You will die not…
To most non-Arab Muslims of our times, Arabic language is like Sanskrit or Greek. It had its function once, but now it is a mere “classical language” dear for its past good services. But, has it any strong function now to evoke interest? Perhaps not, or maybe yes if you wish to work in the Gulf.
In other words, to most non-Arab Muslims, Arabic has no or little religious function. After all, the Qur’an has been translated into almost every language, and so have been several other important religious books. Then of course there is the Net. For anything you need to know about Islam, the answer is there on the Net. What’s the special reason for spending your time on Arabic?
Fifty years ago in India, almost every townsman knew enough Arabic to be able to follow the Qur’an and the ahadith that were on the tongue – and they were quite a few in number: one almost on every topic. The language was part of Muslim culture then. You did not have to take classes to learn that much Arabic. But today, not to speak of the ordinary townsmen, not even the so-called committed Muslims know anything of Arabic. They too hold the same opinions and sentiments about Arabic as the common people do. But the tragedy does not end there. Today even those who are engaged in Da`wah works, or some sort of group activities, or strive for a religious cause, do not believe that Arabic has any such strong religious function as to deserve a few years of learning hours. Every group has its own specific literature, and is very pleased with what it yields them. They study with great zeal the writings, speeches and ideologies of their mentors in preference to Allah’s and His Messenger’s words in Arabic.
The result is a superficial understanding of the religion of Islam, resulting in a personality that is unsure of everything it does or believes in. Certainty lacking, it takes ten minutes to destroy his or her self-confidence; hence their avoidance of everyone who could do it. Indeed, the true spirit of Islam is missing, and there is a vacuum in their hearts.
Even when they decide to read core religious literature, starting with the Qur’an, they have to do it through translations. But, unable to get at the true meaning (not to speak of the truer core meaning), they are struck by ennui and soon give up. The reason is obvious.
Translations are inadequate, difficult, and do not create the impression on the mind that the original does. Commentaries are all the more high and dry. If one of the commentaries is not high and dry, it is because it offers a mere materialistic understanding (they call it down to earth explanation, hardly realizing the error in the statement). There being hardly anything that will touch the soul, despite the study, the vacuum and the diffidence remain.
To explain, if somehow interest is created by a commentary, through the discussion of contemporary issues, it does not, even in that event, prove to be a very successful way of studying the Qur’an. At best, the apparent meaning is understood, but the spirit behind is missed. That is because many concepts and ideas expressed in the Qur’an are closely tied up with the Arabic language. Further, these ideas are so subtle that their explanations fall flat and lose their import in another language. The commentaries of Ibn Jarir or Ibn Kathir, for example, which are considered exemplary works, fail to have their usual impact on the reader in their translated versions. And what about the Qur’anic text? They remain as obscure despite the commentary.
There is another difficulty with the commentaries. For anyone to be able to comment on the Qur’an, he has to have a thorough knowledge of many physical and metaphysical sciences and numerous disciplines that have been developed by the humans later to the Qur’anic phenomenon. The Qur’an deals with so many topics, one and at the same time, of this world and the next, of the physical world and the spiritual, of the mind and the heart, that it is impossible for any single person to attain full meaning of its statements. This is one of the reasons why there has not been – even in Arabic language – a single commentary that is satisfactory in every respect. There will never be.
Further, it is agreed by the scholars of Islam that there are two aspects to the meaning of the Qur’an: the external and the internal. The external or the obvious meaning is that which has come down from the authorities: the Hadith, the opinions of the Companions (Sahaaba), their Next-generation Followers (Taabe`iyyun) and the meaning unanimously accepted by the scholars of Islam throughout the ages. The internal, hidden or the esoteric meaning of the Qur’an comes from a correct understanding with the help of the above, to which should be added deep reflections on the original words, and a sustained exercise of the mind and soul coupled with righteous living. This can only happen when one can read the Qur’an in its own language. The Qur’anic words, so to say, be dancing before the mind, even as one goes about attending to mundane affairs. Then it is that a new meaning comes in a flash. And it is dependable. For, when one checks back on the authorities, he feels hugely satisfied that one of them said the same thing centuries ago. We should understand that there is meaning to the Prophetic insistence that Qur’anic reading should never cease. This is what makes the words dance before the mind. But if one does not know Arabic?!
There are many linguistic difficulties that make the Qur’an untranslatable. In Arabic one expresses sense rather than meaning. A beautiful Arabic sentence that can enrapture the mind and touch the soul is insipid in another language. Even words are difficult to translate with full implications of the original. For example, the word `Afw in Arabic is for effacement, obliteration, elimination, forgiveness, amnesty, boon, kindness, favor, surplus, and others. An Arabic knowing reader will know which one to choose when he comes across this word in the Qur’an at a particular point, and which nuance to pick up as secondary or tertiary meanings. The basic meaning, along with the right nuance, gives the word the beauty the Qur’an intended and the richness of meanings it allows. In another language, there is no room for such choices. Besides, there are hundreds of words in Qur’anic terminology that have no suitable equivalent in other languages. Each of such words is a concept, needing pages and pages of explanation.
In addition to the problem of words that yield several meanings, the complex structure of the Qur’anic verses also admit of many interpretations. This “layer upon layer of meaning” as described by Muhammad Asad, (who, although formerly an Austrian Jew, was highly proficient in Arabic language, having learnt it first from the Bedouins) is completely missed when read in a translation.
Finally, the ellipticism (eejaaz), rhetoric, alliteration, resonance and rhythm: these are completely missed out in a translation or commentary.
In fact, the Qur’an was never meant to be read in other than Arabic. Allah said (12: 2): “Verily, We have sent it down an Arabic recitation, that haply you will ponder.” Another Qur’anic verse says (41: 3), “A Book whose verses have been (clearly) explained: a recitation in Arabic for a people who know.” A third says (43: 3), “We have made it an Arabic Qur’an in order that you might ponder.” There are several other verses of this meaning to emphasize that the Qur’an has been deliberately sent in a language of specific qualities that help preserve the meaning intended and unzipped when tried.
Finally, the Qur’an is inimitable. The inimitable cannot remain inimitable if it can be translated. Any translation, however accurately done, and regardless of how close to the original, cannot reproduce the sense and beauty of the original nor state a fraction of the meanings packed in every sentence.
It follows that when someone reads a translation or its commentary, he is not reading the Qur’an per se. The best effects are lost. The difference is so great that if someone who read translations all his life, were to learn Arabic and then read the Qur’an again, he will feel he had never read the Qur’an earlier. Such is the power of the Qur’an in its original: “That is how We have revealed to you (O Muhammad), a Qur’an in Arabic.”
In fact, many scholars of old would not allow translation of the Qur’an. This is also Ibn Taymiyyah’s position. The first translators of the Qur’an were Jews and Christians who did it to help them combat Islamic influence. Muslims did not need translations and, for more than a thousand years, considered it a sin to attempt a translation of the Qur’an into another language. They were aware that the Qur’an could not be translated into another language without serious losses, if not disfigurement. Moreover, it was unthinkable to them that a Muslim did not know Arabic.
That the Qur’an has been designed as an Arabic language discourse, and that it clearly implies that it should be read in its language for full impact, has been acknowledged by Arabic knowing non-Muslim scholars also. P.K.Hitti wrote in A Short History of the Arabs: “Hardly any language seems capable of exercising over the minds of its users such irresistible influence as Arabic … the triumph of Islam was to a certain extent the triumph of a language, more particularly of a book.”
How ironic that Muslims of today should so completely ignore this triumphant language?! But perhaps we know why. The Devil does not wish to lose his place in between them and the “irresistible influence.”
In what words should we mourn the loss of interest in Arabic language not merely by the common non-Arab Muslims but even the religious elite? The neglect speaks of a horrendous decision. The religion of Islam, as inherited in the vernacular – if correctly – cannot be expected to be powerful enough to hold the populace within its fold, and inspire a few to greater heights. A good illustration is the phenomenon quietly developing in present-day India. You go out of a town 50 km in any direction, what do you discover? The town might boast of two full rows of devotees in every of its mosques, but the village mosque is locked. It hasn’t been aired for years. If active, there are hardly two or three people who attend the Prayers, out of a population of several hundreds. There are more horrendous things to discover: pictures of deities hanging by the walls in Muslim homes. In one case, travelers report, they found a stone idol planted in front of the house of the caretaker (mutawalli) of the mosque. These are not isolated cases. Journey out of a town in any direction, whether in the South or the North of India, to discover that the same situation prevails. Of course there are a few exceptions. But exceptions there are on the other side also. There are villages where hundred percent Muslims have changed their religion. This is happening around Aligarh, in Haryana and the eastern belt adjoining Orissa, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. Without the fear of exaggeration one can say that tens of thousands of Muslims have converted to other religions. How does it happen? How can a Muslim ever abandon One God in favor of several? The answer is, ignorance makes everything possible.
One may ask, if we assume the same situation of ignorance prevailing in the towns, what will be the outcome in a few generations? The answer is, the same results will be obtained. Indeed, is it not happening already? Are temples being visited by burqah-clad Muslims or not? Is Tawaaf being performed around graves or not? Let us assume the circumambulators of the graves were taught Arabic? Will the majority of them give up the tawaf or not? A few die-hards will remain. But the majority? Will they fall prostrate before the graves if they knew Arabic?
So, here is the true revival key. Let us popularize Arabic language. Let every mosque become a center for conducting Arabic language courses. Let every child who grows up into manhood be made able to follow the Qur’anic recitation in the Prayers. Let a new, Arabic knowing generation come next. Let the Qur’an do the rest (17: 10): “Surely, this Qur’an guides to what is most right.” Vow to yourself that you will die not but having learnt enough Arabic to be able to read your Lord’s words in the language He addressed you.