Sunday, October 27, 2013

CORVAM, Ghomara recording

I was happy to learn of a new, if still rather small, corpus of audio files for North Africa: CORVAM. There is a good deal of Moroccan Arabic and a little Tunisian and Libyan Arabic, but the most exciting recording from my perspective is a short one of Ghomara Berber (a variety spoken in northern Morocco, very interesting both for Berber historical linguistics and for general language contact, previously discussed here: Berber words in Roman times, and Ghomara Berber material). It makes a nice complement to the much older SemArch, for Semitic languages.

Of course, these days you can find a surprising range of recordings just from YouTube. For example, several interviews in the Berber variety of the Blida Atlas south of Algiers; a rap song in Tunisian Berber; an interview in Libyan Berber (Yefren). But those don't come with transcriptions, much less translations...

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Language policy and Islam: what should have been said?

Following up on my last post, what should a chapter on "Language policy and Islam" have looked like? It's not exactly my field, but here are a few basic notes – a more complete version would have to cite specific rulings from the major madhhabs, and discuss more extensively the realisation of these ideas in everyday practice, but this should give a general idea.

First of all, insofar as we can speak of Islam as having a formal language policy at all, that policy would be defined by the extensive body of jurisprudence on which languages may or must be used in particular religious contexts. Ṣalāt, ritual prayer, has to be in Arabic (Mawdudi 1957 notes a few arguable exceptions to this). Duʕā', asking favours of God, may be in any language. The adhān, the call to prayer, has to be in Arabic according to most scholars, although Atatürk briefly forced Turkish mosques to make it in Turkish (Atalay 2012). For the khuṭbah, the Friday sermon, scholars' opinions differ – to keep on the safe side, it's common for the imam to deliver a sermon in the congregation's language followed by a much shorter sermon in Arabic. The Qur'ān may be translated, and since early times frequently has been, but no translation of it can be considered authoritative, or substituted for the original in ritual contexts; in fact, such translations are viewed more as commentaries than as versions of the original. Everyday religious formulae – bismillah (in the name of God), alhamdulillah (thank God), inshallah (if God wills), etc – are ordinarily in Arabic, though I don't know what the jurists have to say about that.

As a result, the ordinary believer is commonly exposed to Arabic in religious contexts, and is individually required to memorise a certain number of formulae and chapters of the Qur'ān in Arabic. Quite frequently, the latter in particular are learnt by heart early with only cursory explanation of their meaning, since reciting them verbatim is a precondition for proper prayer, but understanding them is only really vital at a more advanced stage. What does need to be understood immediately – the basic religious obligations, creed, etc – is explained in a language the student understands. However, the further a student advances, the more important it becomes to have direct access to the original source texts; thus learning Classical Arabic is a basic prerequisite for becoming a serious religious scholar, although the vast majority of Muslims never get that far, and indeed a majority of Muslims do not speak Arabic. Regionally, other languages may also come to assume a secondary position in religious education – for example, Urdu in Pakistan, even though most students there have a different first language. A remarkable example of this is to be found in northeastern Nigeria, where advanced religious education requires mastering not just Classical Arabic but also Classical Kanembu, an extremely archaic variety of Kanembu currently used only for explaining Classical Arabic texts (Bondarev & Tijani 2013).

Interpreting the notion of "language policy" more broadly, one might also talk about the influence of Islam on attitudes to language. In this connection, the obvious point to discuss would be the (very weakly supported) claim commonly heard that "Arabic is the language of Paradise", and the even more obviously fabricated claim sometimes heard east of Iraq that "Arabic and Persian are the languages of Paradise". Yet the weakness of the religious evidence for both assertions is a strong indication that the causality is the other way around: religious positions on language, in Islam as elsewhere, have often been influenced by extra-religious prejudices. The universal consensus that some Islamic rituals must be performed in Arabic make it difficult for any Islamic society to assert strongly negative attitudes to Arabic, but beyond that minimum, language attitudes are determined more by social and political factors than by Islam specifically.

Friday, October 18, 2013

How not to write about "Islam and Qur'anic Arabic"

(Attention conservation notice: This post is probably only of interest if you're reading The Cambridge Handbook of Language Policy.)

A title like The Cambridge Handbook of Language Policy carries a reassuring message of solid reliability. The first chapter I happened to open it to, however, rather belies this reputation: "Language policy and religion", by Christina Bratt Paulston and Jonathan M. Watt. I'm sure its authors have plenty of expertise in, respectively, sociolinguistics and Biblical Studies. Unfortunately, they decided to pick a case study to which their expertise very clearly does not extend: "Islam and Qur'anic Arabic". This produced some rather serious misapprehensions, of which I'll explain the worst here for the benefit of any readers of the article.

"Presumably the existence of Allah and Jehovah are considered mutually exclusive by their believers" (p. 340) is self-evidently absurd. Muslims necessarily believe that they worship the God worshipped by Abraham and Moses, and that there is no other God. The Qur'an instructs Muslims to tell Christians that "our God and your God is one", and Arabic-language Bibles or Torahs call "Jehovah" Allah. (Malaysia's bizarre and unjust recent court decision to ban non-Muslims there from calling God "Allah" might suggest otherwise, but as far as I can tell, no one involved is claiming that Jehovah is a different entity from Allah; rather – as far as I can reconstruct their tortured reasoning from the brief sound-bites in the news – they're claiming that, at least in Malay, the word "Allah" ought to be exclusive to Muslims.)

"The insistence that the sacred book was transmitted from heaven in this language, and none other, appears never to have been challenged from within this religion" (p. 341). Obviously, the Qur'ān got here in the language that it's written in (unless you subscribe to the philologically untenable fantasies of Luxenberg). But the Qur'ān is not the only book which Islam acknowledges as a divine revelation - just the last, and the only one considered to have been preserved in its original form up to the present. And the Qur'an is rather explicit regarding the language of previous prophets: "We have not sent any Messenger except with the language of his people so he can make things clear to them". As the great 11th-century jurist and writer Ibn Ḥazm put it: "This means that Allah’s words and revelations were sent down in every language. He sent the Torah, the Gospel, and the Psalms. He spoke to Moses in Hebrew. He sent the Scrolls to Abraham in Syriac. Therefore, languages are equal in this regard."

"[The Qur'an] is an unflinching sequence of pronouncements, blessings, commendations, condemnations and exhortations: absent are narrative tales, devotional songs and meandering reflections" (p. 346). I can't see how this sentence could have been written by anyone who had actually read the Qur'ān, which is full of narrative tales and includes a good deal of reflection. (Not singing, of course, but anyone who has heard the Qur'ān recited will understand how it might take the place of "devotional songs".)

"The very name of Islam's book means 'that which is recited' or 'the collected things', and, as Cooper (1985: 55) notes, it shows a preference for the Qurayish (sic) tribal dialect" (p. 342): Qur'an could be rendered as "recitation", but has nothing to do with "the collected things", much less with the dialect of Quraysh.

"formal public readers of the Qur'an are clerics, never laymen" (p. 343): actually, in Islam there's no hard and fast dividing line between "clerics" and "laymen" in the first place. Any Muslim can and often does lead public prayers (which include the recitation of parts of the Qur'ān). Admittedly, the more public the setting, the stronger the preference for people who have memorised the whole book and studied its meaning and pronunciation in detail – I suppose you might call them "clerics", if you want to ignore the fact that they don't necessarily have any formal role at the mosque, and as likely as not have day jobs.

The presence of such errors, and more pervasively of strange gaps and perspective problems, become more understandable when you take a look at the references. In the whole section, only six works are cited on Islam and Qur'anic Arabic, apart from translations of the Qur'ān: Abdalati 1975 (Islam in Focus, an introduction to Islam for the general reader); Cooper 1985 (Ishmael My Brother, an elementary introduction to Islam for Christians); W. M. Watt 1968 (What is Islam?, an academic introduction to Islam); Ibn Warraq 1995 (Why I Am Not A Muslim); Rippin and Knappert 1990 (Textual Sources for the Study of Islam); and Speight 1989 (God is One, another introduction to Islam for Christians). That makes four beginners' introductions, one polemic, and one scholarly sourcebook. This is a reference list fit for a first-year undergrad's essay, not a published academic article.

If you haven't read this article, you're not missing anything. But if you find it on a reading list, consider forwarding this to whoever assigned you it.

Monday, October 14, 2013

A little mystery: an unidentified Indic language in the Genizah collection

In 1896, Cambridge bought a huge archive of documents from a synagogue in Cairo, starting as early as the 11th century: the Genizah collection. Most of them are in Arabic in the Hebrew script - or just in Hebrew - but the rest cover a wide variety of languages. One of them should be an interesting puzzle for any readers familiar with South Asian languages: the fragment below is obviously in Devanagari or some derivative, but so far no one has been able to determine what language it is written in or what it says. Given the trade connections revealed by the letters, it would probably have come from Kerala, or maybe later on Bombay, but there are no guarantees...

The image is from T-S AS 159.248, T-S AS 159.247: an unidentified Indian language; see there for two other similar fragments.

Any ideas?