Atheism and agnosticism

Discussion in 'العربية (Arabic)' started by Talib, May 7, 2009.

  1. Talib Senior Member


    I know the translations for "atheism" and "agnosticism" are الإلحاد and اللاأدرية (at least the academic terms, as opposed to simply calling both الكفر) but what exactly do these terms mean? I would like to see if anyone knows the roots they come from, related words etc.

    As an aside I have also seen إنكار وجود الله but this seems more like a definition than anything (disbelief in the existence of God).
  2. ahshav Senior Member

    English, Hebrew
    Unfortunately my Arabic isn't good enough to give you an answer - but to add another word to the mix - I had a teacher (Egyptian) who said that علماني was used in referring to both secular and atheist. The only other term he said he used was غير متدين.

    Can anyone comment on the accuracy of this (both in Egypt and elsewhere)?
  3. Anatoli Senior Member

    Melbourne, Australia
    Native: русский (Russian), home country: English
    The first one has the root letters لحد l /l-H-d/ - disbelieve, defect from, so الإلحاد (al-'ilHaad) is atheism. Not sure about the 2nd one. How do you pronounce اللاأدرية?
  4. Josh_ Senior Member

    the phrontistery
    U.S., English
    Yes, as Anatoli said, الإلحاد comes from the root ل-ح-د. It comes from the form IV (أفعل) verb ألحد (alHada) which means "deviating from the correct path" or "becoming a heretic," according to the dictionary. Although I cannot give an answer from a native standpoint, my feeling is that this is not a neutral term, but rather has negative associations. A person adhering to الإلحاد is a ملحد (mulHid) -- one deviating from the correct path.

    اللاأدرية (al-laa-2adriyya) is a combination of the negating particle لا and a nisba adjective أدرية created from the verb درى (dara) meaning "to know about" or "have knowledge of," thus, in terms of religion, it means "not knowing about/having knowledge of the existence of god(s)." A person who adheres to اللاأدرية is a لاأدري (laa-2adriyy) -- one not having knowledge of god(s), i.e. an agnostic.

    غير متدين (ghayru mutadayyin) is fairly self explanatory, متدين meaning "religious" and غير simply being a negating particle meaning un-, non-, not. I would translate it as "non-religious."

    Linguistically speaking both لاأدري and غير متدين seem to be neutral, although I imagine they have negative associations about them as it is generally looked down upon (by those who believe) to not believe in, or to be unsure about, the existence of a god. Despite that, I imagine they are less stigmatizing than ملحد. Again, that is my feeling as a non-native speaker.

    Even the English "atheism," which is just formed from the prefix "a-" meaning "without" and the noun "theism," generally has negative associations, for the same reasons stated above, despite being linguistically neutral.

    As a point of interest, there is another another word in Arabic -- الزندقة (az-zandaqa) which means atheism or unbelief. According to the Hans Wehr it can also mean free thinking. One who adheres to الزندقة is a زنديق (zindiiq). I imagine, like the other words, it too has negative associations.
    Last edited: May 7, 2009
  5. Mahaodeh Senior Member

    London, UK
    Arabic, PA and IA.
    I think Hans Wehr is wrong about Zindeeq; zandaqa is not atheism and it has nothing to do with free thinking!

    According to lisaan Al Arab:

    الزنديق القائل ببقاء الدهر، فارسي معرّب وهو بالفارسية زَنْد كِرَاي. قال الزهري: الزنديق من الثنوية وهو معرب والجمع الزنادقة والاسم الزندقة

    Thanyawiyya is a type of majoosiyya up to my understanding, related either to Manichaeism or Zoroastrianism, I'm not quite sure which.
  6. Talib Senior Member

    So there's a stem IV verb ألحد, but are there any other derived forms of this root?
    Can anyone shed a little light on the word علماني?
    This appears to be a calque from Greek a- (not) gnostos (knowing). It's very interesting because normally لا wouldn't appear in such derivations - Arabic is not generally a compounding language. I would have rather thought a word might have been coined from a root meaning "to be uncertain", but there you have it.
    Well, I disagree (as an atheist) but I think it varies. In America it would for many people, but not so much in Canada where religion doesn't play as big as role in our lives. I wouldn't be surprised if agnosticism, non-religion and atheism are viewed negatively by many if not most Arabs though.

    On that note, why do you think لاأدري would be less pejorative than ملحد? Surely both are equally unacceptable from a Muslim viewpoint?

    I did know this word, but not in a religious context.

    Are you sure it would have negative connotations? "Freethinking" doesn't really in English, aside from being associated with atheism maybe (which might well be the case with the Arabic word, I don't know).
  7. Wadi Hanifa

    Wadi Hanifa Senior Member

    I think it's usually pronounced la 2idrii/la 2idriyya.
  8. Talib Senior Member

    And I thought it was la 2udriyyah. Maybe it's one of those Arabic words that varies.
  9. Anatoli Senior Member

    Melbourne, Australia
    Native: русский (Russian), home country: English
    Hamza is above, not below, must be either "a" or "u", at least in fuSHa.
  10. Wadi Hanifa

    Wadi Hanifa Senior Member

    Well, it's often spelled with the hamza below as well.
  11. Josh_ Senior Member

    the phrontistery
    U.S., English
    I looked it up in several dictionaries and they all had meanings related to atheism, disbelief, heretic. Only the Hans Wehr had the meaning of free thinker.

    Anyway, according to the wikipedia article on زندقة we are both right. It started out as a word used by Muslims to refer to Manichaeism or pagans, and then gradually was applied to ملحدون and أصحاب البدع.
    Oh, I skipped right over this word. It comes from the root ع-ل-م which has to do with knowledge, but specifically, it is an adjective derived from the word عالم world. Things related to the world are worldly, or secular.

    Yes, it probably is.
    Why do you say that?

    Maybe not as much as other languages, but there is some compounding. Combining words with لا in order to derive the opposite is actually fairly common.

    Of course it varies from place to place. Generally, in America, where the majority of people claim to believe in a god, atheism is generally viewed as negative for the mere fact that it is opposed to that.

    Yes, I agree that they probably are.

    Because of the denotative meaning. "Deviating from the "correct path"" sounds stronger/worse and more worthy of condemnation than just simply "not knowing." But yes, both are deemed unacceptable. The main reason I mentioned negative associations is because in terms of academic use if there is a choice between a negative word or a more neutral one, the neutral one should be chosen, so as to treat the subject as objectively as possible. Thus I really don't like the use of الإلحاد as an academic term for atheism, as it still connotes the idea that it is a bad thing worthy of condemnation, which like you (I assume), I do not agree with. But I guess there is not a better, more neutral, term available.

    It is like the difference between terms الشذوذ الجنسي and الجنسية المثلية to refer to homosexuality. My guess is that the latter, which just comes from مثل meaning of the same kind, was coined in order to be more objective (perhaps for academic purposes) and/or more politically correct since الشذوذ الجنسي still connotes deviant behavior.

    What did it mean to you?

    Free thinking by itself may not have negative connotations, but in conjunction with atheism is might, for the reasons explained above.

    Could it be common both ways? I learned it as la 2adriyya from professors. Out of curiosity I looked up both "اللاأدرية" and "اللاإدرية" on Google and the former occurred much more than the latter.
    Last edited: May 7, 2009
  12. suma Senior Member

    English, USA
    "اللاأدرية" and غير متدين are different. Laa adriyah is the term for agnosticsim meaning one who does not deny the existence of God (atheist) but however he has doubts or is uncertain of God's existence. Ghair mutadayyin means one who is not religious, i.e. he may believe but does not practice religion much.

    الإلحاد = atheism

    علماني is the modern term = secularist

    زنديق is somewhat outmoded, and not used I believe much nowadays. Has the nuance of atheist, free thinker actively opposed to established religion, seditionist.
  13. Talib Senior Member

    Ah, thanks. I should have caught that.

    But why علماني and not, say عالمي? Can "worldly" be used as a synonym of "secular"? I doubt it myself, but it's a thought.
    Do you know some other examples? I can't think of any off the top of my head. More often غير is used, and there are many compounds with this word equivalent to English un- or not.
    With that in mind, I should think I'd rather describe myself as غير متدين, just like I might in English around deeply religious people.
    I agree.

    I suggested it's one of those Arabic words whose harakat seem to vary between dialects and even speakers. Maybe it's not common enough for people to know either way.

    But I am certain it's spelled with hamza on top of the alif.
  14. Wadi Hanifa

    Wadi Hanifa Senior Member

    Well the place of the hamza is not dispositive. Many people erroneously put the hamza above the alef even when they pronounce it with a kasra.

    When you say فلان شخص لا أدري, it can be confused with the verb as if you're saying "So and so is a person ... I don't know." But I'm sure there are variations as with many other words.
  15. Josh_ Senior Member

    the phrontistery
    U.S., English
    Perhaps "mundane" or just "of the world" would have been better. The point is that it is an adjective derived from عالم.
    عالمي is also a nisba adjective derived from عالمي. I don't know why علماني was coined. Perhaps to differentiate between the meanings of "of the world/mundane" (عالمي) and "secular" علماني.
    Some of the more common ones are words such as اللاشعور the unconscious, اللامبالاة apathy, indifference, اللامركزية decentralization, لاإرادي involuntary, لا نهائي infinite, لاشيء nothing. There is even a verb that was derived from لاشيءl-- تلاشي (talaasha) to come to nothing, dwindle, disappear.

    As far as the pronunciation of اللاأدرية I asked an Arab friend how he pronounces it and he said what sounded like "al-laa-2idariyya." So there does seem to be some variation. As for the spelling, all the dictionaries I consulted spell it with the alif on top.
  16. Talib Senior Member

    But isn't لا شيء spelled with a space between the two words? It's the spelled with the لا right next to the word that seems anomalous to me.

    I think most the words you suggested are modern coinages, correct? I mean "decentralization" seems like a very modern concept.
  17. Faylasoof Senior Member

    Plato's Republic
    English (UK) & Urdu (Luckhnow), Hindi
    Hello All,

    I’m joining this rather late so I do not have to repeat what others have already said.
    Talib, you are correct in saying that many of these are modern. There has been a need for them! But some are quite old. Ibn Sina in his كتاب الشفاء uses the word لاشَیِّئَة to describe the idea of <nothingness>. Besides, I’m not sure if having a space or not matters as long as they are grammatically treated as a unit.

    Although I must admit I’m not exactly sure when the terms لاأدرِيّة and لا أَدري came to be used, they could be older than we imagine.

    The idea of freely and publicly admitting that one doesn’t know is old in Arabic-Islamic literature:

    من ترك قول لا أدري أصيبت مقاتله

    -Ali Ibn Abi Talib

    This of course was not a reference to belief or disbelief in God! Of that we can be sure!! However, the idea was to admit that one cannot be sure of everyhting. In this respect al-Ghazaali’s transition from a questioning philosopher to a believing mystic went through a period which has been described as the period of لاأدرِيّة – the term used in Islamic philosophy (originally from Greek philosophy) as a way to explain that certain and definite knowledge is unattainable.

    Al-Ghazaali underwent a complete collapse with extreme emotional and intellectual turmoil before finding refuge in the “comforting certainty of religion”.
    The Arabic word الزنديق is, as Mahaodeh points with reference to Lisan al-Arab, actually Persian - comes from the Pahlavi (Middle Persian) word <zandik> = a heretic; a Manichaean (follower of the Persian prophet-reformer Mani [210-76 CE] ).

    So, it was the Sassanian rulers, not Muslims, who thus labelled the Manichaeans after they (the Sassanian rulers plus the clergy) declared Zoroastrianism as the state religion. This edict mirrored that of Theodosius I who declared Christianity as the state and sole religion of the Roman Empire in 391 CE (Constantine’s Milan edict of 313 CE had merely legalized it).
    I have almost always seen (and used) لاأدرِيّة(laa ‘adriyyah), with a fath on the hamza.

    Apart from the terms discussed above, the following are also used:

    مارِق maariq (s) مَرَقَة maraqah (pl) = heretic, apostate, schismatic

    دَهري dahri = temporal, worldly, mundane; atheist, materialist (as opposed to a spiritualist. Also used in Persian and Urdu like this.)
    While اللاأدرية appears to be a calque from Greek, it is still OK compared to this:

    لاغُنُوصِي laaghunooSi = agnostic! – rare usage, but exists.
    I think you might be correct here Josh. The older word is used in other languages (Persian and Urdu) also to mean <of the world> and has been used so for a long time. So perhaps there was need for the neologism <علماني> meaning secular. I think there was a need for this so as to avoid confusion.

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