Monday, May 19, 2014

The lingua franca of jihad (updated)

[Update May 2014]

In the widely-watched video, in which Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau exults in his new notoriety, and crows over the captive schoolgirls, he mixes various languages, in a rather desultory rant;  but at one point breaks into perfectly correct classical Arabic (inflectional voweling and all), when he says, pointing towards his sedentary hostages:  "By God! They will never leave our hands, until our brothers are released from your prisons."  His Arabic is better than his English (particularly in pronunciation).

Usama Ben Laden as well  used to give his public addesses in pure classical Arabic, rather than in the dialects that people use every day.


Mr Shekau’s behavior has, one may say, attracted its share of adverse comment.  But here is a detail whose import will escape non-specialists:

A nurse at a hospital here who saw Mr. Shekau a great deal before the summer 2009 uprising — she treated his followers, who were wounded in early skirmishes — found him menacing. “Even if you greet him he doesn’t greet you back,” the nurse said, asking not to be identified for security reasons.

Such surliness is more than impolite:  it is plainly contra-Koranic.   For in one of its well-known verses, believers are enjoined:  “When ye are greeted, reply in kind with the same greeting, or with a better one.”

For a wide-ranging survey of Arabic for linguistically adept non-Arabists,
written in a punchy style,  try
in the Mirror of European Languages.

~     ~     ~

[Below, the original post from February]

A group of seven French nationals was recently kidnapped in Cameroun by Boko Haram, which has just released an interesting video of the hostages:

The hostages are all French, and Cameroun is officially francophone; and the local language is Hausa, with English as an official language.   Nevertheless, the captor’s speech is read in correct, classical, native-accented Arabic.  The rhetoric is stately, the syntax complex -- much like the addresses Usama Bin Laden used to give.  Moreover, the speaker refers to his group as the  Jamâ`atu ahli l-sunnati li-da`wati wa-l-jihad,  “which they nickname ‘Boko Haram’”.  There is indeed quite a contrast in feeling-tone between that mouth-filling Arabic phrase, with its careful and accurate morphological vowelings (and which means:  “Group of the Sunni people, for preaching and combat”),  and the local-language Boko Haram (basically, “bookums nogood” [*]), which by comparison sounds like pidgin.  In keeping with this, the speaker wastes no time at all denouncing the depravities of Western culture, but adorns his discourse with much stately religious phraseology.
Here classical Arabic is being used as an international koiné or lingua franca, much as French was the language of international culture and diplomacy in the eighteenth century, spoken as far east as the courts of Russia.   As such it is a step towards the kind of thinking that would be required for the re-establishment of the Caliphate, of over a thousand years ago, and which once stretched from southern Spain (al-Andalus) to the dimly-remembered lands  beyond the far rivers of the east.

[*]  It turns out that the conventional etymology of Hausa boko from English book  might be mistaken:

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