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The Emergence of Modern Standard Arabic

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Kees Versteegh

From The Arabic Language
© 1997 Kees Versteegh
Used by permission of the Edinburgh University Press.


When the French conquered Egypt, the Egyptian writer al-Gabarti (d. 1825), who witnessed the invasion, wrote an account in which he informed his compatriots about the political situation in Europe and the relations between the European nations. For the first time, political notions and institutions that were alien to the Islamic point of view had to be described in terms that were comprehensible to a Muslim audience. Throughout the nineteenth century, Arabic translators were active as intermediaries who attempted to express the notions of one culture in the language of the other (cf. Ayalon 1987) . It was, for instance, hard to find an Arabic equivalent for the European notion of 'constitutional government'. In some translations, 'constitutional monarchy' became a malakiyya muqayyada (after the French monarchie limitée ), i.e. a monarchy that was limited by laws, in the Middle Eastern context almost a contradiction in terms. The notion of man-made laws was equally difficult to grasp. The Middle East knew only a religious law ( Sari'a ), sometimes complemented by temporary regulations by the ruler ( qawanin ). For a long time, translators hesitated to use the verb sarra'a for the Western concept of 'legislation', but at the end of the nineteenth century this became the current term for the activity of a legislative assembly. The term dustur became the regular term for 'constitution'; originally this term had denoted a code, or a collection of laws. Once dustur had been introduced as a term for the constitution, 'constitutional government' could be translated with hukuma dusturiyya .

It was equally hard to reproduce the idea of 'citizenship' in a society that consisted of a ruler and his subjects. Initially, the Arabic translators used the term ra'iyya 'flock, subjects' to indicate all people under a government, so that huquq ar-ra'iyya came to indicate the concept of 'civil rights'! Because of its connotations, this term was increasingly often avoided by the translators and replaced with the more neutral term sa'b 'people', for instance in combinations such as hukumat as-sab bi-s-sa'b 'government of the people by the people' and sawt as-sa'b ' vox populi ', and also in maglis as-sa'b 'people's assembly, House of Commons'. Only in the twentieth century, when the concept of watan 'fatherland' had become familiar, could a term such as muwatin for 'citizen' gain currency (Ayalon 1987: 43-53) .

The representative character of the government in many European countries constituted another problem for a translator wishing to explain the structure of European society. One of the first terms to indicate a representative was wakil, originally a representative of the ruler or a mandatory. At first, this was the term used in combinations such as wukala' ar-ra'iyya or maglis al-wukala’ . At the end of the nineteenth century, it was replaced by nuwwab from na'ib 'replacing'. In some cases, the choice of terms represented a deliberate attempt on the part of the rulers to manipulate the ambiguity of the terminology. When the term sura was introduced to indicate the institution of a parliament, this term had overtones of a consultative body (cf. the Ottoman mesveret ), and in choosing this term rulers could emphasise the limited powers of the body concerned. An alternative term diwan had the same disadvantage - or advantage - of being closely connected to the sphere of influence of the ruler. In the end, the much vaguer term maglis 'session' (or sometimes the European loan barlaman ) seemed better suited to express the novel character of the new institution. This last example illustrates the process by which from a confusion of terms eventually the best term was selected, i.e. the term that was least contaminated with old concepts (cf. Rebhan 1986) .

A complication in the study of the introduction of political terminology in Arabic in the nineteenth century is the fact that in many cases we have insufficient information about the exact path by which the terms were introduced. Neologisms invented by writers from the beginning of the nineteenth century such as al-Gabarti played an important part, but they were not the only source for the lexical innovations. In some cases, translators could go back to pre-Ottoman Arabo-Islamic sources, such as the terminology in Ibn Haldun's (d. 757/1356) Muqaddima, from which they borrowed words like istibdad 'despotic rule' for 'absolutism', sura 'council to elect a caliph' for 'constitutional government', and fitna 'fight between Islamic factions' for 'revolution'. Most of these words were replaced later by more neutral, less Islamic terms (for instance, fitna by tawra, originally 'unrest, stirring').

Some of the terms that were introduced into Arabic went through an Ottoman stage. When in the second half of the nineteenth century the Young Ottomans formulated their ideas about government and political structure, they often borrowed words from Arabic that had not been current or did not have a specifically political meaning in Arabic. At a later stage, some of these terms were reintroduced into Arabic together with their newly-acquired meaning, for instance the words for 'government' ( hükümet, Arabic hukuma ) and 'republic' ( cumhuriyet, Arabic gumhuriyya ). Other terms that Ottoman Turkish had borrowed from Arabic never became popular in the Arab world, for instance the term mab'ut (from Arabic ba'ata 'to send') that was used for the representatives in the Ottoman Hey'et-i Meb'usan in 1876. Another example is the word millet (Arabic milla 'religious community') that was applied in the nineteenth century by the Ottoman administration to other nations, but was replaced in the Arab world by 'umma .

Yet another category is constituted by those terms that were created independently in the Arab world to express Western political notions. At first, these notions had been borrowed together with the foreign word, for instance kumunizm or kumuniyya for 'communism', or susyal or susyalist for 'socialist', but most foreign words were soon replaced by Arabic equivalents. Many of them were derived from existing roots or words through analogy ( qiyas ), e.g. istiraki 'socialist' (from istaraka 'to share'), which came to be preferred to igtima'i (from igtama'a 'to gather') and suyu'iyya, which was coined in the twentieth century for 'communism' (from sa'i 'common [property]'). In most cases, the original European (English or French) term shone through in the selected root, but inevitably the Arabic equivalents introduced new connotations as well. The term istiraki, for instance, suggests 'sharing', which underscores one aspect of socialism, the sharing of the means of production.

The new role of Arabic as a medium for political ideas naturally affected its societal position as well. During the centuries of Ottoman rule, Turkish had become the language of power and government in the Arab world, and although Classical Arabic had always remained the language of religion and to a certain extent, of culture, it had lost its function as administrative language of the empire (cf. also above, Chapter 5). The official status of Turkish in the Ottoman empire did not mean, however, that it was universally understood. In the Arab provinces, less than 1 per cent of the population actually knew Turkish. In practice, therefore, the local authorities and the courts had to have recourse to translators in order to facilitate contacts with the local populace. Most of the locally-produced documents were either in Arabic or bilingual.

When at the end of the nineteenth century nationalism began to emerge in the Arab world, it was invariably linked with the Arabic language, whether this nationalism was pan-Arabic as in Syria, or regional as in Egypt. The linkage between Arab identity and the Arabic language did not call into question the framework of the Ottoman empire and usually went no further than a request for improvement in the status of Arabic in the provinces. On more than one occasion, complaints were made about the lack of understanding between the local populace and the government's representatives, and local authorities often stressed the need to send officials who were familiar with the local language. In Egypt, the use of Arabic for administrative purposes had increased steadily throughout the nineteenth century, and at the end of the century most of the official correspondence was carried out in Arabic. Nonetheless, any discussion in the Ottoman Parliament by Arab delegates about the position of Arabic immediately led to objections by those who felt that the position of Turkish as the official language of the Ottoman empire was threatened. In 1909, the use of any other language than Turkish in legal cases was explicitly forbidden, and in 1910 a request to the Ottoman Parliament to accept petitions written in Arabic was turned down.

The Arab Congress that convened in 1913 in Paris called for a measure of provincial autonomy within the Ottoman empire and at the same time claimed for Arabic the status of official language, both in the Ottoman Parliament and in local government. On the part of the central government, the loss of the Ottoman areas in the Balkans led to a renewed interest in the position of the Arab provinces. In 1913, petitions in Arabic in predominantly Arabic-speaking areas were allowed, and official decrees were published with an Arabic translation. Officially, Arabic was even accepted as the language of education and legal cases, but probably this new policy was implemented only in central areas such as Syria and Lebanon. None of these requests and measures should be construed as signs of disloyalty towards the central government; in most cases they were meant as support for the central government and as a means of strengthening the ties between the provinces and the capital.

The reaction to European ideas differed in the various Arab provinces. In Egypt, the period after the Napoleonic conquest was characterized by an emphasis on the special character of Egyptian society, history and culture. Some intellectuals even began to write about the Egyptian nation ( watan ) as something transcending the Muslim community ( 'umma ). The keywords of this development were modernization and reform, albeit without a concrete programme, and always within the framework of the Ottoman empire. At first, these writers did not respond negatively to European culture, but in the course of the nineteenth century the increasing political presence and influence of the European countries (Tunisia 1881, Egypt 1882) and their special ties with the Christian minorities altered the attitude towards Europe. Thinkers such as Gamal ad-Din al-'Afgani (1839-97) and Muhammad 'Abduh (1849-1905) opposed British imperialism, while at the same time emphasizing the need to reform Islamic thinking and education. In their view, this reform should not consist in the wholesale borrowing of Western notions, but in a revival of the old Islamic virtues: Islam was a rational religion and perfectly capable of coping with the new problems. European ideas could be helpful in some respects, but because of its inherent virtues Islam had nothing to fear from them. The term Nahda 'awakening, revival' is sometimes used to indicate the spirit of this period, in which some reformers expected Islam to experience a renaissance, after the dark ages of uncritical repetition of established doctrine ( taqlid ). In this view, an acquaintance with Western culture and ideas served as a catalyst for the revival of Islamic and/or Arabic culture.

In the Levant, the reaction to nationalism developed in a different way from Egypt. The Arab Christians in Greater Syria had never completely severed the ties with the Christians of Europe, and from the seventeenth century onwards there had been a constant interchange between the Maronites and the learned (often religious) institutions of Italy and France. For these Christians, the problem of a conciliation between Islam and Western ideas did not pose itself, and they could adopt these new ideas without any risk to their own identity. For them as non-Muslims, an Islamic empire held no appeal, and they were apt to stress the separation between Arabic and Islam. While in Egyptian nationalist circles the role of the Egyptian nation was emphasized, Syrian nationalism owed a great deal to Arab Christians, which partly explains its more markedly pan-Arab flavour. In accordance with their views on the unifying role of language rather than religion, Lebanese Christians played an important role in the revival of Arabic studies in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (for instance, Nasif al-Yazigi, 1800-71).

After the start of the First World War, the political conflicts between the provinces and the central government were phrased increasingly often in terms of the opposition Arabs/Turks. The Arab revolt of1916 aimed at the establishment of an Arab kingdom to provide a home for all those of Arab descent who spoke Arabic. Although Arab thinkers often disagreed among themselves about the future form which their nation should take, they all agreed on its being an Arabic-speaking nation. It is true that in spite of efforts to realize a secular state in the Arab world, as Atatürk had done in Turkey, Islam remained the most important binding element. But, for most political thinkers, Islam was intrinsically and indissolubly connected with Arabic. Thus, for instance, Sakib 'Arslan (1896-1946) held that the community was defined by its religion, and since Arabs formed the core of the Islamic 'umma, Arabic was the true language of Islam, so that every Muslim had to learn Arabic. Arguing the other way round, Sati' al-Husri (1880-1968) asserted that it was precisely language that defined a nation, and therefore, the Arab nation should include all those who speak Arabic. In this respect, he opposed both the Islamic nationalists, who wished to unite all Muslims, and the regional nationalists, such as the Egyptians, whose first priority was to obtain statehood for a geographically-defined nation.

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