Language is taken very seriously by most people and is often valued as an integral part of an individual’s identity. In Canada, for instance, there are some francophone who are always seeking their rights and distinction in Canada. Such distinctions sometimes even impact political matters and decisions. It is understandable then that a person’s language is very dear to them and when it comes to prayer, they wish to speak to God in their own language. That is their right, and Islam does not take away that right from anyone.
The Promised Messiah(as) writes about the importance of this matter by stating, “When you offer your prayer, besides the verses of the Quran which are the Word of God, and besides the various prayers taught by the Holy Prophet(sa), which are the words of the Messenger, make all your other entreaties in your native tongue so that the humility and meekness that they are born of may touch your heart”.[i] Speaking to God in prayer in our own language is actually very much encouraged and brings about humility and passion in expressing our feelings to God Almighty.
However, this is not done at the expense of giving up the original language altogether. Fundamentally, this is necessary because loss of the original language would mean the loss of the whole religion. This is something that Islam lays a claim to with great pride. The Islamic religion has retained the original language in which Prophet Muhammad(sa) spoke and delivered his message from God. The revelations bestowed upon him are all retained in the original language and come to us in the Holy Quran. The Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama‘at recognizes that people have a very personal relationship with their own respective language. Hence, the Jama‘at has published more than 70 translations of the Quran but care has always been taken to place the translation next to the original Arabic. The basic goal is to ensure that the original words are not lost to history.
Such care was unfortunately not taken with the Bible, for instance, and it led to the loss of much of the original language in which it was first written. According to scholars, Jesus Christ(as), for instance, spoke in Aramaic—a language closely related to Hebrew—but none of his original words have been preserved. They were translated into Greek and the oldest documents containing his words are all written in Greek. This was then further translated into Syriac and Latin and then translated into English. Hence, parts of the Bible that we read today are a translation of the translation of the translation!
By keeping the main parts of the prayer in Arabic, Islam has ensured that the original wording is always retained and available to be translated into whatever newer languages that exist at a time. Language itself evolves and translations will keep on getting updated to conform to modern usage, but the original will always be there to ensure that the revised translation is accurate.
As far as the Salat is concerned, there is no doubt that it takes some effort to learn it in Arabic, which is a foreign language for many people, and may appear to be difficult. However, those who have made the effort always give testimony that Arabic is actually the easiest language to memorize! The fact that millions of people have memorized the Holy Quran in its entirety and many millions of others have memorized portions of it, is a testament to the ease with which this language can be memorized. It should be noted that among those millions are many for whom Arabic is not the mother tongue and they learned it later in life. The poetic, rhythmic, eloquent flow of the language is far superior to any other language, making it much easier to memorize. Once the Arabic portion is memorized, and its translation is also learned, it actually becomes very easy to offer the prayer in Arabic. After all, it is just a handful of sentences that are to repeated multiple times in a matter of a few minutes. It is an overstatement to say that this is too difficult or too much of a burden.
The most intimate and personal part of the Islamic daily prayer is prostration, where the worshipper says:
سُبْحَانَ رَبِّیَ الاعلى
Transliterated as, Subhaana rabbi-yal-aalaa, meaning, “Glory be to my Lord, the Most High”. The instruction is to repeat these words at least three times. This can be done in a matter of a few seconds and the worshipper can then speak to God in whichever language he or she prefers.
An additional benefit of retaining the original language is that it enhances the spiritual experience of a person. The Arabic language is mubeen—the most eloquent language in the world. Hence, a single word or phrase can have multiple meanings and connotations that can carry much guidance for the spiritual seeker. Indepth-exploration of these meanings only goes to deepen the understanding of spiritual and religious matters for the keen seeker, and makes his or her path all the more fruitful and satisfying in the long run.
Yet another benefit of retaining the language is that it maintains unity and cohesion in the worldwide Muslim community. It does not matter what culture a Muslim adheres to, or what background he or she has, and it does not even matter what his or her mother tongue is. All Muslims are united together with one religious book and one religious language.
[i]. Noah’s Ark, p. 112