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Arebica: Slavs and Muslims

Introduction

As my readers know, I study Persian language and literature, a passion and journey that has consumed the greater part of my life and has become interwoven into my identity and story in such a way as cannot be properly dealt with in this article. Suffice it to say (in brief) that I was born into Slavic heritage and though not coming from a Muslim family, came to embrace Islam in my early twenties and subsequently connected with the Persian language.

Persian, as must be explained, is an Indo-European language, which harkens back to the same ancient tongue spoken by the predecessors of most modern Europeans. Rather than being from the same stock as Arabic or Turkish, Persian can be better compared to languages like Greek, Latin, Russian, and Hindi, to name a few. However, as ethnic Persians are predominately Muslim, Persian has an Islamic twist: Rather than being written in Latin or Cyrillic letters, it is written in the same alphabet as Arabic.

Indo-European languages can generally be divided into two groups: centum and satem. This division was caused by an ancient sound shift that can broadly characterize whether the language is western (centum) or eastern (satem). Tocharian, which is now dead, would have been exceptional as a centum language located in the borders of what's now China.

The satem group includes both Iranian and Slavic languages, which means that Persian is in some way closer to the language of my Slavic ancestors than my English mother tongue. Being located more to the East, Slavs have more history connected to Islam than Europeans in the far West typically do. This provides me plenty of opportunities to find connections to inform my identity as a Slavic, Persianate Muslim.

Aside from Persian and a couple other Iranian languages, the only other Indo-European language I knew written in the Arabic script was Urdu and perhaps some of its nearby relatives. It seems a rare thing indeed.

Discovering Arebica

Recently, I was online chatting with a group of Muslims in a chat I frequent where members come from all over the world. One long-standing member of our group is a very nice Bosnian lady whom I did not know particularly well, but we recognized each other as Slavs long ago even though I am not Bosnian. Bosnians are, if not the only, the most notable Slavic group or nation who are traditionally Muslim. Lipka Tatars who reside Belarus, Lithuania, and Poland are considered a Turkic ethnic group.

By sheer chance the other day, she mentioned that she had once studied Arebica, a written form of Bosnian language that, like Persian, utilizes the Arabic script. I was surprised that I had never heard of this before, especially since the topic is not too far removed from my studies, as I have some specialization in orthography and Eurasian languages. Needless to say, I was intrigued.

As it turns out, there is some history of langauges in Europe (primarily Romance languages) being written in the Arabic script by the Muslims who spoke them. This form of writing is generally known as Aljamiado, a word which derives from the Arabic term "'ajam" (عجم) which, basically speaking, Arabs used to refer to people who cannot speak Arabic. This word is primarily understood to refer to Persians/Iranians, but it was sometime used for Europeans as well. (Additionally, there is historical evidence of Arab Muslims referring to Europeans as "majoos" (مجوس) or "magi", another term primarily referring to Persians.)

When Slavic languages are written in the Arabic script, they a more properly referred to instead as "Arabica" or "Arebica". In addition to finding out about Bosnian written in Arebica, I surprisingly uncovered this site focused a Belarusian variant of this.

Dying to know more, I asked my friend if I could question her in more detail. I wanted to know, specifically, what it means to be a Bosnian student of Arebica, and what role this writing plays in their culture and community.

Interview

The result of our exchange was interesting enough to publish in edited form for readers who are as curious as I was. Because I did not ask permission to publish our conversation online, I am presenting our subject as anonymous, of course!

Were you born and grew up in Bosnia?

Yes, but I left when I was thirteen because of the civil war.

So your mother tongue is Bosnian?

The different dialects of [Yugoslavian] languages all have different names now but, when I was growing up it was called "Serbo-Croatian". So now we have Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian, and Montenegran.

Any other languages spoken in the household?

No.

So until you were about thirteen you went to a public school, where the language of instruction was Serbo-Croation (officially)? Did they teach other languages?

As a foreign language, yes, but not aside from that. I took English, but other choices were Russian and German. Lots of people took both: German because they planned to go work in Germany, and honestly I don't know why Russian. (laughs) My parents talked about sending me to school in the UK, so I took English in school and privately.

When was the first time you saw or encountered Arebica?

Like in 2007 or 2008 here [in the US]. I never thought about [writing Bosnian in Arabic script] even being a possibility, but that speaks of my naivety regarding Islam and Bosnia. My parents were super secular, so during the war I learned about Islam and started practicing, and no one else in my family does. I'm the black sheep. (laughs) But [Arebica] really isn't common; most people don't know of it at all.

Do you think maybe religious practicing families might have been using Arebica?

I have asked, and there's been a revival, but no, no one was using it. Most use "Latinica" (Latin script) since Serbs pushed Cyrillic so much on us, and that was like a push back. My situation is somewhat weird, which is why I can't answer for all Bosnians; I learned about Islam once I was out of Bosnia.

So in 2007/2008 did someone introduce it to you, or did you read about it online?

I read about it on the forums for an Islamic magazine, a Bosnian one.

You told me once that you tried to learn Arebica. I guess self-teaching? Did you find materials somewhere?

Yeah, but it was just a table like the one the Wikipedia article has. I just had to learn a handful of letters that aren't Arabic.

Did you ever find any texts in it you could try to read?

I don't think I found very much. I think someone sent me a font, but that was about it. There were a few people trying really hard to convert [texts to Arebica], and with the font it would have been easy. What bugged me was that ghayn (غ) was G and a few other things like that. I worked so hard on learning to pronounce Arabic properly only to have this sort of thing go back on what I had learned. (laughs)

Are there people involved in working on a revival?

I haven't kept in touch with anyone who is. Possibly within the like academic Islamic community, but I just don't know.

From Bosnia, did you go straight to the US?

No, spent two years as a refugee in Croatia.

Does your husband speak Bosnian? Do the kids know it?

No, and the kids only know the basics. I couldn't hold onto it once they started going to school and such. It takes a monumental effort to do it; I think most families that I know here whose kids speak Bosnian usually had an elderly relative living with them that maintained it.

Do you ever use Bosnian much now? Like, with friends, family members, online, or reading?

Yes, I read and speak. No issues for me. My siblings are the ones that were younger and never had too many friends so they speak with some difficulty. Whenever I go visit [Bosnia], I try to buy one or two novels written in Bosnian.

I assume you have family there then, in order to visit.

I don't have much family and it's not easy to go visit. I went back in 2018 for ten days; I couldn't leave my kids any longer. I had to go see my grandmother while she would still remember me. I had ten days with my dad and brother, and I felt like a little kid. So much stays the same over there compared to here.

Conclusion

Thanks to the kind repsonses I received to my questions, I was able to gather enough information to surmise that Bosnian Arebica is mainly historical in nature, and if I were to guess, it likely relates more to the time when Bosnians lived under Otttoman rule. Regardless of whether or not some families or individuals kept using it into the modern era, it appears to have been functionally dead at the communal level, though probably always did and continues to spark the imaginations and interest of Islamic revivalists.

Is this the last we'll be hearing of Arebica, then? Stay tuned to find out!