The Arabic Language


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 Latin.
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
(Fossilized resin) 
(Palm of the hand) 
(Pipe, reed) 
(To sift) 
(Evil spirit, ogre) 
(Dice - as in "roll of the dice") 
(Spirits of fermentation) 
(Coffee, originally wine) 
(To travel) 
(A drum) 
(Arab skiff or type of sandal) 
(The lute) 


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 inscription. 

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 regulated.
    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 the Renaissance.
    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 (d. 1406).
    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."