Qur'anic studies today
Reply #655 - January 21, 2016, 05:43 PM
I'd disagree with Morris on two points when he says that reference is the earliest use of the Arabic word "masjid," meaning mosque. First it was used in the Qur'an prior to that time (unless you accept a very late composition approach). Second, masjid was used in Aramaic, and Nabatean in particular, to designate a place of worship, and however you want to describe the interaction between Arabic and Aramaic, the Nabatean language massively intermeshed with Arabic, to the point where late Nabatean inscriptions are often termed Arabo-Aramaic. Also, it was used in epigraphic South Arabian, i.e. as ms'gd (although here the underlying substratum wouldn't have been Arabic). See Jeffery on masjid as a borrowing from the North.
If it was used in the quasi-Aramaic inscriptions of the Arabic-speaking Nabateans, it was effectively part of the (Northern!) Arabic linguistic milieu, which did not rigidly isolate Aramaic and Arabic terms. In the later Nabatean era, the Nabatean inscriptions are essentially true Arabic (setting aside what that means), heavily interlaced with (orthographic, semantic, etc.) Aramaicisms. As such, the 'masjid' had centuries of pre-Islamic existence in the Aramaicized Arabic of the Nabatean region. There was no rigid separation between written Aramaic and spoken Arabic. It is, to my mind, useless to think of the steady importation of Aramaic religious lexicon/semantics/orthographic influence into Arabic as if such terms were only used as "foreign language" that at some point suddenly, like a light switch, became "Arabic language."
As such, I'd agree with the traditional Islamic view that 'mosques' long predated Muhammad, both in Jerusalem and elsewhere. While the linguistic usage and its architectural counterparts obviously evolved creatively and were heavily transformed during the early Islamic era and beyond, they didn't spring from nothing (as the Qur'an itself, of course, evidences)!