One of the greatest pleasures that providence has thrown my way is that I was given the opportunity to learn Arabic in the traditional manner studying at the feet of masters. This prodigious good fortune to have inherited from my forebears a language that has two really special features. One is that it is the language chosen by our Lord Most High to be the vehicle for His Divine Message. The other is that during the last fourteen centuries, it has been, one of the great vehicles of thought, communication and culture of all time.
I personally believe that there is no better way that you can spend your time – that is to say, that there is no way you can spend your time more valuably, more satisfyingly, or even, other than in the sense of instant and swiftly-come-and-gone gratification, more enjoyably.
What a well-designed Arabic language course – in the traditional sense – provides is a training and development of the mind and character to a degree of excellence that no other mental or physical activity can come anywhere near to bringing about. Specifically, it trains these: the ability to concentrate and focus; the use of the memory; the capacity to analyse, deduce and problem-solve; the powers of attention to detail, of diligence and perseverance, of observation, of imagination, of judgement, of taste. In fact it trains the mind and character to the utmost extent in everything human that is valuable.
Teachers of old have always discouraged the use of first-language translations and commentaries of Arabic texts in Urdu or English. Why they did so escaped me at first, but now I have become an ardent supporter of their view. And there is perhaps no better way of demonstrating the truth of this statement than by looking carefully at a representative example of a traditional Arabic lesson in action. Here, therefore, is such an example of showing what is necessary in dealing adequately with a difficult piece of Arabic prose written by a highly regarded Arabic author such as the foreword of Muslim’s Sahih or the Maqamat of Hariri.
First of all, you examine the words in the sentence sufficiently enough to break it down into its various clauses. Then, taking the clauses one at a time, you start with what you had identified as the main clause or one of the main clauses, and examine more closely the individual words in it and, in the case of nouns, pronouns, adjectives and verbs, their word forms. In doing this, you are cultivating your powers of observation and of attention to detail.
Next, you need to bring your powers of reasoning more strongly into play, in order to see which words belong together and how the various words relate to each other. In Arabic, this will be far from obvious, and you will have the task of weighing up various alternatives before coming up with your first solution.
Even when you have done that with all due care, your first solution, may well need to be only a provisional solution. You must therefore now ask yourself: is this solution correct? In the case of a clause, you must look carefully at the clause preceding it or otherwise most closely related to it, to see if everything in that clause confirms your solution, or if rather, you need to try another alternative. In the case of a complete sentence, you must check the previous sentence; and in some cases you may find even that the subsequent sentence will force you to change your mind.
By this stage, you have simply by translating in accordance with the rules of grammar that you have learnt already called into play your powers of observation, of reasoning, of identifying alternatives and then choosing between them, and of making judgements. You have also learnt the need to make one or more independent checks to ensure that the result at which you have arrived is indeed the correct one.
The process by no means stops there; far from it. By considering various English words available for you to use for the translation of each Arabic word in the sentence, and choosing carefully the ones for your translation, you are forcing yourself to gain clearer, fuller and more knowledgeable insights into your own language. Further, you will find yourself coming across Arabic words for which there is no English equivalent; and in consequence you will be made to enlarge on what you can conceive with your mind and on the ideas you can entertain and make use of.
Next, there is the moral aspect to add to the intellectual one engaged in thus far. In doing all that you have done so far, you are training not only your mind but your character as well. From the outset – right from when you make your very first efforts of translating either into English or into Arabic – you will be running into difficulties which do not exist when you are dealing with English by itself. Addressing these difficulties will not only need a flexibility of mind that was not needed before. It will also need determination and perseverance, so that you are able to continue for as long as is needed until you have earned the deep satisfaction of having triumphed over every obstacle.
There is yet more. If you are to make a really satisfactory translation, you need to aim at reproducing, in an English way, what is there in the Arabic that may not be directly translatable. This may involve putting emphasis in the right places and reproducing such features as logical coherence, persuasiveness, heart-stopping emotion, sheer literary beauty or whatever. You will be developing mental subtlety. You will also be developing good taste.
Furthermore, with practice the stage will be reached when this whole process will have become so customary as to be often relatively effortless for you, sometimes even to the extent of being almost automatic. By then you will have gone a long way towards developing an intellect and a character which will serve you well, faithfully, efficiently and speedily, in any problems of any kind that you may find yourself faced with in any activity of any kind in your life that you find yourself engaging in.
Finally, differing according to whichever great Arabic author, admired over the centuries, you are trying to translate, you will as a ‘side-effect’, have made yourself to some extent acquainted with elements of one or more of history, geography, laws, religion, and culture that will have broadened your mind and widened your sympathies.
All this is the sort of thing that you can have gained from translating a single sentence in the right manner.
That is all very well, some reader may respond. Could not, however, one of the modern languages do exactly the same job?
My answer, and the answer of great educators of the past, is simply: no. For the purpose of education, as opposed to merely acquiring a valuable skill, all modern languages are far inferior to Arabic. First, one of the supreme advantages of traditional Arabic is, in the right sort of way, the difficulty of it – even though, by apparent paradox, it is also easy enough at the outset for young children to find it manageable and enjoyable without in any way compromising how it is taught. It is the very difficulty of traditional Arabic that, however apparently off-putting, is an important part of what makes it such a valuable preparation for life. Secondly, no modern language has a literature that comes close to deserving to be revered throughout the centuries since they were written. Thirdly, it is the language chosen by our Creator for the guidance of humanity. And I could continue with a fourthly and many more.
The reality is that true education is only secondarily, and only very much secondarily, about the amount and variety of knowledge that one picks up during the course of it. Primarily, it is about developing our mind, character and taste so that, once the education is complete, we can pick up effortlessly and quickly whatever knowledge and skills we wish to, whether for practical use or for enjoyment at any point in our lives.