Photo: Anna Jahn, Unsplash

The scholar Dr Asadullah Yate on the impact of Arabic

Languages are undergoing enormous change: Globalisation, the internet, the demand of business and communication for an International-English-Speak mean that more and more non-English languages must adapt to its parameters. Arabic has not remained unaffected by this. However, it is irrevocably anchored in the two divine sources, the Qur’an, and the language of the Prophet. We spoke to the scholar and translator Dr Asadullah Yate about this.

Question: Where and when did you first encounter Arabic?

Asadullah Yate: I first experienced it in Morocco. I was immediately fascinated by the overflowing liveliness and friendliness of the people. Linguistically, it manifested itself in an energy that was very different from what I experienced in Europe. People seemed to speak louder and there were these different consonants that were absent in our country. It made everything more exotic. When they talked, people came much closer, face to face. You could see their vital eye colour, the expression on their face, while out of their mouth came this other means of communication.

Question: What is particularly interesting about this language?

Asadullah Yate: One learns that the Lord of the Worlds chose it to reveal to humanity the last acceptable form of behaviour, then it cannot be that all languages are equal. Goethe, despite his difficult situation, recognised this and accordingly endeavoured to familiarise himself with it. Arabic and Islam are inseparable, just as German and English – on a deeper level – are incomprehensible without knowledge of Greek and Latin culture. Trying to separate Islam from Arabic would be like trying to separate Islam – that is, its Qur’anic and Prophetic vocabulary – from Urdu.

Question: What are the special characteristics of Arabic?

Asadullah Yate: More than any other people, the Arabic language defines the Arabs. Or at least it did until they were mercilessly divided geographically by the colonialists and separated from their traditions by the new language of socialism and petty nationalism. And when the local dialects were “academically” upgraded.

Qadi ‘Iyyad in his book Ash-Shifa says the following: “The Arabs were the masters of linguistic expression as they were given eloquence and aphorisms not given to any other people. They were given a sharpness of tongue that other peoples did not possess, and a sharpness of speech that penetrated to the core of meaning. Allah gave them that as part of their nature and character. They use it spontaneously to evoke astonishment, and it enables them to deal with any situation by speaking extemporaneously.”

For them, this was so strong that speaking was considered synonymous with action. He continues, “They write poetry (…) to elevate (people) and humiliate [them]. Using language, they work permissible magic (…). With it they can deceive the intelligent, make the difficult easy, heal old feuds, bring old ruins to life, make cowards brave, open clenched hands, make the imperfect perfect, and return the high-born to darkness.”

For this reason, when the Qur’an came to them, they recognised its divine, miraculous nature. Their speaking was at such a high level that they had the capacity for accurate knowledge of its subtlety. Allah, the Exalted, said, “We have sent it down as an Arabic Qur’an that you may understand.” (Jusuf, Surah 12:2)

As-Sawi reminds us that “Arabic is the clearest and most eloquent language because it is the language of the people of the Garden within the Garden.” Muslim records that the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, said, “I have been given all expressions.” In other words, because of the inimitability of the Qur’an and the superiority of Prophetic speech, both sources will always be considered models. Because of their divine origin, they cannot be overcome.

Arabic literally means, “that which is clear, expresses itself clearly.” Allah says in Ash-Shuara (Surah 26, 195) that He revealed the Qur’an in a “clear Arabic tongue.” This original meaning best defines how the Arabs saw themselves in relation to the ‘Ajamis, the non-Arabs: they were masters of communication.

Question: Why is this language so suitable for expressing unity particularly well?

Asadullah Yate: It should be noted in passing that the word Tawhid itself has been devalued nowadays. It is often used to refer to unification in a social or economic sense, rather than in its original meaning as “the recognition of the unity of the Creator in creation.” However, returning to the Qur’anic definition, we see that Allah has provided us with a vocabulary that allows us to speak accurately about Him, His creation, and our position.

We realise that the language of tauhid is part of the fitra – the natural state of man – as described in the Qur’an. In other words, we humans were created in such a way that tauhid is natural to us. It is a description of “the way things are.”

By submitting to Allah and using the Qur’anic terminology to His description, creation, and us, we adapt to our own necessary situation in the world. Conversely, if one does not use this language to describe things, one obscures their reality.

Question: How momentous is the modernisation of Arabic that is taking place? Is it dangerous?

Asadullah Yate: There is no doubt that Arabic has changed a lot since, for example, BBC and CNN started broadcasting in Arabic years ago. On a crude level, it is noticeable that the verb is often moved to the second position after the subject. The dynamic of the verbal opening has been lost. Most messages are translated from English: Instead of rendering them in concise Arabic by using one of the ten or more verbal forms available for each stem of meaning – and we are not just talking about tenses or verbal modes such as indicative or subjunctive – the language here mimics English. Whereas Arab academies in Damascus or Cairo used to go to the trouble of finding Arabic terms for new things or concepts, the English vocabulary of science, business and computers is now imported on a large scale and merely transliterated.

The classifications of the world as seen from the West are also being applied to the Arabs. Thus, the Arabs who live in Amman live in the “Middle East.” They are not allowed to be in the centre of things – that is still Greenwich. It is of course “normal” in the sense that the language of one more aggressive system always influences another. What is dangerous, however, is when this process is not perceived, and one does not distinguish between a more aggressive system and a superior system.

Question: Dear Dr Yate, thank you for the interview.

Orphans of Uganda
Donate without Middlemen

100% of your donation reaches directly to the children in need!