Linguistics and Islam

Kim Stanley Robinson’s  alternate history novel,”The Years of Rice and Salt” posits a world in which an overwhelming majority of Europeans are decimated by the Black Death in the 14th century thereby Christinaity and the white race never get the chance to shape the world as we know it. History of the world, thus, is informed by dominant cultures of the day; the Islamic world, India and the Far East. One of the qualities that sets this novel apart from other novels of the what-if genre is the  intelligent observations, commentary and inquiries the writer makes into the nature of Islam. The following extract is taken from a book within this book entitled “Mohammed [pbuh] Meets Confucius”.    Zia Ahmad

When observing the tendency towards physical extremism in Islam, ranging from fasting, whirling and self-flagellation, all the way up to jihad itself, one wonders at its causes, which may be several, including the words of Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) sanctioning jihad, the early history of Islamic expansion, the harsh and otherworldly desert landscapes that have been the home of so many Muslim societies, and, perhaps most importantly, the fact that for Islamic peoples the religious language is by definition Arabic, and therefore a second language to the great majority of them. This has fateful consequences, because one’s native tongue is always grounded in a physical reality by vocabulary, grammar, logic, and metaphors, images and symbols of all kinds, many of them buried and forgotten in names themselves; but in the case of Islam, instead of having a physical reality attached to it linguistically, its sacred language is detached from all that, for most believers, by its secondary and translated quality, its only partly learned nature, so that it conveys only abstract concepts, removed from the world, conveying the devout into a world of ideas abstracted and detached from the life of the senses and the physical realities of life, creating the possibility and even the likelihood of extremism resulting from a lack of perspective, a lack of grounding.

To give a good example of the kind of linguistic process I mean: Muslims who have Arabic as a second language do not ‘have their feet on the ground’; their behaviour is all too often directed by abstract thought, floating alone in the empty space of language. We need the world. Each situation must be placed in its setting to be understood. Possibly, therefore, our religion should be taught mostly in the vernacular tongues, the Quran translated into all the languages of Earth; or else better instruction in Arabic be given to all; although taking this road might entail requiring Arabic to become the first language of all the world, not a practical project and likely to be regarded as another aspect of jihad.

pg 235 The Years of Rice and Salt

Bantam books, 2002

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