I’ve written about prayer before but that was about prayer in its most raw form. Today I want to muse a little about ritualized Muslim prayer and the Arabic language.
But first, for those of my readers who are still learning about Islam, a little background:
Mainstream Muslims offer ritualized prayers (with certain actions and words to speak) several times a day. Sunni Muslims (the largest Muslim sect) offer ritualized prayers five times a day: dawn, noon, afternoon, sunset, and night. Shi’a Muslims offer prayers anywhere from one to five times (that I’m aware of) depending on the belief of the particular sect/sub-sect they identify with.
These prayers are usually offered in Arabic even though the majority of Muslims around the world are not fluent in modern or Qur’anic Arabic and have generally just memorized the words. Some do know what those words mean, but it’s like knowing that the word ‘she’ is ‘elle’ in French and ‘is’ is ‘est’, and so you may remember that ‘Elle est’ means she is, but it’s still not like understanding a language fluently.
My musings began when I was reading the translation of the Chapter Fussilat (which has been translated by some scholars as ‘Verses Made Distinct’) and I came across verse 44 (emphasis my own):
And if We had sent this as a Qur’an in a foreign language (other than Arabic), they would have said, “Why are not its verses explained in detail (in our language)? What! (A Book) not in Arabic and (The Messenger) an Arab?” Say: “It is for those who believe, a guide and a healing. And as for those who disbelieve, there is heaviness (deafness) in their ears, and it (The Qur’an) is blindness for them. They are those who are called from a place far away (so they neither listen nor understand.) (Qur’an 41:44)**
You see, one of the Imams in Fort McMurray, during a Friday sermon (special congregational prayers that Muslims offer every Friday), once proclaimed that Arabic is the Right language, the Elite language, the Perfect language, and the Language of Paradise. And I always felt that was a little offensive, because most Muslims are not native Arabic speakers. He said this because the Qur’an was revealed in Arabic and revealed to an Arab.
The argument could be made that God could have chosen to reveal the Qur’an anywhere and in any language God liked, but chose to reveal it in Arabia and in Arabic, so Arabic must be special. Now admittedly, Qur’anic Arabic is very fluid, flexible, and vast, which makes it a good language to reveal a text that is supposed to guide generations and generations and generations of Muslims towards God, but nowhere has it ever been said that Arabic is the Language of Paradise or that it is the perfect and the most right of languages.
The verse is really lovely to recite and the meaning is insightful. Since the Qur’an was revealed through an Arab (Muhammad) and its first audience was Arab, it would not make any sense to reveal it in a different language, because then the Arabs could claim not to understand and use that as just another thing to claim the the Qur’an and the Prophet were false.
So the fact that Arabic is the language the Qur’an was revealed in is more a matter of convenience and sensibility (to ensure it is more easily accepted) than a matter of the language being Special with a capital S.
A while ago, I read a different verse in the Qur’an that intrigued me and at that time convinced me even more deeply that I needed to learn Qur’anic Arabic, not just how to read it..I’ve been able to do that since I was 4, but to understand it fluently.
This verse comes from the Chapter An-Nisa (Women), emphasis mine:
O you who believe! Approach not As-Salat (the prayer) when you are in a drunken state until you know (the meaning) of what you utter, nor when you are in a state of Janaba (i.e. in a state of sexual impurity and have not yet taken a bath) except when travelling on the road (without enough water, or just passing through a mosque), till you wash your whole body. And if you are ill, or on a journey, or one of you comes after answering the call of nature, or you have been in contact with women (by sexual relations) and you find no water, perform Tayammum with clean earth and rub therewith you faces and hands. Truly, Allah is Ever Oft-Pardoning, Oft-Forgiving. (Qur’an 4:43)**
Not only is the bolded part saying we shouldn’t pray when we are in a drunken state, it’s saying we shouldn’t pray until we know/understand what we are saying.
When I had originally read this verse (this chapter comes before the chapter I referenced earlier), this convinced me that if I am to be as deeply engaged with my Islam and my spiritual practice, then I must learn Arabic.
First, because the Qur’an was revealed in Arabic, and although translations are wonderful things, we all know that even with the best of intentions and efforts, things get lost in translation. Among other problems with not reading a text in its original language.
And second, because we offer prayer in Arabic and that’s the correct way to do it and I don’t even know what I am saying when I’m praying. This means that there is an inherent disconnect between me and God, even though prayer is supposed to connect me to God. Why? Because I have no idea what I’m saying..so how can that be a genuine connection or a valid one or a real one? After all, prayer isn’t just about moving and mindlessly saying some prescribed words.
Maybe that’s why I sometimes have trouble with prayers!
As I reflected on these two verses together, I understood in a flash why some Muslims insist on offering prayers in their own language. Why they go through the struggle to re-memorize chapters of the Qur’an in their native language and pray that way.
They do that not because they are trying to change Islam or pervert it or introduce new practices; they do it because they want to be deeply engaged Muslims who deeply and fervently wish to connect with God in the most genuine and closest ways.
I mean..take Al-Fatihah (The Opening) for example. We have to recite this chapter in every prayer. It’s one of my favourite chapters to recite, because it rolls off my tongue, and because I’ve heard it so many times that it’s deeply, comfortingly, familiar. I can identify some of the words because they were adopted into Urdu and I speak Urdu fluently, but I only know what it means because of translations. I don’t genuinely connect with it as I recite it.
But imagine if I recited it in English or in Urdu (I’ll use English here, for obvious reasons) :
In the name of God, the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy!
Praise belongs to God, Lord of the Worlds,
the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy,
Master of the Day of Judgement.
It is You we worship; it is You we ask for help.
Guide us to the straight path:
the path of those You have blessed, those who incur no anger and who have not gone astray. ***
That may not roll off my tongue as beautifully as the Arabic version, but that strikes a chord in my heart. That is beautiful because as I speak those words, I feel those words, and I yearn those words, and they become my literal supplication from my whole being to God.
And that is a beautiful thing, because that is what prayer is supposed to be.
Reciting Al-Fatiha is no longer mindless in any way. It is a channel of genuine connection between me and God.
There is something to be said of 1400+ years of tradition. However, we can’t always follow tradition for the sake of tradition. God gave us a mind and told us to use it. If we do something wrong..God will not accept the excuse, “Oh, but it was tradition! I did it because this has been tradition in Islamic culture for a long time!” That’s not going to excuse you of having done something wrong.
Not that I’m saying praying in Arabic is wrong. I don’t think it’s wrong at all.
I’m just saying that perhaps, you don’t have to pray in Arabic.
I grew up with it. I was taught it that way and I just assumed it to be correct. But now, as a Muslim coming into my own, fully responsible for my own actions, behaviours, and spiritual practice, it would be very dumb to simply assume something is correct and not pursue my own education and learning of Islam and the Qur’an. I must and do rightly question what I do and make sure that it is the right interpretation for me.
Islam was always meant to be a clergy-less religion. No middle man between you and God. That’s why we were given the Qur’an. But we have in some way created a clergy. We have given so much power to the learned men and women, the scholars, that we gave up responsibility for our own Islamic education and began to blindly follow a certain scholar or set of scholars.
Islamic scholars are people who have dedicated their lives to learning the nuances of Islam, but they are still only human and they come with their biases, which, if you keep up with news about what scholars advocate and say, changes frequently with their changing worldly opinions and personal biases. We must not blindly follow another person’s teachings when God has given us the tools to learn and see for ourselves.
These are just my musings and reflections. Do feel free to add your opinions, however, because this is a religion-based discussion, I do ask that you do so respectfully without attacking anyone.
** these translations have been taken from, Dr Muhammad Taqi-ud-Din Al-Hilali, Ph.D and Dr. Muhammad Muhsin Khan’s Interpretation of the Meaning of THE NOBLE QUR’AN
***taken from M.A.S. Abdel Haleem’s translation of the Quran