Tuesday, 23 July 2013

A Revert's Relationship With Arabic

"Salaam" (source)

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?


  1. Assalamu alaykum sister. I understand how you feel. It took me ages to be able to say assalamu alaykum and once I could say that I struggled with saying walaykum salam so I would just reply with salam. I had a long struggle with the letters and their pronunciation and then one day after I had been Muslim for about 2 years or more I met a Pakistani sister who was fluent in Arabic and taught it. She helped me and I met other revert sisters who said they had learnt the alphabet in just a week, it was just a matter of sitting and dedicating the time for it. I was so desperate to learn it and more than ready because I was fed up of ready the transliteration and getting my tongue tied. Alhamdolillah I learned it after a couple of weeks and from there my reading has developed. It's all down to consistecy and dua. Ask Allah to make it easy and He will. I have met many Arabs who also struggle to read Arabic and understand the Quran. We all have our struggles. hope your Ramadan is going well inshaAllah.x

    1. Thank you so much for your response. I had the same problem with returning a salaam haha! I ended up just saying, 'waaaaaaah!' and then fading away. inshAllah it'll get easier.

  2. Read your Squiggles, Snails, and Tadpoles post, then this one, and it was a lovely look at the experience of converting to a religion that has it's own language. Because the Qur'an wasn't revealed in a vacuum, and its very miracle lies in its Arabic language, non-Arab Muslims will always have to face the reality that truly grasping and appreciating the words of God involves learning another language. Does it mean you can't be Muslim without speaking Arabic, or that you have to adopt Arab culture? No. But there is certainly wisdom and beauty in uniting people from all over the world under a single language, that whenever I pass a Muslim on the street, I can greet them with 'assalamo 'alaykom', without worrying about whether they speak Urdu, or Somalian, or Malaysian, or Amharic, or Spanish, or Turkish, or Hausa, or Indonesian, or French or Hindi or Yoruba.

    Anyways, being something of a language geek, I couldn't leave without sharing my answers to the questions you left at the end of each post :) I'll start here, then move to the other post :)

    First, yes, the emotional factor absolutely does play a role. As my first Qur'an teacher in Egypt told us, God says in the Qur'an that he's made the Arabic language easy, and you have to believe that. To complain that it's difficult is to contradict God :) That changed my outlook quickly! And I've seen that as a rule across all languages - people who come at a language, not just with the mentality that it's easy, but who completely engage themselves in it, spend every waking minute analysing it and focusing on improving it, will do much better than those who come at it half-heartedly, thinking it's difficult, and just slogging through a few chapters of grammar, and then forgetting about it for the rest of the day.

    As regards Arabic specifically, my experience learning it as a Muslim is somewhat different, in that Arabic was the catalyst that introduced me to Islam. I was given a beautiful Arabic Qur'an by a church member, as a souvenir from his business trip to Saudi Arabia, and seeing the beautiful squiggles inside ;) I decided I had to learn this language. That decision led me to Arabic lessons online, which led me to Arab Muslims, which led me to Islam, which led me to Egypt, where I enrolled the very next day in an insitute for Arabic language. I made it through the first level before the revolution forced me to stay home, but once the political scene had calmed down enough, I enrolled in tajweed (*clears throat* pardon the Arabic - "Qur'an recitation" ;) classes, which hugely improved my ability to read and understand Arabic. A few months later I got a job as a school teacher, and during the following year, my coworkers helped me immensely in improving my spoken colloquial Arabic. Since then, I've enrolled in an Islamic studies degree program where classical Arabic is a required course, and I'm painstakingly working my way through the finer details of grammar and syntax.

    So at this point I can read Qur'an pretty fluently, and accent-wise I can pass for an Egyptian (and often do in the mosques here in the U.S.), but my vocabulary is still very limited, and I can't discuss or understand very involved topics. But is the Arabic language easy? Yes. Can anyone learn it? Yes. Keep going and you'll have it down in no time insha'Allah :)

    1. As salaamu alaykum. Thank you so much for your response and encouragement. It's interesting that you came to Islam via the Arabic language. inshAllah your studies continue to go well.

  3. This is a really interesting post. I am writing this from the perspective of a non-Muslim married to a Muslim and raising Muslim kids, so I come at this from a different perspective. I am always interested in learning the Arabic prayers as well as all the blessings (before eating, the one my husband says when breaking his fast, etc.) because I think they're a beautiful way of showing gratitude and because I want to help my kids know them. For him, it feels so odd to say them in English so I have been trying to learn them in Arabic, but in order to not feel like I am just repeating sounds, I have to get him to break down each of the words so I can make sense of them. Depending on timing (like breaking his fast), he understandably doesn't always feel like playing language teacher. So if I was truly motivated, I would probably make more of an effort to learn them on my own. But I do really want to learn Arabic and so much of the language from what I can tell, is intertwined with religion, like all the words that reference God in some way...inshallah, bismillah, alhamdulillah...all the ways there are to say God bless you....how in the course of usual conversation I often hear my husband say "God bless you" many times. I find that really interesting about the language. Anyway this was a little rambly and a long way of saying I enjoy reading what you write :)

    1. Thank you so much for sharing - I really enjoyed reading your perspective of hearing Arabic in your home. It's interesting how Arabic is so intertwined with religious connotations and saying - I think more so than English. Considering the context of your message, it seems apt to end with... God bless you! Sarita

  4. Hi,

    I have a general language learning blog, and I have just finished making an Arabic Alphabet chart with arrows (to learn how to write).

    Now I'm giving it away to other people with blogs about the Arabic language. If you'd like to have it, you can grab it here. If you need a different size, just email me at the address I provided.


    Have a good day!


    SpeakOut! Languages

  5. I have read many article regarding to this topic and done lots of research for the same. but here i get something new.thanks for sharing.


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