Semitic language and lingua franca of the Arab world
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Arabic is a Central Semitic language that was first spoken in Iron Age northwestern Arabia and is now the lingua franca of the Arab world.


  • In classical Arabic and in the other classical languages of Islam there are no pairs of terms corresponding to lay and ecclesiastical, spiritual and temporal, secular and religious, because these pairs of words express a Christian dichotomy which has no equivalent in the world of Islam.
  • Medieval Islam was technologically advanced and open to innovation. It achieved far higher literacy rates than in contemporary Europe; it assimilated the legacy of classical Greek civilization to such a degree that many classical books are now known to us only through Arabic copies. It invented windmills, trigonometry, lateen sails and made major advances in metallurgy, mechanical and chemical engineering and irrigation methods. In the middle-ages, the flow of technology was overwhelmingly from Islam to Europe rather from Europe to Islam. Only after the 1500s did the net direction of flow begin to reverse.
  • Around the year 700 al-Malik ordered that public servants across the Umayyad world should use one language only: Arabic. The commonest tongues used by the non-Arabs who made up the vast majority of the caliphate’s population were Greek and Persian. Al-Malik made no provision against people speaking them as they pleased—but he decreed that they could no longer do so while working for him. At a stroke, the Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians who had found gainful employment as scribes, middle managers, and government bureaucrats were faced with a stark choice. Unless they knew or very quickly learned Arabic, they were out of a job. This simple administrative change was in fact a moment of juddering cultural importance in the history of the Islamic world—for it ensured that there would be an Islamic world in perpetuity, rather than a short-lived federation of former Roman and Persian territories ruled over by a thin monotheistic elite. As we saw in chapter one, the Roman Empire in its pomp had been bound together over millions of square miles in part because Latin was a common language of cultural discourse as well as base communication. Al-Malik now set Arabic on a similar path. By enforcing its use of a universal tongue across the caliphate, he transformed it into a global language of record and inquiry.
    • Dan Jones, Powers and Thrones: A New History of the Middle Ages (2021).
  • Arabic became a lingua franca every bit as potent as Latin and Greek. As a result it was as useful to scholars as it was to civil servants. During the Middle Ages Arab scholars compiled, translated, and preserved hundreds of thousands of texts from across the classical world, and the Arab-speaking Islamic world inherited the Greek and Latin world’s position as the west’s most advanced intellectual and scientific society. This would not have been possible without al-Malik’s decision in the 690s to impose the Arabic language on the Umayyad caliphate’s bureaucrats. Yet this was not all. Arabic was more than a tool of bureaucracy and study. Unlike Latin, for example, Arabic was the language in which God himself had spoken. The Qur’an had been revealed to Muhammad in Arabic; it was preserved in Arabic; the first Muslims were Arabs who were by definition Arabic speakers; and the call to prayer (adhan) that had rung out from mosques ever since it was sung from the Ka‘ba when Muhammad captured Mecca in 630 was made in lilting, musical Arabic. It was impossible to imagine Islam without the language of its first people, and once that language became mandatory for all who wished to interact with the state, the faith did not follow too far behind. From the early eighth century, Arabization was gradually followed by conversion across the Muslim-held territories—a shift that can still be seen, felt, and heard in almost every part of the old medieval caliphate in the twenty-first century.*
    • Dan Jones, Powers and Thrones: A New History of the Middle Ages (2021).
  • I only write fiction in Arabic because this language is a witch—an amazing, funny, crazy, generous, and forgiving witch. It has allowed me everything. It is the space of the most intimate freedom I have ever experienced in my life.
  • After the calamities which the state of literature sustained in consequence of the incursions of the northern nations, the first restorers of the antient philosophical sciences in Europe... were the Arabians. In the beginning of the eighth century, this wonderful people, equally famous for their conquests and their love of letters, in ravaging the Asiatic provinces found many Greek books, which they read with infinite avidity: and such was the gratification... that they requested their caliphs to procure from the emperor at Constantinople the best Greek writers. These they carefully translated into Arabic. ...The Greek poetry they rejected, because it inculcated polytheism and idolatry, which were inconsistent with their religion. ...Of the Greek history they made no use, because it recorded events which preceded their prophet Mahomet. Accustomed to a despotic empire, they neglected the political systems of the Greeks, which taught republican freedom. For the same reasons they despised the eloquence of the Athenian orators. The Greek ethics were superseded by their Alcoran, and on this account they did not study the works of Plato. Therefore no other Greek books engaged their attention but those which treated of mathematical, metaphysical, and physical knowledge. Mathematics coincided with their natural turn to astronomy and arithmetic. Metaphysics, or logic, suited their speculative genius, their love of tracing intricate and abstracted truths... Physics, in which I include medicine, assisted the chemical experiments to which they were so much addicted: and medicine, while it was connected with chemistry and botany, was a practical art of immediate utility. Hence they studied Aristotle Galen and Hippocrates with unremitted ardour and assiduity: they translated their writings into the Arabic tongue, and by degrees illustrated them with voluminous commentaries. These Arabic translations of the Greek philosophers produced new treatises of their own, particularly in medicine and metaphysics.
  • They continued to extend their conquests, and their frequent incursions into Europe before and after the ninth century, and their absolute establishment in Spain, imported the rudiments of useful knowledge into nations involved in the grossest ignorance, and unpossessed of the means of instruction. They founded universities in many cities of Spain and Africa. They brought with them their books, which Charlemagne... commanded to be translated from Arabic into Latin: and which... being quickly disseminated over his extensive dominions, soon became familiar to the western world. Hence it is, that we find our early Latin authors of the dark ages chiefly employed in writing systems of the most abstruse sciences: and from these beginnings the Aristotelic philosophy acquired such establishment and authority, that from long prescription it remains to this day the sacred and uncontroverted doctrine of our schools. From this fountain the infatuations of astrology took possession of the middle ages, and were continued even to modern times. To the peculiar genius of this people it is owing, that chemistry became blended with so many extravagancies, obscured with unintelligible jargon, and filled with fantastic notions, mysterious pretensions, and superstitious operations. And it is easy to conceive, that among these visionary philosophers, so fertile in speculation, logic and metaphysics contracted much of that refinement and perplexity, which for so many centuries exercised the genius of profound reasoners and captious disputants, and so long obstructed the progress of true knowledge.
  • It may perhaps be regretted, in the mean time, that this predilection of the Arabian scholars for philosophic enquiries, prevented them from importing into Europe a literature of another kind. But rude and barbarous nations would not have been polished by the history, poetry, and oratory of the Greeks. Although capable of comprehending the solid truths of many parts of science, they are unprepared to be impressed with ideas of elegance, and to relish works of taste. Men must be instructed before they can be refined; and in the gradations of knowledge, polite literature does not take place till some progress has first been made in philosophy. Yet it is at the same time probable, that the Arabians, among their literary stores, brought into Spain and Italy many Greek authors not of the scientific species: and that the migration of this people into the western world, while it proved the fortunate instrument of introducing into Europe some of the Greek classics at a very early period, was moreover a means of preserving those genuine models of composition, and of transmitting them to the present generation.
  •   Encyclopedic article on Arabic on Wikipedia