Some days ago, someone emailed me a set of questions about Islam and Arab culture. Was there any relationship between the two, he wanted to know. If Islam is universal in its scope and appeal and so transcends ethnic and linguistic boundaries, what about the tendency on the part of some Muslims to privilege aspects of Arab culture over other cultures, he asked.
The Quran says, the questioner pointed out, that God has sent prophets to every nation. These prophets spoke in the language of their people, whom they addressed. In this way, their people could properly understand what they were saying. The Quran was been revealed in the Arabic language. But the revelations that non-Arabic prophets received were in non-Arabic languages, and they presumably worshipped in these languages, too. Given this, what is the significance of offering namaz only in Arabic, the questioner wanted to know.
In my reply, I pointed out that the fact that God sent revelations in languages other than Arabic means that God’s revelations are not tied to one particular language. He sent revelations in many languages, and the last and final of these, the Quran, was in Arabic. I added that there are roughly 6,500 languages in the world. Now if Muslims were allowed to offer their namaz in other languages, it would become impossible to establish a sense of unity transcending ethnic and linguistic boundaries. That is one reason why namaz is offered in Arabic, even by non-Arab-speaking Muslims.
Further, I clarified, one must bear in mind that when we offer namaz in Arabic, it gives us a sense of nearness to God. We believe that these words were revealed by God. This realization brings a sense of nearness, which will disappear if we offer namaz in other languages, in words that were not revealed by God, but, instead, are our own.
Prayer should be an expression of one’s inner state of being and devotion. In this regard, the questioner noted that some people might argue it should be best done in one’s native language, and that another language (like Arabic for non-Arab Muslims) may not fully express one’s inner state. What was my view about this, he wanted to know.
My reply was that it is true that prayer should be an expression of the inner state of the worshipper, but a believer’s inner state is authentic only if it is in accordance with the revealed words of God. That is, the revealed words train our feelings. The right feeling is that which is trained by the revealed words. If feelings are detached or dissociated from the revealed words, we may go astray. That is why it is necessary for namaz to be offered using the very words of the Quran and the Hadith—which are in Arabic. No translation can take the place of these original words.
This does not, contrary to what some people might claim, constitute Arabic cultural supremacism. The Arabic language and the Arab culture are not one and the same. When we observe worship in Arabic, it doesn’t mean we are adopting the culture of the Arabs.
All the words that are recited or read in namaz are derived either from the Quran or the Hadith. Also, the Prophet has said, ‘Pray as you have seen me praying’. There are some aspects of namaz other than the words that are read in namaz. In these aspects, every person is free to use his or her own language. For example, before offering namaz, a person ponders on God and other divine matters. Then, after having offered namaz, he thinks about it and prays (dua) in his own language. In this way, some aspects of namaz can be naturally done in one’s own language—thinking about God and other divine matters and doing dua. Namaz is one part or aspect of Islam, and this is offered in Arabic. But there is no language restriction as regards the other aspects of Islam, for which people are free to use whichever language they want.
All this clearly indicates, I pointed out, that offering namaz in Arabic has nothing at all to do with any alleged Arabic cultural supremacism or with an alleged denigration of other languages. Worship is not part of culture. Culture is a quite different thing. Worship is about the relationship between God and man, while culture is about the relationship between man and man. The first is spiritual in nature, while the second is a social phenomenon. The Arabic language is not necessary for cultural matters.
Another question that the questioner asked me was, “Do you think that the insistence on prayer only in Arabic might make Islam less appealing to non-Arab non-Muslims, who might find it culturally alienating to have to pray in a language they do not understand if they accept Islam?”
My answer was, “This is simply a supposition. History shows that millions and millions of people from different nations have accepted Islam and they read namaz in Arabic without having experienced any kind of problem.”
In this connection, the questioner referred to the following report:
“It was narrated by al-Tabarani in al-Awsat, al-Hakim, al-Bayhaqi in Shu’ab al-Iman and others that Ibn ‘Abbas (may Allah be pleased with him) said: The Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said: “Love the Arabs for three reasons, because I am an Arab, the Quran is Arabic and the speech of the people of Paradise is Arabic.”
The questioner then asked, “Some noted Muslim scholars say this is a fabricated hadith, and that there is nothing in Islam to merit the belief that the Prophet made the claim that the language spoken in paradise is Arabic. How do you see this report? If, in your view, it is fabricated, what do you think could be the reasons for this? What implications do you think it has for perceptions about Islam’s claims to universalism, transcending nation, language and ethnicity?” The questioner wanted to know if this report had anything to do with the notion of alleged Arab cultural supremacy.
I replied, “This is a fabricated Hadith report. It is not an authentic one. Misuse of freedom is a common phenomenon and this kind of fabrication is also a phenomenon of the misuse of freedom.”
The questioner then raised the issue of the ongoing controversy in Malaysia, where a court has ruled that non-Muslims cannot use the word ‘Allah’ for God. “How do you see this argument?” he asked me. “Does it have Islamic sanction?”
I replied that the argument is wrong. History tells us that the word “Allah” has never been the monopoly of Muslims. The word “Allah” was used in Arabia even before Islam. Islam only adopted this word, and did not invent this word. This word was prevalent among the idol-worshipers of pre-Islamic Mecca. The Quran itself certifies this fact, as the following Quranic verse indicates: “If you ask them who it is that has created the heavens and the earth and subjugated the sun and the moon, they will certainly say, ‘Allah.’” (29:61)
I added that the verdict of any Malaysian court is not hujjat or authority in Islam. I pointed out that it reflects misplaced and unwarranted Muslim supremacism, an imitation of Jewish supremacism. The Malaysian court or any other court has no authority to issue such verdicts. Islam has an authentic version, and anyone who wants to know about Islam must study this version from the authentic sources of Islam.
In the light of Islam’s universality, transcending ethnic and cultural barriers, the questioner also raised the issue of the tendency on the part of some Muslims to expect converts to adopt Arabic names, in the absence of which they may not regard them as ‘fully’ or ‘properly’ Muslim. How did I see this, he wanted to know. Did it indicate Arabic cultural supremacism, he asked.
I replied to these questions by stating that changing the name of the convert is part of Muslim culture, and that it is not part of Islam. Moreover, this is not a universal phenomenon. For example, Indonesia is a Muslim country, but many Muslims there do not have Arabic names. I also pointed out that changing names was not a general practice of the Prophet. However in some cases, the Prophet himself changed people’s names. According to me, both changing of the name and not changing of the name are correct. But, present Muslims are basically a cultural community, and this is the reason why they lay emphasis on changing the names of the converts.
To claim that Islam is akin to Arab cultural supremacism or that it seeks to legitimise it, I explained to the questioner, is thus unwarranted and baseless.