In a speech during Yale’s tercentennial celebration, the dean of Yale College remarked that crises, such as the terrorist attacks on America on Sept. 11, 2001, can make what was an arcane subject suddenly seem important. He was no doubt referring to Arabic and Islamic studies. It is sobering to think that the titular head of the Yale faculty could think that Arabic and Islamic studies are arcane. Arabic is, after all, the native language of about 180 million people, more, for example, than speak French, German, Italian or Russian. Arabic is, moreover, the scriptural language of some billion human beings spread over about five-sixths of the inhabited earth, most of them not in the Near East at all. It is one of the five world languages so designated by the United Nations. Yet to the men and women who run this university, Arabic is arcane. Old-time Yale knew better: Arabic was first taught here in 1842, a good half century before any course in English or American literature was taught at Yale, and long before most other modern languages were taught that are now in the curriculum.

The dean’s second point, connecting the importance of Arabic study with terrorism, is even more startling, so let’s take a quick look at it. Arabic was, in fact, the first truly foreign language studied in the Christian world. Study of Arabic began in Europe in the 10th century A.D., peaked in the 12th and 13th, was renewed in the 16th and 17th centuries, and has grown apace ever since — rather long for association with crises. Let’s consider four crisis points in European and American history and see how study of Arabic ties in with them.

During the mid-13th century, Christian anxiety about the Arab world was very high. On the one hand, the last stronghold of the Crusaders in the Near East had fallen to the Muslims. On the other, a terrible new force, the Mongols, had seized Iran and Iraq, raising Christian hopes that Islam would at last be defeated. In this climate, a whole series of proposals was made by various people to create Arabic and Mongol language schools. The world would not be won for Christianity by soldiers, they said, but by Christian linguists, reaching the hearts and minds of the Muslims and Mongols in their own tongues. A French lawyer even proposed training Christian damsels in Arabic then marrying them off with attractive dowries to Arab potentates, thus ensuring their conversion in the privacy of the harem. The problem was to find money to set up the schools and students to go to them. Neither kings nor the church were interested in language training and practically no one signed up for the programs that were created. Yet this same period was the great age of translation from Arabic to Latin. Most people studied Arabic at the time because, as scholars, they wanted to learn something, not because they were afraid or because they wanted to destroy Islam. Very few Muslims converted to Christianity, but translations from Arabic were of decisive importance in the intellectual development of Europe in the high Middle Ages.

A second crisis occurs in the middle of the 16th century, when the Ottoman Turks were the new terror of Europe. Once again, proposals for extensive language training were circulated. Surely if the Turks knew the truth about Christianity they would eagerly convert, and a happy new period of history would begin. But again, very few people studied Arabic for that reason in the 16th century and those that did come across as hopelessly misguided. Scholarly study of Arabic, however, among European humanists of the Renaissance, delved ever deeper into Arabic philosophy, grammar, exact sciences and medicine, and, eventually, Arabic literature and the Koran. Kings and rich men endowed professorships in Arabic, but for increase of knowledge, not to convert the Arabs: the idea was for Europeans to learn something important.

My third example is America’s first foreign crisis, a Middle Eastern one of course. I refer to the Tripolitan war, or, as Americans called them, the Barbary pirates. Although this forced a pacifist president to build the first U.S. Navy, there was no talk of language study in those critical times. When the Tunisian ambassador came to Washington, no one could read his credentials but a Massachusetts clergyman. The war got settled anyway. The first American sent abroad to learn Arabic for diplomacy was in 1826, 20 years after the war, but already in 1780, 20 years before the crisis, Ezra Stiles, here at Yale, was both studying Arabic and making Near Eastern languages the number one priority for the first American university, which he hoped would be Yale.

My last example is World War II. The Department of War, as it was then called, was dismayed to find that few Americans knew anything about the rest of the world. Uncle Sam’s idea of Americans in intelligence service was rather restricted, as it meant preferably Yale and Princeton men, Harvard men being rather too risky. There were plenty of people who knew Japanese, for example, but they were interned in prison camps as unreliable and hadn’t gone to Princeton, so Yankees had to take up languages very fast. From this grew what we call “area studies,” expertise in regions that seemed important at various times in the postwar world, the experts not being too ethnic however. For the Near East, the language component was quickly discarded in favor of anthropology, economics and political science, so first-rate American Arabic linguists as a group had little to do with “area studies.” Government service, such as intelligence, further fell out of favor in universities, where most linguists were, with the Vietnam war, so the government has had to train its own linguists. In American foreign policy after 1948, the very word “Arabist” got a negative tone, implying someone who was not sufficiently supportive of Israel. In the minds of a new breed of university administrators, moreover, Arabic was arcane because fewer students signed up for it than for French or Spanish, and, unlike Ezra Stiles, none of these administrators had ever studied Arabic themselves or respected much those that had.

My point is that Arabic has been a major intellectual adventure of the Christian world for perhaps a thousand years. Throughout that thousand years, there have been many crises involving Arabic-speaking peoples, as there have been on occasion with Germans, Russians, Japanese, and Spanish-speaking peoples as well. There have been those who hoped that study of Arabic would further this or that national policy of this or that Christian country. Arabic study for such a limited purpose is dwarfed into insignificance by the impact of Arabic study on western civilization. I salute those 60 or so Yale students who should be doing their Arabic homework right now: you are not arcane and you are certainly not afraid of challenge. Every one of you, whatever your reasons, began before Sept. 11.

Benjamin Foster is a professor in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. These remarks were given at a panel titled “Arab-Islamic Civilization Beyond the 1,001 Nights and September 11” on Nov. 13, 2001.