Arabic in the Fray: Language Ideology and Cultural Politics

Arabic in the Fray: Language Ideology and Cultural Politics

Arabic in the Fray: Language Ideology and Cultural Politics

Arabic in the Fray: Language Ideology and Cultural Politics


Taking as its point of departure the symbolic role of language and its use as proxy in the social world, this book investigates how Arabic is involved in ideological and cultural debates in which conflict is a defining feature. The author shows how discussions about the inimitability of the Qur'an in the pre-modern world were, at some deep level, concerned with issues of ethnic election against the background of inter-ethnic strife among Arabs and non-Arabs, mainly Persians. Discussions of the (un)translatability of the Qur'an in this period are further shown to be related to this notion of ethnic election. In this respect, theology and ethnicity emerge as partners in theorising language in society.

Staying within the symbolic role of language and its use as proxy, the book further investigates the role of paratexts and literary production in disseminating language ideologies and in cultural contestation. Language symbolism is also shown to be relevant in ideological debates about hybrid or cross national literary production in the Arab milieu. Language ideology appears to be everywhere, including in discussions of the cognitive role of language in linking thought to reality, to which a whole chapter is devoted.

Here, building on his highly acclaimed previous published works, Yasir Suleiman takes in a new direction his arguments on ideology and cultural politics.


This is a book about Arabic in the social world in the pre-modern and modern periods. It deals with identity and conflict in society, showing their continuity as features of social life, as well as the variety of ways in which they are manifested through debates about language in the political, cultural and theological spheres. The book therefore straddles many areas, hence the reference to the ‘social world’ in characterising the book, rather than framing it under ‘sociolinguistics’ or the ‘sociology of language’ as general headings, although it addresses researchers from these two constituencies from multiple perspectives. Owing to this broad framing, the book will be topic based and thematic, rather than chronological. It selects a few productive sites from which to pursue the twin themes of identity and conflict through, not in, language and deals with them in reference to the set of principles outlined below. The data utilised for this book are therefore second order perspectives on language, rather than data that are culled from language use, as is customary in formal linguistics. In other words, the data contained within this book are meta-linguistic, rather than linguistic in nature. Owing to this, these data tend to relate to the extra-linguistic world, rather than issues of linguistic structure or how data of this kind directly relate to social variables, such as those that abound in Arabic correlational sociolinguistics.

The book starts from a set of framing ideas/principles, which give it unity of perspective. In doing this, the book recognises the distinction between the instrumental and symbolic roles of language in society and approaches its subject from the latter. Treating language as a symbolic resource, the book shows that Arabic has been pressed into service in the pre-modern and the modern worlds to articulate issues of continued relevance in society. In the pre-modern period, the book deals with the fundamental issue in

See Yasir Suleiman, Arabic, Self and Identity: A Study in Conflict and Displacement (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011a).

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