One of the first things I was asked while I was thinking of converting to Islam was, ‘are you going to start learning Arabic then?’
For many, the idea of being Muslim and being able to speak Arabic are often viewed as one and the same. As you can imagine, this can cause many problems for converts, or indeed Muslims who come from countries where Arabic isn't the official spoken language such as Indonesia or Turkey.
When you adopt a new religion, it means a whole new way of thinking, living, and 'being.' You already run the risk of feeling lost, without the added unfamiliarity of everyone around you using Arabic words: dua, Jummah, sehri, and the like. Even using the word Allah rather than God can feel strange at first.
Personally, I was put off learning Arabic for quite a while. I felt that the only reason I would doing it was to satisfy a social pressure, whether spoken or unspoken, to learn Arabic. I felt embarrassed that I didn't know the correct dua (prayer) or that I had no idea what to say to other Muslims during Eid celebrations. I worried that others would think I wasn't pulling my religious socks up.
Imam Suhaib Webb described the feelings that I, and many converts, have experienced when he wrote:
'Sadly, the Arabization of Islam for non-Arabs has basically led us all to feel like the more Arabic words we use, the more authentic of a Muslim we are.' (see full article)
In my heart though, I'd always known that God understands and answers prayer regardless of the language spoken. As a result, I said my daily Salah prayers in English for a long time before making the switch to Arabic. I then slowly introduced Arabic verses when I felt comfortable and knew what they meant.
If someone rushes into Arabic prayer, they run the risk of simply parroting the lines without feeling a connection to what they're saying. Salah could easily become a robotic process which would, in turn, distance you from God rather than bringing you closer to Him.
My feelings towards Arabic changed once I had removed the emotional baggage of feeling pressured or embarrassed. As an English teacher, I know all too well that if a student attends lessons because work demands it or they have been told in the past that their English is terrible, it takes a lot of coaxing for them to be able to advance and even more for them to be able to enjoy English.
I've now come to view Arabic as a way of discovering more about God, through the nuance of Arabic in the Qur'an, and learning about the culture of many of my Arabic speaking friends. The significant difference in my attitude now is that I view Arabic as something that will enrich my understanding in the long term rather than something I need now in order to consider myself a bona fide Muslim.
So, over to you!
How does your emotions towards a language affect your ability to learn?
Do you have experience learning Arabic as a convert or non-Arab Muslim?