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Q44: Why is the Arabic language so important to Muslims?

The Arabic language carries great importance for Muslims all over the world but why is that? There are many reasons and I will try to give an explanation for this, not only why Arabic is important to Muslims but why it might also be useful to non-Muslims as well:

·        Arabic is the language of the Quran

The main reason why Arabic is important to people is for theological reasons and in particular, to be able to read the Quran, the religious book of Muslims, which is in Arabic.

·        Arabic uses many imperatives

Linguistically, an imperative is a word for a command, such as “go”, “talk” and “eat”. In English there are only two tenses: past and present (with variations) whereas in Arabic there are 3 tenses: past, present and imperative. In English, there is only one way to say this regardless of who you are talking to or how many people you are talking to. In Arabic however, there are 5 ways to say this in Arabic such as:

اذهب Itheb /go: for one male

إذهبي Ithebi /go: for one female

إذهبا Itheba /go: for two males /females

اذهبوا Ithebu /go: for 3 or more males

إذهبن Ithebna /go: for 3 or more females

 

This is very important when giving commands or instructions so that there is no confusion. This is especially important with commands in the Quran.

·        Arabic has not changed for over a thousand years

Unlike languages such as English that have changed a lot over the years, Arabic has very much remained the same. English for example is a Germanic language and borrows words from many languages so there is “Old English”, “Middle English” and “Modern English” as well as many varations including with some vocabulary and spelling such as “American English” and “British English”. You can get an idea of this difference

People can read textbooks that are over a thousand years’ old such as the Hadiths (sayings) of the Prophet PBUH have been recorded in Arabic and can still be read and understood today. You can see this from here.

Some of the writing looks different because of things such as using different fonts. Arabic also uses dots and sometimes other characters to indicate vowels. Vowel symbols are used such as: عُمان (notice the dashes above the first letter from the right) but this can also be written like as: عمان. Usually vowel symbols are only used when people do not know Arabic well /they are learning the language. As their experience increases, they no longer need to use them. Likewise, in the past, people were much better at language so they did not use any dots. However, it is the same language with the same letters.

·        Arabic is quite logical with similar words

Arabic has 28 letters in its alphabet so it is not too long (English has 26 letters). All of the words in Arabic come from 3-5 letter root words with many variations. This makes many words somewhat similar and easier to understand and there relatively few linguistic exceptions. This is an example:

علم Ilm /knowledge (this is the root word for 3 letters)

معلم Muallim (teacher)

عالم Alim (scholar)

عالم Aalam (world)

عالم Alam (flag /pinnacle)

علوم Uloom (science)

معلومات Malumat (information)

معالم Maalim (milestones)

·        Many languages have been influenced by Arabic

Arabic has had a great influence on many languages all over the world. This includes but is not limited to the following languages. I have given a few words as examples with the original Arabic words in transliteration and a few references for further reading. For many of the languages, you can simply do an Internet search such as “(language name) words of Arabic origin”:

 

English:admiral  (أمير البحر Amir Al Bahr /Prince of the Sea); assassin (حشاشين Hashashin /eater of hashish); alcohol (الكحل Al Kohl /Kohl for the eyes)

Albanian: some examples from

here.

French: Benzine (بنزين Benzine /Petrol); Gazette (غازات Ghazat /gasses); Hammam (حمام Hammam /bath)

Spanish: accutuna (الزيتونة Azzaituna /olive); aruz (أرز Aruz /rice); fatura (فاتورة Fatura /receipt)

Italian: rais (رئيس Rais /leader); limon (ليمون Laymoon /lemon); magezinno (مخازن Mekhazin /storage)

Portuguese:acucar  (السكر Assukar /sugar); masquinho (مسكين Miskeen /poor); genio (جن Jinn)

Swahili: examples from here.

Romanian: examples from here.

Russian: examples from here.

Malay: Ahad (أحد Ahad /Sunday) ; Bina (بناء Bina /structure); falsafah (فلسفة Falsafa /philosophy)

Urdu: kitab (كتاب Kitab /book), qalam (قلم Qalam /pen) and kursi (كرسي Kursi /Chair)

Somali: examples from here.

Turkish: merhaba (مرحبا Marhaban /Hello); tamam (تمام Tamam /fine); dunya (دنيا Dunya /world)

Mandarin:examples from here.

·        Arabic is still widely used even for Administrative purposes

It upsets me when people seem to think that Arabic is too complicated and /or not practical. On the contrary, Arabic is still actively used throughout the world with websites being written in Arabic, various Arabic keyboards for different Arabic countries (I like using the “Syrian 101” keyboard), books that are still written in Arabic and much more. There are also many Arabic websites and television channels all over the Arab World. There are also many schools, colleges and universities that teach courses in Arabic. An example of a very large and successful private institute that teaches courses including MBA in Arabic is Knowledge Horizon (you can find out more from here.The founder and owner of the organisation, Dr Maen Al Qatamin, also has many television interviews and programs in Arabic that can be seen on YouTube. Even more interesting is that long ago, Arabic was the language of science. You can also find out more about Muslim scientists and their achievements from here.

·        Arabic is the official language of over 20 countries

This includes Arab countries including Libya, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen and other countries. Some people might wonder how people can possibly understand each other when there are different Arabic dialects such as from Sudan, Egypt, Iraq, Morocco and Saudi Arabia. I have worked as an Arabic Interpreter and Translator so I have dealt with such people and spoken to people from almost all Arab countries and noticed that some of the dialects are very different (I find this especially confusing with Moroccan /Tunisian dialects as they mix Arabic words with French). However, I was able to communicate with others successfully at all levels using Modern Standard Arabic. Likewise, documentary /news programs on television use Modern Standard Arabic, which is universally understood throughout the Arab World.

The Quran itself takes into account the differences in dialects and there are 7 types of Quran recitation. You can find out more from here. You can get an idea of how different some Quranic recitations are by listening to some samples of Surah Al Fatiha (the Opening verse of the Quran) by 4 famous reciters such as Sheikh Mishary Al Affasy from Kuwait (from here) , Sheikh Abdul Rahman Al Huzaifi from Medina (from here), Sheikh Abdul Rahman Al Sudais from Makkah (from hereand Sheikh Abdul Basit Abdul Samad from Egypt (from here) . Keep in mind that all of them are reciting the exact same verse of the Quran and yet their styles vary considerably.

Some people might wonder then about the case of non-Arabic speakers who cannot read the Quran and why they should not simply read the translation. In many ways, this is a way of preserving the original Arabic text and also as a form of unity. If you have ever done any work with translation, you will know that people can make more than one translation of a text, which means that words can be different. However, if someone does not know the language but still tries to learn and has good intentions, there is hope for them to be rewarded extra for this. The Prophet PBUH (Peace Be Upon Him) said: “The deeds are considered by the intentions, and a person will get the reward according to his intention. So whoever emigrated for Allah and His Messenger, his emigration will be for Allah and His Messenger; and whoever emigrated for worldly benefits or for a woman to marry, his emigration would be for what he emigrated for”. (Bukhari and Muslim).

 

Having said that, ironically some of the most knowledgeable people of the Arabic language were non -Arabs such as Imam Al Bukhari from Uzbekistan Imam and Al Tabbari from Persia. “The Noble Quran”, one of the most famous translations of the Quran has two authors, one of whom is from the Indian subcontinent.

·        Arabic is an important community language in many countries

Societies are quite multicultural so nearly all countries have minorities from different parts of the world including many societies with Arabic speaking minorities. This can include both Arabs and non-Arabs including those who know Arabic for religious reasons. As an example, when I went for Hajj, I was able to speak to someone from Brunei in Arabic and on another occasion someone from South India in Arabic (his first language was Tamil). Likewise, I was able to interpret for an Arab woman from Sierra Leone.

·        The number of Arabic learners /speakers might increase

Hardly any day passes without some sort of mention of “Arab” and /or “Islam” in mainstream media today. Based on this, many people try to learn Arabic and /or use it such as for legal purposes and within the police. Likewise, Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world with over 1.6 Billion followers worldwide, so many people who convert to Islam try to learn Arabic in order to better understand the religion and to be able to read the Quran. As the number of Muslims increases rapidly, the number of Arabic speakers worldwide might also increase rapidly.

Arabic is important to Muslims but that does not mean that other languages are to be neglected and /or Arabic should be forced onto others. Different languages have their strengths and merits. The Prophet PBUH himself used words of other languages such as the Ethiopian language at the time such as in the following narration: The Prophet PBUH said, “Near the establishment of the Hour, there will be the days of Al-Harj, and the religious knowledge will be taken away (vanish i.e. by the death of Religious scholars) and general ignorance will spread.” Abu Musa said, “Al-Harj, in the Ethiopian language, means killing.” (Sahih Al Bukhari 7666). Likewise, Zaid ibn Thabit was a companion of the Prophet PBUH who had a talent for languages so the Prophet PBUH advised him to go and learn the language of the Jews (at the time that might have been Hebrew /Ancient Hebrew). You can find out more about him from here.

 

It might surprise you that roughly around the 8th Century, there was a translation movement in Baghdad in Iraq whereby Muslims, Christians and Jews worked together to translate Greek works into Arabic. You can find out more from here. During the end of the program, “What the ancients did for us?” British Historian, Adam Hart Davies explains this movement and that if it was not for the translation movement much of the works of the ancient Greeks could have been lost forever. You can find out more about his series from here. Things did not stop at the works of the ancient Greeks however as there were other Muslims such as Al Biruni, who also studied Sanskrit, the ancient Hindu language.

Nowadays, many new technologies have names that cannot be translated such as “WhatsApp”, “Facebook” and other technologies so these names are simply used as they are in Arabic. Some substitute words have been used however such as with the following:

شبكة (Shabaka /net): used for the Internet;

 موقع(Mowqi /site): used for “website”;

القاعدة (Al Qaeda /the base): used for “database”

Having said the above, I hope you have a better understanding of the importance of the Arabic language to Muslims and others.

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