Why Should A Muslim Offer Salat In Arabic?
Being a universal religion, Islam is meant for all people with different languages. Although Arabic is the language of the Qur’an and Islamic heritage, Islam did not aim at eradicating other languages that are the mother tongues of Muslims in some parts of the globe.
Islam views the differences in human tongues as one of the Signs of Allah in His creation. This is proven by the fact that Arabic is not the native tongue of the majority of Muslims. However, Muslims are required to perform prayer in Arabic with few exceptions, as in the case of new converts until they become able to say their prayers in Arabic, according to the Hanafi School of thought.
It is well known that during their service of worship (Salat), Muslims employ only the Arabic language: They recite certain passages of the Qur’an and pronounce certain formulae to attest to the sublimity of Allah and humility of man. This is done both by the Arabs and the non-Arabs, even by those who do not know a word of Arabic. Such was the case in the time of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and such has been the case to this day, whatever the country and the tongue of Muslims.
At first sight, it may seem normal and even desirable that the faithful should address his prayer to the Lord in a way that he is fully conscious of what he says. Of course, the mother tongue is the medium best suited for the purpose, the worship being performed in as many languages as are spoken by the Muslim community. But a little deeper consideration shows that there are reasons that militate strongly against such a solution.
It is noteworthy that according to Islamic belief the Qur’an is the Word of Allah, the recitation of which is considered something meritorious. This is evident from the spiritual point of view. It stands as the faithful journey’s unto the Lord through the sacred word of the Lord Himself. His Word is the path toward Him, something like a wire to conduct the electrical current that illuminates the bulb. The journey unto the Lord is of course the ultimate goal that every soul aspires to reach. The original Word has been revealed in Arabic: any translation would be a human work and human word, and this can scarcely serve the purpose of this mystical journey.
For those who would seek more mundane reasons, let us recall first that a clear distinction is to be made between prayer, in the sense of supplication (Du`aa), and prayer in the sense of the service of worship (Salat), in so far as Du`aa is concerned — i.e., the prayer in general and outside the formal way of worshiping Allah, the tete-tete with the Lord (munajaat)— nobody has ever raised the slightest objection to the liberty of the individual to address one’s need, one’s petitions to the Lord in any language and in any physical posture one prefers. It is purely a personal and private affair and concerns the relations of the individual creature directly with the Creator.
The Salat (prayer), on the contrary, is a collective and public affair, where the needs and requirements of other companions of the congregation are evidently to be taken into consideration. It is important to note that the Salat is in principle and preferably to be performed in common along with others (congregation): the Salat individually and in isolation is only tolerated and is never recommended, going to the congregational service is preferred. Let us see now more closely the diverse aspects of this collective and public act that is performed in the company of others.
Had Islam been a regional, racial or national religion, one would certainly have employed the current language of the region, of the race, of the nation. But quite different are the requirements of a universal religion, whose members speak hundreds of regional languages — of which each is incomprehensible to all the rest of the human groups — belonging to different races and regions of the earth. Our life today is getting more and more cosmopolitan, and practically every town has Muslims belonging to several linguistic groups, both from among the permanent residents and the travelers in transit, and has to take into consideration the aspect of courtesy and hospitality to strangers.
Supposing an Englishman goes to China and knows not a word of its language, and supposing he hears in the street something like “chen chu chih shan”, evidently he would not understand what is meant by that; and if it is the regional translation of the well-known call to prayer, the Allah-o-Akbar, he would fail to perceive it and would miss the weekly prayer on Friday, or the congregational prayer of the moment.
Similarly, a Chinese Muslim, traveling through other countries, would find nothing in common with his co-religionists if these others said their congregational worship in their local tongues. So a universal religion requires certain basic things to be common to all the faithful. A passing remark may be made about the fact that sometimes words of two different languages sound alike but have different meanings, at times the harmless word of one signifying something ridiculous or obscene in another. Such a risk is greater in languages with which one is utterly unfamiliar and hears only during a journey for example. This would be contrary to the dignity of the service of worship to Allah. Things familiar from childhood avoid such complications, even if the individual is a non-Arab and recites in Arabic the required formulae.
One cannot neglect the psychological aspect of human beings who have at times shown prejudices of xenophobia. Occasions would arise daily when political (national) or even personal and individual frictions would induce, for instance, an Englishman not to participate in the Salat led in French or Russian or some other language. Arabic, as the language of the Qur’an and the Hadith, has respect and a halo in the minds of every Muslim, and one employs it not as the language of the Arabs but as the language of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), the language of the Mothers of the Faithful, the language Allah Himself has chosen for revealing His latest Word to us.
The need for unity among co-religionists can never be too stressed. One should create new links to strengthen their ties of fraternity, rather than destroy those that already exist.
There is another aspect of the question which is no less important. In fact, no translation ever replaces the original. There are, for instance, nowadays numerous translations of the Holy Qur’an in English (as also in practically every language of the world), yet every now and then there are new and unceasing attempts to produce another translation, thinking that the older ones are partly defective. This is true not only of English but of every language of the world, and true also of the translation of any and every work. Should one utilize a defective thing or the perfect one, the translation or the original?
Let us recall in this connection that practically no religion, except Islam, possesses today integrally the original of the Revelation on which it is based, the original teaching of its founder: It is the translation, or at best fragments, of which dispose the Christian, Jewish, and other communities. How fortunate the Muslims is that they form an exception, and possess integrally the original text of the Revelation, the Holy Qur’an!
One should not lose sight of the fact that in the entire Salat there are very few passages to recite. There are first the Adhan and Iqamah (call to prayer). Then inside the service of worship, there are the formulae Allah-o-Akbar, Subhana rabbiyal-‘azim, Subhana rabbial-a`la, the short chapter Al-Fatiha, two other short chapters, the Tashahhud, and that is all. The totality does not exceed a page or two, and most of the words of these texts are commonly understood by the Muslim masses and have penetrated into all the languages of the Muslim countries, so much so that even a child or a beginner learns their meaning without pain or strain. And once the significance of these formulae is learned, the Salat of a Muslim remains no more a mechanical recitation without understanding.
There is an aspect of the Arabic language which merits to be brought into relief here. Apart from its incomparable musical qualities, the Arabic language itself, in its literary form, changed at least 1500 years neither in grammar, vocabulary, spelling, and even pronunciation. Those who understand the language of Arabic newspapers and radio broadcasts today understand as perfectly the language of the Holy Qur’an. For a religion brought by the last of the Messengers of Allah and the Seal of the Prophets, and also destined for all times till the end of the world, is it not providential that the language selected for this Message should also be otherwise stable and unchanging?
Of course, there are provisions for exceptional cases, such as the needs of a new convert: immediately on his embracing Islam, he has to commence to perform the five daily services in which it is necessary to recite by heart the prescribed formulae. Until such time as he learns these formulae by heart, he may use their sense in any other language he can. For this, we have the very high precedent of Salman Al-Farsi, who sent the translation of Al-Fatiha to some Persian converts, with the authorization of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) himself and they used it until their tongue got familiarized with the Arabic text.