Home Culture Etymology: The Discovery of Ram Allah

Etymology: The Discovery of Ram Allah

The epic ‘Ramayana’ names both the hero and the anti-hero according to their functions

by Khaled Ahmed

News coverage of the Muslim world in the English press gives rise to many orthographic mistakes. One such recent example is that of the Palestinian town of Ram Allah, written as ‘Ramallah,’ and pronounced ‘Ramalah.’ Its Urdu spelling is also similar to the English sound. The ‘real’ spelling became clear when Palestinians addressed media from the region, with ‘Ram Allah’ written on the rostrum. This appeared strange, because it looked to juxtapose the Hindu deity Ram with Allah. An Arabic expert subsequently offered clarity, noting ‘ram’ in Arabic means intent, therefore ‘Ram Allah’ signifies a town of the faithful: intent of Allah. The Urdu press, as a result, now writes the correct version.

This sort of error isn’t uncommon. Another example is that of Khan Yunus, also of Palestine. Clarity comes from recognizing that ‘khan’ is actually ‘khwan,’ an early seminary of the learned in Arab-Islamic history, that was eventually adopted by Christian crusaders in Europe as ‘hospice.’ In Persian, which likely took it from Arabic, ‘khan’ means ‘inn,’ which is what Khan (of) Yunus should additionally mean. According to a Pakistani writing from the Gulf, many Arabic words surprise Pakistanis due to this language clash. For instance, ‘bandar’ in Arabic means ‘handsome,’ and one prince in the ruling Saudi clan is actually named Bandar; in Urdu, it means monkey. Additionally, bandar in Arabic means port, and in coastal Sindh, there is a locality named Keti Bandar, which does not count monkeys among its populace.

But going back to ‘ram,’ it has other meanings as well, including in Persian, which has lent at least one of them to Urdu. ‘Ram karna’ is to make someone obedient or agreeable, a straight borrowing from the Persian ‘ram kardan.’ Similarly, the Persian aram, meaning repose, has also been adopted into Urdu and even Hindi, with speakers not realizing its Persian origins. One reason for this might be that in Sanskrit ‘ram’ actually means repose. In the epic Ramayana, the hero and the anti-hero are both named according to their functions; Ram the hero, the one who brings repose or comfort, while Ravan, the anti-hero, is the one who makes people cry.

Ravan has been adopted into Urdu as rona (to cry). But while the ‘v’ has disappeared in Urdu, it remains in Russia, rvat, meaning to tear up. In English, ‘rave’—though etymologically vague—could be connected. There is no perceived connection between rona with the Punjabi rola (noise) at the base of the Urdu rolana (make someone cry), but ro(v)na is actually derived from making noise. The word cry says it all by meaning both to make noise and weep. In Persian girya (from infinitive ‘greestan’) is a changed form of English ‘cry,’ while the Hindi (kirtan), French (cri) and Russian (krichat) words for it are the same but not used interchangeably for ‘weeping.’

Although not common in Pakistan, Ramish (repose) is a personal name derived from Persian ram. Some people stay away from it because it reminds them of ancient Egyptian king Rameses. The name given to Egyptian kings (pharaoh) in Urdu has the general meaning of cruel and wicked. But the only thing Egyptian in this name is probably Ra, the chief god. Rameses thus means the son of Ra. The mes part is supposed to mean son in ancient Egyptian which Freud thought was the name given to prophet Moses (‘Moshe’ in Hebrew) because he was the adoptive son of the ruling Pharaoh. But Arab etymologists derive Musa or Moshe from the Hebrew verb moshekh (to draw out) because Moses was ‘drawn out of water’ when he as a baby floated down the river in a basket.

Related Articles

Leave a Comment