Does Arab progress founder on an ossified language?

The Long View: We need to understand our history better: why did Arabs disappear from ‘our’ science?

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I’ve heard all kinds of reasons for the Arab-Israeli failure to agree on UN Security Council Resolution 242 – because the Arabic text calls upon Israel to withdraw from ‘the lands occupied by Israel in 1967’ (including the West Bank, Gaza and Golan) whereas the English text (as the Americans intended) leaves out the word ‘the’. So ‘occupied land’ leaves the Israelis free to decide which bits of land they want to hand back – and which they don’t.

But the French version also takes the definite article ‘les’ – so it can’t be the Arabs’ fault. Or does this all come about because the language Arabs speak and the language they write is not the same. Does it lack clarity? I hear this all the time – from Westerners, of course.

There can be a kind of imprecision in practical life. I recall arriving with colleagues in southern Lebanon during one of Israel’s five invasions and asking how many Israeli tanks were on the road in front of us. “Many,” came the reply of the refugees. How many? “Ktir” – very many. Ten? “Na’am”. (Yes.) Twenty? “Na’am” (Yes again.) A dangerous lack of clarity there, surely.

Hasan Karmi, the Palestinian lexicographer who died six years ago, nursed the theory that having learned colloquial Arabic as children before progression to the much more precise written form -- and because language is so crucial to the development of thought – “Arabs were often handicapped by a lack of precision in their thinking.” Here I am quoting from Karmi’s obituary by my mate Donald Macintyre. Hence, perhaps, the failure of Arabs to maintain their historical superiority in science and intellectual thought.

For while I rabbit on about the poisonous influence on our Romance languages of SMS text messages, internet-speak and blogopop culture, Arabs are debating the most controversial issue of their language: that while it should be living and adapted to the modern age, its linguists have produced dictionaries only to serve the “reciters of religion and to sanctify the dead”.

Arabic culture, according to Iraqi-born journalist and writer Walid al-Kobeissi, is founded upon three pillars: Arab nationalism, Islam and the Arabic language. If one of these pillars gives way, the culture collapses. The idea that to change or “touch” the language is a kind of profanation – since the very message of God, the Koran, was written in Arabic – has prevented any modernization of the written language. But since the 1990s, the Kurds have begun to lose their interest in Arabic. Arab Christians use a dictionary which incorporates modern medical terms. Egyptian Copts use Egyptian Arabic dialect on the internet.

Literary Arabic, of course, is written, not spoken. Yet most Arab writers, according to al-Kobeissi, do not progress linguistically after the age of 40 because written Arabic language takes more time to master than European languages. He believes his fellow Arabs were losing time in learning syntax. “Grammatical analysis is in reality the main problem of our language,” he writes.

In the early days of Islam, Arabs made mistakes because there did not exist a real break between the language they wrote and the language they spoke. In those days, language reformers were not accused of being Orientalists. The Omayad Caliph Al-Walid told his citizens to stop worrying about grammar when he wished to spread Arabic in the Latin- and Persian-speaking regions of Iraq and Syria.

Dialects would bridge the gap between spoken and written Arabic – as they do today. Al-Kobeissi, an Arabic teacher in Norway, notes that there were two versions of Norwegian 50 years ago – but that dialects developed into a single language. Yet in an Arabic dictionary of 80,000 words, most of the words are unused -- there are, for example, perhaps 600 terms for a camel. Palestinian writer Hanan Bakir disagrees. She points out that Arabs no longer speak the language of the pre-Islamic or Abbassid eras, that Arabs do not even speak the same language as their grandmothers. Language evolves naturally, not because of linguistics. 

Syrian-born astrophysician Rim Turkmani of Imperial College believes that Arab and Muslim science had a profound influence on the West during the Renaissance. In the 17th century, European scientists even gave written references in Arabic and Persian. They translated Arabic scientific texts. Edmond Halley – of comet fame – translated two Arabic books into English, and wrote an essay on the mathematician al-Battani, the ‘Arabic Ptolemy’. Chemist Robert Boyle studied the works of Jabir bin Hayan. “At the time of the Renaissance and the scientific revolution,” Turkmani told the newspaper L’Orient Le Jour, “…Western scientists recognized the Arab contribution and cited Arabic works.”

But today, no-one talking about Halley or Boyle refers to their debt to Arab scientists. Turkmani won’t give any reason for this. Perhaps we should reassess our debt to Arab scientists by understanding our history a little better. Why did the Arabs disappear from ‘our’ science? Because they didn’t bridge that gap between writing and the spoken word? Or because we Westerners suddenly discovered ‘Orientalism’, the suspicious Muslim ‘other’ which still dominates our lives?

“…and the word was with God,” we are told. It’s a moot point.

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