“O mankind! There has come to you a good advice from your Lord (i.e. the Quran), and a healing for that which is in your breasts, a guidance and a mercy for the believers.”
—Qur’an (Yunus, 10:57)
In some of my moments of spiritual confusion, I’ve wondered why so many of us are born into cultures and lands with no understanding of the Arabic language, yet we have the spiritual obligation to live by a divine Arabic Book and believe in and follow an Arab prophet and messenger (peace and blessings be upon him).
Today I think on this because the nature of this world incites so many questions for the human soul. Even when we’ve already taken the first step toward our Creator through humbly and resolutely declaring our lifelong commitment of submission to Him—via the shahaadah of Islam—we can still go through moments wherein our hearts are restless in confusion. In this state, our minds try to understand the ways of our Rabb, even as our hearts already believe in His wisdom and guidance.
Perhaps, this is what Allah is conveying to us in the Qur’an when He shares this story, which has been translated to mean:
“And [mention] when Abraham said, ‘My Lord, show me how You give life to the dead.’ [Allah] said, ‘Have you not believed?’ He said, ‘Yes, but [I ask] only that my heart may be satisfied.’ [Allah] said, ‘Take four birds and commit them to yourself. Then put on each hill a portion of them, then call them. They will come [flying] to you in haste. And know that Allah is Exalted in Might and Wise.’”
Sometimes the question in our heart is about the nature of life and death, and other times it is about something more intimately personal, like the trials we face in our individual lives or why Allah decreed certain parts of our lives to be a certain way. For me, some of these questions were incited during my struggles in learning Qur’an and Islamic spirituality, particularly as it relates to the central role of the Arabic language in this path of knowledge.
Why So Much Emphasis on Arabic?
In the Qur’an, Allah says what has been translated to mean, “Indeed, We have sent it down as an Arabic Qur’an so that you may understand” (Yoosuf, 12:2).
Regarding the preservation of this Arabic revelation, He says what has been translated to mean, “Verily We, it is We Who have sent down the Dhikr, and surely, We will guard it [from corruption]” (Al-Hijr, 15:9).
In the first ayah, Allah is making it clear that the choice of Arabic was not incidental. Rather it was for the deliberate purpose of inspiring true understanding of His revelation.
In the second ayah, He uses the eminent “we” pronoun, which in grammar is known as the royal “we” or the imperial “we” that is reserved for sovereigns such as kings and queens speaking in the singular as far as contextual meaning is concerned but in the plural as far as their actual speech is concerned.
From a grammatical standpoint, the purpose of choosing the eminent “we” over the standard “I” in certain contexts is to emphasize the lofty status of the speaker over others in terms of existence, knowledge, and authority. In the world of human royalty, this imperial “we” is often used by monarchs when issuing a public decree to their subjects that cannot be disputed or opposed (i.e. “We have decided such-and-such…”).
In the above ayah, Allah uses the Arabic version of this eminent “We” twice as a means of emphasizing His divine sovereignty. Then He tells us that He has revealed the Dhikr, and He uses this “We” again for a third time to let us know He has taken it upon Himself to guard His revelation from any corruption.
Divine Promise of Preserving the Dhikr
Given that the Arabic term dhikr indicates a type of remembrance, reminder, or message, the use of this term specifically in this ayah when discussing the revelation of the Arabic Qur’an and its preservation points to the underlying purpose of the revelation of the Dhikr (i.e. Qur’an) itself: It is for understanding and guidance, not only for verbatim recitation of its Words.
Therefore, the divine promise of preservation in this ayah indicates an all-encompassing and deeply meaningful protection that goes far deeper than a letter-by-letter preservation of Arabic Words and Tajweed sounds. It is the preservation of literally every word and letter of Qur’an, as well as every authentic spiritual meaning attached to each of them. In this way, Allah is letting us know that these beautiful Words that we recite were revealed first and foremost as a source of guidance, as found in the “Dhikr”—the remembrance, reminder, and message—of Allah’s Book.
In this context, by emphasizing the eminent “We” over and over again in reference to Himself, Allah is letting us know that no matter what human methods (such as our own hifdh of Qur’an) we use to preserve Allah’s Dhikr to the best of our ability, ultimately, it is Allah and Allah Alone, through His Sovereignty over all creation of every generation, Who is actually preserving this Divine Message and guarding it from corruption.
In this preservation, He chose the Arabic language as the medium to convey His timeless Message (i.e. Dhikr). Based on the ayah from Sooratu Yusuf, we see that the choice of Arabic in particular allowed for deeper understanding of His Words, even as these Words would reach people whose native tongue is not Arabic. The implication here is that no other language in the world offers this universal clarity across cultures and generations, amongst Arabs and non-Arabs.
Allah says what has been translated to mean,
“And if We had sent this as a Qur’an in a foreign language other than Arabic, they would have said, ‘Why are not its Verses explained in detail? What! [A Book] not in Arabic and [the Messenger] an Arab?’ Say: ‘It is for those who believe, a guide and a healing. And as for those who disbelieve, there is heaviness (deafness) in their ears, and it (the Qur’an) is blindness for them. They are [as it were] those who are called from a place far away.”
In this ayah, we understand that this Arabic Qur’an is a source of guidance and healing for the believers, and it would be conveyed to the people through an Arab prophet and messenger.
But What About Non-Arabs?
The more my heart understood the essential role of the Arabic language in comprehending Allah’s Book and the prophetic teachings, the more I felt a lack of worthiness as a non-Arab. I know that’s not a feeling to be proud of, but the truth is, I struggled to find a sense of spiritual worthiness nonetheless.
It was almost like I was being invited to this remarkable way of life, but only as an outsider who was welcome to benefit from it but had no significant role in the essence of its preservation.
It didn’t help that many Arabs themselves (whom I lived amongst after traveling to Egypt and Saudi Arabia) looked down on non-Arabs, and in a blatant and unapologetic way. Many Arabs felt that non-Arabs, especially Americans, could never be real Muslims—or even full respectable human beings—and they treated us as such. And the darker your skin, the worse your treatment.
As I mention in my book Prejudice Bones In My Body, when I was in high school I had only one Muslim teacher (who happened to be Arab), and one day he called me to his desk to tell me, “Black people in America can never be Muslim.” I was a young teenager at the time, and his words would stay with me for years. I still recall that moment vividly today. At the time, I found his words so confounding and disconnected from Islam, so the only way I could make sense of them was to assume that this man had a deep personal problem.
When I myself lived as an American expat in the Arab world, I discovered that the sentiment that my Arab teacher expressed was deeply embedded in so much of modern-day Arab culture. To my dismay, I discovered that many Arabs genuinely felt that the only purpose of non-Arabs was one of two in the world: to be effective slaves or servants to Arabs, particularly if these non-Arabs migrated to the Arab world for any reason, or to offer an opportunity for Arabs to earn blessings by teaching an ‘Ajnabi (lowly non-Arab) about Islam. And even then, this ‘Ajnabi could never be a “real” Muslim.
Even some classes that were centered around tafseer of Qur’an and Islamic principles were taught in a way that made it clear that in the eyes of many Arabs, Islam itself rejected the moral value of any non-Arab people or culture, Americans most especially. And this lack of moral value extended to non-religious cultural practices such as speech patterns, hand gestures, artistic expression, clothing, and even hairstyles. It was as if to them, “Arab” was synonymous with Islam itself, and “non-Arab” was synonymous with the very essence of fisq (sin and evil).
While my mind understood that this was not the case, it was still very difficult to understand my worthiness in an Arabic-centered world of spirituality when my only interaction with the world from childhood had been through American English. And after being immersed for years in an Arab environment that continuously disparaged my people in the name of Islam, I had some weak moments in which I genuinely wondered if there was indeed something inherently wrong with Americans and other non-Arabs.
I also wondered if Allah Himself really did love and favor Arabs above everyone else. This sentiment was certainly what many Arabs were saying, and it was a point of pride for them. They equated Allah favoring Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) above all people in terms of noble lineage and spirituality, with Allah favoring Arabs themselves above all people in terms of noble lineage and spirituality. Thus, it was as if my American non-Arab existence itself was a sin.
But isn’t my American identity, language, and culture Allah’s decision, and not mine? I’d think to myself.
How Allah Honored the Non-Arabs
Undoubtedly, being guided to Islam and preserved upon its merciful way of life is the greatest honor any human soul could be granted in this world. However, even upon receiving this tremendous spiritual gift of guidance, the human heart can become restless in seeking to find its unique place of distinction in front of its Lord. This is especially the case if you are tested with being in religious environments wrought with racism and nationalism, as I myself experienced in the Arab world, as well as in many Muslim communities in the United States.
If you don’t know Arabic or Qur’an, especially if your native language is not Arabic, it can be extremely distressing trying to learn what you need to know while seeking a sense of spiritual self-worth at the same time. This is particularly the case at the beginning of your learning journey. I know so many American Muslims who abandoned learning Arabic and Qur’an altogether due to being unable to withstand the Arab nationalism and blatant racism that was embedded in so many of the classes.
During my own studies, I would sometimes find myself sitting and reflecting on the great difficulties so many of us face as non-Arabs in learning Arabic and Qur’an, and I tried to resign myself to the fact that Allah favored Arabs over people like me in having a significant role in understanding and preserving His deen and revelation.
Then I realized something: If you are a sincere believer who doesn’t know Arabic or Qur’an, then Allah has chosen you for the honorable role of being an essential part of the preservation of His Dhikr until the end of time.
In education, we have a saying that the best way to retain knowledge or develop a deep understanding of a topic is to teach it to others—and the only way this teaching is possible is to have students who are willing and ready to learn.
And the world is filled with millions of non-Arab Muslims who are willing and ready to learn. Amongst them are those who are new to Islam or are embracing the Islamic lifestyle for the first time, independent of their Muslim families and cultures. And with each heart that is inclined toward living Islam is a heart inclined toward learning Arabic and Qur’an.
This ever-present existence of Muslims who are eager to learn Allah’s Book is an essential method that Allah Himself uses to preserve His Dhikr generation after generation. It is not Arabs preserving the Qur’an. It is Allah Himself—Who is using both Arabs and non-Arabs for this purpose.
And the non-Arabs have a unique role in this divine preservation that Arabs do not have.
The Honorable Role of Non-Arabs in Preserving Qur’an
Naturally, the first step to retaining knowledge (i.e. preserving knowledge) on any topic is to acquire that knowledge itself. The second step is to teach it to others (based on the principle that the best way to retain knowledge is to teach it). Those who fit into both of these categories (learning and then teaching) have the deepest retention and understanding of a topic, even more so than those who assumed they already understood the topic.
With regards to Qur’an in particular, these people are regarded as the best amongst all of the Muslims, irrespective of their Arab or non-Arab background. Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “The best among you is the one who learns Qur’an and teaches it [to others]” (Bukhari).
Learning Qur’an requires at least a basic understanding of Arabic. Therefore, when a non-Arab begins their studies of Qur’an, they are getting to the very core of Allah’s Dhikr, by learning every single harf (letter) underlying it. In this way, with the non-Arab’s study of Qur’an, no part of Allah’s Dhikr is trivialized or taken for granted.
Whether it is the precise pronunciation of a letter or the very unique shape and stroke of that harf in the mus-haf (the physical book containing the Arabic Qur’an), the non-Arab’s study of Qur’an itself prioritizes every single part of the Dhikr in way that is unique to their non-Arab circumstance.
Therefore, part of the preservation of Allah’s Dhikr is decreeing that generation after generation, there will always be non-Arab students who are studying the tiniest details of every harf in His revelation. Yes, even Arabs must study and learn the Dhikr in detail, and this too is an essential part of divine preservation. However, the non-Arab’s role in learning Allah’s Dhikr goes much deeper.
Non-Arabs Preserve Arabic Itself
The existence of non-Arabs itself ensures that the only Arabic that will ever be counted as true Arabic is fus-ha, the classical Arabic that forms the Qur’an. This is because when the non-Arab seeks to learn the Arabic Qur’an, they are seeking to learn only what will allow them to understand what their Rabb is communicating to them, as well as to all of humankind—not the language that Arabs are communicating amongst themselves in their various dialects.
Moreover, many of these Arabic dialects have strayed so far from fus-ha that some are arguably Arabic-inspired languages instead of Arabic itself. However, many Arabs think of their Arabic-inspired speech as actual Arabic, and some of them even read and recite the Arabic letters of Qur’an with the mispronunciation of their cultural dialects.
Furthermore, in today’s world, fus-ha has been abandoned almost completely amongst Arabs in terms of having any relevance to their daily life and speech. For most Arabs, their only connection to the actual language of Allah’s Book is through formal studies in school. Otherwise, it has very little to no significance in their lives.
In fact, many Arabs see the use of fus-ha in every day speech and writing as something extremely ancient, backwards, and farfetched. This is so much so that if anyone speaks fus-ha to communicate with people, this person becomes an object of mockery and ridicule. I’ve witnessed and experienced this firsthand while living amongst Arabs.
Amongst the Arabs whose hearts have absorbed excessive admiration of the Western power structure, there are those who do not even understand or speak much Arabic at all, as learning and speaking English has become their number one priority. In this, it is quite telling that among them, speaking American or British English is a sign of one’s lofty status and intelligence, while speaking the language of Allah’s Book is a cause for mockery and ridicule.
In this way, much of modern-day Arab culture is an actual hindrance to the preservation of Allah’s Dhikr. This is the case not only in preserving the true Arabic language of Qur’an, but also in preserving the immeasurable value of the timeless guidance being conveyed by every harf of Allah’s Book.
Non-Arabs Value Classical Arabic
Amongst non-Arabs who have learned fus-ha Arabic, you will find their homes and lives infused with the language of Allah’s Book. In this, they seek to incorporate classical Arabic into even their interactions with family and friends who also know or are studying Arabic. In this way, non-Arabs revive the prophetic Sunnah in a way that values even the daily speech of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) himself, as well as the language of Qur’an.
This is in sharp contrast to many Arabs who relegate the language of Allah’s Book and the prophetic Sunnah to something that should be discarded when they are at home amongst family and friends or living their daily lives. Even the Arabs who value and understand classical Arabic due to their studies in school, many are unable to speak it themselves, thereby making it extremely difficult for them to preserve the Arabic of the Qur’an in their practical lives. Meanwhile, many non-Arabs who have learned classical Arabic speak it amongst themselves as a matter of course.
Allah Honored the Non-Arabs
In this way, Allah has honored the non-Arabs by choosing them to be amongst the most foremost preservers of the very language of the Dhikr that He has taken it upon Himself to preserve. They, along with the Arabs who actually do value their true language and thus speak it and teach it to others, are amongst the most beloved servants of Allah on earth. These are believers whose very taqwaa (piety and consciousness of Allah) inspire them to learn, teach, and value the Arabic of the Qur’an in a way that no other Muslims do, whether Arab or non-Arab.
Understanding this reality brings new meaning to the Qur’anic ayah in which Allah says what has been translated to mean,
“O mankind! We have created you from a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know one another. Verily, the most honorable of you with Allah is the one with the most taqwaa. Verily, Allah is All-Knowing, All-Aware.”
It is undoubtedly the sincere taqwaa in the heart of the believer, whether Arab or non-Arab, that inspires him or her to learn, teach, and preserve the language of Allah’s Book in his or her daily life—while supporting and assisting other people of taqwaa on this journey.
In Every Harf Is a Blessing
Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “[Whoever recites a letter] from Allah’s Book, then he receives the reward from it, and the reward of ten the like of it. I do not say that Alif Laam Meem is a harf (letter), but Alif is a harf, Laam is a harf, and Meem is a harf” (Tirmidhi, hasan).
In this prophetic narration, we learn the multitude of value that Allah places on reciting even a single harf from His Book. And it is non-Arabs who are the foremost students of the huroof (letters) of Qur’an. This is for the simple reason that they are the ones who are initially most unfamiliar with them.
In the non-Arab’s studies, every single harf—from its utterance and distinct script to its root formation (asl) of Arabic words—is dissected, examined, and implemented. This detailed method of learning the Arabic huroof inspires an appreciation and understanding of every single letter in a way that an Arab would more easily take for granted. But in preserving His Dhikr, Allah has honored non-Arab students of His Book with the role of ensuring that not a single letter of His revelation is taken for granted in even the tiniest way, until the end of time.
Non-Arabs Enhance Everyone’s Preservation of Qur’an
Without the existence of non-Arabs, so much of the intricate study and even comprehension of Arabic words and phrases could be lost under the assumption of prior understanding based on Arabs’ cultural use of certain Arabic terms. Even Arabs who know classical Arabic and value it greatly find their own knowledge, understanding and appreciation of the Arabic language increased by merely interacting with non-Arabs who are learning Arabic and Qur’an for the first time.
The questions that non-Arabs ask are ones that many Arabs would not even have thought of due to their Arab background. Thus, Arab scholars and teachers themselves are forced to go back to Allah’s Book and the prophetic teachings to re-examine terms and phrases that before then they had thought very little of. In this way, the non-Arab’s ignorance of Arabic itself elevates the preservation process even for learned Arabs.
Non-Arabs who come from non-Muslim cultures in particular further purify the preservation of the Qur’an as a Book of timeless spiritual guidance in a way that people from Muslim cultures simply cannot. This is because non-Arabs from non-Muslim societies come with little to no preconceived notions about any Islamic concept, except that they sincerely wish to understand what their Rabb is saying and what He meant by it.
It is no doubt that Allah decreed this to happen as a means to preserve His Dhikr for all times.
A direct benefit of the consistent existence of non-Arabs from non-Muslim societies learning Allah’s deen and revelation is that there will always be on earth a group of muttaqoon (people of taqwaa) who are untainted by cultural baggage and biases connected to Arabic terminology and living Islam itself. This is a point that is tremendously significant because it is through the lens of cultural baggage and biases that both teachers and students from predominately Muslim societies filter the very meaning of their Lord’s Words, even as much of this happens unintentionally and subconsciously.
The sheer desire and determination of ostensibly ignorant non-Arab Muslims to learn the “pure truth” of Allah’s deen forces even the most knowledgeable teachers and scholars to go back, study, and relearn many Islamic concepts themselves—if they are indeed sincere and truthful in the weighty amaanah (trust) that they carry.
In this way, the student of Arabic and Qur’an aids the teacher’s own knowledge and understanding of the subject, just as the teacher or scholar aids the student’s knowledge and understanding of the subject.
Consequently, both teacher and student and Arab and non-Arab aid the preservation of Allah’s Qur’an, wherein they all have interdependent roles in this honorable distinction. In this interdependence, Allah has assigned the non-Arab a distinct role, just as He has assigned the Arab a distinct role. Therefore, not a single person’s role can be subtracted from the preservation of Allah’s Dhikr except that part of the actual preservation is lost. And Allah would not allow that to happen.
Your Lord Has Not Forgotten You
If you have emaan (true faith) in your heart, as well as a sincere desire to learn Arabic and Qur’an, this in itself is a sign that your Rabb has chosen you for a noble, honorable role in this world. No matter how far you are from your goal, and no matter how distressed you feel about your mistakes, ignorance, and faults along this path, none of these human failings change anything regarding the honor and distinction Allah has written for you.
Allah says what has been translated to mean,
“By the Glorious Morning Light, and by the Night when it is still, your Guardian-Lord has not forsaken you, nor is He displeased. And verily the Hereafter will be better for you than the present. And soon will your Guardian-Lord give you [that wherewith] you shall be well-pleased. Did He not find you an orphan and gave you shelter [and care]? And He found you wandering, and He gave you guidance. And He found you in need, and made you independent. Therefore, treat not the orphan with harshness. Nor repulse the beggar. But the bounty of your Lord, rehearse and proclaim!”
So no, your Lord has not forgotten or overlooked you, even as you make mistakes, fall backwards, and sometimes wonder if you’ll ever overcome your numerous faults. This is because even your striving to overcome your mistakes and faults in the path of knowledge and living this deen is an essential part of Allah taking it upon Himself to preserve the Dhikr—the Message of Qur’an. It is also an essential part of you purifying your own heart and soul on earth, bi’idhnillaah.
Furthermore, if you are struggling in your studies of Qur’an and are finding it difficult to read and understand the Arabic, then know that this too is a gift from your Merciful Rabb. In this, He wants to shower extra blessings upon you in this path of seeking knowledge, while granting you a status above even the most excellent and skilled reciters of Qur’an.
Our Mother Aa’ishah (may Allah be pleased with her) said that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “Verily the one who recites the Qur’an beautifully, smoothly, and precisely, he will be in the company of the noble and obedient angels. And as for the one who recites with difficulty, stammering or stumbling through its verses, then he will have twice that reward” (Al-Bukhari and Muslim).
In reflecting on this immense blessing, there is no cause for distress regarding your struggles or faults, and there is no cause for confusion regarding your noble, honorable status in front of your Rabb.
Rather it is upon each of us—whether Arab or non-Arab— to look honestly in our hearts and at the innumerable blessings in our lives, and then ask ourselves, as Allah asks us over and over in the Soorah that is aptly titled Ar-Rahmaan (The Most Gracious): “Then which of the favors of your Lord will you deny?”
O Allah! Put noor (the spiritual light of faith) in our hearts, such that we are guided upon the right path every day of our lives. And purify our hearts such that we are grateful for the favors that You continuously shower upon us, whether we are in ease or hardship. And O Allah, Ar-Rahmaan! Beautify for us the emaan in our hearts, and make Your Dhikr the most beloved gift to our souls in this world. And we beg You by Your Mercy to write us down amongst Your most sincere and dedicated Companions of Qur’an until we meet You!
Umm Zakiyyah is the internationally acclaimed author of twenty books, including the If I Should Speak trilogy, Muslim Girl, and His Other Wife. In 2019, she launched UZ Soul Gear, a passion project fueled by her love of both art and inspirational reflections. UZSoulGear.com offers apparel, wall décor, and more, aimed at supporting and inspiring the soul-centered lifestyle.
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