Praying in Arabic

When the sun is overturned
When the stars fall away
When the mountains are moved
When the ten-month pregnant camels
are neglected
When the beasts of the wild shall be mustered
When the seas are boiling
When the girl-child, buried alive,
is asked for what crime
she deserved murder,
When the sky is flayed open
When Hell is set ablaze
When the Garden is brought near
Then a soul will know what it has produced.
I swear by the revolving stars,
Planets streaming, that sweep along the sky
By the night as it slips away
By the sighing dawn
This is the word of a Messenger ennobled,
empowered, ordained before the Lord enthroned,
secure, trustworthy. (Qur’an 81:1—21)

There’ve been recent discussions—or maybe they are just recent to me—on the proposal that it is not mandatory to pray the required five daily prayers in Arabic, that they can be prayed in English or any language. I disagree with this position; as a woman who’s translated literature between languages, I have seen the damage.

The counterargument to this is that the Qur’an commands us to understand it, to not follow without perception, and there is a verse explaining that the reason the Qur’an was revealed in Arabic is simply because it is a language which its primary audience understood—the language itself is not holy. If the concern is to understand, then it is most efficiently executed when one is praying in a language xie understands. The majority of Muslims don’t speak Arabic. They memorize sounds. They use common phrases. They can read it but they can’t understand it. And to be perfectly honest, native Arabic speakers don’t know what they’re reading half the time either. Don’t be convinced otherwise. They’re mouthing the words just like the rest of you fools. Oh, they understand—vaguely. They definitely understand enough to argue on terms of grammar. But the language is ancient. There are words that don’t make sense in context according to their common present-day usage.

However, what we know about performing the five required daily prayers is what we’ve learned from the tradition of the Prophet. It is true we are commanded to actually understand the Qur’an, but while English feels closer, there’s a lot that slips away in the translation. A translation of the Qur’an is just a translation, not the actual.

I’m sure I don’t have to demonstrate how much is lost in translation, but here’s a demonstration:

The sudden calamity
What is the calamity
What can illustrate for you the calamity
A day humankind are like moths scattered
And mountains are like fluffs of wool
Whoevers scales of good deeds weigh heavy
Xirs is a life that is pleasing
Whoevers scales weigh light
Xir mother is hawiya
What can illustrate for you what she is
Raging fire (Qur’an 101:1—11)

(Yes, I feminazied the “neutral masculine” pronouns.) The word hawiya is, to my horror, sometimes translated as “Hell.” It is mostly translated to “abyss” which is far better suited… but still unsatisfying in its emptiness.

You’ll notice that hawiya is feminine, and is compared to a mother: specifically, she is a mother whose child is torn from her. A profound sense of loss and infinite yearning, ensnared in mystery, literally set ablaze. The construction of the chapter as well is metrically stressed in such a way to intensify the loss.

But this is lost in translation; with “abyss” the feeling is only vacant instead of a tormenting desire engendered in the loss. Even with the description of “raging fire” that follows, the reader is most likely to think of Hell instead of this consuming sorrow in flames. In fact, sometimes a definite pronoun follows the translation: “the raging fire”–which likewise results in an effect that is definite rather than indefinite, eternal. Definite articles simply don’t work the same way in English as they do in languages that use them nearly as frequently as nouns.

When the Qur’an was revealed it brought people to their knees as they cried. It rarely has that same effect on the masses today, because we don’t understand it.

Now I do recognize that if even those who speak Arabic today cannot completely appreciate the Qur’an in all its encompassed depth, there’s no ostensible point in measuring how much slips away comparatively in what language. You don’t need to know Arabic to appreciate the Qur’an, and I don’t doubt this for one second. Especially since I receive emails proclaiming that the text is spectacular. In fact, knowing the language, becoming a scholar, or relying on scholarly sources is no guarantee to understanding the Qur’an and are not prerequisites. People who are very familiar with the Qur’an (historical, scholarly contexts and all) derive incorrect interpretations from it and completely twist its message. The best example of this are the disbelievers who lived during the time of the Prophet, who understood exactly what the Quran was saying and didn’t need scholarly texts to put the verses in context because they WERE the context, yet failed to grasp the meaning. As the Qur’an states:

“When you recite the Qur’an, we place an invisible barrier between you and those who do not believe in the life to come. We have put covers on their hearts that prevents them from understanding it, and heaviness in their ears.” (17:45-46)

Only God provides guidance. And when someone is presented with 2 interpretations: one that is austere and clearly sexist and contradicts the nature of Islam, and another that is faithful to the nature of Islam itself in that it is compassionate and embracing, and these interpretations are at an impasse, there comes a point when this is not a question of intellect—it is a question of character.

I say this obviously because there are huge injustices with language supremacy.

But as for why we should pray the five daily required prayers in Arabic when no one is arguing over interpretation (during debate reference to the original is essential) and instead is simply praying, there’s also the notion that the Arabic words themselves harbor extraordinary power. Like word magic. There is something significant about praying in Arabic, as though each of us shares in reciting the message and it has some sort of invisible, soothing impact on the fabric of the universe. That is why I pray in Arabic (the mandatory prayers, not talking to God from the library) but how everyone else prays is, of course, none of my business as they are free to practice religion as they wish and are not infringing on my rights.

12 thoughts on “Praying in Arabic

  1. The Catholic Church used to have the Mass in Latin, so that anywhere in the world you could go into a Catholic church and understand the ceremony equally well; it was symbolic of the universal church. Now it’s in the native language (unless you get a special dispensation) and I find it highly annoying.

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  2. Narjis

    Being a native English speaker, it has taken me longer to learn the correct words in prayer. However, my nerdy language-loving self is very happy to be learning something new. And it feels somehow more mystical because it’s not my native language. And it helps me focus more on the prayer because I have to be concious of every word to remember it. It will be a long time before I’m good enough with Arabic to read Qur’an in its true form, but I really want to. For now I’m reading it in English, I’m on Al-Nisa currently, and wondering what you would say about inheritance for females versus that for males. Anyway I’m going off topic. Nice post, and I agree with the idea that the original language has a magic that is lost in translation. Also, what a beautiful English translation of Qur’an you’ve quoted from!

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  3. Coolred38

    “They’re mouthing the words just like the rest of you fools.” hmmm….

    I, for one, never believed there was anything inherently sacred about arabic for prayer etc. When a greater majority of the muslim population isn’t arab, doesn’t speak, read or write arabic…and it should be assumed that god would know this for the future of islam…not to mention learning another language is extremely difficult for adults (some never master it even adequately) but to then turn around and insist that prayers must be done in arabic to be accepted just seems like complicating something that shouldn’t be complicated. Prayer is your one on one time with god…a moment to reflect and commune with your inner self and reach out to make contact with god…to complicate this and cause frustration or anxiety because of a language barrier (are we to assume god doesn’t understand other languages…or even understand we are doing our best when we translate into our own language…even if inadequately?) seems to be taking away from the purpose of prayer rather than adding to it. What is more important..that you took the time to offer the prayer…or that you performed it in a language you possibly only memorized the sounds and phrases to but don’t understand a word of it (as a great many muslims do)?

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  4. KMAK

    Coolred38: When a greater majority of the muslim population isn’t arab, doesn’t speak, read or write arabic…and it should be assumed that god would know this for the future of islam

    If each Muslim were to pray in his/her native language, then where is the unity? Despite the ethnic diversity which characterizes the Muslim world, a common language, irrespective of whether we understand it or not, brings us all together when we recite the Quran, perform the Salat and undertake the Hajj. Allah (swt) certainly knew about the consequences of revealing the Book in Arabic. After all, He says, “We have sent it down as an Arabic Qur’an in order that ye may learn wisdom”.

    Coolred38: not to mention learning another language is extremely difficult for adults (some never master it even adequately) but to then turn around and insist that prayers must be done in arabic to be accepted just seems like complicating something that shouldn’t be complicated.

    Basically your argument is that since it is inconvenient to learn a new language, and God would not want to inconvenience us, it is probable that He does not care in which language a Muslim performs his prayers. I’m sure Ibrahim (as) found it inconvenient when he was ordered by Allah to sacrifice his son, but that didn’t stop him from submitting to His Will, did it? Only a person of weak faith would find it unworthy to struggle for the sake of God.

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  5. Coolred38

    KMAK: I’m sorry but when god says in the quran “I made islam easy for you” (paraphrasing) but then muslims come up with all these rules that severely complicate it making it harder than it has to be…who do you think has more authority? Using Ibrahim as a comparative analogy doesn’t fit here…you are comparing murdering (some can use the word sacrifice but murder is murder when it comes to human beings) your son to learning a language? Really? As far as struggling to learn another language being inconvenient…yes it is inconvenient for some. Some will never master another language no matter how long they study it…some people just are not capable of doing that. So do you believe you should still perform prayers in a half assed manner in a language you can’t master simply to pass some sort of test from god that your fellow muslims claim exist?

    I don’t see anywhere in the quran where god says “if you don’t offer your prayers in arabic than your shit out of luck cause that’s the only language I accept them in”….or maybe I missed that ayat.

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    1. You offer your prayers in Arabic because prayers involve direct verses from the Qur’an. This is different from the Du’aa, which is supplication and not prayer. Though there are “formal” Arabic Du’aas a person has every right to supplicate to God in any language they wish because they are NOT RECITING GOD’s WORDS. I apologize for the capitalization, but this is the key part.

      Formal prayers are in Arabic because the words used in prayer come directly from the Qur’an. There’s a reason why there’s no such thing as a “translation of the Qur’an.” Instead, if you see proper English versions of the Qur’an, there will be a sub-title that will usually say that the English version is a “translation of the meaning.” This is because most Muslims hold the belief that the Qur’an cannot be directly translated into another language without losing something integral to its intent/meaning. That’s why people pray in Arabic, because they are expected to recite God’s words verbatim. To not pray in Arabic, as the argument would go, means that you are not reciting the words of God. Instead, you would be reciting the translation of the meaning of the words of God. It’s not the same thing. To pray you need to recite verses from the Qur’an. But if these verses are translated then they’re not going to be the same verses if they’re in a language other than Arabic.

      And yes, Islam was sent to be make things “easy” (in the sense that it would make life better for its followers) but don’t confuse ease with lack of struggle and sacrifice. Fasting isn’t easy, but it is a pillar of Islam. The struggle makes life better (because it purifies you and makes your more disciplined etc. etc.)

      And in regards to “mastering” Arabic. God judges you by your intentions. If you do your best, then that is what counts. If your ability is limited and you cannot learn Arabic very well, then God would not judge you harshly as a result. Actions are judged according to their intentions. All God requires is that we try our best. We do not need to be masters of anything. We only need to be sincere in our efforts.

      politiciansathogwarts.blogspot.com

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  6. Coolred38

    If god judges you by your intentions..than your intention to pray and worship him should be THE criteria on which he judges/accepts your prayer…not on whether it’s performed in the “right” language.

    Almostclever..any language can be meditative if the right frame of mind is enduced while using it….but nothing can bring on the calm and tranquil quality needed for meditation if you are focused and struggling just to remember the words and how to make the sounds..and whether your mistakes are sufficiently distracting you from being completely into your prayers.

    Just my humble opinion.

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  7. almostclever

    I can’t argue against you Coolred, I too don’t see the necessity of praying in Arabic – but to put a positive spin on it, I can see the meditative value.

    I would rather my people be informed about their religion than ignorant of it due to language barrier, or having only the most privileged be able to take the time to learn the language. But even in learning pronunciation, most still never learn comprehension. I think this is a real barrier to knowledge of one’s religion. After all, this is what leads people to listen to others instead of the texts.

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  8. It breaks my heart that because of an alienating power structure any soul inclining for love and acceptance should be forced to find a positive spin to something that should be an affectionate interaction with God. The community is at fault for the unavailability and inaccessibility of education in neglecting its duty, not a disadvantaged individual. I blame the privileged for withholding information, for constantly shaming those unable to learn by snidely comparing credentials and boasting of their own education, and for daring to argue that we follow them instead of God. Laughably these are the same who contend Islam is against democracy (though verse 42:38 states otherwise) because “there can only be rule by God and not by the people.” Yet here they are demanding obedience.

    I would encourage everyone to know what they are reading, which means they should study Islam in the language with which they are most familiar. But prayer, as Sarah pointed out in her comment, is itself about reciting the words of God–not a translation of it. This is why I believe that the five prayers must be recited in Arabic; however, if one cannot execute such a thing after honest attempts, then the intention is pure and God is Just. You will be judged by your intentions.

    This post is about my interpretation of what is required. I don’t want anyone to feel excluded (those who reach out deserve to be heard), or to make the mistake of believing that their own interpretations are unworthy.

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