Modernization, Literacy, and Stagnation in the Arab World

Anyone interested in the Arab world has probably spent some time recently poring over Scott Anderson’s extraordinary 42,000-word essay, “Fractured Lands: How the Arab World Came Apart,” published in the August 14 issue of The New York Times Magazine. I was struck by the starkness of an observation toward the beginning, as Anderson explains how he came to write the piece: “In my professional travels over the decades, I had found no other region to rival the Arab world in its utter stagnation.”

While Anderson’s reporting offers valuable insights into the complexity and despair of contemporary Arab politics, it fails to address this underlying sense of malaise. It seems clear that the Arab world has not joined the new global village in the way that, say, India and China have. In those and other places, despite cultural and religious variation, on the road to modernity the Western alphabet displaced or supplemented other writing systems decades ago, as it replaced Arabic script in Turkey in the early twentieth century. Most observers would not connect these two facts. I believe they are deeply connected.

Polyglot India is united by the use of alphabetic English; alphabetic pinyin has supplemented famously difficult traditional Chinese writing for half a century and was absolutely necessary to achieving wide literacy in China; Turkey now enjoys a lively literary and economic life. This journey to literacy and relative prosperity has not been shared by the Arab world. Arabs have held to their traditional consonantal writing and have faced persistent problems with literacy, science, and related issues.

Consonantal writing systems such as Arabic and Hebrew are based on ancient Phoenician writing, which at the time of its invention around 1,000 BC was a great improvement on previous systems. With consonantal writing, the consonants act as hints, but readers have to supply the missing vowel sounds themselves. In other words, they need to recognize, and understand, the message before they can actually read it.

Western scholars—anxious to deter accusations of Islamophobia or its forebear, Orientalism—uniformly avoid what follows: if you have to understand what you’re reading before you can read it, a message that’s harder to understand is going to be harder to read. By definition, then, a “new” idea will be harder to communicate with consonantal writing than with the alphabet, which lets you read the message first, automatically, and then figure out what it means.

Scholars have evaded this problem by repeating empty bromides such as, “each culture has the kind of writing that works best for it.” But the bankruptcy of such condescension has been made increasingly obvious by research in a variety of disciplines over the past half century that has drawn new attention to the cognitive and historical implications of alphabetic literacy.

Media critic Marshall McLuhan (who originated the phrase “the global village”), social linguist Walter Ong, and anthropologist Jack Goody all made important contributions to our understanding of the alphabet’s consequences. More than anyone else, however, it was classicist Eric Havelock who put together the revolutionary new understanding of the alphabet's origins and impact that goes under the name “the alphabetic thesis.”

A British scholar who worked in North America, Havelock was at the University of Toronto with McLuhan and also worked in the United States, where he chaired the classics departments of first Harvard and then Yale. By the time of his death in 1988, his work on the alphabet had done for the social sciences no less than what Darwin did for biology or Einstein for physics. It swept away previous theories of cultural evolution and replaced them with a coherent new explanatory model that accounts for the evidence from numerous disciplines, revealing deep connections among a wide range of apparently disparate phenomena.

The thrust of Havelock’s argument is that only the alphabet has allowed humanity to shift from oral patterns of culture to literate ones. Because of their difficulty, he argued, other writing systems remained restricted to highly trained male elites and did not allow wide readerships such as those arising first in ancient Greece and then in Rome, which adapted the Greek alphabet to Latin.

Havelock’s most significant achievement was simply to demonstrate that not all writing is the same, but for many readers this claim has proven to be ideologically indigestible. The alphabetic thesis, they feel, is deeply unfair because (they assume) it denigrates the users of other writing systems as less intelligent. However, as Havelock also insisted, the assumption that literacy is linked to intelligence, though almost universal, is false and highly toxic. In  The Origins of Western Literacy (1976), he called it “a curious kind of cultural arrogance.”

Among other things, the alphabetic thesis asserts that only the alphabet has allowed us to articulate new ideas and to spread them widely, and so the existence of a single revolutionary idea that has been articulated and widely spread without the alphabet would decisively falsify it. There does not appear to be any such idea.

First invented by the ancient Greeks, who took the Phoenician system and added vowels perhaps around 800 BC, the alphabet opened the door not only to the spread of new ideas, but also to the rapid appearance of science, philosophy, history, and other intellectual pursuits. For example, at the dawn of science c. 600 BC in Ionia, the Greek coast of what is now Turkey, a writer named Anaximander proposed the revolutionary idea that the earth is an object floating in space. Crucially, the alphabet allowed Anaximander’s idea to be passed on for further alphabetic study and improvement by successors such as Aristotle, who showed that the floating earth is a sphere; Aristarchus, who figured out that it spins on its axis and revolves around the Sun; and Eratosthenes, who ascertained its circumference.

As physicist Carlo Rovelli has observed, every culture untouched by this alphabetic tradition that we know of without exception has conceived of the world as a huge plate supported by various divinely-emplaced structures—columns, pillars, elephants, turtles, whatever. Two thousand-plus years of Chinese “science,” for example, never dislodged the basic (apparently oral) conception of a flat earth with heavens above. Ditto Egyptian, Babylonian, Hebrew, Indian, Mayan.

If you have the idea of the earth as an object floating in space, it comes from Anaximander. If anyone else ever had this idea independently, they left no record. Such is the power of the alphabet.

This is not to say that science, once it developed, was absolutely impossible with Arabic writing, which arose much later, with the advent of Islam in the seventh century AD. Indeed, as the wealthy and ascendant Arab caliphate established itself in Baghdad, a golden age of Arabic science achieved the only real scientific progress made during the Middle Ages. Yet the Arabs faced huge challenges in capitalizing on these incremental advances, which began as a translation movement from ancient Greek sources and relied on concerted government support rather than on the work of independent thinkers and writers as in the case of ancient Greece.

As the caliphate declined, so did its resources for supporting such inquiry. In distinct contrast with someone like Anaximander, the most original thinkers writing in Arabic—the astronomer and geographer Al Khwarizmi, the philosopher Ibn Rushd (Averroës), and the historian Ibn Khaldun come to mind—had virtually no successors and made little impact until they were rediscovered in alphabetic translations. Despite its medieval detour into science, Arabic literacy is today still measured, as it has been for centuries, by familiarity with the Quran.

Because the global village is above all a common marketplace of ideas—scientific, commercial, political, or otherwise—the spread of new ideas, not rote familiarity with religious scripture, is the true measure of modern literacy. But, whether on the page or the screen, Arabic writing has proven too difficult to allow the wide dissemination of new ideas. It is no accident that Hebrew and Arabic, the two main surviving forms of consonantal writing, are both historically associated primarily with ancient religious scripture, which retails oral material already familiar in the culture, and whose meaning must be constantly reinforced by group study and linguistic interpretation by male elites.

It is true that Hebrew writing is used in modern Israel, where literacy rates are very high. Yet this is a special case. Israeli Jews commonly read and write alphabetic languages along with Hebrew, and indeed Jewish literary culture has relied on other languages for thousands of years, since Hellenistic times. During most of that time, Hebrew was a dead language, until it was modernized by alphabetically literate European Zionists explicitly for purposes of political and cultural revival. So where the Arab world relies almost exclusively on consonantal writing—bi- or multi-lingual Arab intellectuals comprise very small minorities—Israeli Jews do not. In both cultures, intellectual work is done in English and other alphabetic languages. But in Arab countries this work never extends past a small elite to reach the culture as a whole.

Literacy in the Arab world, then, is ultimately restricted not by lack of schooling, or poverty, but by a writing system that inherently favors familiar, conventional, or simple messages over surprising, heterodox, or complex ones. Only this can explain the otherwise incomprehensible fact that, while few enough books are published in Arabic, virtually none are translated into it. Just a few hundred books each year find their way into Arabic from other languages, many of them technical books on subjects such as the oil industry or falconry, as compared with a conservative estimate of ten to fifteen thousand translated into English. (In 2002, the UN’s Arab Human Development Report noted that Spain translates more books into Spanish in a single year than have been translated into Arabic during the last 1,000 years.)

It has been argued that the difficult literary language of “standard” or “classical” Arabic is the underlying obstacle to Arabic literacy. Like poverty or lack of schooling, this may be true as far as it goes, but such a theory fails to explain why spoken Arabic dialects haven’t become robust literary languages in their own right, the way spoken Italian, French, or Spanish dialects replaced literary Latin.

Nor can a smartphone or tablet overcome such intellectual and cultural isolation, offering only the illusion of real and meaningful connection.

So I propose that it is writing technology—not, as others have argued, culture, religion, or Western colonialism—that has fundamentally inhibited all attempts to modernize across the Arab world. Saudi Arabia, the fountainhead of toxic Sunni Islamist violence, was never ruled by a Western colonial power, and Islam coexists with modernity in parts of the world that were, such as (alphabetic) Indonesia.

To argue that writing technology has nothing to do with the apocalyptic religious obscurantism, agonizing cultural isolation, extreme economic stagnation, and explosive political frustration of the bloc that stretches from Northern Africa to Afghanistan and Pakistan, where Arab and non-Arab cultures use Arabic script, seems to me completely untenable—as untenable as blindly maintaining that Arabic reading must have nothing to do with Arabic writing in the first place.

There are even deeper historical currents at work here. For example, as we’ve seen, Havelock argued that only the alphabet allowed the rise of writers and readerships beyond the male elite gatekeepers that jealously guarded all other kinds of literacy. This suggests that the alphabet is in reality the primary global driver of the diffusion of cultural authority—and that it has always been so, underpinning the much more widely recognized effects of first print and now electronic media, both of which are largely alphabetic technologies. “Vowel” comes from the Latin word vox, “voice”—reflecting the historical reality that only the alphabet has ever allowed new voices to be heard within the larger culture. That goes for Ida B. Wells or Sappho as much as for Beyoncé or Taylor Swift. (Thought experiment: try finding a viral video without entering letters into a search field. Google, don’t forget, is owned by Alphabet.) The diffusion of cultural authority celebrated today in Silicon Valley may run through Mainz and Venice, but it rises first in Ionia and Athens.

This history of the alphabetic West makes a key point in the argument about Arab modernization. The treatment of women and especially girls is now widely accepted as a bellwether for human development. According to the alphabetic thesis, consonantal scriptures such as the Hebrew Bible and the Quran have always required the presence of a rigidly authoritarian male elite to control the message and determine the “correct” reading, since one passage can so often be read in different ways. Hence, at least according to this scenario, the conspicuous targeting of girls and girls’ schools by controlling males, whose “traditional” iron grip on cultural authority is threatened every time a girl insists on her right to learn to read. In this way, for thousands of years patriarchal authority has been intimately tied to communications technology.

Hebrew and Arabic writing aren’t the only examples of obsolete technology acting as a marker of religious identity—and, not incidentally, a tool of male oppression. Think of the Mennonites. Then think of the Masoretes. And now think of Malala. Among other things, it seems, writing systems are a feminist issue—and the alphabet, alone among them, is on the side of equal rights.


Colin Wells is the author of Sailing from Byzantium: How a Lost Empire Shaped the World (Bantam-Dell, 2006) and A Brief History of History: Great Historians and the Epic Quest to Explain the Past (Lyons, 2008). Wells was educated at UCLA and Oxford. He lives in Westport, NY, where he is currently working on a book about the alphabet.

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