To describe the difference between modern standard Arabic and classical, or Quranic, Arabic, Ambereen Saleem tells the story of a renowned American scholar who tried to talk to a taxi driver in a Muslim country. The cabbie was amused by the scholar’s classical style of speech, which “inherently has a divine undertone,” as Saleem tells it.
University of Houston professor Emran El-Badawi teaches during an Arab studies class on Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2012, in Houston. ( J. Patric Schneider / Houston Chronicle )
“The cheeky taxi driver replied with a well-known phrase Muslims repeat when they are finished reading verses of the Quran: ‘Sadaq Allahu’l Adheem,’ or ‘God has spoken the truth!’” said Saleem, a junior at the University of Houston.
That historical and religious aspect of the language is precisely what has drawn Saleem and her friends. “My peers and I were primarily interested in studying Arabic for the purpose of understanding the Arabic of the holy Quran,” she said. “There is a beauty in the holy Quran that cannot be felt through the barriers of translation. … Every word is more like a color, and they all come together the way a painting does. That is why we often misunderstand our religion, because we are blind to seeing these Quranic truths when we read a translation.”
Saleem, who describes herself as “quite passionate” about Arabic, won’t be registering for the university’s new minor in Arab studies. As a new mom, she needs to take courses online, and Emran El-Badawi, the director of the new program, told her the language is too tough to study online, she said.
El-Badawi came to the university about a year ago to teach Arab studies and has been on hand to usher in the more formalized “minor” in Arab studies to students who want to take it for spiritual reasons or any other. He said that he sees a “thirst and hunger” on campus for courses about the Arab world and refers to students “coming out of the woodwork” to tell him about how they are fourth- or fifth-generation Arabs.
He isn’t sure how many students have declared the minor, but he is encouraged that more than 100 students responded to an email asking for their input on which courses to offer through the minor in spring 2013. (One of the courses students successfully lobbied for: Quran as Literature.) About 90 students are currently enrolled in Arab studies courses, and El-Badawi is hoping for 120 next semester.
The students who tend to fill seats in El-Badawi’s classes are evenly split between non-Arab, non-Muslims with military or State Department experience; “heritage students,” who have family roots in the Arab world; and non-Arab Muslims. Incidentally, the largest portion of international students at UH comes from Saudi Arabia, he adds.
The 18-credit minor, half of which is taught in Arabic, approaches the Middle East from a respectful perspective, but it’s not apologetic.
“If we do our job correctly, every student that comes into the classroom should be challenged: the Muslim students, the non-Muslim students, the Arab students, the non-Arab students, the Palestinians, the Jewish students,” he said. “At the end of this experience, the goal is: I would want all of these students to be ambassadors for peace.”
UH isn’t the only Arab studies operation in the extended area. Rice also teaches Arabic, and the University of Texas at Austin has a particularly impressive Middle East studies department, according to El-Badawi. “We have a bit of catching up to do,” he said.
El-Badawi declined to hazard a guess at the size of the Muslim student population at UH, and a university spokesperson said UH officials don’t know how many Muslim students are on campus.
“We have Muslims from many different cultures, backgrounds, (and) religiosity levels,” said UH student Falah Adnan. “Houston is home to a huge Muslim population, and that pools largely into the community at UH.”
“Whatever problems we have in the modern day, they’re a product not of religious concepts … (but) of a governing body and their own personal theology,” added Aayna Shamsi, a student and Muslim Student Association.
“I think that’s the biggest misconception-people are very quick to blame all the problems they are having in the Middle East on the religion. When in actuality it’s not the religion. It’s the way the governments are.”
Menachem Wecker is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C.