The Sword and the Comma Or Down with Sibawah by Chérif Choubachy

CC3The Author: Cherif Choubachy is an Egyptian writer and journalist who was born in Alexandria.He lived in France for twenty-one years (from 1980 to 2001) where he worked as a civil servant for UNESCO and then became director of the Egyptian newspaper Al Ahram's Paris office. In Egypt, he was a news anchor for the french-speaking TV news and also Vice-Minister of Culture (from 2002 to 2006).

In 20065, he published the book Down with Sibawayh ( translated into French and published in 2007 under the title Le sabre et la virgule) which caused a fierce controversy in the Arab world. Subsequent to official protests he even had to resign from the government in 2006. In his book Choubachy asserts that one of the principle reasons for the retardation of modernity in Arab societies is the Arabic language itself and its complex rules

The Book: The original title of Choubachy’s book was Down with Sibawayh (Sibawayh is considered to be the greatest grammarian of the Arabic language). This title is a bit provocative and immediately shows Choubachy's attitude, that of someone who is preaching a renewal of Arabic. This issue is something taboo in Arab societies, because the Arabic language is sacred, as it is the language chosen by God for his last revelation, the Koran. That being so, we can understand why some asserttions by Choubachy, such as “the Arabs are riding a camel along a motorway" or “the Arabs are not able to write their own languagecorrectly ” provoked violent reactions.


His argumentation is constructed chapter by chapter:

  •            In the first, entitled The Tower of Babel, he demonstrates the essential role of language in saving the legacy of cultural heritage. He also highlights the unique status of Arabic language: when you have some knowledge of it, this determines your social position, thus poets were well considered.
  •            In the second chapter, he wonders If there is a world language. Historically, a dominant language came with a dominant civilisation. Nowadays, the hegemony of English is due to the new Media technologies, but especially to its simplicity: The Americans have adapted it to modern expectancies.
  •          The third part, Message to the temple guards, may be the core of his argumentation. The author starts to describe the situation: The Arabic language is mastered only by a few people. Because of its complexity, linguistic incapacity concerns every one in the whole of society, which is why, in his opinion, the Arabic language will die out if no modernisation is undertaken.
  •          In the fourth chapter Is the Arabic language sacred? He refuses the link between the Arabic language and Islam, this link was built for domination, and the Arabic language predates the Islamic Revelation. According to him, it is faith that makes Muslims, not their ethnic belonging. And how can we speak of a ssacred language, when more than 90% of Muslims are not able to understand it?
  •          In the fifth chapter Christians and Arabs, Chérif Choubachy underlines the Arab Christians role in the protection of the language and its expansion, especially during the Nahda (the Arab renaissance).
  •          In the sixth chapter, Who is afraid of Declension? The author explains the contradiction between the worship of the Arabic language and its renunciation in favour of local dialects: this refers to the complexity of its grammar. The commitment of a lifetime is needed if you want to harness the Arab language.
  •          In the seventh chapter he describes what he calls Linguistic schizophrenia: Arabic people speak dialectal Arabic spontaneously at home, with their colleagues, in the street… whereas they have to switch to classical Arabic for reading newspapers, listening to the radio or writing official reports. This situation disadvantages Arabic thought by spreading mental disabilities.
  •          The eighth chapter deals with the language’s aim. In every civilisation the rationale of language is communication whereas, for Arab people, language is an aim in itself. The author identifies many Arab characteristics to be correlated with language: idiomatic expressions and phrases predominate, form is more important than substance; exaggeration is common, a tortuous style is the most favoured form of expression of Arabic thought.
  •          The ninth chapter entitled No to mummification recounts the many attempts at reformation which failed because of the defenders of Tradition. The author believes a reform is needed , but in his opinion, classical Arabic shouldn’t be dropped in favour of the dialects: reform requires the creation of a half-way language and finding a compromise which would provide a common denominator for every Arabic dialect.
  •          The last chapter, The Arab exception, appears to be a conclusion. The Arabs differentiate themselves by their language, it defines their identity. But since dialects are more frequently employed than the classical language, renovating it would mean recreating Arab unity.

Thus, in his essay, the author tries to demonstrate that Arabic is one of the most complicated languages and because it hasn’t been modernized in 1500 years, the Arabs can rarely master their own language. In answer, he advocates simplifying the grammar and the syntax. In his opinion the fact that Arabic is untouchable, which is a unique phenomenon for a language, is not a positive thing, even if people used to claim that this was the strength of Arabic. With concrete grammatical examples the former Vice-Minister of culture emphasizes that the language of the Koran is archaic and does not correspond to the current rhythm of life. Because each language reflects a spirit, a culture and a civilization, and because nowadays Arabs don't think in the same way as those who lived in the days of Prophet Muhammad, Arabic has to be modernized in order to fit in with modern societies. Indeed, the vision of the world formulated in the Koran and represented by a complex language is no longer valid today, in the 21st century. 

Choubachy is calling on Academia to createa consensus in order to establish new rules of grammar. According to him, only such a measure could stop the current state of permanent regression which afflicts Arab thought. Subsequently, the press will be able to contribute to diffusing this new language, through a natural and spontaneous process, but first it is fundamental to have the courage to break these archaic grammatical rules, otherwise Arabs will never learn them and make way for modernity.


This book, originally published in 2004 sparked an outcry in the Arab world, especially in Egypt. While he was writing his book, he knew what it might provoke. Thus in his book one can read: “I’m aware I'm incurring the wrath of those who consider themselves as the keepers of the language and the ancestral heritage”. Indeed, his thesis has been at the centre of many debates in Arab countries. Even if the author doesn’t want to relate his dismissal, he declared “since I wrote this book, I've had nothing but problems. Its publication has provoked an outcry, horrible attacks in the Arab press, and a debate in the Egyptian parliament. I compiled over 1,200 pages of articles on my book, of which 97 % are highly critical”. The French version of this essay offers feedback samples. In order to illustrate the two different sides of the debate, the translated extracts of these reactions have been subdivided into:

  • Positive Reactions: Most of them encourage the debate, but think it is unacceptable for reactions to have reached the parliament. Amal Osman blamed the deputies for using religion to charge the author instead of considering his thesis rationally. Ragga el Naccache sees this book as“a cry in favour of reformation” and an authentic love for the Arabic language. Many people emphasize the fact that the author, throuth this book, has defied the forbidden. Generally, positive reactions tend to see in Choubachy a brave man who, despite his love and respect toward Arabic, has revealed that it needs to be freed from old fashion rules.
  • Negative Reactions: Most of the latter think this is an attempt at weakening Arabic, diverting the new generations from their mother tongue. According to them, this targets the Koran: they raise the question of how the holy Koran can be understood, if Arabic grammar is being dismantled?


Throughout the book, the author reiterates his main idea: he advocates simplifying the grammar and the syntax of the language, but the problem with Arabic is that, being the language of the Koran, it is considered to be sacred, hence untouchable. Today, the problem is that the rules of grammar, laid down centuries ago, are so complex that they encumber the brain, which is then less available to learn other things. In his opinion, new rules have to be devised for nowadays, otherwise the Arab world will be living in a state of permanent regression.

Even if we agree with the author concerning his thesis, we have had some difficulty with his own writing style, which is probably due to the fact that is a translation from Arabic. As mentioned in the book, Arabic tends to drown an idea in adjectives. In addition, because the author has wanted to prove his commitment towards Islam and the Arabic language, his rational thesis jars with the vocabulary he has used to describe the Koran, or the Prophet…