The declaration of a free national name and religion is a concept that was popularized by Noble Drew Ali, founder of the Moorish Science Temple. He rejected a color-based identity in favor of one based on heritage. While I am not an expert on Moorish Science, I found a fitting parallel to this concept in the history of Copts in Egypt, one of the oldest Christian sect in the world.
Some years ago, I came across a documentary series about various Arab religious communities on Al Jazeera. In the episode about the Copts, there was an interesting remark made by Pope Shenouda III, the Patriarch of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Alexandria, Egypt. Starting around the 5:20 until the 5:40 mark he states what can be translated as:
“The origins of the Copts are Pharaonic and not Arabic. However, they now possess Arab citizenship and the Arabic language, but their origins are not Arab.”
Arabization in Egypt
The Coptic Christian community of Egypt are not ethnically Arabs, despite being native Arabic speakers and being physically indistinguishable from other Egyptians. Technically, their ethnicity should represent the majority in Egypt and their presence predates Arab Muslim hegemony in the region. The same can be said of Berbers in Northwest Africa. How is it, then, did they assume an Arab identity?
It suffices us to know that Arabization in Egypt, like much of North Africa, was a slow and complicated process. The early Muslims played a major role in ending Byzantine oppression of indigenous Christian sects in Egypt and the rest of North Africa in 7th century CE. Their initial social contract was that of a dhimmi status, which guaranteed them protection as long as they paid the jizyah tax.
The Cairo Geniza papers reveal the rich linguistic environment of the Nile between the 3rd century BCE and the 7th century CE. These papers consist of papyri written in languages such as Hebrew, Syrian, Ethiopian, Middle Persian, and hieroglyphics to name a few. However, the majority of these documents are in Arabic, Coptic, and Greek. They suggest that by the 7th century Arabic was used side-by-side with Coptic and Greek until 705 when a decree made Arabic the official administrative language.
We know that by the 12th century Pope Gabriel II (Ibn Turayk) had officially made Arabic the language of Coptic liturgy. His reasoning for this was that Copts had already been Arabized and that they should worship in a language they understand. Of course, the true extent of Arabization at this point in time is debatable. Perhaps only urbanized Copts had become comfortable with conversing in Arabic, while rural Copts were not.
Furthermore, scholarship on the topic shows that there were a number of factors that led to the ultimate Arabization of Egypt.These factors were an interplay of “Arab” migration, their intermarriage with Coptic women, willing and coerced conversion to Islam, popular Muslim distrust of and violence against Copts, and official policies of the state. (To learn more read: Coptic Conversion and the Islamization of Egypt and Coptic Language and Identity in Ayyūbid Egypt).
Lessons for America
Even after a difficult history under Muslim rule, the Coptic population has survived as Egypt’s largest national minority. While their Arabness is a topic of continued debate in their communities and within Egypt, I will suggest a few lessons that the so-called African American can learn from this history.
As we note from Pope Shenouda II’s statement, the Coptic community is an indigenous community with a distinct heritage. While their heritage is initially Pharaonic, it is their Christian heritage that allows them to maintain a social contract under Muslim rule. It is an Islamic belief that Islam abrogated Christianity, just as Christianity abrogated Judaism and so forth, which might have served as the basis for Muslims’ harsh treatment of the Copts throughout history, especially after the Crusades.
However, it was only after they proclaimed their free national and religious identity that they were able to attain Arab citizenship. While much was lost in this transaction, they were also able to maintain their legal sovereignty in a nation ruled by Islamic law. In fact, Islamic law, like American law, guaranteed them the right to govern themselves.
Additionally, by Arabizing their heritage they were able to preserve what they could of their history in a living language. This is an important point for so-called African Americans, as the language of our history and scholarship provides access to different audiences and influences the types of discussions we have around topics of concern to us.
Finally, their citizenship is not simply tied to a nation (Egyptian), but to a heritage (Arab). As Arab citizens, the Copts were not only able to secure a place within Egyptian society, but in the greater Arab world. As Arab citizens, they have the right to produce culture, scholarship, and engage in the current events of the Arab world.
 This argument is reminiscent of the contemporary argument for the use of colloquial Arabic in the Arab world. See Is Fusha Elitist?
Student: Wow! You used to teach Arabic?! Fusha or Amiyya?
Student: Don’t you think it’s elitist to speak in Fusha, though?
This is a conversation that transpired recently between me and a young American student studying in Egypt. It was a courteous conversation and the student actually wanted to hear my honest response to her question. My position is based on the following points, which I expressed to her, but I also think that my response warrants mentioning in a more well-thought out manner. The idea that fusha somehow aids in an elitist mindset reflects the miseducation American students of the language receive from their government and universities. Moreover, the push to the teaching of Arabic dialects has made students pawns in a broader political game.
This is not how we teach English
The powers that be in the U.S. will never agree to the use of American dialects such as African American Vernacular English, Hawaiian Pidgin, or Cajun as the language of instruction in schools. First, these dialects are not connected to a rich written heritage that learners can read in. Even if this heritage existed, it would disadvantage learners in an Standard English-dominated society by not training them in the register of language that is valued in the greater society, effectively making them foreigners in their own country.
Yet, Americans propagate the teaching of Arabic dialects both at home and abroad in contradistinction to the way we use and envision our own language. Before students know anything about Arabic, they are supplanted with ideas about its difficulty and are given the option to learn Modern Standard Arabic, Qur’anic Arabic, or Amiyyah. When people wish to learn English they learn a standard version of the language. Slang and dialectical characteristics are expected to be encountered and acquired later as students have more contact with native speakers of English. Why aren’t slang and dialects emphasized more in English learning pedagogy? Why don’t we speak more about the differences between British and American English, Jamaican Patois and Aboriginal English, Gullah and Nigerian English, etc.? Well, in addition to our notion of exceptionalism there are some deep-rooted political reasons for our view of the Arabic language, which I will briefly touch on in the following paragraphs.
The Weaponization of Language
In the summer of 2015, I was teaching a free Arabic-language intensive at a small liberal arts college in North Carolina. I advertised it on the Arabic-L listserv, a listserv for scholars, instructors, and Arabic nerds. I promptly received an email from Dr. Chris Stone of Hunter College (CUNY), asking me bluntly where I was receiving my funding. I told him that my position was funded by a grant from the Department of Education and I knew why he was asking to which he replied that he was glad to see the Department of Education was still doing its job and that he would advertise this intensive in his circle.
In April 2014, Dr. Stone published an article on the online Jadaliyya website entitled Teaching Arabic in the US after 9/11. He began the article discussing the situation in which he was stabbed outside of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. His attacker apparently wanted to take revenge for U.S. policies in the Middle East. He then brings to the reader’s attention the number of post-9/11 defense and intelligence funding opportunities for the teaching and learning of Arabic. He goes on to discuss the controversies within the fields of Middle Eastern and African studies concerning this funding.
These funds and newfound interest in the teaching and learning of Arabic in the United States has reshaped how scholars, teachers, and students approach the language. Under the pretext of teaching a more communicative approach, they have called on instructors to get students speaking as soon as possible. In 2002, the counterterrorism Arabist, Dr. Geoff Porter wrote a critical piece in the New York Times alerting the F.B.I. to the differences between various registers of Arabic, urging them to teach their agents a more natural language that will allow them to better understand wiretapped phones. Thus inserting a dagger into Arab language pedagogy. I once interned at a military archives that needed to sort through hundreds of Arabic fliers that were used for PsyOps during the Iraq War in the 2000’s. The Arabic in these fliers reflected the dry style of American military speech, rife with exclamatory commands and warnings, which I could not imagine being taken seriously by any Arabic speaker.
Anyone privy to the teaching of Arabic in American universities since 9/11 should be aware of this philosophical shift. The second and third editions of the renown Al-Kitaab fii Taʿallum al-ʿArabiyya series, taught at most universities, conspicuously increased its colloquial content. In the meantime, people serving in various branches of the American military were offered generous bonuses for proven proficiency in any of the “defense languages,” mainly the Egyptian, Levantine, and Iraqi Arabic dialects. Likewise, defense language and foreign service-oriented scholarships became plenty for students.
The debate over diglossia in the Arab world is a heated one. It was sparked by European Orientalists and colonialists venturing into regions of the Arab world and finding discrepancies between the written and spoken, formal and informal languages and the widespread use of different registers in different situations. While such differences were present, Europeans saw an opportunity to separate Egyptians and other Arab nationalities from their heritage.
Their aim was to do to the Arabs what they did to Africans in the Americas when they physically, mentally, and spiritually disconnected us from our language, culture and religion. Of course, this required a different strategy, because the Arabs were still in their lands and took a lot of pride in their language, culture and religion. The solution was a calculated plot to marginalize fusha and those that held to it.
Since the late 19th century, there has been an ongoing conspiracy to detach Arabs from their language, culture, and religion. This is meticulously documented by Dr. Nafusa Zakaria Sa’id in her book, Tārīkh al-Daʿwah ʾIlā al-ʿĀmīyyah wa ʾĀthāruhā fī Miṣr(The History of the Appeal to Colloquial Arabic and Its Effects on Egypt). She traces this conspiracy back to two Arab authors who published books on Egyptian Arabic with the sponsorship of Europeans. They even went so far as to publish high literature like the parts of the Bible and Shakespeare in colloquial Arabic on behalf of the Egyptians. Dr. Sa’id points out that all languages (including European languages) have registers, dialects, and colloquialisms, but only Orientalists with an agenda made these a problem.
Despite their many attempts to convince Egyptians to treat their dialect as an independent language, their ideas never quite took root, due to the strong influence of Azhar University and the public’s general reverence for their Arab heritage, regardless of whether they were Jewish, Christian or Muslim. They only began to see success once they started to open up schools that taught in European languages during the age of colonization. By cleverly marketing their schools, selective enrollment, a Western education was reserved for a new elite… Those who revered Europeans and their way of thinking by adopting their ideas, language, and lifestyle. While they naturally spoke their local dialects, their higher learning, which would ordinarily acquaint them with fusha, was replaced with a foreign language. Those that studied in Arabic were deemed backward and uncultured, making proficiency fusha anything but elite. Unfortunately, this mindset still exists to this day in Egypt and other Arab nations to this day.
A Listing of Works Calling for the Use of ‘Amiyyah
1838 – ʾAḥsan al-Nukhab fī Maʿrifat Lisān al-ʿArab by Muhammad ‘Iyad al-Tantawi
1880 – Grammatik des Arabischen Vulgardialectes Von Aegypten by Dr. Wilhelm Spitta
1886 – Al-Risālah al-Tāmmah fī Kalām al-ʿĀmmah wa al-Manāhij fī ʾAḥwāl al-Kalām al-Dārij by Mikha’il Sibagh
1893 – “Why There is No Creativity Among Egyptians Now” speech by William Willcocks
1895 – The Modern Egyptian Dialect Of Arabic by Karl Vollers
1901 – The Spoken Arabic of Egypt by J. Selden Willmore
1926 – Manual of Egyptian Arabic by D.C. Phillot and A.P. Powell
1926 – “Syria, Egypt, North Africa, and Malta Speak Punic, Not Arabic” by William Willcocks
Arabs Are Not the Only Arabic Speakers
My final retort is that Arabic is not only the language of those who identify ethnically as Arabs. It is used by ethnic and religious minorities such as Copts, Berbers, Kurds, etc. It is also used by Muslims outside of the “Arab World.” In fact, some of the most eloquent and learned people in the language have been people I lived and studied with from a diverse array of backgrounds. They were students from West Africa, East Africa, and different parts of Asia who usually memorized the Qur’an and conducted their primary studies at madrasas of humble means in their home countries. They later went on to pursue higher degrees at recognized institutions in the Arab World. Though their introduction to the language was entirely in fusha, they would adapt to hearing a local Arabic dialect within a month or two, because they already had a strong foundation in the basics of the language. This has been the system in which non-native Arabic speakers acquired proficiency in the language for hundreds of years. However, Americans, out of their warmongering and need for Mcdonaldfication in all matters, have tried to jump the gun in language pedagogy by learning Arabic for nefarious purposes and without an understanding of the peoples that speak it.
This is not to say that I oppose the speaking or study of Arabic dialects. Indeed, natural speech is essential to communication and daily survival in Arabic-speaking countries as anyone who has ever studied in the Arab world may know. Unfortunately, there are many misunderstandings about the Arabic language in the United States and it will take a generation of learners with both expertise and a clear perspective of the language to unravel them.