Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (503)
Academy of Arabic
To preserve the splendour and eloquence of classical Arabic, an academy to study the language was to be established in Cairo. The reasons for such an academy were manifold -- the assault on classical Arabic by colloquial dialects; Arabic was being challenged by foreign language instruction in the schools; a large number of Arabic terms which were no longer being used. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk* investigates one attempt to save the mother tongue
On Tuesday 13 December 1932, King Fouad signed a decree establishing the Royal Arabic Language Academy. Subordinate to the Ministry of Education and based in Cairo, the academy's purpose, as the decree stated, was to preserve the integrity of the Arabic language while rendering it "compatible with the demands of the progress made in the sciences and the arts and, in general, with the needs of contemporary life". In addition to delineating, "in dictionaries and other specialised reference works or through other means, the Arabic vocabulary and structures that must be used or avoided", the academy would also compile a historical dictionary of the Arabic language, organise academic studies of modern Arabic dialects and explore all possible means for the advancement of Arabic.
The new academy would have a board of 20 members, chosen without regard for national affiliation, from among reputed scholars in Arabic. The initial members would be appointed by royal decree, after which any vacated seats would be filled on the basis of a two-thirds majority vote of the remaining members. The director of the academy would be selected from among three working members of the board, elected by majority vote by those members in attendance. He would be appointed by royal decree for a term of three years, which would be renewable through the same procedure.
The board would meet annually for at least a month, in winter or in spring. During any session, "it must hold at least 20 meetings during which members will discuss the business that has been completed since the previous session." Decisions of the board would require a quorum of 12 members and would be taken by a majority vote from among those present.
Finally, the budget of the academy would be subsumed under the budget of the Ministry of Education. In addition to printing all materials requested by the academy free of charge, the ministry was responsible for "the implementation of all decisions taken by the academy with regard to vocabulary and structures by disseminating them as broadly as possible, especially by ensuring the use of such vocabulary and structures in government agencies, in educational curricula and in set textbooks".
The idea of founding an Arabic language academy was not new. It had its origins in the private initiative of El-Sayed Tawfiq El-Bakri who "gathered together in his home a group of prominent writers and scholars" for the purpose of defending and promoting the Arabic language. Although his society did not last long, Al-Ahram recounts, "it was followed by another and then another until the graduates of Dar Al-Ulum founded their club, began publication of their own magazine and engaged in various individual activities under the chairmanship of Hefni Nasef."
Following the closure of the Dar Al-Ulum Club and its magazine, the initiative passed into the hands of the government, specifically the management of the Egyptian National Library. Although this attempt, too, failed to produce a permanent institution, the idea had been planted and spread to other Arab countries, and it was not long before Arabic language academies appeared in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Palestine.
In Egypt, the idea was revived when Lutfi El-Sayed became minister of education in 1929 under the government of Mohamed Mahmoud. For the first time, the government allocated funds specifically for the purpose of founding an Arabic language academy, a decision that received encouragement from the Arabic academies in the Levant which had resolved to send some of their members to Cairo to investigate means of promoting cooperation with the Egyptian academy. However, because of political developments over the following three years -- the elections of 1930 giving rise to the Mustafa El-Nahhas cabinet, the failure of negotiations between this prime minister and his British counterpart, Arthur Henderson, the palace-engineered ousting of El-Nahhas and the subsequent political storms that followed under the Ismail Sidqi government that replaced him -- the Arabic academy project was left to gather dust on the shelves of the Ministry of Education.
It was only in the summer of 1932 that the idea was given fresh impetus. On 19 August 1932, Al-Ahram announced that Minister of Education Helmi Eissa "has taken the project file from its drawer in the archives and is devoting special attention to it. He has begun to discuss the matter with eminent linguists and other scholars."
Drawing encouragement from this news, Girgis Zananiri, an advocate of the advancement of Arabic, submitted an article to Al- Ahram propounding the urgent need to establish an Arabic language academy. Global developments in science and technology over recent years, Zananiri wrote, had introduced hundreds of new words and expressions into Western languages. "These lexical items are lacking in Arabic. As a result, great confusion has arisen over how to define them because every writer translates them after his own fashion, indifferent to that of his colleagues." The purpose of the academy, he argued, was to preserve the splendour and eloquence of classical Arabic "by creating scientific and technical terms appropriate to contemporary circumstances or by Arabicising foreign terms and introducing them into our language as pure Arab words. This will aid the public in general and students in particular to engage in the process of reading and studying naturally, without obscurity and confusion."
As though prodding Eissa to give the go-ahead, another contributor, signing himself Khaldoun, wrote that language academies had long since proliferated in the West, "where scientists and scholars find no objection against borrowing foreign words and adding them to their wealth of modern terms". Meanwhile, Khaldoun continued, "the Arab peoples, especially in Egypt, have left Arabic to struggle to accommodate and keep pace with modern civilisation on its own. No organised scientific body has stepped forward. The few individual efforts there have been to date have enriched nothing and have not quenched the thirst."
A third writer, Assad Khalil Dagher, spoke of "the causes of the shortcomings of Arabic at the present time". Prime among these was the assault on classical Arabic by colloquial dialects "which have become virtually the only practical mechanism for communication and understanding". Dialects have come to "stuff our ears and crowd our tongues and their proliferation in this manner is displacing classical Arabic and preventing its advancement".
Arabic was also being challenged by foreign language instruction in the schools, as a result of which foreign language speakers and readers were multiplying by the day. "An increasingly large contingent of these speak foreign languages in their homes and social gatherings and, from their earliest years, their children are fed on these languages, weakening an affinity for their own language and rendering it a stranger to them."
A third cause was the many new foreign commodities "which have so proliferated as to exceed the bounds of enumeration and defy calculation". Elucidating further, Dagher writes, "The flood of these items during the last century [19th] has inundated our markets, covering the greater part of all the goods, wares and articles displayed for sale, and has crept into our factories, warehouses and pharmacies."
That this attrition on Arabic had run so rampant, he maintains, was due to the lack of professionals to keep it in check. Consequently, "a large number of existing Arabic terms became no longer in use and the process of inventing new Arabic terms has virtually ceased." Dagher concludes by couching the problem in terms of market forces. "The decline in our linguistic production and the increase in foreign imports have distorted the balance that once existed with the result that our granaries for speech and warehouses for the pen are now overflowing with accumulated imports."
Against this backdrop of enthusiasm for an Arabic language academy, Al-Ahram featured a series called "Linguists past and present" by Mohamed Shawqi Amin. The articles are as interesting and useful today as they were to Al-Ahram readers 70 years ago. The writer begins with Al-Jawhari, born in the fourth century Hijra in Khorasan. Because of his love for Arabic language and literature, Al-Jawhari left his homeland bound for Iraq in order to study these subjects in depth "at the hands of their luminaries". Amin continues: "His thirst sated, Al-Jawhari returned to Khorasan and took up residence in Nisapur where he began to compile his knowledge. He produced two books, one on prosody and the second on grammar, after which he compiled his immortal lexicon Taj Al-Lugha Wal Sahah Al-Arabiya (The Crown of Authentic Arabic). However, after having completed this latter work he was seized by a delirium which lured him to climb to the roof of a mosque, proclaim he could fly and then fell to his death."
Ibn Durayd was born around the middle of the third century Hijra in Basra. "Of powerful memory and vast erudition, he dedicated himself to study for nearly 60 years. It is said that no single mind has been as filled with knowledge of language and poetry as that of Ibn Durayd. His many works include Kitab Al- Sihab Wal Gheith (The Book of Clouds and Rain) and Kitab Al- Sarj Wal Lijam (The Book of the Saddle and the Rein)."
If Ibn Durayd was prolific, Al-Asmaie was "the uncontested imam of language to whom Arabic is indebted as to no other." Born in Basra in the second century Hijra, he rose to the position of court grammarian under the Caliph Haroun Al-Rashid. "He was a powerful rhetorician. It is said that Sibawayh once challenged him to a debate, after which the audience said, 'Sibawayh was right but Al-Asmaie won with his arguments.' Among his many works are Al-Alfaz (Words), Al-Addad (Antonyms), Miyah Al-Arab (Arab Waters), Al-Nawadir (Anecdotes), Al-Masadir (Verbal Infinitives), Ma'ani Al-Sha'er (Meanings of Poetry), Jazirat Al-Arab (The Arabian Peninsula), Al-Silah (Weapons) and Al-Wuhush (Beasts).
From the opposite end of the Islamic world came Ibn Sayeda. A prolific scholar from Marsiya in Andalusia, "he has five known works: the 17-volume Al-Mukhassas (Specialisation), the 18-volume Al-Hukm (Government), the seven-volume Sharh Al- Hamasa (Commentary on Zeal), Sharh Itla' Al-Mantiq (Commentary on Logic) and Sharh Kitab Al-Khufsh (Commentary on the Book of Blindness).
Abu Amr Bin Al-Alaa, "from one of the oldest and most prestigious houses in Basra", was that city's "imam" in language, grammar and rhetoric. "Historians say that his notebooks had filled his house from floor to ceiling, but that he turned ascetic and burned them all. What a waste was his asceticism for Arabic language and literature!"
The last of the Arabic linguists whom Amin covered was a contemporary. In the 1880s, Ibrahim Al-Yazji, of Lebanese origin, had been appointed editor-in-chief of Al-Najah. Soon afterwards he came to Egypt where he founded another magazine Al-Bayan and then Al-Diya'. His many works include a critique of the dictionary Lisan Al-Arab, a history of the Semitic languages and studies on Arabic poetry, the history of science in the Arab world and the language of the press. One of his most important contributions was the first modern Arabic thesaurus, Al-Naj'at Al-Ra'id.
In addition to opening its pages to advocates of an Arab language academy in Egypt, Al-Ahram conducted a survey. Readers, writers and "all who are keen to safeguard our language" were invited to "nominate" the 20 individuals who would serve as the academy's first members. "Your choice is free and open in the sense that candidates may be selected from all classes of individuals involved in the language," the newspaper wrote. It went on to stress, "As this project is of a momentousness that raises it above political party affiliations and biases, selections must be based on a proper foundation of impartiality and dedication to the interests of the language alone."
The newspaper then stipulated certain guidelines. Nominees should not be only writers; they had to be knowledgeable in the history of the Arabic language and literature. They also had to be proficient in at least one modern foreign language, in at least one ancient language such as Latin and Greek and in at least one of the languages connected to Arabic culture, such as Persian, Hebrew and Syriac. Finally, candidates should represent a cross section of professions.
In a subsequent edition, Al-Ahram helped narrow the choice by providing a list of 100 possible candidates. "Among these there may be individuals whose talents allow them to qualify for membership on the academy board more than other individuals we have mentioned for the sake of introduction." The list presented an impressive sampling of the intellectual and literary luminaries of the time, including Ahmed Lutfi El-Sayed, Ahmed Amin, Sheikh Ahmed El-Iskandari, Ibrahim Abdel-Qader El-Mazni, Ahmed Zaki Abu Shadi, Amin Sami, Anton El-Gamil, Haim Nahoum, Khalil Matran, Shafiq Ghorbal, Dawoud Barakat, Taha Hussein, Abbas Mahmoud El-Aqqad, Abdel-Wahab Azzam, Ali Mustafa Mushrifa, Fikri Abaza, Mohamed Hussein Heikal, Mohamed Tawfiq Diab, Mohamed Farid Wagdi, Mohamed Tawfiq Rifa'at, Mohamed Kamel Mursi, Sheikh Mohamed El-Khidr El- Tonsi, Sheikh Mohamed El-Taftazani, Mahmoud Abu El-Nasr, Mansour Fahmi and many others.
Other writers and intellectuals greeted the Al-Ahram poll enthusiastically. Sayed Qutb wrote in to stress how important it was that the people had a say in the choice of the membership of the new academy as they had in other successful projects. The idea of the Egyptian university, for example, "had fermented in the minds of the thinkers among our people, it was embraced by the champions of the people Saad Zaghlul and Qasem Amin and, finally, after 20 years, it was handed over to the Ministry of Education." The Bank of Egypt and the Agricultural Society were the products of similar grassroots processes. Qutb concludes, "If the people are the authors of an idea and its first advocates, they should have the right to participate in its implementation."
Mohamed Shawqi Amin cautioned against transforming the academy into a form of conference. What was important in selecting the membership was not that certain academic or cultural institutions were represented but the qualifications of the candidates themselves.
Mohamed Rashad El-Tobi, "Baccalaureate with first degree honours from the Egyptian University", urged that membership be distributed across academic specialisations. He proposed the following formula: four members representing the various branches of the natural sciences, two from the sciences of engineering and eight from the field of language and literature. "These last eight," El-Tobi said, "should be chosen by people who are familiar with the names in that field, while the selection of the remaining 12 should be undertaken by the relevant specialists".
On the sidelines of these contributions there erupted a minor battle, perhaps barely noticed, between those who claimed the new academy should be purely Egyptian and others who claimed it should include other Arabs and European Orientalists. Once again, Mohamed Shawqi Amin voiced an opinion -- in favour of the former camp. "Inclusiveness in such matters will remove the academy from the realm of systematic work to that of conferences and the like, thereby stamping it with a literary, more than a practical, nature."
Bahieddin Barakat took issue. Academy membership should be open to representatives of all Arab countries, he maintained, "for that will serve to unify the culture and strengthen the literary bonds between Egypt and its neighbours". Nor did Barakat have any objection to the participation of foreign Orientalists. Indeed, he said, "This would be desirable if it takes place in the manner proposed by Professor Taha Hussein."
The latter was not the opinion of Yassin Ahmed, chief magistrate of the Egyptian Criminal Court. The membership of several foreign Orientalists in the new academy may appear desirable on the surface, Ahmed argued. "However, the notion carries an implicit threat to the Arabic language. One of the most important tasks of the academy will be to compile a comprehensive linguistic lexicon. Naturally, we would like that the dictionary be an accurate mirror of Arabic vocabulary as it is spoken by the people, without discrimination between the educated and non-educated."
Divisions over the issue seemed to reflect political domestic rivalries in general. Al-Muqattam, long a pro-government newspaper, supported the participation of Orientalists in the academy either as active members or as observers. Their presence, it wrote, "will strengthen the resolve of the Eastern members and inspire them to double their activities while allowing them to benefit from Western philological methodology".
Minister of Education Helmi Eissa was also in favour. If the purpose of the academy is to serve science, science has no nationality, he said. "As long as we need people versed in the principles and origins of the Oriental Semitic languages why should we not avail ourselves of the expertise of leading Orientalist scholars in these languages."
On 17 November, Al-Ahram announced the results of the poll. Heading the list of the public's choices were Mohamed Farid Wagdi, Taha Hussein, Dawoud Barakat, Ahmed El-Iskandari, Khalil Matran, Ahmed Lutfi El-Sayed, Ali El-Garem, Abbas El- Aqqad, Abdel-Aziz El-Bishri, Mohamed Hussein Heikal, Mohamed Rashid Reda and Naguib El-Gharabli. Now it was the public's turn to wait to see what, if anything, the Ministry of Education would do with these results.
Not much, it transpired almost one year later when, on 7 October 1933, the government announced the first appointments to the academy. Of the 20 members, only 10 were Egyptian: Mohamed Tawfiq Rifa'at, Haim Nahoum, Sheikh Hussein Wali, Dean of the Faculty of Letters Mansour Fahmi, Dean of the Faculty of Arabic Studies in Al-Azhar Sheikh Ibrahim Hamroush, professor of religion in Al-Azhar Sheikh Mohamed El-Khidr Hussein, the Ministry of Education's first inspector of Arabic language instruction Ahmed El-Awamri, Ali El-Garem, another ministry inspector for Arabic language instruction and Sheikh Ahmed Ali El-Iskandari, professor of Arabic in Dar Al-Ulum. Of these, only two, El-Iskandari and El-Garem, had won in the survey conducted by Al-Ahram.
Also, over the objections of many, the appointments included five foreigners, all professors from the London School of Oriental Studies, the University of Leipzig, the University of Rome, the Sorbonne and the University of Leiden in Holland.
Disappointment in the appointments was vented in the letters to Al-Ahram. Particular attention focussed on the foreigner members, and that one of them, according to some, had written things offensive to Islam, and that this was used to discredit the government's selection process as a whole. On 1 November 1933, an Al- Ahram front page headline proclaimed: "Orientalists and Islam: Arabic Language Academy member Van Sink ridicules Islam." The author, Hussein El-Harawi, charged that the Dutch scholar "assumes a premise and then searches the Qur'an for those verses that support this premise and discards any that contradict it so as to produce a conclusion that plants the seeds of doubt in the mind of the reader". El-Harawi continues, "This is the method that Orientalists use in their studies on Islam, on the life of the Prophet or on any matter to which they wish to bring the Qur'an to bear as evidence. It is an old ruse, the purpose of which is to arm evangelists and colonialists with pseudo-logical arguments to shake the beliefs of the Muslim people and cause them to abandon their religion." Under the weight of this assault, Van Sink had no choice but to decline the appointment.
Another indication of the general dismay over the appointments was the declining attention accorded to the new academy in the press. Over the next few months, news of the institution dwindled to the occasional press report, such as that which announced the premises where it would be based: the home of the late Hussein Riyad, overlooking the Nile in Giza, opposite the Egyptian University. Al-Ahram adds, "This choice was based on the suitability of the premises and its proximity to the university library in which are housed all the resources and reference works the members of the academy need."
Eventually, however, the Arabic Language Academy proved that it had not merited such a feeble reception. Over the coming decades its members had done so much to preserve the integrity of Arabic and inject new blood into the language that it rightfully became known as the "academy of the immortals".
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.