Arabic is the fifth most-spoken language in the world. Modern Standard Arabic is one of the six official languages of the United Nations. 1.8 billion Muslims a day-use classical Arabic as a liturgical medium every day.

And while there are many different dialects of Arabic, it is in itself a root Semitic language.

In South Africa, where Arabic is chiefly a liturgical language, it was felt that Arabic had a relevant social and educational role to play in the development of our society.

These were some of the findings at a recent Arabic Language Day Roundtable hosted by AWQAF SA and the United Ulama Council of South Africa (UUCSA).

According to Professor Muhammad Haron, an Arabic language expert, Arabic is divided into two broad categories: classical Quranic Arabic and Modern Standard Arabic, including dialects. It is the official language in 19 nation-states with about 450 million speakers.

UUCSA noted that while Arabic has been the language of trade for centuries in Southwest Asia and North Africa, it also continues to be an important language for sacred reasons, as the Qur’an and Islamic academic discourse is conducted in classical Arabic.

Therefore, one could not over-emphasize the role that Arabic continued to play in advancing knowledge and transforming societies through the moral and spiritual directives of faith.

There was a need to advance the teaching and learning of Arabic as the Muslim lingua-franca in and outside of South Africa. Arabic also had millions of speakers on the African continent.

However, as many delegates pointed out in a lively discussion, a meaningful knowledge of Arabic was largely absent in many local madrasahs, Islamic schools, and institutions, though some Darul Ulooms – which teach Islam – were doing well in nurturing language skills.

Representatives of the Internal Examination Board (IEB) noted that last year’s matric exam had only 248 candidates nationwide, and this spoke to the situation.

Delegates, who hailed from a wide spectrum of religious, civil, educational, and academic circles, agreed that the way forward was to establish a working committee to see the way forward in terms of Arabic literacy. This would be a vital step in creating awareness and pooling skills and resources.

On Saturday, 28 May, Arabic Language Day was hosted at the Al Ghazali College Community Hall in Erasmia by the International Knowledge Foundation-South Africa, the Embassy of Kazakhstan in South Africa, and AWQAF SA in conjunction with Al Ghazali College and Masjid Abu Bakr.

Heads of Missions, members of the Arabic speaking countries, members of the diplomatic community and the South African community attended the Arabic Language Day together with the ambassadors.

Zeinoul Abedien Cajee, AWQAF CEO and events coordinator said the initiatives – “despite the challenges faced –  had been a great success in harnessing awareness around Arabic and its potential to unite, empower and educate South Africans. “