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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Our Obsession With The Language And Meaning Of The Quran

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By Shaykh Asim Ahmad

A personal story

Many years ago, I was invited to give a talk in another city. My host was invited to a local brother’s house the night I arrived. I was hesitant to go but he reassured me and after much convincing, I tagged along. Invitations are Sunna and they appease the grumbling stomach, but I didn’t know anyone and felt quite out of place.

Anyhow, one of the guests, an older gentleman with some clout in the community, was the spotlight of this daw‘at. When he spoke everyone was all ears.

Sitting in the center of a plush sofa, he was relating his travel experiences as he had just returned from umra a few days ago. At some point, he started telling the story of a villager from the backwoods of the Indian Subcontinent sitting next to him in the Haram after salat and joked about how the villager was bawling his eyes out while the imam in the Haram made one of those very emotional Ramadan du‘a.

Our guest couldn’t get over why the villager was crying when he didn’t know a word of Arabic and didn’t understand what the imam was saying.  

I couldn’t help but interject because I found his disparaging remarks quite repulsive. Who are we to make judgments about people. But something else ticked me often even more: the misconception that worship is ineffective without understanding the religious language of our faith, a thought I have heard echoed in other circles.

I felt like an uninvited guest, but still was obliged to speak my mind. I asked, “Do you think Allah will only accept his du‘a on the condition that he knows what he is saying?”

Everyone was kind of startled. I explained that most of the Muslim world doesn’t know Arabic. We don’t know what we are reciting in salat and can barely translate Sura Fatiha.

Even if we can, we are not conscious of it while we are reciting. Then, will the salat of the 15 % who know Arabic be accepted while the salat of 85 % of the non-Arab speaking world be rejected for no fault of ours?

The discussion quickly switched after my brief interjection to a more lighthearted topic.

No one wants controversy at a party.

Main objective of Islam

Of course, it is good to learn and understand Arabic so we can better understand the Quran and Sunna. No one will argue that. What is objectionable is the perception that there is no point in any ibada without understanding the meaning.

In reality, we forget that the main objective of Islam is submission to Allah, and submission comes from the heart and not from understanding the meaning of the Quran.

Many people do not only understand the Quran but are masters of the Arabic language, but they are Islamophobes. This includes orientalist scholars who devoted their academic lives to subverting Islam and archaeologists like T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), the guy who provoked the Arabs to revolt against their Turkish Muslim brothers of the Uthmani empire.

He was brilliant in the Arabic language.

All for no good.

Of course, if learning the meaning of the Book of Allah aids in achieving submission, then all good, but if it doesn’t then its pointless from a Quranic perspective, simply because that is not why Allah revealed it.

Allah clearly states, “And I did not create the jinn and mankind except to worship Me” (51:56).

What is Allah really looking for in our ibada

We see so many people convert to Islam. They submit their lives to the will of Allah and His Rasul (peace be upon him), leave behind their old ways and old life, but their knowledge of Arabic is near to nothing and they constantly struggle to pronounce whatever little they do learn to recite in salat.

Will their salat be slapped back in their faces?

Will their worship come to nothing?

Take a look at Abu Jahl. He was a pure-blooded Arab, but his understanding of the Quran and Sunna was to no avail.

What Allah is looking for is humility in the hearts and humbleness in the character, also known in the Quran as khushu. Allah says, “Success is really attained by the believers, they who are during their prayer, humbly submissive” (23:1).

This khushu manifests both outwardly and inwardly. ‘Ali (may Allah be pleased with him) described the outward khushu as stillness of the limbs in salat or as Ibn ‘Abbas (may Allah be pleased with him) put it, “If the musalli doesn’t know who is on his right or left, he has khushu,”[1] while khushu of the heart is that one is immersed in Allah[2] or ‘softness of the heart and wetness in the eyes.’[3]

If learning the meaning of the Quran and Sunna increases in that khushu as it did for the Prophet (peace be upon him) who would cry profusely until the sound of something like a boiling pot could be heard from his chest[4], and the righteous ones from the People of the Book who heard the Quran, “And they fall upon their faces weeping and the Quran increases them in humble submission” (17:109), then learning the meaning of Quran is paramount.

Learn and gain spiritual proximity to Allah, which is the purpose of all ibadat.

Learning Arabic: a means to an end

But many times, this knowledge may become a hurdle, and that is when we forget its utilitarian purpose. A road is of immense value, but only when it leads us to a destination. If it itself becomes the destination, then it becomes an obstacle to the real destination. Then, we enhance our understanding of the Quran while diminishing our khushu. If someone is able to balance the means and the ends between the pursuit of learning Arabic and the spiritual purpose of attaining khushu, then such a knowledge is advantageous to gaining closeness to Allah.

Wariness of the scholars

Some scholars were wary of the Arabic sciences for this reason. They feared people would be so preoccupied with the complexity of the language, they would forget the higher purpose of attaining khushu. Qasim bin Mukhaymira called acquisition of Arabic syntax, “The first of it is arrogance and the last of it deviation,” while other Salaf said that learning the sciences of Arabic language will wear away khushu of the heart.[5]

Imam Shatibi explains that these predecessors did not mean to criticize the acquisition of this aspect of sacred knowledge itself, but how it can lead to erosion of khushu through forgetfulness of the higher objective. Learning the language will then be devoid of any higher purpose other than learning the language itself and a superiority complex which Qasim bin al-Mukhaymira commented on, ‘the first of it is arrogance and the last of it deviation.’

I personally believe this intuition of our predecessors that knowledge is a double-edged sword to be so realistic, especially in our times. Knowledge can be an instrument to achieve the pleasure of Allah but also a mishandled weapon that can cast one away from the mercy of Allah.

Shaytan was the most wicked of all scholars.

And I believe that their fears are coming true. Now.

Extinction of khushu

The Prophet (peace be upon him) spoke of the extinction of khushu due to the fear cited above by the predecessors. “The first knowledge to disappear in this umma will be khushu. You walk into the masjid and do not find a single worshipper with khushu” (Tirmidhi: chapter of disappearance of knowledge). Nowadays, many of us are learning the meaning of Quran and the Arabic sciences, but are completely unmindful of its utilitarian purpose to enhance the value of ibadat or to enrich our connection with Allah.

Another Prophesy

Mu‘adh bin Jabal narrates, “After you the fitan will come; wealth will increase and the Quran will be opened until the believer and the hypocrite, the man and the woman, the young one and the senior, the slave and the free one will all take it; then one will say that what is it that people don’t follow me though I have read the Quran. They will not follow until I interpolate something else. Beware of the innovation because every innovation is deviation” (Abu Dawud, 4/331).

Here, opening of Quran refers to the prevalence of Quran study sessions, which indicates the obsession with understanding meanings. The man who is looking to find followers through his interpolations in the Quran shows how Quran will be used for self-promotion, fame, and to gain a following, all signs of a corrupt heart, and not for the intended purpose of submission to Allah.

True knowledge

The Prophet (peace be upon him) in the abovementioned prophesy called khushu an ilm, a knowledge, that will disappear. This knowledge is not learned through books and the intellect. It is experienced with the heart. It is like the mango you tasted and saw and smelled, but you know nothing about its scientific properties and its nutritional value, while the expert of Arabic who is deprived of khushu is like the scientist who knows everything about the nutritional value and scientific properties of the mango though he has never seen, smelled or tasted a mango in his life.

One is true knowledge, the other superficial.

Whether one has the superficial knowledge or not, the reward of ibadat will still be attained.

Reward without meaning

The Prophet (peace be upon him) in a very famous hadith said that each letter you recite of Quran will increase your reward. Then he said, “I am not saying alim lam meem is ten rewards. But alif is 10 rewards, lam is ten rewards, meem is ten rewards.”[6] Alif lam meem are known as the muqatta‘at or the Broken letters.

Though many have speculated to the exact meaning of the Broken letters, it is agreed upon that no one knows their true meaning. Imam Suyuti states in his Tafseer Jalalayn after each Broken letter, “And Allah knows best its meaning.”

The reward is all the same regardless.

Our reward for recitation of Quran hinges on the khushu of the heart. The more the khushu, the more one ascends toward Allah in this world with recitation of each aya. The same goes for the Hereafter. The hadith states, “The expert reciter will be told when he enters Paradise, ‘recite and ascend.”[7]

But when means become ends and the ends are forgotten and disparaged, then khushu itself will go extinct.

Then there is no ascension.

 [1] Qut al-Quloob, 2/162

[2] Al-Risalat al-Qushayriyya, 1/275

[3] Tafsir al-Nasafi, 2/282

[4] Musnad Ahmad, 26/242

[5] Al-I’tisam, 1/253

[6] Tirmidhi, 5/33

[7] Ibn Majah, 4/699

Ahmad, Asim. (2022, October 11). Our obsession with the language and meaning of the Quran. Retrieved from https://firstwebsite.squarespace.com/blog/our-obsession-with-meaning

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