The Qur’an begins the description of this blessed month with, ‘Ramadan is the month in which was revealed the Qur’an – a guidance for mankind, and clear proofs of the guidance, and the criterion (between right and wrong)’1. Ever since divine revelation was inspired to Muhammad (peace be upon him), people (Muslims as well as non-Muslims) have marvelled at the Qur’an’s inimitability, both in reference to its content and language. Great scholars such as Imam al-Shafi’i have stated that if no other chapter were to be revealed except al-‘Asr, it would be sufficient for mankind. This is due to the concise text and meaning which provides a wealth of information and direction although the chapter only consists of three verses. The Qur’an carries such conciseness throughout being a light of guidance2 and wisdom3, admonition4 and a clear message5 in the Arabic language6. In this article I would like to discuss two main points: the importance of the Qur’an as a source of guidance and its relationship with the Arabic language. As is evident to all Muslims, the Qur’an is Allah’s supreme word to mankind revealed in the Arabic language, and thus, both the Qur’an and the Arabic language have become synonymous with one another.
The Qur’an was revealed over a period of twenty three years to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and is the first source of Islam and the speech of God. It is referred to as the book, guide, glad tidings and criterion amongst others, although most titles tend to point to the same semantic meaning. It delivers guidance to mankind by providing them with a criterion between truth and falsehood and thereafter gives glad tidings to those who successfully adhere to it.
Inevitably, being a source of guidance, The Qur’an is a manual for our lives, encouraging and ordering the believers towards righteousness and warning the evil doers and disbelievers. Its commandments are full of divine wisdom and those who adhere to them will attain felicity. However, how can a person adhere to something that he or she does not understand?
As a result of a lack of understanding, many people neither study the Qur’an nor ponder over its verses. Many argue that a study of the Qur’an is time consuming and that such study is not viable due to other commitments such as work, study etc. However, throughout life we read many things in an attempt to gain a better degree of understanding such as newspapers, books and magazines. Throughout our schooling we study various languages and books on various disciplines seeking to learn not only their contents but to also enhance skills of reading, writing, speaking etc. Thus we must also equally dedicate time to study Arabic and the Qur’an which will not only save us in the hereafter but also enhance our intellectual abilities and life skills. Studying increases the individual in reading and comprehension ability, and seeking a deeper insight into specific verses enhances one’s analytical ability. Additionally, the Qur’an provides life skills which if adhered to, would create an exceptional society whereby citizens would be prime examples of good manners, etiquette, patience and humility, as well as other traits. For example, with regard to interaction between one another we are commanded ‘when you are greeted with a greeting (of peace), answer with an even better greeting, (or at least) with the like thereof.’7 Thereafter you should ‘abstain from lewd speech, from all wicked conduct, and from quarrelling’8. If the Muslims ‘hear vain talk, they turn away from it and say “To us our deeds, and to you yours; peace be to you – we seek not the ignorant.”’9. If anybody engages in moral and conceptual bankrupt speech about Islam, we are commanded ‘leave them to indulge in idle talk and play [with words] until they face that [Judgment] Day of theirs which they have been promised’10. When we do speak we ‘enjoin in virtue and forbid vice’11, ‘extol His (Allah) limitless glory and praise’12 and ‘invite (all) to the Way of thy Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching’13. Additionally, you should be humble and ‘be moderate in thy pace, and lower thy voice; for the harshest of sounds without doubt is the braying of the ass’14. This is just a snippet of the beautiful conduct encouraged in the Qur’an. However, due to the lack of knowledge of the Arabic language in the West, we are seemingly oblivious to the wisdoms found in it.
In addition, there tends to be a culture of ignorance particularly among South Asian communities where the emphasis is on the recitation of the Qur’an while neglecting its translation and meanings. Thus, there has been an air of ignorance among such communities, although surprisingly, such ignorance is either encouraged or overlooked by scholars respected by these communities. It would be true to say that many of these scholars do not know Arabic themselves and are ignorant in terms of Islamic laws and rules of conduct. Recently, in a discussion about the importance of Arabic language with a colleague (a teacher in the UK madrasah system), I enquired as to why children in madrasah’s were not required to learn the Arabic language as well as the Qur’an. I was informed that the majority of teachers (as well as parents) among the South Asian community believe that learning the entire language is not important, learning to read the Qur’an by deciphering the alphabet is sufficient to accrue blessing and fulfil the obligations of prayers. They have completely disregarded the importance of understanding the words they recite, and are content in blindly following the ‘Maulana’s’ in the community.
Such beliefs are unislamic and it is certainly time that we as Muslims procure adequate facilities to learn Arabic alongside the Qur’an for both ourselves and our children as they will be the flag bearers of Islam in the West tomorrow.
It is most certainly a blessing to be able to read the Qur’an in Arabic, but understanding it holds equal weight as both are considered by the vast majority of scholars as fard al-ayn (incumbent upon all individuals). Ibn Taymiyyah wrote, ‘Arabic language is from the religion and knowledge of it is an obligation. Understanding the Qur’an and the sunnah is an obligation, and they cannot be understood except by understanding the Arabic language. Whatever it takes to complete an obligation is in itself an obligation.’15 Allah states: ‘We have sent it down as an Arabic Quran, in order that you may learn wisdom.’16 How can we learn the divine wisdom if the wisdom revealed is not even understood? Additionally, Allah states: ‘And certainly We have set forth to men in this Quran similitudes of every sort that they may reflect. An Arabic Qur’an without any crookedness, that they may guard (against evil).’17 Allah specifically mentions that the Qur’an is an Arabic one, which we must use to guard ourselves, although this task is unfeasible for those who have no command over the language. It is evident from the above verses that the purpose of Qur’an was not only to be recited, but also to be understood.
In the time of the Prophet (peace be upon him), people submitted to the religion of Muhammad by merely overhearing a few verses (as opposed to now where people recite it repetitively although their hearts are empty). Famous is the story of Umar bin Khattab who heard the opening of chapter TaHa which brought him to tears and consequently led to his conversion. For over a millennium people have been memorising the Qur’an, and the best practice is that of the early generations [salaf] whereby the sahabah (companions of the prophet) would commit ten verses to memory, study their meanings and explanations, and then act upon them before memorising another ten. Memorising the divine scripture is a great act which Allah encourages ‘Saad. Consider this Qur’an, endowed with all that one ought to remember!’18 The noble companions of the prophet memorised the book of Allah in its entirety and fashioned their lives, actions and beliefs around the divine revelation. The fact that it was the main source from which they understood and acquired their deen was a major factor in making them not only some of the most distinctive individuals in history, but also the most honoured and pleased with by Allah.
It is incumbent upon us (may Allah have mercy upon us) to understand the Qur’an, its warnings, stories, laws and glad tidings so that we may be successful. If we believe it to be a manual, how do we expect to benefit from it? Knowledge of the Qur’an and its language is essential for protection against misguided innovated ideas and beliefs such as shirk, forbidden types of tawassul etc. which become rampant due to ignorance of the correct beliefs. Allah states, ‘And [on that Day] the Apostle will say “O my Sustainer! (some of) my people have come to regard this Qur’an as something (that ought to be) discarded!”’19 This will not only be the disbelievers, but also those individuals who pay no heed to it, ignoring its heightened importance and disregarding its significance as a communication from Allah the Most High. As was discussed in the previous paragraph, the sahabah’s relationship with the Qur’an was one of the fundamental reasons as to why Allah gave them status and honour, to the extent that people 1400 years later still read their stories and aspire to imitate their heroic actions.
We must also recognise that the Arabic language has a much larger part to play then we as a community in the West have previously assumed. Ibn Taymiyyah wrote ‘As for becoming accustomed to talking to one another in a language other than Arabic…undoubtedly this is makrooh (disliked)…Such was also the case in Khurasaan in the past (that they spoke Arabic), then they became lax with regard to the language and got used to speaking Farsee (Persian) until it became prevalent and Arabic was forgotten by most of them. Undoubtedly this is disliked. The best way is to become accustomed to speaking Arabic so that the young people will learn it in their homes and schools, so that the symbol of Islam and its people will prevail. This will make it easier for the people of Islam to understand the Qur‘aan and Sunnah, and the words of the salaf…Know that being used to using a language has a clear and strong effect on one’s thinking, behaviour and religious commitment. It also has an effect on making one resemble the early generations of this Ummah, the Companions and the Taabi’een. Being like them improves one’s thinking, religious commitment and behaviour.’20 Research undertaken by Coffman (in Algeria) reiterates this whereby he states ‘My research shows that the language of study is the most significant variable in determining a student’s attachment to Islamic or Islamist principles’21. During the occupation of Algeria by the French, officials noted that they would never be able to fully colonialise Algeria unless they were able to remove the Arabic language from Algerian society.
Learning from the mistakes of those before us, we come to realise that many follow scriptures recorded in dead languages. For example, the Christians first spoke Aramaic and some spoke Hebrew. Both languages died out (among Christians) and in their stead Greek was adopted as the language of Christianity. Later on, Latin (the language of the Romans) was adopted and now English has become the main language of Christendom. As a result of the loss of the first languages, Christianity and the Bible have found themselves in a dilemma. The bible has changed through so many languages that the semantics of many words were either corrupted and altered or lost. The original manuscripts of the bible no longer exist and with regards to the oldest copies of the Gospels, no two are identical. This led to the division of Christianity into many different sects where each sect claims to hold the ‘truth’. However, as Allah stated in the Qur’an ‘and from them are illiterate (people) who do not know the scriptures, but they rely upon false desires and they follow nothing but conjecture’23. From this verse we may deduce that the people were illiterate and could not read, and that they were also considered ‘illiterate’ due to their lack of knowledge about the scriptures. As a result, they had to speculate parts of their faith and in their attempt they resulted in following their desires (what they wanted to believe in, and what seemed correct to them) as their conjecture was baseless.
As is evident, the impact of the Qur’an and Arabic as its language is multifaceted; enhancing an individual’s behaviour and providing them a deeper understanding about the world around them, as well as benefiting Muslims as a community by improving their religious commitment and sense of Islamic culture. Fundamentally, studying both Arabic and the Qur’an is important for our success in this life and in the hereafter. What better language than the one with which Allah spoke to mankind, and what better speech is there than the speech of Allah?
15. Ibn Taymiyyah. Iqitidaa Siratul Mustaqeem. 1/470
20. Ibn Taymiyyah. Iqitidaa Siratul Mustaqeem.
21. James Coffman. Does the Arabic Language Encourage Radical Islam? http://www.meforum.org/article/276
22. The role of Arabic language in Muslim societies may be discussed in another article as it is beyond the scope of this one.
(Courtesy of Islam21c.com)