ISIS v. ISIL: the definitive* answer

* DISCLAIMER: there is nothing in this piece that is definitive in any way, apart from the inclusion of some literal definitions of words.

I have resisted writing this for some reason. No, wait, now I remember why; because debating the semantics of the translation of a controversial Arab extremist groups name produces writing that is either trite or downright stupid. But there’s a learning opportunity in everything, and now that I’ve hopefully sucked everybody in with a clickbait-y headline, let’s look at the words that make up our new mortal* enemy’s Arabic name (الدولة الإسلامية or الدولة الإسلامية في العراق و الشام) for vocabulary purposes:

  • دَولة (dawlah): this is often translated as “state,” but that’s not the original meaning. The root, دول (D-W-L or D-U-L — و can sound like either u or w depending on the situation) actually means something like “taking turns” or “rotating,” and the older meaning of دولة is going to be “rotation” or “change.” Its use to represent the idea of a “state” goes back to its use to describe royal dynasties and reflects a sense that any dynasty, or state, is probably temporary, and that the rise of a new dynasty reflects a “change in fortune,” which just so happens to be another possible translation of دولة. The deeper implication of دولة, though it’s not meant in this sense now, is that it’s this particular crew’s turn to run things for a while.
  • إسلامية (Islāmīyah): I don’t have to translate this one, right?

Note that the full construction الدولة الإسلامية is better pronounced “ad-dawlat al-islaameeyah,” because the letter ة (“taa marbuta” is the name of the letter, which is the grammatical feminine marker and only appears at the end of a word) is usually unpronounced (and can be represented by a silent ‘h’ or left out altogether in English transliteration — I opt for the ‘h’) when it comes at the end of a grammatical construct, but when it occurs in the middle of a construct (like here, in a noun-adjective pairing, or like in a possessive), it usually takes a ‘t’ sound and is transliterated accordingly. So الدولة is al-dawlat here because it’s followed immediately by its adjective, but الإسلامية remains al-Islāmīyah because it ends the phrase.

Anyway, if we’re going by what the group calls itself, we can stop here, with “The Islamic State.” I tend to use this in another place because it’s easier and avoids the ambiguity we’re going to encounter in a couple more words, but I can understand why the government and most media haven’t adopted it, because calling it “The Islamic State” does bestow some added legitimacy on the group that they probably don’t deserve. So we continue:

  • في (): “in,” though you could probably go with “of” here if you wanted
  • عِراق (ʿIrāq): Iraq, obviously. There’s less ambiguity about this term than about what’s to come because the historical Iraq and the modern Iraq are more or less the same, though the northern part of modern Iraq was known as a different region called الجَزيرة (al-Jazīrah) which means “the island” and is a fun geographical commentary on the area’s position between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. There is also, historically, a “Persian Iraq,” called عِراق العَجَم (ʿIrāq al-ʿAjam), that covered more or less the eastern parts of modern Iran, the ones that border the nation of Iraq, which used to be called “Arab Iraq” (عِراق العَرَب,ʿIrāq al-ʿArab) in contrast.
  • وَ (wa): “and.” Arabic prepositions are certainly not perfect 1:1 matches with English prepositions, but in most cases “and” is the best translation for و, and this is no exception.
  • شام (Shām): and here’s the one that drives people crazy.

The simplest justification for picking ISIS over ISIL is that the English transliteration of شام starts with the letter ‘s.’ But that’s not particularly compelling, since for most English speakers “sham” means something much different than “a geographic region in the Middle East.” Better to translate this word, which is unfortunately not as simple as translating عراق.

The term شام can mean the modern “Syria,” and can even refer just to the city of Damascus, but Arabic also uses سوريا (Sūrīyā) or سورية (Sūrīyah) to mean Syria and دِمَشق (Dimashq) to mean Damascus. شام historically implies something larger than just the modern nation of Syria, that being the entire region north of Arabia and west of Iraq. Its root is an archaic word for “left,” because in olden times, in some parts of the world, east — toward the sunrise — was the direction that one used to get one’s bearings (like north is today); hence the word “orientation” from “Orient.” If you were in, say, Mecca, facing the sunrise, then the place we know as Syria was part of the lands to the north, or your left, so they were الشام.

Interestingly, شام can also have a meaning like “occult” or “evil,” not unlike our word “sinister” which derives from the Latin word for, yes, “left.”

“Yemen” is similarly derived from the word for “right” because it was to the south, so it would be on your right as you were facing east.

Anyway, it’s the inadequacy of the word “Syria” (which, for modern English speakers, just means the country) to describe this whole region that leads people to use the word “Levant,” which comes from the French for “rising” and again relates to the rising sun. Historical definitions of “the Levant” can vary somewhat, but the core is always modern Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel-Palestine, plus the island of Cyprus and the southern Turkish province of Hatay. Some would include the Sinai and even Iraq, but, you know, opinions differ. So going with ISIL captures the larger regional goals of the organization.

But the thing is, in any period of history before the advent of the modern state of Syria, “Syria” would capture that regional sense just as well. When the British and French divided the region after World War I, they really created a split that had no historical basis. شام, or بِلاد الشام (Bilād al-Shām), was historically an administrative province in the Caliphate and later empires (the Ottomans, most especially) that included the entire region that we mean when we say “Levant.” It was only after the mandatory powers started drawing lines and separating countries like Jordan and Lebanon that the word “Syria” only came to apply to what we know as “Syria” today.

So, look, if you’re trying to translate al-Dawlat al-Islamiyah fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham into an acronym, neither ISIS nor ISIL is entirely right or entirely wrong, so the upshot is, use whichever one you want. I use ISIS when I’m not using Islamic State, because I assume (maybe wrongly) that most people don’t know what the hell “the Levant” is without looking it up, whereas they know basically what “Syria” is even if their sense of the specific geography isn’t perfect. If your English translation is going to send the reader or listener to a dictionary anyway, then it might not be a great translation. You could forget both ISIS and ISIL and go with DAESH, one possible English rendering of the group’s Arabic acronym, which is commonly used in the Middle East, but don’t do it in front of one of their fighters:

Several residents in Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city which fell to the extremist group in June, told The Associated Press that the militants threatened to cut the tongue of anyone who publicly used the acronym Daesh, instead of referring to the group by its full name, saying it shows defiance and disrespect.


2 thoughts on “ISIS v. ISIL: the definitive* answer

  1. Thanks for a great historical breakdown of the current nomenclature of evil. I will in the future use “daesh”. I also read the locals refer to the word daesh to describe the rotten smelly corpse of a deformed wild dog in the desert.

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