Arabic = Islam?

In a move that I and surely many others will find bizarre, the University of Oregon has moved its Arabic department to its department of religious studies. According to the university, this is so the department ‘can support Arabic students reading advanced literature and documents, most of which are Islamic in nature’. Aside from the rich tradition of secular Arabic writing and the variety of Middle Eastern cultures that speak Arabic but are not Islamic, both of which deserve academic attention, the whole idea of subsuming a language to a religion is an odd one. Of course Arabic and Islam are intricately linked, but to that extent? It reduces the huge complexity of Arabic-speaking history, culture, and literature, as well as the vibrancy and change of the Arabic-speaking world, to just one aspect of itself; an important aspect, but nonetheless only one. To say that Arab history is purely Islamic or purely driven by Islam is an oversimplification. To constrict the language to the high Arabic of the Qu’ran and ‘advanced Islamic documents’ is a shame, denying as it does the excitement and variety of colloquial Arabic.

I imagine the department was already only teaching fusHa or there was already a big emphasis on Islamic studies, otherwise this would be a huge move. It’s worrying though – my own Arabic department is notoriously a. bad at teaching colloquial Arabic and b. moving closer and closer to being a religious studies department. Conspiracy theories abound on the subject of shadowy Saudi benefactors who, allegedly, are the reason for the department dropping its film and literature courses and adding more and more courses on Islam. Now that I think about it, Cambridge seems to be on its way to an Oregon-style move…


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One response to “Arabic = Islam?

  1. Chris Holman


    I just thought that I would expand on the move a bit since I’m currently the program coordinator here. The quote, ‘can support Arabic students reading advanced literature and documents, most of which are Islamic in nature’ needs to emphasize the word “can”. In other words, this move is only adding to the possibilities for students of Arabic at the U of O. The class that will be taught on classic texts is one that requires two years of Arabic study, and most students are looking for two years to satisfy a requirement. The students who go further are interested in furthering their MSA and dialect, but they’re also tangentially interested in classical texts for what they bring to the table. This is in no means going to be a substitute for other forms of the language.

    Secular writings, cultures and other areas that are not heavily related to Islam are all still on the table and used.

    Also, moving Arabic to Religious Studies does not put it under “Islam”. It just moves the Arabic language to the only natural home on campus. There is no other department where as many courses related to the Middle East are taught. If we had a Middle Eastern Studies program, or something like it, we would most assuredly be moving there instead. This move is, at its core, a pragmatic one that provides some answers now for Arabic and its future on this campus.

    No one here is reducing Arabic, Islam, or the Middle East into a couple of buzz words. The fears are good-intentioned, but there’s no basis in reality for them on this campus. We’ll continue to do our best to provide as wide of a spectrum of knowledge and understanding on Arabic speaking regions and cultures as possible.

    There is not an emphasis on Islamic Studies in our Arabic program. The emphasis is MSA and dialect (we use Al-Kitaab, since it’s one of the more widely used texts and is better in many areas than most of the texts used historically in higher-ed Arabic instruction). Dialect instruction is almost a universal issue too because you have a lot of people who view Arabic (that should be learned) as the ‘pure’ MSA. This definitely has its disadvantages since everyday language is عامية but MSA does provide some tools to dissect dialects with. The hard part about dialect tends to be which one to teach (if there is more than one instructor from different areas). There are a lot of ways to go about it, and I’m just mentioning this because people have been arguing over how to teach Arabic (MSA vs. dialect) for at least the last 50 years and probably LONG before that. As is the usual, there is a pendulum swing from one to the other over time.

    As for outside funding, the Arabic program has been a sink or swim (self funded) entity from the beginning here. Our success is contingent upon students who want to study Arabic and instructors that can provide them with enough of what they want/need so that they stick around. So far, so good.

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