When the sun is overturned
When the stars fall away
When the mountains are moved
When the ten-month pregnant camels
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.