Arabic is a beautiful language. The nature of its ways of expression, which carry many multitudes of depths of meaning that can be derived from each word, makes one only grow in love and appreciation of it once they learn it. This is best demonstrated in pre-Islamic poetry and ultimately in the Qur’an where the Arabic is granted a sacred and divine status. Unfortunately, this is lost on many modern Arabs whose claim to Arabic has little to do with their own active learning and much to do with their arbitrary circumstances of birth.
While Arabic has its unique qualities, it is not the only one with such an attribute. Its sacred status as the “language of the Qur’an” does not mean that it is necessarily the language of Islam. Anyone with even a cursory familiarity with the vast traditional works compiled by non-Arab scholars across the Islamic history will recognize this fact. However, it seems that many of our fellow Muslims speak of the universality of Islam while at the same time emphasizing the particularity of Arabic in such a way that alienates Islam from non-Arabs, including non-Arab Muslims.
Nowhere is Arabic more used to assert a type of Arab superiority over non-Arab than in the practice of having non-Arab converts to Islam take up Arabic names, under the guise of them being “Muslim” names. What is wrong with being a Jennifer or a Chris when one becomes a Muslim? To say nothing of creating an inferiority complex for the new convert to Islam or having them mark their conversion to Islam with a disrespectful act to their parents who gave them their perfectly fine, if not beautiful names, this is one of the insidious equivocations that applies a Prophetic practice in the wrong place. It is known that Prophet Muhammadﷺ had changed the names of some of his companions after they had converted. However, these were specific and isolated incidents in which those companions happened to carry names that either had negative meanings or meanings that were contrary to Islamic beliefs.
By now it is common knowledge that when it comes to the Qur’an, we will vehemently affirm that it can only be read in Arabic. Anything other than Arabic is no longer the Qur’an. At best, those “translations” are merely explanations for the verses of the Qur’an in those languages. Strangely, however, this fact is emphasized, to a somewhat odd extent by many of our brothers and sisters. In doing so, the non-Arab is made to feel that their inability to understand the Arabic is an immovable obstacle to understanding God’s message. We make it seem that if the non-Arab is a non-Muslim, they should not even bother with it until they learn Arabic. If they are converts to Islam, they will remain marginalized and looked down upon until they get their Arabic up to speed.
Claiming no one can understand the Qur’an except those who speak Arabic seems to be more of an attempt to veil one’s inability to answer valid questions about different verses. But instead of answering with, “I don’t know,” many go with, “You’re reading a translation and Qur’an is only in Arabic.” This highlights one of the negative externalities of religion: the idea that one must have the answers to everything. Ignorance is viewed as a weakness when it should not be. It is only a weakness when one does not want to acknowledge it. But if admitted, it becomes a strength, because only when one does not know, and humbles him or herself to that fact, will a search for answers begin. However, as the situation stands today, by not admitting our ignorance when we should, many of us are effectively blocking non-Muslims who wish to probe the Qur’an and ask questions from doing so.
Translations of the Qur’an can actually be considered texts of exegesis in languages other than Arabic. In fact, a non-Arab can actually be viewed to have an advantage over an Arab when it comes to this. Most Arab Muslims have never opened a single text of Qur’anic exegesis. But many non-Arabs have read not just one, but multiple versions of translations, each of which is primarily based on one or two different commentaries. They have in turn delved into the Qur’an to a somewhat deeper level than their Arab counterparts. How such a person can be made to feel inferior because they are not Arab or do not speak Arabic is puzzling.
The problem runs deeper because it negatively impacts the non-Arab Muslim’s relationship with their Lord. Many of our brothers and sisters have been made to feel that not only must the prayer be performed in Arabic, but also their supplications outside of it should be done in Arabic as well. It is a systematic automatization of what is supposed to be a living relationship. Although the prayer must be performed in Arabic, the language one uses to speak to God outside of prayer should be their first language, spoken in the way they do it naturally, straight from the heart, and no, it does not have to rhyme or even be eloquent. After all, God is not restricted to one language or form of speech. He wants what is in your heart, not what is on your tongue.
Arabic has its sanctity as a language in the same way the Children of Israel were the Chosen People. They were granted God’s favour by having Prophets come from among them. There is nothing inherently different about their status as human beings. The same applies to Arabic. It was granted sanctity by the Qur’an. Although it has unique features that set it apart from other languages, it also shares basic features common to all languages. Moreover, other languages have their own unique features the set them apart as well. In all cases, however, language is about cognition and communication, not about mechanical production of words by the lips and tongue.
It is now generally accepted in neuroscience that language is not about specialization for hearing and speaking. The language areas in the brain appear to be more specialized for processing social communication. This is supported by studies of sign language in individuals deaf from birth. American Sign Language (ASL) has all the component of spoken and heard language, including grammar, syntax, and emotional tone. There is even poetry in ASL that uses the conventions of repetition, rhyme, alliteration, rhythm, and meter. This is used to form linguistic patterns that add emphasis, meaning, and structure to word forms. What is unique about ASL poetry is that it transforms one-dimensional words into three-dimensional shapes, and phonetic nuances into visual ones. Its use of physical space allows ASL poets to escape the conventional framework of the written and spoken verse and expand their narratives in ways spoken poetry is unable to reach. Studies of deaf patients who had strokes in the language areas of the brain produce the exact same deficits in their sign language as those observed in the speech patterns of normal hearing patients with similar strokes.
We speak about Arabic in a way that does not reflect its relationship to Islam. We speak of Islam as a universal religion, but somehow assume only about 300 million people can understand it. It is often subconsciously used as a way to assert superiority over others. Lest one think from this that it is not important to learn Arabic, it is the language in which God chose to send His Final Message and the language in which our Belovedﷺ spoke. It is one of the highest forms of love and dedication to learn the language your beloved spoke in so you can hear and experience a direct understanding of his words, not the words of an interpreter. But at the same time we must recognize that just as we have a vast Islamic Tradition that can only be directly accessed in the Arabic language, we also have a vast Islamic Tradition that can only be directly accessed in Persian, Urdu, and Turkish. Islam has also been expressed in various African and Asian languages.
The Belovedﷺ said in his final sermon that there is no degree of virtue for an Arab over a non-Arab or for a non-Arab over an Arab, except in their awareness of God. He even delivered the Message of Islam to various tribes using their own languages and dialects. The contribution of non-Arabs to Islam has been and continues to be profound. It is from justice to grant everything and everyone who has a right their due right. We have unfortunately and to a large extent not been doing so when it comes to Arabic and non-Arabs. In consequence we have desacralized Arabic, alienated the non-Arab, and sound very hollow when we repeat Prophetic statements equating everyone to one another.
By Mohamed Ghilan, 12 Feb 2014