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Friday Sermon: The Language of God

By Babatunde Jose

Language is a human construct, designed to convey ideas and concepts so as to communicate with other humans. God transcends human constructs. Further, “speaking a language” is a physical action. God is not physical.

This question presupposes the wholly inaccurate image of “God” as a physical being who vocalizes by expelling air from His lungs and further chooses to communicate with specific human words. This question is like asking “What language does love speak?”

“Silence is the language of God, all else is poor translation.”― Jalal ad-Din Rumi

There is an old chestnut from WWI. Hans and Dieter are in the trenches, and on one boring evening they are speculating about who is going to win the war. Hans: We’re going to win, obviously. Dieter: Why do you say that? Hans: Well look around you. We’ve got thousands of men here and every one of them is praying to God for our victory right now. Dieter (Pointing to the English lines): But, Hans, they have just as many over there. Don’t you think they’re praying to God too?Hans: Yes, of course they are, but God doesn’t speak English.

The foregoing illustrates the follies inherent in human thinking on what language God speak; God can speak any language. God is the original source of all talents and qualities.

Apparently, there is a supposition that God speaks whatever language we do not understand, but which the local priest, imam, shaman (or other equivalent) does happen to speak, in order to … interpret God’s wishes and commands to us. There’s always a book or a handed-down lore, and it always is somehow in human language, and it always somehow needs interpretation, and it never does well (in terms of preserving ‘veracity’ and ‘legitimacy’ ) in translation. However, this has not deterred the Bible from being translated into many languages from the biblical languages of Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. As of October 2017 the full Bible has been translated into 670 languages, the New Testament alone into 1,521 languages and Bible portions or stories into 1,121 other languages. And interestingly all services are held in the vernacular.

The God of Judaism is addressed in Biblical Hebrew through prayers, yet Jews speak to him outside the synagogue in all languages, he appears to have spoken to Jewish prophets in their language – biblical Hebrew.

Allah revealed the Quran in Arabic and is still prayed to in Arabic; despite its translation into major languages of the world. It is the most anachronistic of the Abrahamic religions.

Hindu gods are addressed and acknowledged in their rituals in Sanskrit, yet when they appear in films and TV series, they speak Hindi, Punjabi, and Gujarati etc.

The Shinto pantheon is addressed in Japanese, likewise the multitude of Chinese gods are addressed/invoked/propitiated in all manner of different Chinese dialects.

Tibetan Buddhists use Tibetan and Sanskrit in their services, yet for the benefit of those practising Vajrayana Buddhism all over the world; – services are also conducted in all manner of different languages.

Gods are perceived as being somewhat more powerful than humans, and as such perhaps can use any language they wish, when communicating with humans – they’ll use whichever languages humans will understand.

The problem of religious language is worrisome to practitioners of the Abrahamic religious traditions because it has the potential to undermine those traditions. All three faiths proclaim truths about God in written texts, commentary traditions, and oral teachings. In fact, speech about God is essential to both personal praxis and organized celebration in these traditions. Without adequate solution to the problem of religious language, human speech about God is called into question. Without the ability to speak about God and to understand the meaning of what is spoken, the Abrahamic (Middle Eastern) faiths are vulnerable to the criticism that their sacred texts and teachings are unintelligible.

The problem of religious language also provides a challenge for philosophers of religion. If there is no adequate solution to the problem of religious language, large discussions in the domain of philosophy of religion will also be rendered unintelligible.

Once a language becomes associated, with religious worship, its believers often ascribe virtues to the language of worship that they would not give to other language even their native tongues. Religious or sacred language is vested with a solemnity and dignity that ordinary languages are perceived to lack. Consequently, the training of priests in the use of religious language becomes an important cultural investment and the use of the language is perceived to give them access to a body of knowledge that untrained lay people cannot have. This is the reason for the proliferation of Imams, Alfas, marabouts, Pastors and ‘prophets’. On the contrary, services and preachments in vernacular have a spiritual and soul lifting quality which the foreign language can never achieve. The liturgy in Yoruba is a very good example. No amount of English grammar can drive home the essence of the service to a Yoruba congregation. It’s like comparing Shakespeare to D.O. Fagunwa.

If the Holy prophet had emerged among the Bantu of South Africa, the Quran could possibly have been revealed to him in Xhosa. The same reason God revealed the Torah in Hebrew. Had He decided to send His messenger to the people who spoke Urdu He would have chosen Urdu. The Quran 44:58 states explicitly: “Thus We have revealed this [Qur’an] to you in your own tongue so that they may take heed;” because He decided to send His messenger to the Arabs:“Had We sent this as a Qur’an (in the language) other than Arabic, they would have said: “Why are not its verses explained in detail? What! (a Book) not in Arabic and (a Messenger an Arab?” (Quran 41:44).  There is no doubt God raised a prophet from among the brethren of the children of Abraham: I will raise them up a Prophet from among their brethren, like unto thee, and will put my words in his mouth; and he shall speak unto them all that I shall command him. Deut 18:18

It’s not rocket science: Prophet Muhammad was an Arab. For him to understand the Quran, it had to be in Arabic. Otherwise how can he understand the message and tell/teach other people. It is like God sending the 10 Commandments to Moses in Chinese. However, one does not have to know Arabic to learn Quran. 1,400 years after, the motive is to understand and live it. People waste years learning Quran in Arabic but do not understand the divine message. People should read and understand the message of Allah in the easiest possible language that they can understand, not necessarily Arabic. Arabic language is for Arabs only. There is also the issue of cultural imperialism associated with religion in a foreign language; as it is impossible to divorce language from culture. This is the main reason for the change from Latin to English and later to vernacular. It is also the major reason for the hiatus over the Hijab and other foreign paraphernalia of the Islamic religion. The head cover is patently a Palestinian (Middle Eastern) dress sense and its common to all Abrahamic religions.

Though it has been argued that the continued use of Arabic as the language of Islamic liturgy is to facilitate the universality of the Umma because it enables every Moslem to worship in the same language; second, Arabic had been used to good effect for a very long time, with the result that there was a great wealth of liturgical material in that language; third, the use of Arabic made it easier to avoid certain dangers of change and experimentation which are congenial to the modern mind; fourth, the continued use of Arabic in the liturgy would make it easier to maintain Arabic as the official language of the religion.

However, it is a fact that if one attends a Masjid, especially in this clime, 80% of the congregants are ignorant of the language in which the proceedings are being conducted, except it is in vernacular. I was asked to deliver a Ramadan lecture to members of NASFAT, Ipaja. I had to stop the lecture to change to Yoruba because majority of the people especially women could not understand English. A Yoruba Moslem attending a Hausa mosque is a glorified spectator; like a blind man in a cinema hall. Ditto for a Hausa in a Yoruba Mosque. Majority of our people who recite the Quran only do so by rote and do not understand the meaning of what they recite. There is a belief that saying prayers in a language one did not understand created a more mysterious, reverent and transcendent atmosphere, but this has been proved erroneous. It is therefore for this reasons that the Catholic Church in 1964 changed from Latin to the vernacular in its Mass.

The Catholic Church and its sacred documents were codified at the Council of Nicaea in 325, and it didn’t change for 1200 years. As a response to the Protestant Reformation, the Church called the Council of Trent in 1545. A recurring topic at the Council was Language of the Church. At the Council of Trent, they reaffirmed the Vulgate, which was a Latin version of the Bible translated by Saint Jerome in the 300s. Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council (also called Vatican II) in 1959. The major change initiated by Vatican II was to translate the traditional Latin mass into the vernacular; a language specific to a place. Until 1965, all Catholic Mass was said in Latin, and the Church realized that may alienate parishioners who spoke Latin only in church.

Translation is a notoriously difficult feat. It is often said that there are as many translations as there are translators. Despite its problems, the Church stood its ground in favour of the benefits to its wider adherents. This is what we expect Islam to do. Let the people worship in the vernacular. It’s only a matter of time and we will get there.

There is no doubt, when the language is not properly understood adherents could recite inappropriate verses of the Quran for prayer. Understandably, prayer and admonition are two different propositions and the Quran contain both. A congregant reciting an admonitory verse as prayer fails to communicate with God. These facts are never understood except the Book is learnt in the language of the follower. For the foregoing reasons, there is a need to free Islam from the shackles and albatross of the Arab language and culture because: God has no language. It is a spiritual feeling. Languages are just man made creations for communication. Calm your mind and try to establish a connection with the Almighty in whatever language you understand. That is the only road to salvation.

Barka Juma’at and Best wishes for a Happy New Year and a better understanding of God.

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