President George W Bush  never displayed much sensitivity for the nuances of language.  Even its basic rules elude him.  Consider a few of his famous blunders whilst speaking on public occasions, and try to imagine the qualities of his less-considered private discourse:

“More and more of our imports come from overseas”,

“What I’m against is quotas. I’m against hard quotas, quotas that basically delineate based upon whatever. However they delineate, quotas, I think, vulcanize society.”

“If you’re sick and tired of the politics of cynicism and polls and principles, come and join this campaign.”

“You teach a child to read and he or her will be able to pass a literacy test.”

He tended to speak in semantic near-misses, and his grammar lurches from one rough approximation to the next.

During the incumbency of this linguistic torment, the world changed permanently and catastrophically.  In the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attack on the USA, President Bush said that America and the rest of the free world would embark on a “crusade against terrorism”.  He soon changed his choice of words.  It became a “war on terrorism”.  Bush may not be a master of the language, but his spin-meisters quickly saw that crusade had connotations which might give offence beyond the intended range.

Crusade is historically associated with the series of assaults by Christian forces against Muslim control of Jerusalem and the Christian shrine of the Holy Sepulchre.  There were 8 main crusades,  between 1095 and 1270.  The disastrous 4th crusade culminated in the sacking of Constantinople in 1204, during which the great library there was looted and destroyed.  The only extant copies of many classical texts were lost to mankind.  It was an event of cultural destruction almost unparalleled in history.

Etymologically, Bush’s advisors were wise to drop references to a crusade.  The word came to English via French and derives ultimately from crux, the Latin for cross.  It was variously spelt croisad, croissard, croisada, crusada, etc.  Specifically it meant a military expedition by the Christians to recover the Holy Land from the Muslims; and, by transference, any military expedition blessed by the church.  In short: a holy war.

The equivalent expression in Arabic is jihad.   The Western world has reacted with understandable alarm when  Osama bin Laden declared a jihad on various nations, including Australia which managed to lift itself from safe obscurity to swaggering prominence in a single idiotic gesture.  But it was President Bush who first invoked the language of holy wars.

Our headlong rush into conflict has brought into common currency a number of words previously misused or unfamiliar: mufti, fatwa, sheikh, shah, and mullah among others.

A mufti is a canonical lawyer in Islam: he gives decisions on questions of faith.  The word is derived from the active participle of afta, which is the 4th conjugation of fata: to give a decision.  A decision so given is a fatwa. A fatwa may be benign or dangerous according to the subject matter.  Most English speakers first heard of a fatwa in connection with Salman Rushdie: it had been decided that, because he had written The Satanic Verses, he should be killed wherever he could be found.  Even those who are immune to the charms of Rushdie’s writings thought this was an unreasonable restriction on free speech.  This very harsh and public fatwa gave fatwas in general a bad name in the West.

Mufti is commonly used in the West as referring to civilian clothes worn by one accustomed to wear a uniform.  It is thought to derive from the passing similarity between the regalia of a mufti and the English affectation of dressing gown, smoking cap and slippers.

The mullah has various meanings in various parts of the Muslim world.  In North Africa, a mullah is a king, sultan or other leader.  Further east, and in the Indian sub-continent, a mullah is similar to a mufti.  He is a man learned in theology and sacred law.  The Qur’an uses mullah in reference to Allah.  Thus, it is a word which maps almost perfectly onto the English Lord, signifying a position of leadership territorial, legal or spiritual.

Allah comes from al ilah: where al is the Arabic definite article, and ilah is the Aramaic for God.  The holy book of Islam is the Qur’an.  Qur’an means “recitation”: it is a recitation of the various teachings of God as received by the prophet Mohammed over the course of 20 years up to his death in 767 AD.  It is composed of 114 surahs (chapters), arranged according to length, with the longer surahs first.  Since the earlier teachings were rather shorter, the book is arranged, roughly, in reverse chronological order.  Incidentally, Islam recognises Moses and Jesus as prophets, and the God of the Qur’an is the same God worshipped by Jews and Christians: the crusades were more an argument about the messenger than about the message.

An essential feature of the teachings in the Qur’an is the importance of unquestioning submission to the teachings of the prophet.  Islam means resignation or submission.  It  is the 4th conjugation of salama: “he was or became safe, secure, or free”; hence salaam as a greeting of peace, which is coupled with a gesture of submission.  Self-evidently, salaam is cognate with the Hebrew greeting shalom (peace).

Many muslim words incorporate the name of Allah:

Allahu’akhbar  “God is great”

Bismillah (bi’sim illah) “in the name of God”

Hezbollah (hezb = party) “party of God”: an extreme Shiite Muslim sect.

Inshallah “if Allah wills it”; God willing

Mashallah “what God wills must come to pass”

Like mullahsheikh has meanings which vary with geography.  Its original meaning was “an old man”: specifically a man of 50 years or greater.  (In times past, age and wisdom were seen as functionally related.  This philosophy was temporarily displaced when the baby boomers graduated from university, and was rediscovered when they began to collect their superannuation.  The process continues, with resistance from Generation X).  A sheikh is the chief of an Arab family or tribe; the leader of an Arabian village.  It is also applied to heads of religious orders, heads of learned colleges, heads of towns or villages, to learned men generally.   It is also accorded to those who have memorized the entire Qur’an at whatever age (a fair achievement, since it is about 300 pages long).

Although closely related in sound and meaning, the shah is etymologically unrelated to the sheikh.  Shah is Persian for King.  It has left one important trace in English.  In that most civilized form of warfare, chess, the game ends when one player places the opponent’s king in a position from which it cannot escape.  The King is not formally taken, but it is unable to move to a position where it could avoid being taken.  The victor announces “checkmate”.  That triumphant declaration is the anglicised shah mat: the King dies.

The crusade I began with was once a croissard, which is reminiscent of croissant.  They are not etymologically related, but there is a connection between them.  While croissade-crusade came from Latin crux (French croix),  croissant is French for crescent.  In 1683, Vienna was struggling to survive a seige by the Ottoman Turks.  A Pole named Kolscitzky, who was learned in Turkish, came to their rescue.  He escaped through enemy lines to reach the Duke of Lorraine, who hurried to relieve the city.  The Turks were repelled and Vienna was saved.  Kolscitzky became very popular and famous.  He persuaded a baker to produce a sweet bread roll in celebration of Vienna’s victory over the Turks.  It was shaped like the crescent on the Turkish flag.

We call them croissants because at some point the French took ownership of this Polish-Austrian idea.  The crescent they imitate refers originally to the new moon as it grows towards the first quarter: the word comes from the Latin crescere to grow (from which we also get crescendo, and increase).  As a new moon grows it is a waxing crescent moon (a tautology); after the first quarter it is waxing gibbous (from the Latin for hump) and then full.  As the full moon declines, it is waning gibbous, then after the last quarter it is waning crescent (a contradiction in terms).

Incidentally, during his perilous journey, Kolscitzky had learned how to make coffee.  After the seige ended, he came by  a sack of coffee beans abandoned by the retreating Turks.  He was the only person in Vienna who knew what coffee beans were for.  He opened a café which quickly became famous for the drink and popular for its croissants.  He served the coffee with milk and honey, a precursor of the style now known as Vienna coffee.  Although the French stole the croissant, they had the good sense to leave Vienna coffee to the Viennese.

Julian Burnside