Can One Make Salat in English?
Taken from Sayyid Abul A'la Mawdudi's "Rasael wa Masael", vol. III. This question and answer was originally published in the monthly "Tarjumanul Qur'an", Oct-Nov, 1957.
Question: I am an English Muslim. I am twenty-one years old. I accepted Islam a year ago while I was an army officer stationed in Somaliland. My question is regarding the official language of Islam. When I was a Christian I used to read the Bible in my mother tongue (English). After I became Muslim I have to both make salat and read the Qur�an in Arabic. This change makes me think that because of such a respect for Arabic � regardless of how sweet it is � I have been deprived of great spiritual enlightenment.
May I make my salat in English? I will be very grateful to you if you provide me guidance in this regard. In order for my satisfaction, please mention the names of any early imams who expressed their opinions on this issue.
This doubt is only a personal issue to me, but I can tell you with certainty that this has become a hurdle for many to accept Islam, especially in Europe. Some friends in London asked me to contact you and seek your guidance in this matter. I hope the direction you provide will be very valuable for me.
Answer: I am very delighted to know that you have accepted Islam. I am expressing my gratitude to Allah (swt) for enlightening the heart of a brother with the light of guidance, and am making supplication so that He may bless you with further guidance and steadfastness. I will be glad to help you, as much as I can, understand the commandments and different matters of the deen, and for this purpose you may contact me anytime.
The answer to your question about the language of salat is that salat can be made only in Arabic, because the most important aspect of salat is the recitation of the Qur'an. Translation of the Qur'an - regardless of how perfect it is - cannot be the Qur'an itself and therefore cannot be called the words of Allah (swt). Any other recitations in the salat besides recitation of the Qur'an were prescribed by the Messenger of Allah (saw). The same exact words are recited that the Messenger of Allah (saw) used to teach them. Any other language besides Arabic cannot express their correct meaning, and even if it does to some extent, that cannot replace the words of the Messenger of Allah (saw). Therefore, all fuqaha from the earliest periods till today are unanimous in their opinion that salat should be made in Arabic. One cannot read translation in place of the Qur'anic words, nor can the original words taught by the Messenger of Allah (saw) be replaced with other words.
However, if a non-Arab convert is not able to recite the Qur'an and other parts of the salat in Arabic immediately after becoming Muslim, then there are differences of opinions in what he should do. According to the opinions of Imam Abu Yusuf (ra) and Imam Muhammad (ra) - two great disciples of Imam Abu Hanifa (ra) - such a person can translate them in his language and read them in salat. But he must immediately start learning to be able to make the salat in Arabic. Imam Abu Hanifa (ra) at first had the opinion that even if one is able to recite in Arabic, it is still acceptable for him to make salat in a non-Arabic language. But he later withdrew this opinion and accepted the opinions of his two great disciples - Imam Abu Yusuf (ra) and Imam Muhammad (ra). According to Imam Shaffi (ra), under no circumstances can salat be made in a language other than Arabic. If a person is unable to recite the Arabic words, then at least he should say a few brief words in the salat, such as "subhanallah" or "alhamdulillah", etc., but should soon start learning to make salat in Arabic. (For further research in this matter, see the famous explanatory volume of the "Hidaya" book called "Fathul Qadi", vol. I, pp. 199-201; "Al Mabsut" by Imam Sarakhsi, vol. I, p. 37; and "Kashful Asrar" by Bazdabi, p. 25).
Making salat in a language that one does not understand and the words of which are merely recited - this appears to be quite strange and unnatural when looking at it externally. But if you reflect upon it deeply, its reasons with far reaching effects will become clear to you.
Survival of a religion in its original form and spirit depends largely upon preservation of its original teachings in their original language. Translation can never be equivalent to the original. The true spirit of the original and its comprehensive meaning cannot be rendered in a different language. If each one translates according to his own understanding, than no two such translations will be the same. We face this issue everyday for works done by humans. If that is the case, then how can we possibly render the words of Allah and the messengers with their full spirit and comprehensive meaning? And how can we say that this suffices for the original?
One of the most important reasons for the deviations of many religions in the world is that their scriptures are not preserved in their original languages and their followers are completely dependent upon various translations of these scriptures done in many languages. There is no conformity among these translations and they often undergo changes. Muslims are fortunate that the teachings of their messenger and the scripture upon which stands the foundation of their life - both of these are preserved in their original language and also preserved are the actual words of the messenger. Now if we do not appreciate this blessing and open up the door of setting the foundation of our deen on translations, then that would be a great stupidity on our part. The five daily prayers that we do - it is the greatest tool to keep us connected to the Qur'an and the guidance of the messenger. Once its language is substituted, it will become quite difficult to keep us connected with the original sources of the deen.
In order to preserve a religion, it is extremely important to preserve its institutions in their original forms and to make sure that people are not able to make changes in them according to their wishes. Most important elements of a religion are its institutions. Proper observation of these institutions and respect towards them establishes the remaining teachings of the religion. To the adherents of the religion, the matter that makes these institutions holy, respectful, and mandatory is the understanding that the Most Powerful in Whom they have iman is the One Who specified each element and each word of the religion. This understanding will cease when people will start incorporating their own opinions and wishes at the issue of what will be the forms and words of these institutions. And no sooner the base of this understanding collapses, then the chances for this deen to become deviated and the people to get free from the obedience of its commandments will become wide open.
The third important point is that, to have the same language for the adhan and salat for all people of all nations, races, and tongues is such a powerful connecting force that bonds all the Muslims of the entire world into a single ummah and a universal brotherhood. Wherever you go in the world, the moment you hear the call of the adhan you will feel that in this place there is someone or some people who belong to your community and now he is calling for prayer. You may go to London, Nigeria, or Indonesia for salat, but you will hear the same familiar call everywhere. You may not understand a single word of your Muslim companion, but he will not be unfamiliar to you in his salat, nor will you be unfamiliar to him in your salat. On the contrary, if everyone starts making salat in his mother tongue and in every place the adhan is being made in the local language, then this universal brotherhood will become divided into smaller fragments. There are more than three hundred languages in the Indo-Pak subcontinent. The number of languages that are prevalent only in this land - its Muslim community will be divided into that many pieces and one Muslim will not be able to understand the adhan when he comes out of his own area. Similar consequence will occur in other parts of the world. And during Hajj, the situation will probably become like the Minaret of Babylon. The numerous rival nations that the Christian world has become because of the nationalization of the church - this will signify the introduction of this same fate in the Muslim ummah. Do you not realize the blessing that what a powerful medium Islam has created for universal unity of the humanity that have been divided into innumerable pieces because of worship of nationalism, race, color, and tongue? It is because of this "official language" that Muslims can recognize Muslims everywhere and mingle with each other in such a manner as if from the beginning of creation a relationship has been established between their souls.
The need for understanding what is read in salat cannot be denied. But this need can be fulfilled without facing the greater damage I mentioned above. Only a few surahs are sufficient to make salat. Any other recitations in the salat besides the Qur'an are also a group of few sentences. In addition to memorizing them, one can also apprehend their meaning. Thus the need for what you termed as "spiritual enlightenment" can be easily fulfilled.