Arabic calligraphy has finally been acknowledged as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. This long-overdue recognition would not be possible without the collaboration of 16 Arabic countries speaking countries, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and Palestine.
This acknowledgment is important, but it reminded me of protests in Malaysia when the government wanted to introduce Arabic calligraphy in schools, it was tainted with protest against the move. Ill explain about this at the end of this article.
Arabic Calligraphy is more than just an art form, it is central to the unity of Muslims, and the catalyst for this is none other than Islam. Islam plays a significant role in bringing the Golden Age of Arabic calligraphy. Islam made Arabic Calligraphy rose to fame and transcend borders and race.
The city of Kufah where Numan bin Tsabit or popularly known as Iman Abu Hanifah was born gave the first universal script. Now known as Kufic. It dominated Arabic calligraphy for four hundred years starting in the 7th century A.D. was adopted in Damascus, Morocco, and even Spain.
In 762, Baghdad was created out of Abbasid Caliph Mansur’s desire to build a glorious new capital for his empire. Carefully constructed, this majestically-walled city nestled against the Tigris River and almost immediately became the cultural center of the Middle East. It was here that the “Golden Age” of Arabic Calligraphy began thanks to a succession of three great calligraphers.
The recognition of Arabic Calligraphy is great for our modern times, but we need to figure out what made us lose it in the first place. If you look in history Muslims had never been truly united. But despite this, they were one single factor that keep the extensive Ummah that keep discourse open and compromised reached, and homage paid to a weaker figurehead. There was some sort of stability because you can still communicate.
Throughout Muslim history, Arabic language was the glue that binds the Ummah together, intellectually and culturally. From West Africa to Bosnia, and China to Indonesia, knowledge of Arabic was the mark of intellectual distinction, for scholars and society. Of course, Muslim societies had their local languages as well, but knowledge of Arabic was universal among intellectuals.
The great manuscripts of Timbuktu, once the most important centre of learning in Africa, are all in Arabic. When Indian Muslim figures such as Sayyid Sibghat, who settled in Madinah, Ahmed Sirhindi and Shah Waliullah of Delhi engaged with ulama in the rest of the world, it was in Arabic.
The history of Nur al-Din al-Raniri (d. 1658), born in Gujrat, and a student in the Hijaz and Yemen, before becoming a major scholar in Aceh, highlights the intellectual linkages between various parts of the Islamic world before colonialism. When Uthman ibn Fudi exchanged views with ulama from all over the world, it was in Arabic.
Muhammad Yusuf al-Maqasari (1627–1699), the Malay alim whose jihad against the Dutch resulted in his exile to South Africa, studied in India, the Hijaz, Yemen and Damascus before rising to prominence in what is now Indonesia, as well as spending almost 10 years in Sri Lanka; all this was possible because Arabic united the Muslim world.
More recently, Arabic has been the common language that has made possible the exchange of ideas and influences between figures such as Jamaluddin al-Afghani, Rashid Rida, Hassan al-Banna, Maulana Maududi, and Syed Qutb,
But after the Caliphate was dismantled, Mustafa Kemal famously ripped Turkey away from its Islamic roots by westernizing its language, replacing its Arabic script with Roman alphabets, and making the country’s Islamic heritage inaccessible to subsequent generations of Turks. Similar policies were pursued in other Muslim countries, such as in Malaysia and Indonesia where the written scripts of the local language were based on Arabic scripts which were then changed to the Roman scripts of today. What is less recognized is that Muslims all over the world have been similarly distanced from Islam by a similar process: the marginalization of Arabic.
But the reality is that Arabic no longer has the importance it once did in the Muslim world. It remains central to Islamic religiosity, as the language of the Book of Allah (SWT) and of the canonical works of hadith and fiqh, but in other spheres of intellectual work, it is English rather than Arabic that is crucial.
Some misguided Muslims have even welcomed English as the new lingua franca of the Ummah, an attitude encouraged by the arrogance of some Arabs who have tried to claim a privileged position in the Ummah because of their language.
But the deeper reality is that like the Turks after Mustafa Kemal, generations of Muslims have been cut off from their Islamic heritage as a result of losing their knowledge of Arabic.
There are of course practical reasons for the emphasis on English and other Western languages, but the implications for our societies have to be understood. One is that the links of other languages are fragmenting the Ummah by turning Muslim attention from the heartlands of Islam, which were once the core of a united Ummah, towards various intellectual centers of the West, be they Washington, London, or Paris.
The other is that other languages English in particular, have become tools for the marginalization of Islamic perspectives, and conduits for the wholesale adulteration of Muslim discourse by Western ideas and attitudes.
Therefore the recognition is an achievement because, 15 Arab countries, despite of their differences have shown maturity. And whether you like it or not it was led by Saudi Arabia.
In Malaysia for example, the proposal to teach the Arabic calligraphy Khat in schools was protested by a Chinese group Dong Jiao Zong which made headlines like this one.
So by gaining recognition by UNESCO it is not the ultimate goal, it is the first step to making reviving the identity of Muslims as a respected, referred, and revered nation. We must make sure that it just stays as heritage but must be revived to its full glory.
You might be interested to read more about The language of Excellence here.
Shahfizal Musa is the Founder and Managing Editor of Halalop. He graduated with a Law degree from Thames Valley University London. He is an award-winning journalist covering topics such as human trafficking, Muslim research discoveries, and exceptional Muslims.
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