2007 / 3 / 4
Arabic and Islam
Professor of Semitic Languages
University of Helsinki
The rise of the Arabic language to the status of a major world language is a result of the rise of Islam as a major world religion. In the pre-Islamic period, al-+?hiliyya (ignorance of God), Arabic was a minor member of the southern branch of the Semitic family, whose native speakers belonged to some nomadic tribes in the Arab Peninsula. Within a century after the death of the Arab prophet, Mu?ammad, (632 A. D.) Arabic became the official language of a vast empire. Since the seventh century, Arabic and Islam, meaning both peace and submission to God’s will, became inseparable and Arabic spread like wildfire. Thanks to the Qur?n al-kar•m la-k?nat al-lugha al->arabiyya f• khabari k?na). The boundaries of this empire stretched from Central Asia, the Oxus River, to the Atlantic Ocean, and they reached northward to the Iberian Peninsula. So Arabic has replaced its sister, Aramaic, which was the international language, the lingua franca, of the Persian Empire. Towards the end of the seventh century A.D. (690 A. D.) Arabic became the language of administration of the Umayyad Caliphate, and in the year 707 it became the language of instruction and public relations. All this took place during the rule of the Caliph, >Abd al-Malik ben Marw?n, 646-715 A. D. Joel Carmichael in his book, The Shaping of the Arabs, writes about the nature of this language: "The possibilities in Arabic for the use of figurative language are endless; its allusiveness, types and figures of speech place it far beyond the reach of any other language... Arabic loses on translation (emphasis mine) but all other languages gain on being translated into Arabic". Needless to say, generally, all living languages lose more or less when translated and the whole issue requires separate study.
We read in the Qur??z al-Qur After the Muslim Arab conquests, the Arabic script began to be adopted by the speakers of many languages such as, Kurdish, Persian, Turkish, Pashto, Berber, Judaeo-Karaite-Samaritan Arabic, Malayo, Polynesian dialects, Hausa, Somali, Swahili, Tadjik, Tartar, Uzbek and a few Slavonic languages in Europe. Moriscos, former Muslims in Spain, continued to use Aljamiado, Spanish written in Arabic characters, until the beginning of the seventeenth century. All people who embraced Islam kept their own national languages, whereas Christian Arabs, as well as Arabicised Christians such as Copts and Maronites, kept their belief in Jesus Christ. As a matter of fact Christian Arabs whose mother tongue was Arabic in the pre-Islamic era such as al-Ghas?sina maintained their religion and their mother tongue. Accordingly the saying ‘Arabic cannot be Christianised’ (
Today, there is a common opinion that Arabic is difficult, ambiguous and long-winded. However, we believe it is exceptionally rich and the system of its morphology and syntax are clear and, as a rule, logical and have not changed for centuries. Thus, only several months of intensive courses are required in order to acquire a good command of Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) if there is a firm willingness and motivation on the part of teachers and students alike. Interest in the Arabic language has increased greatly throughout the world particularly since the events of the 11th of September 2001. In some parts of the world such as Israel, Islamic studies and Arabic language teaching have been harmed by the Intifada and world violence and terror. Mention should be made of the fact that for years Arabic was taught in Israel only because it was deemed necessary to "know your enemy” in order to overcome him.
There are around one billion Muslims worldwide and the majority are concentrated around the holy city of Makka - Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, the Arab States of the Middle East and North Africa, right across to Morocco and Mauritania; and the East African States from Somalia down to Tanzania. Moreover, Islam is found in West Africa, India, Indonesia, Europe, Russian Central Asia, China, the Philippines and the Americas.
The Arab World, 22 countries with some 300 million people, is but a small part of the Muslim World, approximately 800 million. Arabic script remains the second most widely used alphabet in the world following the Latin script. In addition to Arabic, over ten languages still retain the Arabic script - the most important being Kurdish, Persian, Pashto, and Sindhi in Pakistan Urdu.
Arabic is one of the six languages used in the United Nations and it is a working language in the Organization of African Unity. Moreover, it is the second official language in Israel and it has recently been reinstated as a second tongue in some Muslim countries such as Iran, Pakistan and the southern part of the Philippines.
It is an established fact that the Western scholarship knows much about the Arab World and Islam because of political, economic, religious and cultural considerations. This does not mean that an ordinary person in the West knows and understands what scholars have investigated and published. An ordinary Western citizen knows that every Arab is Muslim as is the case in the North African Arab states. Needless to say, knowledge for the sake of knowledge should be the final goal. What would be the best way to learn about and understand the vast and rich Arabic culture which occupies a place of honour among other great cultures in the world? Having a profound knowledge of one vernacular of Arabic would be essential and very helpful to learn about a vast variety of items in culture such as manners, folklore, beliefs, customs, traditions, and greetings. This is the case of native speakers of spoken Arabic, each one has his own dialect besides his idiolect and he understands several other dialects without being naturally able to speak in them. For example, Palestinians have no difficulties in understanding Arabic used in Greater Syria, Iraq and Egypt. We believe that one has to keep one’s own dialect as his mother tongue and to have a passive knowledge of some other dialects as necessary. Modern technology in the realm of communication contributes much to this mutual understanding. As a result of the recent American war on Iraq, the Iraqi vernaculars have been heard in everywhere.
On the other hand, it is not rare to come across Western researchers of Arabic dialectology who have some active knowledge of several dialects but, in fact, have serious difficulty in expressing themselves in a satisfactory manner in any dialect. The truth of the matter is that they sometimes speak a manifestation of Arabic which does not exist in reality. Yet if a person moulds his views of Arabic culture and Arab Islam based on such a way he will get a distorted picture. Unfortunately, many foreigners possess such an attitude, and among many Arabists or dialectologists active knowledge in one of the vernaculars of Arabic is, as a rule, poor. Unfortunately, the same state of affairs holds true with regard to many orientalists and professors of Arabic language in the West. It seems to us that the overwhelming majority of such teachers of Arabic in higher institutions in the West lack a satisfactory competence in speaking and writing in MSA. This manifestation of Arabic in its simplified form, lughatu baina bain, is the connecting bond of all educated Arabs in the world. The burning questions which should be raised are: Does this situation of theory without sufficient practice suit our modern era of globalisation? How can University students of living languages such as Arabic develop a good command of Arabic when their teachers, and especially their professors, do not set an example with their own proficiency? Is an active knowledge, speaking and writing, of living languages one of the main goals of academic instruction in the West? If the answer to this question is positive, then the whole program and system of instruction ought to be reconducted and restructured. Is it required and possible for a Western professor to obtain a profund active command of a living language? Is there a need from the point of view of tasks to differentiate between a researcher, translator, professor of a living language and an analyst in the public media? Can such a demanding combination of these tasks and missions be successfully accomplished by one person? How would ordinary people or even experts react if they suddenly found out that their professor of a living language and world religion, whom they often used to watch on television or listen to on radio, can hardly communicate with educated native speakers of that specific language let alone speak in any specific dialect or give a lecture in it? Usually, the active knowledge of such people is a top secret. The French orientalist, Volney, at the beginning of the nineteenth century criticised scholars who knew a great deal about medieval Arab grammarians, but could not make themselves understood by a living Arab. After almost two centuries, we are not sure that the situation is much different today with regard to teachers of living Asian and African languages such as Arabic, Chinese, Hebrew, and Japanese and their literature, history, culture and religion
It is impossible to understand properly the present without also understanding the past. The same thing can be said with regard to language. One has to learn all the manifestations of Arabic in order to possess a comprehensive understanding of this language, its culture and literature. It is a complete entity. Language is the mirror of the soul of society which is the reservoir of the precipitates of its past. Or as Samuel Johnson has put it ‘the family tree of the nation’. Mastering a language facilitates understanding contents and nuances which cannot be obtained through translation as mentioned earlier. It opens a unique window towards the values, desires, hopes, thoughts and opinions of its native speakers. One of the results of modern specialisation is that we have experts who know, as a matter of fact, almost everything about nothing. On the other hand, we observe that the field of teaching and research of some scholars or professors is vast, such as Chinese studies, Japanese studies, African studies, Semitic languages and cultures, Indian studies, Arabic and Islam. The inevitable question that rises is to what extent such designation reflects reality and specialisation? Is it possible for ordinary scholars to excel in a such vast realm of study? No wander that the active knowledge on the part of these professors in the living languages that they teach is so poor. This vast attempt of specialisation is being achieved at the expense of the language of that field.
Do Western scholars hit the target when they apply their criteria employed in Western research in investigating and judging matters of other societies and cultures? Is this method sufficient? Do they not lose something in this process? Though the West today supplies the universally accepted scientific model of research, one has to bear in mind that the West has obtained its sources of research from the Arab Muslim Orient. In the Middle Ages the West was living in complete darkness. It seems to us that looking at the Arab society only through a Western lens creates a distorted picture. The students of the Western school of research are not sufficiently aware of the central role of Islam today especially among the so-called modern classes, almost seculars.
It would be interesting to compare Egyptian newspapers, such as al-Ahr?m and al-Akhb?r, with Western ones. Such newspapers are respected ones by all measures and opinions. Al-D•n (the word ‘ religion’, does not reflect completely the Arabic term) occupies an important place in these daily or other weekly newspapers. Almost every subject raised for discussion is dealt with from the religious point of view and not from the political-religious one. In addition there are various religious questions raised and answered: Is there any contradiction in hiring an advocate by a Muslim and the perception of tawakkul, that is to say, trust in God? What about a person who works and has no time to pray five times a day. Is this behaviour reckoned against him on the Day of Judgement (Yawm al-?is?b)? Will a Muslim who commits a sin remain forever in hell? Such inquiries and others known to us from the Middle Ages appear in modern and Westernized Arabic newspapers. Almost all the West including of course orientalists, Arabists, theologians and others have the notion that progress on the path of modernisation and westernisation on the part of the Arab World means that it will become more liberal, pluralistic and democratic. Yet, what in fact, has happened and is still taking place in various Arab counties as well as in other Muslim ones? We are witnessing the emergence of new Islamist movements. There are grounds for the argument which says that more democracy and liberalisation in Arab societies leads to the victory of political Islam and this is one of the major reasons why the guardians of democracy in America are not so eager to push in this direction.
It is to be noted that leaders of extreme Islamic factions in Iran and Egypt, for instance, have obtained their education and training in the West as engineers or experts in natural sciences or agriculture. Only a small number have been educated in the humanities in the West. Arabs already possess spirituality and moral values and what they need is technology based on a scientific way of thinking and analysis. Criticism and objection to the West has come from people who were educated in the West and not from the uneducated. Licentiousness and family disunion in the Western society play a central role in such a position. Therefore, Western research has to seek additional tools and approaches which may help to explain and understand such phenomena. A clear example of this phenomenon can be furnished by the well-known Sudanese Islamist, Dr. ?asan al-Tur?b•, who studied in London and Paris.
What are the sources which are available for researchers? There are both oral and written sources. However, there is inflation in words; people speak and write too much so that in many cases one cannot believe everything. One example in this connection suffices. It is an open secret that every newspaper errs in this aspect or that, and even leads the reader to obvious misunderstanding and faults. Not every logical story is true and not every illogical one is false. What one reads today will not be true tomorrow and what one newspaper publishes is not approved by another one. Such phenomena are well known to all educated people in our era. Yet, what happens after half a century or so? Almost in a magical way such newspapers become ‘holy’ or ‘semi-holy’ texts used as sources for the so-called authentic and serious research. The age of such documents makes them reliable and they are regarded as if they were fine wine. The same thing undoubtedly holds true with regard to the spoken word though such sources ought to be considered with caution. Moreover, we have to bear in mind that there are languages which are not written but oral. These languages were called ‘mute languages’ by the anthropologist, E. Hall. Hall has shown in an interesting manner how American delegations to the Middle East as well as to Japan have failed in their mission because everything which was beyond what was described in books and research summaries was misunderstood. In real situations much meaning can be expressed by intonation or body movements or by specific signs or gestures. These sources of knowledge and understanding, which are natural among native speakers of the same language, are important, difficult to understand from outside and perhaps harder to investigate. In other words there are meanings beyond the lexical contents of written texts, but are not generally explored by Western methods of research. In order to avoid misunderstandings one has to learn the locational and cultural context of a language and the emotional component plays an important role in Arabic vernaculars. Non-verbal communication such as intuition, body language, and nuances are very essential in Arabic. Usually in Arab culture emotions penetrate specific areas which are barred in Western cultures. In writing poetry language is far from being just a tool, it is rather an energy and a substantial part in the dynamics of creativity and originality. The usage of language, any living language, as a tool of communication is, as a matter of fact, the lowest level of mastering it. On the other hand, in its highest level it is an organic part of national identity , being and philosophy of life. Briefly, the lexical meaning of a specific word or expression is but a small part compared to the melody of the word, its spirit, shades and inspiration. A passive knowledge of living languages is crippled and void of creativity. h;
People worldwide want to understand what is happening in the cradle of civilization, which was the source of the alphabet, monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and which is also one of the main sources of oil. Yet, not less than that, people would like to know what Usama bin Laden wants and why. In order to understand his ideology one has to understand Islam and the past glory of Arabs for centuries, especially during the Middle Ages in which astrology, literature, medicine, philosophy, and science flourished in the Muslim Arab world (D?r al-Isl?m/al-Sal?m) in the East and the West alike. If a person, let alone an expert in Arabic and Islam, does not delve to the depths of Arabic culture both in theory and practice, he or she cannot understand the deep humiliation bin Laden talks about. The West in general and the United States of America in particular are depicted and considered as controling and lording over the Arab World while the central Arab issue, the Palestinian problem, is still unsolved!
Finally, common seminars and the natural, direct contact of Western people in general and researchers of Arabic and Islam in particular with Arab and Muslim scholars and thinkers in the Arab Mashriq and Maghrib in MSA or in any dialect is, in our view, a significant step toward mutual respect, trust and understanding.
Traditionally Muslims deem it impossible to render the Quran so that its meaning is adeqyately reflected. Some schools of thought maintained that it should not be translated at all. Arabic is strongly associated with Islam, the language of prayer, yet it is also spoken by Arab Christians, oriental Jews, Karaites, Samarirans and mandaeans. The great majority of the world’s Muslims do not speak Arabic, they know some phrases.