Language and Religion: The Case of Arabic

Last Friday, April 21, I went to a talk by Dr. Muhammad S. Eissa on the connection between language and religion by using the case of Arabic. I found the talk fascinating even though I may have been one of the two members of the audience not studying Arabic.

Language and religion, Eissa said, are inextricably intertwined. To help his audience, much of which comes from a Christian frame of reference, he used the example of the connection between Latin and Catholic masses. When many English speakers hear Latin, they often think of church services because they only hear Latin in church services. As a result, the Latin language seems, to many, to have a spiritual quality. This phenomenon, Eissa said, is the same with Arabic. Muslims around the world, especially those from non-Arabic-speaking countries who only hear the language spoken from mosques, associate the Arabic language with the divine.

What do many Americans think of when they hear spoken Arabic? They often automatically associate Arabic with Islam, even though Arabic is not only the language of Islam but also a language of commerce, education, and everyday life. Many Americans’ only exposure to Arabic is through the media, so they assume speakers of Arabic are Muslim, even though Arabic is a language of commerce, education, and everyday life – not just a religious language. According to an anecdote Eissa told, the association of Arabic with Islam is a global phenomenon. He told a story about an American man who went to a conference in China. Many assumed, based upon his physical appearance, that he was American – but when he began speaking in fluent Arabic, everyone’s perception of him immediately changed. They assumed he was Muslim, and they asked him to recite prayers!

I learned that many young men in Arabic-speaking countries memorize large portions of the Qur’an, or even the entire Qur’an, from a young age. Eissa noted the cognitive benefits that come from memorizing large portions of text – it really does rewire and improve your brain. However, he drew a distinction between merely memorizing large portions of scripture and understanding it. There is a disconnect between being able to recite the Qur’an and knowing its meaning, and this difference is exacerbated when Arabic is not one’s original language.

Another aspect of the talk I found interesting was Eissa’s argument about the Qur’an’s essence, which he says lies in spoken words. Eissa believes that many Muslims place too much importance on the physical Qur’an, rather than the spoken words of the Qur’an, because the physical, printed text itself is not the Qur’an. The Quran, he says, was first spoken by the Prophet Muhammad and transmitted to his followers. It was not written down, printed, and distributed until later. The physical book itself is only a means of accessing the true Qur’an, which is spoken.

Eissa asked us to consider the link between language and religion in our own religious life. I realized that I do not closely associate my Christian faith with the English language. I believe that the Bible is God’s word whether in Hebrew, Greek, or English, and for this reason, all people can understand God’s word in their vernacular. Eissa, however, explained that if the Qur’an is translated into a different language, it loses its essence. I think he makes an excellent point. Language is powerful and precise, and a text cannot carry the exact meaning of its original when it is translated into a different language. Dr. Eissa’s talk gave me important things to consider and helped me understand the importance of studying religious texts in their original languages to extract their original meanings.

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