The sciences of the Arabic language – like morphology, grammar, rhetoric, and metrics – were codified around the end of the fifth century AH/eleventh century CE. The scholars who carried out this effort achieved something truly astounding. It is all the more impressive to consider that these scholars worked in a time when collaboration was difficult, and the exchange of ideas took much longer than it does today. They did not enjoy the research facilities and networks that allow for the rapid dissemination and exchange of ideas that scholars of later generations would enjoy. There were no foundations and research organizations back then to support the development of the language sciences. Their achievements, nevertheless, were amazing and relatively rapid.
It is therefore all the more disheartening that soon after the fifth century came to a close, we see that the pace of Arabic language research slowed down more and more until it soon amounted to nothing more that the mere repetition and rehashing of what had already been said. There were, of course, a few notable exceptions to this, like the eighth /fourteenth century Tunisian scholar Ibn Khaldūn.
As we arrive at present times, we find that matters have gotten even worse. For example, one of my professors related to me the following:
A discussion took place between one of our Arabic language scholars (i.e. someone with a PhD in Arabic) and a foreign specialist in phonetics. They were talking about phonetics and the different approaches to it that exist within the scholarly community. The foreign scholar asked his colleague to recommend a good Arabic work on the subject, and the Arabic scholar answered by mentioning al-Khasā’is by Ibn Jinnī.
Now, it is really hard to believe that nothing was written in this field worth mentioning since that time.
Indeed, it is quite difficult to believe, considering that Ibn Jinnī wrote al-Khasā’is way back in 392 AH/1002 CE! I am certain that Arabic scholars had written worthwhile research on phonetics after Ibn Jinnī and that perhaps they made original contributions to the field. Nevertheless, the absence of any mention of such a body of research from Arabic scholarship up to the present day must be counted as a crisis in this field of study.
Consider that Arabic ranks among the top five languages in the world, along with English, Spanish, French, and Chinese. Each one of those four languages has foundations and research organizations devoted to serving it. They all have examination boards with international standardized tests — like TOEFL for English – to test the proficiency of non-native speakers.
However, Arabic, which is spoken as a first language by no less than 300 million people has no international standardized examination. There are no truly effective research centers and foundations serving it and developing it. Instead, we find lone professors here and there still arguing with each other over some ancient question like whether a certain word is an adverb or a verb!
Students studying the Arabic language at Arab universities are still issued a standard grammar text written in 761 AH/1360 CE and a rhetoric textbook written in 626 AH/1229 CE. Have the scholars and universities in the Arab world truly proven incapable of coming up with any advancements in the field of Arabic language studies which would warrant the need for a new textbook?
To get an idea of the state of academic research in the field, we only have to look at the Masters and Doctoral dissertations being produced by our universities. We see titles like “So-and-So: His Life and Poetry”. The only thing original about the treatment of this obscure poet is that nobody has bothered to read him for centuries besides the student and, in their turn, the student’s supervisor and examiners. We also see titles like: “The Ancient Basrian School and its Influence on the Grammar of Scholar So-and-So”.
No doubt this kind of research takes time and effort and may prove to be of some benefit to the researcher. However, it contributes nothing new to the field. Why are so much of our research efforts channeled in this direction?
By contrast, we should consider the Royal Spanish Academy in Madrid. Hosting a great number of leading Spanish scholars and researchers, the academy’s mission is to monitor and follow the development of the Spanish language. It publishes annually the famous DRAE, the standard dictionary of the Spanish language. Its website includes an online dictionary and other resources, where one can learn the meaning and etymological origin of every Spanish word. It also actively and effectively participates with other agencies concerned with language.
The most prominent organization concerned with Arabic today is the Academy of Arabic Language in Cairo. They have come out with a dictionary, and they should be thanked for their efforts, but it is far below the standard that the Arabic language deserves.
Examples of this kind of deficiency go on and on. What we need to investigate is how we are going to fix the sorry state that the field of Arabic studies is in. One thing I believe will be needed is action on a governmental and supra-governmental scale to create an International Center for the Arabic Language that can bring together scholars from around the world for the purpose of developing the Arabic language as well as for publishing dictionaries, language resources and setting international standards. The Center would also have the resources and capabilities to engage in large-scale and long-term research projects. It is essential that international efforts are unified and properly coordinated.
The present situation with regard to the actual language that people speak in the Arab world is one of disunity. We need to unify the Arabic language. We need a Modern Standard Arabic that is vital, taken from the actual language of the people and that people can all agree upon.
Allāh has preserved the Qur’ān in Arabic. Those early scholars who codified the Arabic sciences derived their knowledge from the Arabic spoken by the people of their time with the purpose of serving the Qur’ān by preserving its language in all of its aspects. However, we should not deceive ourselves into thinking that Arabic is just a liturgical language. This is what has made pure Arabic (Fushā) something that is heard only in the mosques in the Arab world, and only spoken effectively by religion scholars and students. The pure Arabic spoken in the mosques was the actual spoken language of the people before the Qur’ān was revealed and during the time of its revelation.
Most of those concerned with preserving Arabic in its purity focus their discussions on the problem of the various and disparate dialects that Arabs are speaking. However, they fail to realize that people have an urgent need for language — some language, any language — to communicate with. Therefore, we cannot blame the people if they diverge from Fushā and come together on some other dialect they can all communicate with each other. This is indeed what has been happening unofficially in the Arab world. We witness this development in the flowering of dialect-based poetry competitions and in the language of Arabic television.
This is an inevitable consequence of the stagnation of the field of Arabic studies and it’s disconnect with Arabic language users. It is also due to the negligence of those who are supposed to be authorities concerned with the language.
If Arabic is to survive, it has got to remain a living language.
By Sheikh Mu`adh al-Hazani