The Arabic Language
Muslims believe that God's final revelation to mankind, the Qur'an, was made known to us more than 1,400 years ago in the Arabic language. In order to fully understand the words of their Lord in the original language of revelation, Muslims make every attempt to learn and understand the rich and poetic classical Arabic.
Arabic is a living language. As the mother tongue for more than 200 million people, it ranks as the sixth major language of the world. Linguistically, Arabic is a Semitic language closely related to Hebrew and Aramaic. There are many local dialects, but Muslims attempt to hold on to the classical form of the language that is used in the Qur'an.
Ten percent of the population of Copenhagen, Denmark, is Muslim. In Sweden, Muslims account for 4 percent of the population. If present trends continue, Muslims are expected to account for 10 percent of the entire population of Europe by the year 2020.
Muslims constantly use Arabic words and phrases in many aspects of daily life. When speaking of the future, Muslims say Insha'Allah (God willing). When admiring or praising someone, they say Masha'Allah (everything is from God). When beginning any action, they mention God's name with Bismillah (in God's name). When something is astonishing they often declare Subhanallah! (praise be to God).
The traditional Islamic greeting is Assalaamu 'alaykum, which means “Peace be with you,” and the appropriate response is Wa 'alaykum assalaam, or “And peace also with you.” More extensive greetings include wishes of peace, God's mercy, and God's blessings on the individual.
In their prayers, when reading the Qur'an, or even in simple conversations with each other, Arabic readily rolls off any Muslim's tongue. With the universal understanding of at least some basic Arabic, a Muslim always has a standard language in which to communicate and worship with other Muslims, no matter where in the world he or she may be.
To the uninitiated, printed Arabic text may seem very complicated. However, the Arabic language is written with a standard phonetic alphabet that is rather straightforward. Once it is learned, the simple alphabet allows the non-native speaker to read and pronounce Arabic words with ease.
The Arabic alphabet is made up of twenty-eight letters and several vowel markings. Arabic was originally written without vowels; even today, popular writing such as newspapers and magazines do not use them at all. The Qur'anic text always includes the vowel markings to aid the non-native readers in correct pronunciation. Arabic is read from right to left, the opposite of English.
Unlike European languages, Arabic is based on a root word system. All Arabic words are constructed from three-letter “roots,” each of which expresses a basic idea. For example, the root K-T-B conveys the idea of writing. By applying various prefix and suffix combinations, one can construct the words for book, scribe, school, library, office, or typewriter — anything related to writing. To find a fundamental meaning of a word, one must look at the basic root construction and other related words.
Writing Arabic words using the English alphabet can be confusing. There are several letters in the Arabic alphabet that do not have English equivalents. For example, the guttural “q” sound in the Arabic country name “Qatar” does not exist in English. In addition, there are some letters in Arabic that represent sounds that, in English, are written with two separate letters. For example, the “sh” sound in “ship” would be written in Arabic with a single letter. English writers try to represent the sounds as best they can, using the limitations of the English alphabet.
When reading books or articles about Islam, you might encounter variant spellings of common words, depending simply on how they're transliterated. For example, the common phrase Assalaamu 'alaykum may have any of the following variations in spelling:
Each author chooses the English spelling that he or she believes will best assist in the correct pronunciation of the word. Some organizations and publishers follow a set transliteration guide for the most common Arabic words.