Next week Wednesday December 18, 2019 is this year’s World Arabic Language Day (WALD). Also known as the UN Arabic Language Day, the WALD is observed annually on December 18. The day, which was first established by the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 2010 celebrates Arabic Language and promotes cultural diversity. The date for WALD signifies the day in 1973 when Arabic became the sixth official language of the UN. Other official languages of the UN are English, French, Russian, Spanish and Chinese.
As customary of other international days, events are usually organized to mark the WALD. Lectures, radio and television programmes, seminars and conferences are held particularly at various levels of educational institutions to showcase the history and richness of Arabic language. Arabic poets and writers also make literary contributions in the form of poems, short plays and stories to mark the WALD. In school settings, quiz competitions are organized to motivate students to acquire Arabic language.
Being the only modern language written and read in a right-to-left form, Arabic is a fascinating language with a long history. It is the only human language, according to Islamic literatures, which is spoken here on earth and in life after death. Arabic words have been borrowed by many world languages. More than 7,000 words in the English language are either Arabic or derived from Arabic. While many of such words may now be obscure, at least 500 are still being used in everyday conversations. Cotton, coffee, alcohol, saffron, emir and giraffe are few examples of words ‘borrowed’ directly or indirectly from Arabic. For these and other reasons, Arabic is more than deserving of its own international day.
The history of modern science and technology would be incomplete without acknowledging the role played by Arabic language. Greek science couldn’t have reached Europe without the strategic contributions of Arab translators and scholars who did not only render the works of early Greek philosophers in to Arabic but made further scientific and philosophical contributions to the early theories propounded by Greek thinkers and philosophers.
Caliph Harun Ar-Rashid was the first caliph to become a world statesman. During his reign, Baghdad earned the distinction of being the heart of the Golden Age of Islam. When Ar-Rashid’s son and successor became Caliph, he founded the House of Wisdom (Bait ul-Hikmah) in Baghdad, which attracted scholars from around the world and became the center of research, astronomy, and more translations from Greek, Syrian, and Persian works into Arabic. It was these Arabized versions of Greek works that reached Latin Europe and stirred up the study of Aristotelian and Platonic theories. Besides the translation movement encouraged by Muslim rulers of the Abbasid Caliphate, the development of Islamic sciences in the Muslim world was owed to Islamic Civilization’s openness to the achievement of other civilizations especially of the sciences in Persia, India, and ancient Greece.
WALD is an occasion to appreciate the contributions of Arabic language to humanity. Arabic is the first language of algebra, medicine, chemistry, alchemy and astrology. From Ibn Haytham, Ibn Rushd and Ibn Sina of the Middle Ages to Elias Corey (a renowned chemist) of modern times, Arabs and other non-native speakers or users of Arabic Language have produced some of the most brilliant scientists in the history of scientific thinking. Muslim Spain taught the West that the earth is a sphere. Arabs, particularly Muslims, made significant advances in mathematics, geometric solutions, and trigonometric tables. Unfortunately, many works especially of English sources either understate or completely ignore the presence and contributions of not only Arab scholars but also of the entire Islamic civilization.
The Anglicization of Arab names including Averroes, Avicenna and Algorism (which is their original Arabic forms are written and pronounced as Ibn Rushd, Ibn Sina and al-Khawarizmi) is one way by which western writers downplay names of Arab scholars or their achievements. The positive contributions of Arab scholars to humanity and European Renaissance have actually not received due recognition particularly from western writers and historians. European Renaissance and modern western civilization owe much more to Islamic Civilization than has been acknowledged. A major proportion of Islamic knowledge entered Europe through Muslim Spain, which for centuries was more like a country in the Muslim Middle East.
For the sake of restatement and to also commemorate 2019 WALD, few contributions made to modern western civilization by Arab scholars would be cited here. A book entitled “Ashr Maqalat fi al- Ayn” (The ten treatises on the eye) authored by Hunayn bn Ishaq is considered as the earliest existing textbook on Ophthalmology. The world famous father of Arabic Alchemy Jabir bn Hayyan who flourished about 776CE had several pharmacological treatises to his credit. The greatest names in the field of early Arab philosophy were those of al-Kindi, al-Farabi and Ibn Sina. Indeed, the harmonization of Greek philosophy with Islam was started by al-Kindi, an Arab; continued by al-Farabi, a Turk; and completed in the East by Ibn Sina, a Persian.
Muhammad bn Zakaariya al-Razi (865-925CE) was one of the most prolific authors among early Muslim physicians. He is considered the inventor of Seton in surgery. One of his principal works on alchemy includes Kitab ul-Asrar (The book of secrets) and al-Hawi (The comprehensive book), which was first translated into Latin and later into other languages. Muslim medicine reached its pinnacle with Ibn Sina’s works particularly his masterpiece, al-Qanun fi t-Tibb (The Canon of Medicine) known in the West as The Canon, which is in five volumes.
Ibrahim al-Fazari (d.777CE) was the first Muslim to construct an astrolabe. The father of Arabic alchemy was Jabir bn Hayyan who flourished in Kufah around 776CE. Jabir scientifically described the two principal operations of chemistry: calcination and reduction. Muhammad bn Musa Al-Khawarizmi (780-850CE) was the principal figure in Arabic Mathematics. He influenced mathematical thought to a greater extent than any other medieval writer. Apart from compiling the oldest astronomical tables, al-Khawarizmi composed the oldest work on algebra. His chief work was Hisab al-Jabr Wal Muqabalah (The calculation of integration and equation). Al-Khawarizmi’s works were also responsible for the introduction of Arabic numerals called algorisms (named after him, al-Khawarizmi) into the West.
Now, let us talk of how we can individually and as beginners celebrate Arabic on the occasion of the 2019 WALD. One way of celebrating this day would be to increase our knowledge of Arabic language. Of course, it would be difficult to learn all the words existing in the world’s richest language during the course of just one day. Nonetheless, that should not stop us from learning a group of at least fifteen words; five nouns, five verbs and five particles or prepositions, specifically to mark the WALD. We could resolve at family level to insist on speaking simple Arabic with other family members for the whole of the day or part of it. To also raise public awareness about the WALD and inspire others to appreciate cultural diversity, we are encouraged to speak the little Arabic we have learned with friends, colleagues and relations who are other users of the language outside of our homes; at mosques and work places. May Allah (SWT) guide us to acquire and use Arabic for intellectual and domestic purposes, amin. Happy Arabic Language Day!!!