A response to Ghafar Samar and Bhatia

A few months ago someone on the AskHistorians subreddit asked a very interesting question, one that has been puzzling historians of the linguistic history of the Middle-East for quite a while: why did the Coptic language die while the Persian language survived? As far as I’m aware, there are as of yet no real satisfactory answers to this question, but one of the commenters linked to a recent article by Reza Ghafar Samar, a linguist connected to Tarbiat Modares University, Tehran and Tej K. Bhatia, a professor of linguistics at Syracuse University and head of the South Asian languages department there.

The article, Predictability of language death: Structural compatibility and language contact, interestingly suggests that languages death is more likely when a language is in prolonged contact with structurally similar superstrate. In order to demonstrate this hypothesis, the authors point towards the varying fates of Coptic (an Afro-Asiatic language, ultimately descending from Egyptian) and Persian (an Indo-European language). Coptic declined in importance starting from the 12th century onwards and appears to have died somewhere in the 17th century, whereas Persian underwent something of a renaissance starting from the 9th century onwards and became the court language of several dynasties several centuries later.

Although I am not unsympathetic to the notion that structural similarity may influence the rate at which languages disappear, I feel that the authors neglected to accurately present the complexities of the social, political, and linguistic history of Egypt and Iran following the Islamic conquests. I believe that these flaws present themselves on two levels specifically: firstly, in their description of the Arabic language; and secondly, on their description of the historical interaction between ruling “Arabs” and subject “Iranians”.

  1. Not all Arabic is Classical Arabic

It appears that the authors’ understanding of the linguistic reality of the Arabic-speaking world is not founded in the current scholarly understanding of the subject.  Apart from a footnote in which they refer to the existence of different varieties of Arabic (p. 57), they do not seem to be aware of the distinction between Classical (or Modern Standard) Arabic and the spoken Arabic dialects. At no further point do they refer to the concept of diglossia (Ferguson 1959), the existence of the various Arabic dialects, or the question of whether Classical Arabic was the main contact language.

This lack of awareness becomes particularly egregious as it appears that the authors assumed that Persian was mostly in contact with Classical Arabic, which was never a spoken language. The fact that they present a number of features which they consider typical for Arabic (productive nominal dual, indefinite marking with “nunation” and VSO word order) are typical for Classical Arabic, with the first two features only occurring there, and the latter being much more idiosyncratic in the dialects.  

Although it can be argued that the discussion concerning the (historical) relationship of the spoken Arabic dialects to Classical Arabic and their respective degree of contact with other languages, such as Persian, would be beyond the scope of the paper, the fact that the authors do not mention it at all is rather disappointing. Furthermore, it implicitly suggests that Arabic is essentially Classical Arabic, which is something that any undergraduate student of Arabic would be able to dispel. Any attempt to propose a history of linguistic contact between Arabic and Persian without accounting for the historical and contemporary linguistic diversity of the Arabic-speaking world should be treated with an extreme degree of scepticism.

  1. Who’s an Arab, anyway?

Potentially more disturbingly is the simplistic understanding of the history of the Early Islamic period that the authors appear to perpetuate. This becomes apparent in several of their assertions, most obviously on table 1 (p. 54). In this table they assert that in Egypt:

  1. The population was first Arabized (as a harbinger of conversion) then accepted the Islamic ideology
  2. Local religions were to some extent tolerated
  3. Egyptians were treated like other new Muslims, no mawalis in Egypt

The authors juxtapose these assertions to the situation in Iran, which they assert to be as following:

  1. Persians were first Islamized
  2. Treatment of local religions became increasingly contemptuous and intolerable
  3. Mawalis (the Iranians and Nabataeans of Iraq) were looked upon as aliens and treated with scorn and contempt by the Arabs.

It is somewhat suspect that these claims are almost entirely based on a single article (Yücesoy 2015), but it is much more disconcerting that the authors do at no point engage critically with the terminology they employ. For example, they seem to lack any awareness of the groundbreaking research by scholars such as Crone (2006), Webb (2015), and Cooperson, which have forced us to more critically consider the meaning and usage supposed terms of ethnicity in the early history of Islam. Specifically Cooperson has in a recent article demonstrated that during the ‘Abbasid Caliphate, terms such as ‘arab, ‘aǧam were very much in flux (2015:382-3).

Furthermore, the way the authors describe the history of the two regions implies that Arabic and Islam were more-or-less forced upon the peoples, and does not account for the possibility that in both environments people may have embraced Islam for political, social, economical, or spiritual reasons, or a combination of any or all of these. This is one of the (many) stereotypes perpetuated by the article, and seems once again, to be grounded in popular ideas rather than in any scholarly material.

The fates of local religion seems to also be confused: the authors do not mention which kind of contempt and intolerance the varying religions of Egypt and Iran underwent, or even what these religions were. The authors allude to Zoroastrianism in table 1 by stating that “a group of Persian Magians left the land”, but there is no reference this event in Yücesoy’s article. If the authors intend to state that there were few Zoroastrians in Iran after the Islamic conquests, then this is accurate, although it is uncertain how popular Zoroastrianism was even before the Islamic conquests (Malandra 2005).

All three presented claims present clean, binary opposites in Egypt and Iran, but the politics of the Islamic polities in these places was never monolithic. The relationship of both the Umayyads and the Abbasids, as well as the later local ruling dynasties towards the pre-Islamic religions present in Iran could complicated, but it was certainly not only “contemptuous and intolerable”. In fact, for many non-Zoroastrians, the situation under the Islamic polities marked a considerable improvement (Savant 2013:92-3).

The problem of poorly defined terminology becomes even more apparent when we look at the individual claims, especially considering the authors’ assertion that “Persian was never the dominant language of the Arabic Empire, while Arabic was the dominant language of Persia for more than 800 years”. At this point, it is what they consider a “dominant language”, “the Arabic Empire” and “Persia”. Although it is accurate that Arabic played an extremely important role in Iran following the Islamic conquests, the claim that it was “the dominant language” is misleading to say the least. The authors’ claim that “only gradually Persian dominated the fields of secular literature later in the fifteenth century” completely overlooks the fact that Iranian literary culture flourished in the centuries following the ‘Abbasid revolution, and was strongly promoted by the Samanid dynasty, a fact acknowledged in the article the authors mention (Yücesoy 2015:385-8). 

Even outside the heartlands of Iran, namely in Mesopotamia, Persian literary culture continued to play an important role. This becomes clear when looking at the members of the ‘Abbasid bureaucratic elite, who were mostly of Persian origins, some of whom (but by no means all) converted to Islam (Gutas 1999:135-6). To speak about a “dominant language” in these contexts, without distinguishing between the language of the court, literature, or religion is misleading, giving the (incorrect) impression that Arabic replaced Persian in all of these spheres.

Moreover, as any undergraduate student of Middle Eastern Studies would be able to confirm, the period in which all Islamic lands were administered from one location never lasted for more than about a century. The claim that there was a single “Arabic Empire” completely ignores the fact that from the latter half of the 8th century onwards, the Islamic world was fragmented in such a way that it would never be under central rule again.

Conclusion

The flaws mentioned above in my opinion render the majority of the article almost impossible to take seriously. This is really regrettable, as there might be merit to the notion the authors want to advance. However, their lack of reflection on the linguistic diversity of Arabic, as well as their explicit usage of stereotypes (“the historical hostility between Arabs and Persians” (p.64)) without any kind of clarification of these terms do it a great disservice. Cooperson’s reference to the truism is indeed correct: the premises and preoccupations of of nineteenth-century nationalism cannot be projected onto the past.


Cooperson, M. “‘Arabs’ and ‘Iranians'”: The Uses of Ethnicity in the Early Abbasid Period”. In Sadeghi, E. (et al) (ed.) Islamic CUltures, Islamic Contexts – Essays in Honor of Professor Patricia Crone

Crone, P. (2006). “Post-colonialism in 10th century Islam”, Der Islam

Ferguson, C. (1959). Diglossia, WORD, 15:2.

Gutas, D. (1999). Greek Thought, Arabic Cultyure – The Graeco-Arabic Translation Movement in Baghdad and Early ‘Abbāsid Society (2nd-4th / 8th-10th) centuries

Savant, S. (2013). The New Muslims of Post-Conquest Iran – Tradition, Memory, and Conversion.

Webb, P. (2015). Imagining the Arabs

Yücesoy, H. (2015). “Languages of Empire: Politics of ARabic and Persian in the Abbasid World”, PLMA 130:2

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