Esperanto is an international auxiliary language devised in 1887 to help break down the language barriers between different ethnic groups. It was to help communication while allowing retention of different languages and cultures. And a language to unite humanity and bring world peace. However, its proponents were persecuted by the Communists and Fascists and it remained a small movement. In this post we look at an international religious language.
When I was investigating the Islamic faith, I realized that to follow Muhammad and the Quran (Koran), you need to learn how to recite classical Arabic. Classical Arabic is a sacred language for Muslims because it was the language of the 7th century AD used by Muhammad and the language of the Quran. It’s no longer spoken in everyday language (except for religious purposes), being equivalent to Shakespearean English in the English speaking world.
The Quran is Islam’s holiest book; which Muslims believe are the commandments of Allah (God). Muslims believe that the Quran is divine (being Allah’s final message) and must be recited and studied in classical Arabic. A translation into another language (such as English) is viewed as being not divine because a human being did the translation – so it’s viewed as being only a human interpretation. Therefore, one needs to learn classical Arabic in order to properly understand the Quran.
This belief is based on a particular interpretation of this verse from the Quran: “We have revealed/made it (the Quran) an Arabic Quran, that you may understand” (12:2; 43:3). Of course, this is a translation into English, not the original version in classical Arabic! So Muslims would say that it’s not from the “real” Quran because it’s the wrong language! See my exegesis (interpretation) of this verse in the Appendix which gives a different interpretation because it includes the context given in the Quran.
As Islam forbids translation of the Quran from classical Arabic into another language, in all mosques around the world the recitation of the Quran is done in classical Arabic. In this way, classical Arabic is the world-wide liturgical language of Islam.
The mandatory prayers
Muslims are required to pray five times a day facing Mecca. They believe that all these prayers are to be recited in the classical Arabic language because the prayers include extracts from the Quran. Non-Arabic speakers often learn them by heart and recite them from memory. That’s why the Call to prayer announced by loudspeakers five times daily from mosques is only given in classical Arabic; even in non-Arabic communities. Has anyone ever heard this announcement made in any other language?
A sacred language
So to become a Muslim, you have to adopt the classical Arabic language for these most important religious activities. No other language is accepted except classical Arabic. In this way, Islam is a language-exclusive religion. It is monolingual.
Muslims have many native languages, but one religious language. Non-Arab Muslims have to accept this bias as a natural part of life. As language is a part of culture, the daily use of classical Arabic language would affect one’s culture. In this way, it is understandable that Muslims would adopt aspects of Arabic culture into their local culture as well. For example, some non-Arabic Muslims adopt Arabic names and give their children Arabic names. They also often adopt Arabic modes of dress. So Islam is closely associated with Arabic language and Arabic culture.
On the other hand, Christianity is definitely multilingual. The Bible has been translated into all major languages and is being translated into minor languages as well. When the church began on the day of Pentecost (50 days after Christ’s death), there was a miracle whereby the apostles were able to speak in the native languages of people from at least 15 different language groups (Acts 2:5-15). This was called the gift of tongues (the ability to speak a foreign language without learning it). So from the beginning, the message about Jesus Christ was given in the native languages of the hearers, and not in only one “sacred” language (such as Latin or Koine Greek or Aramaic, John 19:20).
If Christianity was monolingual, then all public usage of the Bible would have to be in a single language like Koine Greek, or Latin or King James English.
Christianity is also multicultural and multinational. Peter had to change his attitude towards Gentiles after being shown that the barrier between Jew and Gentile had been removed because God doesn’t favor people because of their nationality (Acts 10:28, 34).
There is another example in the Bible of God using a multilingual approach rather than a monolingual one. After the Jews returned to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon, in about 444 BC, Ezra read the Pentateuch (Genesis to Deuteronomy in the Old Testament) to them. But the people no longer understood the Hebrew language as their native language was now Aramaic. So the Levites “instructed the people in the Law while the people were standing there. They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear (translating it) and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read” (Neh. 8:7-8NIV). Afterwards the people were pleased “because they now understood the words that had been made known to them” (Neh. 8:12). It seems as though the Levites were translating the Scripture from Hebrew into Aramaic on this occasion. Many Hebrew words needed to be explained as it was no longer their native language.
Evidence of the usage of Aramaic in this era is given in the book of Ezra. The only portion of the Old Testament that wasn’t written in Hebrew is Ezra 4:8 – 6:18; 7:12-26, which was written in Aramaic. These passages refer to correspondence to and from the king of the Persian Empire written between 534 BC and 458 BC.
Muslims claim to worship the same God as the Jews and the Christians. But we have seen from these examples that the God of the Jews didn’t ask the Jews to treat Hebrew as a sacred language and the God of the Christians didn’t ask the Christians to treat Koine Greek (or Aramaic or Latin) as a sacred language. Yet Allah asked the Muslims to treat classical Arabic as a sacred language. Clearly Allah is inconsistent with the God of the Jews and the Christians. Is seems like Allah is a different god.
To follow Muhammad, Allah and the Quran, you need to learn to recite classical Arabic because classic Arabic is the international liturgical language of Islam. Fortunately, you can follow Jesus Christ in your native language.
Appendix: My exegesis of Quran 12:2; 43:3
This verse says, “We have revealed it (the Quran) an Arabic Quran, that you may understand” or “We have made it (the Quran) an Arabic Quran so that you may apply reason”.
The steps involved in understanding an ancient passage like this are as follows:
– What was the meaning when it was written? This is the original meaning.
– What were the original principles behind this meaning?
– What has changed since then?
– What are the universal principles for us today? Here we update the principles.
– What is the meaning for us today? How should we apply these universal principles? Here we update the applications or practices of the principles.
The Quran was written in 7th century AD Arabic language (Classical Arabic) so that the 7th century AD Arabic people could understand it. This is different to Islam whose original meaning seems to be; “the Quran was written in Classical Arabic because that’s the language that Allah used”.
The Quran must be understandable. This is different to Islam whose original principle seems to be; “the Quran must be in Classical Arabic because that’s the language that Allah used”. Islam seems to ignore the context, which is given as “that you may understand”.
What has changed since then?
It is claimed that the Quran was written at least 1,300 years ago. Since this time Islam has spread to other nations. This means that Muslims no longer speak the same language and no longer speak classical Arabic in everyday life. And for many Muslims, Arabic isn’t their native language.
For the Quran to be understandable by all Muslims, it needs to be available in their native language. This is different to Islam whose modern principle remains; “the Quran must be in Classical Arabic because that’s the language that Allah used”. As mentioned above, this seems to ignore the context, which is given as “that you may understand”.
Translate the Quran into native languages so it can be readily understood by those who read and recite it. This application of the verse is different to Islam because I took the context into account, which is given as “that you may understand”. However, I am in the minority!
Written, January 2017
When you are woken before sunrise by the “Call to prayer” blaring from the local mosque, you are in an Islamic country. As I’m spending five weeks in Morocco, I’ve decided to investigate some aspects of the Muslim faith. In order to minimize bias, the following content has been mainly drawn from Islamic websites.
“Islam” is the name of a religion founded by Muhammad, which worships one God (“Allah” in Arabic). The word “Islam” means “submission to the will of God”. But it is also applied to works of art, organizations, and other cultural things.
The adherents of Islam are called “Muslims”. They follow the teachings of the Koran and believe that God revealed these teachings to the prophet Muhammad. The Quran (or Koran) is Islam’s holiest book, which Muslims believe are the commandments of God. It has 114 chapters whose 6,236 verses are said to have been revealed to Muhammad by the angel Gabriel.
In the sixth century AD Arabia was polytheistic. Each Arabic tribe worshipped various gods and goddesses. Nearby the Christian Byzantine Empire controlled the lands around the Mediterranean Sea and the Zoroastrian Persian Empire controlled the lands north-east of the Persian Gulf.
Muhammad was born in the city of Mecca in 570 AD. At age 40 Muhammad had his first vision in the year 610 AD. His wife’s uncle said he was a prophet. Muhammad proclaimed Allah as the one true God and rejected the polytheistic idol worship of Mecca. There was warfare between Arabic tribes that believed he was a prophet and those who rejected this claim. In 630 AD Mecca submitted to Muhammad and his warriors and accepted him as a prophet. Muhammad died in 632 AD. It is the Islamic tradition that Muhammad, as an Arab, is descended from Abraham’s son Ishmael.
After the death of Muhammad, Islam spread across the Arabian Peninsula (634 AD) and captured Jerusalem in 637 AD. Following this Islam spread across the Middle East, the Mediterranean lands and into Africa and India (711 AD). Islam continued to spread into Asia (1120 AD). In the 15th century AD after defeating the Byzantine Empire, Islamic armies invaded Europe and established the Ottoman Empire. By the end of the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire had declined. The decision to back Germany in World War I meant that the Empire shared its defeat in that war. At this time, most Muslim countries came under direct or indirect control of European nations. But in the second half of the twentieth century, these Muslim nations gained their independence.
Soon after its founding Islam split into two main branches (Sunni and Shia), each of which now have a number of denominations. This division was caused by different views on Muhammad’s successor as the leader (caliph) of Islam. Today about 80% of Muslims are Sunni and 20% are Shia. Moroccans are generally Sunni and the royal family are descendants of the Alaouite dynasty, who are believed to be descendants of the prophet Muhammad.
What are the basic beliefs that one must have to be considered a true Muslim? Although the central belief is submitting to the will of God, there are six major beliefs.
Six major beliefs (articles of faith)
Some of the basic beliefs taught by the Quran are:
– Belief in one God. God (“Allah” in Arabic) is unique and incomparable. He alone is to be worshipped and obeyed. God is the all-powerful (omnipotent) and all-knowing (omniscient), creator, sustainer, ordainer and judge of everything in existence. But He is also gracious and merciful. People can pray directly to God without asking anyone to intercede for them. God isn’t a trinity. And He isn’t Jesus and Jesus isn’t God.
– Belief in angels. Angels are God’s unseen messengers. God used the angel Gabriel to reveal the Quran to Muhammad.
– Belief in the Quran. The Quran is God’s final guidance for humanity. It’s a compilation of all of God’s revelations to Muhammad. Muslims believe that the scriptural record of the divine revelations to Jewish and Christian prophets in the Bible has been corrupted over time from its original form.
– Belief in prophets. God gave messages for humanity to prophets. These included Jewish prophets like Abraham, Moses, David and Jesus. The main message was to surrender to God’s will. But God’s final message was given to Muhammad.
– Belief in a day of judgment. In future, all people will be resurrected for God’s judgment and judged according to their beliefs and deeds. Those who followed God’s guidance will be rewarded with paradise; and those who rejected God’s guidance will be punished with hell. The salvation of heaven in the day of judgment is available to those whose good deeds outweigh their evil deeds.
– Belief in divine predestination. As whatever happens in one’s life is preordained, Muslims should respond to the good or bad that befalls them with thankfulness or patience. This concept does not negate the concept of “free will”; since humans do not have prior knowledge of God’s will (or decree), they do have freedom of choice.
In Islam sins are forgivable through repentance when Muslims pray for repentance. Also, they can earn forgiveness by bearing their difficulties patiently, or doing good deeds, or making a pilgrimage to Mecca or the punishment they receive in the grave, or the distress they experience on the day of resurrection. Forgiveness is also available through the prayers of others, including funeral prayers; or the intercession of Muhammad; or good deeds done for the deceased; or the mercy of God. However, Muslims cannot know whether a sin will be forgiven or not. Allah might or might not forgive the sin after repentance. So, Muslims are to fear their sins and hope for God’s mercy.
Muslims are asked to put their beliefs into practice by performing certain acts of worship. These practices (also called pillars of faith) must be undertaken with the best of effort in order to be considered a true Muslim. As in all faiths, since adherence to religious obligations and practices is a matter of individual choice, some people are very strict in performing these duties, while others are not.
Five major practices (acts of worship)
The five acts of worship that Sunni Muslims must perform are listed below.
– The declaration of faith. Muslims declare that there is only one God (Allah) and that Muhammad is his final messenger or prophet. Muslims repeat this statement many times a day during their prayers.
– Praying five times a day facing Mecca. Muslims are supposed to pray at dawn, midday, mid-afternoon, sunset and at nightfall. Before praying they wash their hands, mouth, nose, face, arms and feet. The Friday noon prayer is special to Muslims and is done in a mosque if possible. Imams lead the prayer at mosques.
– Giving money to charity. Muslims are to give about 2.5% of their excess wealth to the poor.
– Fasting during Ramadan. For one lunar month each year, from sunrise to sunset, Muslims are not to allow anything to pass down their throat. Then from sunset to sunrise, they are permitted to eat as little or as much as they want. This is their way of developing discipline and relating to the poor. Travelers, young children and pregnant or nursing mothers do not need to keep the fast.
– A pilgrimage to Mecca. Every Muslim who is physically and financially able is supposed to travel to the birthplace of Islam at least once in their lifetime.
It’s interesting to note that the Moroccan flag is red with a five-pointed green star. The star may represent the five pillars of Islam.
In addition to the above, Shia Muslims must perform the following:
– Pay tax. 20% of profit is given to the Imam and the poor.
– Jihad. Struggle to please God. There are many types of Jihad. Jihad is also important to the Sunni, but is not considered a pillar.
– Commanding what is just. By living by the rules of God from the Quran and hadith (the words and habits of Muhammad). Sunni and Shia Muslims use different collections of hadith.
– Forbidding what is evil. Refraining from the sins mentioned in the Quran and hadith.
As a visitor in Morocco I found that the main impact of Islam is the presence of mosques, the call to prayer, and the clothing worn by its adherents. Mosques are in each local area in order to be accessible for prayer and enable the call to prayer to be heard from external loud speakers. Mosques often have minarets or towers that protrude above the level of other buildings.
Because of a dress code that requires modesty, Muslims generally wear clothes that cover their arms and legs. And women cover their hair and often wear unfitted, long-sleeved, ankle-length gowns. Sometimes women cover the lower part or all their face. And a few women are totally covered when they are in public. A “hijab” is a traditional headscarf covering the head and hair, but not the face. But the term can also refer to any head, face, or body covering worn by Muslim woman.
This post has summarized aspects of the history, major beliefs, major practices and culture of the Islamic faith. These practices and culture impact everyday life in Morocco. It’s good to have an understanding of the local religion and culture when visiting another country.
Written, December 2016