History & Culture

A forgotten heirloom

An Arwi manuscript. Photo: Special Arrangement/The Hindu  


A hush falls over the room when Ammaji Akka starts reading out from the yellowing pages of a textbook called Simt-us-Sibyan (Pearls of Wisdom for the Young). Her voice may quaver, but her fingers glide surely on the modified Arabic alphabet that expresses ideas in Tamil.

The Salem-based septuagenarian is among a dwindling number of people who know Arabu-Tamil (or Lisan al-Arwi), the link-language that texts like Simt-us-Sibyan are written in. A language that evolved to facilitate communication between Arab settlers and the Tamil Muslims in southern India and Sri Lanka, Arwi was in active use from the 8th century up to 19th century.

A former Ustad Bi, or female teacher of Islamic scriptures, Ammaji Akka used to visit Tamil Muslim families at home to tutor adolescent girls and women in how to recite the Holy Quran in Arabic.

Simt-us-Sibyan (written by Maulana Mohamed Yusuf al-Hanafi al-Qadiri) was a learning tool in religious studies; and for many Tamil Muslim children up to the 1970s, used to be a part of Quran recitation classes.

Ammaji Akka, a former Ustad Bi or teacher of Islamic scriptures, reads an Arabu-Tamil booklet at her home in Salem. Photo: Special Arrangement/The Hindu

Ammaji Akka, a former Ustad Bi or teacher of Islamic scriptures, reads an Arabu-Tamil booklet at her home in Salem. Photo: Special Arrangement/The Hindu  

“I have four Arabu-Tamil books — Noor Nama (an account of Prophet Muhammad’s life), Simt-us-Sibyan, Ya Sayed Maalai (songs in praise of the Prophet) and Penn Buththi Maalai (advice for Muslim women). Though nobody wants to learn Arabu-Tamil anymore, I still read these books out loud after the evening (Maghrib) prayer, because I believe they will bring good fortune to the neighbourhood,” says Ammaji Akka.

Linguistic influence

The impact of Arabs on the Indian subcontinent is most evident in its languages; and Arabu-Tamil is just one of the several hybrid tongues that were once prevalent here.

“The vocabulary and certain grammatical features of indigenous languages like Hindi, Punjabi, Bengali and Sindhi have been affected by Arabic,” says KMA Ahamed Zubair, assistant professor, Department of Arabic, New College, Chennai, who has written four books on Arabu-Tamil. “Some of the languages along the western and southern coasts of India even adapted the Arabic script, as evident in Sindhi, Arabu-Tamil, Gujarati, Arabu-Malayalam, Arabu-Telugu and Arabu-Bengali.

“According to catalogues maintained in the Madras Archives Library, there are 3000 Arabu-Tamil books dating from 1890-1915, on a variety of subjects,” says Zubair. While the Arabu-Tamil texts still in use seem to be primarily religious in nature, the language had covered general topics like sports, astronomy, horticulture, medicine, and children’s literature, among others, when it was in common usage. On most social occasions, such as weddings, invitations would be issued in Arabu-Tamil.

“The Bible was translated in Arwi. There are four Arwi dictionaries published in the 1930s. Magazines in the language were printed in Ceylon and Rangoon since the 1870s,” says Zubair.

Dr KMA Ahmed Zubair of New College, Chennai, with books on Arabu-Tamil. Photo: R. Ravindran/The Hindu

Dr KMA Ahmed Zubair of New College, Chennai, with books on Arabu-Tamil. Photo: R. Ravindran/The Hindu  

Literacy drive

Arabu-Tamil spurred a major literacy drive in the Tamil Muslim community in pre-independence India, with women especially using the language to play vital roles in education, medicine and even politics.

“In those days, Tamil Muslims were invariably taught Arabic, not Tamil,” says J Raja Mohamed, former curator of Pudukottai Government Museum, who has chronicled the use of the language in his book Maritime History of the Coromandel Muslims (A Socio-Historical Study on the Tamil Muslims 1750-1900). “In conservative families, women were educated in Arabu-Tamil rather than Western languages. Many people still have archive files of personal correspondence and bookkeeping ledgers in Arabu-Tamil. Most of the Islamic folkloric traditions such as prayer songs and hymns in praise of the Prophet were recorded in this language.”

Tamil Muslim merchants were the descendants of Arab maritime traders who had settled down in the coastal areas of southern India. The power of this mercantile community declined in the early 20th century due to stiff competition from the British and the reluctance of the Tamil Muslims to adopt new shipping technology and modern education.

After independence, Arabu-Tamil started losing out to the predominance of English in nearly every sphere of life, and has become an heirloom language that only a few can remember. Seminaries in Kayalpattinam and Kilakkarai are among the places where rare Arwi manuscripts can be found. With qualified calligraphers of Arwi no longer available, most printers have stopped publishing Arabu-Tamil books.

How it works
  • The Arwi alphabet consists of 40 letters, out of which 28 are from Arabic, and 12 are devised by adding diacritical marks that allow Arabic letters to express sounds particular to Tamil.
  • Common loan words from Arabic that are still in use in Tamil:
  • Abattu (danger, from the Arabic root Aafat)
  • Baaki (remaining, from Arabic root Baaqi)
  • Jilla (district/zone, from Arabic root Zill’a, one side of a triangle)
  • Wasool (levying/collection, from the Arabic root Wusool, arrival)

Need for revival

It is ironic that while Arabic is taught at graduate level in several colleges across the State, Arabu-Tamil doesn’t get much attention, except in a few madrassas (religious schools).

“Arwi works should be introduced as Open Educational Resources (OER) content to reach Tamil Muslims and the diaspora living in Malaysia, Singapore, Myanmar and Bangladesh,” says Zubair, who has devised Unicode substitutes for four Arwi characters in a research paper.

There are others who are hoping to revive interest in the language among young people. E Mohamed Ali, a former telecom employee based in Tiruchi, learned Arwi in his childhood through the devotional songs taught by his mother.

He is currently transliterating into Tamil, the Arwi song anthologies Tohfat-ul-Atfal and Minhat-ul-Atfal written by noted Sri Lankan Islamic scholar Syed Mohamed Alimsa for a local magazine, and is also planning to release an audio CD of the same with young singers.

“Arabu-Tamil enriched not just Arabic, but also Tamil, in many ways. Notable poets and writers of the coastal districts have written extensively in this language. Bringing it back would be a rewarding experience for the coming generations,” says Ali.

Related Topics
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Jan 14, 2021 4:55:00 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/arabu-tamil-one-of-the-many-hybrid-languages-that-are-dying-out-in-india/article27235670.ece

Next Story