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All that’s ‘Arabic’ is not ‘Islamic’ (I)


Mohammed Adamu

It is as Shakespeare puts it in the tragicomic play ‘Merchant Of Venice’ – ‘All that glitters is not gold’. It is not to suggest that everything that glitters cannot be gold; but that it is not everything that glitters that is gold. Or as they say, although all who wander may be lost, not all who wander are lost! Truth is, it is not everything that is Arabic that is Islamic! Hell, it may not even be all that is ‘Arabic’, that is actually Arabic! Confusing? This much I should prove if you but patiently follow.

Most languages of the world are not as privileged as, say India’s Hindi, Chinese’ Mandarin, Israel’s Hebrew or the Arab’s Arabic, to possess their own sets of alphabets uniquely appertaining to them. Vertically-written Mandarin Chinese for example, a member of the Sino-Tibetan family of Asiatic languages, is said to have over a hundred thousand traditional ‘non-alphabetic characters’ and out of which between three and six thousand such ‘characters’ (functioning as alphabets) are in standard modern usage today.

Hindi language, one of Indo-European (i.e. South Asian, Western European and American) linguistic family, with its origin in both Sanskrit and Brahmin, has between 45 and 48 alphabets called the ‘varna mala’ usually written from left to right, as do most European languages of the same linguistic family. And with 22 and 28 alphabets respectively, Hebrew and Arabic which are Semitic with links to ancient Aramaic, both also use what is termed the ‘abjad’ script type, written stylistically from right to left.

Most members of the Sino-Tibetan linguistic family, notably Vietnamese and Thailandic languages may have used Chinese Mandarin ‘characters’ to represent their language forms and senses; so that whereas the ‘characters’ (alphabets) and the ‘forms’ (morphology) were uniquely Chinese, the ‘sense’ and the ‘semantic’ were essentially Vietnamese or Thailandic. The two Koreas too may have done the same before King Sejong the Great in 1443 created uniquely-Korean ‘Hangul’ and ‘chosongul’ alphabets.

The English language, which originated mostly from a now moribund Latin script, is about the most exemplary of the Indo-European linguistic family members whose 26 English alphabets (‘A’ to ‘Z’) are used by other non-English European languages to represent forms and senses uniquely either French, German, Spanish, Italian or Russian. Almost all 26 English alphabets are used by these non-English languages, some with minor character modifications -such as in Russian with an upside-down ‘N’ and a left-sided ‘R’, or in Greek with a combination of half English letters and half Latinate symbols.

In fact, barring Greek and Russian, it is safe to say that French, Spanish, Italic and to a greater extent even Germanic languages share the same alphabets of the English language virtually from ‘A’ to ‘Z’; meaning that you cannot tell -by alphabets- a Spanish word or phrase from a Germanic or Italic word or phrase. The word ‘bon voyage’ (or ‘safe journey’) for example is understood as French but identifiable by letters common to English, French, Spanish and Italian languages. Just as ‘bundestag’ (or ‘parliament’) is comprehended as German but identifiable by letters common to other non-Germanic European languages.

Thus, technically speaking, not every word or phrase formed by English alphabets is necessarily ‘English’; it may be Germanic, or French, or Spanish or even Russian -depending on how the alphabets are arranged in making it. It is our knowledge of the particular language to which the word or phrase belongs (e.g. ‘que cera’) that tells us it is Spanish or Italian and not English or German. Meaning, for example, that a word is English not because English alphabets are used in forming it, but because the English alphabets used in forming it are arranged in a particular way that makes it identifiable as English. Conversely a word will not be non-Russian simply because the letters used in forming it are drawn from elements generally identified as English alphabets.

By the way if Mandarin ‘characters’ are used trans-literatively to represent an English word or phrase, it is not to be disputed that, that word or phrase, rather than be Mandarin, will still be ‘English’ to Chinese people who understand Mandarin. The same way that using Arabic alphabets to write the word ‘money’ (‘kudi’ in Hausa, ‘owo’ in Yoruba or ‘ego’ in Igbo) will not make that word Arabic because Arabic alphabets are used trans-litratively to represent them -not any more than using English alphabets to write the French word ‘bonjour’ will not make French ‘English’.

And so just as virtually all European-member languages of the Indo-European linguistic family share a common pool mostly of English alphabets, so too do linguistic members, especially of the ‘Afro-Asiatic’ and ‘Niger-Congo’ groups comprising North, Central and West African languages. These languages -unlike Mandarin, Hindi, Hebrew or Arabic- do not have alphabets or ‘characters’ uniquely their own; and so when they write, most of them use letters of the English alphabets to convey sounds or senses uniquely either Swahili, Bantu, Kikuyu, Yoruba, Igbo, Hausa, Efik, Nupe or Fulfulde.

And especially for a Niger-Congo language type such as Swahili (which is a virtual marriage of Bantu and Arabic) or an Afro-Asiatic language type such as Hausa (which is heavily influenced by Arabic usages), speakers of these African languages merely have a ‘second-language’ opportunity -in addition to using English alphabets- occasionally also to use Arabic ones transliteratively to represent nuanced forms of their local languages for various purposes -such as in Northern Nigeria for the many Hausas who are literate only in Arabic, to have its alphabets forms used in communicating Hausa ‘senses’.

Herein lies the significance of the so called ‘Ajami’ script -Arabic for ‘Ajamiyya’- meaning ‘foreign’ or ‘strange’ type. To quote an article on the subject by a former Daily Trust editor, Mannir Dan Ali, Ajami “was the first means of literacy on the continent, centuries before Western colonizers and Christian missionaries arrived with their Roman script and it’s A-Z alphabets. Scholars and administrators in the Sokoto Caliphate, which dominated much of present-day Northern Nigeria in the 19th Century, used Ajami to write many documents and books.”

Yet just as the words ‘kudi’, ‘owo’ and ‘ego’ which are Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo respectively for ‘money’ are not English words merely because English alphabets are used in forming them, the phrase ‘naira goma’ written in Ajami on our Ten Naira currency cannot be ‘Arabic’ merely because Arabic alphabets are used in forming it. And much as an English man will not find ‘kudi’, ‘owo’ and ‘ego’ intelligible merely because they are written in the alphabets of his native English tongue, so will an Arab man not find the Ajami phrase ‘Naira goma’ intelligible only because Arabic alphabets are used in forming it.

The Ajami drawing elements from Arabic alphabets to form words, phrases or sentences intelligible only to speakers of the Hausa language is no more ‘Arabic’ than the Russian word for grandmother (babushka), and the French phrase for ‘good appetite’ (bon appétit), and the German word for ‘federal league’ (bundesliga)  are English only because alphabets of the English language are used in forming them. That will be ridiculous! But even more so ridiculous it will be to suggest that a Hausa word transliterated by Arabic alphabets, intelligible to the Hausa speaker and bleakly unintelligible to the Arab man, is ISLAMIC!

  • To be concluded.

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