Why is Salah Not Allowed Except In Arabic?

Could you explain why Muslims pray only in the Arabic language?

 Answer:

(Written in 2009, posted with slight modifications)

This is a frequently asked question by people – Muslims and non-Muslims alike. We know that Muslims all over the World rely on the Arabic language to perform their prayer (Salah). It is required from them that they recite certain portions from the Qur’an that affirms the greatness of Allah and the submissiveness of the people to Him. This is practiced equally by both the native Arabic speaking worshippers as well as non-native speakers who, in most cases, may not understand what they recite in their prayers (Salah). This was the situation during the time of the Prophet and continues to be the case today.

In answering this question, I will summarise (with additional notes) the answer given by the late erudite Syrian scholar Shaykh Mustafa Zarqa (in Fatawa Mustafa Zarqa, p.106-109) to a similar question and hope that this will give more credence and authority to the explanation.

Shaykh Mustafa Zarqa states that it would seem natural and logical (practical) that a believer address his prayers (Salah) and supplications from the deep feelings of his conscious- and the mother tongue is the most effective way to achieve that objective of successfully expressing what one feels and desires. He explains that looking at it from this perspective may seem to be prudent, in terms of expressing adab (manners) with Allah in view of the fact that people are able to communicate more appropriately and show better etiquette in their mother tongue that they grew up with. However, he asserts, the matter is deeper and more complex than simply looking at the issue from this perspective due to the following reasons:

  1. There are certain theological and psychological implications to consider. Allah states:

ٱلنَّبِيُّ أَوْلَىٰ بِٱلْمُؤْمِنِينَ مِنْ أَنْفُسِهِمْ وَأَزْوَاجُهُ أُمَّهَاتُهُمْ

‘’The Prophet is closer to the believers than their ownselves, and his wives are their (believers’) mothers.’’ (33:6)

This explicit text of the Qur’an considers the wives of the Prophet as the mothers of the believers; and we know that all of the wives of the Prophet spoke the Arabic language. Therefore, from this angle the Arabic language is regarded as the mother tongue of all Muslims. Hence, there should be no room for any objection in performing the prayers (Salah) except in the Arabic tongue since this is the (spiritual) mother language (of all believers).

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  1. In Islamic theology (aqida), the Qur’an is considered the kalam (speech) of Allah, the Most High. And its recitation is accepted or valid as a form of drawing closer to Allah. Also, from the spiritual angle, the believer journeys to Allah (سياحة إلى الله) through reciting His Holy speech, and the original text of this speech, which was revealed to the Prophet, is in Arabic. As a consequence, no matter how accurate the translation is, it is an estimation of the translator (to explain the spirit of the original language) and cannot possibly attain the same objective of journeying to Allah (سياحة إلى الله) which is achieved through the Arabic language. It is not humanly possible to render the same precise maqsad (meaning, spirit) conveyed in the Arabic language in any other foreign tongue.

 

A simple example: (112:1)

{ قُلْ هُوَ ٱللَّهُ أَحَدٌ }

Translator(s)  Translation(s)  Comments                           
Sahih International Say, ‘He is Allah , [who is] One,’ Although the translations try to convey the original meaning of the Arabic, they are still not precise. The word ‘ahadun’ in Arabic signifies or denotes the number one. The word ‘wahidun’ also means one, but the difference between them is that after ‘wahidun’ (one) you have ithnanun (two), but after ‘ahadun’ (One) there is no two in the Arabic language. Thus, Allahu Ahadun means that Allah is that Being Who is One and Alone in the sense that when we think of Him, the very idea that there is any other being or thing is absent from our minds. He is One and Alone in every sense. He is neither the starting link of any chain, nor its last link. Nothing is like Him, nor is He like anything else
Pickthall Say: ‘He is Allah, the One!’
Yusuf Ali Say: ‘He is Allah, the One and Only;’
Shakir Say: ‘He, Allah, is One.’
Muhammad Sarwar (Muhammad), say, ‘He is the only God.’
Mohsin Khan Say (O Muhammad (Peace be upon him)): ‘He is Allah, (the) One.’
Arberry Say: ‘He is God, One,’

 

  1. A distinction needs to be made between supplication (dua) and prayer (Salah). Both are generally called salah in Arabic. However, the former is the original and more general meaning of salah (supplication) and not the formal and specific form to worship Allah. It is also known as the intimate pleading (munajat) to Allah. Therefore, there is no objection to a person who directs his/her prayers (duas/supplications) in any language he/she chooses in any form or method. This is because supplication is a specific and personal connection through individual relationship between the creation and the Creator.

As for the latter, prayer (Salah) in the specific and formal meaning: the worship in the form of the prescribed Islamic method – it is a specific prayer which has a universal quality or description that must be observed. The prescribed prayer (Salah) of the Muslim should be, in its original ruling, performed in the universal description with others (in a jama’ah); although performing Salah individually is valid, the desired option, which carries more virtue, is to perform it behind the Imamship (leadership) of an Imam in congregation. This ruling is applicable to both men and women.

Table of comparison between Salah and Dua:

Salah Dua
Salah is formal Dua is not formal
Salah is performed at fixed time Dua may be performed at any time
Salah requires ablution Dua does not require ablution
Salah should be performed in congregation Dua is performed individually
Salah must be performed in Arabic Dua can be performed in any language
In Salah specific passages must be performed In supplication, a person can ask or use any words

 

  1. If Islam was a national or a geographical or a tribal or an ethnic religion, which is connected to a specific race, it would have been unavoidable not to employ the language of that nation, race or tribe in Salah (prayer). However, in the case of Islam, which is a universal religion, the issue is completely opposite to that given that the believers speak in the tongue of hundreds of local and regional languages and no one except he who is from the same region or race will understand another nation’s language. Therefore, as a point of unification, and as our life is ever growing and widening towards the universal way, prayers performed in one language is more conducive to ease and tranquillity.
  2. There is no religion in the world other than Islam that can claim their text has not been changed or altered in some way or another. Muslims are the only people who still preserve the original Book, which was revealed hundreds of years ago to the Prophet without even a single dot being erased, changed, or manipulated. This is a great blessing for the Muslims to know, learn and understand.
  3. In addition to what has preceded it must be observed that the Qur’an (although it is not poetry) includes all the qualities, language, prose and taste of a poem. The stoppage signs, the expressive language and the eloquence of the Qur’an are such that a single addition or omission of a letter will reveal discrepancies and contradictions. Similarly, in a poem, if there were any additions or omissions made to it, the rhythm would be lost.
  4. A translation may not engender the same religious awe and reverence as the original text of the Qur’an revealed from Allah to His Prophet; This is because the translation is only a estimation and production of a common person and it is not a construction coming from a source that is protected from mistakes and error, as is the case with the original Arabic Qur’an, which was protected by Allah, the Most High.

A simple example: (12:23)

وَرَاوَدَتْهُ ٱلَّتِي هُوَ فِي بَيْتِهَا عَن نَّفْسِهِ وَغَلَّقَتِ ٱلأَبْوَابَ وَقَالَتْ هَيْتَ لَكَ

In this verse, Allah Almighty describes how the wife of the chief of Egypt tried to seduce Yusuf (pbuh). We do not appreciate the intensity of her work or the great wrong she is carrying out against Prophet Yusuf in the translation of the verse. However, a simple look at the Arabic gives us a more profound insight of what happened.

Translation
And she, in whose house he was, seduced him towards herself, and closed the doors, and said, “come on!”
Comments
عَن نَّفْسِهِ

 

This part (seduce him towards herself) uses ‘the’ (al) – it describes the injustice and the wrong of the chief’s wife against Yusuf (pbuh). When ‘the’ (al) is placed before a relative pronoun (he, she, we, etc -) it conveys six different meanings: 1) singling out, 2) definition, 3) intensification, 4) informing of fault, 5) attention, 6) glorification. In this verse it is used to emphasise the great wrong and injustices done to Prophet Yusuf. This is done by placing the ‘an’ before ‘nafsishi’. Hence in the translation this meaning is lost.

 

وَغَلَّقَتِ

 

This part (and she closed) the doors. Allah uses this verb to mean ‘closed’. But there is another word which is in the same root to mean closed and that is ‘aghlaqa’ (اغلق) – to ‘close’. But why did Allah use the former? The pattern of ‘gallaqa’ is ‘faa’ala’ which denotes intensity and repetition. Implying that the wife of the chief worked tirelessly, intensely and vigorously to close the doors. There are some reports that state that there were several doors in the room – again implying that she run to shut, close and bolted the doors. Thus, in the English language this eloquent and precise meaning is lost.

 

  1. There are some people (writers/academics) who rely on an opinion expressed by some of the elite scholars of Islam such as Imam Abu Hanifa, who allowed the recitation of the Qur’an to be done in translation during Salah. However, these scholars mentioned one aspect and failed to discern the other. Imam Abu Hanifah, although holding this view at the beginning of his scholarship, later retracted it and agreed with the opinion of the majority of the scholars. This is mentioned in the books of the Hanafi school of thought such as al-Hidaya by Imam Margiyani, al-Dar al-Mukhtar by Imam Hasfaki, al-Hashiyat Rad al-Muhtar by Imam Ibn Abidin and other texts. (There is a view that Imam Abu Hanifah did not retract but scholars later reconciled the various views in the hanafi school).  

Shaykh Mustafa Zarqa then states that in reality there are some exceptional situations where the translation of the Qur’an may be used in Salah, such as when a non-Muslim embraces Islam and does not know the Arabic language. This new Muslim has to perform the Salah from the time he/she embraces Islam. This of course includes the obligatory portion of the Qur’an that a person must recite in order for the Salah to be complete. Therefore, since this person is unable, due to necessity he/she is allowed to read the translation of the Qur’an in Salah until he/she learns the sufficient sections of the Qur’an to perform the Salah.

This is based on the report from the companion, Salman al-Farsi, which was approved by the Prophet that the people of Persia wrote to Salman al-Farisi to send them sura al-Fatiha written in Persian. He did so and the Persians used to recite it in prayer until their tongues became used to it. (This is reported in Kitab Taj al-Shari’at, and the Chapter on Salah in Nihayat Hashiyat al-Hidaya).

It should be noted that all the scholars of the other schools are against the use of translations in prayer, whether one is able to recite the original Arabic or not. They state that a new Muslim should do some basic tasbih, such al-hamdulillah or subhan Allah, in the prayer or remain silent.

In conclusion:

A person, whether he/she is a new Muslim or does not know Arabic, should exert all efforts and endeavour to learn the required portion of the Qur’an which is sufficient to fulfil the obligation of the Salah.

Otherwise, a person has the following options: a) he/she may read the translation in Salah, b) recite praises such as al-hamdulillah, subhan Allah, etc, c) or remain silent. To overcome any difficulty for the new Muslim or a person who does not know the Arabic language or has not learnt any portion of the Qur’an by heart and is not able to pronounce it, he/she is encouraged to attend the mosque for the obligatory prayers and follow the Imam. The Imams recitations will be his/her recitation. At the same time, he/she should try to learn the Qur’an as best as his/her ability affords them. In case of the Muslim who is not able to recite from the Qur’an due to the reasons mentioned above, he/she is encouraged (take the view of the majority) to simply recite the praises of al-hamdulillah or subhan Allah, and that would suffice.

And Allah knows best.

 

 

 

8 / View Comments

8 responses to “Why is Salah Not Allowed Except In Arabic?”

  1. Abu Muhammad says:

    Thanks for your effort in trying to argue your point about praying in Arabic, but actually the arguments presented are contradictory and self defeating, I’ll explain why.

    To begin with, the point about everyone feels linguistically most intimate / effective in their mother tongue is great and then to use such a ridiculous argument as the wives of the prophets are our mothers so our mother tongue is Arabic…according to this logic, all of us must be able to intimately communicate in Arabic by default !!? Your argument would imply that a non Arab becomes a native Arabic speaker the moment he professes faith in Islam!

    Then the rest of the argument goes on about how the Arabic Qur’an cannot be accurately ever translated into English or another language, which is fine and totally understandable.

    However, do you not see the clear contradiction in your other arguments which revolve around the importance “meaning and understanding” the Arabic Quran, yet you argue that non-Arabs should just recite the Quran in Arabic in Salah while not understanding any of the meaning of what they are reciting!!?

    If someone can learn the Arabic language then yes they can have a deeper connection and understanding of the Quran. However, for the 1.4 billion non Arab Muslims – you are asking them to utter some words in prayer that they do not understand or know what they are saying…if it makes sense or not.

    In Surah Nisa we find the verse “O you who have believed, do not come to prayer and you are drunk, until you know what you are saying”.

    So uttering words not knowing what you are saying is akin to drunken people who don’t know what they are saying and they were commanded to stay away from Salaah.

    So what would you rather have, people reciting the Quran in their real mother tongue when they stand up in prayer and understand and know what they are saying…or be like the drunk who don’t know what they are saying!?

    • Victor says:

      Assalamu Alaikum, Great Point Out Brother, the same analysis came across my head while reading this and felt this contradiction in a certain way as you mention it. For some reason I didn’t find it a connection or relevant the Quranic verse used to support the argument, 33:6, its a verse taken out of context. Understanding the importance and beauty of the Arabic, I didn’t feel this article, with all due respect, satisfying as person who studies Arabic as a 3rd Language, though its a great article as it does bring other points and examples to show various of translations.

    • Hafsa says:

      I agree with Abu Muhammad and Victor. This article, which focuses on the letter rather than the the spirit of Islam, looses sight of the beauty of the process of one reverting to Islam as a journey of personal striving with ease, grace and joy. The ideological rigidity of this article is concerning and not representative of the merciful and compassionate nature of the Deen.

    • Amatullah says:

      Which language do you do your salah in? And the Imams of the masajid in your area?

  2. Salam all, I want to thank you for the feedback on this blogpost. May Allah reward you all for taking time out to read it.

    The opinion in the article expresses the views of the majority scholars in Islam.

    Some of the secondary reasoning provided by Sh Mustafa Zarqa we may not agree with but as stated this is the view the scholars opined on this matter.

    Hafsa, I am not sure how the view expressed in the article is rigid. It does clarify that a person who has not learnt ‘sufficient’ amount of the Qur’an there are other options (points 9/10). I must emphasise again that I am talking about the surahs in the Qur’an. The view I adopt is that in salah (while reciting) one must do so from the Qur’an if the person is able to. If he/she is not able then one may follow the other options outlined and their salah will be perfectly valid.

    If you wish to adopt another view which has the backing of scholars and evidence in the texts by all means do that. Fiqh is flexible enough. But we must do that with knowledge.

    Thank you

  3. Imam says:

    Salam,
    I appreciate your other contributions, but this one is quite off. Arabic is not the language of Islam or the Ummah. It is the language of our sacred texts and yes it is the language of our scholars.
    The claim that the majority of scholars hold that the whole Salah must be in Arabic is absolutely false. It seems to me you are confusing the majority ruling about the Quran recited in salah, not the rest of the Salah’s supplications and remembrances. A simple research of fatwa will show you that the rest of the salah is acceptable (while disliked by some) by translation and the majority allow you to supplicate from your heart in non-Arabic.
    http://fatwa.islamweb.net/fatwa/index.php?page=showfatwa&Option=FatwaId&Id=35811

  4. Salam all, again I appreciate all the contributions on this post.

    I thought that the people who are commenting will understand and know the differences among the scholars. Maybe my subsequent comments were not sufficiently clear when I stated that I am referring to the recitation of the Qur’an in salah in regards to the view of the majority of scholars.

    God bless.

    • Amatullah says:

      Your article puts your points in clear perspective and it is quite understandable Shaykh, with all the supporting proofs mentioned. JazakhAllah khayraan! I don’t know why but as much as the difference in opinions exist to make it easy for Ummah, the more conflicts are made out of them! People sometimes read to reply, not to understand. May Allah guide us.

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