Ma’a: The Arabic word for water has strong spiritual and cultural significance

The origin of the word is connected to any type of movement that water can make

The Arabic for water, ma'a, is a universal symbol for rebirth. The National
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Across many cultures and religions around the world, water is seen as the element that sustains and purifies life, physically and spiritually.

This week’s Arabic word of the week, ma’a, which means water, is powerfully embedded in Islam and the culture of the region. In the Arab world and beyond, ma’a is perhaps the most versatile and positively connected element to the human experience.

The origin of the word ma’a is the verb moaha, derived from the three Arabic letters, Meem, Wow and Ha’a. Moaha is an interesting verb as it refers to any type of movement connected to any body of water. It can refer to a vessel being filled, the movement of water in a surging sea, or even ice melting back into water.

Officially, ma’a is defined as a transparent liquid with no colour, taste or scent that is the source of all life.

Despite water not being a solid, there are four Arabic words that are used to describe water in its plural form. These are meeyah, maa’an, maya’an and mawaan. These are used to reference two bodies of water such as a river and the sea, or two different types of water, such as salt and fresh water.

Ma’a and these other variations of the word are used only in classical Arabic. In colloquial Arabic, across dialects, two variations of ma’a are used – mai or maya.

However, ma’a as a word has informed many Arabic words that are associated with water both in classic and colloquial dialects.

For example, tayara maa’iya refers to a plane that can sail on water, soura al maa’iya refers to a watercolour painting and boukhar al ma’a, which translates to steam of water, refers to steam specifically from boiling water. Boukhour on its own refers to steam from other elements such as herbs and spices.

Other interesting examples include ma’a al ayoon which refers to spring water, ma’a al zahir which is orange blossom water, an ingredient used in many Arabic dishes and deserts, as is ma’a al ward which is rose water. Even the water that is in the womb of a pregnant woman has a name, ma’a al gineen.

In various narratives and places, ma’a is mentioned in the Quran and as an element has very strong significance in Islamic culture and practices.

The Quran mentions that ma’a is part of every living beings make up, emphasising it as an element crucial to our creation and survival. In the form of rain, matar in Arabi, is also described in the Quran as a form of mercy from God, as it feeds Earth and by extension all living creatures. The various types of water are also categorised in the Quran, from rainwater to spring water and saltwater.

Ma’a is also used as a form of physical and spiritual purification. The ritual of wudu involves washing specific parts of the body a number of times with water before certain acts of worship, such as the five daily prayers known as salat.

There is also ma’a Zamzam, also known as Zamzam water, which comes from a well in Makkah, Saudi Arabia. Ma’a Zamzam is highly revered culturally and religiously and drinking it is an essential part of the pilgrimage to Makkah for Hajj.

There are slightly varying versions of the narrative within Islamic scholars around the story of ma'a Zamzam but the main events occurred when Hagar, the second wife of the Prophet Ibrahim, was left by him in the desert, at a spot now believed to be within the Masjid al-Haram or the Grand Mosque in Makkah.

She was with her infant son Ismaʿil who cried in thirst for water. Hagar placed him on the ground and ran between the two hills now known as Safa and Marwa seven times in search of water. However, on her return, she found that a spring of water had emerged where she had left Ismaʿil.

Ma'a Zamzam is considered blessed and holy in Islam and it is believed to contain spiritual and healing properties.

Updated: June 03, 2024, 9:37 AM