ar'-a-bik lan'-gwaj: For the student of the Bible the Arabic language is of interest, first, as one of the members of the Semitic group of languages, to which belong the Hebrew and Aramaic tongues of the Bible; secondly, as one of the languages into which the Bible and other church literature were early translated and in which a Christian literature was produced; and thirdly, as the vernacular of Mohammed and his followers, the classical tongue of that religious system which is the offspring of a degenerate Judaism and Christianity.
1. Philological Characterization:
Scholars are generally agreed in grouping the Arabic and Ethiopic together as a South-Sem branch of the Semitic stock. For the geographical and ethnological background of the Arabic language, see ARABIA. A general characteristic of this tongue of the desert is its remarkable retention into a late historical period, of grammatical features obliterated or in process of obliteration in the other Semitic tongues at their earliest emergence in literature; so that in the period since the golden age of its literature, the Arabic has been undergoing changes in some respects analogous to those which its sister-dialects underwent in their pre-literary or earliest literary stage. Thus, for example, the case-endings of nouns, lost in Aramaic and Canaanitish (including Hebrew), all but lost in the Abyssinian dialects, beginning to be disregarded in even the early (popular) Babylonian, lost also in the dialects of modern Arabic are in full vitality throughout the classical period of Arabic literature.
The Arabic language itself, ancient and modern, divides into a vast number of dialects, many of which have attained the distinction of producing a literature greater or less. But the dialect of the tribe of Koreish, to which Mohammed belonged, is the one that, naturally, by the circumstance of the Koran's composition and diffusion, has become the norm of pure Arabic. Old Arabic poems, some of them produced in "the Ignorance," that is, before the days of Mohammed, are in substantially the same dialect as that of the Koran, for it appears that Bedouin tribes ranging within the limits of the Arabian desert spoke an Arabic little differentiated by tribal or geographical peculiarities. On the other hand the inhabitants of the coast of the Indian Ocean from Yemen to Oman, and of the island of Socotra off that coast, spoke an Arabic differing widely from that of the northern tribes. The various dialects of this "South-Arabic," known partly through their daughter-dialects of today (Mehri, Socotri, etc.), partly from the numerous and important inscriptions ("Minaean" and "Sabaean") found in Yemen by recent travelers, notably Halevy and Glaser, show a closer affinity than do the "North-Arabic" with the Abyssinian dialects (Ge'ez, i.e. "Ethiopic," Tigre, Tigrina, Amharic, etc.), as might indeed be expected from the admitted South Arabian origin of the Habesh-tribes or Abyssinians.
For the interpretation of the Old Testament the Arabic language has been of service in a variety of ways. In the department of lexicography it has thrown light not only on many a word used but once in the Bible or too seldom for usage alone to determine its meaning, but also on words which had seemed clear enough in their Biblical setting, but which have received illustration or correction from their usage in the immense bulk and range of Arabic literature with its enormous vocabulary. For the modern scientific study of Hebrew grammar, with its genetic method, Arabic has been of the greatest value, through the comparison of its cognate forms, where, in the main, the Arabic has the simpler, fuller and more regular morphology, and through the comparison of similar constructions, for which the highly developed Arabic syntax furnishes useful rubrics. In addition to this the Arabic language plays a prominent part, perhaps the foremost part, in the determination of those laws of the mutation of sounds, which once governed the development and now reveal the mutual relationships of the various Semitic languages.
The script which we know as Arabic script, with its numerous varieties, developed out of the vulgar Aramaic alphabet in North Arabia; diacritical points were added to many of those letters, either to distinguish Arabic sounds for which no letter existed, or to differentiate letters the forms of which had become so similar as to create confusion. In Yemen another script arose early, that of the inscriptions above mentioned, admirably clear and adapted to express probably all the chief varieties of consonantal sounds in actual use, though quite without vowels.
2. Christian Arabic Literature:
For Arabic versions of the Bible, see ARABIC VERSIONS. Outside of the Scriptures themselves there was most felt by Christian communities living in the Arabic-speaking world (primarily, though not exclusively, in Egypt and Syria) the need of a Christian literature suited to the tastes of the time and region. Apocryphal and legendary material makes up a large part, therefore, of the list of Christian Arabic literature. See APOCRYPHAL GOSPELS. But this material was not original. With the small degree of intellectual activity in those circles it is not surprising that most of such material, and indeed of the entire literary output, consists of translations from Syriac, Greek or Coptic, and that original productions are few in number.
Of these last the most noteworthy are the following: theological and apologetic tracts by Theodore, bishop of Haran, the same who held the famous disputation with Mohammedan scholars at the court of Caliph Al-Mamun early in the 9th century; apologetic and polemic writings of Yahya ibn Adi of Tekrit, and of his pupil Abu All Isa ibn Ishaq, both in the 10th century; the Arabic works of Bar Hebraeus, better known for his numerous Syriac compositions, but productive also of both historical and theological works in Arabic (13th century); in Egypt, but belonging to the same Jacobite or Monophysite communion as the above, the polemic and homiletic productions of Bishop Severus of Eshmunain (10th century), and, a generation earlier than Severus and belonging to the opposing or Melkite Egyptian church, the chronicle of Eutychius, patriarch of Alexandria, continued a century later by Yahya ibn Said of Antioch; large compilations of church history, church law and theological miscellany by the Coptic Christians Al-Makin, Abu Ishaq ibn Al-Assal, Abu'l-Barakat and others, the leaders in a general revival of Egyptian Christianity in the 13th century; on the soil of Nestorianism, finally, the ecclesiastical, dogmatic and exegetical writings of Abulfaraj Abdallah ibn At-Tayyib, (11 century), the apologetic compositions of his contemporary, Elias ben Shinaya, the historian, and the Nestorian church chronicle begun in the 12th century by Mari ibn Suleiman and continued two centuries later by Amr ibn Mattai and Saliba bar Johannan. After this date there is no original literature produced by Arabic-speaking Christians until the modern intellectual revival brought about by contact with European Christianity.
3. The Literary Vehicle of Islam:
What Aramaic, Greek and Latin have been successively in the history of Christianity, all this, and more, Arabic has been in the history of Islam. The language of its founder and his "helpers," the language of the Koran "sent down" from God to Mohammed by the angel Gabriel, the language therefore in which it has always been preserved by the faithful, untranslated, whithersoever it has spread in the wide world of Islam, Arabic is identified with Islam in its origin, its history, its literature and its propaganda. All the points of contact between the religion of the Bible and the religion of the Koran, literary, historical, apologetic and missionary, are alike in this, that they demand of the intelligent student of Christianity a sympathetic acquaintance with the genius and the masterpieces of the great Arabic tongue.
J. Oscar Boyd