Yaqut's entry on "Faran"

In section 6.4 of his polemic, Misha'al Al-Kadhi argues that Paran is Faran is Mecca, and gives as "evidence" a reference to an old geographical dictionary. Even though Al-Kadhi has probably never read it himself (see our discussion of his errors of citation) and the way he uses the reference is too cryptic to qualify as evidence, it turned out that the dictionary entry is interesting in its own right and this article is devoted to a discussion of it.

The work in question is "Jacut's Geographisches Worterbuch aus den Handschriften zu Berlin, St. Petersburg, Paris, London und Oxford, auf Kosten der Deutschen Morgenlandischen Gesellschaft hrsg. von Ferdinand Wustenfeld.", Leipzig, 1866.

Yaqut was an Arab geographer who died in A.D. 1229 and wrote a geographical dictionary that is still well regarded in the Arab world today and to which historians often resort as a source with a wealth of information.

The entry on Faran is in volume III, page 834.

scanned dictionary entry

Translation of the above, [..] indicate alternative translations or clarifying comments:

Faaraan: After the alif there is a raa' and it ends in a nun. An Arabicized Hebrew word. It is one of the names for Mekkah mentioned in the Torah. It has been said that it is a name for the mountains of Mekkah. Ibn Makulan Abu Bakr Nasr Ibn al-Qaasim Ibn Qudaa`ah al-Qudaa`i al-Faaraani al-Iskandari said "I have heard it is a reference to the mountains of Faaraan, that is to say, the mountains of the Hijaaz. In the Torah God came from Sinaa' [Sinai] and dawned from Saa`iir [Seir] and became known [or brought to light, revealed] from Faaraan"; they are the mountains of Filastiin [Palestine], and it is His sending down of the Injiil upon Isa, peace be upon him, and His revealing from Mount Faaraan the fact of His sending down the Qur'an upon Muhammad, peace be upon him [literally, Sallah Allahu `alayhi wa sallam]. It is said Faaraan is the mountain of Mekkah; Faaraan is also a village in the region of Sughd, one of the provinces of Samarqand, to whom Abu Mansuur Muhammad Ibn Bakr Ibn Isma`iil al-Samarqandi al-Faaraani traces his origins. This was transmitted from Muhammad Ibn al-Fadl al-Larmaani and Nasr Ibn Ahmad al-Kindi the Qur'anic scholar [refering specifically to one who has memorized the Qur'an], from whom Abu al-Hasan Muhammad Ibn Abd Allah Ibn Muhammad al-Kaaghidhi al-Samarqandi transmitted. Abu Abd Allah al-Qudaa`i said, "Faaraan and al-Tur [literally, the mountain] are two districts in southern Egypt."

Before we start our discussion of the above paragraph it might be helpful to look at the passage in Deuteronomy 33 referred to in the above:

1  This is the blessing that Moses the man of God 
   pronounced on the Israelites before his death.
2  He said: 
  "The LORD came from Sinai and dawned over them from Seir; 
   he shone forth from Mount Paran. 
   He came with ten thousand saints;  
   from His right hand (came) a fiery law.
3  Surely it is you who love the people; 
   all the holy ones are in your hand. 
   At your feet they all bow down, 
   and from you receive instruction, 
4  the law that Moses gave us, 
   the possession of the assembly of Jacob. 
5  He was king over Jeshurun 
   when the leaders of the people assembled,
   along with the tribes of Israel.

Discussion of the dictionary entry:

As a first clue, Yaqut acknowledges that Faran it is not an indigenous Arabic word and as such it is unlikely to be the name of a mountain in Mecca. Why would the Arab tribes in Mecca name their mountains with foreign words? It is therefore not surprising that Yaqut does not bring any evidence that the Meccans ever gave their mountains the name Faran. It is in principle possible that the Israelites could have given their own names to some mountains far away, but there is no evidence for it at all. Let us have a closer look at both the dictionary entry and the Hebrew text.

Yaqut is remarkably hesitant and unspecific. He cannot really decide what Faran refers to. He gives several suggestions in this order:

  1. "It is one of the names for Mekkah", i.e. the name for the city.
  2. "it is a name for the mountains of Mekkah", i.e. referring to the mountains (plural) surrounding (the valley of) Mecca.
  3. "the mountains of Faaraan, that is to say, the mountains of the Hijaaz", i.e. (all) the mountains (again plural) in a quite large area of the Arabian Peninsula.
  4. About "Sinaa', Saa`iir and Faaraan" he says, "they are the mountains of Filastiin [Palestine]" which is more than 1000 km away from Mecca.
  5. "Faaraan is the mountain of Mekkah" (singular, definite article, but which one?).
  6. "Faaraan is also a village in the region of Sughd".
  7. "Faaraan and al-Tur are two districts in southern Egypt."

The expression Hebrew har-Paran (Mount Paran) might refer to either a specific peak or a mountain range, or even to a hill country area. One does not need to imagine large mountains. As such singular or plural are both possible for the original meaning. But, the fact that Yaqut switches back and forth between singular and plural shows he does not really know what it refers to and is just collecting various guesses.

However, it is called mountain and not city, and the city of Mecca is located in a valley, not on a mountain. The last two options (village and district) are inappropriate for the same reason.

The main issue is where is it located? The text of chapter 33 of Deuteronomy is in poetic language and the characteristic of Hebrew poetry is to express the same thought in different words. This means that the three expressions "came from Sinai" and "dawned over them from Seir" and "shone forth from Mount Paran" are really intended to say the same thing. This indicates that those three names refer to places located near to each other in the same general area. But Sinai and Seir are nowhere near Mecca. This is the first reason that this is not a viable placement for Mount Paran.

Yaqut presents only one single reason for the identification of Faaran with Mecca. Or rather, he makes the assertion that the Torah is referring to mountain(s) of Mekka without backing it up with anything more than the formula "It has been said". Given his admission that there are several other places with the same name, why could these all not with equal right claim to be the Paran referred to in Deuteronomy?

In the end, the basis for his identification is the passage from Deuteronomy together with the a priori assumption (unsubstantiated) that this refers to Mecca. Likely, the real driving force behind it is that the Qur'an states that the coming of Muhammad is foretold in the Torah. Therefore Muslims have to find this reference somewhere.

Even though Yaqut's quote from Deuteronomy 33:2 is close to the original, notice his interpretive rendering of "shone forth" by "revealed" to suit his purpose, as well as the interpretation that "God came" means to him the same as "a revelation was given". But the Hebrew text speaks about the coming of God himself to meet his people. The establishment of the covenant between God and Israel and the giving of Torah are a substantial result of this encounter, but it is clearly more than only "receiving a book".

The context makes it clear that the text speaks about the blessings that God gave to Israel (verses 1 and 5). The Qur'an can hardly be called a blessing to Israel. Not today, and certainly not at the time of Moses. This leads us at last to the most important observation about this verse.

All three statements of verse 2, refered to by Yaqut, are in the past tense: the coming from Sinai, Seir and Mount Paran. If Yaqut's interpretation had any merit, then the reference to Sinai should be (as it is) in the past tense (refering to the giving of the Law and covenant at Sinai being an event already in the past at the time Moses gave this blessing) and if we also supposed Seir and Mount Paran refered to the Gospel and the Qur'an (being future events at that time), then we would expect a change in tense of the verbs from completed action to future action. This is not the case and all of them clearly and equally refer to the past.

As such Yaqut's interpretation is only reflecting a Muslim polemic without any basis in the Hebrew Text.

By the time of Yaqut there have already been more than five centuries of Muslim polemics against the Jews and Christians, including the central need to establish the Qur'an as a legitimate revelation from the view of the Jewish and Christian scriptures. Yaqut builds his claim on this polemic recounting it with "it has been said" but he does not present any evidence for his assertion that Faran is a name for Mecca that is independent from the reference to the Torah verse. The identification of the geographical name is motivated by the theological necessity only.

Plainly, this is a classical example of circular reasoning. Somehow, Yaqut takes it for granted that Deuteronomy 33:2 speaks about Mecca and therefore assigns the name Faran to Mecca. Al-Kadhi wants to prove that the verse speaks about the Qur'an and Mecca and quotes Yaqut as reference for his claim. None of them has given evidence for this identification other than the wishful thinking that the Torah "should" speak about the Qur'an in this verse.

Conclusion: The modern Muslim apologist Al-Kadhi has not brought any evidence for his claim of the identification of Mecca with Mount Paran, but he has brought to our attention that the same misguided polemic is already more than 750 years old. However, false claims do not increase in truth by aging.

Al-Kadhi himself discusses Deuteronomy 33:2 with even worse distortions in his section 6.10.

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