When the World Spoke Arabic

At the height of the Golden Age of Muslim Civilisation, the Arabic language was the lingua franca that served as the language of science, poetry, literature, governance and art. A big movement of translation of Greek, Roman and other ancient books of science, philosophy and literature into Arabic gave a push for the continued success of Arabic taking centre stage of the old world.

George Sarton in the introduction to the ‘History of Science’:

“From the second half of the eight to the end of the 11th century Arabic was the scientific, progressive language of mankind … When the West was sufficiently mature to feel the need of deeper knowledge, it turned its attention, first of all not to the Greek sources but to the Arabic ones.”

Marking UNESCO’s World Arabic Language Day, we shed light on some of the aspects in which the Arabic language manifested itself as a universal language during the golden age of creativity and innovation in Muslim Civilisation.


1. Arabic as the Language of Science

In a golden age of innovation more than 1,000 years ago, what was striking about the discoveries, innovations, research and writings of scientists and scholars during the European medieval period is their insatiable thirst for knowledge.

This peaked at a time when the rulers of Baghdad played a key role in an impressive movement of collecting and commissioning translations into Arabic of ancient knowledge from Greece, Rome, China, Persia, India and Africa, building a scientific collection and academy of science that became a place full with scholars, famous translators, authors, men of letters, scientists and professionals in the arts and crafts.

Brian Witaker wrote in the Guardian Newspaper:

“The Baghdad House of Wisdom ‘was an unrivalled centre for the study of humanities and for sciences, including mathematics, astronomy, medicine, chemistry, zoology and geography… Drawing on Persian, Indian and Greek texts… the scholars accumulated the greatest collection of knowledge in the world, and built on it through their own discoveries.”

Famous scholars like Ibn al-Haytham, Al-Sufi, Ibn Sina, Al-Razi, Al-Khawarizmi, Al-Kindi, Al-Jahiz, Al-Mahamiliya are but a few names of those who were products of that creative golden age, and whose work has had a lasting impact on generations to come.

ibn alhaytham

2. Arabic as the Language of the Stars

One of the sciences that had seen huge advancement during Muslim Civilisation is Astronomy. Astronomers made epoch-making discoveries as the first record of a star system outside our own galaxy and the third inequality of the moon’s motion, and they developed instruments that laid the foundation for modern-day astronomy.

When Ptolemy’s Almagest was translated into Arabic in the 9th century, many of the Arabic-language star descriptions came to be used widely as names for stars. Further additions during the golden age and later translations into Latin kept the tradition of giving Arabic names to the stars. And today, many of the prominent stars are of Arabic origin as they bear names given to them during the golden age of Muslim civilisation. Check this link for a list of star names having Arabic origin


3. Arabic as the Language of Art and Beauty

One area where the genius of the Muslim civilisation has been recognised worldwide is that of art. The artists of the Islamic world adapted their creativity to evoke their inner beliefs in a series of abstract forms, producing some amazing works of art.

One of the decorative forms of art widely developed in Islamic culture is calligraphy which consists of the use of artistic lettering, sometimes combined with geometrical and natural forms. The development of calligraphy is attributed by researchers to the importance of the Arabic language in Islam and the considerable importance given to writing by the Arabic tradition.


4. Arabic as the Language of Poetry

Traditionally, poetry had been a strong and eloquent form of expression in Arab heritage. The ensuring intense scientific movement in the golden age of Muslim civilisation entailed no conflict between the humanities and natural sciences. The power of the language was comfortably capable of adapting to new ways of using it to the benefit of humankind.

Concurrent with the revival of various sciences at that time, a new theme of Arabic poetry flourished with the appearance of a tradition of poems, composed by scientific scholars for use in education like the famous physician Ibn Sina, and the famous sailor Ibn Majid to mention a few. Meanwhile, Arabic poetry also dealt with ethical, social and humanitarian aspects of sciences as in the case of medical care…


5. Arabic as the Language of Literature

Arabs have long considered their language a perfect instrument of precision, clarity and eloquence, as evidenced by the Qur’an itself and by subsequent literary masterpieces. Since the Qur’an was adopted as the fixed standard, a surprisingly vast and rich literature has accumulated over a period of fourteen hundred years.

In addition to poetry, prose flourished under the Abbasides. The genuine of Arabic prose at the time was Al Jahiz (lived in 8th/ 9th century Baghdad). He became one of the period’s leading intellectuals. He was famed for his Book Al Bukhara’a (Book of the Misers) which was a witty and insightful study of human psychology. Countless other writers and poets became very famous and wrote influential works that still strongly stands today like Al Mutannabi, Al Ma’arri, Yaqut Al Hamwi, Badi Al Zaman Al Hamathani, Ibn Hazim Al Andalusi, Ibn Tufail and many others…


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