Only after more than 10 years of dedication to perfecting the Arabic language have I learned the secret that has saved generations of modern Arabs from all the trouble, "sakkin taslam" - or, "just stop at the end and you'll be safe".
Stop at the end and be safe
Only after more than 10 years of dedication to perfecting the Arabic language have I learned the secret that has saved generations of modern Arabs from all the trouble, "sakkin taslam" - or, "just stop at the end and you'll be safe". Arabic words famously have four movements of declension on the last letter of every word called a "harakah". These "movements" indicate the grammatical position of the word and very often affect the meaning and import of its usage. It is no easy assignment and getting it right is the sine qua non of Arabic oratory. Or shall I say it is more like the basic door pass that gets you in the room; unless you have other credentials that can facilitate an exception.
I recently had the honour of witnessing a very prominently placed minister of a key Arab state deliver a speech among other similarly placed global dignitaries at an international conference. Applying the "insider's rule" he did not make a single effort to place a movement on the end of a word except three times, where he tragically failed on each attempt. For 358 million people in the world, Arabic is their mother tongue; but for 1.57 billion people - 23 per cent of the world's population - it is a sacred language. Ranked among Aramaic, Sanskrit and Hebrew, it holds a venerated place among the adherents of the world's great religions and the scholars who study them.
The online resource, Wikipedia, states that: "Once a language becomes associated with religious worship, its believers often ascribe virtues to the language of worship that they would not give to their native tongues. In the case of sacred texts, there is a justified fear of losing authenticity and accuracy. The sacred language is typically vested with a solemnity and dignity that the vernacular lacks. Consequently, the training of clergy in the use of the sacred language becomes an important cultural investment."
This ascription includes the status of "dead languages". So what then of a living language like Arabic? Without sufficient "cultural investment" like that indicated above, we may very well be hammering the final nail in its coffin. For the believer, Arabic transcends time and space. It is the timeless speech of the Divine Essence. Through it we are able to participate in eternal meaning. It carries with it a grace and blessing accessible to both those who understand its meaning and those who do not.
As for its meaning, it is expressive and rich in its flow; and is illustrative to a great degree of precision. Its beauty inspires and lifts the soul when coupled with timeless meaning and spiritual illumination. In Muslim theology it precedes the existence of the world and only flourished therein to be the vessel of communication between the sacred and profane, with the mission to uplift the human spirit and facilitate its ascent.
Seventeen per cent of the Muslim world has been given a head start, in that it was serendipitously bestowed access to the language by circumstances of birth. But along with the benefit of head starts comes the onus of responsibility for stewardship and safekeeping. It is at once election as well as accountability. As for me, it is too late to retrain myself to purposely stop at the end of every word without follow through to grammatical declension and literary flow. It seems like a great deal of effort and trifle just to cut corners. Why not just do it right the first time?
Jihad Hashim Brown is director of research at the Tabah Foundation. He delivers the Friday sermon at the Maryam bint Sultan Mosque in Abu Dhabi