by Jehad Al-Omari
A few weeks ago, I found myself repeatedly humming a tune of a well-known Arabic song lamenting the loss of Andalusia and its splendour. It suddenly struck me that the words of this song, indeed the entire poem, are more than seven hundred years old. It is one of literally hundreds of a school of poetry that are sung throughout the Arab world called “Muwashahaat”. The name refers to a style of poetry that was first developed in Andalusian Spain some seven hundred to a thousand years ago. Readers who are not familiar with the Arabic language might be amazed that even to the ordinary non-educated Arab, the Muwashahaat are perfectly understood as if they were only written a few years ago.
Although today we use the term ‘Modern Literary Arabic’ to distinguish it from ‘Classical Arabic’ or “Fos-ha” the distance or gap between the two isn’t that great. In other words, the main difference between the two is that Modern Literary Arabic simply avoids the use of ancient, dead or difficult words and those aren’t too many if we compare them to the differences between, say, Modern English and Medieval English. In fact, Classical Arabic is significantly older than Medieval English as it dates to around the 7th Century CE. Yet, Classical Arabic is fairly accessible to the modern Arab providing that they are reasonably educated. In other words, if someone has the skills to understand and appreciate Modern Literary Arabic then they would find Classical Arabic reasonably accessible.
The most credible theory as to why this is the case relates to the Qur’an, the Muslim Holy Book. To understand this, we must go back to the 7th century of the Common Era (CE) and before it and to the origins of Classical Arabic and the revelation of the Qur’an. Prior to the advent of Islam, the Arabic people of the Arabian Peninsula all spoke Arabic but with many varying dialects. The revelation of the Qur’an by the Prophet Mohammed changed all of this. The language of the Qur’an and its poetry was considered to be supreme to all the Arabic poetry of previous ages and generations. The Qur’an was considered to be the only miracle of the Prophet Mohammed in the same way other biblical prophets such as Moses and Jesus were gifted with miracles. For the Arabic language it signified a new age and a major linguistic leap. Gradually, the Arabic language began to become standardized; the Qur’an became the single most important point of reference and measurement rule in all things grammatical.
By the 9th century CE, which is two centuries after the rise of Islam and during the golden Abbasid Dynasty (750 to 1258 CE), many linguistic schools had by then emerged, most notably in Basrah and Kufah in modern-day Iraq. Scholars began to standardize the Arabic language by way of establishing grammatical rules, authoring dictionaries and collecting new words from the remote tribes of Arabia. There was also a practical reason for this. As the Abbasid Caliphate expanded west and east to cover all of north Africa and well into Asia, bordering China and including northern India, there was a need to teach the empire’s new subjects standard Arabic and to protect the language from foreign influences. Interestingly, as time went by, some of the most notable Arabic linguists were themselves of foreign origin, especially Persians. This is when standard or Classical Arabic was basically carved into stone and became the lingua franca of the Islamic empire and its peoples. Most of the Islamic creative works in Science, Literature, and Philosophy were written in Classical Arabic, from the extreme western areas such as Andalusia in modern-day Spain to Samarkand in today’s Uzbekistan.
The centrality of the Qur’an and, with it, the Hadith (the Prophet’s Traditions and Sayings) meant that the language which was standardized in the 9th century CE was largely protected and preserved for all future generations. The result is that a reasonably educated Arab can easily pick any book written in Arabic ten centuries ago and read it with a good level of understanding barring a few old words or expressions that may have gone out of use. This continuity with the past is considered a source of richness enabling us Arabs to delve into past treasures and masterpieces. Indeed, for the Arabs, it is said that they have stored their heritage and culture in poetry. There are seven classical poems that actually predate Islam that continue to resonate with the Arabs’ sense of beauty, love, fidelity, heroism, courage and valour. They are called “Mu’alakat”, meaning “Hung”, as it is believed that they were written and hung on the “Kabaah” (the black cubicle) in Mecca which is Islam’s holiest shrine (though Muslims believe it was built by Abraham and his son Ishmael some two thousand years before the Prophet’s birth in Mecca).
Compare this with, say, the English Language and the great gap between the Medieval English of Geoffrey Chaucer or even Shakespearean English on one side and Modern English on the other. In a nutshell, there is no comparison. What an average Arab can understand in terms of Classical Arabic is far greater than what an average native English speaker can understand from a Shakespearean play (let alone Chaucer!). As an avid reader of English classics, I consider the most difficult piece of literature that I have read so far is “Waverley” by Scottish author Sir Walter Scott, published in 1814, and for some time I dared not go any earlier or even try a contemporary of his. However, I have recently been reliably informed that I should test my English with another difficult novel, namely “Northanger Abbey” by English writer Jane Austen (published in 1818, a year after she died). I have enjoyed all Austen’s other novels and found them accessible but this, I am told, will be harder for me to grasp. For foreign learners of Arabic, a similar task would not pose such a challenge. This is not to say that Arabic is an easy language to learn but rather once reasonably mastered one can access any work of literature from any period of Islamic history with less difficulty.
Notwithstanding all of the above, today the Arab world, extending across north Africa and western Asia, has far more dialects than nations. It is conceivable that if a Moroccan tries to have a conversation with a Bahraini, each in their own dialect, they would not understand each other very well or at least would face many challenges. What tends to happen when this takes place is that both will moderate their language and move towards Classical Arabic or Modern Literary Arabic so that they can communicate with reasonable ease. This is primarily the case with spoken Arabic but not with the majority of written Arabic where I as a Jordanian would have absolutely no problem reading a piece of literature from Sudan or even the Senegal (not an Arab country) as long as it is written in Modern Literary Arabic. As an example, there are several pan-Arab competitions for the “Poet of the Year”, and it is not unusual to find Arabs from non-Arab countries joining in. The same happens with the many International Qur’an recitation competitions and it is not unusual for an Indonesian or a Ugandan to win it. Such is the world of Islam and Arabic, and it is said that being an Arab means that you belong not to a race but to a tongue.
However, there is a dichotomy that arises between the spoken Arabic language and its written version. There are those who now advocate that the written should follow the spoken and people should be encouraged to write as they speak, so that each country sticks to its own dialect eventually developing into an independent language. These voices are becoming more vociferous, but they remain in the minority. Most Arabs simply do not want to lose the connection with the Qur’an. In the words of the British diplomat and great Arabist, Sir James Macqueen Craig, “the Arabic language did not split because the Arabs do not want to.”