I’ve felt more aware recently of how some people see the Middle East as the “core” of the Muslim world, and other Muslim population centers as less relevant to Islam and even less “Islamic.” The equations “Arab=Muslim” and “Muslim=Arab,” which many people seem to accept, are hard to break. Certainly Mecca is the ritual center of the Muslim world, and Arabic the language of the Qur’an. But this does not mean that non-Arab Muslims are second-class believers, that they are less versed in Islamic sciences, or that they are less central to the trajectory of Islam in the contemporary world.
Arabic grammar is one of the classical Islamic sciences, and I think it is especially important to point out that many non-Arab Muslims can more than hold their own in this area. I think many students of Islam who have not traveled to sub-Saharan Africa might be surprised at the high standard of Arabic that some African Muslim scholars possess. During my field research in Northern Nigeria I routinely met people who spoke flawless Arabic (fusha, typically), even people who had never left Nigeria. This does not mean that advanced Arabic literacy is widespread among the population – although many people possess some ability to, at a minimum, sound out Arabic writing – but people with an advanced religious education, including advanced training in Arabic, are not rare.
One anecdote may help demonstrate the depth of such people’s command of Arabic. In Arabic textbooks in the United States, you will often find that what we call in English the “passive voice” is called in Arabic “al mabni lil majhul,” a classical grammatical term that translates, “the construction for the unknown [subject].” I was sitting with a friend one day when the term came up. He ventured that the “passive voice” would be better rendered “al mabni li ghayr al musamma bihi” – “the construction for the subject that is not named.” After all, he pointed out, just because the subject is not named does not mean that it is unknown. Maybe that won’t seem like a big deal to you, but it blew my mind. This man’s knowledge of Arabic was so deep, and he had spent so much time thinking about the grammar of the language, that he was able to point out an untenable assumption in a common grammatical term. I would put that man up against nearly any native speaker, or grammarian, and expect his knowledge of Arabic grammar to equal or surpass theirs.
How do such people get to that advanced level? Oftentimes, even for people who have university degrees (as he does), what we might call “traditional education” has given them a strong foundation. In the US, we frequently view memorization by rote as the lowest form of learning. We exalt “critical thinking,” as though one can think critically without a foundation comprised of details – details that must be memorized. We also tend to read widely, reading many texts, instead of deeply, reading one text closely or repeatedly. In Northern Nigeria, the memorization of texts is widespread, as is their close and repeated study. Grammarians in the region will often study in depth, and possibly memorize, texts like the Alfiya of Ibn Malik. That memorization can bring a powerful command of the language, especially in its classical form.
The memorization of the Qur’an itself can also offer a tremendous grounding in Arabic. A professor from Maiduguri (which is, or was, renowned as a center for the memorization of the Qur’an), told me once about an impromptu competition he had held in Syria between Syrian students and a few Nigerians who were there. The competition was to write out the fatiha – the opening sura of the Qur’an – from memory without making mistakes in voweling and other linguistic features. He said that the Nigerians were able to reproduce the Qur’anic text perfectly, while the Syrians stumbled. One may disbelieve the story, but it at least shows the confidence that he felt in Nigerians’ command of Arabic and of scripture.
There is much more to say on the subject of outsiders’ perceptions – and the realities – of the depth of religious commitment and religious knowledge among Muslims in sub-Saharan Africa. I plan to return to the subject. But I hope these quick anecdotes have shown that just because a Muslim is not an Arab does not necessarily mean that their Islam – or their command of Arabic – is second-rate.