Compulsory Arabic?

February 14, 2021

The Senate’s recent passing of a bill to make Arabic compulsory in the state schools of the federal capital raises several questions

The Senate of Pakistan recently passed a bill which, if finally approved as law, would make the teaching of Arabic compulsory in the state schools of the federal capital. There are several questions which need to be answered in this context: which variety of Arabic will it be? what is the purpose of teaching it to the children? Will the children be overburdened if they learn a new language or not? Will they really learn Arabic well or not? How many children will learn it and who will teach it?

Let us take the first question. Arabic has several varieties. Ordinary Arabs in all Arabic-speaking countries speak their local or demotic variety of Arabic. These varieties are used in speaking informally but are not considered standard. The standard variety of Arabic, called Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), is based on classical Arabic but uses new terms, created in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, to express the realities of modern life. It is based on classical Arabic which is the language of the Quran. MSA draws its vocabulary from Arabic roots (hatif, that is, caller, is used for telephone and sayyara is car) or borrows from European languages (internet and film pronounced as intarnit and feelm are borrowed from English). It is used in academia, schooling, printing, media, law and legislation. It does not vary according to the country and it is nobody’s mother tongue. Everybody has to learn it at school. In Arab sources the MSA is called al-lughat al-Arabiyyah al fusah al-Asr while the language of the Quran, classical Arabic proper, is called al-lughat al-Arabiyyah al-fusha al-turath. The short form is al-fusah. What is taught in Pakistan’s madrassas is mostly classical Arabic (al-fusah). Even the MSA is not taught much as the aim of the madrassas is simply to enable the students to read the foundational texts of Islam which are in classical Arabic. And, of course, nobody teaches demotic Arabic at all. I take it then that the type of Arabic which will be taught in schools will be classical Arabic.

Now we come to the purpose of teaching it. If the purpose is to equip the children with a skill which will enable them to converse with Arabs in the UAE or Saudi Arabia or wherever they go as adults, then they will have to learn two varieties of Arabic: the MSA and the variety of demotic Arabic spoken in the country of their sojourn. Our teachers of Arabic do not know demotic varieties of Arabic at all and they are not fully conversant with the MSA either. They know only the classical Arabic of the Quran. So, is the purpose then to enable them to understand the Quran in the original Arabic? If so, it will not be served fully. The interpretation of the Quran requires a degree of knowledge of Arabic which takes a very long time and effort. Unless one is studying only Arabic, one has to fall back on the interpretation of one’s teacher. How will the state ensure that the teacher will refrain from giving an interpretation that has a militant implication? Words like fitna, for instance, may be interpreted differently. One exegete calls unbelief fitna while another calls persecution fitna. So, if the child is told that unbelief, being fitna, must be fought till it is eradicated, how will the state prevent young people from joining groups at war with the world and even with Pakistan? Even if the children do not fall into the hands of a radical cleric, they will be exposed to much more religious controversy than they are at the moment.

Clerics, like all ideological thinkers with investment in their ways of thinking, are concerned with criticism of the beliefs of their competitors. Their concerns are with heterodoxy, error of judgment, the right beliefs, sin and heresy. We all know what happens when the concerns of the clerics are passed on to the public: focus on religious controversies takes on a new life, sectarianism increases, sub-sects and their differences become the subject matter of fresh debates, the ‘Other’ is perceived with reference to religion and sect making the lives of minorities difficult and increasing anti-India sentiment predisposing the public towards war rather than peace. Has anyone in the Senate looked at these possibilities?

Will the children be overburdened? Learning any language is an additional burden on the learners. It should only be imposed upon them if it has long-term dividends in the future. Arabic is a difficult language which takes a long time to learn and, if one does not use it and revise it constantly, one loses it in a short time. The time spent on it, or for that matter on other languages, will actually hamper the intellectual growth of children at a time when they need time and energy to study other subjects. Keeping in view the fact that school bags have been growing heavier and heavier every year and teachers give far more home-work than ever before, it would hardly be in the best interest of the children to burden them with another language to cram and forget after school.

Will teaching Arabic mean that it will actually be learned? The experience so far shows that no language the children are forced to learn is learned very well. After the language riots of Sindh in July 1972, the non-Sindhi-speaking students were asked to study Sindhi but even now they study it, if at all, only to pass the examination. This happens not only with compulsory languages the students do not really consider necessary but also with their chosen options. Even when they opt to take Persian, Arabic or some other language at the bachelor’s level, they only memorise a few passages and some words to pass the examinations.

The indigenous languages of Pakistan, which were introduced after much effort as optional subjects in schools and colleges, became means of getting easy marks. In the civil service examination too, they serve the same purpose. There is no doubt that the intention to enable students to learn the languages of this land was excellent but the execution did not match the intention. It quickly degenerated into a way out for teachers to gratify the students and ensure that their own jobs remained safe. And, for the students, as mentioned above, it was a way of improving their grades (CGPA). It is well-known that students with good marks in BA Arabic and Persian cannot read or write anything except what they crammed for their examination. And, of course, even their teachers cannot order food in an Iranian or an Arab restaurant because they are not taught modern Persian or demotic forms of Arabic.

This brings me to the last question: will all children study it or only the federal government school ones mentioned in the Senate bill? As it is, the Punjab already has a policy about teaching Arabic in government schools. As yet, KP, Sindh and Balochistan do not have a clear-cut policy in this regard. However, all seem to have agreed to the implementation of the Single National Curriculum which already imposes Arabic in some form on all schools. This means that a really large body of teachers of Arabic will be required. Where will they come from? Probably from the madrassas.

While I am all for giving employment to as many people as possible, the problem with this venture would be that all schools will have people who will regard the way of dressing up, speaking, behaving and worldview of many of our students, alien and offensive. Will the room for a lifestyle which is not dictated by conservative values decrease? Ask yourself and give an honest answer. I am sure a number of female students and young faculty will feel insecure under the frowning gaze of the quasi-clerical Arabic teachers on the campus. Moreover, this will cost a lot of money which, as we know, the education system needs in order to support better teachers of other subjects, books and up to date infrastructure.

In short, evidence suggests that making Arabic compulsory will not be in the interest of our students and country. Such solutions are kneejerk attempts by our rulers to hide behind the façade of religiosity to conceal their lack of any real vision for the people who voted them in. What we need is not a new compulsory language but better teaching in the languages we have always taught but always so badly that our children cannot express themselves in any of them with ability.

The author is an   occasional columnist 

Compulsory Arabic?