One reason Islam might seem unfamiliar is due to the preference and tendency of Muslims to use Arabic words and phrases- even amidst an otherwise English conversation.
If you were standing in line near me at the grocery store let’s say, and my cell phone rang, you’d probably hear me answer it and say, “assalamu alaykum! How are you?”
When my friend asks me how I’m doing, I’ll probably answer, “alhumdu lillah! I’m fine!”
Then I might let them know I’m busy and say, “I’ll call you back, insha Allah.”
So why does someone like me, who only speaks English need to mix Arabic and English when I speak?
Well, I don’t have to and I’m not trying to alienate you. There are reasons I choose to, though.
If I am speaking to a person who is not Muslim I will most often either translate those very same phrases or I leave them out altogether. (I still say them in my mind though!)
Some things just sound weird in English to me. I love the meanings of them, but that’s because I understand those meanings through the perspective given in the teachings of Islam.
Imagine if every time I met you, I was like, “peace be upon you.” or “May peace be upon you, and the mercy and blessings of God.”
It’s not a part of our social culture, therefore it is strange to our ears.
The only familiarity American Christians might have with this greeting is from church, when the priest says to the congregation, at a ritual aspect of his sermon, “Peace be with you” and the people respond in unison, “and also with you”.
The meaning is lovely if you think about it, but when when I had to say it in church, it felt unnatural for me. Many other sayings and actions especially of the priests and clergy just didn’t resonate with me and felt strange at the time. It made me feel uncomfortable. I think it was really because those concepts were so divorced from the speech and meanings of everyday life.
We weren’t taught much about the practicality of religion and the origins of such phrases; causing them to feel alien and artificial – it was never common practice to greet one another in that way.
In Islam, everything we do has a clear reason and/or proof behind it. So we know exactly why we say “peace be upon you” when we meet one another, we also can learn the in-depth precise meaning of the word “peace” which is “salam” in arabic.
The meanings of “salam” and “peace” can actually have slight differences. Arabic words tend to be rich with meaning, so when I say “salam” that is more clear and accurate as opposed to saying peace. Make sense?
So, for example, this particular greeting, “peace be upon you” is actually as old as humanity. There’s a good reason priests say it in their sermons, and you’ll find orthodox Jews and the Jews who live in Israel all greet one another saying “shalom” which means salam, which means of course, peace.
It was the greeting taught to Adam as soon as he was given life and it has remained a part of God’s guidance ever since then. For most (Non-Muslim) English speakers it has been lost and we are no longer familiar with it, outside of church.
The meaning is extraordinarily beautiful and it needs to really be said and practiced with sincerity in order to be fully appreciated. When you meet someone or address someone with “peace be upon you”, you are beginning by saying a prayer for them and their general wellbeing. You are also indicating and reminding yourself that your dealings with that person are peaceful and that you wish good for them, not harm.
How you proceed after that should be in line with that intention, if you are conscious of what you have said and you meant it.
It’s lovely; anyone who believes in God might appreciate a prayer like that being made for them as a greeting, but functionally, in English at least, it is awkward. That’s why I say it in Arabic to my Muslim friends and that’s why I don’t even say it when I’m not speaking to a Muslim person.
So let’s take another example, the word God. In a previous post I explained the meaning of the word “Allah” and that it is interchangeable- to a degree- with the word “God”.
But god is different in that it can be changed to be plural: gods.
It can refer to something entirely other than the Creator of all that exists: “He made wealth his god.”
There is no scripture stating that God’s name is… God.
So it doesn’t feel right to me. The meaning is there; enough to use the word God to serve a purpose of communication, but if I am speaking to another Muslim, of course I will choose to use the name Allah.
Linguistically, you can’t say “He made wealth his Allah.” You would say instead, “He made wealth his ilah.”
Ilah (ee-lah) is something worshipped, very similar in meaning to the word god.
God (Allah) chose Arabic for His final revelation to mankind. Once you get a little familiar with Arabic, it becomes clear why. It’s extraordinarily expressive and rich with meaning, and in spite of what one might think, it’s actually very easy to learn.
In Islam, there is a big focus on remembering God. We have things to say and do all throughout every day to keep our Maker and our purpose in our minds at all times.
We have been instructed in the Quran, for example, never to say we will do something in the future, except if we add to it, “insha Allah“. (Quran 18:24)
Insha Allah means: if God wills, or God willing. That’s a phrase many people still use today, especially practicing Jews. So unless I am speaking to a Muslim person, I will say “God willing.”
But if you and I are talking and I say, “I am traveling tomorrow, God willing.” Is it immediately clear to you what I mean by that?
Finally, I will explain one final saying that I mentioned in the beginning of this post because it is very common: alhumdulillah (al-hum-do-leel-lah)
Now if I were to translate this into english it’s not even really possible with a couple of words. When we say alhumdu lillah, we are praising God, ascribing perfection to Him, and indicating that He is most worthy and deserving of praise and gratitude. Not only that, but also that He is The Owner of praise and perfection.
So imagine if you ask me how I am doing, and I say, “I am well, All thanks and praise are due to God and He is most deserving of it. The perfect, The Owner of praise.”
I think in our culture, in our English language, it seems a bit much. I don’t expect anyone who’s not a Muslim to get it.
So that’s why we use Arabic. I hope I haven’t bored you with lots of technical talk, but I do want to open doors of understanding.
If you keep this in mind, at least you may not feel so uncomfortable if you happen to be on line in the grocery store, next to a Muslim who gets a phone call.