By Muhammed Aslam
“Whatever we understand and enjoy in human products instantly becomes ours, wherever they might have their origin. I am proud of my humanity when I can acknowledge the poets and artists of other countries as my own. Let me feel with unalloyed gladness that all the great glories of man are mine. Therefore it hurts me deeply when the cry of rejection rings loud against the west in my country with the clamour that western education can only injure us” – Rabindranath Tagore
Since I began reading Kitab Al-Rehla, the mesmerizing and historic travelogue of Moroccan polyglot and traveler, Ibn Battutah, I became eager and even greedy to learn the role multilingualism plays in creating a broader humanity. Despite coming from an Arab Muslim knowledge tradition, he learnt the scriptural language of Hinduism, Sanskrit. His enthusiasm for travel and understanding ‘others’ enabled him to live an interesting life with the amazing diversities of the world. In today’s global village, it’s our imperative to understand what impelled the Moroccan traveler to be an explorer of a variety of cultural practices and religious diversities that he encountered during his journey from Tangier, Morocco. His travelogue, which records a beautiful dialogue with different people and cultures, was mainly possible because of the multilingual ability that Ibn Battutah acquired.
This essay tries to shed light on the immense potentiality of the multi-linguists in crafting a typical global citizenship and a better world-order, grounded in a vision of peaceful coexistence of diverse religious communities. In doing so, I consider every religion as an integral part our world humanity, while even considering the secular humanism as a significant religious minority. In what follows, I will try to emphasize and underscore the impetus of linguistics in developing a global citizenship and plural existence for the entire humanity.
‘Cosmopolitan’ languages in the world of globalization
The pivotal role and the relevance of languages in the social and cultural understanding between diverse people are vividly seen in many of the biographical narratives. However, the ongoing discourses on the possibilities and consequences of a globalised state necessitate an adequate understanding of ‘globalization of communication’. At the present, where a significant amount of misunderstanding, sectarian spirit and cultural clashes exist across the world, it is pertinent to evaluate the significance and necessity of acquiring multiple languages as a way to overcome different sorts of insecurities. And multilingualism can remove barriers in the realm of inter-cultural communications, which can astutely pave a way to establish a peaceful foundation for staging dialogues between different cultures.
The concept of cosmopolitanism encompasses all the human beings in this global village, and works as a catalyst for integrating the differences and diversities in our world. This cosmopolitan outlook, inherent in many social and religious realms and more importantly in the Semitic religions and their vernacular variants, has prompted a significant section of the world populace to benefit from staging a clear and illuminating dialogue with numerous civilizations and cultural discourses in a variety of places. The calligraphic works, which demonstrate multiple sacred visions and religious traditions, also subscribe to such a deep understanding of various cultural traditions. Moreover, the protection of humanitarian values, which are disregarded in the present world, will be made possible in this cosmopolitan environment through the teaching of universal values. History shows that a considerable number of travelers, who had tried to circumnavigate the world driven by an extraordinary vision of cultural sketching and analysis, were also deeply influenced by this theory.
Among the Semitic languages that are religiously influential, Arabic language stands distinguished as it is a primary language of religious study for Muslims. Everyone, who can spell Arabic syllables, can travel through a major portion of the globe facing no significant difficulty while living in the Arabic-speaking regions. As it’s a scriptural language of Islam, many Muslims are ordained to study the primary rituals in this faith tradition in Arabic format, including the usual greeting, ‘Assalamu-Alikum’. A similar influence of Arabic has been also noticed since the arrival of Islam in the Indian subcontinent.
The intellectual and philosophical traditions of India have been recorded in a number of Arabic texts, which depict the cultural legacy and heritage of the Indians. Brahmagupta’s pioneering Sanskrit treatise on astronomy, which had first been translated into Arabic in the 8th century, also demonstrates this legacy of intercultural exchange. Moreover, several works on medicine, science and philosophy had been translated into Arabic language by the 9th century AD. In addition, Sanskrit offered some of the most significant tales on morality, encompassing a broader humanity. For instance, the moral tales of the Panchathanthra, composed in Sanskrit by Vishnu Sharma, was also translated into Arabic. Prof. Sheldon Pollock, a renowned professor of South Asian studies and one of the world’s foremost Sanskrit scholars, offers a comprehensive record of the cosmopolitanism of Sanskrit, which allows it to become a proficient carrier of many widely-shared universal values of morality, sovereignty, and beauty across the world.
After traveling to South India in the early 17th century, the Italian traveler, Jesuit Roberto Nobili, produced a number of authoritative books on Indian intellectual traditions in Latin as well as in Tamil. What made such scholarship possible was his knowledge of Sanskrit as well as Tamil. Another great traveler, who departed Central Asia and reached India in AD 1017, Al-Beruni has also shed light on the Indian knowledge traditions and civilization of that period. His prominent works, Kithab al Hind, Tariq e Hind and Qanunul Masudi, are widely read and accepted as authoritative sources of history of Indian culture. The deep knowledge he acquired in several languages made it possible for him to study Indian texts in various branches of knowledge and grasp the social conventions and practices prevailing during that period. And William Jones, an Anglo-Welsh philologist and a famous colonial officer in the British India, is one of the several modern polyglot scholars during the colonial period.
Despite India being colonized by the British, Tagore didn’t wish to close his mind to English language and the rich literature that it had to offer to Indians. Referring to the condition of colonial India, Tagore opined, “circumstances almost compel us to learn English, and this lucky accident has given us the opportunity, to get access into the richness of all poetical literature of the world.” Conveying this message, he was indicating the relevance of English language in the modern world, as a lingua franca and a global language that enables us to carry on dialogues with the outsiders. Without this, the Indians would have suffered from a great deal of difficulty in communicating with the ‘others’ in the modern world.
Language for mutual understanding
The immense misunderstandings and conflicts along national and religious lines constantly disrupt the pluralist world-order. As the world becomes increasingly vulnerable to a separatist spirit, owing to a wide range of disparities and feeling of insecurities, language of every community, religion and state could become an antidote against destructive instincts and work as a powerful weapon of dialogue to understand each other and to live with others’ fundamental disagreements.
The Muslim world faces the most dreadful and threatening issues of identity crisis because of terrorist and anti-humanitarian activities, carried out by certain ‘Islamic’ outfits. One way to combat this would be to return to the glorious past history of Islam, characterized as the ‘era of plural Muslims’, where dialogue between different religious communities was a common feature. Ian Markham, the dean and president of Virginia Theological Seminary in the US, is of the view that “severe contradictions and differences can be removed by reaching at a true ‘mutual understanding’ with all ‘fundamental and ethical disagreements’.” As a supporting force to this, the globalization of communication, which allows enough acquaintance across religions and cultures, enables us to overcome the geographical boundaries. Multilingualism would provide a good ‘pluralizing impact’ cutting across identities.
It is said that clashes based on the civilizations are really what man has generated in the feeling of misconceptions and prejudices. However, as Prophet Muhammad said, “Ignorance is the mother of all evils.” To counter mutual ignorance, we must adopt effective inter-communication beyond different barriers and conflicts. Unless we learn the values of peace, tolerance, and humanity in the world, there is no meaning in observing religious practices. To spread this message, multilingualism would act as a positive factor.
The cosmopolitanism of languages must be an important part of our relentless efforts to stage a peaceful coexistence with each other. We must recount the beautiful past of our faith traditions in different places, where Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists had flourished and worked together in a spirit of multilingual exchange. And most effectively, the Judeo-Christian tradition of the west must evince a greater respect and deeper understanding of their Muslim counterparts in the Semitic religious family and vice versa. Moreover, we must showcase to today’s religionists how religion was once applied in a way to support the best human potentialities of creativity, invention, tolerance, co-existence, and diversity. The faster we are able to convey this to the global community, the quicker we would be able to solve our contemporary problems. Unity in diversity must be the motto of our global village and meaningful disagreements should be the foundation of our varied global citizenship.
Muhammed Aslam is a research intern at Madeenathunnoor College, Calicut, Kerala. He is also an interviewer, writer and Ibn Khaldun research fellow, presently specializing in the areas of Sufism, literature and cultural studies. He is deeply interested in traditions, culture, philology and Arab literature.
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