On the etymology of شيطان ‘Satan’ in Arabic

archangel-michael-defeating-the-devil-1

An illustration of Archangel Michael defeating the Devil from an 18th century Ethiopian psalter. Source.

The common assumption about the Arabic word for Satan شَيْطان ‹šayṭān› is that it ultimately comes from the Hebrew שָׂטָן ‹śāṭān›. Although the difference between Arabic ش ‹š› and Hebrew שׂ ‹ś› can be explained as a product of regular sound change, the Arabic form nevertheless presents a conundrum because the same ‹ā› vowel in the Hebrew form is realized as two separate forms: ‹ay› and ‹ā›. Unfortunately, there is no rule of regular vowel correspondence that would explain this discrepancy, so we must look to other factors.

It has been noted that there was a tradition of very early Arabic orthography to indicate the word-medial ‹ā› with a “tooth” ـىـ (essentially a dotless yā’ ـيـ). However, the theory goes, this tradition was eventually lost, and when dots were introduced into the Arabic script, the “tooth” was reinterpreted as the letter yā’. This would explain why in Arabic Abraham is pronounced, uniquely out of the all the Semitic languages, as ‹’ibrahīm›: the long a sound was misinterpreted as a long i sound by the presence of the reanalyzed “tooth.” However, scholars such as Donner (2008:37-38) have cast doubt on this theory.

Whatever its truth, it does not adequately explain the form ‹šayṭān› because it cannot account for why, although both long vowels occur word-medially, only one of them underwent re-analyzation. Kropp (2007) suggests that we should look to the southern branch of Semitic, specifically Ge‘ez, as the (at least partial) source of the Arabic form. The Gospels were first translated into Ge‘ez from Greek in the fourth century CE, and in these texts Satan was transcribed as ሠይጣን ‹šäyṭan› (and later ሰይጣን ‹säyṭan›). Kropp does not satisfactorily explain why the first vowel diphthongized to ‹ay›, but he cites one source that suggests it was a pejorative form. But the Ge‘ez phonological explanation is secondary to the Arabic etymology, and it is sufficient to say that this was the Ge‘ez form and that Arabs, being in close physical and cultural contact with the Semitic-speaking populations of East Africa, were aware of this.

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An Islamic depiction of the Devil by Mehmed ibn Emīr Hasan al-Su’ūdī, 1582. Source.

At the same time, Arabic had an unrelated, native word شطن ‹šaṭan› (from root ‹šṭn›), which meant ‘rope.’ By metaphorical extension, it also had a secondary meanings of ‘snake’ in the form of ‹šayṭān›. It should be noted that the root pattern for this word — C1ayC2āC3 — is a regular one in Arabic; e.g., compare بيداء ‹baydā› ‘desert’ to بدء ‹bad’› ‘beginning.’ ‹šayṭān› was a not uncommon word and was even attested as a tribal name.

With the advent of Islam, the concept of Satan, the prime adversary of God, was for the first time widely introduced into the Arabic language. Based on the influence of Ge‘ez where ሠይጣን ‹šäyṭan› as Satan already existed and because of its Arabic meaning as ‘snake,’ Kropp argues that شيطان ‹šayṭān› was a convenient candidate for the name of this entity, and the original meaning eventually gave way to the new one.

There is further evidence that Ge‘ez was essential to the formation of this word in the Qur’ānic phrase الشيطان الرجيم ‹l-šayṭān l-rajīm› ‘stoned Satan’ — i.e. ‘stoned’ in the sense of ‘pelted with stones’. The root of ‹rajīm› — ‹rjm› — is common throughout the Semitic languages, and it exhibits some semantic diversity. The sense of ‘stone (verb)’ is present in Arabic, Hebrew, and Aramaic, for example, but in Akkadian it meant ‘call, sue in court’ and in Ge‘ez ‘curse.’ Indeed the Ge‘ez Bible refers to the snake in the Garden of Eden as ርግምት ‹rǝgǝmt› ‘cursed,’ and there is a reconstructed phrase ሠይጣነ ረጊሞ ‹šäyṭanä rägimo› ‘by cursing Satan.’ Thus the cultural exchange between the Arabian Peninsula and East Africa may have facilitated the calquing of the phrase ‹l-šayṭān l-rajīm› from Ge‘ez into Arabic.


Sources:

Donner, F. (2008). The Qur’ān in recent scholarship: Challenges and desiderata. In G. Reynolds (Ed.), The Qur’ān in Its Historical Context.

Kropp, M. (2007). The Ethiopic Satan = Šayṭān and Its Qur’ānic Successor with a Note on Verbal Stoning. In C. Chartouni (Ed.), Christianisme oriental: Kérygme et histoire : Mélanges offerts au père Michel Hayek.

Lipiński, E. (1997). Semitic Languages: Outline of a Comparative Grammar.

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