A problem with metonymy

February 2, 2008 at 12:30 am (Arabic, Christianity, English, Hebrew, History, Islam, Judaism, Languages, Religion, Religions, Urdu/Hindi)

In the English language (and, in this specific regard, many other languages), “church” is a versatile word. It can refer to a particular building (or building style); it can refer to a particular congregation; it can refer to a particular denomination. So when someone says “the Catholic Church” (and here “says” is more important than “writes” because capitalization provides more clarity than the spoken word in this case), one can be referring to a particular building (St. Mary of the Angels Parish Church, perhaps), to a congregation (those that meet in St. John Cantius Parish Church), or to Roman Catholicism as a whole. The same applies to other denominations, almost all of which can be described as the “X Church” (the Lutheran Church; the Mormon Church; the Episcopalian or Anglican Church; the United Methodist Church; the Presbyterian Church; the Church of Christ, Scientist; the Orthodox Church; the Reformed Church; perhaps even the United Church of Christ). (Obviously this does not apply for everyone: exceptions I can think of are Jehovah’s Witnesses, Quakers, Pentacostals, Evangelicals, Christadelphians, Disciples of Christ. With Baptists, often “the Baptist church” refers to a specific building and/or congregation as there is no united Church of Baptists, each congregation being autonomous even in conventions or groups.)

But this is something only in Christianity. (Perhaps because the origin of this word and concept comes from the Greek “εκκλεσία” (“ekklesia”), which means “community” or “assembly”. Reflecting this, in Latin, “church” is “ecclesia”. And so from the beginning, the word used to describe the Christians’ places of worship, and their local gathering, has been connected to the idea of being a community.) One cannot speak of the Muslim Mosque (as a metonym of Islam or the community of Muslims) or of the Orthodox Synagogue or of the Krishna Mandir (Temple).

What intrigues me is that what we call “synagogue” is called “beit knesset” in Hebrew, meaning “house of the community/congregation/gathering”. One may say “ekklesia” is the Christian equivalent of the Jewish “beit knesset”. And yet, whereas one may use “ekklesia” as a metonym for Christianity or a group therein, “knesset” is not used as such. Indeed, the only meaning of “ha-knesset” (“the community/gathering/congregation”) is the Israeli parliament and government.

In an interesting twist, though, “church” in Arabic (which has all the nuance as the English word) is “kanīsah”, which is linguistically closer to the Hebrew “knesset” than to the Greek “ekklesia” (the Arabic root being “k-n-s” (“kāf-noon-sīn”), the Hebrew root being “k-n-s” (“kof-noon-sīn”) also). One of the words for “church” in Urdu is “kalīsīā”, which seems to be derived from Greek rather than from Arabic (which got it from Hebrew).

Let us take Islam for a moment. “Ummah” (definite: “al-ummah”) refers to the entire Muslim community. It cannot be used for a group. Or for a congregation. Or for a building. “Masjid” or “Mosque” refers to the building wherein one prays. It cannot be used for a group, a congregation, or as a metonym for Islam or Muslims. It’s a building, period. “Jama’ah” (or “Jamat”) refers to a congregation, usually one gathered to pray. In many cases it is not used to describe a community or group (the Hanafi Jama’ah or the Wahhabi Hanbali Jama’ah would be wrong). It may be used to describe certain groups that use it in their names (such as Jamat-e Islami or Tablighi Jamat). Some Nizari Ismailis use it to refer either to the local community or to all Nizari Ismailis. (Bohra Ismailis tend to use “jamat” the same way; they also use “da’wah” to refer to their whole movement.)

There is a technical term for the different “denominations” as it were (actually schools of jurisprudence): “madh-hab”. But this is a technical term and is limited in use. (Indeed, in Persian and Urdu, that same word, though pronounced “maz-hab”, means “religion” or “religious system” rather than its original use as referring to one of the four (or five, depending on whom one speaks with) schools of Islamic jurisprudence.)

This post was prompted by my recollection of a Latter-day Saint friend in college who would talk about his conversations with Muslims. In his descriptions of what he said, he unwittingly revealed that often said to Muslims “your church”. He refers, of course, to Islam or to movements or groups therein. But it made me cringe. Applying the word “church” to Islam or Muslims is very offensive to Muslims. It is a Christian word. And, for that matter, a Christian concept. There is no equivalent in Islam for the multi-faceted “church”.

Just something random I found interesting.


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