The Bible and Modern Standard Arabic

Episode 347

hosted by Shireen Hamza

Download the podcast
Feed | iTunes | GooglePlay | SoundCloud

What are the origins of the Arabic language, and what are its foundational texts? Most writers of lexicons of the Arabic language center the Arabian peninsula and the Quran. In this episode, we discuss an alternative narrative put forth in the nineteenth century by an Arab Christian writer, Buṭrus al-Bustānī. Rana Issa explores the passages in al-Bustānī's lexicon of the Arabic language, Muḥīṭ al-Muḥīṭ, in which he offers biblical origins for many Arabic words. Though his lexicon drew on conventional methodologies, it offered a history of Arabic tied closely to Christianity and the Levant. Issa explains how al-Bustānī contributed to Christianizing the Syro-Lebanese national identity, and the Arabic language, in the wake of the Mount Lebanon Civil War.

Stream via SoundCloud 

Contributor Bios

Rana Issa is Assistant Professor of Translation Studies at the American University of Beirut. Her research interests include Arabic literary and linguistic history, translation studies and philology, the nahda, the Bible and other foundational texts.
Shireen Hamza is a doctoral student in the History of Science department at Harvard University. Her research focuses broadly on the history of science and medicine in the Islamicate Middle Ages, especially in the Indian Ocean World.


Episode No. 347
Release Date: 15 February 2018
Recording Location: Harvard University
Audio editing by Shireen Hamza
Music: Special thanks to grandelavoix for permission to feature their tracks, O Adonay and O Emmanuel.
Images and bibliography courtesy of Rana Issa


A draft of the bible that al-Bustānī worked on. Image courtesy of the Near East School of Theology.

Select Bibliography

Abu Manneh, Butrus. “The Christians between Ottomanism and Syrian Nationalism: The Ideas of Butrus al-Bustani,” International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies. 11:3 (1980): 287-304.

Baalbaki, Ramzi. The Arabic Lexicographical Tradition (Leiden, 2014): 386.

Hanssen, Jens. Fin de Siècle Beirut: The Making of an Arab Provincial Capital (Oxford 2005).

Issa, Rana. “Biblical Reflections in the Arabic Lexicon,” Babylon Nordisk Tidsskrift for Midtøstenstudier. (2012): 58-67.

Makdisi, Usama. The Culture of Sectarianism: Community, History, and Violence in Nineteenth-Century Ottoman Lebanon (Oakland, CA, 2003).

Makdisi, Usama. Artillery of Heaven: American Missionaries and the Failed Conversion of the Middle East. (Ithaca, NY, 2008).

Newman, Daniel L. “The Arabic Literary Language: The nahda (and Beyond),” The Oxford Handbook of Arabic Linguistics. Ed. J. Owens (Oxford, 2013): 472-94.

Sheehi, Stephen. Foundations of Modern Arab Identity (Gainesville, FL, 2004).

Versteegh, Kees. The Arabic Language (New York 1997).

Wild, Stephen. “Arabic avant la letter: Divine, Prophetic, and Heroic Arabic.” Approaches to Arabic Linguistics: Presented to Kees Versteegh, on the Occasion of his Sixtieth Birthday.” (Leiden, 2007): 189-208.