The Star of Al-Qaeda

i-4c04f10a3d3e94703ee3cc8a126ccbfb-alkaid_UM.jpgHere’s something I’ve been wondering about. Anybody know Arabic historical linguistics?

Al-qaeda is Arabic for “the base, basis, foundation, military base”. Alkaid is the Arabic name for Eta Ursae Majoris, a star in the Big Dipper. It’s short for al-qaid al-banat an-nac, meaning “the leader of the daughters of the bier”, because the three stars of the Dipper’s handle were seen as mourning maidens, wailing at the bier of their father who had been murdered by Polaris.

So qaida is foundation and qaid is leader. Are these words true cognates? Does Al-Qaeda have its own star in the sky? The terrorist organisation has sure set a fair number of maidens a-mourning through its murders.

Update same evening: Dear Reader Bo explains that the two words do indeed share a root meaning “to sit down; to remain, stay”. Qaid can be translated as “companion; one with whom one sits together; keeper, guardian, supervisor”.

Update 8 October: Says Dear Reader Dilworth (who should know, being a professor of Arabic), “The star in the big bear constellation is called al-qaa’id in Arabic (I checked this on several Arabic astronomy sites) with a hamza in the middle (not an Ayn) which means that it is the active participle of the verb ‘to lead’, with the root qaaf waaw daal. Al-Qaeda is spelled with an Ayn in the middle (root qaaf, Ayn, daal) and it has the basic meaning mentioned: to sit. The two words are not only not cognate, they are not at all related.”

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Comments

  1. #1 Name Hidden
    October 7, 2007

    The name `Al-Qaeda` was first coined by the US government to distinguish a small Saudi Arabian group, lead by Osama bin laden.
    Most of that group infamously died in an attack on September 11th. It is now generally applied, rightly or wrongly, to any terrorist group, or those that opposes US influence, in the middle east.

  2. #2 Puam
    October 7, 2007

    Actually no. The name was chosen by the gang themselves when they were in their base in Afghanistan in the eighties. Generally being kicked around, I must say. And they needed a name, and probably couldn’t figure out a better name than “the basis” for their gang.

    Read “Looming tower” by L Wright for an extremely well written history (although sometimes a bit off) of this terrorist group.

  3. #3 Bo
    October 7, 2007

    The words have a common root, qaʿada, قعد — “to sit down; to remain, stay”.

    The word qaʿid, قعيد can be translated as “companion; one with whom one sits together; keeper, guardian, supervisor”. You have already listed the translations of qaʿida, قاعدة.

    I think this makes the connection between the words clearer.

    Source: Hans Wehr, A dictionary of modern written Arabic.

  4. #4 Bo
    October 7, 2007

    Well, the clarity would have been greater if the actual post had shown the Arabic words and other glyphs as well as the preview did.

  5. #5 Martin R
    October 7, 2007

    Thank you, that’s exactly what I wanted to know!

    Sorry about the poor character support. Moveable Type is kind of kludgy.

  6. #6 Bo
    October 7, 2007

    Eeeh, hrm.
     
    I was a wee bit to quick and didn’t check how the stars name is really written in Arabic. So now when I have done what I should have done first of all, I have to confess that I was wrong — the stars name has a completely different root.
     
    Sorry.

  7. #7 Dilworth Parkinson
    October 7, 2007

    Sorry to be contradictory, but Reader Bo is incorrect. The star in the big bear constellation is called al-qaa’id in Arabic (I checked this on several Arabic astronomy sites) with a hamza in the middle (not an Ayn) which means that it is the active participle of the verb ‘to lead’, with the root qaaf waaw daal. Al-Qaeda is spelled with an Ayn in the middle (root qaaf, Ayn, daal) and it has the basic meaning mentioned: to sit. The two words are not only not cognate, they are not at all related.
    Dilworth Parkinson
    Professor of Arabic
    Brigham Young University

  8. #8 Svon
    October 8, 2007

    I have an idea about the word. As an earlier postgraduate student of the arabic language in the university of Gothenburg I might know(?) a little too.

    So, my guess is that it can as well be the americans who gave the name to the organisation. Kaid is arabic when I spell it likes this it means “leader, master”. “Sitters” wouldnt be an adequate name for that kind of organisation as Al-Qaida is. During that organisations earlier time they were aquinted closely to the americans, so thats some of the reason I believe in the story of americans giving the name. It seems to be a missunderstandig, or something typical of the americans in their relation to unknown languages…

  9. #9 Svon
    October 8, 2007

    If it means “the sitter” it must be of that reason that Ursus (the Bear) turns its back to the left and it is the tip of the tail that is the last star. :-)

  10. #10 Mary
    October 8, 2007

    I read this book from Spain, “Al-Queda Conexion” I think it called, that says the “base” is the Dbase of 10,000 names/id/adress/skill/capitol/etc. of membership. I go look it up…

  11. #11 Mary E.
    October 8, 2007

    Villamari’n Pulido, Luis A., 2005, Conexio’n Al-Qaeda: Del islamismo radical al terrorismo nuclear, Ediciones Nowtilus, Madrid.

    p. 76: “Al Qaeda significa < >, para hacer referencia a la base de datos, en poder de Osama Bin Laden, la cual condensa la informatio’n personal de ma’s de 100.000 terroristas isla’micos entrenados en los campamentos de Afganista’n, Suda’n, Yemen, Somalia y Etiopia.”

    Al Qaeda signifies “base”, to refer to the database in the hands of Osama benLaden, which cendenses the personal information of more than 100,000 islamic terrorists trained in the camps in A, S, Y, S & E.

    Very interesting book. I read some of his other books, he is “experto analista y veterano de la lucha antiterrorista en Columbia”. You want to/can read it, I put it in the mail.

  12. #12 Mary
    October 8, 2007

    Does anybody know if it the same word as cadi, judge?

  13. #13 Martin R
    October 8, 2007

    Thanks Dilworth, thanks Mary, my Spanish is unfortunately almost nonexistent.

  14. #14 Blob
    October 8, 2007

    @Mary
    From what we know now, it can be shown that there was no connection between Al-Qaeda and any of those countries, Afganista’n, Suda’n, Yemen, Somalia y Etiopia.
    And 100,000? Complete fiction. That number, however, corresponds to the total number of mudjahadin fighters (CIA backed) in the Afghan jihad (1979) against the Russians.
    Bin Laden at most lead less than 50 in his private army; and what ever he called it originally, it wasn’t Al-Qaeda.

    As side note, in ancient Egypt, the Hippopotamus goddess, Taweret, equates to Ursa major/Draco. On her back is a crocodile.
    Illustrations show her holding onto a ” heavenly mooring post” (ie the pole star) which would have been, at the time, Alpha Draconis.
    Qaid is probably not an ancient name, contemporary with the polestar being Polaris.

  15. #15 blf
    October 9, 2007

    Bo, the Arabic characters show up (Ok, I presume, they look plausible but I don’t read Arabic) if you set your browser to decode this page as UTF-8. The page itself claims to be ISO-8859-1 (Latin1), but that is nonsense. The Preview claims to be UTF-8, which is why the characters show up correctly there.

    How you do that depends on the browser you are using. For instance, in FireFox (for 1.5 on Linux and probably other versions), select View → Character Encoding → Unicode (UTF-8). You’ll also need suitable fonts installed, but if it worked in Preview, then I assume that is not a problem for you.

    (People having been complaining to/on SciBlogs about the rubbish handling of charsets/encodings, especially UTF-8, for quite some time now. The false claim of using Latin1, and the mismatch between the article and Preview pages are both very very annoying!)