The Decline of ‘Arabu-Tamil’ Language: A Great Loss to the Sri Lankan Muslim Heritage!

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“I have four Arabu-Tamil books — Noor Nama (an account of Prophet Muhammad’s life), Simt-us-Sibyan, Mubarak Maalai (poems of the life of our Prophet) and Penn Puththi Maalai (advice for Muslim women). Though nobody wants to learn Arabu-Tamil anymore, I still read these books as they are part of our heritage. We need to preserve our traditions” (View of a Muslim lady)

Mubarak Malai- An Ode to the Prophet: An Arabu- Tamil Poetic Masterpiece –by Poet Cadir Samasudeen of Galle . Sri Lanka (1887 AD)

As Meelad un Nabi, the commemoration of the birth of Prophet of Islam (OWBP) dawns, it is heart-warming to listen to many melodious and emotional songs of praise in his great memory, written in a language which may be quite unfamiliar to today’s younger generation.- Arwi- Arabu-Tamil. It is also sad to reflect on the sad decline of a versatile language which once provided a great medium to effectively and succinctly convey many Islamic teachings, poetry and other kinds of knowledge, to the Tamil speaking Muslims in the subcontinent. Mubarak Maaai- an Ode to the Prophet(OWBP) written in Arwi, is one of the surviving literary masterpieces which is still being celebrated in Sri Lanka.

Every generation faces a choice about what it wants to preserve and take forward and these are often painful difficult choices but choose we must. Languages and scripts link us with the histories and experiences of our people and keep us rooted otherwise in this era of globalisation where we all claim to be ‘world citizens’, we could be everywhere but really nowhere. True, Muslims of Sri Lanka have played a pivotal role in the promotion and preservation of Tamil language. However, “Arabu-Tamil” or Arwi figures in the past and present identity of the Tamil speaking Muslim communities both in Tamil Nadu and India. Be it the numerous words it has added to spoken Tamil, the rich history recorded in old texts and medieval inscriptions, or the cultural, literary and religious influences, Arwi in its essence will live on in the identity of these communities. Although some Tamil nationalist discourses identified ‘Arabic-Tamil’ as a danger to the unity of the ‘Tamil speaking people’, Muslims celebrate it as the symbol of a separate identity, without sacrificing the beauty of the Tamil language itself.

‘Arwi’, is a combination of Arabic and Tamil and written in the Arabic script. According to historical records, Arwi flourished in the 11th century in coastal Tamil Nadu and Ceylon (modern day Sri Lanka) as a result of Arab traders visiting in search of exotic spices. Trading over several years, the two ancient civilisations not only engaged in commercial activities, but formed personal relationships and exchanged cultural ideas, language and religion. Arabs spread Islam and strengthened their relationship with the Tamil speaking Muslim traders. What was then lacking, however, was a common tongue that both communities could speak. As Dr. KMA Ahamed Zubair, a professor from New College, Chennai researching Arwi says, “Here were two people united by the same religion, rapidly spreading cultural ideas and engaging in trade. But they were separated by their tongue. This is when the Arab traders decided to learn Tamil and the beginning of Arabu-Tamil was scripted”.

Arabu-Tamil was then used extensively by the Muslim minority of Tamil Nadu state of India and Sri Lanka. This language was devised as a means for communication and interaction of the settled Arabs of Tamil Nadu to the Tamil people. Muslim scholars in the Tamil regions asserted the importance of the use of Arwi because it served as a safeguard for people in order to avoid committing potentially major linguistic mistakes through the Tamil transliteration of Arabic terms.

Arwi or Arabu-Tamil is an Arabic-influenced dialect of the Tamil language written with an extension of the Arabic alphabet, with extensive lexical and phonetic influences from the Arabic language. According to phonetic experts , the Arabu-Tamil alphabet is the Arabic alphabet with the devised twelve additional letters to represent the Tamil vowels and several Tamil consonants that could not be mapped to Arabic sounds. The Arabs and the Tamil speaking Muslims might have played their role equally in the formation of Arabu-Tamil. It is the logical result of their joint efforts.

It is well known that Muslim poets and preachers from South India helped Sri Lankan Muslims keep the faith at a time when the Portuguese and the Dutch were persecuting them. The religious revival of the Muslims was made possible because of this voluminous literature in Arabu-Tamil produced by the Muslim Savants after the devastating cultural onslaught by the Portuguese in this area in 16th century. Between 1600 and 1900, as many as 2,000 literary works, including epics, reportedly poured out. In the 19th and 20th centuries, literature in Arabic Tamil was produced. In the 19th and 20th centuries, literature in Arabic Tamil was produced. Four hundred years ago, a particular procedure and a new literary style was adopted in Arabu-Tamil writing. This new literary style was adopted by Hafiz Amir Wali Appa, a saint of Kayalpattinam. He is considered to be the first person who re-introduced Arabu-Tamil after the Portuguese devastation in around 1600.

In the words of Edgard Thurston, Arabu-Tamil is a literature which was developed for the purpose of the education of Labbai (a distinctive Islamic trading community from Southern India) and Maraikayar (a distinctive Tamil-and Malayalam-speaking Muslim people of the states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu in India) children. The Quran translations/explanations and other books were published in this language. The most important book is Arabu-Tamil Dictionary in four bulky volumes written by Hakkim Mohammed Abdullah Sahib. This literature helped the Tamil speaking Muslims to know about their religion and their culture. And in a way this literature also made the Arabic literature simple.

Texts written in Arabu-Tamil thus varied from literary classics to religious jurisprudence and code of conduct for women. Simt-us-Sibyan, written by Maulana Mohamed Yusuf al-Hanafi al-Qadiri, is one of the leading texts on religion written in Arwi. Until the 1970s, Simt-us-Sibyan used to figure in Quran recitation classes for children, according to Dr Zubair. Another notable text was Akhlam-al-Muslimeen, a much published and circulated book based on religious jurisprudence, first written in Arwi. The First commentary of Holy Quran by a Tamil scholar was written in Arabu-Tamil language. It was written by the great Sri Lankan saint Shaykh Mustafa Wali (1836-1887) of Beruwela, leader of the Qadiriyyathun Nabaviyyah Sufi order.. He was also considered a great translator in Arabu-Tamil. Among the Arabu-Tamil Periodicals were Allamat Lankapuri –A Journal which was published in Colombo from 1869, Muslim Nesan-A Newspaper which was published in Colombo from 21-12-1882 and .Kashfurran an Qalbil Jan which was published in Colombo from 1889.

However, despite a major chunk of Arwi literature being Islamic, non-religious material was also produced during the time. Not only was the script used for everyday affairs, be it for business, property dealings and other correspondence, Arwi literary texts also dealt with a sweeping range of subjects. According to a research paper published by Zubair titled ‘The Rise and Decline of Arabu-Tamil Language for Tamil Muslims’, the texts dealt with subjects such as architecture, astronomy, Quran commentary, logic, Islamic jurisprudence, sexology, sports, elegy, history, etc. Fiction was also an important part of Arwi literature. The first full length novel written in Arwi during the time is called Tamira Pattanam or ‘Copper Town’. This is a full-fledged novel and a not a religious book. ”The UNESCO COURIER” published by the UNESCO, in August –September 1981, has published an article on the life of the Holy Prophet (S), written by Mohammed Yaasin in Arwi..
The Tamil speaking Muslims of Sri Lanka then considered this Arabu-Tamil literature as their most beloved literature. One major reason for Arabu Tamil gaining popularity among Muslims was that Tamil words lacked the capacity to convey the full significance of the Islamic terms like Rasul, Sahabah, Wajib, Jannath, Jahannam, Iman,Taqwa etc.(their respective meanings are Messenger, Companions of Holy prophet, Obligatory, Paradise, Hell, belief, Piety…etc). Therefore Arabu-Tamil words have been used in these cases for better expression and understanding. Hence the Tamil speaking Muslims naturally preferred the Arabu-Tamil Language. The new language was shaped in a manner that retains all the basic aspects of the finest spoken Tamil, and all of its grammatical forms, put on the beautiful garb of the Arabic script. Arabic letters with suitably added diacritical marks were devised.

Arabu-Tamil Islamic Poetic (Literary) Masterpieces in Sri Lanka

Arwi writings

Allama Maapillai Aalim from Tamil Nadu was a popular saint cum poet who wrote many Islamic poetical works. Thalai Fathiha -a well known Arabu-Tamil song devotionally sung by women in ceremonies even today was composed by him. Sheikh Mustafa Wali was also a great poet in this language. Mizan Maalai is an Arabic Tamil poetry book composed by him, which includes 149 poems which is the first printed Tamil (Arwi)book in Tamil printing History in Sri Lanka. This book briefly discuss about the Islamic Aqida. Apart from him, there was also another poet- Sheik Mohammed Lebbai bin Ahmed Kaswatta Alim of Sri Lanka.
Mubarak Malai- An Ode to the Prophet – An Arabu Tamil Poetic masterpiece

As the blessed month of Rabiul Awwal in which Beloved Prophet of Islam (OWBP) was born, dawns, the melodious recital of Mubarak Malai written in classical Arwi is commonly witnessed in many parts of Sri Lanka specially the South with much devotion even today. This masterpiece, a eulogy on, and an Ode to Our Beloved Prophet (OWBP) was composed in Hijri 1305 (1887 AD) by a renown Sri Lankan Saint and poet Qadir Shamsuddeen Al Makhdoomi (also known as Kaarbaa Lebbe) hailing from Galle. This great work is cited in Tamil Islamic Encyclopaedia as well. This poet also composed another Arwi poetic work -Musthafa Malai among many others, in the name of his spiritual leader, Sheik Musthafa, another great name in this field as stated earlier. Another ‘Arwi’ savant Mapillai Aalim also complimented Qadir Samsuddeen on his poetic achievement. His grandson – renown linguist, poet and educationist Late MSM Harees was my beloved father, who also excelled in commentaries in this field.
Decline of Arwi and the Need for Revival

However, after the 19th century, Arwi began to lose its popularity primarily because of its old style and colloquial expression. As a spoken language it is now about to be extinct, though a few Madrasas (religious schools) still teach the basics of the language as part of their curricula.Alas, Arabic Tamil as a literary medium, is now extinct, with modern Muslims preferring to write in standard Tamil. One section of Islamic researchers believe that the script only existed to fill a certain need at a point of time in history and therefore died a natural death as it was no longer required post 19th century. Another set of scholars, including Zubair, believe that widespread dominance of English post-independence led to the decline of Arabu-Tamil. Another important reported reason for its decline has been the lack of competitive printing facilities. Printing of Arabu-Tamil books is a very complicated and tedious process. Therefore, people preferred printing their religious books in Tamil rather than in Arabu-Tamil language.

However, according to scholars, “Arwi safeguarded the interests of the Muslims. It was a panacea for several social diseases for centuries. It was fondly and fervently nurtured by selfless social diseases for centuries. It was fondly and fervently nurtured by selfless savants and holy saints. Its necessity was intensely felt by all the noble minds of the community. And it had been the recipient of the support and assistance of the masses as well as intellectuals. This shows the importance and indispensability of this noble language for the religious life and unity of the Arwi speaking Muslims. If the present generation realises the secret of the importance attached by these foresighted men to Lisanu- Arwi, the community has a great future.”

As Dr. Zubair says, The decline of Arabu-Tamil language is a great loss to the Tamil speaking Muslim community as this was their religious language. It had safeguarded the interest of this community. It was fondly and reverently nurtured by noble savants. Therefore, its necessity must be felt by the present Muslim community. Its revival and renaissance is badly needed.


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Disclaimer: The Decline of ‘Arabu-Tamil’ Language: A Great Loss to the Sri Lankan Muslim Heritage! - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect point-of-view

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