Arabic ≠ Latin: Sacred Language in a Secular Age

Lienau’s exposition illustrates that the Orientalist position of Quranic Arabic’s essential untranslatability is rooted not in historical fact but racist fantasy.

Most accounts of modern Europe’s break with religion follow a certain story of linguistic transformation. For centuries, the story goes, the hegemonic language of religion and culture across the region that once comprised the Western Roman Empire had been Latin, employed in scholarship as well as in church ritual. The language’s prestige rested first and foremost in its status as a Christian language of truth. Understood to furnish its users with unique and unparalleled access to the divine, Latin was the only language taught across much of the continent.

Yet as the secularizing developments of the post-medieval period began to challenge the traditional Christian worldview that had united much of Europe, the authority and prestige of Latin would decline in turn. First came the Renaissance, which produced reams of humanistic knowledge acquainting European readers with the classics of antiquity. Then came the age of European colonial exploration, which brought the continent into contact with previously unknown civilizations such as those of the Americas. Both pressed Europeans to consider that a narrowly Christian history of mankind might be unable to account for the manifest heterogeneity of the world—and so too that Latin might not comprise a uniquely transcendent medium for the expression of truth within it.

So began the inexorable decline of the hegemony of Latin across Western Christendom, replaced in time by French, German, English, and Europe’s myriad other spoken tongues. Yet it was not merely Latin’s status and popularity that had been usurped by a growing secular preference for the vernacular. The European understanding of the nature of language had itself undergone a major transformation. As Benedict Anderson once argued in Imagined Communities, his influential treatment of the origins and spread of modern nationalism, the triumph of European vernaculars over the Church Latin of Western Christendom represented more than merely the displacement of a religious sense of community by national ones. Vernacularization signaled the twilight of an essentially religious conception of the world and augured its replacement by a secular, disenchanted one—a process that Anderson claimed was not limited to Europe but rather took place across the modern world. No longer conceived as furnishing users with access to ontological truth, languages were newly understood as equally sufficient (or equally insufficient) systems of representation for a world that existed at an equidistant remove from them all. No longer furnishing (or failing to furnish) a direct relation to the divine, languages came to be seen as fully human creations—as internal fields of meaning-making produced by distinct human communities across time, no one of which could be said to be superior to any other in a theological sense.

It was not only Church Latin, Anderson suggested, whose fate was sealed by the secularizing processes of modernity. All the world’s “truth languages,” as he termed them, would be relegated, if not to irrelevance, then at least to the private sphere of religious ritual.

Annette Damayanti Lienau has set out to challenge Anderson’s thesis in a new treatment of the modern history of one of those other truth languages that Anderson suggested was equally subject to the paradigm of vernacularization: the ritual Arabic of Islam. In Sacred Language, Vernacular Difference: Global Arabic & Counter-Imperial Literatures, Lienau dismantles Anderson’s suggestion that the vernacularization thesis can be so readily applied to Arabic, a language whose modern history, Lienau shows, followed a decisively different course.

It is not simply that Arabic, despite contending with the same pressures of nationalism and secularization as had Latin in Europe, did not experience the same vernacular displacement, remaining instead a vital language of politics and literature even beyond what is often called “the Arab world.” It is also, Lienau claims, that by virtue of the history of colonial European denigration of Arabic and Islam, Arabic transformed into something beyond merely a sacred language of ritual and truth. It became a counterimperial language, defended by its users against European defamation across the Muslim world from Senegal to Egypt to Indonesia—the three locations that Sacred Language, Vernacular Difference takes as its setting. It is this history of the anticolonial uses of Arabic as a language of politics, literature, and emancipation that Lienau’s new book sets out to unearth.


The global reach of Arabic in the premodern period is a fact well known to historians, even if the language’s continued literary relevance well beyond what is often called “the Arab world” has been underappreciated. Thanks largely to the spread of Islam, Arabic achieved a geographical expanse rivaled by few other languages from late antiquity through the dawn of the modern era, coming to reach across large swathes of Africa, Asia, and Europe, where it served not merely as the shared language of Islamic ritual but also as a language of trade. Speakers of Arabic, Lienau notes, could navigate their way from the Strait of Gibraltar, connecting the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, all the way to the Strait of Malacca, leading from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific, without the assistance of a translator. But even beyond the sheer proliferation of Arabic speakers across the premodern world, the Arabic script itself became an essential tool of literacy, eventually forming the basis for writing systems of diverse non-Arabic languages in places like Indonesia and Senegal.

The extent of Arabic knowledge and literacy across this expanse vexed colonial regimes that carved out colonies within it, concerned as they were about Arabic’s perceived relation to Islam. In the Dutch East Indies as well as French West Africa, colonial administrators worried that Arabic literacy among their subject populations might open pathways to “Islamic fanaticism” and anticolonial incitement, facilitating access to the Quran and an Arabic tradition that seemed to defy the borders of national culture. To obviate these risks, colonial regimes adopted policies that either promoted the displacement of Arabic by European languages such as French, as in West Africa, or worked to suppress the Arabic writing system in favor of the romanization of indigenous languages, as with Indonesian in the Dutch East Indies.

Buttressing these efforts were a series of criticisms, forwarded by European Orientalists as well as colonial administrators, of the value of the Arabic language itself. Most influential were the writings of French Orientalist and comparative philologist Ernest Renan, who argued that Arabic, like all “Semitic” languages, was constrained by certain linguistic deficiencies such as a rigidity of syntax and a regressive orthography—features that Renan compared unfavorably to the more wide-ranging expressive possibilities of Indo-European or “Aryan” languages such as Greek. Arabic, argued Renan, was an essentially closed and insular language, much like the “Semitic” race to which the Arabs themselves belonged.

Subsequent Orientalists and colonial administrators by and large adopted Renan’s position, conceiving of Arabic as a language that was particular to the Arabs and ill-suited to organizing racial and national difference at the level of politics and public life. If it could not be extirpated entirely from the various non-Arab Muslim societies in which it was prevalent, they suggested, then it should at least be limited to the mosque and the private sphere of ritual practice so as to curb the pernicious effects of its essentially regressive nature.

Yet neither these Orientalist invectives against the value of Arabic nor the associated colonial policies to displace it succeeded in extinguishing attachments to Arabic. To the contrary, these policies engendered new commitments to Arabic as a counterimperial language across the colonized world. In the East Indies, Lienau illustrates, the Dutch colonial regime had long worked to limit the usage of Arabic among Indonesians by promoting a Latin orthography for the transcription of local languages in place of the Arabic script, which had been in widespread use until that point. Yet these policies had the effect of inciting new attachments to Arabic as an anticolonial symbol of Indonesian national identity. By the 1950s, after years of Dutch romanization efforts, the Indonesian writer and politician Hamka had come to argue that Arabic, as well as Islam, were essential components of Indonesian nationality, and that romanization represented an affront to an authentic arabophone Indonesian identity. Claims such as these baffled Europeans, who were incredulous at any assertion that Arabic could be conceived as “indigenous” to anyone other than the Arabs.

Anticolonial nationalists supplemented demands for the continued use of Arabic and the Arabic script with defenses of Islam. On the one hand, they argued that Islam comprised an inextricable element of national identity and culture in places like Indonesia and Senegal, contesting the colonial suggestion that Islam, unlike Christianity, was a religion particular to one nation (the Arabs) and essentially foreign to everyone else. Yet nationalist writers went further, suggesting that Islamic teachings had in fact anticipated the modern and democratic values of equality and religious pluralism—a direct challenge to Orientalist critics who claimed such values were antagonistic rather than complementary to Islam and Arabic.

Ahmadu Bamba Mbakke, founder of the Murid Sufi movement in sub-Saharan West Africa, used his Arabic-language poetry to assert parity between black (sudan) and white (baydan), drawing as he did on Islamic teachings that discriminated between individuals not on the basis of skin color but on the basis of piety and righteousness. Such teachings did not prevent Bamba from encountering discrimination on the part of “white” Muslims in Mauritania, where he had been exiled from Senegal by colonial officials suspicious that he was preparing to declare jihad against the French. But what guided the poet in his assertions of racial parity, on Lienau’s account, was a commitment to the idea that within the teachings of Islam and the righteous mastery of Arabic lay the key to fostering an egalitarian society.

It is true that not everyone agreed that Arabic could be conceived as “indigenous” or “authentic” to emergent national identities in places like Senegal and Indonesia, or that it was necessary to ground arguments for pluralism and ethnolinguistic equality in the teachings of Islam. Léopold Sédar Senghor, the poet and first president of Senegal, notoriously argued that French was better suited to the authentic expression of l’âme noire—the Black soul—than Arabic, which he suggested was a foreign and culturally contaminating linguistic medium. The Senegalese and Indonesian novelists Ousmane Sembène and Pramoedya Ananta Toer, meanwhile, used their fiction to assert that liberty against foreign tyranny could be grounded only in forms of regional unity across religious difference rather than in an anticolonial recuperation of Islam—a position that sometimes manifested in rebellion against the dominance of Quranic Arabic and Arabic script.

Lienau forcefully illustrates that the Orientalist position of Islam’s antagonism toward diversity and Quranic Arabic’s essential untranslatability are rooted not in historical fact but racist fantasy.

Yet such thinkers nevertheless grappled with what Lienau suggests was a generative tension found across the colonized arabophone world. This was the tension between “monolingual” and “plurilingual” ideologies—between an attachment to a single language thought to offer unrivaled access to a “higher ontological reality,” on the one hand, and a conviction in the value of “heteroglossia” and cultural/linguistic/religious pluralism on the other.

Sacred Language, Vernacular Difference evinces a certain preference for those writers who embraced the latter over the former, even while sympathizing with others who sought to reconcile the two. This preference emerges clearly in the book’s final chapter, in which Lienau examines the fiction of the 20th-century Egyptian novelist and Nobel Laureate in literature Naguib Mahfouz, a writer whose novels dealt explicitly with the question of language diversity. What impresses Lienau about Mahfouz’s 1977 novel The Rabble (Al-Harafish) is the linguistic inversion on which it rests. Rather than placing Quranic or literary Arabic (fusha) on a pedestal, the “sacred” verses that dot the book—a recurring motif in this fictional critique of the status derived from genealogical descent from prophets—are written in ʿajamiyya, an Arabic term that connotes a garbled, inscrutable foreign language in contrast to the clear Arabic of Quranic revelation. By allowing ʿajamiyya to mediate the experience of sacred transcendence in the novel, Lienau argues, Mahfouz critiques the position that only Arabic can furnish access to the divine, placing in its stead an incomprehensible, non-Arab tongue that stands in for linguistic diversity itself. Mahfouz, Lienau suggests, substitutes a secular, “heteroglossic” ideal of worldly linguistic plurality for the “monoglossic” ideal of Arabic as a sacral medium. It is the irreducible heterogeneity of the diverse forms of human expression that is elevated above a commitment to the singularity of revelation and religious language.

The literary works of Mahfouz and others considered in the book clearly support Lienau’s central argument: that the essentially European paradigm of “vernacularization” is inapplicable in the case of the modern history of Arabic, which has endured as a language of politics and literature beyond merely the Arabic-speaking world. Yet more than just this, Lienau’s book illustrates how writers across what Lienau calls “Arabic-Islamic contact zones” have consistently and creatively negotiated the tension between an attachment to Arabic as a sanctified ritual medium and an affirmation of the value of human linguistic diversity. Against the colonialist suggestion that Arabic and Islam were essentially inimical to pluralism—a suggestion reinforced by the Orientalist idea that Arabic was a closed language and Islam a religion fanatically committed to it—Sacred Language, Vernacular Difference excavates a tradition of “pluralist and egalitarian ideas” that circulated among Muslim and arabophone/arabographic communities in colonial and postcolonial modernity.


Lienau’s review of the history of Arabic as a counterimperial language is hugely successful in demolishing the Orientalist suggestion that Arabic and Islam are essentially inhospitable to diversity. Yet it is worth pausing to consider whether, in seeking to refute the Orientalist position, her book has left some of its ground unsettled.

A longstanding critique of Islam, forwarded by 19th-century Orientalists and Christian missionaries in addition to many contemporary scholars of religion, has centered on the Quran’s ostensible untranslatability. The Quranic message, critics of Islam hold, cannot be dissociated from the Arabic medium through which it is conveyed, a fact which necessitates the disenfranchisement of the non-Arabic vernaculars spoken by the peoples among whom Islam is practiced. The notion of Quranic untranslatability—a doctrine that follows from Islam’s repudiation of the possibility of separating message from medium—is often contrasted with the linguistic situation of Christianity, which is said to feature a unique commitment to the translatability of its message. It is the commitment to the translation of Christian scripture into worldly vernaculars, and a belief that all linguistic media are equally capable of conveying the word of God, that accounts for what Lamin Sanneh, the late scholar of world Christianity, has called Christianity’s “spirit of radical pluralism”1—a spirit that Islam, with its commitment to the indispensability of the original Arabic text of the Quran, is said to lack.

Lienau is critical of the idea of Arabic untranslatability, attending throughout the book to diverse translational practices across the Muslim world and particularly to instances in which Arabic and non-Arabic languages were placed on equal footing. For Lienau, the idea that Arabic is a closed language, resisting translation by virtue of its status as the Islamic language of prophetic revelation, is manifestly belied by the modern history of Arabic and its relation to literatures across cultural and linguistic divides.

Lienau’s exposition forcefully illustrates that the Orientalist position of Islam’s antagonism toward diversity and Quranic Arabic’s essential untranslatability are rooted not in historical fact but racist fantasy. Yet what appears at risk of escaping critique in Lienau’s book is the normative judgment forwarded by the colonial critique of Arabic itself. Lienau, that is, despite her explicitly anticolonial agenda, cannot untether her analysis from the Western idea that the worth of a religion, language, or culture can only be evaluated by the extent to which it is open to foreign influence, by the degree to which it can release its claim to unique access to “ontological truth,” and by its capacity to see itself as one among many, a singular historical formation in a world populated by myriad forms of irreducible human difference. Where does this leave those for whom the worth of Islam and its Arabic message has less to do with some humanist vision than with the divine relation it inculcates? Where does this leave those Muslims who do in fact consider the Quran to be, in some respect, singularly hallowed and untranslatable?

The anthropologist Talal Asad has written that, within Islamic tradition, it is not the Arabic language that is considered to be sacred so much as it is Quranic recitation. It is worship itself—the act of the cultivated “enunciation of divine virtues” before “what is believed to be a transcendent, creative power”2—that Muslims understand to be untranslatable. This view, Asad contends, demands neither the devaluation of non-Arabic languages nor the estimation of Arabic as superior in some unique, transcendent sense. Rather, it assumes that the meaning of the Quran cannot be abstracted from the medium through which it is conveyed and ritually enacted, and that to separate the two would render impossible the cultivation of what Asad has called the “reading/reciting/religious self,” which is the aim of Islamic practice.3 This insistence on the inseparability of Islam from the Arabic text of its Quranic revelation involves something other than what Lienau terms a “monoglossic” attachment, however. It requires something beyond a commitment to the singularity of Arabic as a language superior to all others, existing on a sacred plane above the world’s many non-Arabic alternatives. It bespeaks instead an alternative understanding of the nature of language itself. Within Islamic tradition, Asad argues, language is understood not merely as a means of communication but as inseparable from what Wittgenstein would term a “form of life.”

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Viewed in this light, one wonders whether it is sufficient for scholars of Arabic, Islam, and the problem of language in colonial modernity to challenge Orientalist denigration of Arabic and Islam by illustrating their reconcilability with the humanistic ideals of pluralism, egalitarianism, and emancipation, something that Sacred Language, Vernacular Difference does so well. It is perhaps necessary to query, beyond this, whether a counterimperial vindication of Arabic and Islam along such secular, humanist lines vaunts one approach to language and religion over another—whether it surrenders to Orientalist judgment those for whom Islam and its ritual language are geared toward some horizon other than a liberal, cosmopolitan sensitivity toward human linguistic diversity. For if it is indeed the case that a tension exists between the Islamic understanding of language, which rests on the principle of the sacrality of Quranic Arabic, and the secular ideal of linguistic heteroglossia, which brooks no claim to an essential tie between medium and message, are scholars obliged to privilege the latter ideology of language over the former? Would such a position reinforce the Orientalist critique of Islam?

To pose such a question is not to detract from Annette Damayanti Lienau’s achievement in this book, which persuasively demonstrates that the historical course of Arabic cannot be reduced to the European paradigm of vernacularization. It does, however, suggest that critiques of Orientalist distortions concerning Muslims and Islam must be accompanied by critiques of those distortions’ normative terrain itself—lest further Orientalist judgments be produced in turn. icon

  1. Lamin Sanneh, Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture (Orbis Books, 2009), p. 1.
  2. Talal Asad, Secular Translations: Nation-State, Modern Self, and Calculative Reason (Columbia University Press, 2018), p. 60.
  3. Asad, Secular Translations, p. 76.
Featured image: Textile Featuring Arabic Inscriptions (12th century). Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art