Marginal Notes on: ASWS 73 — the root HGR in pre-Islamic Arabic Ahmad Al-Jallad∗

Marginal Notes on: ASWS 73 — the root HGR in pre-Islamic Arabic Ahmad Al-Jallad∗

The meaning of the root hgr in Arabic has attracted much attention recently, especially with regard to the meaning of the word muhājir as it is used in the Qur’an and early Islamic texts; see for example Lindstedt 2015. The meaning ‘to migrate’ in Arabic has come under scrutiny and I was asked on Twitter if it was attested in Safaitic, as this sense seems to be unique to Classical (and later) Arabic. The root hgr is found in Ancient South Arabian, where it broadly speaking refers to ‘settlements’ (city, town), and a similar range of meanings is found in Geʿez, but none of these languages attests the meaning ‘to migrate’.

The lexeme hgr does in fact occur in Safaitic in a context strongly favoring the meaning ‘to migrate’. I thought it would be useful to expand on the Safaitic occurrence of this word, as it would be the first pre-Islamic attestation with this meaning. This will, hopefully, allow the Safaitic evidence to be used properly in future debates on the etymology of Qur’anic muhājir.

The term is attested in the inscription ASWS 73, which was discovered in 1998 and edited first in the MA thesis of Bani Awaḏ in 1999. I re-edited the text in 2016, giving the translation now found on OCIANA but without going into great philological detail regarding the term hgr. While the text is only know from the poor photograph below, the word hgr is absolutely clear. The reading and translation of the text as given in Al-Jallad (2016: 97) is as follows:


Photograph of ASWS 73 (courtesy OCIANA)


The word HGR outlined


l rbʾl bn ḥnn bn ẓʿn bn ẖyḏ bn ʿḏr w wrd ḥḏr f mlḥ f ḏkr f ʾmt f ʾmt w ngʿ ʿl- ḥbb w ʿl- h-ʾbl rʿy-h hgr m-mdbr s¹nt myt bnt

“By Rbʾl son of Ḥnn son of Ẓʿn son of H̲ yḏ son of ʿḏr and he went to water cautious of drought, then (again) in Aquarius, then Aries, then Libra, and then Libra (again, i.e. for two years in a row), during which he grieved in pain for a loved one and for the camels, which he pastured, having migrated from the inner desert, the year Bnt died.”


The text begins like most Safaitic inscriptions with the lam auctoris introducing the subject of the inscription:

l rbʾl bn ḥnn bn ẓʿn bn ḫyḏ bn ʿḏr

By Rabbʾel son of Ḥonayn son of Ẓaʿn son of H̲ayāḏ son of ʿaḏar

This is the only inscription carved by this individual in the OCIANA corpus.


The rest of the inscription describes a drought, using the common verb wrd ‘to go to water’.

w wrd ḥḏr f mlḥ f ḏkr f ʾmt f ʾmt

“and he went to water cautious of drought, then (again) in Aquarius, then Aries, then Libra, and then Libra (again, i.e. for two years in a row)”

This verb is often used in conjunction with migrations and the constellations, and sometimes with the watering location explicitly mentioned, e.g. wrd h-bʾr b-h-nmrt ‘he went to water at the well near Namarah’. On the names of the constellation and the yearly cycle in Safaitic, see Al-Jallad 2016.


The second clause gives the circumstances under which this migration took place and dates the writing of the text:

w ngʿ ʿl-ḥbb w ʿl-h-ʾbl rʿy-h hgr m-mdbr s¹nt myt bnt

‘and he grieved in pain for a loved one and for the camels, which he pastured, having migrated from the inner desert the year Bnt died’

‘while’the conjunction /wa/ introduces a circumstantial clause.

ngʿ ‘he grieved in pain’A common verb of grieving, likely the N-stem of the wgʿ ‘to feel pain’ (Al-Jallad 2015: 351; Abbadi and Al-Manaser 2016).

ʿl-ḥbb w ʿl-h-ʾbl ‘for a loved one and the camels’ : The objects of ngʿ  are introduced by the preposition ʿl-ḥbb ‘a loved one’ or a personal name, and ʾbl the collective noun ‘camels’. The grieving for the camels may suggest that they, along with a loved one, perished during the drought.

rʿy-h hgr m-mdbr ‘which he pastured, having/while migrated/ing from the inner desert’: an asyndetic relative clause modifying camels; Safaitic, unlike Classical Arabic, permits asyndetic relative clauses with definite antecedents (Al-Jallad 2015: 188-190). Rʿy is the common verb ‘to pasture’ (Classical Arabic raʿā) with a clitic feminine singular pronoun, -h, referring back to camels. hgr is a circumstantial adverb, likely a G-stem participle, the complement of which is m-mdbr ‘from the inner desert’. It can be taken as a continuous action or a perfective.

The crux of this clause is therefore the interpretation of hgr. In my 2016 edition, I suggested that it meant ‘to migrate’, equivalent to the Arabic L-stem (form III). This meaning is supported by the following facts.

1) The inscription already describes a movement to a place of water because of the lack of rain, indicating a migration from the inner desert where it would be impossible to pasture during a drought.

2) the phrase m-mdbr ‘from the inner desert’ is attested some thirty times in the corpus, mostly as the complement of the verb ṣyr ‘to return to a place of water’ (HaNSB 226; SIJ 827; WH 927 etc.), but also once with ʾty ‘to come’ (KRS 262). Thus, the phrase implies movement away from the desert.

These facts suggest that hgr is then a verb of motion. The G-stem of hgr in Classical Arabic means to ‘abandon’ or ‘cut off’, e.g. hajara-hū ‘he forsook him’ or ‘he left it, abandoned it’. If Safaitic hgr were equivalent to the Arabic, then we should expect mdbr to be its direct object rather than being introduced by the preposition m- ‘from’; this meaning is attested in Safaitic as well (see below). Instead, the present hgr seems to correspond to the Classical Arabic form III (L-stem) hājara ‘he went forth from his desert to the cities and towns’. This meaning suits the context well since areas of permanent water have permanent settlements, such as Namarah (mentioned above). Thus, it may have begun as a denominal verb meaning ‘to go towards settled areas’ then meaning ‘to migrate (from desert to settlement)’. The meaning ‘territory’, possibly referring to settled areas, for hgr is also attested in Safaitic (see below).

Other attestations of hgr:

Lexemes derived from hgr are rare in Safaitic. The following cases are known to me:

hgr ‘to cut off, abandon’

C 4393: hgr-h ʾs2yʿ-h f h lt slm ‘he companions abandoned him so, O Lt, may he be secure’


hgr = ‘territory’

h rḍy ġnmt m-hgr s2nʾt

‘O Rḍy, [grant] spoil from the territory (=settled areas?) of enemies’


hgr = ‘to cut off’ or ‘to migrate’

WH 1230: l zgr bn ʾbgr h-dr w kmd hgr  ‘by Zgr son of ʾbgr, in this region, and he went into hiding while migrating/having been cut off’

The laconic language of this inscription does not allow us to zero in on the exact meaning of hgr.



Al-Jallad, A. 2015. An Outline of the Grammar of the Safaitic Inscriptions. (SSLL 80). Leiden: Brill.

Al-Jallad, A. An Ancient Arabian Zodiac. The Constellations in the Safaitic Inscriptions. Part II. Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy 27, 2016: 84–106.

[ASWS] Banī ʿAūād, ʿAbdel ar-Raḥman. Dirāsat nuqūš ṣafawiyyah ǧadīdah min ǧanūb wādī sārah/ al-bādiyah al-ʾurdunniyyah aš-šamāliyyah. Unpublished MA thesis, Yarmouk University. 1999.

[HaNSB] Ḥarāḥšah [Harahsheh], R.M.A. Nuqūš ṣafāʾiyyah min al-bādīyah al-urdunīyah al-šimālīyyah al-šarqīyah — dirāsah wa-taḥlīl. Amman: Ward, 2010.

[KRS] Inscriptions recorded by Geraldine King on the Basalt Desert Rescue Survey in north-eastern Jordan in 1989.

[SIJ] Winnett, F.V. Safaitic Inscriptions from Jordan. (Near and Middle East Series, 2). Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1957.

[WH] Winnett, F.V. & Harding, G.L. Inscriptions from Fifty Safaitic Cairns. (Near and Middle East Series, 9). Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1978.


Ahmad Al-Jallad is a University Lecturer at Leiden University in the Netherlands. He specializes in the early history of Arabic and North Arabian.  He has done research on Arabic from the pre-Islamic period based on documentary sources, the Graeco-Arabica (Arabic in Greek transcription from the pre-Islamic period), language classification, North Arabian epigraphy, and historical Semitic linguistics.  He has written the first grammar of Safaitic, a corpus of Ancient North Arabian inscriptions from northern Jordan and southern Syria; its second edition, with a dictionary of more than 1400 entries will appear soon with Brill.

His current book project ‘The Word, the Blade, and the Pen: Three thousand years of Arabic’ (Princeton University Press) tells the story of the Arabic language, from its first attestations in the Iron Age until the age of the Internet. For more, see here.


This essay originally appeared online on Doctor Al-Jallad’s blog, and has been republished here with his kind permission.


© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2017. All rights reserved.