How I discovered the beauty of the Qur’an, Part Three: Jumping into Arabic.

Often in my Islam class, my professor would toss out an Arabic term and quiz students.  Several in the class were students of Arabic.  (It’s very popular with ROTC and political science students.)  One of the great joys in the class was recognizing Arabic words simply by their Hebrew cognates.

Take dhikr, a term referring to the devotional practices of Sufis.  It literally means “remembrance” and is cognate with the Hebrew root zākar of the same meaning.  Another is kitab (“book”), as in `Ahl al-Kitāb (“People of the Book”), a term in Islamic thought referring to Jews and Christians.  This is cognate with the Hebrew verb kātab, “to write,” as in Ketubim (“Writings”), the Jewish term for the part of the Tanakh containing poetic books, wisdom literature, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, and Chronicles.

I would be taking Arabic already, but as a devotee of linguae antiquitatum, I am not interested in modern standard Arabic.  So last week, when I ran into my university’s Arabic professor, I asked him if he was teaching a course in classical Arabic.  And lo, he will soon be running a course for Muslims who can sound out Arabic but not parse and decipher it.  I have a month to learn the Arabic alphabet.

So it is highly likely that I will be the only non-Muslim student in the class.  I learned biblical Hebrew the same way: not from a university, but from a rabbi.  I won’t have any surahs on the tip of my tongue, but I will have a much better knowledge of Semitic languages from my understanding of the intricacies of Hebrew verbs.  Most of all, I enjoy being a religious guest.

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