Despite the fact that the vast majority of Muslims do not live in Arabic-speaking countries, Arabic is still the language of Islam. As images of the prophet Muhammad are forbidden, Islam relies heavily on language to pass down ideas and stories from generation to generation. Language is, of course, open to multiple interpretations, mistranslations, and misunderstandings. For example, jihad, literally meaning “striving in the path of God,” can be understood as both an internal struggle to live a moral and virtuous life and an external struggle against injustice and oppression. But in English, unfortunately, the word is often translated to “holy war” and implies fanatical violence against non-believers of Islam. This is just one example why an in-depth knowledge of Arabic is important to both Muslims and non-Muslims.
More and more Americans, especially young people, are realizing the critical role of the Arabic language in breaking down misperceptions about Islam and in working with Muslim communities. As a result of 9/11, enrollment in Arabic in American colleges increased by 126.5% from 2002 to 2006. This fall, 225 students are taking Arabic at UW-Madison, up from 120 students in fall 2006 and the UW’s summer Arabic language program continues to grow. Earlier this month I talked to a few students in a first-semester Arabic class to see how their perceptions of Islam and the Muslim world might differ from others.
All those students expressed strong interest in and respect for the Muslim people and culture. The words they chose are quite similar to those of Muslim students I interviewed before. (Click on the player below to hear the interview.)
I also asked the students why they want to learn Arabic, a very difficult language for English speakers. Most of the students have Muslim relatives or friends and want to be able to talk to them in their native language. Several students want to have a career working in Arabic-speaking countries. A few others are interested in becoming language teachers.
- Hannah Abbott, junior from Virginia (1:30): [audio:https://insideislam.wisc.edu/audio/dStory/class_hannah.mp3]
- Jack Williams, freshman from Ohio (1:30): [audio:https://insideislam.wisc.edu/audio/dStory/class_jack.mp3]
- Amber Grant, sophomore from Wisconsin (1:15): [audio:https://insideislam.wisc.edu/audio/dStory/class_amber.mp3]
- Vidaur Durozo, freshman from Illinois (1:05): [audio:https://insideislam.wisc.edu/audio/dStory/class_vidaur.mp3]
- Sami Ghani, freshman from Wisconsin (1:15): [audio:https://insideislam.wisc.edu/audio/dStory/class_sami.mp3]
- Melissa, graduate student from Wisconsin (1:00): [audio:https://insideislam.wisc.edu/audio/dStory/class_melissa.mp3]
Arabic is the fifth most spoken language in the world and one of the six official languages of the United Nations. There are many good reasons for studying it whether you’re interested in politics, business or culture. Have you thought of learning it? Have you benefited from knowing a foreign language? We welcome your feedback.
P.S. For an in-depth discussion about learning Arabic with the authors of the most popular Arabic textbook in the world, you can listen to the Here on Earth show at Wisconsin Public Radio on Dec 8, 2009.