Issue #5 – Dealing with a Non-Arab Beginner to Prayer
I worked for almost 4 years in Kuwait as the Director of English Da’wah on the Islam Presentation Committee. I witnessed many conversions and interacted with many new Muslims over those years. When I first started there, the official legal system in compliance with the Ministry of Justice is to give new-Muslims an Islamic (Arabic) name1 and then to begin teaching them to pray in Arabic. The official test of sufficient knowledge and practice for a convert man to marry a born Muslim woman was that he could say the prayer in Arabic! By the grace of God and a few sittings with some scholars and the ministry, we changed that ludicrous criterion.
Islam is a universal divine message to mankind with guidance on how to properly interact with both the Creator and the creation. The gist of this message is to develop a spiritual focus in one’s life, preparing for the afterlife in which we will be judged for our decisions in this life. In living this divine purpose and calling others to it, we must develop a strong understanding and representation of that message in our own native tongue. Here I would like to remind you of the verse which is the basis for this whole series:
“And We did not send any messenger except [speaking] in the language of his people to state clearly for them […]” (Qur’an 14:4).
Sadly, the Arabization of Islam for non-Arabs has basically led us all to feel like the more Arabic words we use, the more authentic of a Muslim we are. I have been to many Islamic schools and found that most kids from non-Arabic backgrounds can readily recite many chapters of the Qur’an as well as many supplications in Arabic. The problem, however, is that most of them have no clue what it means. Worse than that, they have been programmed to think that it’s not important to know what it means as long as it is said in Arabic. I have even met children of Arab parents who speak conversational colloquial Arabic quite fluently, yet still cannot explain with any accuracy some of the things they have memorized.
I cringe when I hear a non-Arab say that they will “offer” their prayers. Linguistically, you can make sense of it, but spiritually, it sounds like you are doing something for God without benefit to yourself, or worse, something that He needs. Maybe I’m making a wrong assumption here, but the Qur’an makes it crystal clear that God is not in need of anything from us and that “[w]hoever does righteousness—it is for his own soul […]” (Qur’an 41:46).
I’ve never heard an Arab say such a thing in Arabic, the equivalent of which would be “سأقدم صلاتي (sa uqaddim salaati)”. They say, “سأصلي (sa usallee),” which means “I will pray” or more precisely “I will supplicate and seek the forgiveness of my Lord.”2 It seems that since some non-Arabs generally don’t understand their prayers they feel like it is something they are offering God whom they feel needs it from them.
The purpose of this article is to take personal/social experience coupled with our scholarly tradition in order to raise the level of Islamic spirituality in the masses. Case in point, the crux of the problem we are attempting to solve is in the well-known claim that salah (prayer) must be completely in Arabic, otherwise it is invalid. To be fair, there are some scholars who have made such a broad, sweeping dogmatic statement. The reason why they make this statement is that this particular detail of Islamic Law is taken as a “given” and thus not taught comprehensively in most Islamic degree programs. The truth of our tradition is that there is no such statement by the Prophet ﷺ (peace be upon him) nor is that by any means an agreed upon opinion amongst our scholars. The fact is, which I will, God willing, illustrate with ample references that such a statement may be the position of some scholars, but is not representative of prevailing opinions among traditional scholars of Islamic legal theory especially when it comes to a new Muslim.
First of all, so that people will not miss the point, the leader (Imam) of a prayer must have certain qualifications and one of them is that they have mastered the prayer as it was practiced by the Prophet ﷺ, which includes Arabic. Therefore, I am not calling for the tradition of Islamic prayer to be changed. Rather we are looking into Islamic legal theory to solve a problem leading to spiritual weakness in new-Muslims and kids raised in non-Arab environments. What I am suggesting is specifically for converts and children raised in non-Arab environments who are trying to learn the prayer which is supposed to be a deeply spiritual experience.
The position that I will be defending is that the Qur’an must be said in Arabic, but can be translated for silent prayers until one masters the meaning in their native tongue and then masters both the word-for-word and comprehensive meaning analysis in relating the Arabic to the English (or their respective native language). The remembrances (adhkar) which are said may be translated, but are preferred to remain in Arabic so the system would be similar to learning the Qur’an. The salah (prayer) of one who uses a translation for the remembrances is still a valid prayer, albeit not preferred, regardless of how long they rely on the translations. Supplications which were said by the Prophet ﷺ follow the same suit, whereas it is permissible in prostration (sujood) to supplicate to your Lord from your heart in your own language, Arabic or otherwise.
The following are the textual and scholarly references to support this suggested practice.
- In discussing the pillars or obligations of prayer, there is almost no reference to requiring it to be in Arabic in the classical books of legal theory.
- “If a non-Arab wasn’t proficient and he wasn’t able to properly enunciate Arabic then he could even say the beginning takbeer [Allahu Akbar, or “God is Greater”, said to begin prayer, and at intervals within the prayer] in his own language and that would suffice according to the majority of Islamic jurists as is well documented by the Shafi’ee and Hanbali scholars. That is because takbeer is a remembrance and the remembrance of God the Exalted is performed in all languages. The Maliki school and some Hanbalites said that if they couldn’t enunciate it then the obligation is lifted and it will suffice him to have the intention to enter into prayer. All other remembrances of the prayer fall under this scholarly difference. As for the reading of the Qur’an the majority opinion is that it must be in Arabic, with the exception of Abu Hanifa who is reported to have changed his opinion to that of the majority in his later years.”3
- “Originally Abu Hanifa allowed people to read the Qur’an in a Persian translation regardless if they knew Arabic or not. His famed student Abu Yusuf diverged and said that if they knew Arabic then it would be prohibited for them to read it in Persian whereas it would only be permitted to those who didn’t know Arabic. Later in Abu Hanifa’s life he adopted Abu Yusuf’s opinion on this as it is mentioned in Ibn Abideen.”4
- “The majority of the schools of thought (Hanbalites, Shafites, Maliki’s) prohibited reading the Qur’an through a translation. […] The Hanafi’s held it impermissible for the one who is proficient in Arabic to read it in another language while they permitted one to read it through a translation […]”5
- My summary of a long quote: Abu Hanifa carried his original ruling of permissibility for the remembrances in salah and the Friday sermon regardless of whether the person was proficient in Arabic or not. His students, Abu Yusuf and Muhammad, disagreed and held the same position as they did for the Qur’an. The following is a quote from the same passage: “It was reported by Ibn Abideen in the explanation of al-Tahawi, if a person were to make the takbeer of prayer, the remembrance upon slaughtering an animal, or said his remembrance for Hajj in Persian or any other language then that would be permissible according to both Abu Hanifa and his students regardless if they knew Arabic or not. This means that they later agreed with Abu Hanifa on this whereas he later agreed with them about the Qur’an. […] The Shafites and the Hanbalites agreed that it would be impermissible for one to say the remembrances in a translation if they were proficient in Arabic whereas it would be permissible to say them in translation if they were not proficient in Arabic. This also applies to the tashahhud [remembrances including the declaration of faith] and prayers for the Prophet ﷺ6 .”
- “It is reported by the Hanafi’s that supplication with other than Arabic is disliked (makrooh). […] The apparent justification is that supplicating with other than Arabic is not the primary preference. [The following is the interpretation of the Encyclopedia researchers.] It would be a fair interpretation to say that the dislike was closer to prohibition (karahah tahreemiyyah) in prayer whereas outside of prayer it would be just better (karahah tanzihiyyah) to avoid supplicating with other than Arabic. [Back to quoting the classical texts] The Maliki’s prohibited supplication in other than Arabic because it negates true exaltation. The great Maliki scholar al-Laqani restricted the previous statement of al-Qarafi by saying that the prohibition would be for the one who was supplicating in a non-Arabic tongue that they did not understand. Whereas if the supplicator knew what they are saying then it would be permissible to supplicate in prayer or outside of prayer as a result of verse 31 of al-Baqarah: ‘Adam taught the names of everything’ and verse 4 of Ibrahim ‘We merely sent messengers preaching in their people’s native tongue…’ Imam al-Shafi’ee distinguished between a remembrance/supplication that was narrated from the Prophet ﷺ and the supplication of one’s own making. The supplication/remembrance that was taught by the Prophet has three cases:
- The most authentic position in the Shafi’ee school as agreed by the Hanbalites is that it is permissible to translate them for the prayer of those who are not proficient in Arabic as opposed to those who are proficient in Arabic whose prayer wouldn’t be acceptable that way.
- That it is permissible either way.
- It is prohibited to translate it either way since there is no necessity for it.
The non-Arabic supplication which is made up by the one who is praying is generally prohibited among the Shafi’ee scholars…”7
- Ibn Taymiyyah said, “Supplication is allowed in Arabic or any other language as God knows the intention and meaning of the supplicator. God knows the sounds of his creation crying out regardless of the language.”8
- The difference between reading the Qur’an versus the reading of remembrances and supplications taught by the Prophet ﷺ is based on a well-known fact about our scripture that the Qur’an is the word, the exact divine words, of Almighty God which is in itself miraculous. On the other hand, hadiths (records) are only divinely inspired by meaning, and are the articulation of the Prophet ﷺ who sometimes worded the same hadith differently. It was accepted to narrate a hadith according to meaning as that was what was important. Many scholars say, “يجوز أن يروى الحديث بالمعنى” which means it is allowed to narrate a hadith according to its meaning even if you change some words.9
- For reference of modern prominent scholars who give fatwas (rulings) in line with this article:
- see previous article in the series [↩]
- p.386-387 lisaan al-arab dar al-hadeeth al-Qahirah [↩]
- The Kuwaiti Encyclopedia of Islamic Jurisprudence v. 5 p. 232-233. Refrencing al-fatawa al-Hindiyyah 1/69, al-Dasooqi 1/233, al-Mugni 1/462 [↩]
- The Kuwaiti Encyclopedia of Islamic Jurisprudence v. 27 p. 73 [↩]
- The Kuwaiti Encyclopedia of Islamic Jurisprudence v. 11 p. 169. Refrencing Ibn Abideen 1/325, Bada’I al-Sana’I 1/112-113 [↩]
- The Kuwaiti Encyclopedia of Islamic Jurisprudence v. 11 p. 170-171. Referencing al-Majmoo’ 3/299-301, Nihayatul-Muhtaj 1/46, Rawdatul-Talibeen 1/221,226, Kashaf al-Qannaa’ 2/34 [↩]
- The Kuwaiti Encyclopedia of Islamic Jurisprudence v. 11 p. 172-173. Referencing al-Manthoor fil-Qawa’id lil-Zarkashi 1/282-283, al-Majmoo’3/299-300, 4/522, Ibn Abideen 1/350, hashiyat al-Dasooqi 1/233, al-Mugni 3/292, Kashaf al-Qanaa’ 2/420-421 [↩]
- Majmoo al-Fatawa 22/488-489 [↩]
- al-Ghazali fil-Mustasfa p. 133, al-Razi al-mahsool fee ‘Ilm al-Usool 4/669, al-Suyooti tadreeb al-Rawi [↩]