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Islam and Arabic Language

   The Qur'an of Muhammed, the central core of Islam, is the Arabic Qur'an. Not only is the book a compilation of the speech of God, it is a compilation of of the speech of God in Arabic. This speech is in Islamic tradition considered inimitable; any paraphrase of that speech would change the meaning and dignity of that speech. And any translation into any other language would also hopelessly change the meaning of the sacred text. The language of the Qur'an is known in the Western world as "classical Arabic"; among Islamic believers, however, it is known as al-Arabiyya.

   Since the Qur'an cannot be translated into other languages, all recitations of the sacred text are done in the original Arabic. It does not matter if the believer is Arabic, Malaysian, Chinese, or Russian; it is incumbent on them to perform their recitations from the original text. Since recitation of the Qur'an is a fundamental component of prayer (salah), it is fair to say that almost all Muslims are united by the common knowledge of this one language.

   The nature and status of Arabiyya in the Islamic tradition is difficult for most Westerners to grasp. In the European Christian tradition, the primary text of the religion has been freely translated. While Jesus of Nazareth probably spoke in Aramaic, the text of his sayings has only been known in the European tradition in Greek—:a substantially different language. This text has then been translated into Latin and eventually into every other European language. The original text, the words spoken by Jesus of Nazareth, are irreperably lost.

   Islam, however, can claim to have the very words that Muhammad spoke; these words, in turn, for a believer are the same words spoken to Muhammad by God through the angel Gabriel. In other words, when a Muslim opens the text of the Qur'an , he or she is reading the very words that God spoke. This gives the language of the Qur'an a sacred character in the tradition of Islam.

   Classical Arabic, like its modern descendants (Levantine Arabic, Palatine Arabic, Egyptian Arabic, and so on), is a Semitic language—the same language family that includes Hebrew, the languages of Mesopotamia (with the exception of Sumerian), and other partly Semitic languages, such as Ethiopian. It shares many of the same characteristics of Hebrew and other Semitic languages. However, despite these similarities, Classical Arabic is a highly unique language among Semitic languages.

   For lack of a better term, you might say that Arabiyya is primitive language. It seems to be a less modern language than even the languages of ancient Mesopotamia—considering that the ancient Mesopotamian writings precede the Qur'an by at least 2500 years, that's pretty amazing. The reason Arabic didn't change drastically from its most primitive forms is that Arabic society tended to remain centered in small groups. It is a linguistic truth that languages that are spoken only by small groups change very little; languages that are spoken by large groups—especially when foreign speakers are constantly entering that society—change fairly quickly and often drastically.

   Why point this out? Roughly speaking, you can consider languages as either based on concepts or based on roots. Almost all languages base meaning primarily on concepts. For instance, in English the word "act" means what it means because we associate it with a concept or a set of concepts. Learning English—or any other European language—involves learning to associate arbitrary concepts with certain words. In a root language, words mean what they mean because they are built off of other words; these base words are called roots. Now, while most languages are concept languages, some words have meaning only because they're built off of other words. In English, for instance, if you learn what the word "act" means, you should have no problem when you hear the word "actor"—you use the root to understand the word built off of the root.

   Classical Arabic as one of the most primitive Semitic languages is primarily a root language. Almost every word gets its meaning from the roots it is built off of rather than by associating a concept with the word. This gives Arabic an almost crystal clear aspect to it; there is little ambiguity or confusion in an classical Arabic sentence. The language is one of clarity, directness, and certainty—qualities that are hard to achieve in other languages.

   The Arabs were largely illiterate until slightly before the Islamic period. The alphabet that was invented for Arabic was a cursive alphabet drawn from other Semitic languages. Like other Semitic languages, this alphabet is immensely complex. Letters take different forms based on where they appear in a word: at the beginning, the end, or in the middle. Like Hebrew, the Arabic alphabet has no letters for vowels. Instead, vowels are indicated by diacritical marks above or below the letters they're supposed to follow.

   Because of the importance of the language as a sacred language and the cursive nature of the alphabet, Arabic writing became an art form unto itself. Perhaps the principal art form of Islam is calligraphy, or the artistic rendering of writing. Two major scripts developed for writing Arabic. Kufic script renders Arabic letters with straight vertical and horizontal lines meeting at ninety degree angles—this gives the written language the character of stability and unity. Nakshi script—the Arabic script you've probably seen the most of—renders words with highly cursive and flowing letters. These letters curve and twine around each other and give the language a character of temporality and change. From these two basic scripts arose all the calligraphic arts of Arabic and the Islamic tradition.

 


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