Preservation of the Arabic language: revisited

This is a revisit to a topic I wanted to address a while ago- just in case you missed it this is it below, with further additions.

The Arabic language is a unique language in that it has retained itself for over one thousand years. It is very possible for anybody with a good command of Arabic to understand an Arabic manuscript dating as far back as 600 years ago! The only thing they would need to know is if any of the words in the script were specific to any particular meaning at the time and perhaps they might need to know how to read the Arabic handwriting. Apart from that the text is understandable!

So what are the factors that played a role in this? Was it the passion of the people or was it just luck? What can modern language planning and ecology learn from the preservation of the Arabic language? It would be great if we can discuss this and share views on it. We know that the Arabic language found its way into the Americas through the slaves from West Africa; which indicates that the West Africans were well versed in Arabic. This shows that Arabic was a language known and understood far beyond the Arabian Peninsula, and was once the language of trade and commerce and education.  

How did Arabic language do it?

‘While the first documented record of written Arabic dates from the early 4th century AD, its use in the early 7th century as the language of the Qur’an led Arabic to become the major world language that it is today. As Islam spread throughout the world, its chosen language did as well. Coupled with the rise of Islam, Arabic became the language of government as well as religion. Within 100 years after the introduction of the Qur’an, Arabic became the official language of a world empire whose boundaries stretched from the Oxus River in Central Asia to the Atlantic Ocean, and even northward into the Iberian Peninsula of Europe. As Islam continued to spread through the world, Arabic inherently followed’ (taken from:

It seems here the author places the successful spread of Arabic as a language on two main facts:

  1. The coming of the Qur’an therefore the spread of Islam
  2. The official status of Arabic language as the language of government and the territories it controlled beyond the Arabian Peninsula

This may be valid since some historians say that if it was not for the Qur’an then Arabic as a language would probably had never made it outside the Arabian peninsula, and maybe I would not be writing on this blog.

The Arabs before the advent of Islam were a people of the oral tradition, because of this they possessed faultless memories, were living to survive in the harsh conditions of Arabia- and their oral tradition was an inseparable part of desert Bedouin life . It was very possible for a person to compose a poem of for example a 100 lines and then read it to a crowd (usually at gatherings and the most famous of these was in Makkah at a market known as Ukkadh- the annual pilgrimage and trade trips to the city) and they would all memorise it in turn and then take it back to their tribes. If it so happened that the poem was a criticism of a person/ their tribe  then the criticized would stand and defend himself there and then, without needing time to prepare- this is the skill they had! The reply or rebuttal(‘Itaabعتاب) would be in the same number of verses, in the same weight of stanzas (whether this ends in the same letter or the same intonation and vowel) and in the same style and choice of tone sometimes- pure entertainment for the listeners. Once these were taken back and spread among the people through the oral recitation or chanting they became known all over Arabia; and if they were really popular they were then deemed the greatest and were written down and hanged on the Ka’bah door. There is much debate on this issue on two fronts; first the number of poems -were they seven or less? (usually referred to as ‘As- Sab’ Mua’llaqaat- lit. ‘the seven suspended ones) Secondly, were there really scribes able to write and read? (this is a topic we can discuss in another post), and if they could write why did it take for the revelation of the Qur’an in order for the writing tradition to begin in Arabic?

If Arabic was lost it might have one of those languages that died and today documenters of languages would be trying to decipher the meanings of those characters, and being that the Arabs were an oral people there would not be much to go on. This claim does raise connotations for the many languages that Arabic has influenced during its one thousand years of existence (outside the Arabian Peninsula, there is nothing to suggest that Arabic is not as old as the Arabs- which is a different story altogether) such as Maltese and Hebrew literature (during the Golden Age of Islamic Civilization in Baghdad and Andalusia- see any good book on this topic- a topic for another post) to name a few- what would their linguistic make-up be?

We can conclude in this short post (many to follow) that: Arabic language has survived first and foremost because of the fact that it is the language of the Qur’an. A book read and memorized by millions of people not just in the past but even today. Due to the fact that the Qur’an is a religious book there is without doubt much study into the meanings and connotations of the verses and chapters as these affect the lives of Muslims (adherents to the Qur’an). In order to arrive at a true understanding of the book the Arabic language had to be mastered by scores of reciters, interpreters and the usual people who loved the language in which their holy book was written. This way books of grammar (most famous is Sibwayhi’s book fittingly titled: ‘Al- Kitaab’, lit. ‘the book) and books of eloquence (so many to mention but here is one popular book by Jurjaani- titled: ‘Asraar al-Balaaghah’ lit. ‘the secrets of eloquence’) were compiled which in turn allowed the Arabic language to be studied with much scrutiny. The result is of course a long linguistic commitment to the Arabic language in a bid to understand what god had revealed to man- and ultimately the language is preserved through this commitment and scholarship.

 Another facet that contributed to the Arabic language remaining intact is the readers’ understanding of god’s promise in the Qur’an that god (Allah), has taken it upon himself to preserve the book (see chapter 15, verse 9 of the Holy Qur’an: [this has a commentary as well quite interesting]) including of course the language in which this book is written. This together with respect and awe led to pure devotion and the non-tampering or so-called modernizing of the verses of the Qur’an; instead students generation after generation delved into the most classical of commentaries of the Qur’an whether this be law or linguistic related, and learned the meaning of the language as it was documented by those who without doubt understood the language. What this meant was that as long as they understood the words, sentences, grammar and rules and parameters of the Qur’an’s use of Arabic- they had ultimately mastered the language. Everywhere these learned people or scholars went in their travels, people would ask them to stay and teach some of what they had learnt of the Qur’an and the language- what you then get is this mass teaching and learning of the Qur’an, and therefore Arabic language, and within a short amount of time Arabic becomes a world language and is preserved until now.

We will continue discussing this in the next post.  

General references:

Owens, Jonathan (2006) ‘A linguistic history of Arabic’ Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jubūrī, Yahyá (1997) ‘Al-Mustashriqūn wa-al-shiʻr al-Jāhilī : bayna al-shakk wa-al-tawthīq’
Beirut : Dār al-Gharb al-Islāmī

ʻAlī, Muhammad ʻUthmān (1983) ‘Fī adab mā-qabl al-Islām : dirāsah waṣfīyah taḥlīl’.Beirut: Dār al-Awzāʻi

Arabic oral tradition see:

 Zwettler, M (1976) ‘Classical poetry folk and oral tradition’ Ohio State University, American Oriental Society — (if you are a student you will have full access to this or if you are affiliated with an educational/ oriental institute)

Reynolds, Dwight Fletcher (1995) ‘Heroic poets, poetic heroes: the ethnography of performance in an Arabic oral epic tradition’. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1995


Ali, Samer M (2008) ‘Arabic literary salons in the Islamic Middle Ages: poetry, public performance, and the presentation’ Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press; London

Schoeler, Gregor (2006) ‘The oral and the written in early Islam’. London: Routledge, 2006.

A taste of Pre-Islamic poetry In English:

Lyall, Charles James, Sir (1845-1920)Translations of ancient Arabian poetry : chiefly pre-Islamic
Westport : Hyperion Press, 1986.

Qabāwah, Fakhr al-Dīn (1993) ‘Translation and critical study of ten pre-Islamic odes: traces in the sand’ Lewiston:Edwin Mellen Press