Archive for September 5, 2012

The Way of Love

The meaning of Islam to the cultures that adopted it is revealed through the borrowing of Arabic words.

The following languages have a word for love originating in Arabic: Tigrigna, Amharic, Turkish, Farsi, Urdu, Hindi, Gujarati, Bengali, Malay, Somali, Pashto, Azeri, Dari, Uzbek.

If you were born in a Muslim family, is your ancestors’ language listed? Where are all the other languages spoken? This linguistic thread connects diverse cultures and peoples, our brothers and sisters of the Ummah (world-wide community).

Let’s pull the thread of love and see where it goes. It begins with a number of three letter roots in the Arabic language, one of which is Hbb. These letters unravel to form a nest of words with related meaning, for example: hubb, habib, mahbub, mustahabb, muhabba. How many of these words do you understand? It could be quite a few. Other three letter roots include wdd and ‘ashq.

It is not by chance that the words for love have been adopted so widely. Languages borrow new vocabulary from other languages for the same reason that I would want to borrow clothes from my sister: because her clothes are nicer or because I don’t have anything suitable.

So there may have previously been a lack in the language wardrobe. Or maybe the thing did not exist until it was imported along with the words to describe it. The word ‘wudhu’ is a religious example of this from Arabic, and ‘telephone’ is an example of a technological portmanteau formed from Greek and Latin.

Does this mean that there was no love until Arabic speakers came? Of course not. Arabic words for love coexist in these languages alongside native words for love, not replacing them but used as an alternative. Turkish, for example, has its own word ‘sevgi’ alongside ‘ishk’. Hindi has a number of words for love: ‘prem’ and ‘priya’ originating from Sanskrit, and ‘muhabbat’ and ‘ishq’ originating from Arabic.

So why does a language need more than one word for love? The garments in the Arabic linguistic wardrobe are beautiful. They are embroidered with life-changing faith and discourse-altering power. They are woven with spirituality that makes us want to wear them, even though we have our own clothes.

The thread of love is woven into the spread of Islam. The religion was spread by the examples of righteousness set by the Muslims. It brought principles and values that are the same no matter where it was accepted. So Malay, spoken in South East Asia, and Hausa, spoken in West Africa, have very similar patterns of borrowing from Arabic. Words to do with justice, charity and, of course, religion are most commonly borrowed. These words indicate the changes that the adoption of Islam made in these societies.

Traders, educators and conquerors were responsible for taking the new religion around the world. Whilst most of North Africa and the Middle East was ruled by Muslims within just 50 years of the Prophet’s ﷺ (peace be upon him) death, other areas took longer for Islam to filter down to the common man.

Even societies that did not adopt Islam, but who came into contact with Muslim traders, have been influenced greatly by Arabic. Malagasy, spoken in Madagascar, uses Salaama as its greeting. Kiswahili, lingua franca for 60 million people in East Africa, adopted thirty percent of its vocabulary from Arabic. European languages show their own indebtedness to Arabic too. English has hundreds of loan words, many of which relate to science and philosophy, such as ‘algebra’, ‘chemistry’ and ‘alkali’. Others are foodstuffs such as ‘lemon’, ‘candy’ and ‘sugar’. More recent adoptions show the change in the Western perception of Muslims: ‘jihad’ and ‘fatwa’ are two examples.

The thread of love, once unwound, reveals itself to be more than linguistic. Language is fundamental to our sense of self, identity, and also communal understanding. The overarching values that Islam brought unite us in sisterhood deeply. It is a spiritual connection.

COURTESY OF: Rachel Twort and