How Arabic is a window on the world

A chance find in a Damascus bookshop is a reminder that to study Arabic is to be drawn into a wider and vibrant multicultural world

Tarek Makhlouf, University of Melbourne

Tarek Makhlouf

Published 2 July 2020

Sometime in early 2010 I was visiting my favourite bookshops in the al-Halbouni suburb of Damascus. This was before the civil war.

Al-Halbouni is an Arabic book lover’s paradise: it has dozens of bookshops door-to-door packed with books of all genres and types.

The central souk (marketplace) in Damascus in 2019. Picture: Noe Falk Nielsen/NurPhoto/Getty Images

Closely scanning the shelf before me, I reached for a volume with a blank spine – a good sign that it was a facsimile of a rare text printed in the late nineteenth or early twentieth centuries. I had stumbled on a commentary of a classical Arabic philosophical text that was new to me.

My excitement was soon replaced by astonishment as my eyes scanned down the page. I stopped and stared at the two lines of Cyrillic text. The accompanying Arabic told me that this book was printed in 1901 in Kazan, in what was then the Russian Empire.

I had seen Arabic texts printed in many places before; from Leipzig to Lucknow and many others in between. But now holding this book printed in Russian Tartarstan made me realise that the way Arabic studies is taught in Australia is too narrow. It isn’t just about Arabs.

Today, Arabic is mostly thought of as the language of the Arab world and the liturgical language of Islam. But Arabic, and its literary heritage, is much more than a national or religious language – it is a classical and global cosmopolitan language with a vibrant culture that spans a millennium.

The spread of Arabic and its complex interactions with different cultures in Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Americas challenges us to think of Arabic studies differently.

Arabic began as the language of the inhabitants of the northern part of the Arabian Peninsula and the Syrian desert no less than two thousand years ago. The Arabs were politically insignificant on the world stage and therefore there wasn’t much interest in their language. But the Arabs loved their language and composed copious amounts of poetry, their main artistic output.

A Qur’an from India, written for the Sultan of Lahore in 1573 CE. (MS 18497) Picture: British Library

Islam forever changed the fate of Arabic. It became the language of the holy book of Islam, the Qur’an, and its grammar and literature was, and continues to be, studied intensively. Its status as the official language of the Islamic polity meant that thousands of scribes came to mould and shape the language for use on a grander stage.

By the beginning of the ninth century Arabic was ready to be used widely – its grammar had been well documented and therefore could be learned, it was backed by an empire and a network of patrons, and could be reliably distributed on reasonably priced paper, the latest technology of the day adopted from the Chinese.

In the same century the majority of those writing in Arabic were ethnically non-Arab. Arabic became the new site of world culture. The Nestorian Christians translated Hellenistic learning to Arabic, including the great Greek philosophers like Aristotle as well as the medicine of Galen, the mathematics of Euclid, and the astronomy of Ptolemy.

Islamic Persia brought into Arabic its Middle Persian learning which often contained Sanskrit knowledge. One of the earliest great works of Arabic prose was Kalila wa-Dimna, translated from Middle Persian, which ultimately came from the Sanskrit Panchatantra (‘five treatises’) – a book of animal fables to teach virtues.

Arabic had become a melting pot of cultures and languages as it was moulded and expanded to take in more of the world. Arabic travelled wherever Muslims went, including its script and literary canon.

Muslims brought Arabic to some regions as conquerors, but to others as slaves. They came sometimes as preachers and saints and sometimes as traders and sailors. While Arabic is now forever linked with Islam, peoples of other beliefs or no belief have found Arabic a safe haven too. Jews, Christians, atheists and others continue to leave their mark on Arabic.

Timbuktu in Mali was a historic centre of Arabic learning in Africa and tens of thousand of Arabic manuscripts have been discovered there. Picture: EurAstra, Mission to Mali/Wikipedia

In Europe Arabic has left its mark on Spain, Portugal and Sicily – regions formerly under Muslim control – and Maltese is an Arabic language with many Italian and English loanwords. Arabic science and literature became one of the pillars of the European Renaissance.

Through Persian, Arabic heavily influenced many Turkic and Iranian languages that would ultimately spread from Turkey to the Uyghurs in modern day China.

Dozens of languages in sub-Saharan Africa adopted the Arabic script (known collectively as Ajami), and integrated Arabic words and ideas. Timbuktu in Mali was a centre of Arabic learning from the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries, and tens of thousands of extant Arabic manuscripts in every conceivable genre have been found there.

Half the total vocabulary of Swahili – the official language of Kenya and Tanzania and a lingua franca across East Africa – has its roots in Arabic. The Comoros Islands, off the coast of Mozambique, is part of the Arab League.

Arabic was brought to the Americas by some enslaved West Africans who were well versed in the Arabic literary canon. Testimonies of their activities and manuscripts of their Arabic works written in America survive to this day.

Columbus took Moriscos (Spanish Muslims forcibly converted to Christianity) on his first trip to America. Since the nineteenth century, many Arabs (mainly Christian) from Greater Syria have migrated to Latin America generating a vibrant Arabic, Spanish, and Portuguese literary heritage.

The opening leaves of a seventeenth-century Qur’an written in ṣīnī (‘Chinese’) script, (BL Or.15604, ff. 1v-2r). Picture: British Library

Arabic influenced many languages in South Asia from Urdu in Pakistan and Hindi in northern India, to Tamil in southern India and Sri Lanka. Malay was written in an Arabic script called Jawi which today is used officially in Brunei and some regions of Malaysia, and unofficially across the region, as far as the Philippines where it is used to write Tausug.

The Javanese, Madurese, and Sundanese languages were also commonly written in an Arabic script known as Pegon.

The Muslims of Southeast Asia spread the Arabic script further – some of earliest written documents in Afrikaans were written by the cape Malays in South Africa. Muslims from Southeast Asia also took the Arabic script to Madagascar, were Malagasy was written in an Arabic script known as Sorabe.

In China in the fourteenth century Muslims developed Xiao’erjing, a system of writing Sinitic languages in Arabic characters. This system is still used among Chinese Muslims today.

One of the most interesting intellectual and literary projects in Islamic history is a loose collection of works in Classical Chinese known as the Han Kitab. Many authors have contributed to this genre – the earliest is from the seventeenth century.

The name itself a symbol of a hybrid culture: ‘Han’ the Chinese word for Chinese, and ‘Kitab’, the Arabic word for book. Among other things these works attempt to articulate Islam in a way that could be understood in the dominant cultures of China – Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism.

The Arabic book printed in Kazan that I found in Damascus has been a catalyst for me to reconsider how Arabic studies in Australia can be redesigned to study not just the Arab world, but also the wider influence of the Arabic language, especially throughout Asia.

Arabic studies should be truly transnational, tracing the complex interactions that the Arabic traditions have had in different regions, and the dynamic exchange it continues to have with other literary cultures. It may help us restore a way of thinking and being that we have lost in an age where we find ourselves oscillating between hyper-nationalism and hyper-globalisation.

The flux, confluence, and divergence of these cultures is politically and culturally significant to the fabric of the Asian society today.

A longer version of this article appears in the Melbourne Asia Review.

Banner: Aerial View of the Federal Territory Mosque, Masjid Wilayah Persekutuan, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia/Getty Images

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