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Arvii: Comments, Question


1.        ARVII also spelt ARWI
ARVII, also spelt ARWI, the first word in the name of this publication is adopted from Lisaan al Arvii - the name of one of the traditional speech and writing systems of the Muslim populations of Sri Lanka, southern India, Malaysia, and other regions of that part of the Muslim world. It is now known only among specialists and in a few households such as that of the author of this introduction.
2.      Print Publications

  a.       M.I. Seyed Mohamed Buhari. 2009. Font Development for Arwi. An Addition to Arabic Unicode Characters. Scientia Bruneica, vol. 10: 9-34.
A step in a right direction.
        b. Afdalul`Ulema Dr. Tayka Shu`ayb `Alim. 1993. Arabic, Arwi, and Persian in Sarandib and Tamil Nadu. Imamul `Arus Trust, Madras.

823 pages of food for thought about the language, as well as about culture, customs, and religion.
         c. M. M. Uwise. 1986.  "The language and literature of the Muslims" in M. M.M. Mahroof et. al. ed. An Ethnological Survey of the Muslims of Sri Lanka from earliest times to Independence: 150-165, Colombo.  
Uwise adopted the transliterated spelling "Arvi" and used it to denote all of the literary works written in "Arabic-Tamil". The original spelling in Lisaan al Arvii writing, uses the long vowel /ii/ for the ending of the name of the script. As such I have changed it to Arvii.
3.       Online.
Early versions of this site,, were launched in 1997. At that time there was no other information about Arvii/Arwi available online.
Since the inception of the Sri Lanka Moors Facebook page some years later, its members have discussed Arvii from time to time. The Facebook site had copied material from in its first appearance.
Other online articles are now (2012) available and may be found through Google.
4.       Tafsiir
I have been interested in the mystery of this writing system from the early years of my researches on Sri Lankan Muslims and before. Like most Sri Lankan, and specifically Akurana Muslims, I grew up in an environment in which facility with more than one set of grammars and vocabularies was expected. A speaker may switch back and forth from any one of these in ordinary everyday situations, depending on who else was present. Some adults in the family would speak in Arabic with guests and relatives who one was talking to. English and Singhala were used in some conversations with other visitors, by some members of the large household. English was least known, and only among the growing younger generation.
 In elementary school, all of my classes were in Tamil. Looking back I now realize that the Tamil we learnt in school was significantly different from the Tamil we heard in the lectures, talks, and conversations in the mosque, which was also a place of important interactions with the village public. The mosque based “Tamil” may also be called Arvii.
As I grew older and started attending a Catholic school, and meeting other young men of my age from various parts o the country, I entered the multilingual and multi ethnic society of what was then Ceylon. In that Ceylonese polity there were Burghers, Chinese, Singhalese, Tamils, and others, in addition to Muslims from different localities. The principal of the school was a well built ordained priest of Italian descent. He spoke English with a markedly foreign accent.  By and large the non-Muslims among the students used a kind of Sri Lankan English as well as Singhala and Tamil.  Muslim males were expected to be at home with Singhala and Tamil, and in some instances English, as well as Arvii/Arwi.
My academic interest in Arwi/Arvii became sharpened in the summer of 1987, when during a trip to Sri Lanka as part of initiating what was aimed to be an "Islamic Community Development Planning" project, I found a copy of a tafsir of the Qur`an, as well as other old Arwi (Arvii) books.  This was an unplanned discovery unrelated to the stated purpose of my trip from my present residence in New Jersey, USA, that year.
The large size tafsiir caught my attention. It had been authored by a scholar originally from Cairo, Egypt, and schooled in the Shafi`i Ash`ari knowledge tradition. He had spent sufficient time in southern India to have mastered Arvii/Arwi - a local dialect. The decorative art adorning the first pages of the tafsiir, published in Bombay, India circa 1878 C.E. has inspired some computer art, reproduced elsewhere in this site. 
5.       Religious Knowledge.
The distinctiveness of the speech behavior of so-called "Tamil speaking" Muslims of Sri Lanka has been referred to as Arabic-Tamil, Arabuthamul, Arvii, Arwi, Muslim Tamil, and Shonakam among Sri Lankan Muslims. It enjoys a religious knowledge affinity with Arabic, as well as a dialect of Jawi, used by the Malays of the island. Its usefulness to Muslims includes the way in which in which its words and expressions, originally from Qur`aan and Hadith, separate Muslim beliefs regarding theology, life after death, and such realms, from non-Muslim beliefs. Linguistically related to other Dravidian tongues now spoken in many parts of the world, predominantly in southern India, Arvii is believed by some to be also related to Brahui, "a Dravidian language spoken today by nearly 350,000 in East Baluchistan", in Pakistan.
6.       Orthography
As a written language Arvii employs an invented orthography for a creolized, or mixed, system of speech patterns. Research on its history has only very recently begun to appear in print. It is believed to have originated in the course of the Islamizing contact between Dravidian speaking peoples with Arab and Persian traders. The principles of its development and structure are possibly related to similar systems known for other similar Islamized speech and writing systems such as Indian Muslim Tamil, or Malayalam, as well as other systems such as Maldivian, Jawi, Urdu, and Persian.
The orthographic systems of some of those languages have been analyzed by Professor C. M. Naim of the University of Chicago as part of a widespread, non-Arabic,  Islamic historical trend toward the making of orthographic systems for non-Arabic tongues. He has described and analyzed the trend as a process of "borrowing" words from Arabic by new Islamic groups and their literati and of adapting Arabic orthography for the languages of new Muslim groups, even in instances where an earlier writing system existed.
Of the nine languages that Professor Naim has analyzed none have a Dravidian or other pre-Indo-Aryan Indic history. Naim has analyzed "structural similarities" among the nine, and of the nine to "Classical Arabic," "without implying a simultaneous historical relationship".
In tracing the history of orthographies and graphemic notation practices, similar in type to that of Arwi/Arvii, Professor Naim has not referred to Ibn Khaldun's Arabic practice for transliterating non-Arabic sounds, such as from Berber tongues, explained in the Muqaddima .
Ibn Khaldun's discussion includes comments on the awareness that existed among the Arab literati of his time and prior to him, regarding the problem of Arabizing non-Arab sounds. He derived his technique for dealing with the problem from "the way the Qur`an scholars write sounds that are not sharply defined, such as occur, for instance, in as-siraat according to the Khalaf reading" of, for instance, Surah Fatihah (Qur`an I:6). His comments as well as other research cited by Rosenthal suggest that the development of an additional orthographic system where the basic alphabetic characters of Arabic were insufficient, had begun very early in the history of Islamic writing, including in the earliest writings of the Qur`an. (Ibn Khaldun. The Muqaddimah. vol. 1: 65-68. This translation is now available online in the large site devoted to Muslim philosophy texts which may be accessed through the link provided elsewhere in this site).
7.       Cultural Invention
The well known American anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber has examined the general human phenomenon of the invention and history of some such scripts.  Some of them did not have a written language previously. To Kroeber such scripts provide evidence for a kind of human inventiveness, by which the "total mass" of a culture expands.  Kroeber was a keen student of cultural inventions.
8.       Recent history
Arwi is known to be a matter of at least scholarly interest in some parts of Sri Lanka today, but other languages such as English have replaced it in many contexts. Shu`ayb`Alim has noted interesting and important reasons for the decline of Arwi. Among them the conflict with English and the lack of competitive printing facilities. However, the early 20th century adoption of an Urdu dominant madrasa curriculum, by scholars unconcerned with Arwi, which has a different, southern Indian and Sri Lankan cultural and historical genesis, is also, according to him, a reason. The story of its decline and of attempts by some such as that of Shu`ayb Alim to revive it in recent decades are characteristically modern Islamic stories.
The purpose of learning and learning about Arvii/Arwi for us is not to express a commitment toward movements that are said to exist to revive it as a kind of “national language” for the Muslims of Sri Lanka and other neighboring areas. The purpose is rather to promote an awareness of the place of Arvii/Arwi in the history, culture, and identity struggles of Sri Lankan Muslims.
For those who are interested, Dr. Hamidullah in his Introduction to Islam (now available in several editions including 1994, Karachi) has demonstrated (pp. 184-189), how English can be written using Arvii or Urdu type orthographies.
The linguistic "marriage" of Arabic with, most commonly Dravidian and other southern Indian and Sri Lankan dialects, a process that has been active in the region for several centuries, is a problem of ethnological, linguistic, and Islamological interest. It is our hope that the growing research interest in Arvii and Arvii literature will continue.
First published Friday December 12 1997; revised and updated: 2/6/2012

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