By: Imam Yahya John Ederer
There is a big misunderstanding amongst much of our immigrant community here in the West. Sadly, this misunderstanding has been passed on to other Muslims and non-Muslims here, thus making it an accepted reality. This article—attempts to clear up this misunderstanding.
I was speaking with a sister who thinks that what I am preaching in the Mosque is against Arabic—which she believes is the language of Islam. She was talking about the fact that our Mosque used to do the first half of the sermon in Arabic and then a translation in English. I told them that we should follow the majority opinion of our scholars in that we do a small intro in Arabic to fulfill the pillars of the sermon for those that believe sermons must be in Arabic and then only recite the scriptural references in Arabic with immediate translation. Other than that the general preaching should be in the language of the land we live in so that the people may benefit.
Another brother who has been here 20 years and is fluent in English defended the old way by saying that he prefers it that way because true preaching can only be in Arabic and the sermon in English just doesn’t move him the same way! I told him that his feeling is reflective of ethnocentrism which is comfortable for him as opposed to others. The reality is that here in America there are many cultures of Muslims in our Mosques and the unifying language among them is English. This applies especially in the long run when future generations become the majority of American Muslims.
The community claimed that even if they don’t understand Arabic, having the sermon in Arabic will encourage them to learn the language! This idealist claim is completely unrealistic for the vast majority of Muslims. The purpose of the sermon is to disseminate spiritual guidance to the congregation. The one thing which strikes me as strange about both the juristic opinion as well as the cultural view against using English is that they are based on the idea that the Arabic language—outside of scripture—is somehow holier or superior than any other language. The fact is that when an Arab Imam makes his sermon up—outside of scriptural or other quotes—it is fully his own making. What is being said is that the ideas in the Arabic sermon which came from his mind are somehow holier or more Islamic than the ideas of an Imam who delivers it in English or any other language.
I lived in the Arab world for 5 years and I can easily confirm that I’ve heard many boring sermons with no substance in Arabic. These sermons could not begin to hold a candle to a sermon by say Imam Suhaib Webb, Zaid Shakir, Siraj Wahaj, Nouman Ali Khan, Yasir Qadhi etc Most of the time I sought out prominent Imams and I benefitted greatly, as I would from any of our skilled orators here. The reason I benefitted was not the language; rather it was the substance, style, and meaning of the speech itself.
This is the same issue we spoke about in a previous article in this series related to supplicating in prostration in salat (ritual prayers) . Much to our surprise, the majority of our scholars understood this point in that according to a hadith (record of the words of the Prophet peace be upon him) they permitted the Arab to supplicate in his language freely from his own heart (which often comes out in a far from Qur’anic colloquial dialect). So the majority position of our scholars is that the supplication of a non-Arab in his or her own language is also perfectly acceptable. The logic being that this supplication is not a revelation; rather it is of their own making. God has revealed scripture in many languages and they were all equally divine in nature.
Many brothers from the subcontinent have told me that they were taught by their family and even their Imams to respect Arab people simply because they know/speak the language of the Qur’an/Sunnah (tradition of the Prophet ﷺ). One response to this claim is that their knowledge of the Qur’an, (albeit ;vastly more than non-Arabs) is not nearly as good as the knowledge of the common companion of the Prophet ﷺ. Secondly, what they speak is even farther from Qur’anic Arabic. So the justification has some issues from the get-go.
Recently, I was visiting one of my original mentors and he started talking to my 5-year-old son in Arabic. The brother was upset that my son doesn’t speak conversational Arabic. I told him that if he asked him about theological concepts and phrases, by the grace of God, he will find him more advanced than the average 5-year-old Muslim regardless of their cultural background. He then responded in dismay and commanded me to teach him to be fluent in Arabic! I said—with all due respect sheikh—my son is an American and will live here for the rest of his life. If my son expresses a desire to become a scholar of Islamic sciences then at that time I will begin a comprehensive training, starting with the Arabic language, as that is the key to such a field of expertise. Other than that, we are raising him to be a devout Muslim of the highest level of piety and God-consciousness.
Islam is a universal message that can be completely understood and practiced in any language. We teach him about Arabic concepts as we study and recite the Qur’an to give him reference, but other than that we don’t see fluency in Arabic as a priority. He paused for a minute and then said that the Arabic language comes with a depth of Islamic culture imbedded in it. I then reminded him that Arabs are just like any other people. They have atheists, Christians, Jews, etc. They have murderers, thieves, fornicators, liars, etc. This is throughout their history, and their fluency in Arabic did not save them from that. For those who have read the work of many great poets during the Ummayad and Abbaside Caliphates, they can see that many wrote of their love for intoxication and pedophilia.
The Qur’an tells mankind how to be the best believer:
“Dear Mankind, I have created you all from a male and female. I made you into different tribes and nations so that you may get to know each other. Indeed the most noble among you are the most pious. Indeed God is Omniscient and Fully Aware.” (Qur’an, 49:13)
Notice He is talking to all of mankind and mentioning that they are all of many different languages and cultures. He then made the criterion that it is the most pious who are the best among them. The Prophet ﷺ was very aware of ethnocentrism and that Islam will be a universal message that will reach the corners of the Earth. For this reason, in his farewell pilgrimage months before he passed, he made it very clear, preaching to thousands of believers, “There is no precedence of an Arab over a non-Arab […]”
On more than one occasion, I have experienced this ethnocentrism from Arabs blatantly or indirectly accusing non-Arab Muslims of somehow being beneath them or having a lesser understanding of Islam than them. The fact is that I have met many non-Arabic speaking Muslims whose understanding and practice of Islam are higher than many practicing Arab Muslims I know.
Even when it comes to the Qur’an we often misrepresent the reality. I myself used to repeat the claim that much of the meaning of the Qur’an is lost in translation, thus negating a comprehensive understanding of Islam to non-Arabs. The truth is that the only literal word of God is the Arabic Qur’an which has been divinely preserved for our nation as a pure resource for true guidance in our lives. I would say—with all due respect—that if you are using any of the older English translations of the Qur’an it will not necessarily lose meaning, but because of the way it was translated it doesn’t get across the meanings very well and thus seemingly looses Qur’anic meaning. Let’s remember that English translations are barely a century old. It is undoubtedly a developing science. When reading M.A.S. Abdel-Haleem’s or better yet Yahiya Emerick’s translations, for example, you will get a much more comprehensive grasp of all of the meanings found in the Qur’an. You might have a long explanation for some words and phrases and it might not sound as poetic, but language is language and meanings are universal. That doesn’t make the translations an exact English replica of the infallible Holy Qur’an though. Rather, they are the best human works at translating the meanings of the Qur’an to English and are subject to human flaw just as is an Arab’s understanding or interpretation of the Arabic itself.
The Language of Adam and the Hereafter
I was once giving a lecture about Islam and mentioned the Semitic languages (i.e. Hebrew, Aramaic, Amharic, Tigrinya, Arabic, etc.) and how they are descendants of older Afro-Asiatic languages like Chaldean or Akkadian. So someone then asked if Adam spoke Arabic and I said that this is impossible since Arabic is one of the youngest Semitic languages whose oldest documented written form was in the 3rd century C.E. At the conclusion, a sincere brother snatched the microphone and told the crowd that this is the speaker’s personal opinion, but that Islam teaches that Adam indeed spoke Arabic!!!
You see, here’s where many modern educated youth are getting turned off from religion in general these days—religious arrogance/ ignorance dominating the discussion. The fact is there is nothing in the Qur’an or sunnah which teaches that Adam spoke Arabic. In the beginning of Surat al-Baqarah (the Chapter of the Cow, Qur’an 2) it says very clearly that God taught Adam the names of everything. Many of our commentators of the Qur’an mention that this refers to the mother tongue which holds all keys that over time will become many languages including Arabic. This brother’s belief comes from the over-exaggerated emphasis on the precedence of the Arabic language. The truth is that the Arabic language is one of the richest languages—if not therichest language—with the ability to convey many meanings in short expressions. Obviously, God chose it for this reason so that it would be the final revelation which holds the means of undoubtedly translatable guidance for all of mankind until the Last Day.
On another occasion someone asked me what language we will speak in the Hereafter. I first answered- whatever language you know, and then added that I don’t really know since I have never read of any text which clarifies that to us. Once again a no-doubt sincere brother was bothered by that and interjected that it is well-known, and all scholars teach, that the language of the Hereafter is Arabic!
Another brother added that there is a hadith (recording of the words or actions of the Prophet ﷺ) confirming this. So I told them that I would research it for them and get back to them next time. So in my research I found this hadith:
“The speech of Heaven is Arabic and the language spoken in front of God on the Day of Judgment is Arabic.”
The following notable scholars of hadith ruled this hadith and a few others like it to be an outright fabrication (موضوع): Ibn al-Jawzi, Imam al-Dhahabi, al-Shawkani, Ibn Hibban, Ibn Hazm, and Albani (May God have mercy on them).
I’m sure many of you know that Ibn Taymiyyah (ra) was called Shaikh al-Islam. A handful of others have been given this title in Islamic history by their peers, but undoubtedly he has become the most famous for it. This title refers to a scholar—other than the 4 well-known codifiers of the schools of Islamic Law—who comprehensively mastered all of the sciences of Islamic Law. Here is Ibn Taymiyyah’s response when asked about the aforementioned hadith and others like it:
“All praises to God the Lord of the Universe; it is not known which language people will be spoken to on that Day. This is because neither God nor His messenger has informed us of such a thing. The claim that the people of Heaven speak Arabic and the people of Hell speak Persian is not reliable and we know of none of the companions who held such a view—may God be pleased with them. The debate started after the early generations of Muslims when some scholars started to make such claims. All of these claims have no basis either in text or logic and God knows best,” (Mujmoo’ al-Fatawa 4/299).
The last point I would like to make is regarding another angle from which many people try to prove that both the language of Adam and of the Afterlife is Arabic. I was a little taken back as to the ignorance about and exaggerated belief in Arabic when one brother tried to say that the proof that the language of Adam and the Afterlife is Arabic is simply because when we read the Qur’an and hadith Adam is speaking Arabic, and God and the angels are speaking Arabic on the Day of Judgment and in Heaven! I was completely blown away having this conversation with a scholar of hadithsciences who reiterated the same argument in response to the fact that there is no reliable proof from hadith. So I asked him if Abraham, Pharoah, Moses and the rest of the people whose stories were mentioned were also speaking Arabic since the Qur’an narrates their stories in Arabic. I also reminded him of the abovementioned second verse of Surat Yusuf (the Chapter of Joseph, Qur’an 12):
“Surely we have revealed it (the scripture) as an Arabic Quran (recitation) so that you (Arabs) may understand it,” (Qur’an 12:2).
In that discussion and many other ones like it with PhD-level scholars, I came to realize that although we love, respect and learn from our scholars, we cannot assume that whatever they say is somehow untouchable, absolute, divine truth.
In conclusion we need to balance the Arabisation of Islam in that we maintain a comprehensive understanding and expression of Islam as it relates to our culture and language here in the states. At the same time, we realise that the scholarly understanding of Islam can only be attained through mastering Arabic and learning from scholars who represent the 14-century-old tradition of Islamic scholarship. Arabic is not the language of Islam, rather it is the final language in which Islam was revealed and preserved. If we were to say that Arabic is the language of Islam then we would be saying the great Noah, Abraham, Moses and Jesus were not true Muslims since they didn’t speak or know Arabic! No Muslim is better or more authentic than another except by piety and God-consciousness.