The Koran awards itself high praise because it is written in its
hearers' own tongue, a language they can understand, clear and
perspicuous, not an unfamiliar and unintelligible foreign tongue:
- “We have made it an
Arabic Koran that ye may understand. . .”
- (Koran Sura 43:2).
- “Verily we have made this Koran easy and in thine own tongue, that thou mayest announce glad tidings by it to the God-fearing, and that thou mayest warn the contentious by it.”
- (Koran Sura 19:97).
- “Had we made it a Koran in a foreign tongue,
they had surely said, 'Unless its signs be made
clear. . .' What! in a foreign tongue? And the
- (Koran Sura 41:44).
How bizarre indeed it would have been to address the Arabian
people in a foreign tongue! How could they have understood?:
"So likewise you, unless you utter by the tongue words easy to understand, how will it be
known what is spoken? For you will be speaking into the air. There are, it may be, so many kinds of
languages in the world, and none of them is without significance. Therefore, if I do not know the
meaning of the language, I shall be a foreigner to him who speaks, and he who speaks will be a foreigner
to me. . .What is the conclusion then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will also pray with the understanding. I will sing with the spirit, and I will also sing with the understanding. Otherwise, if you bless with the spirit, how will he who occupies the place of the uninformed say
'Amen' at your giving of thanks, since he does not understand what you say?" (1 Corinthians 14:9-16).
Yet, in spite of the Koran's own concern with its clarity and intelligibility, very many of those who
recite this work do not understand the words they are saying.
Most of this world's one billion plus Muslims are not native
Arabic speakers. Yet, except for the Turks, who thanks to
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk can read the Koran (with a 'K') in their
own tongue, the world's Muslims pray in what to most of them is
a foreign tongue, and recite their sacred scripture in a foreign
tongue. In addition to the mandatory prayers which are recited
in Arabic, whether the speakers understand it or not, they also
offer voluntary prayers in their own language. What is the
recitation of unknown, meaningless words but empty ritual?
What is the rationale for this practice? Does God not understand
English, or Turkish, or Indonesian? Will He not hear prayers which
are meaningful to those who speak them, but only those which are
not? This demand that non-Arabic speakers speak Arabic began as
nothing more than a control mechanism: originally the community of
the faithful was co-extensive with the Arab empire. It remains as a
way for the clergy to monopolize power over against the people.
When Muslims offer formulaic prayers in a recondite
foreign language not known to them, does any inward
mental act accompany and inform this recitation? Recall that Jesus
scolded the people for their belief that repetition pleased God:
"And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen
do. For they think that they will be heard for their many
words." (Matthew 6:7).
This habit of repeating empty, formal phrases, perhaps even phrases in an
unknown foreign tongue which are strictly speaking meaningless to
the speaker, is something of which Islam must be cleansed. If
tomorrow the Muslims vowed to employ good,
i.e. economical, language, how much of their religion would that in
and of itself eliminate? Many pagan practices were incorporated
wholesale into Islam, for example the circumambulation of the Kabah, a shrine containing a meteorite
the pagans revered as a fetish. 'Vain repetition' is another pagan practice it
would be wholesome to abandon.
Some Muslim communities, for example the Somalis, have not been
able to achieve universal literacy even in their own tongue. What
likelihood is there that they will succeed in teaching the people a
difficult foreign tongue, classical Arabic, any time soon? The only
solution is to translate the prayers and the Qur'an into the
vernacular. Prior to the Protestant Reformation, and within the
Catholic communion to a more limited extent prior to Vatican II,
Latin was used as a control mechanism similar to the modern use of
Arabic. Only some people knew Latin, most did not, and knowledge is
power. Translating the Bible into the vernacular turned the people
from passive spectators of the religious scene into free men and
The best thing that ever happened to German was Martin Luther's
translating the Bible into that barbarous tongue. The welfare of the
languages actually spoken by the world's Muslims would be best served by
translating the Arabic Qur'an and daily prayers into them. This
would benefit both the speakers and these under-valued languages
themselves. The speakers would benefit by, at long last,
understanding what they are saying to God. Who would sign
a contract if he were not sure what it said? So why should we petition
God with only a vague, second-hand notion of what we are saying?
Plus, the languages would be given a new lease on life. How many
languages did Arabic eradicate, when the Muslims conquered ancient
civilizations and replaced the native languages with their own? It
is the Christian Copts who have kept Coptic alive, not the Muslims,
who confuse Arab imperialism with salvation.
Latin was long in use as a medium for communication with God, not so
much owing to the unique suitability of this one amongst the tongues
of men and angels to the task, but only to erect a fence around the
clerical establishment. Some people knew Latin, most did not. It was
a blow struck for human freedom when the Bible was translated into
the vernacular. Opening this book tore that fence down. God did not
erect the fence, man did. Arabic functions much
the same way as Latin once did. Some want to play 'keep-away' with a book which ought
to be open to scrutiny, both from believers and outsiders. Perhaps they are afraid some things cannot stand up to
The believers' uncomprehending rote recitation, if it is accompanied by any
mental act at all, is not likely accompanied by the same kind of mental act as occurs when a
speaker spills out his heart in spontaneous words.
Jesus discouraged the one and encouraged the other when he
instructed the people in Matthew 6:7. Even a coherent,
structured human language might as well be gibberish to one who
knows it not. Though Ergun Caner, the President of Liberty Seminary
and, some say, make-believe Arabic speaker, was recorded speaking gibberish
in place of Arabic, the people who heard
him thought he was speaking Arabic; how would they know? Those who
pray in Arabic without knowing the language are speaking in
gibberish to their own hearing. The way to
ensure a hearer will understand is to speak the hearer's own
language. Our own language is as transparent as air, we recognize
the meaning immediately, not as one painstakingly recalling
memorized instructions. The Koran advertises itself as perspicuous
because offered in a language the people understand, not in some
unknown foreign tongue. But if by chance they don't know Arabic,
should it not be translated to conserve that characteristic?
"It turns out now that the Arabs were the most successful
imperialists of all time, since to be conquered by them (and then to
be like them) is still, in the minds of the faithful, to be saved."
(V. S. Naipaul, Among the Believers, p. 142).
Many third-world inhabitants of the present day complain about English taking over the world, but long
before English was in any position to take over anything, Arabic did
take over a considerable chunk of the world. People whose ancestors
spoke Punic or Coptic forgot those languages, so completely that
eventually they would call themselves 'Arabs' and define their
politics in terms of 'Arab nationalism.' They forgot what their fathers were. Who can look back
without sorrow and shame at the cultures and languages Arabic obliterated?
It is the Christian Copts who have conserved Coptic, the Syrian
Christians who have conserved Aramaic, not the Arab imperialists, i.e.
Muslims. Some people can see, with sharp-eyed clarity, what was wrong with 19th century
European imperialism, but their vision becomes blurry when they look back at Arab imperialism. Once the
Arabs conquered, to speak Arabic was to rule; the imperialists'
Arabic religious speech flooded and drowned the indigenous vernacular. Surely if
it's a loss today when Coca-Cola culture overspreads the third
world, it was also a loss when the conquering Arab armies imposed
cultural conformity on a very wide swath of the globe.
The remedy is Reformation. Put power in the hands of the people;
translate the Koran into the vernacular, let people talk to God in
words which are meaningful to them. Will this be the prelude to collapse?
Perhaps freed of incomprehensible mumbo-jumbo, the
believers will see the Wizard of Oz for what he is and will recoil
from the emptiness and poverty now clearly visible without the
trappings of mystification. But surely those who believe in this religion should not be afraid to try.