The Challenge of Arabization in Syria

The eclipse of Arabic that took place in the last part of the eighteenth and the early nineteenth century was caused by several factors. This paper looks at the reasons for this eclipse and also sheds light on the revival of Arabic in the Arab world in general and in Syria in particular.

The conquest of Syria and Egypt by Salim I in 1516 and 1517 marks a definite stage in the extension of Ottoman sway over the Arab world. His crushing victories made him the master of Iraq and Syria and enabled him to enter Cairo and establish his rule over Egypt. Under his successor, Sulayman the Magnificent, the subjection of the Arab world was extended westward along the North African coast and southward as far as Yemen and Aden. Upon Sulayman’s death in 1566, the Ottomans ruled the Arab world from Algeria to the Arabian Gulf, and from Aleppo to the Indian Ocean. In addition to the sacred cities of Makkah, Madinah, and Jerusalem, it embraced Damascus, the first capital of the Arab empire, and Baghdad, whose sciences had once illuminated the world. With varying fortunes, and frequently accompanied by war and revolt, the Ottoman Empire maintained itself in these territories until the end of the eighteenth century and the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.

At the beginning of the eighteenth century, the Ottoman Empire witnessed a movement of reform and reorganization under Ahmad III(1703-30) and his successors. However, the Arab world did not seem to benefit very much from it. In addition, these reforms, intended primarily to arrest the Empire’s decline and restore vitality to its system, sought to establish Turkish as the language of instruction. Later on, Arabic was abandoned and Turkish became the language of instruction in government schools and educational institutions.‘ Only Arabic grammatical rules, which were indispensable for an understanding of Ottoman literature, were taught and, quite often, by Turkish teachers.

After the war, those European colonialists (i.e., England and France) who occupied important parts of the Arab world were aware of the influence of Arabic in drawing the Arabs together and in binding their past to their present thus they fought Arabic by trying to replace it with their own languages as well as encouraging colloquial and regional dialects. The goals here were to stamp out classical Arabic, sever the links between Arabs, and stifle Arab national sentiment In a speech delivered at the 'Azbakiyah Club in Cairo in 1839 and entitled "Why Is the Power of Creativity Absent among Egyptians?," Sir William Wilcox claimed that the most important reason was the use of classical Arabic for reading and writing. He urged the adoption of the colloquial language as a means of literary expression, as other nations had done. He cited the example of England and added that it profited a great deal when it abandoned Latin, which was once the language of writing and education. In addition to encouraging local and regional dialects, the colonialists worked to introduce their own languages on a large scale. Both France and England made their respective languages the official languages in law courts and government administration and imposed them as the languages of education.

Among the early experiments in Arabization and using Arabic was that of Egypt's Muhammad 'Ali during the beginning of the nineteenth century. In his endeavors to build a strong army and to revive the Arab empire, he realized that he must rely on modern sciences and enhance scientific and technological applications in all fields. To realize these goals, he opened several military academies and schools of engineering, agriculture, medicine, and veterinary science. He also opened a madrasah al alsun (school of languages), started a newspaper called a1 Waqa'i' al Misriyah (The Egyptian Gazette), and offered hundreds of scholarships to students to pursue their studies abroad.

Most remarkable was the fact that Arabic was the language of instruction in these educational establishments, including the European staffed medical school. Lectures given by European (mainly French) teachers were translated by professional and specialized translators, as were the following questions and answers. To acquaint these translators with the needed technical terms, they attended classes and were tutored by the instructors. Instructors were required to learn Arabic. Although this latter condition was difficult, several teachers excelled in it. For example, Dr. Perron compiled the first medical French-Arabic dictionary, which he entitled al Shudhur al Dhahabiyah fi al Mustalahat al Tibbiyah (The Golden Pieces in Medical Terms).

The death of Muhammad 'Ali did not seem to affect the progress of Arabization, for it continued under his successor Khedive Isma'il.  Arabic  was the official state language and the language of instruction at government schools until 1882, when the British entered Egypt and, under the pretext of reforming education, replaced it with English. This ended an Arabization experiment that had lasted for more than seventy years.

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