274 Million Speak Arabic, Why Am I Not One of Them?

by Farida Haji

My daughter was practicing the Arabic alphabet, I sat beside her scrolling through Instagram, and chanced upon a few amazing Arabic calligraphers. I showed her the screen and we continued watching and scrolling through their mesmerizing and artistic reels.

“Mamma, I want to write like this,” she said, “What are they writing?”

“I have no idea; it just looks so beautiful,” I responded.

A blank and confused expression covered her face. “But mamma, you teach me how to write Arabic, we recite and memorize the Quran together, and you don’t understand what they’re writing?” “No,” I replied, bewildered.

Isn’t it necessary to learn the language of the Quran to be closer to Allah? It boggled my mind for a while, that I am fluent in languages that aren’t the holy ones. Not the chosen language by the Almighty!

I can only read and write Arabic; I understand nothing more than greetings. Over the next few days, I started translating simple sentences in Arabic from Google and tried to make sense of it. But unfortunately, it wasn’t good enough.

Arabic Language, Not a Barrier Between Allah and Me

As an Indian Muslim, my cultural background heavily influenced the languages I learned and spoke. Arabic isn’t my mother tongue. My linguistic capabilities include English, Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati, and Urdu. I was taught Arabic; to recite and memorize the Quran, and offer my prayers. However, growing up, I did come across a Lebanese Christian woman, who read her Bible in Arabic. Then it struck me; language is a barrier among humans, but not between Allah and me.

Explaining why I don’t know something to my child is difficult. For her, as a mother, I am supposed to have answers to everything. I told her, “Not all Muslims speak Arabic and not all Arabic-speaking people are Muslims.”

The realization got me thinking about the general assumption: All Muslims speak and understand Arabic. But the reality is, not all of those 1.8 billion Muslims speak and understand Arabic.

Arabic language calligraphy

Finding the Origins of Arabic

A few days later, I sat with my daughter and we researched the origins of the language. The numbers were impressive. Arabic is the sixth most spoken language on the planet. Exploring regions on the map, we traced the roots of the language to the Arabian Peninsula, dating back a millennium. The language started spreading towards North Africa, the Middle East, and China as nomadic tribes married other natives and Islamic conquests began around the 7th Century CE.

The Quran is considered the oldest written text of the Arabic Language. The revelation of the Quran upon the Prophet Mohammed ﷺ spanned over 23 years — another story that was fascinating to share with my offspring — which was later compiled around 8th CE and today the oldest written Quran, the Topikapi manuscript, lies in a museum in Istanbul, Turkey.

3 Types of Arabic

Stumbling upon the dialects and discovering the different types of Arabic languages spoken widely gave our interests a new depth.

  1. Classical Arabic:

The Language of The Quran.

  1. The MSA (Modern Standard Arabic):

MSA is a simplified version of Classical Arabic. It is used on news channels, in newspapers, and in general everyday life.

  1. Colloquial Arabic or Ammiyya: 

Ammiyya encompasses the various dialects and sub-groups that have come into existence through numerous cultural influences globally.

2 Major Arabic Dialects

  1. Maghrebi Arabic (Western):

This is spoken widely in North Africa, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, and Western Sahara.

  1. Mashriqi Arabic (Eastern):

This is spoken widely throughout the Middle East and a few other regional countries.

Meanwhile, Ammiyya encompasses smaller sub-dialect groups:

  • Egyptian Arabic
  • Levantine Arabic
  • Peninsular Gulf Arabic / Khaliji
  • Yemeni Arabic / San’ani or Sana’
  • Peninsular Arabic
  • Other varieties of Arabic, spoken in Non-Arab countries

There was too much information for the little brain to process. “Mamma, you don’t know any Arabic? I don’t know anything, will Allah listen to me?”

I helped the little one understand that one lifetime will never be enough to learn everything. But we shall try. All we need to do is give a sujood and pray to Allah with a clear heart and the language we know and He will listen.

As the excitement grew, Arabic became our new muse. We downloaded multiple apps to learn about our language and culture. To understand, that language exists to bring us closer to one another and most importantly Allah.