By Asif Merchant, New Age Islam
29 May 2014
Apart from Islam, other religions have also had to face the conflict between the supremacy of the original language, and the need for people to understand what their religion says.
The Buddha understood this and therefore, preached in Maghadi, the language in general use in that part of the world, known as Magadh. The holy language of the Hindus was Sanskrit, which few could understand, but Maghadi was intelligible to the general population.
The Bible was written in Ancient Hebrew, with some of the later sections in Aramaic, the language spoken in northern Syria. The New Testament was written in Greek, that being the cultural language preferable to Latin, the language of the Romans, who were the rulers. Later, when Christianity spread through the Roman Empire, Latin translations were needed to make it intelligible to the general populace. The Bible remained in Latin till the early sixteenth century, when a German priest, Martin Luther translated the Bible into German, thus making it available to the general population of his country. For this, Martin Luther was excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church.
The arguments against translating the Bible, given by the Roma Catholic Church at that time, are similar to the reasoning of Maulana Wahiduddin against prayer in languages other than Arabic. Hearing prayers gives a sense of nearness to God etc., since these were the actual words used by God. Rather than the actual words, I think first were the thoughts, which were then manifested in words by the Holy Prophet. Naturally the words would have to be in Arabic. Emphasis on Arabic as the Holy language of religion has resulted in our people being backward as far as understanding and following the Message brought by the Holy Prophet.
There are people who feel very holy just listening to the Quran, and really believe that it is not necessary to understand. So, you have Tilawat – e – Quran, a melodic recitation of the Quran, again with no reference to what it all actually means. Many Muslims play recordings of readings from the Quran all day in their house. Very smugly, they declare that this is the best music. There are shopkeepers who engage a Maulana to recite the Quran for a while every day in their shop. This presumably clears all traces of malpractices done during the rest of the day. I know a gentleman who has engaged a Maulana to come every day and recite the Quran in his liquor shop.
Then there is something known as Quran Khwani. Here a group reads different parts of the Quran, and when they all add up to the whole Quran, it may be dedicated to benefit someone, usually a dead person, or maybe a project, inauguration, etc. The Quran is divided into 30 approximately equal parts, each known as a ‘Sipara’ to facilitate this. Was this the intention, when the Holy Prophet introduced Islam to the Arabs?
Just as there was opposition to Martin Luther’s attempts to bring Christianity closer to the masses, so there is opposition by the Islamic clergy to attempts at making the understanding of the teachings of the Holy Prophets a part of our culture. We are being told that when Namaz is offered in Arabic, it gives us a sense of nearness to God, which would disappear if the Namaz was offered in any other language. i.e., Nearness to God can only come through unintelligible sounds. Maulana Wahiduddin makes some unsubstantiated conjectures to support his views. In his words, “. . . the revealed words train our feelings. The right feeling is that which is trained by the revealed words. If feelings are detached or dissociated from the revealed words, we may go astray.” What evidence does he have making this statement? Isn’t he aware of the number of Muslims who have gone astray even though their religious education is chiefly in Arabic? Aren’t these the people who have given Islam a bad name all over the world?
It is amazing that in Malaysia, non-Muslims have been banned from using the name ‘Allah’ for God. Can it be that they are unaware that the Holy Prophet’s father was named ‘Abdullah’ – Servant of Allah?
Our people still believe that a person’s name reveals the religion. Belief plays no part in this. So we have Muslim names, Christian names, Hindu names, etc. Consider my name. Though there are many Muslims with this name, it was in use even in ancient Greece. I have also seen it in the Old Testament. Some years ago I came across a boy named Mohammed Yasin. He was Christian. When we speak of Muslim names, actually we are referring to names in use among the Arabs, and to a lesser extent, the Persians. So, a name with Sanskrit roots is changed, because it is considered Hindu.
Finally, some two years ago, I attended a wedding. The bride was a Hindu, marrying a Muslim boy. It was a love marriage, but both sets of parents had approved. The girl had converted to Islam. During the ceremony, the boy asked the Maulana if the girl’s name should be changed. The Maulana asked her name, and then he said, “It is a beautiful name. Why do you want to change it?” Hats off to him.
Asif Merchant is an independent thinker, based near Panchgani, Maharashtra, India He writes an occasional column for New Age Islam.