Islam and Classical Arabic

Uzza asked: Hey, welcome to 2012. I’m anxiously waiting for you to talk about the language situation that you hinted at a long time ago. One is, people are supposed to read the book in the original Arabic, but it was written in Classical Arabic, which no one speaks anymore, so isn’t everyone reading it in translation even then? How does this compare with English speakers reading Chaucer, Shakespeare, etc.?
Another one is that old blurb about ‘Islam means peace” because they share the same triconsonantal root.


Happy 2012, and well remembered!  Sorry, I have been meaning to post something about Islam and the history of Classical Arabic for some time, and kept putting it off for other things.

Let’s start with the second question first, as it’s much easier to answer – yes, sort of.  The words ‘Islam’ and ‘salam’ (‘peace’) do share the same triconsonantal root (for the non-Arabists, most words in Semitic languages are formed with three base letters, that are expanded, or given suffixes or prefixes, to make new words).  However, like with homonyms in English, words that share roots don’t necessarily share meanings – for myself, I still think the best example of this is the words for ‘beauty’ (jamil) and ‘camel’ (jaml) – they share the same roots, but I really find it hard to believe the two words are related.  You can decide for yourself.

So shared roots aren’t necessary a sign of shared meaning.  But in the case of Islam and salam, there does appear to be a shared meaning, which appears very early in the available written sources.  The term ‘aslama’, the verb from which the term ‘Islam’ comes, is used in the early Islamic histories and biographies of the Prophet (peace be upon him) to mean both conversion to the Muslim religious community and peaceful submission by cities and tribes to the Muslim military establishment.  Furthermore, most of the words that derive from the roots s-l-m mean something to do with Islam or peace, if not both.  Obviously there’s no direct way to evidence if the connection was always there, or which term influenced the other, but the term ‘Islam’ as the name of this particular religious community does indeed seem to arise out of an idea that joining this community is an act of peaceful submission.

As for the development of Arabic, this is a thorny problem that scholars are still (and probably always will be) arguing over.  There are a handful of pre-Islamic inscriptions from the Arabian peninsula, but it’s a collection of only a few dozen, and it’s nearly impossible to establish a morphology of the language based on these (although I believe Robert Hoyland has been working on producing as complete a study of these sources as is possible).  So we really can’t say what the status of pre-Islamic Arabic was – we know it existed, at least in a nascent form, but we can’t say much more than that.  And we have nothing that compares to the amazing linguistic quality of the Qur’an.

What we have is Classical Arabic, or fusha (again, for the non-Arabists, that’s pronounced fus-ha).  As a language, the codification of Classical Arabic dates from the late eighth or early ninth century – so about two hundred years after the first revelation.  The reason for this delayed codification was the rise of the Abbasid caliphate, the second caliphal dynasty – the centre of the Abbasids’ power was in Persia, and they adopted much of the old Persian court of the Sassanian shahs.  The Persian elite were happy to get their elite status back, but the Abbasids were Arabs themselves, and wanted to maintain Arabic as their court languages.  So like good intellectuals, the Persian elites set to work codifying Arabic, so that they could learn it and teach it to their children.

The language they codified was fusha – more or less.  Obviously new words have come into the language since then, but the overall structure has remained the same.

The idea that Arabic is twelve hundred years old strikes many of us in the West as strange – by comparison, English as we speak it is only a few centuries old, German, Dutch and the Scandinavian languages maybe a century or two older than that (if anyone is interested in Western linguistic history, I would recommend John McWhorter’s Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue as a starting place).  And it is certainly the case that Arabic as it is spoken in its numerous dialects throughout Africa and the Middle East – what’s called ‘amiya’ from the Arabic word for ‘common’ – can often vary wildly from fusha.

Unfortunately, I can only speak from a technical position about the differences between amiya and fusha, not being a native amiya speaker myself.  In terms of grammar and syntax, the two are definitely the same language – they share nearly all elements of their structure, and the elements that amiya has abandoned are the elements that most spoken languages abandon – for example, the more complex elements of verb declination, like the subjunctive.  So amiya and fusha – fairly similar, except for all of the differences in vocabulary, which naturally develop over time in any language.

But again, the Qur’an isn’t written in fusha – it’s written in an earlier form of Arabic, that predates the codification of fusha by nearly two hundred years.  The language of the Qur’an is far more complicated.  Even then, we’re not working entirely blind – the first Qur’anic exegeses begin to appear about a hundred and fifty years after the rise of Islam, and we have references to earlier, non-extant ones.

Nevertheless, your question about translation is a valid one – in reading the Qur’an today, even for a native amiya Arabic speaker, the language of the text is pretty distant from the language they speak on a daily basis.  Moreover, the text is just really complicated – it shifts point-of-view and speaker, it’s often very multi-layered in terms of imagery and meaning, and shifts style from poetry to narrative to direct admonition, often within the course of several lines.

For myself, I find the comparison to Shakespeare a useful one, even if the chronological difference between us and Shakespeare is nowhere close to the difference between modern Arabic speakers and the Qur’an – like with Shakespeare, the language of the Qur’an can be complicated, but there can also be that sort of magical moment when it makes perfect sense, without any added effort (for those who doubt that Shakespeare is comprehensible, I give you David Tennant’s rendition of Hamlet – comprehensible so long as you don’t get distracted by the pretty).  Also like Shakespeare, there are various ways to recite the text, some of which highlight the lyrical style and others the meaning, and some manage to do both.

About askanislamicist

I'm an academic who specializes in early Islamic history and the history of religious interactions, who, in her free time, enjoys shouting into the internet.
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1 Response to Islam and Classical Arabic

  1. Uzza says:

    thank you for this. Interesting and educational, as usual.

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