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God is Greatest: Translating the Prayer into English

Prepared by Abū Ibrāhīm John Starling

Many of the newly converted/reverted Muslims in our communities, and a significant percentage of the more seasoned Muslims, struggle with Arabic. This leads to difficulty in performing prayer let alone understanding what is recited within it. I myself once struggled greatly with this issue and now as a prayer leader and teacher am asked on occasion if translating the Arabic words of the prayer into one’s mother tongue is allowable.

To address this issue it must 1st be understood that the prayer is of paramount importance in Islam.[1] In fact, it is from the 1st things which we will be asked about on the day of Judgement[2]. The prayer has conditions that must be met, pillars that must be performed, and obligations that must be fulfilled in order for it to be valid. Included in these very integral aspects of the prayer are various adhkār and recitals which have been transmitted from and performed by our Prophet (peace be upon him) in the Arabic language[3]. In the following paragraphs I will relate the scholarly response, based on traditional Islām[4], to those who do not know how to recite al-Fatiḥa, the obligatory adhkār and supplications, or their supererogatory counterparts found in the prayer.

As for the recitation of al-Fātiḥa, its obligatory nature[5] “requires the ignorant who is unable to read it to learn it in order to preserve it like the remaining pillars. This is because the obligation is not fulfilled except with it. If, however, the time becomes constrained or there is an inability to learn it, its obligation ceases and what becomes required is its equivalent value in letters and verses of another desired chapter from the Quran… If only 1 verse of al-Fātiḥa is known or another chapter, it should be repeated an equivalent amount as it serves as a replacement for al-Fātiḥa and equivalency should be calculated to the best of one’s ability. If they know a verse or more of al-Fātiḥa there is nothing that will suffice it. Al-Qāḍī mentions that ‘it (repeating 1 verse) is closer to it (reciting it entirely) than anything else but if they do not know but a portion of a verse they should not repeat it but move on to the proceeding adhkār. If they do not know any Quran, not even a verse, it is not permitted to translate it by representing it in another language because its translation is considered exegesis and not Quran...’ It is required of the one who does not know even a verse of the Quran to say, subḥān Allah, wa al-ḥamdu lillah, wa lā ilāha illa Allah, wa Allahu akbar… and if they do not know all of this dhikr they are to repeat some of it in an equivalent amount just like the one who only knows 1 verse of al-Fātiḥa. If they do not know any adhkār, they are to stand (silently) the equivalent duration of the recitation…”[6]

As for the obligatory adhkar and supplications of the prayer, “learning the takbīr is required of the ignorant if they are able to do so in their locality or somewhere close by. In al-Talkhīṣ it is mentioned that if they are in the countryside they are required to venture into the city to learn it. It is not valid to make takbīr in their own language if they are able to learn it due to it being an obligatory dhikr without which the prayer is invalid. Thusly it is required that it be learned just like al-Fātiḥa and if they are not able to learn the takbir or the time of prayer becomes constrained then they are to make takbir in their own language… This is similar to all the obligatory adhkar such as the tasmīʿ, taḥmīd, tasbīḥ, tashahud, and salām which are required to learn if one is able and if not then produced in one’s native language… If they know a portion of it like the word ‘Allah’, ‘akbar’, ‘subḥān’, etc. they are to say it and then translate the remaining portion.”[7] “If they are unable to make the takbīr in Arabic or their own language then its obligation ceases just like that of the mute…” and “…are to produce it in their heart and not move their tongue.” As for the supererogatory adhkar and supplications of the prayer, they “are not to be translated into another language if they are unable to say them because they are not needed and if they do i.e. translate the supererogatory adhkar, the prayer is invalidated due to it i.e. the translation, being extraneous speech...”[8]

It can be concluded that the verbal elements of the prayer must be done in the Arabic language and all efforts must be made to fulfill this requirement. Only out of dire necessity can translations be used and not for everything nor for everyone. Translating the adhkār in the prayer, done to meet the minimum requirement of furnishing the meaning in absence of the actual phrase, is only valid for someone who does not have to ability to learn them e.g. due to not having access to a teacher or learning material, which is hard to imagine for most with such tools as the internet, or some physical or mental constraint which would lead into a different topic altogether. Using translations in the prayer should be seen as an exception to the rule and a legal allowance due to necessity such as tayammum in the absence of water or consuming pork to avoid starvation and thus kept to a bare minimum which for most may be a day or less, allowing enough time to learn what to say in Arabic.

Allah knows best and grants success to whom He wills.

 

Active Footnotes:

[1] Al-Timidhi

[2] Al-Tirmidhi

[3] Al-Bukhārī & Muslim

[4] According to the Ḥanbalī Juristic School as indicated by the primary resources of the latter generation below.

[5] Muslim

[6] Sharḥ Muntaha al-Irādāt, al-Buhūtī

[7] Sharḥ Muntaha al-Irādāt, al-Buhūtī

[8] Kashf al-Qanāʿ ʿan matn al-ʿIqnāʿ, al-Buhūtī