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Two Arabic words denote the concept of craft: sina’a (صناعة ) and hirfa (حرفة). Essentially, the first refers to process while the second refers to skill. Both are valid in describing craft.

All Arabic words are born from a three-letter root, and those three letters give birth to different configurations of the same word. Sina’a (صناعة - the first of the two words mentioned above - derives from the root word  sana’a (صنع), which can be defined as created or produced. From this root other related words are born such sane’ (صانع), masnaa (مصنع), and masnoo’ (مصنوع). These  can be defined - respectively - as maker, factory, and manufactured.

Sina’a is the term used by Ikhwan Al Safa (Brethren of Purity) in their famous and comprehensive Epistles  رسائل اخوان الصفا) around the 10th century, where they describe craft as anything that involves the body, and/or the mind, and/or external tools. It is also the word adopted by Ibn Khaldoun in his 14th Century magnum opus, the muqaddimah - the Prolegomena - where he refers to crafts as a “habit firmly rooted in the soul”.

In the modern era, the term sina’a (صناعة ) came to be associated with industrial rather than artisanal production. To be understood as handcrafted production, one would need to add the word hand, as in sina’a yadawiyah (صناعة يدوية).

 The second word, hirfa refers to a skill, an expertise. A skilled person is a mihtirrif  (محترف) or a hirafi (حرفي) or a sahib hirfa (صاحب حرفة). Because of this loose definition, craft could encompass anything related to skill, but skill could transcend craft; i.e. you could be mihtiriff - an expert - in law or in weaving. Similar to the term sina’a, adding the word hand to hirfa defines it as handmade craft. Today, this term is predominantly used to denote the handmade. Nonetheless, it is not in any way exclusive to the world of craft.


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