Islam, the Qur'an and the Arabic Literature (1)

Islam, the Qur'an and the Arabic Literature (1)

Since the advent of Islam and the revelation of the Qur'an in the early years of the seventh century AD, the Muslim Holy Book has been the subject of many extensive analytical studies. The focus of the great majority of these studies has been the theological and legislative aspects of the Holy Book, for the Qur'an provides Muslims with detailed guidance on their everyday problems. Together with the sayings, actions, and recommendations of Muhammad, the Qur'an has been the ultimate source of legal authority for Muslims over the past fourteen centuries.

Muslim scholars have painstakingly examined, analyzed, and interpreted the various verses of the Holy Book, detailing the requirements the Qur'an imposes on Muslims in order for them to achieve spiritual purity. Thus, in addition to its legislative and theological value, the Qur'an has also served as a source of spiritual guidance for the followers of Islam. 

There is, however, another aspect of the Qur'an which has received far less attention than its theological and legislative guidance, namely its linguistic significance, for the Qur'an was undoubtedly the first book to be composed in Arabic. The advent of Islam and the revelation of the Qur'an have had far-reaching effects on the status, the content, and the structure of the Arabic language. (1) This paper will examine the linguistic influence of the Qur'an and the impact of its revelation on Arabic. It will be argued that, while the Arabic language was extremely effective as the medium for the revelation of the Holy Qur'an and the dissemination of the new faith, the language benefited enormously from the new role it acquired with the advent of Islam. 

Islam and Arabic: a unique relationship 

The revelation of the Qur'an in Arabic set the scene for a unique and lasting relationship between the language and Islam. On the one hand, Arabic provided a very effective medium for communicating the message of the religion. On the other hand, Islam helped Arabic to acquire the universal status, which it has continued to enjoy since the Middle Ages, emerging as one of the principal world languages. It has been argued that Arabic has not simply remained 'ancillary to Islam'(2) but that it has also been significant as a means of 'cultural and national revival in the Arabic-speaking countries.'(3) Arabic is a rich and expressive language and has played an important role in the cultural preservation of the Arabic-speaking people. However, without the bond it has had with Islam, Arabic would probably not have undergone the internal revolution it did, nor expanded beyond the borders of the Arabian Peninsula with such speed and magnitude. 

The relationship of Islam and the Qur'an to Arabic involves more than just the use of a language to communicate a divine message. There are a number of factors which set this relationship apart from that which exists between other holy books and the languages in which they appeared, for Arabic has come to be closely associated with Islam, and in this way has acquired a semi-official status. It is implicit that anyone professing Islam cannot ignore the role Arabic plays in his faith. Embracing Islam, therefore, entails exposure to, and familiarity with, the Arabic language. Such familiarity is necessitated by the fact that memorization and recitation of Qur’an verses in their original language is necessary for the performance of the daily rituals.

Other holy books may have had an impact on the languages in which they originally appeared, but the impact that Islam and the Qur'an have had on Arabic appears to be unique in its extent and durability. It has often been the case that a holy book appears in a given language and is then translated into other languages, in which it continues to be read and recited during the performance of rituals, but, in the case of the Qur'an, although it has been translated into many languages, these translations cannot replace the original language as a language of worship, which continues to be Arabic for all Muslims, native speakers and others. 

Other holy books also came to be associated with specific languages, such as the Torah with Hebrew, and, perhaps less intimately, the New Testament with Greek and Latin. However, the nature of the relationship between the Qur'an and Arabic is still unique for reasons to be given below. 

Continue in the next article: ( Islam, the Qur'an and the Arabic Literature (2) )

NOTES:

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1. See, for this view, 'Abbas Hasan, Al-Lugha wa-l-nahw bayn al-qadim wa-l-hadith, Cairo, 1966, and Ibrahim Anis, Min asrar al-lugha, Cairo, 1970. 

2. Anwar Cheyne, The Arabic language: its role in history, Minnesota, 1969, ch. 4,pp. 53 ff.

3. Ibid.