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Arabic (اللغة العربية al-luġatu l-ʿarabiyyah or just عربي arabī) is today spoken natively by 150 million people, making it the largest living member of the Semitic languages family in terms of speakers.
Classified as Central Semitic, it is closely related to Hebrew and Aramaic. Modern Arabic is classified as a macrolanguage with 27 sub-languages in ISO 639-3.
Modern Standard Arabic derives from Classical Arabic, often referred to as "Qur'anic Arabic", the only surviving member of the Old North Arabian dialect group, attested epigraphically since the 6th century, which has been a literary language and the liturgical language of Islam since the 7th century CE.
Arabic has lent many words to other languages of the Islamic world, akin to the role Latin has in Western European languages.
Some apologists claim that the Qur'an can only be properly understood in its original Arabic form. Thus all translations are unreliable, and all criticism of Islam is invalid unless one studies and understands Classical Arabic. There are several problems with this claim:
If it's not possible to criticize Islam unless you know Classical Arabic (because your understanding of what Islam is may be erroneous), then it logically follows that you cannot propagate Islam unless you know Classical Arabic (because your understanding of what Islam is may be erroneous). No Muslim would agree to that because most Muslims do not understand Modern Arabic, let alone Classical Arabic.
It is not possible for anyone to learn a language that cannot be translated into the only one they do know, which means those who insist that one "must learn Arabic” in order to understand the Qur’an are committing a logical fallacy. Either the Arabic of the Qur'an is translatable (in which case there is no need to learn Arabic) or it is not (in which case it can never be learned by the non-native speaker).
The Arabic language is no different to other languages; if other languages can be translated accurately, then so can Arabic. Critics or adherents of Judaism, Christianity and Hinduism do not need to speak Hebrew, Greek or Sanskrit in order to understand these faiths, and the same applies to Islam.
Furthermore, translations were, and still are today, often "softened"or made more palatable to modern, liberal, western(ized) audiences, such as adding the word "lightly" (originally in Arabic "not severally" or غير مبرح) added to Quran 4:34 by Abdullah Yusuf Ali (based off of extra-quranic material and commentary relating to this verse), which enjoins wife beating. Yusuf Ali also "softened" the word 'Kill' into 'fight' such as in Quran 9:5.
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- Edward William Lane's Arabic-English Lexicon (Download) - The most revered and scholarly dictionary of the Arabic language
- The Hans Wehr Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic - 40 MB Downloadable PDF file
- Dictionary/ Arabic - MSN Encarta, accessed December 27, 2010