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Fatima is Fatima

by : Dr. Ali Shari'ati

Back You are here: Home Books Miscellaneous Islam, the Qur'an and the Arabic Literature

Islam, the Qur'an and the Arabic Literature - Islam, the Qur'an, and the internationalization of the Arabic language

Article Index

The revelation of the Quran in Arabic in the early part of the seventh century AD helped the language to acquire and international status which it has continued to enjoy until the present day. It has been argued that Arabic has not simply remained ancillary to Islam but that it has been significant as a 'means of cultural and national revival in the Arabic-speaking countries.'49

It is true that Arabic has played an important role in the life and history of the Arab people, but without the bond it has with Islam it would not have been likely to have acquired the type of international status it has acquired through Islam. It was under the banner of religion that Arabic spread beyond the borders of the Arabian Peninsula.

The early Muslims who emerged from the north-western part of the Arabian Peninsula brought with them not only the Islamic religion but Arabic as well. This phenomenon was so remarkable that, within a few centuries after the revelation of the Qur'an, Arabic became the common language of government, correspondence, business, and literary expression.

The speed and facility with which Arabic was first accepted and then eventually absorbed in the new countries was remarkable, and it was largely due to its association with Islam. Converts to the new religion looked with great interest towards the original language of their Holy Book.50 They were clearly fascinated by the new religion and its language. The desire on the part of the new converts to identify with the resourceful pioneers emerging from the Arabian Peninsula was yet another factor in their adoption of the language.

Arabic was able to replace such languages as Greek and Syriac in Syria and the Fertile Crescent, Coptic, Greek, and Latin in Egypt, and Pahlavi in Persia. Syriac, a dialect of the ancient Aramaic language, had a flourishing literature until it gave way to Arabic in the seventh century AD, and was subsequently limited to being a vehicle for translating Greek literature and philosophy into Arabic.

In Egypt, the languages used until the early seventh century were Coptic and Greek; both languages, however, gave way to Arabic, which became the common language of the country, with Coptic as the language of the local Christian Church. By the end of the ninth century, Arabic was already being used in churches alongside Coptic.51

In Persia, Pahlavi, the language of the Sassanian dynasty (224 640 AD), used the Arabic alphabet and contained a large number of Arabic loan-words. Following the Arab conquest in 640, Pahlavi gave way to New Persian, which adopted the Arabic script and which was greatly influenced by Arabic. It is estimated that one third of the vocabulary of modern Persian (Farsi), is of Arabic origin.52

Persian scholars engaged in the field of Islamic studies wrote mostly in Arabic. Among these were such prominent figures as Ibn Sina (980 1037), al Ghazzali (1058-1111), and Abu Bakr al-Razi of the twelfth century AD who wrote more than thirty books in Arabic. Even though Farsi began to develop its own identity and become gradually independent from Arabic around the tenth century AD,53 the language is still written in the Arabic script.54

Similarly, the Arabic script was adopted for the Turkic languages following the conversion to Islam of speakers of these languages, which include, in the Southern Division, Turkish, Azerbaijani, Turkoman, and Chuvash, and, in the Eastern Division, Kinghiz, Kazakh, and Tatar.

The Turkic languages continued to use the Arabic script until the early part of this century. The Turkish language, the most important of the Turkic languages, was doubly influenced by Arabic; first, through conversion to Islam, the adoption of the Arabic script, and the adoption of a large number of Arabic loan-words, and secondly through the medium of Farsi. As in the case of the latter, Arabic was the language of composition for many Turkish scholars, notably in the fields of religious and philological studies.55

In the Indian subcontinent, the introduction of Arabic was similarly largely due to the adoption of the Islamic faith. It was the language of government during the reign of the sultan Jalal al-Din (963-1014 AH). There is evidence, however, that Arabic reached India prior to the tenth Islamic century through Farsi, which was the language of the court in India prior to the advent of Islam.

Urdu, a written variety of Hindustani with a substantial quantity of Arabic words, is the language used by Muslims; it employs the Arabic alphabet. A great majority of the Urdu scholars of the twelfth Islamic century used the medium of Arabic for their writings. Prominent among them were Wali Allah al-Dihlawi, Shibli al-Na'mani, and Karamat Husayn.56

Arabic gained more and more ground with the increasing Muslim influence in India. Urdu, which has a vocabulary of which at least thirty per cent is of Arabic origin, continues to the present to be the foremost among the dialects spoken among the Muslims of India and Pakistan. The impact of Arabic extended to other Indic languages such as Hindi and Sindhi, the latter using the Arabic alphabet.

In south-east Asia, the arrival of Islam in the fourteenth century AD brought with it the Arabic language, whose alphabet was subsequently adopted by the Malayo-Polynesian languages. These languages are spoken by the inhabitants of the Malay Peninsula, Madagascar, Taiwan, Indonesia, New Guinea, the Melanesian, Micronesian, and Polynesian islands, the Philippines, and New Zealand. These languages employ writing systems based on the Roman, Hindic, and Arabic alphabets.57

The impact of Islam and the Arabic language was not confined to these parts of Arabia, Africa, and Asia. Indeed, the spread of Islam into the European continent led to the subsequent introduction of Arabic. Less than a century later, the impact of Arabic began to be felt on such languages as Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, French, English, and German.

The impact was most noticeable in Spain and Portugal, where Arabic existed alongside the native languages and was used in church liturgy and in business transactions. It was generally through Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian that Arabic influenced other European languages, including the Scandinavian languages.

The number of Arabic loan-words in Spanish is in the thousands. Many names of cities, rivers, villages, and provinces in Spain have retained their Arabic forms, as in place-names which begin with the words bani, wadi, and al('son', 'valley', and 'the', respectively), as in Bani al-Madina, Wadi al-Kabir, and al-Qasr.58

Among the Arabic loan-words in European languages there is a host of scientific terminology. The existence of scientific words of Arabic origin in European languages is attributed to the pioneering efforts of Muslim scholars in the fields of mathematics, physics, chemistry, and medicine. In their works, Muslim scholars had to coin an entirely new terminology to introduce their innovations, which included such novel concepts as algebra, the algorithm, alkali, alchemy, and alcohol. In addition to scientific terms, European languages contain many everyday words of Arabic origin, e.g., coffee, sugar, saffron, admiral, arsenal. Arabic numerals are another case in point.