‘Risaala’: Arabic for letter means more than written words on paper

The word has been adapted to be used in a modern context

Risaala, meaning the written letter, is our Arabic word of the week
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Letters are one of the oldest forms of communication, full of romantic notions and often a crucial detail in the plot of a novel or film.

This week’s Arabic Word of the Week, risaala, means a written letter. It is a word that is understood in the region, across dialects.

Risaala is a noun derived from the verb rasila, which means the act of sending a written or oral message to someone. The root of the word is the three Arabic letters, rah, seen and lam.

From rasila, we have risaala, which colloquially in Arabic refers to a letter, but the word has many more levels of meaning.

Officially, risaala refers to any piece of information that is sent and delivered from one source to another. This can be in the form of a personal or official governmental letter, it can also be a report or document, a thesis or a book whose content covers one particular topic in depth.

Over time, the meaning of risaala has become more commonly used in two instances. First to refer to any kind of letter, official or personal, or a message being sent or delivered to someone, orally or symbolically.

And while writing and sending letters by post is almost completely redundant in today’s world, thanks to email and SMS messages, the word risaala has been adapted to the modern age. Today, a text message is also referred to as a risaala.

There are several categories of risaala, if we look at the word in the context of its original meaning, as a written letter sent from one party to another.

There is risaala ikhbariyya, which translates to letter of news, and refers to an officially written or printed document that communicates information and knowledge about a certain group of people.

Risaala mahaliyya, which translates to local letters, refers to a letter of a personal nature.

Risaala musalsala, which translates to chain letter, is a letter sent to a group of people, who then write the same letter, relaying the same message to another group of people and so on.

Risaala ekhwaniyya, which translates to brotherly letters, refers to the letters exchanged between writers and poets who express the motions of their mind and feelings to each other.

Risaala, in the Islamic context, is a good example of the second more commonly understood meaning of the word. In Islam, risaala refers to the messages that the Prophet Mohammed received from God through the Angel Gabriel.

There are other words derived from the same root of risaala that, while they mean different things, are connected in their ethos to the idea of letters or messages in some form.

In Arabic, a prophet is called rasoul, meaning he who carries messages from God to be delivered to the people.

Arsala is a verb meaning to send something to someone or to send something away from you. This does not only refer to written documents but, depending on the context used, can refer to a multitude of things. For example, wiping a tear away from one's cheek, brushing hair away from your face or letting go of someone in the emotional sense.

Rasala is a verb that refers to someone who reads or recites text, calmly, quietly in a pleasant manner to himself or others while resil refers to performing tasks carefully and without rushing.

One of the most famous songs of the legendary Egyptian singer and actor, Abdel Halim Hafez, is titled Risaala Min Tahit Al Maa, (A Letter from Underwater). The song was written by the renowned Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani, who used a free-flowing, modern Arabic style in his poetry.

The poem and songs tells the story of a lover who sends a message to his beloved from underwater. The song begins with the words, "A message from underwater, I send to you, my love, a message from my heart, that I have kept hidden for so long."

Updated: August 18, 2023, 6:02 PM