The Arabic Language and the Quran
Issue 95 August 2012
The Qur’an is considered by Muslims as the revealed word of God. Yet written in Arabic, it is not in a language that most Muslims understand. Ali Khimji explores how the text has persevered in its original linguistic form.
or over 1400 years Muslims have said their prayers in Arabic. Despite being from a range of ethnic groups and communities, spread all over the world, speaking all manner of languages, this fact has remained consistent. It is quite surreal to think that a Pakistani born and raised in Britain and a member of the Uighur community in China, two individuals who you could have presumed have no cultural practices in common, would converse with God in a language that is not native to them.
What is it about the Arabic language that makes it such an intrinsic part of the Islamic faith? If we look at Christianity, in its early days it was propagated through Hebrew, Greek and Latin, but most Christians in the United Kingdom for example, would never have encountered the words of the Bible in any other language except English, unless they were a Biblical scholar. In fact, the King James Bible is widely praised as one of the greatest translations of the Christian Bible, and even staunch atheists such as Richard Dawkins cannot help themselves from singing its praises of literary excellence. Surely if we were to define Islam and the Qur’an in the language of each country, it would help to make the faith more accessible to all.
So perhaps it is something about the Arabic language itself, that Muslims have felt the need to preserve the Word of God in this particular form. Today, Arabic is spoken by 280 million first language speakers around the world, but this is in its Modern Standard Arabic format. Because this is spoken across the Middle East and North Africa, various dialects have sprung up for each region. You have the Western dialect that is found in the Maghreb region of Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and Libya. Further along, you have the Central dialect, consisting of Egyptian and Sudanese Arabic. Then you come to the Gulf region and the Southern dialect, where each of the states has their own variation on the dialect. And finally the Northern dialect, which encompasses the Arabic spoken in Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Palestine and Lebanon.
The Qur’an has been kept in Classical Arabic, known as fus’ha, which means ‘the clearly spoken one’ or ‘the language of eloquence’. It is part of the Semitic family of languages, where the defining feature is the use of triconsonantal roots to create words. The other interesting factor about the Semitic languages is that when a new form is developed, it renders its predecessors ineffective, so when Arabic was born, it displaced Aramaic and the Hamitic language, which was a direct descendant of the language spoken by the Pharaohs.