I am in Cairo these days and have had the opportunity to talk to many different people about Islam. I would like to ask something that has been bothering me for some time. In a casual discussion, someone asked me if I could understand Arabic. I said no. He asked me how was I able to perform salah or read the Qur’an. I replied that I know the meaning of the salah but the Qur’an I recite without understanding, and read the translation to understand. Afterwards, I had a discussion with someone, and he said that the reverence given to Arabic was purely political. Agreed that it is the chosen language of Allah but why do we have the belief that reciting the Qur’an or offering the salah in Arabic (without understanding) is better than doing the same in a language that one can understand? For example, why not offer the salah in Urdu or in English. That will also allow us to concentrate better. He said that religious people will disregard the idea of offering the salah in any other language without even giving it a second thought.
Frankly, I had no answers to his questions and the logic made sense as well, so please help me in this regard. Can I or can I not offer the salah in Urdu? Otherwise it seems that knowing Arabic becomes a sort of a pre-requisite to become a Muslim.
The formal prayer that we say has been taught to us by the Prophet (sws) in a manner that it has come down to us in almost exactly the same way as he taught. This claim is true because of the methodology that was undertaken for communicating it. The prayer the Prophet (sws) taught to the ummah comprises a few formal actions/postures and a few formal utterances. Some of these actions/postures are binding, while others are not binding. Likewise is the case with the utterances.
Whereas doing rafa‘ yadayn (raising the two hands on each change in posture) and keeping the two hands on the abdomen, with one on the top of the other, for example, are both voluntary acts in prayers, most of the rest of the postures in the formal prayers are binding to be followed. That’s why we find that Muslims disagree in doing or not doing rafa‘ yadayn and keeping hands on the abdomen, but they don’t disagree in most other matters. Likewise, in the utterances (azkar) of prayers, reciting Surah Fatihah, a portion of the Qur’an after that, saying sami‘ allahu liman hamidahu, rabbana lakal hamd, allahu akbar, and assalamu ‘alaykum Wa Rahmatullah are all binding. In the rest of the prayers, the Prophet (sws) didn’t specify any one thing in particular. He himself is reported to have uttered/recited different expressions on different occasions. In fact, in most of these cases he let people know what he himself used to be reciting when asked by people. In all these instances (i.e. ruku‘, sujud, tashahhud), one can say what the Prophet (sws) said on one occasion or another or what one thinks is good and similar to what the prophet said. In all such cases, one might also say in prayers things in one’s own language. However, in cases where the Prophet (sws) is reported to have always said the same thing all throughout his life, we are not allowed to say anything other than what he recited.
When you look at the formal prayer from this point of view, it would present itself as a blend of rituals which require some Arabic expressions to be always uttered and rituals in which it has been left to the individual to say what he himself wants to, given his inclination, need, and understanding etc. The concern of those who say that one should speak to God in one’s own language is adequately addressed in this scheme of the prayers.
The entire prayer, including the Qur’anic portions, haven’t been allowed to be recited in one’s own language, because translations are a human effort which may or may not be accurate. Even if a translation is very good, it still cannot take the position of the original Qur’anic text, which is the very word of God. The problems created by the translations in the Biblical text are for us to see as to why it cannot be left to the translations to replace the Qur’an in the formal prayers and even otherwise.
Indeed when we recite the Qur’an, we should read the translation as well. There is no point in reading the Arabic text of the Qur’an if one is not understanding it. The Qur’an has come to guide mankind; and if it is not understood while being read, it is not serving the purpose for which it was revealed. I therefore agree with those people who say that one should understand the meanings of the Qur’an when one is reading it.