Muslims Said It First: “Arsenal”

There are dozens of ordinary ‘English’ words that originally came from languages historically associated with Islam, such as Arabic, Persian and Urdu. 

Muslims have never been strangers to the West; we are as inseparable from its culture, history & heritage as our words are from its languages. And our contribution to its development can be found in any dictionary.

Mansoor Dahri, UK

Arsenal F.C. Flag

Arsenal F.C. requires no introduction from me. Which is good because I know next to nothing about sports. If I was cruel I might begin this article by ticking off a dreary checklist of football statistics and match outcomes that you’d already know by now if you really cared. So I’ll just conveniently skip over all that and hop right back into my narrow little comfort zone: words and history.

In January 2020, some Arsenal fans started “Dial Square F.C.” as a protest club because they were fed up with the direction Arsenal F.C. was taking under KSE (Kroenke Sports & Entertainment) which acquired 100% ownership of the club in 2018. As you’ll know, the reason these breakaway fans chose the name “Dial Square” was because that was Arsenal’s original name when it was first founded in 1886 by David Danskin and fifteen of his fellow workers at a factory that manufactured armaments and military ammunition in the London district of Woolwich.

Dial Square was the name they originally chose because that’s what their particular workshop within the factory complex was called; the Dial Square workshop was thus named because there was a cool sundial on top of it. A year later in 1887, they changed their name to “Royal Arsenal” since the greater factory complex itself was called “The Royal Arsenal”

I’m guessing the name change made it easier for people to tell where they were from and where they worked as “Dial Square” is the sort of reference you’d only get if you worked there, whereas the factory itself would’ve been relatively well-known. At its height, The Royal Arsenal employed nearly 80,000 workers and covered 1285 acres of land before eventually shutting down in 1967.

After “Dial Square” became “Royal Arsenal”, the name changed again to “Woolwich Arsenal” and then again to “The Arsenal” before they finally chose to settle on “Arsenal”. All these names (less obviously the very first one) reference the factory. The word “arsenal” is synonymous with “armoury” or “military stockpile” hence it was an obvious name choice for a facility that manufactured weapons. Hence also the cannon on the team’s flag.

Former U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous phrase “Arsenal of Democracy” (in reference to America when it supplied the Allies with weapons during World War II) is a well-known example of how the word can be used metaphorically. But where does the word “arsenal” itself come from? And how did it enter the English language?

Around the year 1500 “arsenal” first came into English from the Italian word “arsenale” which generally just meant any sort of workshop, not specifically a military one.

Italians in turn originally got their word “arsenale” from the Arabic phrase “dār aṣ-ṣinā’ah” (دار الصناعة) which means “house of manufacture” and is a compound of the words “dār” (“house”) and “aṣ-ṣinā’ah” (“manufacture”). The former word comes from the Arabic root “d-w-r” (د و ر) meaning to “rotate” or “revolve” (a house is a place where you hang “around”) whereas the latter word comes from the root “ṣ-n-ʕ” (ص ن ع) meaning to “make” or “do” as well as to “manufacture” or “build”.

We can find examples of both roots appearing in the first and oldest book in the Arabic language, the Holy Qur’an:

یٰقَوۡمِ اِنَّمَا ہٰذِہِ الۡحَیٰوۃُ الدُّنۡیَا مَتَاعٌ ۫ وَّاِنَّ الۡاٰخِرَۃَ ہِیَ دَارُ الۡقَرَارِ

“‘O my people, this life of the world is but a temporary provision; and the Hereafter is certainly the home for permanent stay.” (40:40)

Dejected fans would certainly do well to remember this verse whenever their favourite team loses a match. This world is only temporary; so are its victories and defeats.

وَعَلَّمۡنٰہُ صَنۡعَۃَ لَبُوۡسٍ لَّکُمۡ لِتُحۡصِنَکُمۡ مِّنۡۢ بَاۡسِکُمۡ ۚ فَہَلۡ اَنۡتُمۡ شٰکِرُوۡنَ

“And We taught him the making of coats of mail for you, that they might protect you from each other’s violence. Will you then be thankful?” (21:81)

Allah the Almighty reminds us in this verse that it was He that inspired mankind with the idea of self-defence through the manufacture of coats of mail (metal armour) and the like. You never know, coats of mail might come in handy in the aftermath of the next major football match.

About the Author: Mansoor Dahri is an online editor for The Review of Religions. He graduated from UCL in BA Ancient Languages.