Arwi or Arabic-Tamil (لسان الأروي lisān-ul-arwī; அரபு-தமிழ் arabu-tamil) is one of the forgotten legacies of the Tamil-Muslims. Our Shaikhuna describes the Arwi language in the following emphatic words:
… an everlasting monument to the cultural synthesis between the Arabs on the one hand and the Tamil speaking Muslims of Sarandib (modern day Sri Lanka) and India on the other. Perhaps, no other aspect of the Sarandib-Arab and Indo-Arab cultural heritage is as important as this outcome of the historic meeting of two different and distinct linguistic cultures.
… Arwi safeguarded the interests of the Muslims. It was a panacea for several social diseases for centuries. It was fondly and fervently nurtured by selfless savants and holy saints. Its necessity was intensely felt by all the noble minds of the community. And it had been the recipient of the support and assistance of the masses as well as intellectuals. This shows the importance and indispensability of this noble language for the religious life and unity of the Arwi speaking Muslims. If the present generation realises the secret of the importance attached by these foresighted men to Lisanu-l Arwi, the community has a great future.
— Shu’ayb, T (1993). Arabic, Arwi and Persian in Sarandib and Tamilnadu. Madras: Imâmul ‘Arûs Trust.
The Importance of Arwi for Tamil-Muslims
There are many reasons why Tamil-Muslim religious scholars [‘ulema] gave much importance to the Arwi language. One of the main ones was to safeguard people from committing potentially major linguistic mistakes through Tamil transliteration of Arabic terms.
There are 18 Arabic consonants which do not have their phonological equivalents in the Tamil vernacular. When Arabic words containing one or more of these sounds are transliterated using the Tamil script, those who do not know Arabic are bound to resort to wrong pronunciation.
This results in not only mutilating the sound but also drastically altering the meaning of the Arabic word concerned. A simple but significant example using the Arabic terms for “heart” and “dog” will show this clearly:
- قلب (a heart)
English Transliteration: qalbun
Tamil Transliteration: கல்புன்
- كلب (a dog)
English Transliteration: kalbun
Tamil Transliteration: கல்புன்
The English transliteration is able to distinguish between the letters qâf (ق) and kâf (ك). The Tamil transliteration is unable to do so. The disastrous consequence of this is that a supplication [du’a] such as, “Allâhumma tahhir qalbî! (O Allah, purify my heart!)” may unintentionally become “Allâhumma tahhir kalbî! (O Allah, purify my dog!)”.
The Arwi Alphabet
Like the Bahasa Melayu inspired Jawi, the Arwi script is an extension of the Arabic alphabet by the addition of new letters. There are 2 vowels and 11 Tamil consonants that do not have their equivalent in the Arabic phonological system. These 13 unique characters are represented in the Arwi script as follows:
An Arwi Supplication [du’a]
The following is an entreaty to Allah composed by our Grand-Shaikh, Imam al-‘Arus Sayyid Muhammad, Allah be well pleased with him. It is found in the liturgical work, “Ratib Jalaliyya”:
என்னை ஆளும் வல்லோனே ஏகாந்த நாதா
தன்னை அறியும் தவத்தை தந்தாள்குவாய் நீ
O Almighty Who rules over me! O my Master who is the only Lord!
Bless me with the boon of realising the insignificance of my self.
உன்னை அல்லாது வேறு யாரை விளிப்பேன்
என்னை விட்டும் ஹக்காக உன்னில் ஒளிப்பேன்
Whom can I beseech except Thee!
I will [leave my wretched self and] annihilate in Thee!
எந்தன் இருளை தூராக்கி உன்னில் ஷுஹுதை
பந்தம் போல் பத்தி பாய ப(fa)ப்(f)தஹ் முராதை
I entreat Thee to dispel darkness from my self and soul
and illuminate me with Thy Light
ப(fa)ர்கை ஜம் ஆக்கி பண்பிலாகாமல் காலை
சறுகி போகாமல் காத்து தஹ்ஹிரன் பாலை
Protect my mind from aberrations
மாகை பாலூட்டை மாத்தி மெளலாவை தோத்தும்
ஷாகை நாமத்தை பெத்த ப(fa)ல்தத்த கித்னி
Save me from getting drunk with vanity
Take me under Thy Protection
ஹக்கை கல்கில் ஹக்காக காணாத வாழ்நாள்
துக்கமா மென்றதால் துனக்கினி பி(fi)ல் ஹால்
The one who does not realise the manifestation of Eternal Truth in the creation,
would live a life of misery. So, purify me in my state.
And Allah is the Guide!
Shu’ayb, T (1993). Arabic, Arwi and Persian in Sarandib and Tamilnadu. Madras: Imâmul ‘Arûs Trust.
Tschacher, T (2001). Islam in Tamilnadu: Varia. Halle: Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg. (Online versions available on the websites of the university libraries at Heidelberg and Halle: