‘Mosque’
There has been in recent times much confusion regarding the origin of the English word mosque.
The word mosque is a translation of the Arabic word masjid (مَسجِد). The word masjid in Arabic comes from the verb sajada (سَجَدَ) which means ‘to prostrate’, and a masjid is the place in which people prostrate. It can loosely be translated more generally as ‘a place of worship’.
The conspiracy surrounding the English translation begins by asserting that the word ‘mosque’ carries with it an islamophobic history with its origins in the Spanish reconquista which saw the end of Islamic Spain.
I am not sure where it first came from, however a book entitled ‘The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Islam’ (the name says it all doesn’t it?) was the first time I encountered this. The book claims on page 14:
The English term mosque is derived from the Spanish word for mosquito and came into use during the Christian invasion of Muslim Spain in the fifteenth century. The forces of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella boasted they would swat out Muslim prayer houses like mosquitoes. Understandably, many Muslims prefer not to use this unfortunate name amongst themselves.
It may have been through this book which the rumour began, and it may be likely as the subsequent rumours all bear similar disinformation almost word for word.
To begin with, to say that the word ‘mosque’ comes from the Spanish word for mosquito is a bit of a no-brainer, considering that mosquito itself is a Spanish word. It is the diminuitive form of the word mosca which means ‘fly’ (like the insect, not the verb) and hence means ‘little fly’. From mosquito, the rumour then suggests that the word ‘mezquita’ evolved. Mezquita of course is the Spanish word for mosque. What could not possibly be explained from a linguistic perspective is how mosquito would become mezquita.
Arabic was spoken in the Iberian peninsula (Portugal and Spain) for approximately 800 years, and there is a rich amount of Arabic words that live on until today in the language. These Spanish words of Arabic origin were introduced during the reign of the Muslims which came to an end in 1942, the time in which it has been purported that the word mezquita was developed.
The problem however is that the word mezquita was being used long before the reconquista which ended in 1492. Mezquita was the word used for mosques in Spanish for the many hundreds of years that Muslims lived in Spain.
The Arabic word masjid may have entered into Europe by any number of means. It is likely though that the form of the word which later became mosque has its origins in either Spain or Italy (Southern Italy was also inabited and ruled over by Muslims for almost 200 years). The changing of the d to a t is indeed a characteristic of Italian adaptations of Arabic, like how Muhammad when translated into Italian becomes Maometto. As for the j in masjid, the Spanish language has no way to say the sound ‘j’, most Arabic words with a jeem (ج) became either:
ch – eg: enchufe < جوف/jawf
j – (pronounced as – kh/خ) eg: jarra < جرة/jarrah
This is important to pay attention to, because many others have claimed that the word ‘mezquita’ must have come from an Egyptian pronunciation of the word (masgid) which is incorrect, as the vast majority of Muslims who were in Europe were not from Egypt and did not speak any Egyptian based dialect, rather they were from the Maghreb and the patterns of Spanish-Arabic words all show that there was never any Egyptian Arabic influence in Spain or Italy. There are no known examples in Andalusi or Sicilian Arabic of the letter Jeem being pronounced as a ‘g’.
This shift would have occured otherwise, we can see by examples of other words.
The word Spanish word jabalí (pronounced ‘khabalee’ (IPA /xabaliː/)) comes from the Arabic word jabalī (جَبَلِي). The Jīm in Arabic (ج) becomes a J in Spanish, pronounced as ‘kh’ or like the khā’ (خ) in Arabic. This shows how to begin with the j in masjid could have been turned into ‘kh’ sound. From there the sound would easily have became a hard k sound (represented by q and c in Spanish), especially as Spanish does not easily accomodate a kh sound after an s. Many Arabic words which had a ‘kh’ became like ‘k’, an example of this is the word nukhā` (نخاع) which becomes nuca in Spanish.
After all of these letter changes, we are easily left with our new word ‘mesquit’ (note that the Arabic ‘a’ in this case corresponds closer to the Spanish ‘e’ than ‘a’ and hence the e would be understandably used here). Then as with all Spanish words it must be turned into a noun, which means either an o or an a will be added to the end of the word. In this case it was an a, and so we now have the word – mesquita. Why did the s later become a z then? In southern Spain until even today, there is no differing between an s and a z. All letter z’s are pronounced just like an s is. It just may be that as the Spanish language began to re-adopt the latin script that the northern areas of Spain adjusted the s sound to that of a th sound, just like with how sifr in Arabic later became pronounced as ‘sero’ in Andalusia but ‘thero’ in the more northern areas. Many other Arabic words also saw a shift whereby the S sound evolved later into a Th sound, so whilst it may seem rather strange as to why certain words retained the S sound and others evolved into a Th sound, the sheer quantity of words seen to have done this show it was rather common.
From our final term Mezquita there would have arisen many of the variations around Europe that exist until today. Mosqueé for example in French, Moschea in Italian etc. It was from the French term mosqueé that the English language adapted the word that we use today – Mosque.
So we may rest assured, a mosquito remains a mosquito and a mosque remains a mosque. Neither Ferdinand or Isabella were ever recorded to have ever stated that they would squash the mosques like mosquitoes, and even if they did, they would have used the word mezquita anyway which was the word already established in Spain for a masjid.
It is unfortunate that I have on many occasions read ‘warning’ chain e-mails informing Muslims to desist in using the English word ‘mosque’ due to its evil origins.. This should serve as a reminder to at least attempt to properly verify such things, and a lesson to not believe everything we read (especially from books which self-describe themselves as being for idiots). Feel free to use the words mosque, mosqueé, mezquita, and ponder over the history of this word and how it carries with it part of our Islamic legacy and is a testament to the great Muslim nation of al-Andalus which for 800 years existed in Western Europe.