Worldwide, the Arabic language boasts around 300 million native speakers, making it the 5th most spoken language on the planet.
It is a fascinating language which has a rich history and culture, as well as having given so much to western society. There are stacks you need to know about this Semitic language.
Arabic speakers are citizens of many different countries, the vast majority of which are Muslim.
Even outside of these countries, there are an estimated 1 billion followers of the religion of Islam.
Within Islam itself, Arabic plays a central role. It is the language that Allah used to talk to the Prophet Muhammad through the Angel Gabriel.
The Prophet Muhammad then verbally transmitted this sunnah, a verbal record of teachings, deeds and sayings of God, and they were subsequently written down in Arabic in the 114 surahs (verses) of the Quran. Each surah is of different length with the shortest being only three verses, and the longest 286.
This means that learning to write Arabic script is important for Muslims worldwide, but the spoken version also holds significance in the Islamic faith.
It is also used in the Islamic call to prayer, also known as Adhan. According to one of the five pillars of Islam, Muslims must worship five times a day; morning prayer, midday prayer, afternoon prayer, after sunset prayer, and night prayer.
Therefore across the world, Arabic can be heard daily to let each worshipper know that it is time to pray.
Focusing on the Muslim-Arab world, we'll look at the principles of the prayers in the Arabic language, and not on the small number that predate the Quranic era.
The Muslim Faith
"There is no god but God. Muhammad is the messenger of God."
This English translation of the shahada (the profession of Muslim faith) is among the most well-known phrases in the world.
This is the foundation, along with the Quran, of the Muslim faith.
There are many sects of Islam (Shia, Sunni, Shia, etc), just as with Christianity (Catholicism, Methodist, Anglican, etc). We won't go into detail concerning the differences between them or their geo-political implications, because they all rest on the same five pillars of Islam.
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The five pillars are:
- First: the declaration of faith, which we mentioned above.
- Second: salah, or prayer, in Arabic of course, which we'll look at below.
- Third: zakat, or charity, meaning alms giving or displays and works of mercy and good deeds.
- Fourth: observance of Ramadan, a period of fasting done for a one lunar month each year.
- Fifth and last: this pillar is often difficult to achieve very often in one's lifetime, but which must be consecrated at least once, is a hajj, a pilgrimage to the religious capital of the Islamic world, Mecca. Once there, one must progress along a prescribed course, around Mount Arafat, the kaaba, and the Black Stone.
How to Pray in Arabic: The Ritual Muslim Movements that Accompany the Words
One does not address the Creator only with chants; a certain number of specific movements are necessary to fulfill this ritual act of daily spiritual hygiene.
Before you begin to recite anything, you must put oneself in a suitable condition to pray, which is to say that in order to have a conversation with the divine, one must be clean and dignified which is done by doing a procedure called ghusl. Prayer rooms and mosques, according to the faith, provide a guarantee on this issue.
Having a prayer mat becomes necessary from this point of view, notably because one has take care of oneself, before praying, to inspect one's clothes and physical appearance in order to present himself in a state of cleanliness.
Ablution, also know as wudu, (ritual washings) is essentially obligatory before praying. A number of online resources provide detailed instructions on the sequence and nature of the movements.
During the act of prayer, lead by an Imam, a variety of physical movements punctuate the raka'ah:
- Changes of position (standing, kneeling with one's forehead against the ground in a gesture of reverence called ruku, crouching, etc...)
- Hand movements (arms raised for the first invocation, then on one's chest, etc...)
- Orientation of the head (lifted towards the sky, towards the sun, in such and a such a posture, etc...)
When Do Muslims Pray?
Now we revisit the subject we're here to focus on: the prayers!
Muslim cities and certain neighborhoods in the West have a call to prayer, via a muezzin, because each day has 5 specific times at which one must pray (for 5 to 10 minutes at a time) called salat:
- Fajr: Reciting of the Fajr prayer is comprised of one progression of prayer (a raka'ah), at dawn
- Dhuhr: four raka'ah, at noon
- Asr: The Asr prayer also contains four raka'ah, and is recited in the afternoon
- Maghrib: The Maghrib prayer is three raka'ah long and is done at sunset
- And Isha: The Isha prayers ends the day with four raka'ah at night
It's the sun's course across the sky that signals the prayer times.
Each time, after making sure that one has made all the necessary preparations, the faithful faces towards the Great Mosque in Mecca, in Saudi Arabia, where the kaaba is found. This orientation is called the qibla.
Prayer begins in a standing position. It doesn't need to be a mechanical or robotic stance. The implication — apart from signalling to the Creator that one is there to praise Him — is one of mysticism, which is the reason for being properly prepared before saying the first intonations.
The oral sequence opens with the famous words allahu akbar.
There are more and more instances of Mosques offer short lessons of Muslim prayers in English, which are especially available in cities with larger Muslim populations, many of which are dedicated to teaching English speakers how to pray in Arabic.
There are a number of audiovisual aides, as well, which put the Arabic texts right next to the English translations in addition to demonstrating the acts of prayer in videos.
For a more traditional route, in the course of your Arabic lessons or while visiting an Arabic language bookstore, you can order prayer manuals.
Two examples of which are The Muslim Prayer Book, by Muhammad Ali and How to Pray: A Step-by-Step Guide to Prayer in Islam, by Mustafa Umar.
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Which Dialect of Arabic Do You Need to Be Able to Pray in Arabic?
The Arabic spoken in Morocco is not the same spoken in the Middle East.
Only one in six Arabic speakers uses Literary Arabic as their mother tongue.
This is the form that's modeled on what's used in the Quran, and which is actually spoken in Egypt.
Muslim prayers are conducted in this traditional Arabic, which means that even natives of Algeria or Lebanon can have a hard time understanding everything in the prayers when they are first introduced to the rituals.
Many Muslims, especially in European countries and North America, or those who choose to convert to Islam from non-Arabic speaking countries, are not very comfortable with traditionally written Arabic.
And if you are yet to learn the Arabic alphabet, it's now easy to find online instructional guides to help the faithful pray in the "language of the Prophet" through Arabic incantations transcribed into the Latin alphabet.
It's much easier to read allahu akbar than الله أَكْبَر.
This does not free you from finding a good teacher who can help you understand the Quran in Arabic.
Learning to pray in Arabic is without a doubt much easier than learning to play a musical instrument.
But like that undertaking, you can easily find a number of free online tutorials to get hesitant practitioners started.
In order to be true follower of Muhammad, properly understanding spoken Arabic makes it possible to eliminate bad habits in pronunciation as you master the accent.
Oral comprehension of Arabic begins with attentive listening!
Other Religions That Use Arabic Orations
The traditional lunar calendar used by Muslims began with Hegira (Muhammad's flight to Medina) on July 16, 622.
Prior to this date, the Arabic language had already existed and had served as a means of communication for a lot of people, including Christians.
Because of this, you can find recognizable references in the Quran, where many names are simply Islamisized, changed to Arabic (Myriam, Yeshoua, etc...)
Christian communities in the East are more and more rare and represent a number of Churches, some attached to Rome (the Catholics), and others aligned with that is known as Orthodoxy, while some are wholly independent.
The Coptic people, Christians, are oldest remaining subsistence farmers in Egypt, dating to back to before the Islamic conquest.
But the majority of these communities use a holy language other than Arabic in order to lead their lives according to Christ.
Syrian, for example, even though it's a Semitic language like Arabic, belongs to a sub-group of Aramaic languages.
Which doesn't preclude the existence of the Our Father prayer in Arabic.
The alaouites (whose belief is a mixture of paganism and monotheistic elements), are still a part of the family of religious communities, too, since they use a dialect of Arabic found in Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey. They're a powerful bloc, contributing to a rebirth in nationalism, and then pan-Arab socialism.
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