Pope Benedict on “haj” in Jordan
Sitting through a media briefing in Amman on Pope Benedict’s visit to Jordan starting on Friday, I whiled away the news-free parts trying to decipher the Arabic writing on the official logo (photo at right). I never fully mastered the Arabic alphabet or the Urdu language (which uses it) during my time in Pakistan over 20 years ago. But some hard-won bits of linguistic trivia remain stuck in the brain and come in handy at the most unexpected moments.
With some effort on my part, that arc of Arabic calligraphy up top revealed itself as saying al-haj al-babawi. The haj of baba … hmmm… Arabic has no “p,” so that could be the haj of papa. The Italians call him papa, so it must be talking about the pope and saying the pope’s haj. Huh? The pope’s haj?
Of course, the word haj simply means “pilgrimage” in Arabic. Western languages have taken it over as the specific term for the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca. But the pope has a snowball’s chance in you-know-where to get there. Haj means pilgrimage, no more and no less, and it describes the pope’s visit just the same way as he does in the words of the many western languages he speaks.
This momentary hesitation over the meaning of haj reminded me of the dispute in Malaysia over whether Christians can use the word Allah for God when they pray in the Malay language. Bill Tarrant brought this story up to date on this blog today. Muslims say they pray to the same God as Christians and Jews, and Allah is only their word for the deity. But Malaysia’s Muslim establishment seems to have been westernised to the point that it confuses the root meaning of Arabic words it uses.
Just to check, I asked a Jordanian Roman Catholic how he recites the opening phrase of the Nicene Creed, the prayer in which Christians proclaim they “believe in one God.” Can’t claim I understood the first part of the phrase, but the end of it was crystal clear. The word he used for God was Allah.