The Development of Classical Arabic

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Arnold Yasin Mol

The Development of Classical Arabic

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The Development of Classical Arabic

Kees Versteegh

From The Arabic Language
© 1997 Kees Versteegh
Used by permission of the Edinburgh University Press.


At the beginning of the Islamic period, only two sources of literary Arabic were available, the Qur’aan and the pre-Islamic poems. It is not surprising, then, that these two sources were to play a crucial role in the standardisation and development of the Arabic language. It is not surprising, either, that the first scholarly activities in Islam concentrated on the text of the Qur’aan, which had to be transmitted and explained, both on the level of the text and on that of the contents. At the same time, when the direct ties with the desert were broken, the living practice of poetry was very soon replaced by scholarly interest in the pre-Islamic poems. The transmission of both 'texts' had taken place orally and informally, but in the rapidlyexpanding empire such a form of transmission could no longer be trusted.

The language itself, too, underwent a process of standardisation. While in pre-Islamic times the Bedouin regarded themselves as members of one speech community, they had no single linguistic norm, and even in the language of poetry, which was supposed to be supra-tribal, a great deal of variation was accepted. After the conquests, when Arabic became the language of an empire, there was an urgent need to standardise the language for three reasons. First, the divergence between the language of the Bedouin and the various colloquial varieties that emerged became a real threat to communication in the empire. Second, the policy of the central government, first in Damascus and later in Baghdad, aimed at the control of the subjects, not only in economical and religious but also in linguistic matters. Obviously, if Arabic was to be used as the language of the central administration, it had to be standardised. Third, the changed situation called forth a rapid expansion of the lexicon, which had to be regulated in order to achieve some measure of uniformity.

This chapter deals with three topics connected with the process of standardisation. The most important prerequisite for the written codification of the language was the invention of an orthography, or rather the adaptation of existing scribal practices to the new situation. Then a standardised norm for the language was elaborated, and the lexicon was inventoried and expanded. Subsequently, when these requirements had been met, a stylistic standard was developed. The existing Bedouin model was instrumental in the development of a stylistic standard for poetry, but the emergence of an Arabic prose style marked the real beginning of Classical Arabic as we know it. In the final section of this chapter, we shall deal with the official status of the Arabic language.


The first concern of Islamic scholars was to codify the texts with which they worked. Even though oral transmission continued to remain an essential component of Islamic culture, the risk of major discrepancies in the transmission became too large to ignore. The need for an authoritative text was imperative above all in the case of the Revealed Book. Clearly, the central government had a major stake in the acceptance of a uniform Book throughout the empire as the basis for all religious and political activities.

The codification of the Qur’aan was a crucial moment in the development of a written standard for the Arabic language. On a practical level, the writing-down of the text involved all kinds of decisions concerning the orthography of the Arabic script and the elaboration of a number of conventions to make writing less ambiguous and more manageable than it had been in the Jaahiliyya . We have seen above (Chapter 3) that writing was not unknown in the peninsula in the pre-Islamic period. But, for religious reasons, early Islamic sources emphasised, perhaps even exaggerated, the illiteracy of the Prophet and, by extension, of the entire Jahilee society. The Prophet had been an 'ummee, someone who could not read nor write, and this was what made the revelation of the Qur’aan and his recitation of the text a miracle.

There are clear indications that as early as the sixth century writing was fairly common in the urban centres of the peninsula, in Mecca and to a lesser degree in Medina. In the commercial society that was Mecca, businessmen must have had at their disposal various means of recording their transactions. There are references to treaties being written down and preserved in the Ka'ba in Mecca. Even the raawees, the transmitters of poetry, sometimes relied on written notes, although they recited the poems entrusted to them orally. In the Qur’aan, we find the reflection of a society in which writing for commercial purposes was well established. In the second sura we find, for instance, detailed stipulations on the settlement of debts that include the exact writing-down of the terms (Q2/282):
O you believers, when you take a loan among you for a certain period of time, write it down and let a scribe write it down fairly between you, and let no scribe refuse to write as God has taught him and let him write and the creditor dictate ( yaa 'ayyuhaa lla th eena 'aamanoo 'i th aa tadaayantum bi-daynin 'ilaa 'ajalin musamman fa-ktuboohu wa-l-yaktub baynakum kaatibun bi-l-'adli wa-laa ya'ba kaatibun 'an yaktuba kamaa 'allamahu llaahu fa-l-yaktub wa-l-yumlili lla th ee 'alayhi l- Haqqu )

In the biography of the Prophet, there are many references to his using scribes for his correspondence with the Arab tribes and for the writing of treaties, for instance the famous treaty with the settlements in North Arabia. This treaty which was signed in the course of the expedition to Tabook in year 9 of the Hijra, laid down for the first time the relations between Muslims and people of other religions. In the account preserved by the historians, the scribe and the witnesses are mentioned, as well as the fact that the Prophet signed it with his fingernail (cf. al-Waaqidee, Maghaazee III, I,025ff.). This last detail is probably added to underscore the fact that the Prophet himself could not write.

The Prophet may well have been illiterate himself, but there were scribes on whom he could rely, just as his fellow Meccans used scribes in the management of their affairs. In the beginning, the revelation consisted of short messages which the Prophet brought to the believers and which could easily be committed to memory. But very soon, the messages grew longer and longer, and it became essential to have a written aid to memory, while the recitation of the text continued to take place orally. Tradition has preserved the names of several scribes to whom Muhammad dictated the messages, chief among them being Zayd ibn Thaabit (d. 45/665). The text of the Qur’aan itself documents this shift from recitation to collected text. The current term qur’aan in the early suras (possibly borrowed from Syriac qeryaanaa 'recitation') is replaced increasingly often in the later suras with the term kitaab 'book'.

Both Islamic tradition and Western scholars agree that there was no complete collection of the revelation during the Prophet's lifetime, but there were fragments of all kinds of material, on which parts of the messages were recorded. The actual collection of all these fragments took place after the death of the Prophet. According to the tradition, the third caliph, 'Uthmaan (r. 25/644-35/656), ordered the establishment of an authoritative codex of the Qur’aan . He entrusted this edition to Muhammad's scribe Zayd, who had already been involved in the recording of the text during the Prophet's lifetime. When the work was finished, the codex was sent to the important centres of the Islamic empire, where it was to replace all existing alternative readings. Acceptance of this text, usually called al-mu S Haf, was slow, and non-canonical variants continued to be transmitted; but eventually, by the end of the second century of the Hijra, the 'Uthmaanic text had become the basis for religious teaching and recitation almost everywhere. In the first grammatical treatise of Arabic, Seebawayhi's (d. 177/793) Kitaab, all deviations from the consonantal text of the codex are rejected and only some divergence in the vocalisation of the text is allowed. Around the variant readings ( qiraa’aat ), a massive literature arose which at the same time contributed to the linguistic study of the text and the language of the Qur’aan .

Apart from the problems of unification encountered during the codification of the text, the main problem confronting Zayd ibn Thaabit and his committee of text-editors was the ambiguity of the Arabic script. The type of script which the Meccan traders had at their disposal was still a primitive one. Basically, there were two problems connected with this primitive form of the Arabic alphabet. In the first place, there were as yet no diacritic dots to distinguish between certain phonemes, and many of the letters of the alphabet indicated two or even more phonemes, in the case of seen/sheen, Saad/ Daad, baa'/taa'/tha'/noon/yaa', faa'/qaaf, daal/ th aal, raa'/zaay, Taa'/ D aa' . This was the heritage of the Nabataean script that had been the model for the earliest form of Arabic script and that did not contain all of the Arabic phonemes. The second problem was connected with a general trait of all Semitic scripts, namely the fact that these scripts do not indicate the short vowels. In the case of the Nabataean model, even many of the long vowels were written defectively (cf. above, p. 30). The former problem may already have been solved in pre-Islamic times. There are some indications that, very early on, scribes had used diacritic dots to distinguish between homographs. They may have borrowed this device from a Syriac model, since in the Syriac script dots are used to distinguish between allophonic variants of phonemes. According to some scholars, there are even examples of the use of dots in the Nabataean Script.

The notation of the short vowels was an altogether more complicated problem. During the first century of Islam, when people started to collect and record the fragments of the Qur’aanic revelation, the need for a uniform and unambiguous system for the short vowels made itself felt. Various grammarians, among them the legendary 'inventor' of grammar, 'Aboo, l-'Aswad ad-Du'alee (d. 69/688?), are credited with the introduction of a system of (coloured) dots below and above the letters to indicate the three short vowels. In the version of the tradition that is reported by Ibn al-'Anbaaree, 'Aboo l-'Aswad gives a scribe the following instruction:
When I open my lips, put one dot above the letter, and when I press them together put a dot next to the letter, and when I draw them apart put a dot beneath the letter, and when I make a humming sound after one of these vowels, put two dots. ( fa-'i th aa fata Htu shafatayya fa-nqu Twaa Hidatan fawqa l- Harf, wa-'i th aa Damamtuhumaa fa-j'al an-nuq Ta 'ilaa jaanibi l- Harf wa-'i th aa kasartuhumaa fa-j'al an-nuq Ta min 'asfalihi, fa'i th aa 'atba'tu shay'an min haa th ihi l- Harakaat ghunnatan fa-nqu Tnuq Tatayn ; Ibn al-'Anbaaree, Nuzha, ed. Attia Amer, Stockholm, 1963, pp. 67)

In this story, the origin of the dot notation of the three vowels and the nunation is ascribed to 'Aboo l-'Aswad, and the names of the vowels ( fat Ha, Damma, kasra ) are connected with their articulation. We know from the Islamic sources that at first there was considerable opposition to the use of vowel dots in Qur’aanic manuscripts, and as a matter of fact this system is absent in the oldest manuscripts in Koofic script as well as in the inscriptions. In some manuscripts, the dots have been added by a later hand.

Two other innovations attributed to 'Aboo l'Aswad concern the notation of the hamza (glottal stop) and the shadda (gemination). Both signs are absent in the Nabataean script. We have seen in Chapter 4 (p. 42) that in the Hijaaz the hamza had probably disappeared, but in the variety of the language in which the Qur’aan was revealed and the pre-Islamic poems were composed, the hamza was pronounced. Because of the prestige of the language of poetry and the Qur’aan, the Hijaazee scribes had to devise a way of recording the glottal stop. Since in their own speech the hamza had been replaced in many cases by a long vowel, they spelled words containing a hamza with a long vowel, indicated by a semiconsonant w, y or 'alif . According to the tradition, 'Aboo l-‘Aswad improved this system by using a small letter 'ayn above the semi-consonant; this 'ayn indicated the presence of a guttural sound, namely the glottal stop. The gemination of a consonant was noted by a diacritic dot.

A substantial improvement in the system of short-vowel notation is usually attributed to the first lexicographer of the Arabic language, al-Khaleel ibn 'A Hmad (d. 175/791). He replaced the system of dots with specific shapes for the three short vowels, a small waaw for the vowel u, a small 'alif for the vowel a, and a (part of a) small yaa' for the vowel i. He also changed the sign for the shadda, using a small seen (short for shadeed 'geminated') instead. When a single consonant was intended, a small khaa’ (short for khaafeef 'light') could be used. Originally, this system had been devised for writing down poetry, which also went through a period of codification, but gradually it spread to Qur’aanic manuscripts written in cursive script as well. It was considerably less ambiguous than the old system, in which the dots had to perform various functions.

With al-Khaleel's reform, the system of Arabic orthography was almost completed and, apart from a very few additional signs, it has remained essentially the same ever since. The frequency of diacritic dots and vowel signs varies considerably, however, and alongside fully-vowelled manuscripts one finds texts in which even the diacritic dots are left out. After the establishment of the orthography, a large variety of writing styles were developed, each with its own special domains. Apart from the epigraphic script (called Koofic), which was also used in early Qur’aanic manuscripts, a cursive script was developed for use in the chancellery, after 'Abd al-Malik's reform (cf. below). The script itself became an essential component of Islamic art. Because of the general aversion to pictorial art, calligraphy was one of the most important means of decoration. This development of Arabic script will not be dealt with here.

Having an orthography is one thing, but elaborating a standardised language for official―commercial and administrative―purposes is another. As far as we know, the Meccan traders did not have any archives, and we must assume that they did not have at their disposal an elaborate legal terminology or conventions for book-keeping, either. In the first period of the establishment of the Islamic empire, the government, therefore, opted to use Greek-speaking clerks in Syria and Egypt and Persian-speaking clerks in the East for purposes of administration and taxation. In the sources, the shift from Greek to Arabic in the tax register ( deewaan ) is traditionally connected with the name of the caliph 'Abd al-Malik. According to this story, the caliph ordered the clerks to shift to Arabic in the year 81/700, allegedly because one of the Greek clerks was caught urinating in an inkwell (al-Balaa th uree, Futoo H 196-7). Whatever the truth of that story, the shift is a sign of the growing self-confidence of the Arabs and their increased familiarity with a practical writing system.


Even before the language shift of the deewaan, Arabic was used as a written language: the earliest papyri date from year 22 of the Hijra, and at the end of the first century of the Higra quite a number of papyrus texts must have been circulating. The language of these papyri is highly irregular from the point of view of the codified grammar of Classical Arabic, but the fact that they contain a large number of hypercorrections demonstrates that the scribes tried to emulate a linguistic ideal. In Chapter 8, on the so-called Middle Arabic texts, we shall deal with the linguistic features of the corpus of papyri. In this chapter, our main purpose is to sketch the process of standardisation that was soon under way.

The Qur’aanic language, though virtually identical with the language of pre-Islamic poetry, has a typically religious flavour, manifesting itself in peculiarities of style and language that must have been absent in other registers. Likewise, the language of the poems was marked by poetic licences that did not occur in ordinary language. Although both sources constituted a model for correct Arabic, they could hardly serve as a model for ordinary prose. The arbiters of linguistic correctness, the Bedouin, were frequently called in for help in linguistic matters, but they were in no position to enforce a standard language, if only because of their own linguistic differences. We have seen above (Chapter 4) that in the period of the Jaahiliyya the language of the various tribes varied to a certain extent; and, even though it is reasonable to assume that there were no real problems of communication, there was no general standard either. On the other hand, the growing sedentary population with a more or less complete command of the language was very much in need of such a standard, but could hardly be expected to devote themselves to decisions about linguistic correctness. As a matter of fact, their slipshod use of the language for practical purposes, as in the texts which we find in the papyri, was one of the reasons for a growing concern on the part of those who regarded themselves as the true heirs of Bedouin civilisation, the pure Arabs. Even if we do not believe the account of Muslim historians such as Ibn Khaldoon about the corruption of speech as the main motive behind the 'invention' of grammar (cf. p. 102), it can hardly be denied that in the early decades of Islam there was an increasing call for specialists who could provide adequate teaching in Arabic.

According to most of our sources, the fourth caliph 'Alee (r. 35/656-40/661) was the first to insist that something be done about the growing number of mistakes in speech (other sources mention the governor of the two Iraqs, Ziyaad ibn 'Abeehi). The person whose name has become connected with the first efforts to standardise and codify the language was the same 'Aboo l'Aswad whom we met above as the reformer of the writing system. Several stories are told about his reluctance to accept this job; according to some historians, he was finally persuaded when his own daughter made a terrible mistake in the use of the declensional endings, by confusing the expressions maa 'a Hsana s-samaa'a 'how beautiful is the sky!' and maa 'a Hsanu s-samaa'i 'what is the most beautiful thing in the sky?' (as-Seeraafee, 'Akhbaar, ed. F. Krenkow, Beirut, 1936, p. 19). Another version of this story, in which the mistakes occur in the recitation of the Qur’aan, has been mentioned above (Chapter 4, p. 50).

The historicity of these anecdotes is, of course, doubtful, and Talmon (1985) has shown that the figure of 'Aboo l-'Aswad was used by later grammarians as some kind of eponym for their own grammatical school. But the point remains that grammarians must have played an important role in the standardisation of the language. The earliest scholarly efforts concerned the exegesis of the Revealed Book, but since study of the language of the Qur’aan could hardly ignore that other source of pre-Islamic Arabic, the poems, very soon the two main components of the corpus of texts that was to become canonical for the linguistic study of Arabic were combined in the writings of the grammarians.

The first grammarian to give an account of the entire language in what was probably the first publication in book form in Arabic prose, Seebawayhi, was not of Arab stock himself, but a Persian from Hamadhan. His example set the trend for all subsequent generations of grammarians. The grammarians believed that their main task was to provide an explanation for every single phenomenon in Arabic, rather than a mere description, let alone a set of precepts on how to talk Arabic correctly. Consequently, they distinguished between what was transmitted and what was theoretically possible in language. In principle, they accepted everything that was transmitted from a reliable source: in the first place the language of the Qur’aan, which was sacrosanct anyway, in the second place everything that had been preserved from pre-Islamic poetry, and in the third place testimonies from trustworthy Bedouin informants. In this framework, even singularities or deviant forms were incorporated without, however, being accepted as productive forms that could constitute the basis for a theoretical linguistic reasoning. Such a distinction is characteristic of Islamic science as a whole, where 'aql 'logical reasoning' is always carefully distinguished from naql 'transmitted knowledge'. In this way, a separation was realised between the study of attested forms and the theories of the grammarians, and without being prescriptive the grammarians could still impose a canonical norm of the language.

The codification of grammatical structure went hand in hand with the exploration of the lexicon and its necessary expansion. These two aspects of the process of standardisation are connected. Just as the grammarians were needed because of the perceived 'corruption' of the language, the first aim of the lexicographers seems to have been the preservation of the old Bedouin lexicon, which was at risk. There are several reasons for the lexicographers' worries. In the first place, the sedentary civilisation of early Islam was markedly different from that of the desert tribes, who had been the guardians of the special vocabulary of the pre-Islamic poems. No city-dweller could be expected to know all the subtle nuances of a vocabulary connected with camels and animal wildlife and tents. There are several anecdotes about grammarians that stress this component of a grammarian's activities. Thus, the grammarian 'Aboo 'Amr ibn al-'Alaa' (d. 154/770), when he started lecturing about language and poetry, was confronted by a real Bedouin, who interrogated him about the explanation of obscure words. When the grammarian passed the test, the Bedouin said khu th oo 'anhu fa-'innahu daabba munkara 'transmit from him, because he is an extraordinary beast of burden [i.e. a depository of knowledge]!' (az-Zajjaajee, Majaalis, ed. Haaroon, Kuwait, 1962, p. 262). This anecdote shows how grammarians had to prove their worth by their knowledge of the Bedouin lexicon.

For the ordinary speaker, who had grown up in an Islamic city and knew nothing about the Bedouin milieu, even ordinary Arabic words had become unfamiliar. From one of the earliest commentaries on the Qur’aan, we can get an idea about which words had fallen into disuse. Muqaatil ibn Sulaymaan's (d. 150/767) Tafseer contains a large number of paraphrases of Qur’aanic words that he felt to be in need of explanation, e.g. 'aleem 'painful' (replaced by wajee’ ), mubeen 'clear' (replaced by bayyin ), naba'un 'news' (replaced by hadeethun ), naseeb 'share' (replaced by Ha D D ), the verb 'aataa ' 'to give' (replaced by 'a’ Taa ) and the interrogative adverb 'ayyaan 'when?' (replaced by mataa ).

The second threat to the lexicon had to do with the contact with other languages. When the Arabs became acquainted with the sedentary culture of the conquered territories, they encountered new things and notions for which there did not yet exist Arabic words. The most obvious sources for terms to indicate the new notions were, of course, the languages spoken in the new Islamic empire. And this was precisely what some of the Arab scholars feared. They were convinced that the influx of words from other cultures would corrupt the Arabic language, which had been chosen by God for His last revelation to mankind.

In the first century of the Hijra, this attitude did not yet make itself felt, as the comments by the earliest exegetes on the vocabulary of the Qur’aan demonstrate. In preIslamic times, the Arabs had taken over a considerable number of words from the surrounding cultures. Most of them were borrowed either through the Jewish/Aramaic language of Syria, or through the Christian/Syriac language in Mesopotamia, where al-Heera was the most important centre for cultural and linguistic contacts. Examples of early borrowings that occur both in pre-Islamic poetry and in the Qur’aan are the following:

from Middle Persian (Pahlavi) through Syriac/Aramaic:

zanjabeel 'well in paradise' fromSyriac zangabeel fromPahlavi singa b ēr 'ginger'

warda 'rose' fromAramaic warda fromAvestan var�?da .

Some words must have been borrowed directly from Middle Persian, such as:

istabraq 'brocade' fromPahlavi sta b r 'thick (of clothing)' + suffix -ak

jund 'army' fromPahlavi gund 'army, troop'

kanz 'treasure' fromPahlavi ganǰ 'treasure'

dirham 'silver coin' fromPahlavi draxm fromGreek drachmè .

or from Greek/Latin through Syriac/Aramaic:

burj 'tower' fromSyriac boorgaa fromGreek púrgos

zawj 'pair, married couple' fromSyriac zoogaa 'yoke', bar zoogaa 'husband, wife' fromGreek zeũgos 'yoke

' deenaar 'gold coin' fromSyriac deenaraa fromGreek dènárion fromLatin denarius

qa Sr 'castle' fromAramaic qa Sraa fromGreek kástron fromLatin castrum, castra

Siraa T 'path' fromAramaic is Traatiyaa fromGreek stráta fromLatin strata

yaqut 'sapphire' fromSyriac yaqoon Taa fromGreek huákinthos 'hyacinth'

qir Tas 'scroll of paper' fromSyriac qar Teesaa, kar Teesaa fromGreek chartès .

And, of course, there was a large number of words that came in straight from Syriac/Aramaic, such as:

Salaat 'prayer' fromAramaic Sl�?thaa

teen 'fig' fromAramaic teenaa

sifr 'large book' fromAramaic sifraa

masjid 'place of worship' fromAramaic/Nabataean msgd' .

A special category of loanwords is constituted by those words that came in by a southern route, from languages such as South Arabian or Ethiopic, e.g.:

Sanam 'idol’ fromSouth Arabian Snm, Safaa'itic Snmt .

The oldest commentaries on the Qur’aan, such as the one by Mujaahid (d. 104/722), had no qualms in assigning words in the Qur’aan to a foreign origin. Mujaahid stated, for instance, that the word Toor 'mountain' came from Syriac, the word sijjeel 'baked clay' from Persian or Nabataean, and the word qis Taas 'balance' from Greek. In the cases mentioned here, he was not that far off, since Toor comes indeed from Syriac Toor, sijjeel from Pahlavi sang 'stone' + geel 'clay', and qis Taas perhaps ultimately derives from Greek dikastès 'judge', through Syriac deeqas Toos . Some of the etymologies quoted by the commentators may be fanciful, but the important thing is that they looked upon the enrichment of the vocabulary as an advantage and as a sign of the superiority of the creative genius evidenced in the Qur’aan . By the end of the second century of the Hijra, however, some philologists had started to attack the notion that the Qur’aan could contain foreign loanwords, and attempted to connect the vocabulary of the Qur’aan with a Bedouin etymology. Thus, for instance, 'Aboo 'Ubayda (d. 210/825) says that 'the Qur’aan was revealed in clear Arabic language, and whosoever claims that the word taahaa is Nabataean makes a big mistake' ( nazala l- Qur’aanu bi-lisaanin 'arabiyyin mubeenin fa-man za'ama 'anna taahaa bi-n-Nabatiyyati fa-qad 'akbara, Majaaz I, ed. F. Sezgin, Cairo, 1954, p. 17). Although most Arab lexicographers, such as as-Suyootee (d. 911/1505), continued to assign a foreign origin to many Arabic words, the idea of the purity of the Arabic language remained the prevalent attitude among some Islamic scholars, and attempts by Western scholars to find traces of other languages in the Qur’aan were and still are vehemently rejected.

The real problem arises in the case of Qur’aanic words that have developed a new technical meaning not supported by the semantics of the Arabic root. In such cases, the exegetes goout of their way to find a connection. Thus, for instance, for the expression yawm al-qiyaama 'the day of resurrection', the standard explanation in the commentaries is that it is connected with the root q-w-m 'to stand up', but most likely the Christian Syriac term qiyaametaa as a translation of the Greek anástasis 'resurrection' prompted the semantic extension of the Arabic word. Similar examples are those of zakaat 'alms', masjid 'mosque', suhuf 'scriptures', sabt 'Saturday', soora 'portion of the Qur’aan ', and such central notions in the Qur’aanic message as kitaab 'book', saa'a 'hour' etc. The term Su Huf 'scriptures', plural of Sa Heefa, is connected by the Arab commentators with a root S Hf, which occurs only as a denominative in the second measure with the meaning of 'making a mistake in reading'. In pre-Islamic poetry, Sa Heefa (plural Sa Haa'if ) is used in the sense of 'page of writing'. The Qur’aanic use of the word in the sense of 'scriptures' (e.g. Q 20/133 as- Su Huf al-'oolaa 'the first scriptures') is difficult to explain from this, which is why Western commentaries often connect it with an Old South Arabian word S Hft or with the common Ethiopic root s'- H-f 'to write'.

In line with the idea of the purity of the language, the semantic extension of an existing word was regarded as the most appropriate device for the expansion of the lexicon. The model for this procedure was believed to have been given by the language of the Qur’aan itself. Since the grammarians analysed many religious terms such as Salaat 'prayer', zakaat 'alms', and the term 'islaam itself, as old Bedouin words which had received a specialised meaning in the religious context, semantic extension became an accepted method of creating new terminology. They were doubtless right in the sense that part of the religious vocabulary of the Qur’aan is the result of an internal development without external influence. A case in point is the word 'islaam, which meant in general 'to surrender oneself', but came to mean 'to surrender oneself to God, to convert to the new religion brought by the Prophet'. Besides, even when the new meanings of existing words were calqued on cognate words in other languages, their occurrence in the Qur’aan canonised the new meaning.

The large-scale influx of new notions and ideas in the early Islamic period could not be handled by giving new meanings to existing words alone. In spite of the purists' opposition, many words from other languages were simply taken over, either in their original form or with some slight adaptation to Arabic phonology or morphology. Loanwords from Persian abound in the domains of pharmacology, mineralogy and botany, for instance in the name of plants: banafsaj 'violet'; sankhaar 'gladiolus'; baa th injaan 'eggplant'; baaboonij 'camomile'; banj 'henbane'; fustuq 'pistachio'; khashkhash 'poppy'; narjis 'narcissus'.

In the earliest translations of Greek logical, medical and philosophical writings, some of the technical terms are simply transliterations of a Greek word for which the translators were unable to find an Arabic equivalent. Thus we have, for instance, hayoolaa 'substance' (from Greek hulē ), bulghum 'phlegm' (from Greek phlégma ) and 'u S Tuquss 'element' (from Greek stoichĩon ). The next best solution was to create a new word on the basis of an existing root by the application of one of the numerous morphological patterns of Arabic. In the beginning, each translator created in this way his own set of terms. The ensuing confusion was more or less ended with the establishment of the Bayt al- Hikma 'House of Wisdom', the translators' academy founded by the Caliph al-Ma'moon in 215/830. The Greek term katègoroúmenon 'predicate', for instance, had been variably translated as ma Hmool, maqool, Sifa or na't, until it was standardised as ma Hmool . The Greek term apóphansis 'proposition' had been translated by as many as five different terms ( Hukm, khabar, qawl jaazim, qawl qaa Ti', qa Diyya ), until qa Diyya became the usual term.

The use of patterns to create neologisms from existing roots was particularly useful in the translation of Greek medical terminology. A few examples may suffice to illustrate this method of inventing new vocabulary items. In his terminology of the skins of the eye, Hunayn ibn 'Ishaaq translated Greek words in -eidès with abstract adjectives, e.g. qarniyya (Greek keratoeidès ) 'cornea', zujaajiyya (Greek hualoeidès ) 'corpus vitreum', 'inabiyya (Greek rhagoeidès ) 'uvea', shabakiyya (Greek amphiblèstroeidès ) 'retina'. The pattern fu'aal was used to systematise the names of illnesses, e.g. zukaam 'catarrh', Sudaa' 'headache', Sufaar 'jaundice', duwaar 'dizziness', Tu Haal 'infection of the spleen', and even khumaar 'hangover'.

A prerequisite for the creative use of the existing lexicon was its codification. The first complete dictionary of the Arabic language was composed by Seebawayhi's teacher, al-Khaleel ibn 'A Hmad, who had also been involved in the reform of the Arabic script (cf. above, p . 56) and who is generally acclaimed as the inventor of Arabic metrical theory. The professed aim of the Kitaab al-'ayn, which goes under his name, was the inclusion of all Arabic roots. In the introduction, a sketch is given of the phonetic structure of Arabic, and the dictionary fully uses the available corpus of Arabic by including quotations from the Qur’aan and from the numerous pre-Islamic poems, which had both undergone a process of codification and written transmission by the hands of the grammarians.

The arrangement of al-Khaleel's dictionary, which seems to have been completed by his pupils, set the trend for many subsequent lexicographical writings. The dictionary is divided into books, one for each letter, starting with that of the letter 'ayn, hence the name of the dictionary. Each book is divided into chapters, each dedicated to one set of radicals and containing all the permutations of these radicals. Thus, for instance, the chapter on the radical '-q-z, contains the roots '-z-q, q-z-', z-'-q, and z-q-', which are the ones actually used in the language ( musta'malaat ). Perhaps this reflects some idea of a higher semantic connection between the permutations of radicals, although al-Khaleel does not mention such a connection. The system of the Kitaab al-'ayn remained in use for a long time, even after a new system had been introduced by the grammarian al-Jawharee (d. 393/1003) in his Si Haa H . He arranged all roots in a kind of rhyming order, that is, alphabetically according to the last radical, then the first, then the second. This system became the current dictionary arrangement with the Lisaan al-'Arab by Ibn Man D oor (d. 711/1311), the most popular dictionary ever written in the Arab world.

In the Kitaab al-'ayn, the emphasis had been on those words that were in common use in Arabic writing, but later compilers aimed at complete coverage of all Arabic words, both common and rare. This sometimes led to the inclusion of ghost-words that had never existed as such, or the recording of several meanings for a word on the basis of just one particular context. A rich source of lexical items is constituted by the vocabulary of rajaz poetry in the slightly informal iambic trimeter, which often had an improvised character. The poets in this genre stretched the potential of Arabic word-building to its limits. Ullmann (1966) has shown that the many words in the dictionaries that are quoted from rajaz poetry are very often neologisms on the basis of existing roots, rather than separate roots. Triliteral words may be expanded more or less at will with prefixes, infixes and suffixes. Thus, for instance, from the existing word 'adlamu 'very black' the verb idlahamma was created, from kada Ha 'to make an effort' the verb karda Ha from the root j-l-b 'to bring' the verb ijla'abba . New verbs were made with the infixes -ran-, -lan-, -'an- or - Han-, e.g. islan Taha 'to be wide' from sa Ta Ha 'to expand', iq'an Sara, with verbal adjective qin Sa'run, from qa Sura 'to be short', and many more examples. New nouns were made with the suffix -m, e.g. baldamun, balandamun with the same meaning as baleedun 'stupid', shaj'amun with the same meaning as shujaa'un 'courageous'. The point is that the lexicographers took such invented words, which never gained any currency, for existing roots, which were then duly entered in the dictionary.

The early beginnings of grammar and lexicography began at a time when Bedouin informants were still around and could be consulted. There can be no doubt that the grammarians and lexicographers regarded the Bedouin as the true speakers ( fu Sa Haa' ) of Arabic. As late as the fourth/tenth century, the lexicographer al-'Azhari (d. 370/980) extolled the purity of their language. He had been kidnapped by Bedouin and forced to stay with them for a considerable period of time. On the basis of this 'fieldwork' he wrote his dictionary Tah th eeb al-lugha 'The reparation of speech', in the introduction to which he says: 'They speak according to their desert nature and their ingrained instincts. In their speech you hardly ever hear a linguistic error or a terrible mistake' ( yatakallamoona bi- Tibaa'ihim al-badawiyyati waqaraa'i Hihim allatee 'taadoohaa wa-laa yakaadu yaqa'u fee man Tiqihim la Hnun 'aw kha Ta'un faa Hish, Tah th eeb I, ed. Haaroon, Cairo, 1964-7, p. 7). Other grammarians, too, collected materials from the nomad tribes, and it is often reported that caliphs or other dignitaries sent their sons into the desert in order to learn flawless Arabic.

In the course of the centuries, the Bedouin tribes increasingly came into the sphere of influence of the sedentary civilisation, and their speech became contaminated by sedentary speech. In his description of the Arabian peninsula, al-Hamdaanee (d. 334/945) sets up a hierarchy of the Arab tribes according to the perfection of their speech. He explains that those Arabs who live in or near a town have very mediocre Arabic and cannot be trusted; this applies even to the Arabs who live near the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina. The grammarian Ibn Jinnee (d. 392/1002) includes in his Kha Saa'i S a chapter about the errors made by Bedouin and he states that in his time it is almost impossible to find a Bedouin speaking pure Arabic ( li-'anna laa nakaadu naraa badawiyyan fa Seehan, Kha Saa'i S II, ed. an-Najjaar, Cairo, 1952-6, p. 5). At the same time, Ibn Jinnee advises his students always to check their linguistic facts with Bedouin informants.

Even in the early period of Arabic grammar, our sources record examples of Bedouin who sold their expertise in matters of language to the highest bidder, as in the case of the famous mas'ala zunbooriyya . In this controversy between Seebawayhi and a rival grammarian, a question was raised about the expression kuntu 'a D unnu 'anna l-'aqraba 'ashaddu las'atan min az-zunboori fa-'i th aa huwa 'iyyaahaa 'I thought that the scorpion had a stronger bite than the hornet, but it was the other way round'. Seebawayhi gave the correct answer - the last clause has to be fa-'i th aa huwa hiya ―but was defeated by the judgment of a Bedouin arbiter, who had been bribed by his adversary (Ibn al-'Anbaaree, 'Insaaf, ed. G. Weil, Leiden, 1913, Pp. 292-5).

Modern critics of the attitude of the grammarians towards the alleged perfection of Bedouin speech often point out that the idealisation of their speech may have been part of a general trend to extol the virtues of desert life, and that even nowadays one sometimes hears stories about Bedouin speaking perfect Classical Arabic. Usually this means that they use words that have become obsolete elsewhere, or it refers to their poetical tradition, which often uses a classicising style of language. We are not concerned here with the question of whether the Bedouin had still preserved declensional endings in the third/ninth century (for which see above, Chapter 4). What is important for our present discussion is the fact that in the fourth/tenth century linguistic experts could apparently still find informants whom they trusted. From the fourth century onwards, however, this tradition disappeared. In the story about Seebawayhi and the Bedouin informant, there is already an element of corruption, and later the general image of the Bedouin became that of a thieving and lying creature whose culture was inferior to the sophisticated sedentary civilisation. For the practice of grammar, this meant that the process of standardisation had come to a standstill. Since there were no longer living informants to provide fresh information, the corpus of the language was closed, and 'fieldwork' could no longer produce reliable results. References to the kalaam al-'Arab 'language of the Bedouin' still abounded in the books of the grammarians, but these were no longer connected with any living speech.


The history of literary style in Arabic went hand in hand with the standardisation of the language. The development of such a style did not have to start from scratch. The same two sources that had been available for the standardisation of the language, the Qur’aan and the pre-Islamic poems, became the initial models for a literary style. As in other cultures, the structured composition of poetry in Arabic preceded the emergence of a literary prose style. But here, too, the desert type of poetry did not satisfy all the needs of a new, elegant sedentary civilisation. New forms of poetry developed under the dynasty of the 'Umayyads, at whose court love poems became a new fashion (e.g. the poems of 'Umar ibn 'Abee Rabee'a, d. 43/712). Inevitably, this led to a looser use of language and to the development of new, often strophic types of poetry, that were not as heavily dependent on the Bedouin model. In such forms of poetry, there was easier access for popular expressions reflecting the new environment of Arabic culture. Some deviations in morphology, syntax and lexicon became gradually accepted, e.g. the use of contracted forms such as naseehi (from nasiyahu ), baqee (from baqiya ), or the confusion of the fourth and the first verbal form (cf. Fück 1950: 73ff.) . In rajaz, poets could experiment with the creation of new words and word forms to a much higher degree than was permitted in official poetry. In general, the muwalladoon, the new Arabs, who had never seen the desert, could not be expected to be as excellent connoisseurs of Arabic as the pre-Islamic poets. Although for a long time the Bedouin model continued to serve as a strict canon, in Seebawayhi's Kitaab the poems of the muwalladoon are not excluded as evidence: the 1,000-plus quotations from poetry in the Kitaab include both Jaahilee poets and those from the urban milieu of the 'Umayyad period, such as 'Umar ibn 'Abee Rabee'a; he even quotes from rajaz poetry.

Gradually, a distinction came into being between the official brand of poetry that clung to the old models and took pleasure in using obsolete vocabulary and avoiding any adaptation to the new modes of speaking, on the one hand, and a new, 'faster', kind of poetry, often improvised, often in strophic form, and very often containing vulgarisms, on the other. In the course of time, these two kinds of poetry grew further apart. Official poetry became more and more erudite, until it could no longer be understood without explanation. The poet al-Mutanabbee (d. 355/965), for instance, published his poems together with a learned commentary. The more popular form of poetry, on the other hand, went through a different development. In its most developed form, the strophic muwashsha H and the zajal, it included the use of colloquial forms in a refrain. This kind of poetry became especially popular in the Islamic West (cf. below, p.227).

Because of its idiosyncrasies, poetry is of lesser importance in the standardisation of language than prose. We have seen above that for commercial and administrative purposes Arabic was used from the beginning of the Islamic empire. Such written documents had no literary pretensions whatsoever, although their scribes did try to maintain a Classical norm, which means that already at this time there was a standard (on the language of the papyri see below, Chapter 8). But there were other forms of speech, some of them with roots in the Jaahiliyya . In the first place, Arabic culture had a reputation of long standing for its ability to put speech to rhetorical use. The Bedouin admired verbal prowess, and the tradition of delivering public speeches was continued in early Islam. The earliest preserved speeches already exhibit the use of various literary devices and conventions, in particular that of parallelism. A famous example is the speech given by al- Hajjaaj (d. 95/714) on the occasion of his inauguration as governor of Kufa:
Kufa: The Commander of the Believers has emptied his quiver and tested its arrows. He found me to be of the firmest wood and of the strongest shaft and shot me at you. As long as you gallop in rebellion and recline in the beds of error and follow the stray path, by God, I shall skin you like a new stick and bind your leaves like a thorn bush and whip you like wandering camels. ( 'inna 'ameera l-mu'mineena kabba kinaanatahu thumma 'ajama 'eedaanahaa fa-wajadanee 'amarrahaa 'oodan wa-'a Slabahaa 'amoodan fa-wajjahanee 'ilaykum fa-'innakum Taalamaa 'aw Da'tum fee l-fitani wa- D Taja'tum fee maraaqidi D- Dalaali wa-sanantum sunana l-ghayyi 'ammaa wa-llaahi la-'al Hawannakum la Hwa l-'a Saa wa-la-'a' Seebannakum 'a Sba s-salamati wa-la-'a Dribannakum Darba gharaa'ibi l-'ibil, al-Jaa Hi D , Bayaan II, ed. as-Sandoobee, Beirut, n.d., p. 349)

A second genre of texts with roots in the preIslamic period is the art of story-telling. From early times onwards, storytellers ( qussaas ) had played an important role in the life of the tribe by transmitting the stories about the exploits of the tribes ( 'ayyaam al-'Arab ), and this tradition was continued in a modified form in early Islam when storytellers went around to tell about the events in the life of the Prophet, the early Islamic expeditions and the conquests of foreign countries. These stories were meant for the general public and they were no doubt told in a lively style, full of fictitious conversations and without any literary embellishments. The topics dealt with by the professional storytellers were also studied by scholars. They had in common with the storytellers a certain aversion to writing down their reports: only the Qur’aan could be a written Book. They did use written notes for recording their own memories and those of their informants, but these were intended for private use only. The earliest efforts to put down in writing systematically the traditions about Muhammad and the early period of the conquests did not start until the end of the first century of the Hijra, at a time when the last people who had actually met the Prophet were old men and women who were bound to die soon. This period witnessed a feverish activity on the part of scholars to collect all they could from the last witnesses still alive. Scholars such as az-Zuhree (d. 124/742) compiled collections of Hadeeths, that were eagerly sought by the caliphal court and were probably deposited in the palace.

The best-documented genre in early Islam is the epistolary one. The earliest examples of epistolary texts are found in the accounts of the correspondence between the Prophet and the tribal chieftains. During the period of the conquests, there must have been a constant stream of letters between the central authorities in Medina and the commanders in the field. The contents of these letters were mostly commercial, but no doubt some epistolary conventions existed even then. It is impossible to determine to what degree the texts of those letters that have been preserved by later historians are authentic. Some historians refer to actual documents, for instance the treaty between the Prophet and the community of Doomat al-Jandal, which al-Waaqidee ( Maghaazee III, 1,030) claims to have seen personally. But in general we have no guarantee about the authenticity of the exact wording, although the historians may well have preserved the gist of the contents. The same conclusion applies to such texts as the letters of the early raashidoon or the arbitration pact of Siffeen.

Since most of the scribes ( kuttaab ) in the early period were Syrians or Persians, or perhaps even Christian Arabs from the tribes outside the peninsula, some foreign examples and conventions may have found their way into Arabic literary products at this period. The reform of the caliph 'Abd al-Malik (r. 65/68586/705), who as we have seen was responsible for the shift of language in the deewaan, must have been the starting point for a new fashion in writing Arabic for official purposes. Since the secretaries were responsible for the composition of official documents and letters, their role in the development of a chancellery style was essential. Under 'Abd al-Malik's successor Hishaam (r. 105/724-125/743), the foundation was laid for the administrative system that was later taken over and perfected by the 'Abbaasid caliphs.

From the beginning of the 'Umayyad dynasty, the sponsorship of the caliphs was an important factor in the production of texts, both literary and administrative. According to some sources as early as Mu'aawiya's (r. 41/661-60/680) reign, the caliph had some kind of library in which he deposited written versions of Hadeeths, some of which had been collected at his request. His grandson Khaalid ibn Yazeed ibn Mu'aawiya had a keen interest in alchemy and may have commissioned the first translations from Greek into Arabic. Certainly there are enough reports about the later 'Umayyads requesting translations of Greek or Syriac books, mostly on medicine, to warrant the conclusion that a depository ( khizaana ) of books belonged to the normal appurtenances of the caliphal court. Although the 'Abbaasids, did their best to suppress any favourable report about the 'Umayyads, it is fairly certain that the 'Umayyad caliphs actively supported the activities of scholars such as az-Zuhree in the field of Hadeeth -collecting.

The development of a written Arabic style went hand in hand with the development of a literary prose corpus consisting of translations from Persian, including the Kitaab fee s-siyaasa al-'aammiyya mufa S Salan 'Treatise on general administration, with full particulars' that is sometimes attributed to Hishaam's secretary 'Aboo l-'Alaa' Saalim. The epistolary style was perfected by his successor 'Abd al-Hameed ibn Ya Hyaa (d. after 132/750), secretary of Marwaan II (r. 127/744-132/750), who used this style in treatises, some of which have been preserved, such as his Risaala 'ilaa l-kuttaab 'Letter to the scribes'. He used an ornate style, with an extensive eulogy at the beginning of the treatise, ample use of parallelism, in a quantitative rhythm, sometimes in rhymed prose ( saj' ), sometimes in a loose parallel structure of patterns. On the other hand, his style does not include the use of intricate rhetorical figures or rare vocabulary.

The first sermons and epistles such as those by al- Hasan al-Ba Sree (d. 110/728) adopted the form of the epistolary genre by addressing them to the caliph, but adapted the epistolary style to the topic at hand. Because of their religious contents, these texts borrow much more from the Qur’aan than 'Abd al- Hameed did.
For the Book of God Almighty is life amid all death and light amid all darkness and knowledge amid all ignorance. God has left for his servants after the Book and the Messenger no other proof and He has said 'so that those who perished, perished after a clear sign, and so that those who lived, lived after a clear sign, for God is all-hearing and all-knowing' [ Qur’aan 8/42). Reflect, Commander of the Believers on the word of God Almighty 'To each of you who wishes to go forward or go backwards, his soul is a pawn for what it has earned' [ Qur’aan 74/38]. ( fa-kitaabu llaahi ta'aalaa Hayaatun 'inda kulli mawtin wa-noorun 'inda kulli D ulmatin wa-'ilmun 'inda kulli jahlin, fa-maa taraka llaahu li-l-'ibaadi ba'da l-kitaabi wa-r-rasooli Hujjatan wa-qaala 'azza wa-jalla 'li-yahlika man halaka 'an bayyinatin, wa-ya Hyaa man Hayya 'an bayyinatin wa-'inna llaaha la-samee'un 'aleem fa-fakkir 'ameera l-mu'mineena fee qawli llaahi ta'aalaa 'fa-man shaa'a minkum 'an yataqaddama 'aw yata'akhkhara kullu nafsin bi-maa kasabat raheena', Hasan al-Ba Sree, Risaala fee l-qadar, ed. 'Amara, Beirut, 1987, p. 113.5-9)

The tradition of caliphal sponsporship of bookwriting that was initiated by the 'Umayyad caliphs was continued under the ‘Abbaasid dynasty. At the request of some of the caliphs, books were composed, mostly by foreigners that were to acquaint the intellectual elite with the achievements of other cultures. Scholars such as the Persian Ibn al-Muqaffa' (d. ±142/759), a near-contemporary of 'Abd al-Hameed, produced literary translations from Pahlavi. His most famous translation was that of the Indian fables of Kaleela wa-Dimna, but he also composed new original treatises, such as the Kitaab al-'adab al-kabeer and the Risaala fee S- Sa Haaba . These treatises were mostly concerned with court etiquette and the behavioural code in the relations between rulers and ruled.

Because of the scarcity of preserved texts from the 'Umayyad period, it is difficult to pinpoint the exact model for the style of early ‘Abbaasid writings. The language of the Qur’aan gained in influence during the ‘Abbaasid period, but it cannot be regarded as a direct model for the prose style. Ibn al-Muqaffa's work abounds with antithetic statements and parallelisms formulated in a syntactically complicated language, full of participles and infinitives, which, however, always remains lucid and easy to follow, as in the following fragment:
Know that the receiver of praise is as someone who praises himself. It is fitting that a man's love of praise should induce him to reject it, since the one who rejects it is praised, but the one who accepts it is blamed. ( wa-'lam 'anna qaabila l-mad Hi ka-maadi Hi nafsihi, wa-l-mar'u jadeerun 'an yakoona Hubbuhu l-mad Ha huwa lla th ee ya Hmiluhu 'alaa raddihi, fa-'inna r-raadda lahu ma Hmoodun, wa-l-qaabila lahu ma'eebun, Ibn al-Muqaffa', 'Adab, ed. Beirut, 1964, p. 69)

The 'Umayyad trend of commissioning translations of scientific writings reached its apogee under the ‘Abbaasid caliphs. The Arabic translations of (Syriac versions of) Greek writings that were produced before al-Ma'moon's establishment of the translators' academy, the Bayt al- Hikma, were written in a clumsy style that betrays its Greek origin in every line. One example from a translation of Hippocrates' On the Nature of Man should suffice (an attempt has been made to imitate the style in English!):
When spring comes, it is necessary to add to the drinking, and it must be broken with water, and you must cut down bit by bit on food, and you must choose of it that which is less nourishing and fresher and you must adopt instead of the use of much bread the use of much barley meal. ( wa-‘i th aa jaa'a r-rabee' fa-yanbaghee 'an yuzaad fee sh-sharaab wa-yuksar bi-l-maa' wa-tanqu Smin a T- Ta'aam qaleelan qaleelan wa-takhtaar minhu maa huwa 'aqall gha th aa' wa-'ar Tab wa-tasta'mil makaana l-istikthaar min al-khubz al-istikthaar min as-saweeq, Kitaab Buqraa Tfee Tabee'at al-'insaan, ed. J. N. Mattock and M. C. Lyons, Cambridge, 1968, pp. 27-8)

The thoughtless reference to the Greek custom of mixing wine with water is as inappropriate in an Islamic context as the style of the entire text. In the writings of the greatest of all translators, Hunayn ibn 'Is Haaq (d. 260/873), there is no trace of such translated language. He explicitly rejects the literal translations of his predecessors and uses a businesslike, terse style that makes full use of the syntactic possibilities of Arabic and shuns the ornate epistolary style. His preference for complicated infinitival and participial constructions may reflect the structure of the Greek original:
I wrote for him a book in Syriac, in which I took the direction he had indicated to me when he requested me to write it [lit.]. ( fa-katabtu lahu kitaaban bi-s-Suryaaniyya na Hawtu feehi n-na Hwa lla th ee qa Sada 'ilayhi fee mas'alatihi 'iyyaaya wa D'ahu, Hunayn ibn 'Is Haaq, Risaala Hunayn ibn 'Is Haaq 'ilaa 'Alee ibn Ya Hyaa fee th ikr maa turjima min kutub Jaaleenoos bi-'ilmihi wa-ba' Dmaa lam yutarjam, ed. G. Bergsträsser, Leipzig, 1925, p. 1)

Both Ibn al-Muqaffa's treatises and the translations of Greek logical, medical and philosophical writings were publications in the real sense of the word. They were public books, not restricted to the court, but intended to be read by individuals. With respect to Islamic writing, i.e. writing on legal matters ( fiqh ), traditions of the Prophet ( Hadeeth ), history, Islamic campaigns ( maghaazee ) and Qur’aanic exegesis ( tafseer ), things were different. When the ‘Abbaasid caliphs requested scholars to write down their information in the form of actual books for the benefit of the heirs to the throne, who needed such information for their education, they did so partially in reaction to the 'Umayyads. The 'Umayyad caliphs did support the scholarly work of individual Hadeeth -collectors, but the ‘Abbaasid propaganda emphasised their worldly interests and minimised their role in the collection of Islamic writing. One of the earliest court scholars was Ibn 'Ishaaq (d. 150/767). He had collected materials about the history of the Arabs and Islam in order to use them in his instruction. At the special request of the Caliph al-Man Soor (r. 136/754-158/775), he presented them in a structured form at court and deposited them as a permanent text in the caliphal library (Kha Teeb al-Baghdaadee, Ta'reekh Bajdaad I, 220f.).

Although there are no copies of this or similar limited publications, Ibn 'Is Haaq's activities mark the beginning of historical writing and to a large degree determined its literary form and style. We may assume that the accounts of what happened during the Prophet's life and the early conquests were written in the kind of narrative prose that we find in all early (and even later) historians, all of which grew out of the simple contextless 'akhbaar of the storytellers. The emphasis is on the liveliness of the story, which does not depend on literary decoration and uses simple words in a preponderantly paratactic construction, preferably in dialogue form. The following example illustrates this style and shows the division of the story into two parts, a chain of informants ( 'isnaad ) and the actual contents ( matn ):.
Ibn 'Is Haaq said: 'Ā Sim ibn 'Umar ibn Qataada told me on the authority of 'Anas ibn Maalik. He said: I saw the cloak of 'Ukaydir when it was brought to the Messenger of God―may God bless him and protect him!―and the Muslims started to touch it with their hands and they admired it. The messenger of God―may God bless him and protect him!―said: 'Do you admire this? In the name of Him in whose hands my soul is, the kerchiefs of Sa'd ibn Mu'aad in paradise are more beautiful than this!' ( qaala Ibn Maalik: fa- Haddatanee 'A Sim ibn 'Umar ibn Qataada 'an 'Anas ibn Maalik, qaala: ra'aytu qubaa'a 'Ukaydir Heena qudima bihi 'alaa rasooli llaah― Sallaa llaahu 'alayhi wa-sallam―fa-ja'ala l-Muslimoona yalmisoonahu bi-'aydeehim wa-yata'ajjaboona minhu, fa-qaala rasoolu llaah― Sallaa llaahu 'alayhi wa-sallam―'a-ta'jiboona min haadaa? fa-wa-lla th ee nafsee bi-yadihi, la-manaadeelu Sa'd ibn Mu'aa th fee l-jannati 'a Hsanu min haa th aa!, Ibn Hishaam, as-Seera an-Nabawiyya IV, ed as-Saqaa, al-'Ibyaaree and Shalabee, Cairo, 1936, pp. 169-70)

By their nature, texts of this type did not have the same kind of literary pretensions as, for instance, poetry. Doubtless, later historians such as a T- Tabaree (d. 310/923) did not content themselves always with simply copying the stories which they transmitted from their predecessors, but they attempted to structure and stylise them. Compared to poetry, however, there was so much freedom in this kind of prose and so few restrictions with regard to the form that the Arab literary critics could not be expected to devote much time to them, except perhaps to deplore the many 'mistakes' against grammar that crept in. The literary critic Qudaama ibn Ja'far (d. 337/958) in his Naqd an-nathr 'Criticism of prose' distinguishes between two styles, the one low ( sakheef ), the other elevated ( jazl ), and he gives precise instructions on when to use the one and when the other.

What Qudama designates 'elevated style' is the kind of Arabic prose which we find in official correspondence, which is written in a florid style with a heavy emphasis on the form. In this kind of writing, we find the rhymed sequences that became so characteristic of Arabic style. Even non-literary works traditionally begin with an introduction in which this kind of prose is used. In the debate among literary critics on the question of whether 'expression' ( laf D ) or 'meaning' ( ma'naa ) is more important in a literary work, the prevalent opinion was that a literary work should be evaluated according to its expression, its form, since the meaning expressed by the writer is universal and accessible to everyone, whereas the form is something that only an accomplished writer can handle. Such an attitude could and did easily lead to a formulaic style. Form came to be seen as the most important dimension of style, whereas content was of secondary importance. In the literary genre of the maqaamaat, this tendency reached its apogee, and the production of writers such as al- Hareeree (d. 516/1122) contains pieces that are pure exercises in form.

There is another kind of writing in Arabic, corresponding to what Qudaama calls the 'lower style'. It is found in private letters and in nonliterary writing, such as geographical works, historiography, biographical dictionaries, handbooks of Islamic law and theology, and even in grammatical treatises. In such writings, we find a relaxation of the strict standards, the introduction of colloquialisms and a businesslike style. Some of these authors went even further and used a kind of prose language that had freed itself from the bonds of Classical Arabic and came a long way down to the vernacular of their time. But even when these authors used vernacular constructions or lexical items, they never stopped writing within the framework of Classical Arabic. From the point of view of historical linguistics, texts like the memoirs of 'Usaama ibn Munqi th (d. 584/1188), or Ibn 'Abee 'U Saybi'a's (d. 668/1270) biographical dictionary, belong to the category of 'Middle Arabic' (cf. below, p.120). There is a vast difference between this genre, in which intellectuals strove after a simple style, and the large quantity of documents written in faulty language that are normally subsumed under the same label of 'Middle Arabic'.

The coexistence of and the conflict between a high and a low variety of the language in Islamic culture made its presence felt from the time of the earliest papyri. Through the Middle Arabic texts, this diglossia was introduced in the domain of literary and semi-literary products. We shall see below (Chapter 12) that this conflict has never disappeared since. In Modern Arabic literature, just like in that of the Classical age, authors have to choose the level of speech in which they wish to write. But the main constraint for all written production in Arabic is the position of Classical Arabic as the language of prestige. Whether in an 'elevated' or in a 'lower' style, the ultimate model remains the standard language, and even when an author deliberately sets out to write in the vernacular, in the end he can never escape the framework of the written language.


Throughout the classical period of Islam, Arabic remained the language of prestige that was used for all religious, cultural, administrative and scholarly purposes. In none of these fun
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