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WORD OF THE DAY
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Quranic Arabic, Classical Arabic and MSA
© Saqib Hussain
The development of Arabic may roughly be divided into three periods: Classical Arabic, Post-classical Arabic and Modern Arabic. The classical period lasts until about the end of the first century AH, after which the enormous conversion rate to Islam amongst non-Arabs and the expansion of the Muslim empire all but wiped out the pristine language of the pre-Islamic (Jāhilī) Bedouin Arabs, which remained preserved only in the lexicons of scholars concerned to record the unadulterated speech of the Arabs in which the Quran was revealed. By Quranic Arabic, therefore, we mean simply Classical Arabic as used in the Quran. (It should be noted that Quranic Arabic is occasionally used by writers to refer to the Arabic prevalent at the time the Quran was revealed).
The main changes to have taken place as Arabic moved into its post-classical period was that (i) a large amount of new vocabulary was added to the language (often consciously, by Muslim scholars looking to find new words to express for example, Greek concepts, which were being discussed for the first time in Arabic - Ibn Sīnā and al-Farābī in particular come to mind, but also Ibn Khaldūn, whose al-Muqaddimah is a prime example of the inherent ability of Arabic to expand and absorb new concepts), and (ii) the grammar was standardized, as Classical Arabic was actually a group of diverse sister dialects spoken by the various Bedouin tribes, which is why it can sometimes be difficult to categorically say that something is or isn't correct according to Classical Arabic - you'll very often find a tribe who allowed it! (This latter reason is also one of the reasons why Quranic Arabic is divided into 10 "transmissions" or "readings".)
Classical and post-classical Arabic are often together referred to as simply 'Classical Arabic', or fuṣḥā, as it is all but inconceivable that Arabic could be spoken today without the post-classical developments. However, where the post-classical developments resulted in an unnecessary change in the language, it was and is still considered better (at least by purists!) to avoid those alterations (e.g. using the verb i'tabara to mean 'to consider (st. to be st.)' is post-classical; its meaning in Quranic Arabic is 'to take an admonition'. Thus it would be better to use the genuinely classical ḥasiba).
1) A large number of western scholars, including evangelical scholars, started to take an interest in Arabic, and in Quranic Arabic in particular, and started translating books into Arabic; their unfamiliarity with the intricacies of the post-classical language meant they often imposed the linguistic structures of their own native tongues onto Arabic. This became more pronounced with colonialism.
2) The spread of mass education, so that 'good' Arabic was no longer the monopoly of the elite Ulama (Muslim Scholars), but began to be taught on a scale previously unheard of. Combined with the decline in Islamic scholarship, this meant that one no longer had to go through a rigorous and time-consuming classical Arabic education to be considered to be speaking 'good' Arabic.
3) The sudden influx of new western knowledge, both scientific and philosophical. This had happened before as well, of course, with the early Muslim encounter with Greek philosophy. The difference is that in the first encounter, the introduction of new concepts into Arabic was conducted relatively slowly, by scholars steeped in the grammar of the classical language. This time, the existence of the printing press made that influx incomparably quicker. Also, the professors and scholars interested in these new western sciences were not necessarily scholars of Arabic.
4) The rise of the media, and in particular the visual media, which endeavoured to express itself in fuṣḥā, but whose primary concern was of course journalism, not linguistic purity. Being the primary source of access to fuṣḥā for the majority of people in the Arab world, it started to become a sort of standard of acceptable Arabic.
The changes in educated spoken and written Arabic that resulted from these factors gave rise to what we today call MSA. Often, however, when Arabic grammar is taught in Arab schools to Arab children or in an institute for non-Arabs, such as Abu Nour, even when it is claimed that MSA is being taught, it is usually in fact the grammar of the post-classical Arabic period, embodied in particular in naḥw (Classical Arabic syntax).
A teacher might proudly claim to know that such-and-such a construction, although widespread, is wrong, because the Grammarian So-and-So said such-and-such, or that in Quranic Arabic we find such-and-such etc. However, when it comes to applying that grammar, for example in the spoken Arabic of the teacher, or the modern books which the students read, or immersion textbooks for foreign students such as al-'Arabiyyah li al-Nāshi`īn or al-Kitāb al-Asāsī, we find a curious mixture of post-classical Arabic and MSA, i.e. something between 15th C. Arabic and media Arabic, but in totality not found in either.
Consider the following case in point, which I hope may clarify the problem: In English, we use the word 'there' as both a spatial and an existential adverb, e.g. (1) 'I put the book there, on the table' [spatial adverb]; and (2) 'There are wise men and there are fools' [existential adverb]. When translating English and French works into Arabic, the early translators used the Arabic word hunāka for both the spatial and the existential adverb.
This however is a gross error - hunāka can only be used as a spatial adverb; the problem is that there is no equivalent existential adverb in Arabic - to translate (2) into correct classical Arabic, you need to understand Arabic idiom, in other words how the Arabs would have 'got around the problem' of not having an existential adverb in their language. However, the existential form is very common in MSA, which latter would translate (2) as hunāka rijālun ḥukamā`u wa hunāka sufahā`u.
Now, most Arab institutes would never teach their students that hunāka can be used in both ways. When learning naḥw, the student will simply learn that hunāka is a demonstrative. Because the authors of the classical naḥw books, whether basic or multi-volume, couldn't have imagined that hunāka would be used in the way we use 'there' in English, they simply assume the student knows its correct use. When the student then progresses to reading books (or even just from listening to the teacher), he or she, despite having studied hunāka in his or her grammar book, will go on to use it as per MSA.
That's just one example. One could also cite the problem of complex prepositions, or prepositional use with intransitive verbs, or 'ammiyyah and foreign vocabulary seeping its way into MSA.
The general pattern is that there is a chasm between theory and practice in teaching Arabic grammar today, which means that modern-day 'educated' Arabic, or MSA, is based on a grammatical system not actually taught in the Arab world. This is the predicament: Arabs don't want to start teaching a new grammar and abandon their classical language, but are also unable to shake off MSA, which has become so entrenched.
The conflict between the two types of Arabic is avoided as much as possible in the following ways:
1) Keeping grammar teaching basic, so that little conflict between the two styles is apparent. Where the conflict becomes unavoidable, because, for example, a very basic mistake is becoming prevalent in the media (such as the trend of giving a fatḥah to definite Sound Feminine Plural accusative nouns), denying that this is acceptable MSA (in effect, saying that acceptable divergences of MSA from classical Arabic are only in those parts of language which aren't taught in a basic post-classical Arabic grammar).
2) Not placing too much emphasis on classical vocabulary, as even basic words in MSA diverge from good classical Arabic significantly.
This is less true in Western universities which teach Arabic, where modern Arabic is taught for what it is, and is kept entirely separate from Classical and Quranic Arabic, and now a number of good textbooks are also being written, which accurately teach the grammar of MSA. This is surely a good development: whatever one's opinion of MSA, it is, I believe, important for Arabic teachers and institutes to recognise the differences between it and Classical Arabic, and make a conscious decision about which one they want to teach.
This isn't easy for an organisation (such as Arabic-Studio.com) which has decided to teach Classical Arabic Grammar, as the resources for advanced grammar in particular are fairly scarce, and so to a large extent have to be produced by the organisation itself.
On a personal note, I hope that as these obstacles gain recognition, more and more students who do want to study Classical Arabic will make an effort to understand its points of departure from MSA, and that Arabic-Studio.com will play some role in their education.