This Darned Arabic Language

Tatyana Krueger

This is the phrase our professor would repeat whenever he began explaining a seemingly unfathomable aspect of Arabic grammar. It was his kind way of acknowledging the puzzled faces scattered around the classroom. He knew that his beloved language presented difficulties for students. Sometimes it was simply his enthusiasm for Arabic that kept us coming back to class. His voice always contained a great deal of affection when he cursed that “darned language”.

Why Study Arabic?

As Muslims we have a direct connection to the Arabic language. It is the language of the Qur’an; a fact referred to in the Qur’an itself in the following passages:

‘This (tongue) is Arabic, pure and clear’ (16:103)

‘We have sent it down as an Arabic Qur’an in order that ye may learn wisdom’ (12:2)

While the message of the Qur’an is available to many Muslims through translations, in order to achieve a full understanding of the meanings one must have knowledge of the Arabic language. However, it is important to make the point that those who know Arabic are not necessarily better guided by the Qur’an than those who do not know it. A common misconception is that those who speak Arabic are somehow “better” Muslims. The following passage shows us that guidance comes only from Allah:

‘This is the guidance of God: He giveth that guidance to whom He pleaseth of His worshippers’ (6:88)

Recitation of the Qur’an holds many merits for Muslims. This is how we listen to Allah for the Qur’an is the speech of Allah. We are told in the Qur’an that the best occasion for recitation of the Qur’an is at night while standing in prayer. All recitation must be done in Arabic. Reading a translation of the meaning in another language is not reading the actual Qur’an. The true power of the message can be felt only when read aloud in its original language. A great number of Arabs converted to Islam upon simply hearing the Qur’an.

Mastering enough of the Arabic language to be able to read the Qur’an can be done in a fairly short period of time with some effort. One must learn to read and pronounce the alphabet and know some other aspects of the Arabic script to get started. This can be achieved in a class setting or with books, cassettes, and other study aids.

Many Muslims end their study of the Arabic language once they are able to properly read the Qur’an. There is nothing wrong with this. However, we should take into consideration the other areas of Islamic studies that knowledge of the Arabic language makes available. To this day many of the greatest works of tafsir (interpretation of the Qur’an) do not have complete English translations; for example: tafsir Ibn-Kathir and tafsir al-Tabari as well as books on Islamic jurisprudence, Islamic Shahriah, Qur’an and Hadith sciences, Sirah, etc. Many books of the great Muslim thinkers and reformers can be found in Arabic only. These reasons compel many to continue learning.

Characteristics of the Language

People are frequently scared away from learning Arabic because the script looks so different. Most agree that it is beautiful especially in calligraphic form but also find its looks intimidating. Those who are feeling that way may be encouraged by the fact that the Arabic language has an alphabet made up of twenty-eight letters that are connected to each other in a way similar to English cursive writing. A difference is that Arabic is written from right to left. Most students will tell you that the script is much easier to learn than it appears. Some will say that it is the least of their problems and that the grammar is really tough.

Most Americans are ill-prepared for the study of grammar because English grammar is not emphasized in schools. These days a teacher who makes students diagram sentences is quite rare. Learning any foreign language forces us to look at our own grammar structures. This is particularly true regarding Arabic because the written language includes certain symbols that one must write at the ends of words which mark their syntax and provide other information. The grammar has rules and exceptions to the rules that even some Arabs find tedious. However, many of the rules are based on logic that is understandable.

Pronunciation can be a challenge at first. Arabic contains ten sounds that do not exist in English. Some letters are rather harsh sounding to Americans and make some people reluctant to pronounce them. It takes practice to master them. Some students have recommended practicing in front of a mirror in the privacy of one’s own home.

Certain aspects of the language do exist that make it an easy one to learn. For example, Arabic is phonetic. That is, you pronounce every letter you read and you spell words exactly as you hear them. There are a couple of small exceptions to this but you certainly do not find all of the silent letters and peculiar spellings as in English.

The Arabic language is often celebrated for its incredible flexibility. Most of the vocabulary sprouts from three letter “roots”. From these roots many verb forms are derived in a systematic manner and from there come nouns and verbal nouns and adjectives. New words can be easily formed making the language incredibly vast, dynamic, and poetic. One can also guess at the meanings of words if he or she knows its root.

Students are often surprised to find that Arabic conversation is not emphasized in their classes. The reason for this is that Arabic is really more than one language in a sense. One type of Arabic is used for writing and formal lectures. This is known as Classical Arabic and is the language used in books, newspapers, formal speeches and broadcasting. The rules of grammar for classical Arabic are derived in large part from the Qur’an. Spoken, or colloquial, Arabic is the language native Arabs speak at home, in the street, and use in informal speech. There are many regional variations and dialects of spoken Arabic but all are based on the classical language. This is why spoken Arabic is usually taught separately from classical Arabic in universities here in the United States. It is important to understand these differences when you begin to study the language. Most teachers explain this on the first day of class.

Some Advice

Muslims should study the Classical Arabic in order to read and understand the Qur’an, gain access to Islamic books written in Arabic, and facilitate aspects of worship such as prayer and supplication. Spoken Arabic alone will not be helpful in these areas. Spoken Arabic will be beneficial if the Islamic community begins to use Arabic as the main language of communication both verbal and written among all of its worshippers. This is indeed a worthy goal. However, for Muslims who have no knowledge of Arabic it seems prudent to give priority to learning Classical Arabic.

If you have a choice, avoid studying Arabic through the use of transliteration (using English letters for pronunciation of Arabic words). If you must use transliteration always keep it your goal to eventually learn the Arabic script.

Be clear about your purpose in studying the language. If you want to learn to read the Qur’an, make the appropriate goals. If you want to be able to read and understand the Qur’an, you must expand those goals. Some objectives require a lifetime of learning. You can decide for yourself what you want to achieve.

Always seek Allah’s help by supplicating Him to make the learning process easy for you. Many Muslims who attempt to memorize the Qur’an find that with each verse the work becomes easier.

‘We have indeed made the Qur’an easy to remember: but is there any that remembers it?’ (54:17)

At one time or another we all encounter challenges while learning. Is it not the struggle for which we are rewarded? Those who find the language of the Qur’an a constant struggle may take comfort in the following hadith:

Aisha (R.A.A.) says that the Holy Prophet (pbuh) said: “A person who recites the Qur’an and reads it fluently will be in the company of the obedient and noble angels, and he who reads the Qur’an haltingly and with difficulty will have a double recompense.” (Bukhari and Muslim)

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