Arabic is the language of the Qur’an, the address of Allah Most High to all humanity. Millions of Muslims read its text daily in a wide variety of contexts. Arabic has the distinction of being a literary language par excellence throughout the Arab and Muslim world, developed directly from Qur’anic Arabic and used in an array of forms ranging from poetry and theology to public policy and news media. The modern standard form of literary Arabic is one of the official languages of the United Nations. The Arabic alphabet has been adopted by Muslim peoples throughout history, and has been used to write local languages as diverse as Malay, Farsi and Turkish, with Arabic words giving these and other languages their distinct Islamic flavour. In addition to its religious and literary forms, Arabic is a living spoken language, with myriad oral forms also closely related to Qur’anic Arabic intermingled with local dialects and idioms. From its provincial origins in old Arabia, Arabic has become a major world language, and the main reason for this transformation is Islam.
From the beginning of the Qur’an’s revelation, the Jews and mushrikeen of old Arabia, although often awestruck by its rhetorical and spiritual intensity, attempted to destroy the integrity of Islamic Arabic. This hatred of Arabic, because it is the language of the Qur’an, continued through the ages, with the enemies of Islam in all times and places attempting to corrupt Arabic and separate Muslims from the language of the Qur’an, and thereby from the Qur’an. Colonial powers, encouraged by Christian missionaries, succeeded in persuading or forcing Muslims in Africa and Asia to abandon the Arabic alphabet and adopt Latin scripts instead. One of the first official acts of the Kemalist secularisers in Turkey was the fabrication of a Roman alphabet for Turkish, while outlawing Arabic, even to the point of commissioning the call to prayer in Turkish. Although the Kemalists did not succeed in completely purging Turkish of all Arabic words (little would have been left if they had), the alphabet change effectively severed Turkish Muslims from generations of Islamic research, scholarship, literature and culture.
Throughout the twentieth century, Western-oriented schools and universities in the Arab and Muslim world insisted on using English and other colonial languages as their languages of instruction, and slowly the definition of an “educated” person became one who was educated in a colonial language. At the same time, catering to nationalist and modernist sentiments in the Arab world, Western-style universities also insisted on “updating” Arabic, with local Christians colonizing the language with Western words and secularising definitions and concepts present in the language from before. In recent years American-style universities have proliferated in the Arab world, especially in the oil-rich Gulf sheikdoms. Run by Western expatriates who recruit faculty-members from the ranks of missionaries, often with the blessings of the local elite, these universities are slowly whittling away at literary Arabic, replacing it with literary English. Many expatriates are repulsed by any form of Arabic, but the shrewder ones encourage the local colloquial forms, which are not written and often not intelligible to other Arabic-speakers, but which give Arab students a false sense of security that they are not forgetting their native tongue. In reality, language is inseparable from modes of thought and feeling, and giving up one’s language for another means changing one’s thinking. Similarly, improving thought and understanding is best and most easily achieved by improving the quality of the language one uses (this goes for any language), which to be most effective should be intelligible for as large an audience as possible. However, the end result of being “educated” in Western universities is that Arab graduates can carry on academic conversations in standard English, but appear provincial when speaking Arabic dialects.
The assault on Arabic through education goes back for more than a century, yet until recently it had generally been limited to local educated elites. However, a new assault on Arabic comes in the form of satellite television, which reaches far more Arabic speakers than missionaries and universities ever hoped for or dreamed of. Currently, most Arab states have at least one satellite public or private channel, offering a variety of programmes ranging from religion and news to ‘entertainment’ and sports. Although some of these channels utilize the standard forms of literary Arabic as a tongue that is intelligible to all Arabs, the phenomenon of promoting colloquial forms has become more common. When Cairo was the “Hollywood” of the Arab world, colloquial Egyptian became widespread and is now understood by most Arabs, because of the success of Egyptian film and music during the Nasserist period. More recently, colloquial Lebanese is gaining ground as a media language. Popular Lebanese satellite channels such as LBC and Future TV feature talk-show hosts and announcers speaking very local and even slang forms of colloquial Lebanese, interspersed with faddish English words like “cool” and “okay.” Owned and operated by the regional elite (Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri and members of the Saudi royal family, for instance), the Lebanese stations are currently at the forefront of the constant effort to change and degrade Arabic, and Lebanese broadcasters are slowly gaining footholds in other national channels as well.
The assault on language is just one part of a larger agenda. Recently, a satellite TV owner boldly proclaimed, “I will invade the Gulf with sex; give me ten years.” Seductive images of scantily-clad Lebanese singers and talk-show hosts already foreshadow this vision, but surely the worst is yet to come. Coupled with the seductive imagery, one finds the proliferation of colloquial and even tawdrier forms of Arabic. A case in point is the new satellite TV show, Zen TV, which is produced in Dubai but broadcast daily on Hariri’s Future TV. Seedy-looking Lebanese boys and girls frolic and cavort, while bantering in their local slang about American movies, pop music, fast computers and the latest fashion fads. A recent poll at a Gulf university found that within its first year Zen TV gained a sizeable following among the region’s youth. Recently the station has recruited local girls for its programmes, expanding the line-up beyond Lebanese Arabs, but regardless of their backgrounds the hosts of such talk-shows have the common habit of corrupting media Arabic with irreverent slang and fashionable Americanisms.
Allah has promised to protect the Qur’an, but it may be up to Muslims to protect the Arabic language, especially in its literary form. Qur’anic and literary Arabic are under assault by the enemies of Islam, who cannot bear the fact that the language of revelation from Allah Most High is still alive and relatively well among Muslims and Arabs, more than fourteen centuries after the Qur’an came down. Their hatred of Islam and of the Qur’an is the main reason for their assault on Arabic, and they have powerful local proxies to help in the task of corrupting or reformulating Arabic. Their current focus is on native speakers of Arabic, and by way of ‘education’ and satellite television the enemies of Allah are slowly making progress in their satanic quest. It is not too late to thwart them, but major efforts are necessary. Certainly Muslims and Arabs who still revere the Qur’an must take notice of these plots, and develop alternative forms of education and communication, in order to counter this diabolical onslaught.