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Dr. Naif A. Al-Mutawa Headshot

The Future Depends On What The Meaning of "Was" Was

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We've heard it from our leaders before. The Arab world was the bastion of arts and sciences. The Arab world was the leader in science, medicine, and mathematics. Our libraries at Alexandria and Baghdad and Andalusia were the envy of the world. All while Europe was in the Dark Ages. I grew up hearing it. Now my children are growing up hearing it. And still, the operative word of our greatness seems always to be "was."

All cultures have important issues that are often recognized but conveniently ignored. And ours is no different. The camel in the room is that all Arabs learn Classic Arabic as their second language. Their first language? Vulgar Arabic... or Modern Arabic as I will refer to the language spoken by Arabs today. The prose of orthodoxy cannot accommodate the living nature of the language.

Romance languages are the continuation of Vulgar Latin, the popular Latin spoken by the soldiers, settlers, and merchants of the Roman Empire, as distinguished from the classical form of Latin, which was spoken by the Roman upper classes, the written form of the language and the form in which religion was delivered.

As languages diverged from classical Latin, power was consolidated in the hands of the church. At its peak of corruption, and partly due to the language disconnect, the Church was able to get away with, among other things, charging admission fees to heaven. And the people bought it. After all, it was written right there. Not until the late 20th Century did the Catholic Church begin to offer its Holy Mass in the local language of the congregation.

It took King Henry VIII's want of a divorce and Martin Luther's offense at the Pope's transgressions to prompt the translation of the religious scriptures into English and German, which is not to ignore or understate similar problems with the Holy Bible, the core document of the Latin Church, which had its own linguistic odyssey making its way from the mystery of the Classic Greek to the vulgarity of common understanding. Once religion made it into the vulgar languages, other arts and culture followed, expanding the pool of all the world's creative offerings. Most importantly in that continuum was that the marriage of the spoken and written word freed the common man from the shackles of having to be creative in a classical language he barely understood because his first language, the one he used every day, was considered vulgar.

Europe woke up and became the world's thought leader when the languages they wrote matched the languages they spoke. And the ability to think and be innovative won the battle against which words should be used and the structure in which they had to appear. The battle of substance over form was beginning to be won. In contrast, the Arab world went intentionally to sleep as the language it spoke continued to diverge from the language it wrote.

Islam is the most recent of the religions rooted in the Abrahamic tradition. And each of our tradition's great prophets had a gift or a miracle that was superior to that which had existed before them. At the time of the Pharaohs, magic was the key to the kingdom and when Moses's stick turned into a snake, it trumped the best tricks of the day. Jesus could heal the sick and raise the dead, pretty impressive no matter what the standard. But when Mohammed arrived at Mecca that was rife with prose and poetry, it was logical that his miracle became the prose of the Quran. And what was a miracle of beauty for humanity became a curse to the Arab world. The prose of orthodoxy could not accommodate the living nature of the language.

When he was in the 4th grade, one of my sons brought home a list of five classic Arabic words to put into sentences for his homework assignment. I did not know a single one of those words. I called my mother who taught philosophy in Arabic. She knew two of the five.

Language in practice evolves. But when the miracle of your religion is the classic prose used to convey its message, what to do? Today we have 1.7 billion Muslims in the world, 1.4 billion of them pray in a language they do not understand. And the other 300 million aren't exactly Shakespearian when it comes to expressing themselves in classical Arabic.

This creates two major categories of problem within Islam. Like the popes who were peddling spots in heaven in exchange for cash, there are clerics who are peddling spots in heaven in exchange for suicide missions. These offerings are best couched in the classical language that hides much of itself in the darkness of its narrow use. The currency is the same, pope to cleric; but the exchange rate has literally exploded.

The second problem of limiting the growth in language is one of innovation. If kids in schools are busy learning rules instead of being creative and if the rules they learn do not mirror the language they speak at home or in the streets, then they are learning their language of instruction as a second language that cannot be reinforced at home, the place where most learning takes place.

That leaves the Arab world in linguistic purgatory. Our classical language is the language of our religion and essential to our religious lives while our modern language is essential to our secular life.

It would be wonderful to have the language spoken also be the language of instruction. The language of the Quran is part of its very essence and holiness. But centuries of chipping away at classical Arabic in favor of the Modern are like the genie that cannot be returned to the bottle.

There will always be a resistance to the evolution of the classical expression of any language, most often from the learned gatekeepers of that language who are empowered by that position. And frankly, in the case of Islam, the more people who can understand the classical Arabic, the more future generations can be safe from renegade interpretations of the Holy Quran.

The question of successfully melding the classical and the modern of Arabic languages is the creative escape of dreamers like me. But the solution if there can be one will come someday from educators steeped in the art of the possible.

On the question of academic curriculum and innovation, I would teach subjects in the language that mirrors the language spoken at home. From creative writing to the sciences, the language of the family should be the language of education. Without innovation there is no entrepreneurship, and without entrepreneurship there are no jobs, and with no jobs there is no future, and with no future all we have is the past. And frankly, I am a bit too buoyant to go back to pearl diving.

This post originally appeared at the NAFSA blog.