A case for Arabic

On Thursday, October 18, 2018, the Department of Arabic, University of Ilorin, under the headship of Dr Lateef Onireti Ibrahim, in conjunction with the Arabic Alumni Association of the University, led by Dr Adam Sirajudeen, organised a three-in-one programme at the University Auditorium.

Apart from a lecture, the programme was also to inaugurate the departmental alumni association, which was ably done by the President of the University of Ilorin Alumni Association, Dr (Mrs) Rhoda Oduwaiye, and to honour distinguished personalities who have shaped or been shaped by the Department and discipline over the years. The honour list, as provided, included academic giants like Prof. Is-haq O. Oloyede, Prof. Ismail Babatunde Balogun (late), Prof. Razaq D. Abubakre, Prof. Zakariya I. Oseni, Prof. Muazu Nguru, Prof. Rasheed Ajani Raji, Prof. Hamzah I. Abdul Raheem, Prof. Moshood Mahmood Jimba, Dr Hamid Ibrahim Olagunju (late) and Alh. Wahab Ademola O. Falowo.

My lecture on the occasion was “Foster Children, Caring Mother: Rolling out the Responsibilities of Role Models”, which I structured as a three-course meal. In the appetizer, I drew attention to Arabic itself, a language that means so much to the world but is largely denied by officialdom in Nigeria, though loved and learned by millions all the same. In the main course, I addressed the responsibilities of the alumni to their alma mater while in the dessert, I highlighted the contribution of a Nigerian billionaire, Alhaji Mohammed Indimi, to his alma mater. I imagined Alhaji Indimi giving a similar gesture to the University of Ilorin! That the philanthropist, Alhaji Indimi, was in the University last Thursday was exciting to me as good news for the better by far university is presumably in the offing.

Facts about Arabic

For the love of language, some 18 facts shared on the occasion just because the date coincided with the 18th of the month are:

  1. Arabic is a Semitic language. The term “semitic” is used to name a group of Asiatic and African languages like Arabic, Aramaic, Assyrian, Hebrew and Ethiopic.
  2. Arabic is the fifth most spoken language in the world. The world’s 10 most spoken languages are Chinese, Spanish, English, Hindi, Arabic, Portuguese, Bengali, Russian, Japanese and Punjabi/Lahoda.
  3. Arabic is more than 2,000 years old and it is one of the largest languages in the world.
  4. Arabic is one of the six official languages of the United Nations, which are: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish.
  5. Arabic is one of the four official languages of the African Union, the only African language used by AU. The four languages are Arabic, English, French and Portuguese.
  6. In 2010, the United Nations declared December 18 as Arabic Language Day, the purpose of which was to increase the awareness of, and respect for the history and culture of Arabic language and celebrate its beauty and enormous contributions to the heritage of humanity.
  7. December 18 was chosen because it was the day the United Nations General Assembly approved Arabic as an official language in 1973.
  8. Arabic script is used by1/7th of the world population.
  9. Arabic is written from right to left.
  10. Arabic has influenced several languages in the world, including Amharic, Bengali, Bosnian, Hausa, Hindi, Indonesian, Kazakh, Kurdish, Maldivian, Malay, Pashto, Persian, Punjabi, Sindhi, Swahili, Tagalog, Turkish, Turkmen, Urdu, Uzbek and Yoruba.
  11. The Arabic speaking countries in Africa include Algeria, Chad, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Sudan, Tanzania and Sudan while the Arabic-speaking countries in Asia (Middle East) are Bahrain, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Pakistan, Occupied Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria and United Arab Emirates.
  12. The English language owes a lot to Arabic. Without Arabic, the following English words loaned from Arabic would not have been: amber, arsenal, candy, carat, sugar, cotton, gazelle, admiral, coffee, giraffe, ghoul, guitar, hazard, lemon, magazine, sherbet, sofa, racquet, tariff, alchemy, alcohol, algebra, algorithm, alkaline, etc. (the article “al” in Arabic denotes “the”).
  13. Arab countries are 22.
  14. Arabic is an official language in 30 countries, including Israel.
  15. There is no capitalization and abbreviation in Arabic, normally.
  16. The algebraic letter “x” that is used to represent an unknown number or value originates from Arabic “shay” (thing), which was eventually pronounced as “xay” in Spain, leading to its final abbreviation and use in Algebra as “x”.
  17. The numeral system we use today is called Arabic numerals as it was introduced by Arab merchants to the Europeans.
  18. In Arabic, there are at least 11 words for love with each one conveying a different stage in the complex process of falling in love. The most common word for love, “hubb”, comes from the same root as “hubb” (seed), something with a potential to grow into something beautiful.

Isn’t Arabic lovely?

Arabic, a national language?

Given that Arabic is a Nigerian language with a distinctive ethnic group, Shuwa Arab, that speaks its variety, I had once canvassed its consideration as a candidate for the national language in Nigeria at a National Conference on Democracy and Development organised by the Faculty of Business and Social Sciences, University of Ilorin, at the Africa Hall (Mini Campus), between April 5 and 7, 2005.

The idea was spurred by the drama enacted at a summit of the African Union (AU) in Addis Ababa in July 2004, when Nigeria’s President Olusegun Obasanjo assumed office as Chairman of the continental body. The outgoing Chairman of AU at the time and President of Mozambique, Joaquim Chissano, made a linguistic point by addressing the summit in Swahili, a major language of East Africa once proposed by Prof. Wole Soyinka as Nigeria’s national language. Members were confused and Mr Chissano translated what he said into English.

Subsequently, the Sudanese Ambassador to Ethiopia, who moderated the programme and announced the election of then President Obasanjo as the new Chairman, joked that the new Chairman would also address the summit in “another African language” with reference to Arabic. The linguistic joke would have been more interesting if the new Chairman could speak Arabic but he rather spoke in English.

In what explains why Africans should have positive language attitudes, the proposal to include Swahili as one of the AU official languages still remains ignored. It takes knowledge and enlightenment to appreciate that language and religion are two separate entities. In fact, the first Yoruba professor of Arabic in Nigeria, Prof. Isaac Ogunbiyi, is a Christian. Therefore, learning, speaking and using any language does not automatically mean adopting a religion, a fact that is not often digested by some stakeholders.