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Preserving Our Arabic Essence

June 11, 2009 by Guest Authors  


Naiyerah Kolkailah


I was visiting a friend during my first few months of living in Doha, not knowing that I would soon discover a bewildering surprise at her house. Two children to Arab parents were left under her care while their mother performed `Umrah. The youngest, Salma, was a beautiful two-and-a-half year old girl with fair skin, blue eyes and curly brown ringlets around her cheeks. I attempted conversing with her in Arabic to make her feel comfortable with my new presence in the house; “Assalamu `Alaykum Salma!” I said with a soft tone. She stared back at me curiously and then glanced away. How shy and sweet I thought. Holding her hand and moving on I asked, “Kayf Halik?” (How are you?). Salma gave me another quizzical look. I looked over at my friend wondering if I was missing something, and asked, “Aren’t her parents Arab and Arabic is her mother’s first language?” She said, “Yes, but the maid is from the Philippines and she’s the one who feeds her, plays with her and spends most of the time with her while her mom is at work. Since Salma got accustomed to speaking English on a regular basis, her mom found it easier also to speak English with her whenever she sees her.” Apparently, this type of maid-mommy role is very common in many of the Gulf countries with Arab families (even with non-working mothers) who hire non-Arab ‘domestic helpers,’ as they call them.


We can probably all pinpoint several crucial problems with this picture. Besides parenting responsibilities and authentic moral upbringing going down the wayside with such a lifestyle, a great ni`mah (blessing) from Allah which can be easily preserved in the midst of its people and culture is being negligently trashed out of convenience. Granted, we Muslims in the West have our fair share of struggles and shortcomings in preserving the Islamic identity, and we all know children of Arab descent growing up in the West who can’t utter a word of Arabic — let alone understand it. Yet, we also know or hear of Muslims from our own communities who travel across the globe and devote months and even years to studying Arabic. So, this difference in dedication is apparent throughout the entire Ummah, and even if some must strive harder than others to learn the language, it is realizing Arabic’s significance and indispensability to deeper Islamic understanding that causes most Muslims to prioritize its study and ensure they pass it down to their children.


From the time of the Prophet Muhammad `alayhi assalat wassalam, Arabic has remained an integral part of Islamic civilization and an essential component of the rise, expansion and sustainability of Islam. Towering companions like `Umar radiya Allahu `anh and Muslim scholars such as Shaykh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah considered learning Arabic an obligation as part of learning one’s faith, and viewed it as an inseparable part of the Islamic identity. It is a sad state in our Ummah when the enemies of Islam who devote their entire lives to attacking our Deen and destroying its traces realize the value of the Arabic language more than some Muslims themselves.


After the Spanish Inquisition when the Muslims lost Andalusia to the Catholic Spaniards in 1492, Royal Decrees were issued to ban anything symbolic of Islam, including clothing, foods, literature and especially the Arabic language. Preaching in Arabic became prohibited and Islamic and Arabic books were destroyed. Parents determined to teach their children Islam and Arabic had to do so secretly from hidden libraries in their homes. Otherwise, they would risk exposure and death. Such strict regulations were clearly aimed at eliminating the foundations that could facilitate Islam’s resurgence. Similarly, when the infamous Kemal Ataturk began secularizing and modernizing Turkey in the 1920s, he replaced Shari`ah law with European legislation, closed Islamic institutions and masajid, and forcefully changed the Turkish alphabet from Arabic letters to Latin letters. All these reformations were also planned strategically to pull the country away from its Islamic and Ottoman heritage. So, if Ataturk and his ilk realize that extinguishing the true Islamic spirit and suppressing Islamic dominance requires targeting its roots and means of sustenance, shouldn’t we as Muslims do the opposite and preserve our roots to fertilize Islam’s growth?


As we like to clarify in our da`wah bits to non-Muslims, Arabs by descent are a minority in the entire Ummah. It is also certainly true that amongst Allah’s many signs are our varying languages and colors (Surat Ar-Rum: 22). Yet, so many Muslims from Pakistan to England to China to the US are learning and perfecting their understanding of Arabic for no other reason than its relationship to Islam. Numerous scholars of the past and present — regardless of their original ethnicity — have documented their knowledge of the Islamic sciences in the Arabic language. Because so many meanings are tied to the ahadith or ayaat of the Qur’an, gaining the deeper and more comprehensive understanding of these lofty works necessitates delving into the originals as opposed to translations.


The elevated status of an original holds true most strikingly for the words of Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala. For anyone who understands Arabic, it becomes clear that translations do a great injustice in conveying the full meaning, literary beauty, syntax, rhythm, intricate dialogues, eloquence and precise word choice of the Qur’an. Recognizing that no word is mentioned haphazardly or pointlessly in the Qur’an, it is no wonder why Allah (swt) has highlighted the superiority of the Arabic language for the purpose of sublime revelation in numerous contexts: “Thus have We revealed it to be a judgment of authority in Arabic…” (13:37); “(It is) an Arabic Qur’an, without any crookedness, so they may attain God-consciousness” (39:28); “A Book, (with) its verses explained in detail; an Arabic Qur’an, for people who understand” (41:3); “Had We sent this as a Qur’an (in a language) other than Arabic, they (disbelievers) would have said: ‘Why are not its verses explained in detail? What! a non-Arabic (book) and an Arab (Messenger)? Say it is a guidance and healing for those who believe…” (41:44).


If nothing else motivates us to learn and teach our children this beautifully structured and rich language, let our source of inspiration be that Arabic is the key to unlocking the many treasures of imaan, knowledge, serenity, healing and most importantly, guidance, from the Qur’an. We are not worse Muslims if we do not master the Arabic language, but perhaps we can gain more blessings from the Qur’an and increase in remembrance, reflection, and appreciation of Allah’s words if we understood the language He purposefully revealed it in. Many of us are either mothers, potential mothers (insha’Allah), or have maternal/mentoring roles in our Ummah. If we make it a priority with Allah’s help, we have the power to revive the love and significance of the Qur’anic language in our families and Muslim communities – despite external attempts and plots to suppress the rise and spread of Islamic culture and civilization.

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