The Importance of Arabic

  • 10/19/2016

Arabs have always prided themselves on their language and, in particular, their poetry. Poetry was the primary medium of ancient times through which tribes were praised, enemies were lampooned, messages were sent, and much more. At the fairs of cUkāz, poets would read and listen to poetry as well as critique it as an inter-tribal custom.

But with the arrival of God’s Messenger (PBUH), the language took on a whole new importance. It was a prerequisite to scholarship and knowledge of it became a matter of the utmost seriousness:

“Learn Arabic as you learn the [Islamic] obligations and practices.” [Ali b. Abi Tālib]

And erring in it was a matter of shame and even misguidance; the Prophet (PBUH) is reported to have said the following after hearing a man make a grammatical mistake:

“Guide your brother, for surely he has erred” [Prophet PBUH]

As Islam unified the Hejaz – and later the known world – it became the dominant ideology and scholarship in it was the highest honour. Therefore, scholarship of the language flourished and proficiency in it was vital in order to avoid misquoting the Qur’an, the sayings of the Prophet (PBUH), and secondary books of scholarship. Many authorities went as far as to say that even something as simple as responding to God’s query (ألست بربكم) “Am I not your lord?” with (نعم) “Yes” as opposed to (بلى) “Indeed!” was an act of apostasy!

The Early Development of the Language

But systematic codification of Arabic didn’t begin for quite some time. The caliph Ali (d. 661) is popularly cited as the common ancestor to the study. It was then his student Abu Aswad Ad-Duwali who began to delve into grammar and Mucāz b. Musallam Al-Harrā, a student of Abu Aswad, who began to delve into morphology. Mucāz then trained the caliph Abdul Malik b. Marwān (d. 705). And Abu Aswad also had many disciples to his name.

A few decades down the road, these disciples yielded Khalīl b. Ahmad (d. ca. 776) whose works in prosody and grammar are famous. He is a huge figure in the study of the language. One of his students was the father of classical Arabic, the Persian, Sibawayh (d. ca. 796) whose book, know only as Al-Kitāb, is the most well-known of them all. A four volume treatment of the language, it is the primary basis for all future works on the language and is a framework for the methodology in the study. Sibawayh’s book constitutes the Big Bang of scholarship on the Arabic language.

Following Sibawayh were other important figures such as Al-Kasā’i. It is after this initial codification that grammarians slowly began to divide into the two camps of Basra and Kufa. By the end of the Arab golden age at around the 10th century, these groups became well established and were actually rivals. There was so much animosity between them, in fact, that one would give a ruling only to oppose the other. But despite these fierce conflicts, the Basran camp came out dominant by the 10th century. By this time, most of the language had been systematically codified and methodologies were now in place thanks to seeds sewn by Sibawayh and the dint of pious men and women who followed him. Further medieval work on grammar was expansion on these Basran frameworks.