Mon 17- Fri 21 March 2014 | NISIS Spring School 2014 "Languages in Muslim Societies" | Madrid, Spain

From Monday 17 to Friday 21 March 2014, NISIS, in close cooperation with French and Spanish partners, organised the Madrid Spring School. The overall theme of the Spring School was "Languages in Muslim Societies." Location: Casa de Velázquez, Madrid (Spain).

Overall theme

From Mindanao to Bosnia and from Senegal to Xinjiang Muslims express themselves in hundreds of languages, as befits a culture area which includes one fifth of humankind. This linguistic diversity however refers to one source: in none of the two other important culture areas related to a world religion, Christianity and Buddhism, a sacred language as hegemonic as Arabic plays such a preponderant role. The Qur’an is considered not to be translated, and its authoritative commentaries were composed in Arabic. Islamic law has remained all through its history especially closely linked to Arabic, also by its rootedness in the holy text, in the hadîth, and in the Sîra of the Prophet, and in the stories about his companions.

The administration of the Islamic empire and its succeeding states on the other hand detached itself quickly from the holy language. A first step was the construction of an imperial prose, which was the work of Christian secretaries and Persian grammarians serving the empire, as is common knowledge. Later on two other languages took over successively, both in the administration and in cultural expression: first Persian, which became much more important than Arabic between the thirteenth and eighteenth centuries, stretching its influence from Anatolia to the Indian subcontinent, and afterwards Ottoman Turkish. Arabic, on the contrary, lacking the cohesive force of state power, manifested itself in a multiplicity of spoken languages, often referred to as “dialects”.

For a long time every “Islamic” language, practiced in a context in which Islamic values mattered, was written in the Arabic, or Arabo-Persian script, such as Malay, Swahili, Berber, and Spanish/Aljamiado. Even Christian languages, as Syriac, Greek, and Armenian, were written at certain times with Arabic characters. Today this is no longer the case. Hardly half of the Muslim communities in the world, between Morocco and Pakistan, with the exception of the Turkish and Turkic peoples, write and read the Arabic script. Elsewhere Latin script has become dominant. Its spread was linked to European models of “modernity”, which also showed in processes of “de-arabisation” and “de-persification”, leading to transformations of Ottoman into contemporary Turkish, and of Hindustani into today’s Hindi. Urdu failed to imposed itself, and its accompanying Arabo-Persian writing system, in Bangladesh. Malay has been transformed into Indonesian and is written in Latin script. In Kenya and Tanzania Swahili has become the national language of countries in which Christians form by far the majority, and has lost its primary attachment to Islam.

In almost all Muslim countries colonisation and modernisation have established in the centre of the state elites who use European languages. These European languages have often taken over roles that formerly the great languages of Islam fulfilled. For example, English has replaced on the Indian subcontinent Persian in kindred domains. Arabic itself, revitalised and reappraised during the Nahda of the nineteenth century, modernised its lexicon, its style, and its teaching, by adopting the tools of modern linguistics and printing.

Nowadays islamist movements fiercely criticise these dominant trends. Among Muslims in China and in Subsaharan Africa for example, Arabic is considered to be the language of “pure” Islam and (re)conquers roles which salafi or jihadi militants deny to French (in the Maghrib) or to English (in Northern Nigeria).

The 2014 spring school in Madrid focused in particular, but not exclusively, on these problems of the multiple and changing hierarchies of languages, of ancient and contemporary practices and linguistic geographies, and on the place of Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Hausa etc, and also of European languages in the Muslim World.


During the mornings session of Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday, two keynote speakers delivered lectures on the state of the art within the field of Islam and linguistics. On the following afternoon sessions (Monday, Tuesday and Thursday), workshops were organised in which PhD candidates and advanced MA students had the opportunity to give a presentation on how their current research is related to the theme of the Spring School. The workshops were led by a senior moderator. An excursion was also part of the programme.


Call for application

PhD candidates and advanced MA students active in the field of Islamic Studies are invited to apply for participation. If your application for participation has been successful, you will be granted the following:

-Participation in the complete programme, including one excursion
-An allowance of € 500 for your travel expenses and housing expenses. There is a limited number of rooms available in the Casa de Velázquez (price €70 per night). It is possible to share a room. Please inform us together with your application whether you would prefer this option.

To apply for participation, please send your application to Prof Dr L.P.H.M. Buskens ( Deadline for application: Tuesday 4 February 2014, 09.00 hrs (CET). Applications that reach us after that will not be taken into consideration.

This application should include the following:

- a motivation letter
- a CV
- a one-page description of your MA thesis or PhD project
- a reference letter of your MA thesis or PhD supervisor.
- an abstract of 300 words (max)
- a short biography of 50 words (max)

Please note the following:

1. NISIS junior members - except PhD candidates who are funded by NISIS - do NOT automatically qualify and do need to apply for participation.

2. The number of people who will be admitted to the Madrid Spring School is limited!

3. Successful applicants have to arrange their visa (if applicable), flight to and from Madrid, and transport to and from Madrid themselves.

4. A reimbursement of € 500 for your travel expenses will take place after submitting original tickets and receipts to the NISIS office; preferably scanned by email.

Obtaining credits (4 EC)

The Madrid Spring School is part of the NISIS Training Programme. Please read more about course objectives and requirements in the course description of the Spring School 2014.

Participants (PhD candidates and research master students) who want to obtain credits for participation in the Spring School (4 EC) are required to:

- give a presentation (15 minutes) in one of the afternoon workshops;
- write a paper (2500-4000 words) in which you relate the theme of the Spring School to your own research.

*As a discussant during the Spring School, you are required to pose questions for discussion and to actively participate in and contribute to the discussion. NISIS aims at assigning the participants to the different (thematic/geographical) workshops in accordance with their respective field of study within Islamic Studies. Please note that it will not be possible to circulate abstracts of presentations in advance.


Spring School venue: Casa de Velázquez in Madrid


The organisation of the Madrid Spring School was a joint effort by:

- Netherlands Interuniversity School for Islamic Studies (NISIS)
- Institut d’études de l’Islam et des sociétés du monde musulman (IISMM, Paris)
- Institut de recherche pour le développement (IRD, Paris)
- Casa de Velázquez (Madrid)

Last Modified: 05-06-2014