Spiritual Relevance between the Original Text and Native Expression


http://www.flickr.com/photos/bruce_mcadam/449907045/in/photostream/Balancing Arabization SeriesPart I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part V | Part VI | Part VII | Part VIII | Part IX | Part X

We are blessed with the finality of revelation preserved just as it was revealed to our beloved Prophet ﷺ (peace be upon him). We should be attached to that message as much as possible. It should play a permeating role in our daily lives. In a misapplication of this love and ideal goal, we have established some practices here in the West which have been to our detriment. I have been studying these practices and their adverse effects through 12 years of close interaction with many youth, new-Muslims, and non-Muslims who were alienated from Islam. In looking at the Qur’an and Sunnah specifically, the impact of the Prophet’s biography as an Arab man among Arab non-Muslims, I have developed some solutions to this problem.

Some people feel that I am Americanizing Islam when, to the contrary, I am Islamicizing American culture using the faith, character, and worship found in the Arabic scripture and facilitating it as a more natural indigenous expression (rather than seemingly foreign) to the American culture. In practice through my own experiences, my family, and my community, I have seen a very positive impact from these methods.

The following are the primary concerns we addressed with the following suggestions:

Problem: Many non-Arab Muslims spend hours and hours reading and memorizing Qur’an and supplications in Arabic, and the priority is so heavily on the Arabic that we have a large percentage who don’t know the meaning of most of their prayers! Even many second-generation Americans of Arab parents have a hard time with this as a result of the difference between colloquial and pure classical Arabic. This greatly lowers the knowledge and spiritual development of millions of Muslims across the globe.

For example the custom of the “Bismillah” and “Ameen” celebration where non-Arab kids who will most likely never become anywhere near fluent in Arabic celebrate the beginning and completion of reading the Qur’an somewhere between 4 and 10 years of age. They will get much more knowledge and spiritual benefit if they read its meanings in their native tongue. But to suggest that means breaking an old culture which is hard even though they know the suggestion is better for the child.

I’ve met kids sent to memorization schools who memorized the whole Qur’an or most of it and have no idea what it means. If they were given a test as to the general teachings of its message they would have a very basic understanding. Many others forget most of what they memorized throughout their life. There is imbalance in the current method and thus this leads to many problems.

Solution: Of course for salah (prayer), Muslims should at some point be able to read the Qur’an in Arabic according to the rules of recitation. Having said that, anyone who is going to learn the Qur’an should do it as the Qur’an commands us to do it—with deep thought, concentration and contemplation. We should be focusing on explaining the meanings more than the Arabic at first. When a non-Arab is learning to pray they should first master it in English (even the Fatiha), then they should learn the Arabic in a word-for-word, sentence-to-sentence equivalent. Then they master reading both together; each verse Arabic-English. Then they assimilate into the consensus obligation of reading the Qur’an in Arabic as well as the widely-held recommendation of saying the prayers and remembrances of the Prophet ﷺ in Arabic during salah. Most schools/parents think mastering is sending home a translation and maybe going over it a few times at a young age. My idea of mastering is spending 6 months to a year praying that way by memory.

Outside of the prayer, the best case scenario is that they master both the Arabic and English meanings of the Qur’an and supplications. That being said, most people won’t be able to reach that ideal and that doesn’t mean that outside of the prayer they can’t become a deeply knowledgeable and pious Muslim of the highest capacity from the knowledge they gained from English and their religious expression therefrom.

That spiritual connection through one’s natural culture might arouse the desire to want to learn the language of the revelation for some meaning of the rest of the Qur’an we hear in salah. Or even better, they might want to become a scholar of Islamic sciences, which we are gravely in need of here in the US.

Problem: We act like Islam is foreign to the English language while the fact is that the English language has been highly impacted by the theology of previous scriptures, which, till this day, carry a large portion of what was originally revealed by God to the Israelites. As a native religion, we must use the English words and terms which agree with our theology. Yes, there are some words that must be inculcated into English, but you’ll be amazed at how many Arabic words we use that have English equivalents.

Solution: I will write a word and its definition from a dictionary or encyclopedia and you will know what that is. The question is why would you then insist on using the Arabic term while speaking English when there is already a word for that???

As we said in the previous article, we have most of the Prophets’ names in English: Noah, Abraham, Ishmael, Moses, David, John, Jesus etc. We need to introduce Hud, Salih, Khidr, and others.

  • Ablution—a cleansing with water or other liquid, especially as a religious ritual
  • Funeral—any of the ceremonial acts or customs employed at the time of death and burial
  • Pulpit—an elevated platform, lectern, or stand usually surrounded by a barrier used in preaching or conducting a religious service
  • Sermon—a discourse for the purpose of religious instruction or exhortation, especially one based on a text of Scripture and delivered by a member of the clergy as part of a religious service
  • Lawful—allowed or permitted by law
  • Prohibited—to be forbidden (an action, activity, etc.) by authority or law
  • Satan—the chief evil spirit; the great adversary of humanity; the devil
  • Prayer—a devout petition to God
  • Supplication—to pray humbly; make humble and earnest entreaty or petition

Obviously the two words above fit the meaning of Du`a’. Salah or Salat needs to be introduced to English since this word has the meaning of a detailed prayer specific to Muslims. The praise is God’s that they have already done it:

  • Salah/Salat—the second pillar of Islam is prayer; a prescribed liturgy performed five times a day (preferably in a mosque) and oriented toward Mecca
  • Salah has times—dawn, early afternoon, mid-afternoon, sunset and night.
  • Mosque—a Muslim temple or place of public worship. (For the Muslim conspiracy theorists the etymological root of the word is traced here. Origin: 1600–10; earlier mosquee  < Middle French  < Italian moschea ≪ Arabic masjid, derivative of sajada, to worship, literally, prostrate oneself; the -ee  seems to have been taken as diminutive suffix and dropped. So no it has nothing to do with a mosquito. Even if it did, nobody thinks that but foolish Muslims. There are no non-Muslims on planet Earth laughing amongst themselves wickedly when they hear the word Mosque to refer to our place of worship since they secretly know it means mosquito!)
  • Amen—so be it! A term used at the end of a prayer or religious statement
  • Religion—a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs
  • Worship—to render religious reverence and homage to God
  • Heaven—the dwelling place of God, the angels, and the souls of those who have gained salvation; a place of the greatest peace and beauty
  • Paradise—heaven, as the final abode of the righteous
  • Faith—the body of dogma of a religion
  • Belief—a religious tenet or tenets; religious creed or faith
  • Creed—any system, doctrine, or formula of religious belief, as of a denomination
  • Blessing—a favor or gift bestowed by God, thereby bringing happiness
  • Alms—money, food, or other donations given to the poor or needy; anything given as charity
  • Charity—something given to a person or persons in need; alms
  • God—the sole Supreme Being, eternal, spiritual, and transcendent, who is the Creator and ruler of all and is infinite in all attributes; the object of worship in monotheistic religions
  • God willing—If God wants it to happen. (An expression indicating that there is a high certainty that something will happen, so high that only God could prevent it.) Think how many times you were talking to a non-Muslim and busted out with insha’Allah and they were like what!? Then when you say it means God willing, they may not tell you, but you seemed foreign because you prefer (or are used to) using Arabic phrases while speaking English. If there was no equivalent it would make sense.
  • Praise—the offering of grateful homage in words or song, as an act of worship: a hymn of praise to God.
  • Glory—also, glory be. Glory be to God (used to express surprise, elation, wonder, etc.)
  • Caliph—the title of the successors of Mohammed as rulers of the Islamic world, later assumed by the Sultans of Turkey
  • Caliphate—the rank, jurisdiction, or government of a caliph
  • Torah—the Pentateuch, being the first of the three Jewish divisions of the Old Testament
  • Gospel—the story of Christ’s life and teachings as narrated in the Gospels
  • Piety—reverence for God or devout fulfillment of religious obligations
  • Righteous—In accordance with virtue or morality

The following are words that need to be inculcated into the English language. The reason is because they would be easier to say then the translation: Islam, Muslim, athan (you could say call to prayer), salah/salat, zakat (you could say obligatory alms), nisab, Ka’bah, jihad, hadith, sunnah, hijab, imam, rak`a, sa`ee, and tawaf.

In conclusion, our religion is meant to be natural to anyone and it should be no different to Americans. Especially, since our American culture is rich with ideas, terms, names of Prophets, etc. which come from the Abrahamic covenant which we were meant to confirm for mankind. We must not allow politics to fuel a separatist attitude in this country if we are to succeed in having a thorough impact on this country by facilitating our message as an indigenous expression of faith. I know that what I am saying goes against the grain of what was built by the immigrant community and then adopted by many natives in hopes to fit in over the last 50 years, but I am only suggesting it because it is more in line with the reality the Prophet ﷺ (peace be upon him) lived, the Qur’anic teachings, as well as a proven style in disseminating our message, which is our calling as Muslims living among non-Muslims.

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8 Comments

  1. Patruus says:

    Some of the words which you say need to be inculcated into the English language are already long established in the lexicon, most notably “jihad” which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “a religious war of Muslims against unbelievers, inculcated as a duty by the Qur’an and traditions”. Is that really what it means?

    There is also a problem with “salah/salat”, I mean, just how do you pronounce it?

  2. Sana says:

    Great advice!

  3. John Ederer says:

    AA,

    This definition is an error that we must fix. This was clearly suggested by the enemies of Islam and while you will find something like it in a book of Islamic Law, you will never find it the particular phrase holy war (حرب مقدسة) in either a dictionary or book of Islamic jurisprudence. It is our resposibility to correct this error.

    That being said, in websters as well as a couple others they do mention the much more common and prevelant meaning of struggling against inner demons and evil influence.

    That should be the first definition while the second should be – a war waged by a Muslim nation in order to combat invasion or injustice. It is only to be waged against military personnell strictly forbidding the killing of non-combatants including those under a treaty with that Muslim nation.

    And God knows best

  4. Fezz says:

    Balancing Anglicisation:

    There’s obviously a sliding scale around this; in some circles (eg. educational seminars) there is no reason why more terminology cannot be used compared to a general talk at a multifaith group. I dont think a rigid wholesale attempt at latinising is helpful.

    Some of the arabic terms have much greater depth of meaning and even within the Arabic language these terms are only used by Muslims Arabs and within a muslim context. (For example; “Eid”. Shall we ditch this for “the Festival”?)

    You also said When a non-Arab is learning to pray they should first master it in English (even the Fatiha). Why still call it the Fatiha? Why not latinicise futher? Do we need to call it “the Quran”?

    • John Ederer says:

      Peace dear brother Fezz,

      It seems as though you have missed the point as many other cultural Muslims have. When someone challenges a cultural norm human nature tends to become defensive. Knowledge seeking humble Muslims on the other hand should have a different attitude to something which goes against peoples customs. First we look to see if the new proposed idea is in accordance with our religion. If it is- and I think throughout this series we established that- then you should not attack it or be facetiously critical of it. Rather if you are comfortable with your ways then don’t take it but respect it for its merit which is based in Islam. Namely the 4th verse of sura Ibrahim.

      I am NOT calling for wholesale Anglicization of Islam. I am calling for Muslims to not promote themselves as culturally Arab, but rather be what we are a people of the most universal faith that happened to be finally revealed in Arabic thus some Arabic terms will remain if there is no easy native expression. I am asking French, Chinese, Russian, Brazilian and all other Muslims to do the same according to their language bro!

      I am calling for a balance to what is currently an extreme rooted in my opinion in a response to the culture clash of post-colonialization and modern globalization. I am convinced and sincere to our Creator and Guide that my suggestion will do much better in disseminating Islam in the non-Muslim world than the current separatist attitude.

      Eid is known as the Muslim holiday and that is something that we should be clear at. Quran is easier to identify what we are talking about rather than “The reading or The recital”. So these words like others need to be brought into English.

  5. Jaime says:

    Thank you for this article. I’ve been learning little by little and I like your approach on learning. Thanks again.

  6. Tyyuo says:

    Salaams.

    Although I think your suggestions are good, I don’t get how someone would pray using both the English and Arabic together? :S that’s not allowed, is it :/

    Also I don’t think a child of 7-10 would really fully understand even the English translation of what they read in the salah, and the reading the translation of the whole Quran would be even harder to understand, I think. :/

  7. UmmSafwaan says:

    I agree completely that each Muslim should learn word for word the meaning of every surah one knows. I have made it my practice to learn the meaning of every surah I know before learning another. This has helped me understand and get a general idea of various surahs I hear since I’m familiar with the words/terms.
    My issue with using English vs Arabic when saying for example, Bis mi lah, is that we become lazy and lose that special connection that in my opinion only Arabic provides. If we don’t teach non-Muslims the meaning of these terms then we are not doing our duties. I heard a news reporter years ago say, during her broadcast, inshaAllah. I was amazed. It was shortly after 911 and many people were learning more about Muslims. Allah said He made the Quran easy to learn and remember. We have to be wise and use those moments when speaking with others to teach these terms and phrases. How many Americans are now familiar with the words hijab, halal, shariah?
    I have experience with a community who has followed this practice of using English vs Arabic and this community has really not grown much since I was among them as a child. And I believe it was due to this same thinking. Once some of them started learning and studying Arabic, you can see the change! So no, I disagree that we should replace these blessed words with English. We need to instead teach these words and meanings so that they become an adopted part of the American culture. Muslims on the east coast have been doing this for years and you will find many non Muslims among them, using Arabic terms. And they are among some of our society’s most oppressed and undereducated. If someone is to proud to learn a new language I doubt they are willing to adopt another faith. Allahualim, Allah knows best.

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