From the desert they came - men filled with religious zeal and riding under banners inscribed with the motto "There is no god but God and Muhammad is His messenger". After establishing the Middle East and North Africa as the foundation of their new Arab/Islamic Empire, the Arabs, in the 8th century, landed on the Iberian Peninsula where they planted their religion and language. In the ensuing years, they were to greatly influence the history and way of life in that part of Europe.
These Arabs and their Qur'an were not the usual conquerors. The cultures of the countries they occupied were not destroyed, as had been the fate of civilizations overwhelmed by other victorious armies, but preserved. Later these cultures were absorbed and enriched to form the Arab-Islamic civilization, which was to be mankind's pathfinder for many centuries. Subsequently, their learning was to be passed through the Iberian Peninsula to the remainder of Europe. However, it was to be in Spain where the Arabs stayed for some 800 years that they left their greatest impact.
Their language, Arabic, was one of the most important vehicles which carried this culture of the East to the Europe of the Dark Ages. In the deserts of Arabia, before the Islamic conquest, this Semitic tongue had developed over millennia into a descriptive flowing language of poetry, creating an enormous vocabulary. For any object to be found in their barren and inhospitable land, the Arabs had a wide spectrum of words. A poet had no trouble in rhyming his verses for he had a large storehouse of synonyms from which to draw. Thus Arabic became unmatched as a language of prose and poetry.
The Arabs were proud of their language and believed it had no equal among the tongues of mankind. As befitting a proud people, they spent much effort trying to keep their basic language pure. Even after the Islamic conquests when foreign influences began to stealthily move in, scholars tried to stem this tide. Omar S. Pound in his book Arabic and Persian Poems in English writes:
“The Arab prides himself on using the mot juste and in ancient times many an Arab scholar is reported to have travelled great distances to find out the exact meaning of a rare word used by an obscure Bedouin tribe. Often we read of guests from far-off lands being closely cross-examined on the use and meaning of a particular word found only in the guest's tribe.”
After Islam moved out of its Arabian homeland, Arabic was the language which carried its message. Every converted Muslim wanted to learn the tongue of these desert men for it was believed that Arabic was the mother of all tongues first taught to Adam in Paradise. Anwar Chejne in his work The Arabic Language: Its Role in History, writes that an Arab author, Ibn Manzur (14th century), in the introduction of his Lisan, asserts that God created the Arabic tongue superior to all other languages, and enhanced it further by revealing the Qur'~n through it and by making it the language of Paradise. Ibn Manzur further relates a tradition of the Prophet Muhammad who said:
"They [people] loved the Arabs for three reasons: I am an Arab; the Qur'an is Arabic; and the language of Paradise is Arabic."
But this pride of language did not stop the Arabs from enhancing their tongue after the conquests. From the newly conquered peoples Arabic borrowed a whole range of scientific and technical words and terms. These enriched the desert tongue with its many synonyms to produce a world language par excellence.
In the eighth century Arabic emerged as a full-fledged language of empire and an instrument of thought which was to last long after medieval times. Perhaps there is no language in the world today that has survived for over 1,400 years in its original form as has Arabic - moulded in that century of greatness.
From the eighth to the twelfth centuries, Arabic became the scientific language of mankind. During this period anyone who desired to advance in the world and become a skilled and learned man had to study Arabic. Just as in our day English opens the door to technical and scientific advancement for ambitious men, so it was with Arabic in that medieval period.
During these centuries more works were produced in Arabic than in all the languages of the world at that time. One of the 60 libraries in Cordoba alone had 600,000 volumes of handwritten manuscripts; this at a time when Europe was in the middle of the Dark Ages, and washing the body was considered a dangerous custom.
By the time the Arabs were masters of Spain, Arabic was well on its way to becoming the scientific language of mankind. In the almost illiterate world of the newly occupied land, the rich Arabic tongue must have appeared as today English appears to a modern, educated sub-Saharan African who had been familiar only with a tribal dialect.
In the pre-Islamic Iberian Peninsula, colloquial or vulgar types of Latin had been the languages of the land since Roman times. However, when the Germanic Visigoths conquered Spain three hundred years before the Muslim occupation they contributed somewhat to these spoken dialects, but not in an overwhelming sense.
The most important legacy they left in modern Spanish are some 200 words relating to dress and warfare, and a few place-names, found here and there in both Spain and Portugal. During this period when these Germanic conquerors ruled, the few who were educated, mostly to be found amongst the clergy, used classical Latin and, to a lesser extent, Greek as the languages of communication and literature.
Shortly after the Arabs conquered Spain in the early eighth century, Arabic became the principal language of both the centre and south of the Iberian Peninsula while in the Christian north, Latin with its dialects held sway. This was to continue until the thirteenth century when the Arabs began to be pushed out of their heartland in Andalusia.
In the parts of the Iberian Peninsula under Arab occupation, the spoken vulgar Latin, the direct ancestor of modern Spanish, working side by side with Arabic, evolved into many idioms. Known as the Romance languages, they consisted of four principal dialects: Mozarabic, spoken by the Christians who lived under Muslim rule and which became the principal medium for passing Arabic words into Spanish; Aragonese, spoken in the lands of Aragon and Navarre; Leonese, the tongue of the kingdom of Leon which was heavily influenced by Arabic words; and Castilian, destined to become the national language of Spain.
These dialects and others, such as Catalan and Provencal, played their part in the evolution of modern Spanish, but Castilian, developed in the heartland of Spain, was to be its main base. As the Spanish re-conquest, led, in the main, by Castile, moved relentlessly forward century after century, Castilian was implanted in the conquered territories. With the spread of this dialect, Castilian and Spanish became synonymous. Today, to speak Castilian is to speak the purest of Spanish.
In the Muslim regions of Spain, the use of Arabic quickly spread. By the tenth century, elementary education was commonplace throughout Arab Spain. With the exception of the very poor, all boys and girls attended school. Unlike the Christian parts of Spain and the countries of northern Europe, the vast majority of people in the Arab controlled areas were literate. Arabic, the language of this literate population, reached dazzling heights In less than a century, even the Christians living under Muslim rule became so proficient in Arabic that they neglected their own tongues.
R. Dozy in Spanish Islam explains how the Christians were captivated by the glamour of Arabic literature and that men of taste despised Latin authors, and wrote only in the language of their conquerors. He cites Alvaro de Córdoba, a contemporary writer of the 9th century, who deplores this fact with these words:
“'My fellow-Christians,' he says, 'delight in the poems and romances of the Arabs; they study the works of Mohammedan theologians and philosophers, not in order to refute them, but to acquire a correct and elegant Arabic style. Where today can a layman be found who reads the Latin Commentaries on Holy Scriptures? Who is there that studies the Gospels, the Prophets, the Apostles? Alas! The young Christians who are most conspicuous for their talents have no knowledge of any literature or language save the Arabic; they read and study with avidity Arabian books; they amass whole libraries of them at a vast cost, and they everywhere sing the praises of Arabian lore. On the other hand, at the mention of Christian books they disdainfully protest that such works are unworthy of their notice. The pity of it! Christians have forgotten their own tongue, and scarce one in a thousand can be found able to compose in fair Latin a letter to a friend! But when it comes to writing Arabic, how many there are who can express themselves in that language with the greatest elegance, and even compose verses which surpass in formal correctness those of the Arabs themselves!'”
The fact that the non-Muslim inhabitants preferred Arabic to their own language made it inevitable that the impact of Arabic on Spanish would be tremendous. Arabic words began to move into Spanish dialects, especially in the scientific and technical fields. This borrowing did not enter the Spanish and later European languages only by chance or due to an enchantment with the Arabic tongue, but as a result of European Christians trying to emulate Arabic culture which represented scholasticism in almost every discipline, including the arts. Year after year the borrowing of these words gathered momentum until the Reconquista stemmed the tide.
From the tenth century onwards, Arabic words and terms entered the Romance dialects in the Iberian Peninsula on a massive scale. This rich vocabulary of Arabic words was a great stimulant in the evolution of European thought. When, in Toledo, after its re-conquest by the Christians, Arabic works were translated into the European languages, Christian thinking was revolutionized and Europe was put on the path to advancement.
There is no doubt that many Arabic words entered numerous European languages after these translations. Even though many Western historians have, through the centuries, been reluctant to admit this great role the Arabs had in the evolution of Christian Europe, Arabic words in European languages are the evidence of this tremendous contribution.
Even when the Spaniards attempted after the Re-conquest to cleanse Arabic words from their language, today there are perhaps 8,000 words and some 2,300 place-names of Arab origin. It will surprise many to know that after Latin, Arabic has made the greatest contribution to the Spanish tongue.
Besides Spanish, Arabic contributed to the vocabularies of all the European idioms and saturated many of the languages in the Muslim countries, e.g. 57% Pushto, 42% in Urdu, and 30% of Persian are made up of Arabic words and terms.
However, of all the languages in the world outside the Muslim lands, it is Spanish, which includes the greatest number of Arabic borrowing. In this language's vocabulary Arabic words are to be found under every letter of the alphabet. In addition to thousands of others, an examination of a Spanish etymological dictionary will reveal that a vast number of words beginning with al are of Arabic origin. Many, although not common in the everyday tongue, are still used to some extent. Perhaps there is no better way to appreciate the great impact Arabic has had on Spanish than to visit the Spain of today.
Travelling across the country, one finds Arabic place-names everywhere: Albacete is derived from the Arabic (al-basit - the plain); Albufera (al-buhayrah - the small lake); Alcalá (a1-qal'ah - the fort); Alcantara (al-qantarah - the bridge); Almería (al-mirayah - the mirror); Alpujarras (al-bashurah - the bastion or the news); Benicasim (Bani Qasim - the sons of Qasim) ; Calatayud (qal cat Ayyub - the fort of Ayyub [Job]); Calatañazor (qal cat al-nasur - the fort of eagles); Guadalajara (wadi a1-hhijarah - valley or river of stone); Guadalcazar (wadi al-qasr - valley or river of the castle); Guadalquivir (wadi al-kabir - great river); Guadalviar (wadi al-abyad - white river); Madrid (majri - a type of breeze); Medinaceli (madinat Salim - the city of Salim); Murcia (misriyah - Egyptian); Tarifa (Tarif - name of the first Muslim to land in Spain); Vega (buq'ah - field); and Valladolid (balad al-Walid - the town of Walid).
Besides these few samples of the hundreds of place-names derived from Arabic, the Spanish landscape is dotted with many others which are only partly derived from Arabic such as Guadalupe from the Arabic wadi and Latin lupis (valley of the wolf) or Zahara de los Membrillos (Arabic zahra' and Spanish de los membrillos - flower of the quinces).
Although the Arabic place-names are an important aspect of the Arab impact on Spain, Arabic words in Spanish indicate the many other areas in which Arabic has influenced the Spanish way of life. To fully realize the extent of this influence, let us relate an imaginary journey made to Andalusia (Arabic al-Andalus - a corruption of 'the Vandals' , a Germanic tribe which, before the Arab conquest, had occupied the Iberian Peninsula and North Africa).
to be continou......