In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Arabic Language and Islam

  • Introduction
  • Encyclopedias
  • Textbooks on Arabic Grammar and Script
  • Dictionaries
  • Journals
  • History of Arabic Linguistic Thought
  • Lexicography

Islamic Studies Arabic Language and Islam
Mustafa Shah
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 November 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0009


The Arabic language, which is the mother tongue of over 250 million people across the Middle East and North Africa, serves not only as a powerful symbol of Arab national identity, but is also the sacrosanct language of the scripture of Islam. Its fortunes have been decisively influenced by its close association with the faith. Indeed, the attempts to explicate and preserve scripture ultimately engendered the sciences of learning that became synonymous with the tradition of Arabic linguistic thought; and, for many centuries, Arabic served as the linguistic vehicle through which many of Islamic civilization’s religious, cultural, and intellectual achievements were articulated and refined. This bibliography will introduce some of the key critical surveys of the language and its historical development, covering early, medieval, and modern periods, while also listing those studies which have focused on the various theoretical and historical features of the Arabic linguistic sciences within the context of the traditional Arabic grammarians’ approach to the study of language. Special attention will be directed toward research which has sought to accentuate the pivotal role that linguistic thought played in the synthesis of theological, legal, rhetorical, and exegetical constructs, allowing insight into the somewhat intricate interplay which informs the conceptual compasses of faith and language in the Islamic context.

General Overviews

A fine introduction to the modern language is provided by Beeston 2006; this should be consulted in conjunction with Holes 2004, which is both comprehensive and authoritative. Versteegh’s definitive study of the Arabic language covers pre-Islamic, classical, and Modern Arabic across a range of modern linguistic topics (Versteegh 2001). Owens 2006 is essentially an attempt to reconstruct proto-Arabic using historical-comparative linguistic models. It deals with issues germane to the history of the esteemed literary koine of Arabic and colloquial vernaculars. On a parallel theoretical theme, Zwettler 1978 attempts to apply a modified version of Milman Parry and Albert Lord’s theory of oral-formulaic composition to pre- and early Islamic poetry, discussing the preeminence of the literary koine; he also deals with the argument as to whether declensional endings were features of the classical Arabic idiom. It is worth noting that Fück 1950 discusses many of these issues, and the author’s work is still deemed significant. In the context of the debate concerning distinctions between the elevated form of classical Arabic and colloquial vernaculars in common usage among the early Arabs, Blau 2002 reviews the features of the literary diction defined as Middle Arabic. Stylistic and literary discussions germane to the modern language are discussed in Stetkevych 2006. In Shah 2008, aspects of the historical and religious importance of the language are broached.

  • Beeston, A. F. L. The Arabic Language Today. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2006.

    Originally published in 1970, this remains a highly respected survey of the Arabic language by a late scholar who was considered to be one of the outstanding authorities in the field of south Arabian studies.

  • Blau, Joshau. A Handbook of Early Middle Arabic. Jerusalem: Max Schloessinger Memorial Foundation, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2002.

    The term Middle Arabic refers to a type of literary Arabic which deviates from the classical idiom; this work reviews some of its principal features.

  • Fück, Johann. Arabiya: Untersuchungen zur arabischen Sprach-und Stilgeschichte. Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1950.

    This work provides a survey of the classical language and its features and is presented in essay format.

  • Holes, Clive. Modern Arabic: Structures, Functions, and Varieties. Rev. ed. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2004.

    This provides a description of the structure of Modern Arabic in terms of its written and spoken expressions. It also gauges the interplay among levels and varieties of usage within the modern context. It is an excellent work.

  • Owens, Jonathan. A Linguistic History of Arabic. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

    This history adopts an innovative approach to mapping out the origins and development of proto-Arabic, offering some intriguing suggestions on the subject of the origin of Arabic dialects.

  • Shah, Mustafa. “The Arabic Language.” In The Islamic World. Edited by Andrew Rippin, 261–277. London and New York: Routledge, 2008.

    The theological import of discussions germane to the inimitability of the Qur’an and the primacy of the Meccan dialects is assessed in this survey along with the broader historical emergence of the language.

  • Stetkevych, Jaroslav. The Modern Arabic Literary Language: Lexical and Stylistic Developments. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2006.

    Some of the more classical features of the language are explored in terms of their modern literary expression. The discussion of the modern use of etymology, neologisms, and analogy is particularly insightful. Originally published in 1970.

  • Versteegh, Kees. The Arabic Language. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2001.

    The range of topics covered in this text is impressive, and it boasts an extensive bibliography. Its author is one of the leading authorities in the field of Arabic linguistics and is keenly sensitive to the various debates and arguments in the field.

  • Zwettler, Michael. The Oral Tradition of Classical Arabic Poetry: Its Character and Implications. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1978.

    This is an attempt to apply a modified version of Milman Parry and Albert Lord’s theory of oral-formulaic composition to the extensive corpus of pre- and early Islamic poetry. The declensional endings in Arabic are also discussed in the context of the esteemed poetic koine.

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