June 30, 2013

Swahili in the Arabic Script part 4: the book

The book
            To make a book the sheets may be glued together on one side, but in the tropics there are insects that eat this glue and the paper with it, so it is better to sew the sheets together.  However, the sheets are often placed loosely together in a leather case or wrapper, called chuo as distinct from kitabu, which refers to the written text. Waraka, pl. nyaraka, is a sheet of paper[i]. Jilidi is also sometimes used for the leather binding. The binding is sometimes made of cloth, on which the scribe may write the title, the author’s name, the date and the town, followed by praises to God and the Holy Prophet. This cloth is called dibaji, and is often beautifully decorated with a gate-motif, for a book is regarded symbolically as a house of wisdom, and each chapter is a babu or mlango, a gate or door through which the avid reader may enter another store-room of wisdom. Later the word was used simply for ‘preface’[ii].
            Not every work was considered worthy of immortality; on the contrary, fables and fairy tales, songs and riddles were not written down by the Swahili scribes until European scholars such as Edward Steere and Carl Velten, came along in the 1890s and persuaded them that it was worth preserving their national heritage[iii]. Traditionally, as we have seen, the art of writing was associated with religion. The result is that almost all the Swahili writings from before that period are of a religious kind. There are histories of the life of the Prophet Muhammad and his Companions and of the Koranic prophets of the past (‘Biblical history’); many of these legends are in verse. There are liturgies, prayers and recitations, hymns and litanies. There are contracts of marriage and deeds of property[iv].
            As the vehicle of the Koran, that is, the miraculous characters in which the sacred word of God’s own book are fixed, visible for human eyes, the Arabic script has travelled with the Arab conquerors and the traders, the merchant captains and the wandering scholars, to the ends of the old world. It is taught from Dakar in West Africa to the Sulu Islands in the Philippines, from Afghanistan to Zanzibar[v]. As a result it links all the peoples who live in between those places by a common form of expression and communication. It must be appreciated that the teaching of reading and writing in all Islamic countries is done by means of and with the purpose of reading and reciting the Koran. Young boys memorize whole chapters and learn to write these down on pieces of paper for the personal use of others. For this activity is in itself God-pleasing and the product can be sold: in many countries the text of certain chapters is used as a talisman for the protection of its wearer against diseases and disasters. God’s word protects those who have faith in it against all afflictions.
            Not only letters, but entire words were adopted from the Koranic text into the languages whose speakers were drawn into the circle of Islamic culture. The result is that languages as far apart (7,000 km) as Swahili and Malay have almost four thousand Arabic (and a few hundred Persian) words in common. Not all these words are Koranic expressions, some are taken from the colloquial Arabic of the sailors. The result is that Malay and Swahili travellers, if they meet, can converse in limited Arabic[vi]. If they are both scholars, they will, of course, converse in the classical Arabic of the Koranic text, and correspond in it. This communicability is, of course, a strong incentive to retain the use of Arabic script. Many literate Muslims nowadays, in countries where the Roman alphabet has become predominant, such as North Nigeria, Turkey and Indonesia, can read and write their language in two alphabets, like Yugoslavs or Indians[vii]. They will use on alphabet(the Roman) for official business and the Arabic script for religious writing, for decorative purposes and their personal correspondence[viii]. The modernists in such countries, especially in Turkey, condemn the Arabic script as old-fashioned and a symbol of inflexible isolationism.
            However, for millions of Muslims, the Arabic script is still the most noble and beautiful representation for human words in visible form. Even though it is often called unsuitable for most languages, it has been shown to possess a remarkable capacity for adaptation. It is or has been used for the following languages (apart from Arabic): Afrikaans, Achenese, Beluch, Bengali, Berber, Dinka, Dyula, Fulani, Gujerati, Hausa, Harari, Javanese, Kituba (Congo), Makua, Malagasy, Malay, Malayalam, Manding, Nubian, Panjabi, Pashto, Persian, Somali, Sudanese, Swahili, Tamil, Tartar, Turkish, Urdu, Uzbek, Yao, and Yoruba. Fifteen of these thirty-two language are spoken in Africa, sixteen if we count Malagasy, which makes it half of the total. This shows how Islamic culture spread to the far corners of Africa. Writings in these languages range from a few letters or contracts in some language to extensive literatures of poetry, literary and historical works in others, notably Hausa and Swahili[ix].
            Those Islamicized peoples for whom Arabic script became a major aspect of their culture developed a style of their own, so that, e.g. Swahili Arabic characters can be recognized at a glance. The scribes usually take great pride and pleasure in writing flowing, well-shaped characters, drawing each letter with great skill and care. In a culture where the visible arts such as painting and sculpture are not developed in a European sense, the art of calligraphy takes their place so that every known artists of the Swahili tradition of decorative arabesques was also a calligrapher.
            Two Persian letters, the ch and the p, were adopted by the Indians, the Turks and the Swahili. The formidable cultural and literary influence of Iran merits a separate chapter in the history of Islamic culture. Although many Swahili families claim descent from Iran (the Shirazis), the culture of Iran has left only sporadic traces in the Swahili language (some three hundred Persian words), the culture (the calendar) and the literature (some Persian epic tales)[x].


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