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Faith has a Language

by Muhammad Alshareef

While attending a month long da’wah course when I was a teenager, one of our Islamic studies instructors, Dr. Mahmood Ghaazi, from Islamabad, Pakistan, told us about an official trip he had taken to the Vatican, where his delegation met with a group of high priests. Dr. Ghazi had posed this question to one of them: "Do you have any words that you know for certain, 100%, were spoken by Jesus Christ?" The priest seemed to be a little ashamed, but he replied honestly that there were no words that could be traced authentically to Jesus, and that the language he had spoken had been forever lost.

Then the priest asked of Dr. Ghazi, "What about Muslims? Do you have any words that you know for certain, 100%, were spoken by Muhammad?" Dr. Ghazi smiled as he replied, "Not only do we have libraries of books of words which we know without a doubt were spoken by our Prophet sal Allaahu alayhi wa sallam, we have a science called tajweed, which teaches the student how to pronounce every syllable and vowel exactly the way Prophet Muhammad sal Allaahu alayhi wa sallam said it!" Indeed all praise is due to Allah, who protected our deen in such a way.

But, brothers and sisters, have we each done our part in protecting those words of Allah and his Messenger? RasulAllah sal Allaahu alayhi wa sallam said, "Ballighu (notify, transmit, tell others) about me, if only with one aayah." But how do we do that if we ourselves do not understand the aayaat that were revealed? How can we assume that we know a text, when we don’t even understand the very language in which it was revealed? In order to fulfil the mission Allah and His Messenger sal Allaahu alayhi wa sallam have selected us for, it is imperative that we become literate in the language of Islam.

The task of teaching others about Islam - of passing on that one aayah at a time - is too important a task to put off till the next generation. Knowledge of our deen and the language in which it was revealed must flood our communities in order for us to advance as a guiding nation.

The Qur'an is Allah's way of communicating with us, of directly guiding us onto His path. But has that communication actually occurred – has it been a two-way process? Look at any college level Communications textbook, and it will tell you that the definition of 'communication' is that a message is sent, and then that very message is received with the understanding that the sender intended. If I say something and you can't hear me because my microphone isn't working, or you have gotten bored and are daydreaming, or you don't understand the language I'm speaking, then true communication has not occurred.

The same is true for the words of Allah and his messenger. Have we really communicated with Allah and understood the message of Allah, if we have not truly understood the meaning of His words? Just because we understand a watered down, weakened English translation of the Qur'an doesn't mean we fully understand the Qur'an. There is subtlety and nuance within every language and a lot of it simply cannot be translated precisely.

If RasulAllah sal Allaahu alayhi wa sallam spoke to us directly today - and naturally he would speak to us in Arabic - would we understand what he was saying or would we need translators? We would want to capture every moment, understand every piece of advice he was giving us, but instead, we might be standing there helpless, unable to communicate with him, or to understand his wisdom.

Those before us who had that chance to listen to him, to communicate with him, were changed by the experience. Shortly after the first Muslim migration to Habasha, RasulAllah sal Allaahu alayhi wa sallam recited Surah Najm at the Ka'bah. As he recited, everyone - Muslims and non-believers - listened in rapture to the Arabic verses. He came to the final verses and recited:

Do ye then wonder at this recital? / And will ye laugh and not weep / Wasting your time in vanities? / But fall ye down in prostration to Allah, and adore (Him) (Surah An-Najm 53/59-62)!

At that moment, RasulAllah sal Allaahu alayhi wa sallam fell to the ground in prostration to Allah. The Muslims followed him, all of them falling in sajdah to Allah.

Now, try to picture what happened next: every disbeliever in the gathering, every single one, also fell in sajdah to Allah! They were so moved by the beauty and complexity of the Qur'an, that they couldn't deny the message contained within:

Verily we sent it down as an Arabic Qur'an so that you may understand (Yusuf 12/2).

To give one example of the impossibility of truly translating the Qur'an, in Surah 'Abasa Allah says regarding the Day of Judgment: At length when there comes the deafening noise ( 'Abasa 80/33)…

The Arabic word for this deafening noise is saakh-khah, which refers to the blowing of the trumpet, which will announce the resurrection and humanity's repayment for its deeds on earth. It will be an unbelievably overwhelming moment. When one looks at the word saakh-khah one would assume that it's pronounced in two syllables, or beats. But in Arabic, this same word is recited in a 6 count prolongation. Listen to someone reciting it. It is as if the recitation of the word itself is like a trumpet being blown. In English, we cannot prolong the words 'deafening noise,' so we don't get the full strength of meaning that Allah intended for us to grasp from the word. This is clear evidence that only someone who understands the language can pick up the power of each word Allah has so carefully and profoundly chosen to give us.

Here's another example. If someone who speaks only English overheard a master telling his servant, "Get me water," this person would understand that the master wants the water right away, not two hours from now, although this hasn’t been explicitly stated. It's implicit and is part of the nuance of the language. Similarly, when someone says, "The Arabic language is foreign to me, " this implicitly translates to "The understanding of the Qur'an is foreign to me. " It also implicitly translates to "The Sunnah of Al-Mustafa sal Allaahu alayhi wa sallam is foreign to me."

Whoever loves Allah must, by virtue of that true love, love RasulAllah sal Allaahu alayhi wa sallam. And whoever loves Allah and His Messenger sal Allaahu alayhi wa sallam must, by virtue of that true love, love the Arabic language chosen by Allah. It is the language spoken by the greatest book. It is the language spoken by the greatest human being. It is the door of entry leading to an understanding of the other Islamic sciences. Someone who never learns Arabic, can never fully understand the Qur'an and Sunnah.

Learning the Arabic language moulds our characters. As Ibn Taymiyyah rahimahullah said, "Using a language has a profound effect on one's thinking, behavior, and religious commitment. It also affects one's resemblance to the early generations of this ummah, the companions and the Taabi'oon. Trying to emulate them refines one's thinking, religious commitment and behavior." Learning this noble language is also our bridge to the culture of Islam. Undoubtedly, with the teaching of language comes the teaching of ways in which to think and behave, through understanding the culture that speaks that language.

I once taught English in a Muslim country as a summer job one year, and ashamedly had to skip the numerous pages that spoke of alcohol, dating, and lewdness. This is the culture of the English language. Imagine the blessed culture and knowledge awaiting those who choose to learn Arabic!

At the University of Madinah, I had the chance to go to school with Muslims from the UK, US and Australia. At the end of those years, as students, we would discuss amongst ourselves, what we were going to do when we went home to Europe and America. Some of the students stayed behind, accepting jobs teaching English just so they could stay in Madinah. A graduating brother beautifully rejected this and said, "Why would I teach Muslim Arab children English, when I have the chance to go to Europe and teach Muslim European children Arabic?"

One of the main Arabic teachers at a school in Maryland started his career teaching English to Muslims in Arab countries. He saw how serviced the English language was and how much money was being spent to teach and study it. He thought to himself that Arabic, the language chosen by Allah, is more worthy of such wealth, effort and time. He changed his career path and in his graduate studies took on the task of teaching Arabic to native English speakers.

As immigrants or children of immigrants, most of us speak two languages. We convinced ourselves that we must learn English so we can get ahead in this world. Now, we must remind ourselves that we must learn Arabic, so we can get ahead in the next world.

Let no Muslim think that Arabic is not their people's tongue. It is the language of our deen. Calling people to this language is not a nationalistic call, it is a call to the Muslim to raise his or her head and say, “My faith has a language; it's called Arabic!”