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We are more similar than we realised

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Throughout history, Arabic words, religious terminology, and cultural practices were assimilated into Malay culture and language. Photo by Fahrul Azmi - Unsplash.

By: Dr. Amin Amirdabbaghian

Arabic plays a foundational role in the diverse cultural panorama of humanity. It stands as one of the most widely spoken languages globally, used by approximately more than 400 million people. Beginning on December 18, 2012, the day marks the annual celebration of World Arabic Language Day, commemorating the United Nations General Assembly’s decision in 1973 to recognize Arabic as the sixth official language of the Organization.

Dr. Amin Amirdabbaghian

The various ways Arabic is spoken, embracing both Fusha (Modern Standard Arabic) and daily spoken forms in different accents, from verbal communication to the beauty of calligraphic expressions, have sparked a profound artistic influence in numerous domains including architecture, poetry, philosophy, music, and the like. Granting access to a broad spectrum of beliefs, ideologies, and knowledge, its historical significance illuminates the intricate interconnections with other languages. Arabic has significantly contributed to the progression of global knowledge, from promoting Western science in the East to facilitating cultural exchanges along the Silk Roads, spanning from the shores of India to the Horn of Africa. The theme for World Arabic Language Day 2023 is “Arabic – the Language of Poetry and Arts” celebrating the poetic and artistic brilliance of the Arabic language as well as the silver jubilee of the proclamation of Arabic as one of the six UN official languages. Let us take this opportunity and have a look at the influence of the Arabic language evident in the Malay language and culture.

Arabic and Malay languages are not directly related in terms of their language families. Arabic belongs to the Semitic language family, while Malay is an Austronesian language. These language families belong to different linguistic groups and do not share a common ancestor. However, due to historical, cultural, and religious interactions between the Arab world and Malay-speaking regions, there are influences and borrowings from Arabic in the Malay language. This influence primarily stems from the Islamic expansion and trade connections between the Arab world and Southeast Asia.

The Arabic language was introduced to Malay speakers during different periods in history, primarily through trade, Islamic proselytization, and cultural interactions. One of the earliest introductions of Arabic to Malay speakers dates back to around the 7th century when individual Muslim traders and missionaries arrived in the Malay Archipelago. Arabic influence significantly increased during the spread of Islam in the Malay world between the 12th and 16th centuries. The traders and scholars from the Arab world brought not only commodities but also the Arabic language poetics.

The Malay language used to have great oral traditions in literature. The literature was spread orally from one generation to the other. With the spread of Islam from Arabia, the poetics of Arabic were adopted by the Malay, and written literature was introduced during the 15th century. This period saw the adoption of Arabic script for writing Malay, particularly for religious and administrative purposes. The use of the Jawi script, derived from Arabic script, became widespread for writing Malay texts, especially religious scriptures, legal documents, and literature.

Throughout this historical timeline, Arabic words, religious terminology, and cultural practices were assimilated into Malay culture and language. This integration of Arabic vocabulary into Malay has had a lasting impact, especially in domains related to religion, education, and administration, shaping the vocabulary and cultural identity of Malay-speaking communities.

Some of the examples of many Arabic loanwords in the Malay language include Iman (Faith), Solat (Prayer [Salah] in Arabic), Madrasah (Educational Institute), Kitab (Book), Ilmu (Knowledge), Kamus (Dictionary), Makmal (Laboratory), Sejarah (History), Kursi (Chair/Stool), Zakat (Almsgiving: a form of Islamic taxation), Rakyat (Citizen), Syarikat (company), Fitnah (slander), Had (Limit), Tarikh (Date), Haiwan (Animal), Hisab (Arithmetic), Jiran (Neighbour), Miskin (Poor), Muflis (Bankrupt), Selamat (Safe/Wellbeing), Umur (Age), Waktu (Time).

These words are commonly used in daily life among Malay speakers reflecting the strong historical and cultural connections between the Arab world and the Malay Archipelago. Let’s celebrate this great tradition together and embrace it together. Happy World Arabic Language Day!

The author is a Lecturer at the Department of English Language, Faculty of Languages and Linguistics, Universiti Malaya. He may be contacted at amirdabbaghian@um.edu.my

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