I met with Mohanned last night after taking a few weeks off for holidays and other life things that get in the way of lessons. It’s quite sobering after each of these breaks to be reminded of how damaging it is to your learning progress to go so long without engaging with the language. As I opened my books with trembling hands and prepared to respond to Mohanned’s basic questions in Arabic of “how was your day?” and “what did you do on your holiday?”, I felt really anxious and a bit guilty for letting things go for so long.
Mohanned had prepared an activity which involved watching an Al Jazeera Arabic1 news clip and responding to a sheet of questions. One section of the report contained the words nasiya (forget) and insaan (human) which prompted Mohanned to point out that there is one school of thought about the relationship between the two: that the word for human is derived from the root for forget. The argument being that humans were designed to be both forgetful and capable of remembering, and that each trait has a purpose:
Man is undeniably a very forgetful creature! This trait of forgetfulness has two sides to it; there’s a good side and a bad side.
The good side of this attribute has been well-explained to us by Imam Sadiq (peace be upon him), who is narrated to have said: “Even a greater boon than memory is forgetfulness, without which man would not found solace in any affliction, nor would have ever gotten clear of frustration, nor could have gotten rid of malice. He would have failed to relish anything of the world’s goods because of insistent memories of affliction, nor could he ever have entertained any hope of weakening of his sovereign’s attention or the envy of the envious. Don’t you see how the contrary faculties of memory and forgetfulness have been created in man, each ordained with a definite purpose?”
Hence we can see how forgetfulness can be a blessing for us.
The bad side to being forgetful is quite self-explanatory. When was the last time you could not recall an important mathematical or scientific formula for your exam, or when you kept a very precious item of yours in such a safe spot that you yourself could not remember where it was? There are several examples of how our forgetfulness can mess up our day-to-day lives.
However, a higher degree of forgetfulness is the one that can ruin one’s life as well as afterlife (the permanent abode). This is definitely the kind of forgetfulness that one should try to keep away from by all means. It distances one from Allah and His special servants and leaves one in the state of absolute desolation!
But that is just one theory about the etymology of insaan; there is at least one other that I’ve come across:
… religious reformers who see God’s Law as the ultimate path to salvation take as their motto the phrase, “We hear and obey.” It is sometimes said by such reformers in Islam that the root of insan, the Arabic word for “human being,” is nasiya, “to forget.” Because human beings are forgetful, they need to be reminded of God through revelation and redirected toward salvation by Law (Shari’a) that God has mandated.
However, there is another possible root for insan, which is anisa, “to come close.” According to this understanding, human beings are close to God by nature because they are created in God’s image.
Regardless of the true backstory, discovering language stories like these is a fascinating insight into history, people, a region and a religion. I love how they add so much human(!) texture to the task of trying to not forget vocabulary.
1. Mohanned likes to use AJA clips for teaching because of the quality of the fusha (Modern Standard Arabic) its presenters and journalists use, not necessarily because of the content.↩