When the Arabic Language Became Supreme

Our Greek-American correspondent Anestos Canelides returns with a brief essay on the ascendance of the Arabic language in areas conquered by Islam where Greek had once been the dominant tongue.

Arabic made the language of the State Register
by Anestos Canelides

There is an interesting story in Readings in Medieval Historiography by Spero Vryonis about the manner in which the official language was changed from Greek to Arabic after the Arab conquests of Eastern Roman lands.

For centuries prior to the Arab conquest Damascus, had been the center of classical Greek teaching and philosophy. The Islamic conquest forcefully changed that, and the shift to Arab culture and Muslim domination was swift.

The account of the incident that prompted the official change of language to Arabic was recorded by Al-Baladhuri, who was in the inner circles of the Caliphate in about the 8th century AD. He was a poet and genealogist, but is best know for writing the lengthy “Conquest of lands”, an account of the Arab Muslim conquests of the infidels. This is an Arabic source, so the dates are Islamic and not Judeo-Christian in origin, but this event took place in the early 8th century AD, 81 years after the death of Muhammad in 632 AD.

Baladhuri begins his account by stating that Greek had remained the language of state register until the reign of Abd al-Malik, the fifth Caliph of the Umayyad dynasty, in the year 81.[1] The reason for the sudden change was that a Greek clerk who wanted to write something down urinated in a dry inkstand. The account does not state why, but this foolish clerk most likely acted in such a way because he lacked water.

Hearing about the deed, Abd-al-Malik punished the man and gave orders for the language of the register to be changed to Arabic. Later the Greek clerks were ordered to change professions, for “God (Allah) had cut if off from you.”

It does not state where in the new Islamic empire this took place, but Jordan is mentioned, and it could also have been Syria. Shortly after the Islamic conquests of these regions Hellenism was replaced with the culture of Islam.

Other than a small Christian minority population — which is quickly disappearing — Hellenism is extinct in that region, having long been replaced by Islamic domination .

1.   Vryonis, Spero, Readings in medieval historiography, Al-Baladhuri, “The Conquest of Lands”. Houghton-Mifflin CO. 1968. pages 336-360

Previous essays by Anestos Canelides

21 thoughts on “When the Arabic Language Became Supreme

  1. I don’t understand the significance of piddling in the inkstand. Was it because the pee might have come from an uncircumcised willy? It’s all very arcane – who knows how they thought in those days?

    Anyway, I don’t hear of any notions of a Greek language ‘risorgimento’, only about the Islamists hoping to impose Arabic and Sharia on us all at some time in the future. That’s what worries me now!

    • During the Ottoman Empire, learning Arabic was forbidden to dhimmi’s. Nothing in islam is ever consistent or logical.

      • @Columnist – why is this not consistent? During the US occupation of Iraq, the most targetted group by the Arabs were the translators, who often had to go everywhere wearing balaclavas. Arabic is the language of the “peaceful ones”. When only they know it, they can tell you in English “nice to meet you”, then tell each other in Arabic what they’d like to do to your mother. (something that actually once happened in a documentary on British TV, involving some enriched “youths” being caught by a police officer, who surprisingly understood Arabic. After it turned out he did speak Arabic, the youths apologised and said “sorry, we didn’t know you were one of us”, or something along those lines)

  2. Obviously, the tale was changed… Either he spit into the inkwell… Or he used wine…

    Either would’ve been seen as profaning the entries… And the ‘something written down’ was, obviously, some instruction/ fact/ law given to him by his muslim master.

    It finally occurred to the muslims that they’d better get the facts written down by their own muslim clerks… and that they ought not to trust important records to infidels.

    The rest is easy to fill in.

    Only the guilible would believe that a n y scribe would/ could write with urine.

  3. Duuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuh…………it’s not the [urine].

    It’s ‘Cause the Muzzie needed an excuse, is all.
    Just like WW I wasn’t CAUSED by the Archduke’s assination–both sides were boiling for a fight, so after their traditional August vacation, they had one. Then stuff got out of hand as it often does.

  4. It is interesting that the focus here, as usual, is on the Muslim conquest and how it changed the culture. It is reasonable to regard Islam not only as a grave danger but also as a cultural dead end, and therefore to fear and resist it. But something is missing from the calculation. Just because we see the superiority of Western civilization, we cannot forget that it too spread by conquest. Greek and then Latin became “world” languages because their native speakers were superior warriors. Otherwise, we might all be speaking Persian and trekking to Zoroastrian temples.

    Similarly, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and to an even greater extent, English became native and/or trade languages for far-flung parts of the world, because those nations not only traveled far and wide, but took with them superior armaments and a warrior mentality. And their cultures often went with them and were imposed on the present culture from above. We do not mourn the many languages that disappeared that way or the many cultures and religions that were infiltrated or suppressed because they were “inferior” in the eyes of the conquerors (or colonists or trade partners, or whatever you would like to call them).

    We would be no happier right now if we were being overrun by adherents of vodou or by militant Shintoists. The disconnect we have with the turncoats in our own society who are blithely feeding us to the wolves is that they feel guilty that the West has prospered by a process that is as old as the discovery of fire and want to banish all evidence of militarism from our world. They apparently do not realize or consider what they are dooming their own progeny to. Some of us are willing to think that there is a reasonable way to deal with Islam, by appealing to its masses, and a reasonable way to convert or gently remove our own quislings. Perhaps people in Carthage thought that. Perhaps people in Tibet still think that. Perhaps we must come to terms with the logical conclusion that an enemy is an enemy. Islam delenda est. Communism/soialism delenda est. Bleeding hearts delenda sunt.

    • Very apt, sir:

      “We would be no happier right now if we were being overrun by adherents of vodou or by militant Shintoists. The disconnect we have with the turncoats in our own society who are blithely feeding us to the wolves is that they feel guilty that the West has prospered by a process that is as old as the discovery of fire and want to banish all evidence of militarism from our world.”

      You’ve nicely encapsulated the ignorant hubris and misplaced guilt of those who fail to understand the process of history. They do have an exquisite feel for what sells, though, so it remains essential to simply refuse to recognize the inherent aggression resident in all of us. This refusal leads to strange social phohibitions like the attempts to eliminate competitive games in the schoolyard. Great solution to aggression, eh?

      Meanwhile, they are ever so careful not to look at the war games their privileged sons play in their solitary and darkened bedrooms. To confront *that* would mean having to assert parental authority. Having already conflated assertion and aggression, they can only wring their hands and call for more peace. Unplugging the computer is never an option.

      Driven by their own conflicting beliefs, feelings and insecurities, these peace-makers want the rest of us to buy into their rigid adherence to simplistic fundamentalist “thinking” about – just to pick one dogmatic notion – our purported militant assault on the environment. We have raped & assaulted & left for dead poor Gaia. She, helpless, cannot recover unless we repent our existence and eliminate our very “footprints”.

      That these anti-militarists carry on a ghastly war by any means necessary, including making stuff up and selling it to a gullible public (or spiking trees to kill unwitting lumberjacks) is to be forgiven since the ends are so very worthy.

      Ah well, when it all finally implodes we can burn the furniture and sit ’round the campfire telling new tales to explain how we ended up in the dark yet again.

    • Yes, Christians like to forget that Christianity too was imposed on e.g. the Pagan Romans by force. Tit-for-tat, could a Christian say, but even that is at odds with the turn-the-other-cheek, like-a-lamb-to-the-slaughter ethos. If Christians apologize, or say that the Christian emperors were not REAL Christians (No True Scotsman!), they should give up their conquests in Europe, America and Australia. The same holds true for Communists and other Atheists. Communists in the West deny connections with the Soviet-Union, but why should we believe them? Trotsky was the commander of the Red Army. He wanted world revolution immediately, instead of temporizing by building a Communist society in one country, like Stalin wanted. There is no reason to assume that a worldwide Communist state wouldn’t persecute non-Trots as savagely as Stalin persecuted Trots.
      Classical Liberals are not that much better, given the atrocities the French Revolution committed in e.g. the Vendée. And both should admit that Fascism and National-Socialism are children of the French Revolution as well. Marquis de Sade, Nietzsche, Hitler…
      If a savage civil war broke out between Jews, Christians, Atheists and Pagans, at least the West would regrow its [male procreative organs]. Despite the bloody conflict between the Sunnis and the Shi’as, Islam is still able to hold its own, or so it seems.

      The main problem with Western culture is that it is TRANSPARANT to other cultures, but other cultures are OPAQUE to the West. Because many, if not most, Muslims know both Arabic and English, they know everything about the West, warts and all, but most people from the West only know English, they know next to nothing about Islam.


      • History is a great subject to learn from, but not to relive in the modern day. Christianity and other beliefs may have had their own atrocities, but we don’t want to live through similar as Islam moves through its own ‘risorgimento’.

  5. I see there is a lot of misconception being spread by news like these. Islam is a religion of peace and prosperity and Mohammed is the last Messenger of God who spread the message of God in this world. After the death of Mohammed (PBUH), Islam was spread in Jordan and Syria by peaceful means. People willingly converted to Islam because of its mass and true appeal. I think the main sin committed by the Greek man was to write the name of God by urine. This is not acceptable in Islam and hence the ruling. However Islam is a religion of peace and all are open to join it.

    • @anis

      Islam is a religion of submission, not peace. If one does not submit to Islam then violence will be done to you. And if YOU personally quit Islam, then your fellow muslims will try to kill you, just like they are trying to kill me now.

      Mohammed was a child rapist with a narcissistic personality disorder, so go and read a hadith or two…

      I think you are on the wrong website chum

    • There’s a useful saying that goes “By their fruits ye shall know them.” The fruits of Islam, wherever it spreads, are violence, hatred, impoverishment, cultural stagnation and decline. The most dangerous parts of any European city are the areas dominated by Muslims.

      Medieval Islamic historians actually boasted about all their bloody conquests to impose their barbarism gussied up as religion. The claim that Islam spread peacefully through its inherent attractiveness is either ignorant or mendacious.

      If Islam were so wonderful, it wouldn’t need to impose a death penalty for apostasy. Even Yusuf Qaradawi admits that Islam wouldn’t have survived if it didn’t keep people in by force, like every other evil totalitarian system.

  6. Even the word ‘islam’ means submission so there’s no way of arguing otherwise.
    As an atheist who finds all religions mildly amusing, I have no problems with any person wearing out his trouser knees genuflecting and praying to whichever ‘god’ gets him through his day. I’m liberal like that.
    But, don’t dare try to force alien concepts of submission and morality on me! There’s plenty of well documented evidence to show that there’s a growing element within Islam globally whose own beliefs are evangelical no matter the means. If they can’t win us over with words, they’ll bomb us into submission.
    The Brits have found a few jihadi cells with deadly intent in recent times, and have prosecuted them successfully. I hope that the security agencies are ever vigilant.
    Remember the jihadis only have to be lucky once! We’ve seen the lengths they’ll go to promoting their evil war against us.

  7. I have no problem with Arabic becoming the lingua franca after Arabs conquer territory. I have a problem with Anglos conquering California and then NOT changing names of towns like Santa Barbara, Santa Lucia, San Jose, San Francisco, San Rafael, and, famously, El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles de Porciúncula. That is the stupidity that Nature does not forgive and eventually presents a full bill for.

    On the other hand, both Syria and Turkey were crammed with the most magnificent architecture of the Christian civilization that had flourished there. To destroy all that development, to desecrate churches, to convert people into musloids under the blade of the sword, that is a crime that may not be forgotten.

    • Delaware, Arkansas, Illinois, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Tennessee, Kentucky, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Chicago, Missoula, Seattle, Tacoma, …

      Are you seeing a pattern? That’s a lot of names to be changed!

      Also, those Spanish city names were bestowed by Europeans — even if some people associate the Spanish language with the putative rights of indigenous “brown people.”

      Would you rather go to a place called San Diego, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, Los Altos, Palo Alto — or a placed called Hayward, Fremont, Davis, Compton, Stockton, or Berkeley?

      Case closed.

      • You are not paying attention to history. The history of the New World is the history of the struggle, often warfare, between the Spanish and English civilizations. When you fight the expansionist culture of another great empire, you behave one way. On the other hand, when you invade, push back and ultimately decimate and dispossess a weaker people, which we surely did with the American Indians, retaining their place names attests to nobility rather than jovial stupidity. You honor worthy adversaries who lost the fight. Totally different.

        Fine distinctions matter.

        • Oh, I have paid attention to history. One or the other of us must be humor-challenged.

        • I think my listing of Spanish was Anglo city names should have been a clue that my post was lighthearted, if that wasn’t already discerned.

      • “Would you rather go to a place called San Diego, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, Los Altos, Palo Alto — or a placed called Hayward, Fremont, Davis, Compton, Stockton, or Berkeley?”

        Then again, the Mexicans may want to go to those places as well – and, given all the names are already in Spanish, inviting curiosity and studying of their history, may want them “back”! Is anyone advocating that the place once known as “New Amsterdam” (and now known as the Big Apple) be given back to the Dutch?

        In short – language matters!

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