An Introduction to the Arabic Language through Islamic Texts

Book: An Introduction to the Arabic Language through Islamic Texts, 950pp. (two volumes)
Author: Syed Iqbal Zaheer
Reviewer: Biju Abdul Qadir
Publisher: Al-Attique Publishers Inc, Toronto
Year of Publication: 2007
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There is no other language which attained to such perfection with so sudden a moment in history as the Arabic language during, and following, the 23-year revelation of the Qur’an. Indeed, the Arabic language appears singularly fortunate in having been favored with the invigorating, empowering, burden of God’s last, unchangeable, communication to mankind.

For keen and impartial observers of the historical experience of religion in human life, it is not too difficult to accept that the Qur’anic revelation, in effect, engineered a faux paus, as it were, an unassailable benchmark in terms of man’s highest understanding of his origins, his progress and his future – both of the material and the moral type – that he can ever aspire for. This remarkable, even miraculous, characteristic of the Qur’an certainly did not go without its effect on the language in which it was destined to be scripted. Revealed to an unlettered individual in the Arabia of the seventh century after the disappearance of Christ, the Qur’an thus froze, in its perfection – in its highest evolution – the language in which it was revealed. Since that defining moment in history more than fourteen centuries ago, the language has remained incapable of further gradation for all time to come: both upgradation and degradation has become impossible despite the best human efforts

Syed Iqbal Zaheer’s notable, and innovative, effort in his An Introduction to the Arabic Language Through Islamic Texts must be emphasized here as a path-breaking, pioneering, attempt to teach the Arabic language fully through the medium of the very cause of its perfection, its raison d’etre even: the divine text of the Qur’an and its inescapable, time-honored, human derivative – the Ahadith or the traditions of the last messenger of God. This attempt has been pioneering in the sense that while several instructors in the Arabic language have, in the past, employed certain verses of the Qur’an here or a few Ahadith there in order to enrich their course material, none have so singularly focused on this medium of instruction as has been done in the book under discussion. Thus, a dual purpose is served: learning Arabic as well as Islam from its sources.

In studying the Arabic language, it is the structure which is the main reason for the language seeming difficult to learn, particularly in the early stages. While the said structure is built logically enough, students unused to such difficulties in other languages often struggle to come to grips with it. But come to terms with it they must, since Arabic, of which Hebrew is an off-shoot, is a highly structured language. Once this structure is understood, the learning process is rendered simpler and faster. Once this is successfully attained, the students need only to learn new words. It is, perhaps, with this difficulty in mind that the author of An Introduction to the Arabic Language Through Islamic Texts has endeavored, especially in the earlier lessons, to stoke the student’s interest by inserting surprise sentences, short stories, anecdotes, humor, puns and the like.

Although sentences used as examples in the earliest lessons might seem unconventional, the author’s effort in using such sentences seems more for the purpose of avoiding grammatical constructions that the student would not have learnt earlier. In fact, with each further lesson, these sentences actually sound more complete. However, any difficulty arising out of this approach is quickly nullified in most cases, since the meaning is clearly provided close by.

With the exception of three passages in the book, translations into English are entirely by the writer himself. One advantage in taking these three translations from others is that the student is provided an opportunity to see how free translations and abridgements are done, although Zaheer himself tries to be verbal throughout the lessons so much so that even where the sentence structure had to be modified for idiomatic reasons, he has endeavored to maintain the word order in the translation to correspond with the Arabic texts.

Its approach apart, an added consideration in appreciating An Introduction…is that contemporary research into the nature of works on the Arabic language tend to give the impression that at least a certain class of writers actually have the objective of concealing genuine Islamic literature – and, therefore, Islam – from the Western public. So apprehensive are they of Islam capturing the imagination of their own people that they have skillfully created an entirely negative stereo-type of the Arabs, their life, culture, and literature. It is one of the merits of An Introduction.. that it caters to the direly felt need for a correction of these stereotyped, distorted, images. While two volumes might not fully meet the requirements of this important objective, the history, richness, and brilliance of Arab culture being hardly condensed in them, the two volumes may, nevertheless, constitute useful tools in giving the reader a feel of what true Arab tradition – of the past as well as the present – is really like.

The main thrust in the selection of the texts appears to be in covering as many literary genres as possible. It may be pointed out at the outset that the lessons on Qur’an and Hadith commentary, or on Hadith and Fiqh principles could prove difficult to comprehend for lay reader, but in studying Islam on one’s own such initial difficulty is but natural. Furthermore, in their seeming complexity, these lessons impress upon the student that Islamic Science rests on the foundation of reason and logic, albeit guided in all matters by the Last Revelation made to Muhammad.

A further value-addition to the two volumes of An Introduction… is in the form of a DVD compact disc, unique in many respects, and which comes with the book at no extra cost. This DVD disc contains audio explanations of all the lessons in the book, the famous 20-volume Arabic-Arabic Lisan al-Arab dictionary in two electronic formats, four valuable Arabic books on Arabic grammar, one English-Arabic and Arabic-English dictionary, two Arabic software that cover major Qur’an commentaries and Hadith collections, three stories in Arabic as power-point presentations, five audio speeches in pure Arabic, and six songs for children.

All things considered, An Introduction to the Arabic Language through Islamic Texts must be seen as the painstaking result of two decades of research, study and application. Starting with the alphabets, it takes the student through a useful 90-step process right up to the classical works of Imam Qurtubi, Ibn Taymiyyah, Ghazali, and Sayyid Qutb amongst a host of other giants in the history of Islamic literature. Considering the range and variety offered under one program as An Introduction… presents, and the fact that it is already being used in several Islamic centers, and at least in one institution in India, the book is definitely a ‘must-buy’ for anyone interested in the pursuit of the Arabic language, in particular, and for any student of Islamic culture, in general.

[Printed in Riyadh, the book should be available in major bookstores in Saudi Arabia]