How Christian Writers Helped Spread Arabic Language

Posted on Jan 15, 2020

By: Emily Devereaux/Arab America Contributing Writer

Language as a Tool

Language is an important medium in religion. Some religions may rely on spoken word as a means to pass down traditions and beliefs, but Christianity emphasizes sacred scriptures. Many Christian early writers translated the messages of the Bible into other languages; the purpose was to reach a wider audience. The Bible was first translated into Greek from its original language. [The Hebrew Bible was mainly written in Biblical Hebrew, with some portions (notably in Daniel and Ezra) in Biblical Aramaic. The New Testament was written in Koine Greek.]

But why is language important? Why does it matter which religion used what language? This is because both religion and language are components of cultural identity. Cultural identity refers to one’s identity or feeling of belonging to a group. Examples of these groups are typically race, religion, ethnicity, and other identities.

There are many different elements of one’s cultural identity. One important relationship between identities is the relationship between language and religion in the context of cultural identity. Religion carries and creates meaning in people’s lives. Language is the medium to express such meaning. Therefore, language gives people the ability to express their meaning.

Discovery of the Earliest Known Arabic Writing

Archaeologists discovered evidence in rock inscriptions that show the earliest known Arabic writing, which is likely to originate from a Christian writer. These rock inscriptions were discovered in present-day Saudi Arabia and date back to 470 AD. Therefore, this writing preceded the advent of Islam by around 150 years.

A photo showing some stelae found with Arabic inscriptions.

A photo showing some stelae found with Arabic inscriptions.

The stone (pictured above) was not a long message. It read “Thawban (Son of) Malik”. However, this is still significant because it shows that Christian people wrote in Arabic, demonstrating an intersection.

History

In the 400s, the Arabian peninsula flourished as home to both Christian and Jewish populations. However, there were imbalances of power between these two sects. At that time, the Jewish Himyar Kingdom was a dominating force. Their established capital was in modern-day Yemen. Eventually, this Kingdom faced unrest and an inability to maintain power among multiple faiths. This is an example of some of the religious tensions at the time.

The Himyar Kingdom began persecuting Najrans, a local group of Christians. The Najrans wrote their scripture in Arabic, as a demonstration of separation from the Himyar Kingdom and unification with the Arabs against this oppressive regime.

Growing resistance movements and outside pressure soon brought down the Himyar Kingdom circa 500 AD. A Christian regime, which was the Ethiopian Kingdom of Askum, came to power in the Himyar’s place.

The Bible was first written in different dialects of Hebrew and Aramaic, which are both Proto-Semitic languages, just like Arabic! However, the Bible was not translated to Arabic until before the ninth century.

Christianity in Arabic

Islam quickly adopted Arabic as its language. The Quran was originally written in Arabic, and therefore this connection formed. Many non-Muslim writers utilized Arabic, too. Many Christian writers wrote in Arabic to convey certain thoughts. Such thoughts were otherwise inexpressible in a different language. This can be attributed to differences in vernacular between different languages. Some languages have terms to capture a specific feeling, while others may not.

Therefore, it may be difficult to limit the expression of faith to just one language. This may have inspired Christians to translate scripture into Arabic just before the ninth century. This helped capture certain elements of the messages in the Bible. Writing in Arabic also helped appeal to a wider audience.