Spoken by more than 340 million people as a first language, Arabic is one of the world’s main languages and a member of the Semitic class of linguistic registers spoken widely in the Middle East and North Africa region.
In addition to its geographical application, it is also the language which underpins the religion of millions of non-Arab Muslims around the world.
Arabic is the official language of 26 states with many different, geographically distributed spoken dialects.
Modern Standard Arabic, the prevalent form of Arabic that exists today, is a derivation of Classical Arabic, the only surviving member of the Old North Arabian dialect group, which dates back to the 4th century.
Classical Arabic has a rich repository of synonyms, elegant semantical idioms, and logical, well-structured forms and expressions. Surviving collections of pre-Islamic poetry provide evidence of a literary genre characterized by a sophisticated literary style that invokes ancient tales, communal homilies and ethical and moral frameworks to which the pre-Muslim Arabs adhered to.
The Arabic language in the pre-Islamic period played a pivotal role in societal and cultural expressions of aristocracy, social status, and moral and ethical rulings. Each tribe nominated a poet, to act as the linguistic spokesperson, whose job it was to coin together elegant poetical verses and prose that would in turn reflect the status and social prominence of his tribe before the rest of the tribal confederation in the Arabian Peninsula.
In fact, Classical Arabic became a vehicle for the propagation of ethical, moral, and tribal customs and was even recited in happy and sad occasions. Its multi-faceted usage and nature elevated Classical Arabic to the peaks of literary triumphs so much so that Arabs and Arabic came to be an all encompassing word for elegance, expression and convincing statements.
Arabic and Islam
The advent of Islam in 7th century Arabia marked a new juncture in the history of the Arabic language. Arabic was the language through which Allah (s.w.t) chose to communicate with His final messenger, Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w).
The Qur'an speaks of itself as “cogent recitation” or “An Arabic Qur'an sent down to guide mankind as a whole.”
The revelation of the Qur'an in Arabic set the precedent for a unique and lasting relationship between Arabic and Islam. Owning to its rich literary reservoir and highly sophisticated rhetorical leanings - a persuasive and an argumentative tool that is often utilized in multi-faceted and scholarly debates - it is no wonder that Arabic quickly acquired a universal status in the Muslim heartlands and soon after became the lingo franca of the vast swathes of Muslim territories captured by the belligerent Arab armies during the Middle Ages.
In fact, the relationship between the Qur'an and the Islamic religion is unprecedented in the history of world religions. Arab and non-Arab Muslims recite their daily ritual prayers in Arabic, Muslim children are taught from a young age to memorize Arabic verses and chapters from the Qur'an, believing that its mere recitation brings blessings and spiritual grace to the reciter.
In all linguistic studies, grammar or grammatical rules/principles are invoked to ensure speech is established correctly and accurately. Similarly, logic is invoked to ensure correct thinking, not thinking per se. Arabic grammar, or ''qawa‘idu l-lugati l-‘arabiyya'', is the grammar of the classical and standard Arabic and shares many similar features and principles with other Semitic languages.
The earliest systematizations of Arabic grammatical rules were articulated in the mid-600s by Abu Aswad al-Du´ali, a companion of the first Imam Ali b. Abi Talib (a.s), as attested by the famous Baghdadi bookseller and bibliographer Ibn Nadim in his celebrated “alfihrist.”
Al-Du'ali put in place diacritic marks to account for vowels and other sounds produced by glottal readings. By the mid-700s two different schools of Arabic grammar emerged, the School of Kufa and Basra, two renowned centers learning in Iraq.
Arabic grammarians divide grammatical sciences into five branches:
- al-lugha (lexicon) concerned with collecting and explaining vocabulary;
- at-tasrifا (morphology) determining the form of the individual words;
- an-nahuww (syntax) primarily concerned with inflection;
- al-ishtiqaq (derivation) examining the origin of the words; and
- al-balagha (rhetoric) which elucidates construct quality.
Classical Arabic has twenty-eight consonantal phonemes, including two semi-vowels, which comprise the Arabic alphabet. It also has six vowel phonemes (three short vowels and three long vowels). These appear as various allophones, depending on the preceding consonant. Short vowels are not usually represented in written language, although they may be indicated with diacritics.
Hamzatu l-wasl, elidable hamza, is a phonetic object prefixed to the beginning of a word for ease of pronunciation, as literary Arabic doesn't allow consonant clusters at the beginning of a word.
Elidable hamza drops out as a vocal, if a word is preceding it. This word will then produce an ending vocal, "helping vocal" to facilitate pronunciation. This short vocal may be, depending on the preceding vowel, a fatha, a kasra or a damma.
If the preceding word ends in a sukun (i.e. not followed by a short vowel), the Hamzatu l-wasl assumes a kasra. Symbol shadda indicates a gemination or consonant doubling.
The Islamic faith is underpinned by a number of sciences, not least Arabic grammar. In fact, advanced knowledge of Arabic grammar is a requisite for all disciplines in Islamic studies without which one is unable to proceed in the higher stages of learning. Proper knowledge in Arabic grammar allows one to understand, appreciate, and interpret the nuances of the Quran and Prophetic traditions.
Bibliography and Further Reading
- Qatr ‘l-nada
- Sharh ibn ʽaqīl
- mabadi’ al-ʽarabiyya
- al-nahuww al-wadih
- mughni al-labib
- al-balagha al-wadiha