Centrality of Arabic as a unifying factor in the Islamic movement

Developing Just Leadership

Iqbal Siddiqui

Dhu al-Hijjah 14, 1430 2009-12-01

Opinion

by Iqbal Siddiqui (Opinion, Crescent International Vol. 38, No. 10, Dhu al-Hijjah, 1430)

The unity of the Ummah and the global Islamic movement has been a regular theme of Crescent International for over 30 years. When we speak of threats to that unity, we tend to focus on two in particular: the structural threat posed by the division of the heartlands of Islam into the post-colonial nation-states; and the internal threat posed by religious sectarianism. But the reality is that the Ummah has been divided into separate political entities, and has suffered from sectarian divisions and discord, for most of its history. What then has been the key to its unity over these 1,400 years? The answer is simple: that Muslims have felt as one and therefore been as one; in the past as in the present, the unity of the Ummah was a factor of Muslims’ state of mind above all else.

That sense of unity was based on a common faith of course, but was supported also by a number of other factors that have been lost. Foremost among these is the loss of political power; while Muslim lands may have been divided before, they were seldom conquered and dominated by others as they have been in the last couple of centuries. But the fragmentation of the Ummah has been more than just political; just as serious has been its intellectual disintegration. Where once there was an Ummah-wide network of intellectual discourse that linked Muslims all over the world, today the Ummah is fragmented into Muslim communities with more interaction with the countries of their former colonial masters, be they Britain, France or Russia, than with each other; and increasingly even those channels of communication are being replaced by the cultural hegemony of America. One factor above all has been central to this process: that of language.

Mustafa Kemal famously ripped Turkey away from its Islamic roots by westernising its language, replacing its Arabic script with Roman letters, and making the country’s Islamic heritage inaccessible to subsequent generations of Turks. Similar policies were pursued in other Muslim countries, particularly those under communist rule. What is less recognised is that Muslims all over the world have been similarly distanced from Islam by a similar process: the marginalisation of Arabic. Throughout Muslim history, Arabic language was the thread that knitted the Ummah together, intellectually and culturally. From West Africa to Bosnia, and China to Indonesia, knowledge of Arabic was the mark of intellectual distinction, for ulama and non-ulama alike. Of course Muslim societies had their local languages as well, but knowledge of Arabic was universal among intellectuals. The great manuscripts of Timbuktu, once the most important centre of learning in Africa, are all in Arabic. When Indian Muslim figures such as Sayyid Sibghat Allah, who settled in Madinah, Ahmed Sirhindi and Shah Waliullah of Delhi engaged with ulama in the rest of the world, it was in Arabic. The history of Nur al-Din al-Raniri (d. 1658), born in Gujrat, and a student in the Hijaz andYemen, before becoming a major scholar in Aceh, highlights the intellectual linkages between various parts of the Islamic world before colonialism. When Uthman ibn Fudi exchanged views with ulama from all over the world, it was in Arabic. Muhammad Yusuf al-Maqasari (1627–1699), the Malay alim whose jihad against the Dutch resulted in his exile to South Africa, studied in India, the Hijaz, Yemen and Damascusbefore rising to prominence in what is now Indonesia, as well as spending almost 10 years in Sri Lanka; all this was possible because Arabic united the Muslim world. More recently, Arabic has been the common language that has made possible the exchange of ideas and influences between figures such asJamaluddin al-Afghani, Rashid Rida, Hassan al-Banna, Maulana Maududi, Syed Qutb, and Imam Khomeini.

But the reality is that Arabic no longer has the importance it once did in the Muslim world. It remains central to Islamic religiosity, as the language of the Book of Allah (swt) and of the canonical works of hadith and fiqh, but in other spheres of intellectual work it is English rather than Arabic that is crucial. Some misguided Muslims have even welcomed English as the new lingua franca of the Ummah, an attitude encouraged by the arrogance of some Arabs who have tried to claim a privileged position in the Ummah because of their language. But the deeper reality is that, like the Turks after Mustafa Kemal, generations of Muslims have been cut off from their Islamic heritage as a result of losing their knowledge of Arabic. Readers of this column should reflect on the fact that they are probably more familiar with the thought of western thinkers than of the Muslims mentioned above.

There are of course practical reasons for the emphasis on English and other Western languages, but the implications for our societies have to be understood. One is that the links of other languages are fragmenting the Ummah by turning Muslim attention from the heartlands of Islam, which were once the core of a united Ummah, towards various intellectual centres of the West, be they Washington, London, Paris or Moscow. The other is that other languages English in particular, have become tools for the margin-alization of Islamic perspectives, and conduits for the wholesale adulteration of Muslim discourse by Western ideas and attitudes.

There are no easy solutions to this problem; but an obvious one is that Muslims learn Arabic if at all possible, and certainly ensure that their children are taught Arabic so they can feel at home anywhere in the Muslim world in future. Islamic institutions too must make it their deliberate policy to re-establish the networks that used to unite the Ummah, by promoting Arabic as the language of Islamic discourse wherever possible, and by making a point of re-establishing intellectual links with the heartlands of Islam, and the Islamic movements of those heartlands, even when it is tempting and easier in practical terms to work only with English-speaking Muslims in Western countries or non-Arab Muslim countries. The future of the Ummah as a united community of faith and action demands no less.

Iqbal Siddiqui publishes a personal blog, A Sceptical Islamist: http://scepticalislamist.typepad.com.

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