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The Odyssey Of the Arabic Language and Its Script

posted on: Jan 1, 2020

By: Habeeb Salloum/Contributing Writer

The Arabic language is the youngest of Semitic idioms which include Aramaic, the Assyro-Babylonian tongues, Ethiopic, Hebrew and South Arabic like Sabean and Himyaritic. However, it is the nearest to the original archetype, ‘Ursemitisch’, from which all these tongues are derived.

Arabic, as we know it today, developed from the language of the Quraysh (the Prophet Muhammad’s tribe), the purest and the best evolved of the North Arabian dialects. Today, it is the most widely used Semitic tongue, surpassing all the others in its wealth of synonyms, harmonious patterns, concision, clarity and eloquence. It has succeeded in bringing out the potentialities of the Semitic family of speech to a higher stage of development than any of its kindred tongues – most of which are now dead or almost dead.

Modern Arabic has not undergone significant phonological or syntactical change in its literary form. Even though there are a myriad of dialects in the Arab-speaking world, fusha, a simplified version of Qur’anic Arabic, unites the people. It is the written language of all Arab lands, used in newspapers, schools, television and radio.

The Arabic alphabet is simple and concise. It has 28 letters, all consonants – with the exception of three used for long vowels. The other vowels are supplied by 14 diacritical marks which also serve as noun and verb modifiers. These are placed above or below the consonants to bring out the correct pronunciation of the words.

As to the Arabic script, there is still some dispute as to when it was developed. Some writers indicate that its origin can be traced back to some 4,500 years, but well established archaeological records only go back to the 4th century A.D. These indicate that the Arabic script evolved from Nabatean, a direct descendant of Aramaic which is itself the offspring of a Proto-Semitic alphabet – an early script,  developed between the 18th and 16th centuries B.C., which also is the ancestor of all the European and, with the exception of the Chinese, Asiatic alphabets. Early after the advent of Islam, Arabic writing evolved into two types of scripts. Kufic, developed in the Iraqi city of Kufah, has now largely been discontinued except for architectural design purposes. It lends itself admirably to ornamentation and is still employed extensively in art and construction throughout the Islamic world.

The second, called Naskhi, a cursive script transcribed in a great variety of artistic styles, originated in Mecca and Medina. Noted for its beauty, it is the ancestor of modern Arabic writing and exists today in many complex and decorative patterns. Both forms are noted for their elegance and artistry, lending themselves to the creation of exquisite aesthetic works.

In the 7th century, Arabic, immortalized in the language of the Qur’an, and Islam became inseparable. As the Muslim armies moved through North Africa, then through the Iberian Peninsula and eastward, from the Arabian heartland, to the heart of Asia, the tongue of the Arabs as a part of the new religion, spread like wildfire. The masses of newly-converted Muslims, in many cases, took as their own the idiom of the conquering desert men. In a few decades, it became a leading world language and the intellectual medium which united most of the civilized world.

The spectacular conquests of the Arab armies made Arabic the language par excellence of Islam and the Qur’an, and the only suitable tongue with which a Muslim could approach God. No one who became a Muslim could escape, at least, some use of Arabic. Neither Greek, Latin nor any other language ever attained world stature as did classical Arabic – a language well-suited to interact with other idioms. Joel Carmichael in his book The Shaping of the Arabs writes:

“The possibilities in Arabic for the use of figurative language are endless; its allusiveness, tropes and figures of speech place it far beyond the reach of any other language… Arabic loses on translation but all other languages gain on being translated into Arabic.”

The enormous expanse of conquered territory, by far surpassing that of all the ancient Semitic empires combined, gave Arabic a world stature, not attained by any other language except, perhaps, English, in our time. By the eleventh century Arabic was widely spoken and written by all cultivated Muslims from the heart of China to the borders of France, displacing the old literary languages like Aramaic, Coptic, Greek and Latin. It became the language of art, culture, the intellect, science and technology of the entire scholastic world, aiding in the establishment of an Islamic civilization which was to become one of the greatest the world had ever known.

In addition, not long after the early conquests, the Arabic script began to be adopted by the languages of the people who had been converted to Islam. In a few centuries, Kurdish, Persian, Pashto, Turkish, a number of tongues in the Indian sub-continent; and languages like Berber in North Africa and Spain began to utilize the Arabic script. Soon its embracement by a great number of non-Arab Muslim tongues formed a cultural boundary which demarcated the Islamic world from other lands. Travellers, once they crossed this frontier, would know at once that they had entered another world.

Later, a good number of the Malayo-Polynesian dialects, the vernaculars of the Muslim peoples in West Africa like Hausa and in East Africa, Somali and Swahili; some of the languages of Central Asia like Tadjik, Tartar and Uzbek; and in the Indian sub-continent such idioms as Kashmiri, Punjabi, Sindhi and Urdu; and a few Slavonic tongues in Europe, adopted the Arabic script. The language of the Qur’an also influenced the grammar of other languages like Hebrew which began to employ some of the Arabic linguistic approaches and terminology.

The use of the Arabic script was well established in all Muslim lands until contested by the Spanish Reconquista and later by modern colonialism in Asia and Africa. With the European conquerors came missionaries and colonial administrators who, in the main, looked with disfavour on the Arabic language and its script. They reasoned that by doing away with the Arabic alphabet, the language of the Qur’an would become incomprehensible to the people, dividing them from their brother Muslims – hence, easier to control.

The schools which they established graduated students with inferiority complexes vis-a-vis the West. These westernized Asians and Africans, including the Arabs themselves, came to regard Arabic as a fossilized language and therefore its script could not be suitable for the modern-technical age. The seemingly invincible Europeans also developed in the non-colonized Muslims, like the Ottomans, a feeling of inferiority when it came to the West and its languages.

Nevertheless, long before the colonialists came to Asia and Africa, the language of the Qur’an was under attack. Spain banned Arabic soon after the fall of Granada but the Moriscos, former Muslims forcibly converted to Christianity, continued to secretly use the Arabic script. Even though they had forgotten Arabic, they wrote, until their expulsion from Spain in 1609, in Aljamiado – Spanish written in the Arabic script. After their banishment the Arabic alphabet disappeared from the Iberian Peninsula.

Soon after the First World War the Arabic script employed in a number of languages began to be discarded. It was replaced by the Latin alphabet in the Muslim lands under Russian rule in 1927-28 and Turkey abolished the Arabic script in 1928, replacing it with modified Latin. Somalia, in the last few decades, has followed a similar path. Its language, once written in the Arabic script, has been now Latinized. In India, since independence, the Arabic script, for hundreds of years employed in languages like Kashmiri, Punjabi and Sindhi, is being gradually replaced by the Devanagari alphabet.

Hausa, the lingua franca of West Africa, spoken by over 50 million in that part of the continent, was for centuries written in Ajami – a form of the Arabic alphabet. It borrowed a great number of words from Arabic and these greatly influenced its vocabulary. However, in the early decades of the 20th century, due to the influence of missionary schools and British colonial officials, the Arabic script was to a great extent abandoned for that of Latin. Today, only some religious literature continues to be written in Ajami.

Swahili, spoken by the coastal population of East Africa from Somalia to Mozambique and inland to Central Africa, has met a similar fate. One of the most widely spread languages in Africa, it contains many Arabic loanwords, but the missionaries from the first day they set foot in Africa worked to do away with its Arabic script. By about the mid 19th century onwards, the Arabic alphabet was completely ousted by a Latin-based script.

In the Malaysian/Indonesian archipelago up to the 13th century, Sanskrit was used in writing the dozens of languages used throughout the islands. By the 14th century after Islam had been introduced into the archipelago by Arab traders, the Arabic script began to replace Sanskrit by the peoples who had accepted Islam. The modified form of Arabic used in writing the Malay language became to be known as Jawi, the Arabic name for Java. Besides propagating Malay literature, it aided immensely in the dissemination and understanding of Islam.

With the European invasions came the missionaries who introduced a Romanized script called Rumi. This has become the alphabet of both Bahasa Malaysia and Bahasa Indonesian, virtually the same tongue – today the most widespread language in southeast Asia. Even though Jawi is still taught in a few schools, it has lost much of its importance – almost disappearing in Indonesia and rarely used in Malaysia. The missionaries’ self-serving arguments that the Arabic script is not as well suited for reproducing sounds in the non-Arabic speaking languages, has been swallowed whole by many of the educated Malay and other non-Arab Muslim people.

Yet, Arabic is still expanding world-wide. Some 300 million use it as a mother tongue and another 800 million as a religious language. Its script remains the second most widely used alphabetic writing in the world, only exceeded by the Latin alphabet. Besides Arabic, over ten languages retain the Arabic script – the most important being Urdu, Persian, Pushto, Kurdish, and Sindhi in Pakistan.

The Arabic language itself continues to enjoy great cultural power. As a transmitter of Islamic thought, it affects the more than one billion people in the Islamic world from the Atlantic to the Pacific and from southern Europe to well past the Sahara.

Unlike any of the other world languages, Arabic has assumed its place as an international language twice – during the Golden Age of Islam and in our modern times. It is now one of the six idioms used in the United Nations and has been made a working language in the Organization of African Unity. Also, it has recently been reinstated as a second tongue in Iran, Pakistan and the southern part of the Philippines.

The attempt for centuries by European colonial officials, missionaries and anti-Muslims throughout the world to downgrade Arabic and its script has generally not been very successful. It continues to be a living vibrant language, revered by Muslims and non-Muslim Arabs throughout the world.

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