Category Archives: Arabic

Review: A Brief Introduction to the Arabic Alphabet.

513Gt9F-IsL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Ever since my brief stint studying Arabic last year, I’ve wanted to get back into it.  Since I won’t have any Hebrew courses this spring, now seems like the perfect time.

In preparation, I picked up John F. Healey and G. Rex Smith’s A Brief Introduction to the Arabic Alphabet.  This short (106 pages) book details the history of the Arabic alphabet.  Both authors are scholars of the Arab world, and Healey in particular specializes in writing systems of Semitic and Near Eastern languages.

This book’s seven chapters can be divided into roughly three parts.  The first part contains two chapters on the various writing systems that led up to the Arabic alphabet: Nabatean, Syriac, Aramaic, etc.  I really liked this chapter because it helped me see the connections between the Arabic and the Hebrew alphabets, including how letters that sound different in Arabic and Hebrew today likely corresponded more in biblical times.  He spends several pages reviewing every letter of the Arabic alphabet to trace how its shape evolved from Nabatean to early Arabic papyri to the Arabic script we know today.

The next two chapters describe the earliest Arabic writing, including inscriptions (dating back to the 3rd/4th century CE) and papyri (7th century CE).  The earliest papyri, dating to 643 CE, is a receipt given by ‘Abdullah ibn Jabir, the commander of the Muslim conquest of Egypt, for 65 sheep.  This corresponds to year 22 in the Islamic calendar — the 22nd year since Muhammad and the early umma moved to Medina.  It fascinates me to think that the earliest extant written texts in Arabic correspond to the beginnings of Islam.  One wonders if this is the actual beginning of Arabic writing on an extensive scale.  The Mecca of Muhammad’s youth was a major trade hub, and it stands to reason that there were receipts and other trade-related documents written in Arabic before Muhammad began his prophetic career.  And while there were oral poems in Arabic before the Qur’an, one wonders if the Qur’an marks the beginning of written literature in Arabic.  I wish Healey and Smith had discussed some of these issues.

The final part of the book describes various Arabic scripts.  Of course, Arabic’s cursive script lends itself naturally to calligraphy, and Islam’s aniconic tendencies meant that Arabic writers developed complex, artful, and often practically illegible forms of calligraphy with which to embellish the words of Allah.  Healey and Smith provide 16 illustrations of various forms of calligraphy.  They conclude the book by describing other languages that use the Arabic script, including Persian, Pashto, and Urdu.

When I’m studying a language, I like having background information about the history of the language and how it evolved.  One of my frustrations with Greek is that I haven’t been able to learn that information!   In this book in particular, I would have liked more maps clarifying exactly where different scripts emerged and different inscriptions found.  Other than that, this book was a helpful, hour-long read, and for the adventurous there are several suggestions for further reading in the back.  I would recommend it to any student of classical or Qur’anic Arabic.


An Easter Reading of Surah 103.

It is often said that Latin makes one learn English better.  In my case, learning Arabic is helping my Hebrew – so many cognates, so many grammatical similarities.  I could write a post on every surah we study!  Instead, I’m trying to get into the routine of one post per week.

Saturday we read Surah 103, “Time”:

Wal ‘Asr
Innal insaana lafee khusr
Illal ladhenna aamannu
Wa ‘amilus saalihaati wa tawaasau bilhaqq
Wa tawaasau bis sabr

As the day runs out
Man is certainly in a state of loss
Except those who keep the faith and do good deeds
Who exhort in the truth, who encourage endurance (translation of my class and me)

As I wrote last week, the Qur’an’s poetry can be enigmatically brief.  With a little explication, we can see that this isn’t just a poem of apocalyptic moral judgment.  It isn’t just God sounding angry.  It is a surah of hope.

First, the opening phrase, “Wal ‘Asr.”  This is rendered “By (the Token of) time (through the Ages)” by Yusuf Ali.  Arberry renders it “by the afternoon!”  Sells renders it “by the age, the epoch.”  As explained to me in class, this phrase literally refers to the afternoon or dusk, but figuratively applies to a period of time that is running out.  The afternoon is a taxing time.  It is hot.  We feel sluggish.  The concrete image of daylight running out brings with it the danger of eschatology.  This image would be even more powerful in an ancient time when there were no lightblubs to run at night.

Second, the word “khusr.”  This term is also used in finance to refer to being broke or bankrupt.  Here is refers to humanity’s moral bankruptness.  We are in loss.  I see a parallel here to the Christian concept of original sin.

But there is hope.  The final verse names an exception to the impending doom on humankind: those who keep the faith, do good deeds, and exhort others in truth and enduring patience.  But given that the day is running out, there is no time to sit on the fence in such a matter.  There is no agnosticism possible here.  You either believe or you don’t.

I have never been one for apocalyptic language.  But I can get into this surah.  It’s very Easter. The first two lines bring you to (in Christian terms) the foot of the cross: all hope has been lost. But the last two lines bring you to the empty tomb, to hope.  Time is running out and the world is going to pot.  But Allah has given humanity a way to get out of this mess: the message of faith in Allah that has been preached by every prophet from Abraham to Noah to Jesus to Muhammad.

Although Muslims believe in Jesus as an exalted human prophet, the Qur’an denies the crucifixion and resurrection.  Instead, Jesus was “taken up” (ascended) to God at the end of his earthly ministry.  So Easter doesn’t hold much sway for my Muslim friends.  But on Easter, this surah evokes for me both the despair of the cross and the hope of the empty tomb.  It reminds me that God can make good come out of despair.  Despite their very different versions of what happened at the end of Jesus’ time on this earth, the Qur’an and the Gospels both hold out hope as a gift from God.

Compact Qur’an: Surah 109 and Isaiah 24:16.

A few weeks ago I gushed about the value of writing concisely.  Today I had another moment of bliss.  I was translating Surah 109 for my Arabic class:

Say: O ye that reject Faith!
I worship not that which ye worship
Nor will ye worship that which I worship.
And I will not worship that which ye have been wont to worship
Nor will ye worship that which I worship.
To you be your Way and to me mine. (Yusuf Ali translation)

Verses like this made me think the Qur’an was shoddy poetry.  To English ears, this surah sounds bad both semantically and syntactically.  It has too much semantic repetition, and the syntax is just confusing.  But in Arabic, the same verses have a concise beauty to them.

English prides itself on its huge vocabulary.  English wordsmiths can choose from several words with the same meaning but slightly different connotations or sounds.  So this kind of repetition sounds bad to English ears.  Teachers correct it.

Similarly, English requires too many syntax words for this surah to translate well. Take the verse“I worship not that which ye worship.”  Phrases that “that which” are clumsy and give me a headache.  But in Arabic, it works:

Laa a-‘budu ma ta-‘buduna
Not I-worship that you-worship

Qur’anic Arabic does not need as many syntactic words as English does.  There are only two.  The verbs contain their subjects, so you do not need words for “I” and “you.”  A verse that requires 7 words in English can be expressed by 4 in Arabic.  Yet these 4 words evoke so much: Muhammad’s repudiation of Arabian Jahiliyyah polytheism, his relatives shunning and outcasting him, the hatred and ridicule he faced on a daily basis for the revelations he preached.  There is a lot packed into these punchy four words.  The awkward syntax is not a defect of the Qur’an but a limitation of English.

As for the semantic repetition, I was immediately reminded of Isaiah 24:16:

bogedim bagadu ubeged bogedim bagadu
For the treacherous deal treacherously, the treacherous deal very treacherously. (NRSV)
The deceivers deceive, and with deception the deceivers deceive. (my rough translation)

When this verse came up in my Hebrew class last fall, the entire class laughed, because it sounded so silly!  It has a noun referring to actors performing an action, the verb for that action, and another noun referring to the action.  In Hebrew, all three of those words would come from the same root — in this case B-G-D.  This is possible to do in English, but as you can see above it seems ungainly.  As above, English requires more words.  A word-for-word translation would look more like this:

Deceivers deceive, and deception deceivers deceive.

In both Hebrew and Arabic, the compactness of these verses is made possible by the linguistic structure of the languages.  Neither translates very smoothly into idiomatic English.  Yet I love the compactness these Semitic tongues enable.  After reading flowery Greek and Latin prose in my classics courses, they are a breath of fresh air.

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.

How I discovered the beauty of the Qur’an, Part Two: The Beauty of Orality.

In my previous post I wrote about my frustration with stilted Qur’an translations and my discovery of Michael Sells’ more idiomatic translation of the early Meccan surahs.  Once I began to glimpse part of the Qur’an’s beauty, I could take it on faith that there is more.  But I would have to revise my aesthetic expectations to see that beauty.

As an avid fan of the Hebrew Bible and Robert Alter’s work on its narrative, I had a hard time understanding the way the Qur’an is structured.  When we read Qur’anic versions of biblical stories, we would have to flip around, flitting from surah to surah, reading one verse here and one verse there.  Why couldn’t the Qur’an be arranged to make more sense?  Why not put all the verses on Abraham in one place?

Sells yet again explains:

For Muslims, the Qur’an is first experienced in Arabic … In Qur’an schools, children memorize verses, then entire Suras…. As the students learn these Suras, they are not simply learning something by rote, but rather interiorizing the inner rhythms, sound patterns, and textual dynamics – taking it to heart in the deepest manner. (11)

Muslims refer to the Arabian desert culture Islam arose from as the Jahiliyah, a term denoting ignorance.  The Jahiliyah had a rich tradition of oral poetry.  The Qur’an is no different in this regard.  It is meant to be an oral text – hence the Islamic tradition of memorizing the entire Qur’an, a practice that is likely as old as the compiled Qur’an itself.  Devout Muslims don’t need to flip around the Qur’an to read its narrative of Abraham because they have those verses ready to call to mind.

Of course, memorizing the Qur’an means memorizing the Qur’an in Arabic.  Muslims consider the Qur’anic text and its language, its content and its form, to be inseparable.  Muhammad’s Arabic society, as Sells describes it, “had developed one of the most finely honed and scrutinizing tastes in the history of expressive speech” (7). The sounds of the Quran are simultaneously the most important and most untranslatable part.  I began to see this even more when I listened to videos of cantors giving voice to what is for them the word of God.

Previously I mentioned that having a poetic translation of part of the Qur’an helped me see its beauty.  Just as Robert Alter helped me see concretely exactly why the Hebrew Bible is aesthetically pleasing, so Sells helped me see why the Qur’an is such effective poetry.  Understanding its orality, as expressed in memorization and highly developed performance techniques, has given me an even greater peek at this monumental collection of poetic revelation.  In my next post I will write about the beginning of my adventure with Arabic.

How I discovered the beauty of the Qur’an, Part One.

When I first read the Qur’an in ‘Islam 101,’ I had been excited.  Muslim friends had told me it was the most beautiful poetry on earth.  But at first, I only found it tedious and repetitive.  In this and the next blog post I will explore my struggles in understanding this sacred text.

My professor, who is not a Muslim, favored the Muhammad Yusuf Ali translation, a go-to translation for many English-speaking Muslims.  I did not.  I liked his extensive tafsir, but I could not get into his translation.  It reads like the King James Bible, but without the veneer of being the “King’s English.”  To me, it sounds stilted, Victorian, too full of nays and thees and thous.  Take his translation of Surah 102:

The mutual rivalry for piling up (the good things of this world) diverts you (from the more serious things),

Until ye visit the graves.

But nay, ye shall soon know (the reality).

Again, ye soon shall know!

Nay, were ye to know with certainty of mind, (Ye would beware!)

Ye shall certainly see Hellfire!

Again, ye shall see it with certainty of sight!

Then, shall ye be questioned that Day about the joy (ye indulged in!)

The “ye” language is bad enough.  But I really have a hard time with the words in parentheses.  I understand he does it to preserve the integrity of the original, to show that he has added words, but it only adds to the awkwardness of his translation.

approaching_the_quranFrustrated, I despaired at finding beauty in the poetry of the Qur’an.  But given that some of my most intelligent friends believe this is the revelation of God, I wanted to continue trying to find that beauty.  Then I came across Michael Sells’ Approaching the Qur’an: The Early Revelations.  Sells, a non-Muslim scholar of Islam and comparative mysticism, translates and comments on the early Meccan surahs.  More than later revelations concerned with the problems of civilization-building, the earliest revelations focus on the intimate mercy of Allah and provide consolation for Muhammad as he struggled with self-doubt and persecution.  Islamic belief holds that the Qur’an is ultimately untranslatable, but Sells enabled me to glimpse some of the majesty of the original in English.  Take his translation of the surah above:

Acquisitiveness turns you away

Until you reach the graves

Oh then you will know

Surely then you will know

Surely you will know with a knowledge certain

You will see a blazing fire

Then you will see it with an eye certain

At that time then

You will be asked about true well-being

I like the added punch of the last line, its “true” dripping with sarcasm.  I also like the repetition in the middle of the surah.

Sells consistently avoids punctuation.  This conveys the fragmentariness (and often vagueness) of the original Arabic, but it makes the Qur’an sound like e.e. cummings.  That last problem aside, reading Sells’ translation of the early surahs was my first step in understanding the beauty of the Qur’an.  Though I cannot comment on its accuracy, I do think he renders it in good English.  Check out my next post on the orality of the Qur’an and how that helped me see its beauty.