Jahangir Mohammed, director of the Ayaan Institute, argues that Muslims must refocus their efforts on mastery of the Arabic language as a means of unifying the Ummah.
In our report “Creating a new Civilisation of Islam” we identify 12 approaches or factors that can help create greater solidarity between Muslims around the world. Factor six of the 12 we identify is a common language.
Allied blocs of countries tend to have a common language that helps to bind separate states/people together. But blocs or federations that do not share a common language struggle to hold regions together in the long run.
For Muslims, Arabic is the obvious choice as a unifying language. It is the key to understanding the Quran and was the language of our beloved Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Most of the Muslim world do not speak Arabic as their native language yet Muslims from every country already learn to read the Quran in Arabic, mainly for the purpose of recitation and prayers.
So Muslims are already familiar with some key words and pronunciation. It would not be that much of a step up to learn to understand and write Arabic, especially if done at a school age.
Language and unification
Research has shown that language unification can be important for job mobility across borders as well as business growth. However, using a unified language across diverse populations can also foster a strong sense of identity and patriotism, and also unifies mindsets thus developing a strong sense of social solidarity and resilience against external threats.
Arabic language learning should not just be viewed as a vehicle to gain employment and trade in Arab speaking countries and across the Muslim world. It should be seen as a unifying factor among diverse Muslim people. It would serve to transmit Islamic culture, history, values and religious knowledge. This important solidifying aspect was highlighted in a report of the U.S. based think tank Rand in “The Muslim World After 911” published in 2004:
“The dominant language of the Middle East is Arabic. Arabic unifies disparate populations and helps them transcend national borders. It is also the language of the Qur’an. Arabic is thus more than just a mode of conversational, political, and mercantile discourse like English or French. It contains deeply historic and religious symbolism…”
Regardless of their linguistic, cultural or racial differences, Muslims form one Ummah (as a community of believers). Arabic is not just the language of divine revelation; it is a common link which can help transmit shared history, ideas, concepts and values of Islam. The Arabic language must therefore be central to social solidarity between Muslims in any future unification process.
“Verily we have sent it down as an Arabic Quran so that you may understand” (Al Quran 12:2)
Beyond Arabic, the learning and mastery of languages was central to Islamic civilisation. Muslims learned Greek and other languages; they translated the literary works of the Greeks and others into Arabic, and from there they were translated into European languages.
At the height of Islamic civilisation Muslim scholars would learn many different languages. The role of Persian, Arabic and later Urdu and Ottoman Turkish have played a significant role in shaping the religion and culture of past periods of Muslim rule across vast regions.
Persian tended to be the language of the elite and literature, Arabic that of the religious class, as well as Turkish and Urdu among the masses. With these languages came a culture of civility, and literature, based on the pursuit of knowledge, as well as transmission of values of Islam. The great poet Muhammad Iqbal had many more writings in Persian than he did in Urdu; and as a consequence his ideas have been responsible for Islamic revival beyond the Indian subcontinent.
Language colonialism and the rise of secular nationalism
During the colonial and post-colonial phase of Muslim history, language has been a significant contributory factor in the division of the Muslim world and the rise of nationalism. Western notions, ideas and values were also embedded through European languages.
In places like Algeria the imposition of the French language constituted a major plank of cultural imperialism. With the French language came attachment to French political values and culture.
Despite a policy of Arabisation since independence in 1962 (the goal was to eliminate French from society as the language of imperialism), Algeria remains a major Francophone nation. There was also an attempt to replace French with English as a mandatory language of international commerce and science. Both these attempts failed although Arabic is now the main language.
Under the Ottoman state in the 19th Century, the French language also played a role in life and administration among the Ottoman elite. Much of the elite had themselves adopted the French language. They had also adopted French political and cultural values/tastes and an attachment to Europe, which ultimately led to the overthrow of Sultan Abdul Hamid II and the destruction of the old order. A fascinating book, “Turkish Life in Town and Country” published in 1904, illustrates just how Francophone and Europeanised Turkish society had become.
When reading late Ottoman history, we can see how language was central to the policy of the Young Turks. They had wanted to create a common Ottoman language across the lands they controlled as more people sought their independence from the Empire. This process was known as Turkification, and it was implemented with force after the Young Turks had deposed Sultan Abdul Hamid II in 1909. However, attempts to impose Turkish on the Arab regions in schools and administration simply led to calls for independence from the Ottoman state.
When Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk) came to power, the creation of a new language was central to his racial theories of Turkish nationalism. He removed all Persian and Arabic words from the Ottoman language and even banned their use in names. He also changed the old Turkish script to a European one. The new language effectively cut Turkish people off from their Islamic and Arab/Persian cultural history and took them back to their pre-Islamic Turkic roots. In this way the Turkish people associated themselves more with Europe than their own history.
A more recent example of division fuelled by language was the creation of Bangladesh as an independent state from Pakistan. East and West Pakistan were one country after the partition of India under British rule. The attempts to impose Urdu as the official state language on Bangla speaking East Pakistan by those in power in West Pakistan was a major factor that led to the rise of ethnic and nationalist sentiments for independence.
Today we can see the current impact of culture, values, language on the Muslim world of American English language as expressed through movies, music, food, and politics. The use of crude and vulgar aspects of the language are now commonplace among Muslim discourse globally. That language creates a particular type of mindset and values, which are in many cases counter to Islamic values.
So what we learn from our own history is that language can be a cause for unification and creation of a high culture and civilisation, or a means of division and nationalism, and a low culture.
Whilst Muslims must be able to learn and speak their native languages, the only common language that is likely to be acceptable to diverse Muslim populations is Arabic. Equally Muslim children must be taught a diversity of languages to be successful in a globally connected world. This must include European languages.
We now have an unfortunate situation where there are still high rates of illiteracy in many parts of the Muslim world, and most people speak only their native language. In the UK, on the other hand, we have a sad situation where the next generation of younger Muslims are now not even able to speak the language of the country of origin of their earlier generations.
At Ayaan we welcome the recent decision by the Pakistan Senate, that approved the mandatory learning of Arabic, in primary and secondary schools in Islamabad. We hope this policy will be adopted across the country and in other Muslim majority countries. If we are to revive Islamic civilisation then mastery of the Arabic language, and others, will have to be at the forefront of education policies in the Muslim world.
This article was first published on the Ayaan Institute’s website.