While most people know that Arabic is the written and spoken language
of more than 150 million inhabitants of the Arab world, few realize that
the Arabic script is also used by one-seventh of the world's population.
Millions of people in Africa and Asia write their languages in the Arabic
alphabet. Farsi—the language of Iran—and Urdu—the language of Pakistan
and some parts of India—are written in the Arabic script. The Turkish language
employed Arabic characters until the 1920's. In addition, Arabic script
is used today in Afghanistan, Indonesia, Malaysia, sections of China and
even in the Muslim areas of the Philippines and the former Soviet Union.
The reason for the extensive use of Arabic dates back to the emergence
of the Islamic faith in 622 A.D. The Qur'an, the Holy Book of Islam, was
revealed to the Prophet Muhammad and subsequently, recorded in Arabic.
Thus, for the Muslim Arab of that time, as well as today, his language
and the language of God (Allah) are identical. Arabic remains the primary
vehicle for prayer in Islam.
As the new believers, or Muslims, spread out from the Arabian Peninsula
to create a vast empire—first with its capital in Damascus then, later,
in Baghdad—Arabic became the administrative language of vast sections of
the civilized world. It drew upon Byzantine and Persian terms and its own
immense inner resources of vocabulary and grammatical flexibility. By the
eleventh century A.D., this language was the common medium of expression
from Persia to the Pyrenees—the language of kings and commoners, poets
and princes, scholars and scientists. Arabic became the principal reservoir
of human knowledge, including the repository for the accumulated wisdom
of past ages, supplanting previous cultural languages, such as Greek and
Arabic belongs to the Semitic family of languages, of which Hebrew
is also a member; thus, the term "Semite" refers to anyone who speaks a
Semitic tongue. Arabic script reads from right to left and its alphabet
contains twenty-eight characters. While it is universally written, read
and understood in its classical form, spoken Arabic has undergone regional
or dialectical variations.
The Arabic language developed through the centuries in what is today
Saudi Arabia until, in the era immediately preceding the appearance of
Islam, it acquired the form in which it is known today. Arab poets of the
pre-Islamic, or Jahiliyyah period, had developed a language of amazing
richness and flexibility, despite the fact that many were desert bedouins
(nomads) with little or no formal education. For the most part, their poetry
was transmitted and preserved orally. The Arabic language was then, as
it is now, easily capable of creating new words and terminology in order
to adapt to the demands of new scientific and artistic discoveries.
As the Empire spread, the Arabic language—and, indeed, culture—was enriched
by contacts with other civilizations: Greeks, Persians, Copts, Romans,
Indians and Chinese. During the ninth and tenth centuries, a great translation
movement, centered in Baghdad, was in force, in which many ancient scientific
and philosophical tracts were transposed from ancient languages, especially
Greek, into Arabic. Many were enhanced by the new wisdom suggested by Arab
thinkers; other texts were simply preserved, only to re-emerge in Europe
during the Renaissance.
Modern European languages, such as Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian
and English owe a great debt to Arabic. The English language itself contains
many words borrowed from Arabic: algebra, alchemy, admiral, genius, ghoul,
mare sherbet, soda and many others.
Few sample of English words originated from Arabic AMBER * 'ANBAR
BORAX * BOWRAQ
RACKET * RAHAT
(Palm of the hand)
CANE * QANAH
GARBLE * GHARBALA
GHOUL * GHUL
(Evil spirit, ogre)
HAZARD * AL AZ-ZAHR
(Dice - as in "roll of the dice")
ALCOHOL * AL-KUHL
(Spirits of fermentation)
GUITAR * QITAR
GIRAFFE * ZIRAFAH
ORANGE * NARANJ
COFFEE, CAFE * QAHWAH
(Coffee, originally wine)
SAFARI * SAFARA
TAMBOURINE * TUNBUR
SANDAL * SANDAL
(Arab skiff or type of sandal)
LUTE * AL'OUD
TARIFF * TA'RIF
SUGAR * SUKKAR
ARABIC WRITING AND CALLIGRAPHY
Arabic calligraphy is characterized by flowing patterns and intricate
geometrical designs. This fine writing—which the Alexandrian philosopher,
Euclid, called a "spiritual technique"—has poured forth from the pens of
Arabs for the last thirteen centuries.
In a broad sense, calligraphy is merely hand-writing, a tool for recording
and communicating; but in the Arab world it is an art, an art with a remarkable
history; a form with great masters and revered traditions. Beauty alone
distinguishes calligraphy from ordinary handwriting; writing may express
ideas, but to the Arab it must also express the broader dimension of aesthetics.
Historians disagree on both the birthplace and birthdate of Arabic writing,
but the most widely accepted theory is that it developed from Nabataean,
a west Aramaic dialect which served as the international language of the
Middle East from about the fourth century, B.C., until the seventh century,
A.D. As the new Islamic faith emerged and spread, the Arabic of the Arabian
Peninsula replaced Aramaic as the lingua franca of the area.
As we have noted elsewhere, the Arabs had a highly developed oral tradition
in poetry even before they had an alphabet. Poetry was composed and committed
to memory and was passed on in this manner from generation to generation.
Indeed, in the beginning, even the Qur'an, the Holy Book of Islam and the
Arabic language's crowning literary achievement, was committed to memory
by professional memorizers who attended the Prophet Muhammad. For fifteen
years after his death, it existed only in oral form.
The Caliph 'Uthman, 644-656 A.D., fearing dangerous diversity in such
a method, ordered that an official recension be undertaken. In the seventh
century, only consonants and long vowels were written; the short vowels
had to be inferred by the reader. But even more confusing was the fact
that several consonants were written with the same symbol; only later was
a system of dots above and below the letters devised in order to differentiate
among them. Finally, in 933 A.D., the final version of the written Qur'an—the
one which is considered authoritative even to this day— was completed.
Just as the Christian monks of Europe in the Middle Ages spent lifetimes
writing and illuminating religious manuscripts, so, too, did the Arab forebears
devote their lives to producing elegantly handwritten copies of the Qur'an.
Because Islam's monotheism discouraged the representation of human or animal
forms, the calligrapher found artistic expression in highly stylized intricate
and flowing patterns. Over a period of centuries, calligraphy remained
a supreme art form, replacing design, painting and sculpture. Calligraphy
filled not only palaces and mosques, but clothing, carpets, decorative
items and literary works. The artist could draw from any number of styles—kufic,
thuluth and the best known, naksh—depending, often, on the purpose of that
From the Dome of the Mosque of the Rock in Jerusalem to the great mosques
of Isfahan in Persia, calligraphy decorated, enhanced and even helped to
visually unify the greatest Muslim structures. The art of Arabic calligraphy
was employed in many European churches as well, such as in Saint Peter's
in Rome. The representations of Christian saints that beautify the Capella
Palatina in Palermo, Sicily, bear inscriptions in kufic, the early Arabic
script. Today, the calligraphic tradition lives on throughout the Arab/Islamic
world in religious, educational, governmental and commercial architecture.
The Prophet Muhammad said "it is the duty of every Muslim man and woman
to seek education," and under his influence, the Arabs were encouraged
to pursue knowledge for its own sake. Fulfilling the duty to pursue knowledge
gave Muslims a head-start in education. Among the early elementary educational
institutions were the mosque schools which were founded by the Prophet
himself; he sat in the mosque surrounded by a halqa (circle) of listeners,
intent on his instructions. Muhammad also sent teachers to the various
tribes to instruct their members in the Qur'an.
The formal pursuit of knowledge had existed in one
form or another since the time of the Greeks. The Arabs translated and
preserved not only the teachings of the Greeks but those of the Indians
and the Persians as well. More importantly, they used these basic teachings
as a starting point from which to launch a mass revolution in education
beginning during the Abbasid dynasty (750-1258 A.D.).
During the Abbasid period, thousands of mosque schools
were established throughout the Arab empire and the subjects of study were
increased to include hadith (the science of tradition), fiqh (jurisprudence),
philology, poetry, rhetoric and others. In tenth century Baghdad alone
there were an estimated 3,000 mosques. Fourteenth century Alexandria had
some 12,000 mosques, all of which played an important role in education.
In the mosque school, the teacher sat on a cushion
and leaned against a column or wall as his students sat around him listening
and taking notes. Only Muslims were allowed to attend the Qur'an or hadith
sessions, but non-Muslims could attend all other subjects. There was no
age limit, nor were there any restrictions on women attending classes.
Historians such as Ibn Khallikan reported that women
also taught classes in which men took lessons. Few Westerners recognize
the extent to which Arab women contributed to the social, economic and
political life of the empire. Arab women excelled in medicine, mysticism,
poetry, teaching, and oratory and even took active roles in military conflicts.
Current misconceptions are based on false stereotypes of Arab life and
culture popularized by some journalists and "Orientalists."
In the mosque schools, rich and poor alike attended
classes freely. Classes were held at specific times and announced in advance
by the teacher. Students could attend several classes a day, sometimes
traveling from one mosque to another. Teachers were respected by their
students and there were formal, if unwritten, rules of behavi. Laughing,
talking, joking or disrespectful behavior of any kind were not permitted.
Different teachers used various methods of instruction.
Some preferred to teach from a text first and then to answer questions.
Others allowed student assistants to read or elaborate upon the instructor's
theories while the teachers themselves remained available to comment or
answer questions. Still others taught without the benefit of texts.
In 1066 A.D., Nizam al-Mulk, a Seljuk vizier, founded
the Nizamiyya Madrasa in Baghdad which became the forerunner of secondary/college
level education in the Arab empire. Madrasas had existed long before Nizam
al-Mulk, but his contribution was the popularization of this type of school.
The madrasa gave rise to various universities in the Arab empire and become
the prototype of several early European universities. Founded in 969 A.D.,
Al-Azhar University in Cairo preceded other universities in Europe by two
centuries. Today it attracts students from all over the world.
The madrasas, which literally mean "places for learning,"
were the beginning of departmentalized schools where education was available
to all. The madrasas even provided student dormitories. Each madrasa, depending
on its location, had a specific curriculum. The subjects taught were the
religious sciences (e.g., the study of the Qur'an, hadith, jurisprudence
and grammar) and the intellectual sciences (e.g., mathematics, astronomy,
music and physics). As these schools began to attract distinguished teachers
and specialists from all corners of the Arab empire, the number of disciplines
increased. Teachers received substantial salaries and scholarships and
pensions were available for students. Funds for operation of the madrasas
came from both the government and private contributions. Since the government
placed an important role in promoting these institutions, the subject matter,
choice of teachers and allocation of funds were closely supervised and
The development of the madrasa evolved from the
various elementary and secondary schools which were prevalent in the Abbasid
empire: the mosque schools and other traditional institutions; maktabat,
or libraries, which originated in the pre--Islamic Arab world; tutoring
houses, palace schools; halqa, discussion groups in the homes of Muslim
scholars; and the library salons in the palaces of wealthy men and courtiers
who were patrons of learning and scholarship. In addition, there were the
majalis or meetings which were presided over by learned men at various
social institutions and private homes. The majalis covered a wide range
of topics and subjects. In the current revivals of traditional Islam, many
of these "old" institutions and customs are being resuscitated.
Traveling to other cities to seek knowledge under
the direction of different masters was a common practice in the early centuries
of Islam. From Kurasan to Egypt, to West Africa and Spain, and from the
northern provinces to those in the south, students and teachers journeyed
to attend classes and discuss social, political, religious, philosophical
and scientific matters. The custom was later popularized in Europe during
Academies began to emerge in the eighth century,
serving as centers for the translation of earlier works and for innovative
research. Each academy provided rooms for classes, meetings and readings.
The Bayt al-Hikma for the Caliph al-Ma'mum (813-833 A.D.) and the Dar al-'Ilm
of Cairo founded by al-Hakim (966-1021 A.D.) are the most notable. Books
were collected from all over the world to create monumental libraries that
housed volumes on medicine, philosophy, mathematics, science, alchemy,
logic, astronomy and many other subjects.
Along with the introduction of paper and textbooks
in the eighth century came the antecedent of "teacher certification." An
instructor would give his permission (ijazah) to competent students to
teach from one or all of his textbooks. Because of this practice, an individual
could have an ijazah to teach a subject although he might be a student
in another class. Consequently, the distinction between teacher and student
was often minimized.
In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, as Arab influence
spread to Spain, Sicily and the rest of Europe, Europeans became increasingly
aware of Arab advancements in many fields, especially education and science.
Books were translated from Arabic into Latin and, later, to vernacular
language. European schools which had long limited learning to the "seven
liberal arts" began to expand their curricula.
For some five hundred years, Arab learning and scholarship
played a major role in the development of education in the West. The Arabs
brought with them well-developed techniques in translation and research
and opened new vistas in areas of medicine, the physical sciences and mathematics.
Application of empiricism in all fields of study was rapidly incorporated
into the learning system of those who became familiar with Arab methodology.
Long before the popularization of the phrase "transfer
of technology," a term used to describe advanced expertise which developed
nations offer to Third World countries, the Arabs shared their accumulated
knowledge and institutions with the rest of the world.
Any discussion of Arabic literature must begin with the language itself.
While the leading literary figures within the Islamic Empire represented
a diversity of ethnic and cultural backgrounds, the non-Arabs among them
adopted the language of the Qur'an as their universal medium of expression.
Arabs have long considered their language a perfect instrument of precision,
clarity and eloquence, as evidenced by the Qur'an itself and by subsequent
literary masterpieces. Since the Qur'an was adopted as the fixed standard,
a surprisingly vast and rich literature has accumulated over a period of
fourteen hundred years.
The earliest known form of Arabic literature is
the heroic poetry of the noble tribes of pre-Islamic Arabia. It was there
that the standard Arabic verse form, the qasidah, evolved. The qasidah,
a long poem, often recounted incidents from the poet's own life or that
of his tribe—sometimes dramatically and, sometimes, with a distinctively
epic flavor. Pre-Islamic poetry was transmitted and preserved orally until
the latter part of the seventh century A.D. when the Arab scholars undertook
a large effort to collect and record verses and shorter compositions that
had survived in the memories of professional reciters.
During the Umayyad period (661-750 A.D.), the Arab
way of life began to shift from a nomadic mode of existence to a more settled
and sophisticated urban style. In accordance with Greek and Persian practices
of the time, poetry was often accompanied by music performed by women.
In time, the poetic form was simplified: the complex and highly refined
meters of the traditional Arabian poetry were replaced by shorter, freer
meters which were adaptable to music. Poetry and music became inseparable,
giving rise to the ghazal traditions, most strikingly illustrated in the
famous Kitab al-Aghani, or "Book of Songs."
Arab literature flourished under the Abbasids, who
rose to power in Baghdad in the mid-eighth century. The "golden age" of
Islamic culture and commerce reached its zenith during the reigns of Harun
al-Rashid and his son, al-Ma'mun. Arabic prose began to take its rightful
place along with poetry; secular literature was at home alongside religious
tracts. Abbasid authors of this era not only contributed to the splendor
of their age but also left an indelible mark on the European Renaissance.
The outstanding genius of Arab prose at that time
was Abu 'Uthman 'Umar bin Bahr al-Jahiz (776-869), the grandson of a black
slave who, having received a wide education in Basra, Iraq, became one
of the period's leading intellectuals. Al-Jahiz is best known for his Kitab
al-Hayawan, "Book of Animals," an anthology of animal anecdotes, representing
a curious blend of fact and fiction. His Kitab al-Bukhala, "Book of Misers,"
a witty and insightful study of human psychology, is more revealing of
Arab character and society than any other book the time.
The essays of al-Jahiz form a part of the large
category of adab, polite literature or belles-lettres. In the second half
of the tenth century, a new literary genre appeared. This was known as
maqamat "assemblies"—amusing anecdotes narrated by a vagabond who made
his living by his wits. The maqamat were invented by Badi' al-Zaman al-Hamadhani
(d.1008); only fifty-two of his original four hundred maqamat have survived.
Al-Hariri (d. 1122) elaborated upon this genre and stereotyped it, using
the same format and inventing his own narrator and roguish hero. The popularity
of the maqamat was only eclipsed by the rise of modern Arabic.
For many people, Abu al-Tayyib Ahmad al-Mutanabbi,
may have been the greatest of all Arab poets. Born in Kufa, Iraq, and educated
in Syria, al-Mutanabbi appeared in the early part of the tenth century.
His themes recalled the traditional Arab virtues of loyalty, honor, friendship,
bravery, and chivalry.
The last great poet of the Abbasid period was Abu
al-'Ala al-Ma'arri (973-1057). While al-Ma'arri's poetry reflects the pessimism
and skepticism of his particular era, he nevertheless transcended his age
to become one of the major figures of Arabic literature, as well as a special
favorite of Western scholars.
Towards the end of the ninth century, history began
to form a part of belles-lettres. The necessity for collections of data
on the countries of the Abbasid empire stimulated geographical writing,
mixed with travelers' observations and tales of marvels. Idrisi, in twelfth
century Sicily, was commissioned to compile the Book of Roger for the Norman
King of Palermo, with accompanying maps. Yaqut (d. 1229) wrote a large
geographical dictionary, gleaned from many sources.
The basis of Arabic writings of history was provided
by accounts of the life of the Prophet Muhammad. Since the compilation
of such biographies was determined by the Arab system of isnad—that is,
of quoting all available authorities and establishing their reliability—Arab
history-writing was generally characterized by accuracy rather than by
creative handling or interpretation of available materials. It, thus, provides
the modern historian with a most accurate and comprehensive source of material.
The Arabs also produced the man whom modern scholars consider the true
father of modern historiography and of the science of sociology—Ibn Khaldun
A native of Tunisia, a government official at the
Arab courts of Granada, Morocco and Algeria, Ibn Khaldun became the chief
justice of the Mamluk sultans of Egypt. It was in the Maghreb, before settling
in the Middle East, that he spent several years in retreat composing his
great work: Muqaddimah. While before Ibn Khaldun, historiography was concerned
mainly with rulers, battles and straightforward accounts of main events,
the great Arab thinker was the first to recognize that events did not happen
in a vacuum but depended upon an endless variety of factors previously
neglected by historians, such as climate, social customs, food, superstitions
and so on. Thus, in his Muqaddimah, he deals extensively with subjects
such as the nature of society and occupation, labor conditions, climate
and methods of education.
Modern scholarship acknowledges that, thanks to
him, latter-day historiography changed fun-damentally. Of his truly revolutionary
work Arnold Toynbee wrote, "Ibn Khaldun has conceived and formulated a
philosophy of history which is undoubtedly the greatest work of its kind
that has ever yet been created by any mind in any time." In a similar vein,
Professor George Sarton has said of the Muqaddimah "I do not hesitate to
call it the most important historical work of the Middle Ages."