Some devoted Muslims might answer this question by saying yes because that’s what the Prophet ﷺ (peace be upon him) taught! It is authentically narrated that our beloved Prophet ﷺ said:
“.إن الإسلام بدأ غريبا، وسيعود غريبا كما بدأ، فطوبى للغرباء”
“Islam started as something strange and it will return to be something strange so glad tidings to the strangers.” (Tirmidhi 2629)
The question here is what does this hadith (record of the words or actions of the Prophet ﷺ) mean? Well let’s ask the great scholars of our past so some won’t be confused by this seemingly modern Americanized Imam’s analysis. The great scholar Al-Qadi Eyyad said, “The general meaning of the Hadith is that Islam started as a small group of people then it spread and became common then the Muslims will get weak and be at loss until it is only known through small groups and even individuals here and there…” (Tuhfatul-Ahwathi #2629).
The other commentators concur with this meaning. So the strangeness has to do with the Muslims being small in number and Islam being an unpopular religion in the society they live in. The Muslims were not strange because they used a different language, wore different clothes or ate different foods. It was their beliefs, morals and values that set them apart. The style of food for all Arabs, Muslim and non-Muslim, was the same—they all ate on the floor with their hands—but the Muslims would only eat meat slaughtered in the name of God or by the People of the Book (Christians and Jews) and only with their right hand for hygiene. They wore the same style of garments, but they covered their nakedness in humility as defined by Islam. Their language was the main tool that led them to Islam. These blessed strangers reached that station of greatness through the powerful language of Arabic with which they were familiar. Imagine if the Qur’an had had so many Hebrew words in it like the Israelites’ revelations, which were revealed in Hebrew long before any record of written Arabic. Trust me—they wouldn’t have felt that Islam was completely their own. For this reason God sent His message in an Arabic or arabized form; He did arabize a handful of Babylonian, Hebrew, Persian and other words to make it flow in perfection as an Arabic Qur’an.
The Prophet ﷺ was a familiar Arab man with Arab customs and habits, but with a divine revelation which he articulated most eloquently in the language of his people. Through the new beliefs, morals and values of this new tradition he and his companions became strangers to a society engulfed in a corrupt polytheistic superstitious lifestyle. Thus the verse of this series,
“And We did not send any messenger except [speaking] in the language of his people to state clearly for them […]” (Qur’an 14:4).
Many of those who have read this series take offense to it because they have been conditioned to believe that this is somehow attacking Islam as they know it. Let me share with you some real experiences which led me to write this series:
I’ve had many discussions with apostates who were negatively affected by the Arabization/Cultural Islam phenomenon.
I’ve met hundreds of kids in grades 6-12 from public and Islamic schools across the U.S. who memorize many chapters of the Qur’an and many supplications, yet can’t even explain the meaning of Surat al-Fatihah (Qur’an 1, most often recited chapter of the Qur’an)! They all say that at one time they were taught a translation, but that they forgot. Many of them openly admit that they understood that it wasn’t important to know its meaning as long as it was said in Arabic. They are not growing up with Islam as some familiar spiritual experience; rather it is some mysterious foreign religion for many. When I began teaching some of those supplications in English, they thought it was funny and, believe it or not, they said it seems strange to say it like that, in English! How ironic is that! So when I looked at their attitudes and general knowledge, I came to understand the identity struggle they face. Many of these same kids call their teachers and parents FOBs (fresh off the boat).
I held a youth camp last summer for kids ages 11-14 and we did a 15-minute talk on the importance of supplication (du`a’) as it is the epitome of worship in Islam as well as being a powerful spiritual experience. So then I said let’s go around the room and everyone raise their hands and make a supplication. The first girl was all giggly and when I compassionately coached her, she still couldn’t think of anything. She asked the girl next to her to go first. The next girl was a 14-year-old child of Arab immigrants so she spilled off a memorized du`a’ in Arabic. Although this is great for her if she understands it, most of the kids in the group don’t understand Arabic. No doubt English is her first language, but when I asked her to translate that du`a’ or make an original supplication she struggled. She has been conditioned to believe that true spirituality must be in Arabic.
I’ve been to communities from the Asian subcontinent whose Imam gives the supplication in Arabic first then in Urdu or English. Most people don’t understand the Arabic, yet they all say ameen (amen). They think that it is somehow not authentic if it is not done in Arabic. I’ve experienced people asking me to do supplications/khubtahs (sermons) in Arabic even though they don’t understand!
In speaking with many of our non-Arab elders, they readily admit that their mind wanders in salat (prayer) because they really don’t know what they are saying. Many of them don’t pray as a result!
In Ramadan, I gave a sermon about pondering over the Qur’an in your native tongue. A well-established non-Arab brother who is a Doctor in his late 40’s told me that through his whole life he never really read the Qur’an in his native tongue, yet he had completed reading it in Arabic many times. I told him, “Dear brother, the Qur’an is not a mystical holy talisman that blesses through osmosis. Rather, it is a clear book of divine guidance which is meant to be pondered and contemplated.” This brother came to me over the next month with many questions about his reading and his faith and practice grew immensely as a result of pondering over the meanings of the Qur’an.
I have attended customary parties called the “Bismillah” where kids initiate their reading of the Qur’an and they have another when they finish the khatm (full recitation of the Qur’an) called the “Ameen”. At these parties I’ve seen many who don’t pray Maghrib or Isha (the prayer after sunset and the night prayer, respectively) and women who are dressed very provocatively. Part of this may be because Islam doesn’t have meaning to them since they aren’t Arabs. If they were to have read the Quran’s meaning in their own language then it might have had an impact upon them.
I’ve met brothers from the subcontinent that tell me they were taught to show respect to Arabs because they have the language of the Qur’an. So I thought even the atheists, Christians and Jews. What happened to that Qur’anic principle found in Surat al-Hujurat, “[…] Indeed the noblest among you in the sight of God are those with more piety […]” (Qur’an 49:13)?
I’ve read many pamphlets and watched many interfaith/da`wah (calling to Islam) sessions where we totally alienate ourselves with this ethnocentric religious arrogance and lack of relatability in delivering our message to a western audience. I call this the anti-Da`wah disease of Muslims.
In my own early indoctrination to this Arabization, I alienated many non-Muslims including my own family. Through the unscientific and textually false claims that Arabic was the language of Adam and that it is the language of Paradise, we are encouraged to have Arabic names. We often can’t say a sentence without some Arabic word coming out. All this sends the message that we have an Arabic religion. We do this while claiming that Islam is not an Arab religion, attempting to prove our point in vain by saying that only 20% of all Muslims are Arabs. While in fact the other 80% have developed an inferiority complex that gives them the idea that they are not authentic because of their lack of Arabization. So they do whatever they can to seem more Islamic and they feel they can do that by expressing Islam in Arabic as much as possible. We are not the first nation to take this linguistically ethnocentric route. Please read the following:
Check out #8 of the following link—http://www.convert.org/Conversion_Process.html
After reading those all I have to say is that we need to read Surat al-Baqarah (Qur’an 2) and learn the lessons intended.
God is greater than a language and His message can be taught and practiced comprehensively regardless of language or culture. The depth of spiritual experience and practice is universal. God has revealed Himself to us through language so that we may relate to Him in this life and thus return to Him. His last message was in Arabic and to be able to recite it purely as He revealed it, then a person must at least learn the phonetic reading of it. On the other hand, for anyone to claim scholarly mastery of it and teach it to others as Islamic Sciences, then they must first master the Arabic language. This is the balance we are looking for.
Our well-grounded beliefs and morals already make us strangers, so let’s not make it worse by presenting ourselves as both religiously and culturally irrelevant to the world we live in. That is simply against the sunnah (tradition) of the Prophet ﷺ.