The Language of Islam:
The importance of learning Arabic
For those of us who were not raised as Muslims, those of us who reverted to Islam by choice, the first words we uttered as Muslims -- indeed, the words which marked our passage into our faith -- were in Arabic: Ashshaduan la illaha illa Allah, wa ashshaduana Muhammadan rasul Allah.
We were required not only to properly utter this phrase, but to thoroughly understand it. We quickly learned other Arabic words and phrases such as assalaam alaikum, alhamdu lillah, in sha' Allah.
Our prayer must be in Arabic and we must memorize Qur'an in Arabic, no matter what our native tongue. Many new Muslims as well as non-Arab Muslims can, in fact, communicate fairly well with Arabic speakers as a result of even minimal knowledge of Arabic. Yet non-Arab Muslims must learn Arabic for reasons other than simple communication and rote memorization.
Allah (swt) chose Arabic to be the language of the Qur'an -- His final Message to humankind:
"Lo! We have revealed it, a Lecture in Arabic, that ye may understand." [Yusuf, 2]; "Thus have We revealed it, a decisive utterance in Arabic..." [Ar-Ra'ad, 37]; "A Scripture whereof the verses are expounded, a Lecture in Arabic for people who have knowledge." [Fusilat, 3].
Arabic is a language of words with precise, unquestionable meanings as well multiple nuances. Indeed, it is a language which can, in only a few words, address a very specific topic (e.g., who a man can marry) as well as convey diverse meanings (e.g., as-Samad, one of the names of Allah, cannot be translated into just one word; it can mean the Absolute, the eternally Besought of all, etc.)
Classical Arabic has consistent, predictable rules of grammar, pronunciation, and spelling, making it actually a fairly easy language to learn. It is a poetic language, pleasant to the ear. The mere sound of the Qur'an being read in Arabic has been able to move even non-Muslims to tears! Subhan Allah, what a beautiful medium Allah (Ta'ala) chose to guide us, teach us, and comfort us!
Obviously, we cannot comprehend the Qur'an correctly -- we cannot recite it beautifully, we cannot understand it when we hear it and, ultimately, we cannot act on it unless we learn the language in which it was revealed and consider Arabic to be the most important language to master. A translation, even an excellent one with extensive commentary, cannot replace the original text revealed and preserved by Allah Himself; any translation must contain human error or points for disagreement, but the Qur'an in Arabic has no such flaws.
The perfect memorization of the Qur'an in Arabic by Muslims is, indeed, how the ummah takes part in preserving the Qur'an. More than this, recitation of the Qur'an earns incredible rewards, as the following ahadith indicate:
When somebody recites one letter from the Holy Qur'an he will get one good deed in recompense and this one recompense will be equal to ten good deeds. I do not say that Alif Lam Meem is a letter, but Alif is a letter, Lam is a letter, and Meem is a letter.
A reader of the Holy Qur'an will be called upon on the Day of Judgement:
'Start reading the Holy Qur'an and ascend the (high) stages of the Heaven, and recite slowly as you had been reading in the world, as thy abode will be where the last verse of thy recitation will end.'
[Abu Dawud and at-Tirmidhi]
Study the Qur'an (regularly) for it will act as an intercessor and entreat for its readers on the Day of Judgement.
Secondly, because our prayer -- the most important part of our worship - must be in Arabic, we must make a strong effort to learn and understand what we are saying. If we just utter words that mean nothing to us, the prayer becomes empty ritual. However, if we understand and believe what we say, what our Prophet (salAllahu alayhi wasalam) taught us to say, our prayer becomes a rescue, a comfort, a complete act of worship for which Allah promises to reward us generously.
Thirdly, once we learn Arabic, our access to information about Islam multiplies. Although a large number of excellent books and translations of Arabic works are available in non-Arabic languages, a plethora of essential volumes and publications exist in Arabic only. If we are able to read these materials, our knowledge about our religion will increase and, in sha' Allah, our iman as well.
Finally, many non-Arab Muslims live in communities with a large number of Arabic speakers, they live in or plan to migrate to Arab Muslim countries, and/or they plan to make hajj. For such people, the Arabic language can be a strong unifying force; in fact, cultural anthropologists consider language to be the strongest factor binding people into a nation. Anywhere a Muslim travels, for instance -- whether China, Jordan, Pakistan, or America -- the phrase "assalaam alaikum" and its response, "wa alaikum assalaam" are universal, constant, consistent among Muslims. Not only is it a way of identifying other Muslims, it is a way of bonding them much in the same way as the code of a particular club marks and joins its members.
Few realize that even this simple phrase has unified Muslims throughout the world for over fourteen centuries through a common language: Arabic.
At the same time, if the ummah does not have a common tongue -- if we can only speak English, Turkish, or Japanese -- we can easily be divided and conquered. Our differences become magnified if we cannot understand each other. The more Muslims we can reach through a common language, the firmer our brotherhood/sisterhood becomes.
The most crucial step in learning Arabic is to listen to, recite, memorize, and understand the Qur'an in Arabic. Even if we follow a tape while reading the English (or German or French, etc.) translation we can pick up a few words each time. At the same time, it is usually not difficult to find Arabic-speaking sisters who are willing to teach Qur'an (free of charge, of course) and/or Arabic in exchange for English lessons or babysitting or other services. We must seek out these sisters and brothers, however, and fully devote ourselves to our study. If no Arabic speakers are available, which can indeed be the case if a Muslim lives apart from a large Arab Muslim community, a number of books and tapes exist which can at least get a person started.
Although learning any new language can be difficult and frustrating, the mastery of even the basics of Arabic is not without its rewards from Allah (Ta'ala). In fact, 'Aisha reported that the Messenger of Allah (salAllahu alayhi wasalam) said:
"A person who recites the Qur'an, and reads it fluently, will be in the company of the obedient and noble angels, and he who reads the Qur'an haltingly and with difficulty will have a double recompense."
[sahih al-Bukhari and Muslim].
Most importantly, we must remember to ask Allah alone for help in this and all matters. As our Prophet (salAllahu alayhi wasalam) taught us, we must supplicate thus:
O Allah! Be Thou gracious unto me by enabling me to eschew sins altogether, as long as Thou sufferest me to live; and have mercy on me lest I concern myself with aught which is of no consequence to me. And vouchsafe me the aesthetic sight, which will cause Thee to be well pleased with me.
O Allah! Originator of the heavens and the earth, Lord of Majesty and Glory and of Might incomprehensible! I beseech Thee, O Allah, O Beneficent Lord, in the name of Thy Majesty and of the Light of Thy Countenance to cause mine heart to retain Thy scripture even as Thou has taught (it unto me). And grant that I may recite it in such manner as will cause Thee to be well pleased with me.
O Allah! Originator of the heavens and the earth, Lord of Majesty and Bounty, and of Might incomprehensible! I beseech Thee, O Allah, O Beneficent Lord, in the name of Thy Majesty and of the Light of Thy Countenance to illuminate my sight with Thy scripture, to set free my tongue therewith, to comfort my heart therewith, to widen my bosom therewith, and to wash my body therewith. For, indeed, none aideth me in (attaining) the truth besides Thee. And none giveth it unto me beside Thee. There is no strength nor power save in Allah, the Exalted, the Magnificent.