The letter ḍād is the fifteenth letter in the Arabic alphabet. In Modern Standard Arabic, the letter represent a so-called pharyngealized voiced dental stop, being a emphatic consonant so typical for the Semitic languages. The isn’t however your usual sound, and it’s generally seen as a unique characteristic of the Arabic language. This is less applicable for the letter’s modern pronunciation, but with regard to it’s earlier use, linguists have yet to find a language that features a similar sound. Sībawayh, author of the first book on Arabic grammar, explained the letter as being articulated from “between the front of the edge of the tongue and the adjoining molars”. It is reconstructed by modern linguists as having been either a pharyngealized voiced alveolar lateral fricative. The existence of such a unique letter caused the Arabic language to be known as the “language of the ḍād.”
The ḍād subsequently became a symbol for the beauty and richness of the Arabic language. Some people took the ḍād as a symbol of the Arab people as well, connecting the language to the ethnicity of its speakers. In a (weak) ḥadīth narrated from the prophet Muḥammad, he said that everyone who speaks the Arabic language is in fact an Arab, not by paternal or maternal lineage, but indeed because of the tongue. This makes sense from a historical point of view, as the Prophet pursued an inclusive policy, warning his followers for tribalism and racism. On the eve of the Arab conquests, it was imperative to remind the Arab tribes that anyone who speaks their language, that means reads the Quran, is effectively one of them. From a modern, nationalist point of view however, the ḍād grew in some cases into a nationalistic symbol representing the Arab ethnicity.
An example of such nationalistic use is the Arab Nationalist Guard, a secular pan-Arab nationalist militia fighting alongside the Syrian regime in the Syrian Civil War. Operating mostly around the capital Damascus and the southern parts of the country, their emblem is the Arabic letter ḍād (ض). The ḍād was also featured on the royal emblem of of the Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen (1918-1962), to the left of the coffee bush above the famed Ma’rib dam.
Omer Sayadi (*1993) is a former student of the Catholic University of Leuven with a special love for the Middle East and North Africa. After receiving his Master’s degree in Arabic Language and Islamic Studies, he’s working with both refugees from the region as well as foreigners seeking to learn the Dutch language. He wrote columns on Islam in Europe and migration, and started MENA Symbolism as a means of combining everything history, politics, symbolism and society in one place.