Judging any argument should not be done with preconceived notions or according to cultural influence, rather it should be judged objectively after looking into its intrinsic merit. As Muslims, our criterion of validity for religious matters is that it must be in agreement with both scriptural and rational evidence.
The power of popular culture is a strong reality that has major influence upon any community. Anytime someone suggests something contrary to the way we were raised, we often take offense, become annoyed, and/or feel threatened. Self-review/accountability are proven tools of success. They are primary means to growth and progress as humans/believers. The assumption that what we do or say is unquestionably right is obviously arrogance which is the primary trait of Satan, our clear enemy.
In the past months I wrote several articles about balancing the Arabization of Islamic expression in the west. Perceptions of these articles varied significantly. Some understood my point and others allowed their cultural upbringing, suspicions and assumptions to mislead them regarding my points. For example at no point was I suggesting the suppression or downplay of learning Arabic to attain a deeper and more precise spiritual insight into our faith nor has any article I have written been some sort of attack on our Arab/immigrant community. So before concluding this series I thought I would clarify my intention, purpose, and objective which some may have completely missed.
First and foremost my intention is to please our Exalted Creator, Master, and Merciful Loving Guide. In Islam we can only please Him in a way that is guided by His revelation.
The following are the verses which guided my ideas:
“We merely sent messengers speaking in the language of their people so that they can properly clarify the religion to them.” (Qur’an 14:3)
“Let there be a community from among you that invites to all good, enjoining virtue and discouraging vice. Those are truly the successful.” (Qur’an 3:104)
“Call to the path of your Lord with wisdom and good preaching…” (Qur’an 16:125)
“[…] Say to the people of the book, We believe in what was revealed to us and what was revealed to you and our God and your God is One in the same […]” (Qur’an 29:46)
“Thus We have revealed to you an Arabic Qur’an so that you may warn the mother of villages (Makkah) and those people surrounding it (i.e. the Arabs).” (Qur’an 42:7)
The Prophet ﷺ (peace be upon him) said, ادعوا الناس ، و بشروا و لا تنفروا ، و يسروا لا تعسروا
“Call the people to Islam. Give glad tidings and don’t alienate people. Facilitate things for people and don’t make things difficult.” (Saheeh al-Jami’ 246)
As stated before there were revelations and/or inspired messages sent to the many Prophets many of whom we were not told about since the Qur’an is focusing on a confirmation of the covenant of Abraham. There is a weak hadith (prophetic narration) which states that there were 124,000 prophets and 315 messengers. The following verses support the idea, but not necessarily the count:
“There were some messengers from before which we have told you about while other messengers we did not tell you about […]” (Qur’an 4:164)
“[…] There was never a nation which was void of a warner.” (Qur’an 35:42)
Obviously these messengers taught a message which is universal that could be expressed quite clearly in any language.
The current culture of Islamic linguistic expression in the West is undoubtedly Arabized. But why? The Prophet ﷺ did not teach that we should Arabize all languages and cultures. Rather he taught us to live Islam and spread its message to those around us. The companions obviously established the Caliphate and naturally as the politically dominant people they incorporated Arabic as a native tongue where it was not previously a spoken language or at least it was not the native tongue. That was positively a good thing they did for those lands. As a result of their efforts, since then, people in Sham, Persia and North Africa were raised with a solid foundation in the language of our scripture. That said, that doesn’t make Arabs more pious or even more knowledgeable than non-Arabs. It simply gives them more potential to have a deeper understanding of the original texts.
The following are the main factors that led to the current linguistic expression of Islam among American Muslims:
The immigrant community who founded the vast majority of mosques, schools, and organizations here is comprised of either Arabs or people from countries where Arabic wasn’t adopted as a native tongue, but Islam is the dominant religion. These countries developed a culture in which most religious jargon is in Arabic, scripture is memorized in Arabic, and prayers are said in Arabic even if someone doesn’t know what any of it means. To be honest, there is very little emphasis on meaning while the Qur’an persistently guides its readers to ponder, think, contemplate and rationalize God, His creation, and most importantly the revelation.
The Arab immigrant community is naturally proud to have a language which is generally Qur’anic Arabic, although in many cases an offshoot of it. Many of them were struggling with learning the native English for secular purposes so they felt that since Islam was revealed in their language then they will attempt to inculcate Arabic words and phrases into their English Islamic expression. Others have passed on this historical pre-Qur’anic Arab bias that Arabic is superior to all languages and therefore true religious expression can only be in Arabic and that to translate it would lose the meaning. When we look into the prominent comprehensive Arabic dictionary “The Tongue of Arabs” by Ibn Manthoor in volume 6 under “عجم” we see that the word which is used to mean non-Arab by language or ethnicity originally meant—and I am quoting— “الذي لا يفصح ولا يبين كلامه” which means one who is not eloquent and cannot express their speech clearly!
As someone who has been blessed with a certification of mastery of Arabic with a daily intimate relationship to it in my research, sure it is a beautiful language with deep meaning. That being said, as a lesser qualified student of English poetry and oratory eloquence, they were quite arrogant about their love for their language. The truth is that outside of the Qur’an and Sunnah (prophetic tradition) which are pure Holy Scriptures of divine expression, Arabic is a language like any other with its own unique qualities subject to human influence. Linguistic meaning is universal. Sure Arabic often carries a lot of meaning in a small sentence which requires a long translation, but at the same time in many cases you can throw out much of the sentence while translating the meaning from Arabic to English i.e. in the rule of Arabic rhetoric called الإطناب or unnecessarily added words to the sentence for either praise or blame.
Most of the non-Arab immigrant population comes from Muslim majority countries that were ruled by the caliphate, but didn’t adopt Arabic as the native tongue while some adopted the Arabic script for writing. Obviously there is some regret among these communities that they didn’t adopt the language of the Qur’an so they developed a culture of trying to incorporate as much Arabic as possible. They also formed the perception that the more Arabic words you use the more Islamic you seem. A key point about these countries is that—pre-Islam—they did not have a local theology similar to the Qur’an (i.e. people of the book) so they adopted many of the Arabic words like the word Allah to refer to God and the Arabic/Qur’anic rendering of prophets’ names.
It is also important to note here that in those countries Islam was the dominant respected reality so this practice did not seem arrogant or foreign. It was natural and realistic for the language of the revelation to be prevalent in the theocracy.
So that is how we got to where we are now. So let’s discuss the positive/negative impacts the current system has had on our growth and development as American Muslims.
The only positive effect that comes to mind is in recognizing the value of having a pure divine revelation available to all believers through a living language. Indeed, that is a luxury not afforded our counterparts from the people of the book. This is truly a faith builder within our small minority community. So of course this point can’t be ignored, but is the current method the only way to instill/express this fact in our community?
As previously mentioned, I am content that the immigrant community devised this style with the best of intentions. My contention is as part of the new generation of native Imams who have a better insight into building the future generations is that we should review all cultural norms of those who came from other lands before we pass them on to future generations. Our method is first to make sure they are in line with our scripture and secondly if they are matters of interpretation to decide if they are compatible with the native culture in order to facilitate the most effective representation of our faith. The reason I am writing this series is because of the adverse impacts this aspect of our current culture has on our identity as well as the propagation of our faith. The following are the prevailing negative impacts I have seen through my research on this subject:
The focus is on memorizing Qur’an, remembrances (dhikr) and supplications (du`a’) in Arabic and most American Muslims have no idea what much of it means. This greatly hinders the spiritual depth and knowledge in our community. As a result of this, most Muslims cannot explain their faith to others whether it is to their own children or non-Muslims. Many youth spend hundreds of hours—in many cases by force—memorizing the Qur’an and supplications in Arabic. Many of them forget most of these later in life and the vast majority of them who remembered them as adults have almost no idea what they mean. Similarly many people feel compelled to try and learn some Arabic to solve this dilemma even though circumstances dictate that most likely they will never have the time or ability to learn enough Arabic to give them special insight into the revelation. So they spend hundreds of hours trying to learn Arabic while it is an unrealistic goal. Essentially, they have wasted hundreds of hours building a superficial meaningless attachment to Arabic. Had they spent that time seeking knowledge in English and memorizing Qur’an and supplications by translation then they would have much more spiritual depth and knowledge. No doubt in English there is a minute fraction of Islamic literature compared to what’s available in Arabic. That being said, how many have completely researched the wealth of information available in English? Most people aren’t aware of the breadth of high quality knowledge available in English especially over the last 10 years. Believe it or not, there is some critical knowledge available in English not available in Arabic.
Disclaimer on this paragraph: It is very valuable to recite/memorize the Qur’an in Arabic, but at the same time it is just as much, if not more important, to study its meaning as it is a book of guidance. I highly encourage those who have the will and opportunity to study Arabic intensively to do as I have and thoroughly study Arabic for an intimate depth into our revelation and its rich scholarly tradition of interpretation and explanation.
We make points using statistics that Islam is indeed not an Arab religion, but a universal message for all times, peoples and places. In many cases Imams or even laymen talk about Islam with many Arabic words and phrases without clarification, thus not getting across our message to non-Muslims. Many converts and youth leave Friday sermons confused. Pushing Arabic names on converts only adds to this confusion. Islam doesn’t seem natural and familiar to the American faith tradition; rather it seems foreign and strange and we already talked about the meaning of that hadith.
Balance is a key to every aspect of our faith. We should reflect and see if we have taken the path of excess regarding any part of our practice of Islam and adjust accordingly. Our scripture says that this is how we are qualified to bear witness of our faith upon mankind as well as the qualification to have our beloved Prophet’s witness ﷺ.
“Accordingly, We have made you a balanced moderate nation so that you may be witnesses upon mankind and the Prophet ﷺ a witness for you.” (Qur’an 2:143)
The next article—God willing—will be the conclusion of this series in which I will propose a balanced plan of action.