The Problem of teaching Arabic in Africa

The Problem of teaching Arabic in Africa

Professor Abdullah Taieb from Sudan - The problem of teaching Arabic in Africa
Professor Abdullah Taieb from Sudan

The Problem of teaching Arabic in Africa [1]

Praise be to Allah; He has Given and has Blessed. Allah’s Prayers and Salvation Be upon Sidna Muhammad, his family and his companions.

Lectures indeed, they are and their great benefit

Has become, thanks to you Ameer Al Mu’mineen, universal.

May Allah repay you. Reward in His hand.

He, Allah, who is well-informed about his servants’ acts.

Your crown Prince and his brother

Always have priority and magnificence.

I pray Allah to give us rightness,

With magnificence in this august assembly

He is most capable.’

Peace be on my Lord Ameer Al Mu’mineen and this august assembly.

“I have based my talk on the problem of teaching Arabic in Africa on the words of Allah, Most High, in his Holy Book in the sura of Al Waqia’: A (goodly) number from those of old, and a (goodly) number from those of later times”.

For the interpretation of this verse, I say that Thullah (a(goodly) number in the verse) means a group of people. It also means a herd of sheep.

It has been advanced that what is between, the prophet Sidna Adam, peace be upon him, and the prophet Sidna Muhammad, Allah’s prayers and salvation be upon him, is a ‘thullah’. That is the first group, the (goodly) number from those of old. And the prophet Muhammad’s Umma (nation) is a thulla (a number of people) but it is not a group until it is completed by camel shepherds from Sudan, that is to say the poor people in Sudan.

Ibnu Kathir, who explained this verse in connection with his explanation of the verses about Assabiqin (the formost) in:

“And those Foremost (in Faith) will be Foremost (in Hereafter). These will be Those nearest to God: In Gardens of Bliss: a number of people from Those of old and a few from those of later times”.

Ibnu Kathir stated this and said that as to whom this (Those of later time) may be attributed, needs some thinking. This is Al Bukhari’s expression for weakening.

The truth is that whoever meditates about this saying will find that it has an origin which is a proverb. It is not a sound proverb, ­but it is among those mentioned in this context: ‘The people of Al Gharb (The west) will remain defending righteousness until the Hour of Resurrection comes’. This was told by Muslim. It has other ­versions in Al Bukhari’s works. Concerning the explanation about Al Gharb (The west), Ali Ibnu Al Madini said that what is meant by Al Gharb here is the bucket, and the people of the West are the people who use the bucket, that is to say the Arabs. Al Gharb been referred to in some versions of the Hadith as Al Maghrib (where the sun sets) and this is obvious. It is mentioned in the chapter about Al Manaqib (the ethics) in the hadith by Al Bukhari, that a man from Sham (the region including Syria and Iraq), Malik Ibnu Yukhamer heard Mua’ad say: Those are in Sham, meaning those who were still defending righteousness, but Mua’ouiya who ­was renowned for his intelligence and malice told people: Malik Ibnu Yukhamer said that he heard Mu’aad Say That they are in Sham, but he has not attributed the statement to himself, nor has he been certain of it. Annawawy said in his interpretation that Mua’ad Said: those are in Sham, meaning some virtuous people living in Sham. Allah knows best. Among the other interpretations is that Al Gharb is meant to be the West, because it indicates the West of Medina towards Hidjaz and the African coast, including Egypt, the Maghreb and Sudan, which is quite possible and Allah knows best.

Among the strangest interpretations is that Al Gharb is a sort of huge tree with thorns found in Alhidjaz. If this is true, it is more likely that it is in Sudan, because there is still a sort of huge tree with thorns that has disappeared from Al Hidjaz, and which is called Haraz named after a mountain in Arab land called Haras.

Among the stories which are told in this context, the Prophet’s commandment to the tall black people of Madara, who are unders­tood as being the people of Egypt. If Egypt is mentioned here, we must include the Nile and what comes after it, which is Sudan. Because the people of Egypt are not tall and black, only a few of them are, whereas most of the people in Sudan are tall and black. What confirms this assumption is Allah’s words in His Holy Book:

“To every people (was sent) an Apostle: when their Apost­le comes (before them), the matter will be judged between them with justice, and they will not be wronged”.

Some pretend that no Apostle was sent to the people of Sudan. Al Maa’rri said that in one of his poems:

“No Herald appeared in high Zughawa,

How would that happen to blacks who live in spots.”

Zughawa is a tribe, most people of which (if not all) are in our country (Sudan).

Some others pretend that there were prophets in Sudan, but Allah, Most High, did not tell our Prophet, Peace Be upon Him, their stories, they justify that with Allah’s saying:

“We did aforetime send Apostles before Thee: of them there are some whose stories We have related to Thee, and some whose story We have not related to Thee.”

Others pretend that Luqman was an Apostle, justifying that by the fact that wisdom was bestowed on him by God and that Jesus said ‘I have come to you with wisdom’ the proof that should be given here, is that our Prophet Muhammad was sent to all mank­ind. As in the Holy Qoran:

‘Say: “O men! I was sent unto you all’

 So the Sudanese are concerned by His mission that concerns all mankind. That is why the second ‘Thulla’ (group of people) will be completed with those who will undoubtedly enter Islam, and this confirms the first statement.

The people of Sudan, however, were in the other ‘Thulla’. All the four ‘Thulal’ (groups of people) mentioned: The (goodly) number from those of old, the few from those of later times, as well as the two later groups, consist of people from this blessed nation (the moslems). Among the precursors from Sudan, Sidna Bilal who was born in Mecca, lived in Mecca, but whose origin was in Dankola in the Nile area. It may be that Sidna Yazid lbnu Habib, the confirmed companion and Hadith teller, was born in Dankola, then moved to Egypt where he taught and remained. This is why I have brought this verse into discussion and mentioned Sudan in particular and Africa in general. Because Sudan are the only people who have wanted Arabic because of Islam. The others (especially in our modem times) may need Arabic for various wordly matters, and this is a complicated chapter, the study of which would be pro­fitable to no one, that is why I have chosen to avoid it. Nevertheless, I must remind myself in this assembly that Arabic has weakened these days, even in Arab countries, and its status must be raised.

Concerning this point, Sudan is divided in two parts: East and West. Eastern Sudan consists of Arabs, arabists and all sorts of non­-arabs like Ethiopians, ‘Zaghawa’ and ‘Bujat’. The ‘Bujat’ are the people of the Red Sea who are connected with the Najaib camels (a type of camels). Abu Taieb mentioned them in the poem he wrote while running away from Kafur. These tribes and people who lived in the Eastern part had a relationship with Yemen, Al Hidjaz and Egypt. As a proof of this, there was a Sinari gallery in Egypt, and our country was known as Sinar, and a gallery of Darfur, and the western part of our country was known by the name of Darfur. And there were also Awqaf (endowments) in Mecca, Medina and the two sherifian sanctuaries.

But this close relationship with Egypt, Al Hidjaz and Yemen did not cut the strong relationships with Al Maghreb, its extreme Northern part and its western Sudanese part. This relationship was complete since Ulema (professors) used to pass by on their way to Pilgrimage in Mecca, especially the Ulema from ‘Shenqit’. Barkhart in his book Journeys to the prophetic land’ has mentioned the effect of the Shenqit people. He has said that he saw a group of them in the town of “Naddamar” where they taught and surround­ed the mosque. Education in our country was based on the Qoranic school called ‘Khalua’, which is the origin of knowledge in our country.

Among the best evidence on the relationship between Eastern Sudan and the Maghreb, the flood of people who arrived from Shenqit. Example: Ahmad Ibn Idris Al Fassi. He emigrated from the Maghreb to the Red Sea Coast where a group of students learn­ed under him and followed him. He had a great influence in our country, as well as in any country he went through. Among those students, followers, or friends in our country, Sheikh Ibrahim Arrashid from the Land of Hashimiya. He was a student of Ahmad Ibnu Idris, whose stories can be found in what he wrote or what has been reported on him. I have learnt that his family still hold many documents in this subject. The Rashidian school originated from Ibrahim Arrashid and has followers in Sudan, but most of its adepts are in Somalia. Another student of Ahmad Ibnu Idris is Muham­mad Othman Al Marghini who was from Al Hidjaz and among the nobles of Mecca. He came from there and Settled for a while in Sudan and in Egypt. He married a woman from the Siwar Addahab Family in the West of Sudan. She gave him a son: Al Hassan Al Marghini who spread the ‘Khatmia’ school which played a great part in the spreading of Islam in Etria and in many areas in Eastern Sudan. Among his descendants, as this august assembly knows and as your Majesty knows is the President of the Council of state (in Sudan) who has visited this country and has been most generously treated as it is the Tradition of this country and its glorified king.

Among those who accompanied Muhammad Othman Al Marghini, Ismael Al Wali among the descendants of whose is Ismael Al Azhari who is well known. Among those who followed Ahmad lbnu Idris but did not learn under him, although they had a great admiration and respect for each other, Sheikh Muhammad Al Mahjoub who died young, before the age of forty and who was a great poet. He wrote eulogies for the Prophet among which his words:

“My longing for Teeba, my trusty friend, has lasted long,

I sometimes imagine it, and sometimes remember it.

I remember, my friend, the nights that we spent

In its mosque as people praised Allah and Cried.

Until he says:

‘That is the grace of Allah, His grace is apparent”

(By the grace of Allah here, he refers to Allah’s words: ‘Ye are the Best of Peoples that evolved to mankind’)

The renaissance that was in Western Sudan was deeper and stronger as it was more fertile in knowledge. In Timbuktu which was founded in the years six and seven hundred, there were big mosques and great professors. Some of these professors are known to these august people, like Professor Ahmad Baba who learned knowledge under my family. He came to this country where he taught, published many books, then returned to his country where he died.

There was a conquest from the Maghreb to the land of Sanghay and Mali in Western Africa. Many professors appeared there and influenced the areas around Mali. Among those who benefited from this conquest, the people of Hawsa where a great cultural move­ment took place. But they would somehow relate much of this cultural movement to the great professor Assiuti, the author of ‘Attafsir’ (the Interpretation) It is said that he visited Hawsa, and many people in the town of Katsina in the north of Al Hawsa, were his students.

Here, we shall stop for a short while to remind that the Islamic world was united, complementary and formed a whole. The professors were the elite united by one language (Arabic) which enabled the knowledge of the Qoran, the Hadith, the jurisprudence and many religious forms. I do not think the world has seen a wider language civilization than the Arabic civilization, because of the difference in the varieties of Arabic and the difference in the variety of those who wrote in it. And its depths are, perhaps, still unexplor­ed. this made the expert Arabs feel that they belong to a large elite that extended from the extreme East to the extreme West, and any arab could meet the best of those who used Arabic if he went on Pilgrimage to the Ka’Aba in Mecca. This agreement on Arabic and on the theology of Islam was shared by all moslems, with no distinc­tion between arabs and non-arabs. They all shared one characteris­tic which is that the masses spoke other languages than the Fosha (pure Arabic). In the arab countries, it was the language of the people that was taught and written, like the case of the language of Hawsa and the other varieties that the professors used in order to teach language to their people. I think Europe became jealous of the moslems in this, so it imitated them in its renaissance, when it made Latin the language of knowledge, especially during the period of lef­tism, the movement known in English as Leusomlism and among its leaders were Erasmus, Thomas Moss and others. This movement insisted on talking and writing in Latin, whilst there were various local european languages used for writing. The fact of belonging to the great Arab world gave Africa a feeling of greatness and honour.

Allah says:

“But honour belongs to God, and His Apostle, and to the Believes”

So, one felt he had this honour, because he was one of the elite that deserves it. Allah say:

“If any do seek glory and power, to God belong all glory and power. To Him mount up (all) words of Purity: it is He who exalts each Deed of Righteousness”

Those who belonged to this honoured elite wanted their words to mount up to Allah, Most high, so they studied the Holy Qoran, the Hadith and other types of delightful words. They learnt eulogies for the Prophet because they are beautiful words, and they particul­arly engaged in the learning of ‘Al Borda’ and ‘Al Hamzia’ (Two famous texts in the eulogy for the Prophet). Then, a strong desire to divide these texts into small texts of five, seven and nine, took them. They even took them as a model and wrote much poetry and went beyond the writing of eulogies for the Prophet to indulge in other, forms of knowledge. This, they did for a long time. In the book ‘Al Ghait Al Hamia’ (The pouring rain) there is poetry that deals with matters other than religious, like this poet who wrote about his longing to the town of Kanu:

“I wish I lived in Kanu,

After I met generous people from Kanu”

Among our contemporaries who are interested in this ancient culture and who have kept it, Professor Mua’llim Juneid, a minister who is still alive. In one of his poems he composed during a journey to Khartum with Hadj Ahmad Ballu, he describes the beauty of Khartum and his love and longing to this town in the pure ancient poetic style. He also has a poem in which he explains the language of the ‘so and so’, which is written on the model of the Alfia (a poem, the lines of which all end with the letter Alif (A)) by Ibnu Malik Sheikh Abdallah Ibnu Fudi, his brother Sheikh Othman founder of the Emirate of Hawsa, and his nephew Mohammad Dalu Assultan, all wrote many books. And Abdullah Ibnu Fudi wrote his book’ ‘Tazyin Al Waraqat’ (ornament of paper) in which he refers to Al Bukhari’s ‘Sahih’ in a beautiful poem. He also has a poem in which he supports women’s education, and this is another chapter.

Then, organized education started in our country and the Faculty of Hardud opened its gates. With it, jobs at five pounds and eight pounds started, when the pound was worth a quarter of an ounce in gold. People started attending this new education, hesi­tantly at first, but when they realized its benefit, they rushed to it in large numbers. Only a short while afterwards, this education extended so much that the Khalaoui (Qoranic schools) disappeared completely except for some vestiges with no great importance. Because of the great attendance and the extension of education the level of Arabic weakened. It became weaker when fathers and tutors started directing their sons’ studies to become doctors, engineers or one of those professions which are taught in other languages than Arabic. Some of those who graduated from the new organized state schools, however, had had their origins in the Khalua (Qoranic school), and they often had this nostalgia to their origin. In this context we shall mention the late Al Fadel Ibrahim who was a honorable competent ophthalmologist surgeon. He was originally from a religious Qoranic School. When he had become professio­nally successful, he thought about building a house near his surgery and he called it Al Arqam’s house. He called to his side other doctors to study the Qoran with the help of some Qoran memori­zers. Only a short while afterwards, professionals and graduates started attending Al Arqam’s house and creating other similar bouses themselves.

The new Islamic movements have helped in the rush to the study of the Hadith and the revival of ancient culture. but this does not solve the problem of teaching Arabic in Africa which needs a well-studied system. I see that we must go back to the Qoran basis. We must make people learn and memorize the texts and choose the competent teacher who will teach people how to have a good taste and settle them in the right path.

Organized Education started in Western Sudan, but, at the beginning, it didn’t harm or disturb the local education. That is what I have learnt from my experience in Nigeria. The new organiz­ed education did not disturb the local education at the beginning, because those who introduced it, chose to make it purely European. They left the moslems dealing with their ancient teaching and writ­ing. Erasing with acacia what they did not want and writing with good ink made of iron oxide what they wanted to remain forever. I have seen Al Bukhari’s ‘Sahih’ written in this type of ink and I was told it was the copy that Othman Ibnu Fudi used to refer to, so it has lasted for a long time. Preaching, however, is subject to a certain control in Sudan, East and West. That is why I have given up tal­king about Arabic in southern Sudan though my familiarity with the subject goes back to the early fifties. It is as Abu Taieb Al Mutanabbi said a sophisticated subject, the remedy of which is unknow, so I have given it up.

I do not want, Attabshir to have the idea of preaching, or an­nouncement, I want to take it with the idea of peeling off things and in this respect I think of two important things. The aim of Attabshir was: firstly, to distinguish and form a wide gap between white and black Moslems. Secondly, to prevent the formation and indepen­dence of an Islamic state in the South of the Sahara. It should be in the hands of non-moslems. That is why Azubeir was fought against and with him Bash Rahamat was hurt when he formed his state among the branches of which is the state that his fourth master founded in the land of Fes. One of the town still existing from that state is N’Djamena which I mention to explain that the term N’Djamena is not foreign but an Arabic term. It cormes from Al Jamam (excess) and It means “we have found rest”. So Azubeir and his followers were fought against and he was exiled in Gibraltar in a famous story behind which was undoubtedly Attabshir, This peel­ing off and the European colonialism. Attabshir, with its concern with harming the moslems, was always near them controlling them. The English started introducing the teaching of Arabic in Nigeria in an organized way. They wanted to show that they recognized the language respected by all and wanted to found an institute for it. But their secret policy was to lead the teaching of Arabic to the type of destruction that was going on in countries other than Sudan. So, they created a school of Arabic in the town of Kanu in the early thirties. Unlike their expectations, this school had a very good ef­fect. That is where all the secrets and plans of the state of the late Ahmad Ballu were arranged! He, his friends and Emirs were plan­ning in the same way colonialism was. So, they took this opportu­nity to oppose the different trends of Attabshir (peeling off) which aimed at a legal killing of Arabic by introducing the teaching of pro­fessions in Latin to destroy the local language, and to make a gap between people and the language of the Qoran. Ahmad Ballu and his friends took this opportunity, then, and introduced Arabic in Secondary schools and went on to create an Islamic Arabic Faculty in 1964. Among Allah’s bounties on me was that I started work in it, then. This Faculty was called Abdallah Biarru’s Faculty, but it developed and became the University of Biarru in the town of Kanu and other faculties for Arabic Legislation and study were created there.

Organized Education did not harm the study of Arabic in Hawsa for various reasons among them was the fact that sufism (mysticism) was deeply rooted in people there and the sufists had a vast knowledge and a great merit among people, so the graduates from the new schools were anxious to keep the mutual relationship of respect and they did not want to appear ignorant vis à vis the sufists so they endeavored to go deeply in their studies which, of course, rose the level of Arabic.

The feeling that Attabshir was watching and threatening people strengthened the relationship between them very much. There is still a very important element, there which has a very interesting side, but also a dangerous side. That is the afore mentioned element of ‘belonging’. We have said that the African person felt very proud of belonging to this elite that spoke Arabic. Because of people’s desire of this feeling of belonging, the evolution experienced in Hawsa and other areas was followed by the sending of children to Egypt and elsewhere, seeking specialization after specialization. The danger of this epidemy of belonging is the spreading of some of the weakness in the teaching of Arabic that has happened in Arab countries. In this context the arabs should be careful and teach the africans their everyday language. The Sudanese have their local languages that they use to communicate and compose poetry. They have a great culture and they want Arabic for the Qoran, knowledge and religion. In the contemporary Arabic dialects and their likes, there is nothing related to Islam, whereas there is in Modern Arabic what is related to the Arab civilization. The african wants to belong to this civilization and he knows that he cannot be a member unless he improves his arabic and this can only be done through the lear­ning of the Qoran and the learning of Grammar, morphology and texts. This is what they are about to do and this is what they should be encouraged to do.

Another most important matter is that there were many writ­ings and books in Hawsa and Western Africa in general. They were in various forms: in poetry, religion and the interpretation of the mother books (fundamental books). They explained the Qoran, like the book ‘Diyaa’ Atta’Aweel’ (the light of interpretation) by Abdal­lah lbnu Fudi and the book ‘the Poor of Sudan’. In a biography I have seen that Abdallah lbnu Fudi was the Sultan of Hawsa. He was not. He was a brother of the founder of the Kingdom of the Emirates in Hawsa and his nephew Muhammad Dallu was the Sul­tan.

These books interested orientalists very much. And what is sur­prising is that one orientalist was so impressed and interested with the product he found in those books by people he though did not know anything, that he entered Islam and took the name of Abdul­lah. He died a short while ago, and he is Professor Abdullah Smiths who was teacher at Ahmad Dallu University. However, the interest of the foreign educators in those books is great. They consult and study them to write theses and to grasp the knowledge and culture they find, and, may be, to spy on Islam and gather as much as they can of documents. Some of them they show and many they keep secret. What we too, in Easter Sudan should do is get hold of those books and manuscripts and study them. Some of us have become conscious of the problem, but those with more possibilities and abilities from arab countries like the Mashreq (East) and Magh­reb (West) I think they can contribute in this, a great deal.

Before I finish, I say that what heightens this feeling of ‘belon­ging’ is these meetings between scholars. And this is not surprising because hospitable Morocco and its glorified king have had a great priority in this matter with these meetings they organize between oriental, arab and African Scholars, which increase the feeling of ‘belonging’ and make Western Africa, in particular, continuously attached to pure Arabic, so as to be an example to the arabs who have begun to forget their language which is their origin and the root of their civilization.

Also, among the things that all Sudan, East and West, needs is books. Books are very dear, but it is very rare when they reach us without being very expensive. There are many universities that teach Arabic and they are in urgent need to the mother books (fun­damental books) as there are valuable things in the mother books. As an example: I was leafing the book ‘Tabaqat Ashafi’ya’ (the classes in the Shafi’ya school), when I found a poem by the emperor of Rome which he sent to Attai’ Lillah, and in which he was planning to conquer the Moslem countries one after the other. he says:

“I shall conquer all the East and West and Spread Christianity everywhere.

Then, from there I shall make for Mecca Leading an army as dense as dark nights”.

This is a long poem in the second volume of  ‘Tabaqat Asha­fi’ya’

So, there are valuable things in these mother books. Those things make people firm about their religion and language, and Sudan needs them very much. Western Sudan is also in need of text books and readers that are used at Secondary school level and below. Many books that used to be in use in Egypt and Sham would be of great help if they were sent there. I do not want to start a talk about this problem because it would be a long one. I just want to point out that there exist love for Arabic, interest in Arabic, excel­lent methods in Arabic and many books that Sudan should be made aware of.

Before I finish my lecture, I must say Some rhythmical words to praise your Majesty.

Professor Abdullah Taieb reads a poem in which he says that Ameer Al Mumineen (commander of the faithful) king Hassan II who is a descendant of Prophet Muhammad, Allah’s prayers and salvation Be upon Him, bas marked bis era with bis excellent conduct: He has known how To preserve and guard this ‘Ribat’ (link) between the arabs and moslems everywhere. The professor praises king Hassan II for this Tradition he has started which is to gather scholars from various arab and moslem countries in these meetings that are temples of knowledge where the Holy Qoran is constantly read. These meetings that have attracted scholars and professors from everywhere, from Tashqend to China. The profes­sor mentions that king Hassan II has created a great school with which he has contributed in the spreading of the Islamic culture and that is Dar Al Hadith Al Hassania, and he planned and conducted the march of peace Al Massira Al Khadra, with which Allah, Most High, has granted him glory and Triumph.

The professor prays Allah to protect and bless Crown Prince Sidi Muhammad, his brother Moulay Rashid and all the members of the Sherifian Family. He also prays Allah to grant his mercy to king Hassan’s father, the late king Muhammad V. He prays Allah to pro­tect and grant glory and triumph to His Majesty King Hassan II.


[1] A Hassanian lecture delivered by Professor Abdullah Taieb from Sudan, before H.M. King Hassan II, Peace Be upon Him,  over the holy month of Ramadan of 1408 A.H. (1988)