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Malta and the study of Arabic in the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries

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The Holy See became aware of the potential evangelising role of the Maltese in Ottoman lands at least from the mid-sixteenth century. This had much to do with Malta's geographical proximity to North Africa, coupled with the ability of the Maltese to speak a native Semitic language, believed to be close to Arabic, while at the same time being fervently Catholic Christians. Malta was singled out for this role mainly because the majority of Levantine Christian communities, then largely under Ottoman rule, were known to speak some form of Arabic. The combination of these factors appeared to be an excellent combination of circumstances to the Catholic Church authorities in Rome who believed that Malta was ideally suited for the teaching of Arabic. In Rome there was a general belief that the establishment of a school of Arabic in Malta, would help make the Catholic Church more accessible to the Christians of the Levant. However, despite continuous efforts, throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, by the Holy Congregation of Propaganda Fide, the teaching of Arabic never really took off in Malta. Under British colonial administration, in the early nineteenth century, Arabic remained on the list of subjects taught at the University of Malta and was later introduced at the Lyceum and the Valletta Government School. The British colonial authorities may even have encouraged its teaching and for a brief time, in the mid-nineteenth century, the well known Lebanese scholar Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq, was lecturer of Arabic at Valletta. The end of Arabic teaching during World War One coincided with the emergence of the belief, pushed by Lord Gerald Strickland, that the Maltese descended from the Phoenicians. It was believed that the Maltese had preserved ancient Phoenician, rather than Arabic, over the millennia. By associating the Maltese with the ancient Phoenicians Strickland was simply saying that the Maltese might have had Semitic origins but that did not mean they were Arabs.


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