The meaning of Islam to the cultures that adopted it is revealed through the borrowing of Arabic words.
The following languages have a word for love originating in Arabic: Tigrigna, Amharic, Turkish, Farsi, Urdu, Hindi, Gujarati, Bengali, Malay, Somali, Pashto, Azeri, Dari, Uzbek.
If you were born in a Muslim family, is your ancestors’ language listed? Where are all the other languages spoken? This linguistic thread connects diverse cultures and peoples, our brothers and sisters of the Ummah (world-wide community).
Let’s pull the thread of love and see where it goes. It begins with a number of three letter roots in the Arabic language, one of which is Hbb. These letters unravel to form a nest of words with related meaning, for example: hubb, habib, mahbub, mustahabb, muhabba. How many of these words do you understand? It could be quite a few. Other three letter roots include wdd and ‘ashq.
It is not by chance that the words for love have been adopted so widely. Languages borrow new vocabulary from other languages for the same reason that I would want to borrow clothes from my sister: because her clothes are nicer or because I don’t have anything suitable.
So there may have previously been a lack in the language wardrobe. Or maybe the thing did not exist until it was imported along with the words to describe it. The word ‘wudhu’ is a religious example of this from Arabic, and ‘telephone’ is an example of a technological portmanteau formed from Greek and Latin.
Does this mean that there was no love until Arabic speakers came? Of course not. Arabic words for love coexist in these languages alongside native words for love, not replacing them but used as an alternative. Turkish, for example, has its own word ‘sevgi’ alongside ‘ishk’. Hindi has a number of words for love: ‘prem’ and ‘priya’ originating from Sanskrit, and ‘muhabbat’ and ‘ishq’ originating from Arabic.
So why does a language need more than one word for love? The garments in the Arabic linguistic wardrobe are beautiful. They are embroidered with life-changing faith and discourse-altering power. They are woven with spirituality that makes us want to wear them, even though we have our own clothes.
The thread of love is woven into the spread of Islam. The religion was spread by the examples of righteousness set by the Muslims. It brought principles and values that are the same no matter where it was accepted. So Malay, spoken in South East Asia, and Hausa, spoken in West Africa, have very similar patterns of borrowing from Arabic. Words to do with justice, charity and, of course, religion are most commonly borrowed. These words indicate the changes that the adoption of Islam made in these societies.
Traders, educators and conquerors were responsible for taking the new religion around the world. Whilst most of North Africa and the Middle East was ruled by Muslims within just 50 years of the Prophet’s ﷺ (peace be upon him) death, other areas took longer for Islam to filter down to the common man.
Even societies that did not adopt Islam, but who came into contact with Muslim traders, have been influenced greatly by Arabic. Malagasy, spoken in Madagascar, uses Salaama as its greeting. Kiswahili, lingua franca for 60 million people in East Africa, adopted thirty percent of its vocabulary from Arabic. European languages show their own indebtedness to Arabic too. English has hundreds of loan words, many of which relate to science and philosophy, such as ‘algebra’, ‘chemistry’ and ‘alkali’. Others are foodstuffs such as ‘lemon’, ‘candy’ and ‘sugar’. More recent adoptions show the change in the Western perception of Muslims: ‘jihad’ and ‘fatwa’ are two examples.
The thread of love, once unwound, reveals itself to be more than linguistic. Language is fundamental to our sense of self, identity, and also communal understanding. The overarching values that Islam brought unite us in sisterhood deeply. It is a spiritual connection.
Here’s something similar by Wilson, ‘The Lost Jihad – “Love” in Islam’, or Mahabba. Linguistics are amayzing subhan-Allah.
Peace sister Rachel,
The reason these languages all took the Arabic words was not because it was better or that they didn’t have words with those meanings but they took many words from it as a result of the Islamic Caliphate that ruled their lands for centuries and the original conquerors were Arabs.
Some of the farther lands from Arab lands which had quicker conversion rates and less Arab immigration only adopted some words which are mostly religiously related. This made them feel part of the Caliphate and more of a Quranic people. Whereas the closer lands to the Arab conquerors which weren’t primarily Arab speakers like Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Egypt had a lot of Arab immigration and Arabic was a second or third language for trade and commerce so they adopted the whole language.
Wudoo does have an English equivalent it is ablution.
Mashallah, very interesting and beautifully written post!
This was an interesting article. Inshallah more Muslims will learn the importance of this one little word: “love.” It can be so important in our lives and can sometimes make the difference between misery and happiness.
Of course, the best love is the love we have for Allah and His Messenger (pbuh).
as a Malay speaker, I think many words were borrowed out of need/utility. theology words (tauhid, syariah, ihsan, iman, riyaa’ etc.) and legal words (riba’, zina, hudud, zakat) probably were borrowed for this reason. but there are also many words that were borrowed or adopted alongside existing similar words, and surely this must just be because they were liked, and I rather think it tells something, what sort of words were ‘adopted’ when there was no need. offhand, we borrowed sedekah (sadaqah), bakhil, ilmu (‘ilm), ibadat (‘ibadah), adil (‘adl), mesyuarat (musyawarah), surat (but exclusively meaning “missive/letter”), ayat, nahu, rahim (but exclusively meaning “womb”), aman (“peace”), selamat (“safe”). but we did not borrow ‘harb’. yet there were other ‘religious’ words that we did not borrow alongside similar words. for example, we still use the sanskrit word ‘puasa’ rather than adopt ‘sawm’ despite this being a pillar of faith. so i think there might be something to actually liking the words or category of words, rather than simply wanting to appear “Qur’anic”. it seems to me that from what we purposely adopted, the coming of Islam with the Arabic language was positively associated with peace and knowledge.