Several years back (five as of this posting) I wrote a short piece discussing the relevance of Arabic language to Muslims, in particular its importance as to how it’s viewed by American Muslims. In summary, I spoke of the near mystical aspect Arabic holds in the mindset of so many American Muslims: that simply by knowing Arabic one will be magically transformed into a better Muslim (this is of course contradicted by the many fine non-Muslim scholars of Arabic – Harvard PhD’s and the like, who, despite knowing what the Qur’an says, their hearts are not moved or compelled to accept its message). It is one of the most oft-repeated questions I receive: “Where did you learn your Arabic” (curiously, I’ve yet to be asked ‘has Arabic made you a better Muslim?’)? To try and answer all of this I have decided that I will leave some thoughts as well as tidbits from my studies in Arabic to help those who may attempt to set out on the path as well as some basic nuts-and-bolts of how I see it that Arabic works. As a note of importance: these thoughts and reflections are not meant to be a shake-and-bake fix for students who aspire to learn Arabic. They are first and foremost some thoughts of mine on language as a whole and are not meant to be solely didactic.
In 1992, I embraced Islam, by the grace of God, and very quickly, like many new Muslims, I felt an instant need to learn this new language as it is the main devotional language of prayer, holy book, and scholasticism. Nine months later, I had gained a fair amount of proficiency and began teaching both publicly and privately. In order to understand this phenomenon, I’ll need to rewind the clock about ten years from this point.
When I was nine-years-old, a group of Japanese students were introduced to the student population of my elementary school. From the very first encounter with these new students, I was immediately instilled with a deep passion and curiosity for culture and language in general and Japanese language and culture in particular. I was so taken with Japanese that I took it upon myself, at the ripe age of nine, to teach myself this highly complex and fascinating language. With the support of my mother and a bit of pocket money from my paper route, I marched down to Border’s Book Store (the very first Border’s before it became a national chain) and purchased a kanji dictionary (Tuttle edition – the big red one), two dictionaries (one Japanese-English, the other English-Japanese) and a set of college text books on beginning Japanese (sadly, the Tuttle kanji dictionary fell out of my possession as well as the textbooks but I still have the two original dictionaries which still hold sentimental value for me). For the next six years I would dedicate great quantities of my free time to memorizing kanji (simplified Chinese characters which make up one of three writing styles in Japanese). By the time I was ten, I was able to hold conversations in Japanese. By the time I was twelve, I could read Yomiuri Shimbun, a leading Japanese newspaper.
Skip forward a few years and by the time I entered high school I had also added Spanish fluency to the list (if it’s any consolation, I am terrible at math). So why do I list all of this? First, it’s to lay out what it realistically takes to learn a language. What’s missing from this log is the uncountable number of hours I spent locked away in my room reading and reading and reading, book after book, on grammar, vocabulary, you name it. There was a component of my personality that loved language – I mean reallyloved language, and thus, I was willing to spend the countless hours it takes to immerse oneself in a foreign language. Too often I have been told that the reason why I learned Japanese, the reason I learned Arabic, was due to my “talent”. But what is misleading and simply not accurate about this assessment is the amount of work it takes, talent or no talent. But talent is also short sited because it tends to point to a singular source for one’s acquired skill.
I see talent as not only some computational ability that is overactive in the brain but also a set of behavior traits that lend one to masting that said skill; in my case, language (“talent” also dismisses my ability as an autodidact, the ability to teach oneself, which has served me on a number of subjects, not only language). This is similar to what I call the Coltrane myth: John Coltrane was the musician he was because he had a God-given gift for music. While there’s no denying that Coltrane possessed a gift for music or that all gift’s are from God, yet it would be inaccurate to discount the rigorous, if not maddening routine that John Coltrane kept up in terms of practicing without break or pause. In other words, his gift was realized through a tremendous amount of hard work, dedication, and a personality that leant itself to OCD-like behavior to master the saxophone.
To shift gears back to Arabic, when I embraced Islam, I too saw an immediate need to learn Arabic. Given my backstory, there’s nothing new to report: I applied the same technique, the same obsessive compulsion, the same dedication, to learn and gain proficiency Arabic. For as much as ten to fourteen hours a day I would sit at my desk and practice writing and memorizing the formulas of Arabic grammar, conjugation; the formulas of morphology and rhetoric; memorizing vocabulary. It had more to do with attitude than aptitude, though I do not deny that my brain does seem to be pre-wired for language. But without the drive to learn foreign languages, I doubt I would have been able to achieve the level of success that I have, which brings me to my next topic: what are the benefits of knowing Arabic?
As I mentioned above, the Arabic language holds an almost magical grip on the imagination of converts and non-native speakers alike within Muslim ranks. I have had many conversations with Muslims, converts like myself as well as born-Muslims, who feel that the Arabic language holds the key to their understanding of Islam. I know that this may come as something of a departure, especially from one who has been scholastically involved with studying Islam for almost twenty years in a formal fashion, but I feel that sentiment is misplaced, if perhaps not misguided. To be sure, there is much more wrapped in the pursuit of Arabic language for American Muslims than simply “knowing what God says”: it’s about identity, ownership, authenticity, authority, vanity and pride and host of other adjectives. I do not wish to contend that some of these issue are not valid. What I do want to make clear is that not everyone is cut out to master a foreign language. And by master, I mean exactly that. The time, skill set, capacity and collective behaviors are a rare cocktail that few possess in sufficient quantities. Instead, for those who are setting out on this journey I have the following advice: be honest with yourself. Know your abilities and know your limits. Knowledge is meritorial, not democratic and not everyone is cut out to be a scholar. Instead, especially for those of us who believe in Akhirah, then we should prioritize what our goal is for learning Arabic: to understand what we say in prayer? To understand what we say in supplication? In the Qur’an we have memorized? I say yes, which will then require a new approach to devotional education for Muslims. All too often I see Muslims struggling to learn Arabic from a myriad of sources with an overemphasis on grammar with little to no emphasis placed on vocabulary or morphology; especially vocabulary. It’s much better in my estimation to know what the word on the page means versus knowing if it’s past or present tense. The opposite is like knowing that some action has taken place, that it was in the past but not know what happened and who it happened to. If you are learning from a book or course that is teaching you that the pencil is on top of the table, that the pencil is broken, that there are chickens and potatoes and all manner of other silly nonsense, then all you’re learning is formless grammar. You’ll find it excruciatingly difficult to apply chickens and broken pencils to Allah’s Book and the vocabulary you’ll find therein. But more importantly, Arabic language, while deeply enriching, has not by itself, transformed me into a Companion or highly devout Muslim. It has increased my knowledge of Islam, but it has not imparted that knowledge. It is a tool amongst tools in my pursuit of learning about this wonderful religion. Which brings me to my last point for this installment: the state of devotional Muslim education.
There are many new web sites and institutions popping up everyday it seems, that seek to offer Muslims this or that service. “Traditional Islam” and the like. What’s missing from much of this is an operational approach for Muslims who are seeking to bolster their devotional practices by acquiring knowledge, Arabic language included. In order for these operations to be successful I believe they need to fine tune their operations to the devotional needs of those who are seeking knowledge (again, in this case, talking about Arabic, there needs to be a focus on religious language versus the all-too-often secular language of many of these books and classes) as well as level with their prospective students and inform them that their focuses will be restricted to a devotional language. I believe this will lead to greater success in people’s lives, as what they are learning is restricted to an operational reality.
I hope this will not serve as a discouragement for Muslims who wish to learn the Arabic language but rather to realize just how big of a job they are trying to accomplish. I hope it will also be read by those who are in the field of teaching Arabic (at least to the devotional crowd) and adjust the ways in which it is taught. But more over, it is to encourage Muslims who are not masters of Lisan al-Arab, to continue to devote their lives to doing good deeds, as there are no language requirements for those. May God make us from amongst the successful in this life as well as the Next.