Today, many Catholic and Orthodox Churches in the Middle East use Arabic as the language of the Divine Liturgy, often mingled with Greek. When did this practice begin?

I assume that at the time of the Muslim invasions the only liturgical languages in use were Greek and Syriac, and I can't imagine that the Orthodox Christians at that time were too keen on immediately adopting the language of the conquerors. Nonetheless, this clearly happened eventually. How and when did this shift occur?

  • Welcome, and interesting question. I'll be interested in comparing answers on this to the Reformation a timeline of when the RC church started allowing some non-Latin liturgy.
    – Caleb
    Apr 28 '12 at 16:35
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    The Syriac Orthodox still use Syriac as a liturgical language, even when the congregants speak Arabic or Turkish as their native language. I believe that the end of Byzantine rule had a great impact on the adoption of Arabic amongst the Arab Greek Orthodox. I'm not sure how this influenced other groups, such as the Uniate Melkites or Maronites (who also use Syriac). May 4 '12 at 20:30
  • One note, unlike many other faiths, Christianity has historically had no anti-vulgar bias. Local languages work just fine! (indeed, the Vulgate proves the point. ). It may end up being that the answer is "Arabic was pretty much used all along. ). It's mostly the RCC that insisted on Latin. May 5 '12 at 20:10
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    @AffableGeek There is a history of battles over language use in the Armenian Church, for example, so you can not limit bias to just Roman Catholicism. Incidentally, Catholics of the non-Roman tradition use tongues other than Latin as their liturgical language. May 7 '12 at 22:19
  • And one other Roman Catholic note, which is mildly relevant: Even the Roman Rite was translated long before 1970 into non-Latin editions, with Roman approval, albeit in very limited contexts. AFAIK there are editions of the Roman Missal from the 17th through 19th centuries in Arabic, Armenian, Old Slavonic, and Mandarin.
    – Ben Dunlap
    May 25 '12 at 17:12

Different communities adopted Arabic at various times. The earliest community to start using Arabic were the Greek Orthodox of Palestine, who started translating the liturgy and theological books into Arabic in the 8th century. For a more general history of Arab Christianity, I'd consult The Church in the Shadow of the Mosque by Sidney Griffith. For evidence of possible pre-Islamic use of Arabic as a Christian liturgical language, browse through the series Byzantium and the Arabs by Irfan Shahid.

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    Welcome to Christianity.SE! I'm glad to see this question getting even a sliver of attention from somebody with knowledge in the area; these are great pointers. If you run across more details please be sure to come back and edit them in! Hope to see you around. BTW, have you checked out our faq?
    – Caleb
    Sep 11 '12 at 19:56

This article states that Arabic was adopted as a language of liturgy by the Coptic church gradually in the 12th century. I don't have access to the reference to check it. Nor can I say whether the Coptic church was typical, but since the claim is that it was by action of the Pope of Alexandria it might well have been a transition happening throughout the Easters Orthodox churches.


When did Arabic enter into usage as a liturgical language among Christian Churches?

Arabic became a liturgical language in the 12th century.

The official language of Egypt is Arabic, and most Egyptians speak one of several vernacular dialects of that language. As is the case in other Arab countries, the spoken vernacular differs greatly from the literary language. Modern literary Arabic (often called Modern Standard Arabic or al-fuṣḥā, “clear” Arabic), which developed out of Classical, or medieval, Arabic, is learned only in school and is the lingua franca of educated persons throughout the Arab world. The grammar and syntax of the literary form of the language have remained substantially unchanged since the 7th century, but in other ways it has transformed in recent centuries. The modern forms of style, word sequence, and phraseology are simpler and more flexible than in Classical Arabic and are often directly derivative of English or French.

At the time of the Islamic conquest, the Coptic language, a latter incarnation of the ancient Egyptian language, was the medium of both religious and everyday life for the mass of the population. By the 12th century, however, Arabic had come into common use even among Christian Copts, whose former tongue continued only as a liturgical language for the Coptic Orthodox Church.

Copts are far and away the largest Christian denomination in the country. In language, dress, and way of life they are indistinguishable from Muslim Egyptians; their church ritual and traditions, however, date from before the Arab conquest in the 7th century. Ever since it broke with the Eastern Church in the 5th century, the Coptic Orthodox Church has maintained its autonomy, and its beliefs and ritual have remained basically unchanged. The Copts have traditionally been associated with certain handicrafts and trades and, above all, with accountancy, banking, commerce, and the civil service; there are, however, rural communities that are wholly Coptic, as well as mixed Coptic-Muslim villages. The Copts are most numerous in the middle Nile valley governorates of Asyūṭ, Al-Minyā, and Qinā. About one-fourth of the total Coptic population lives in Cairo. - Languages (ENCYCLOPÆDIA BRITANNICA)

Samn's response to this question leads one to believe that Arabic as a liturgical language stated in the 8th century. However that is easily refuted for a later date as the following article clearly demonstrates: The identity and witness of Arab pre-Islamic Arab Christianity: The Arabic language and the Bible.

Because of these two problems, no Arab Eusebius and no clear definition of arabness, we have difficulty in uncovering the story of the Arabs, and especially the Arab Christians, from their own perspective in antiquity. It is not until the 6th century that we find Arabs using the Arabic script to leave any form of cultural self-identification. The poetry of pre-Islamic Arabs is the first genre of indigenous literature where the history of the Arabs can be gleaned from their own perspective; and even so, most of the collections of these 6th century poets are the result of 8th century editors (Hoyland 2001:212-220).The general murkiness of the historical sources on the Arabs is difficult enough, let alone our inquiry into what Arab Christianity actually signifies. Nevertheless, if we look closely we find the evidence.

The middle of the 7th century created unique problems for the development and use of a public Arab Christian text. As Kenneth Cragg famously wrote, Arab Christians are linguistically defined by a language that is 'bound over to the Qur'an' (Cragg 1991:65). To put it another way, as the Qur'an has served as the standard of the Arabic language since its own binding, Arab Christians have had to engage in their own self-discovery of what it means to be Arab apart from the arabnessof the Qur'an. For some Arab Christians this has meant upholding the Islamic tradition as one important Arab cultural legacy. For others it has meant jettisoning the Arab veneer and looking for the pre-Islamic identities of the Phoenicians or Pharaohs. At other points in history, Arab Christians have tried to define their Arabness as an imperial imposition that has been forced upon their previous own cultural identities.

Thus it was only after the appearance of the Qur'an that Christians truely started writing in Arabic for apologetics and scriptural purposes. Its' use as a liturgical language was much later.

  • How does the article show your point?
    – K-HB
    Apr 17 '19 at 8:02
  • By the lack of Arabic writings. Arabic only started to be used by some Christians in the 8th century. It took centuries for the language to be part of the liturgy and the Mass.
    – Ken Graham
    Apr 17 '19 at 11:23
  • That's your conclusion, but does not come out of the second text. The text only stated it was a difficult process, but without dates.
    – K-HB
    Apr 17 '19 at 19:44

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