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Does Islam require “Arabization?”

Does Islam require “Arabization?”


Is continued Arabization of Muslim populations necessary for Islam to flourish? Was it ever necessary to begin with? The legacy of Arabization (often times via force or coercion) in Muslim conquests of the past does not sit very well with me and I feel that its residual effects lead many Muslims and non-Muslims to equate Arabs and the way they practice Islam to be more ‘authentic’ or ”the ideal’ to aspire to. Often, it leads to the othering of non-Arab Muslims and privileges Arab Muslims.

Salaam alykum,

If I am honest, I believe this idea of the “Arabization” of Islam is usually overblown, especially when we look at regional scholarship.

If you look at the work of Ahmad Sirhindi or Shah Waliullah, or even Mawdudi, all of whom are South Asian Islamic scholars, the centrality of the Arabic language or of the trappings of “Arabization” is of greater importance to them than Arab scholars. Only Shah Waliullah was concerned with the spread of Islam among the broader population, as he famously translated The Qur’an into Persian (which took some guts, credit to him, for real), a much more accessible language for many in South Asia (at the time), yet still, you cannot exactly say he was a “man of the people.”

Furthermore, when you look at the centrality of the proper pronunciation of Arabic towards one’s adequate practice of Islam, again, this is not the concern of Arab scholars, but of central concern to (primarily) South Asian scholars and South Asian Islamic organizations, like the predominantly (although not exclusively) South Asian Tablighi Jamaat.

Turkey’s population would bridle at any charge of Arabization, as would Iranians, which is great, they should be proud of their cultures, but the fact that Arabic is the language of The Qur’an and that prayers are conducted in Arabic means that Arabic is of central importance to the Muslim mindset simply due to that fact. The importance of having a preserved language for the scholastic level of Islam is important, and the issues Biblical scholarship contends with over the issue of translation is the easiest example to offer in illustration of the benefits of utilizing a single (preferably the original) language for scholarly discourse.

I find the idea that Arabs, as a whole, privilege themselves over non-Arabs, as a simple rule to be inaccurate. When you look at Pakistan, they have Khutbas (sermons on Friday) in Arabic first and then in Urdu after prayers, which in my mind, makes little sense. In Indonesia, however, this is not done, as the vernacular is used. Furthermore, every culture wants pride in itself, a Turkish joke goes that an Arab man and Turkish man were fighting, to which the Arab replied: “Well The Prophet was an Arab, so we’re better,” the Turk, angered at the statement yells back: “well God is Turkish!” This is a joke, and while God clearly has no nationality, gender, or any other earthly characteristics, the joke illustrates cultural placement but also underlines the next point.

The idea that Arabization was “often times via force or coercion” is also, false. The early Arab Muslims ruled as minorities for extended periods of time and the utilization of Arabic as the language of the people was not even a constant feature, as for many periods Persian was preferred as a language of learning. Furthermore, the mantle of Islamic Civilization was placed in Turkish hands, first at the start of the 16th century, as the Caliphate was in possession by the Ottomans until the office was abolished in the early 1900’s, yet to go back and to equate the early Muslim conquests as “Arab conquests” is rather odd, especially as the number of Arabs would not have been enough for them to sustain armies in such a number to “force Arabization” upon people. For example, at the Battle of Hunayn, The Prophet commanded a force of about 12,000 against 20,000. We’re not talking massive armies here, and that is one of the largest figures we have, so uniformly Arab armies would not have been enough, Islam’s egalitarianism was a central element towards Islam’s spread.

If I am honest, I agree with you in your discomfort at those who equate Arab practices of Islam to “authentic Islam,” but I think to put that mantle upon the Arabs themselves is not accurate. There is the element that scholarship tended to center in the Middle East (although, again, Persian language and culture was extremely important for large, sustained periods), which inclines towards a certain mindset or direction, but at the same time, the largest push of Arabization is not really “Arabization” as much as it is the mistaken belief that modern Bedouin practices are the “most authentic.”

The Arab world is, just from sheer figures of population, not dominated by the Gulf, where these Bedouin cultures are rooted. Egypt is the leader of the Arab world, from a place of movies, music, and culture, Egypt is widely seen as the center. Arab populations in the United States are not as aware of this, but Arab populations in the Arab World are quite aware, but I am disinterested in debating a rather well-confirmed concept.

Actually, just to prevent anyone from coming at me, let’s just do this:

Adeed Dawisha in his work Arab Nationalism writes: “Egypt, through its many attributes, had to be considered the role model that influences the entire Arab world.”

In Andrew Hammond’s work Pop Culture Arab World!: Media, Arts, and Lifestyle, he writes: “Egypt is heavily present at the point where local cultures merge at a wider level as a regional Arab cultures, and its dialect has become something of a second lingua franca for Arabs, after the classical language.”

That is not to say Egypt is alone in this, as Beirut, Baghdad, and Damascus form, with Cairo, the traditional centers of Arab culture.

Why did I bring up this point? Because the “Arabization” that is occurring, especially among non-Arab American Muslims has little to do with Arabs as a whole and far more to do with the perception of “Islamic authenticity” being found in modern day Saudi Arabia. When it comes to the home of Islam’s historic institutions they are not found in Saudi Arabia, but at Egypt’s Al-Azhar, Tunisia’s Ez-Zitouna, and Morocco’s Al-Karaouine, among others.

So, I do not buy this argument that “Arabization” is the problem, because it is not, the problem is that Muslims have accepted that the cultural practices of Arabs in the Gulf is the ultimate reflection of Islam, which is not a result of “Arabization” but through a growing trend of American Muslims in being so disconnected from traditional methods of learning that they do not even know who Sheikh Al-Azhar is.

When you compare the relevance of Grand Mufti of Egypt Ali Gomaa’s or Sheikh Al-Azhar’s Ahmed Et-Tayyeb (and Sheikh Tantawi before him) opinions upon the Muslim world to those of Sheikhs bin Baz or Uthaymeen, I’m sorry, there is no comparison. I’d like to underline, I am not denigrating their work, I’m talking about which is the most known and influential.

Sheikh Shaarawy (an Egyptian) is the most famous Islamic personality of the last twenty (plus) years and is known whether one steps in Morocco, Syria, or Sudan. Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi (Egyptian) has tremendous clout, as does Sheikh Ramadan Al-Buti (Syrian). Even if we went by non-scholarly levels, Amr Khaled (also Egyptian) probably has more listeners than the routinely paraded so-called representatives of “Arab Islam.”

When we look at the most famous Western Muslim scholars, many (if not most) are not Arab. Sheikh Yasir Qadhi and Ustadh Nouman Ali Khan are South Asian, Sheikh Hamza Yusuf is American, as is Sheikh Suhaib Webb, Sheikh Zaid Shakir, Sheikh Siraj Wahaj, and Sheikh Yusuf Estes.

My issue, however, is the skewed sense among American Muslims of where the tradition of Islam was found. It was not in Medina, I’m sorry, it just wasn’t. We want to think that the scholars all came together and basked in the glory of Mecca and Medina and studied Islam, when the reality was that historical scholarship was not scholarship (as we think of it), it was them being lawyers and judges all across Muslim Empires. From Rumi to Suyuti, these guys made money by being jurists, and we like to forget that.

If one wanted to write about the root of this inclination towards Saudi institutions, you would not find it from Arabization or Arab cultural hegemony, rather, you would find it in the roots set about in Sirhindi and South Asian perceptions of Islamic authenticity which would manifest itself in the works of Mawdudi and other Jamaat-e-Islaami writers, which in comparison to contemporary works seem docile. I mean, Mawdudi includes Imam Al-Ghazali as one of his Mujaddids (Islamic Reformers) whereas many Islamic organizations in America would not even mention him.

The idea that non-Arabs are “othered” uniquely among American Muslims is, to me, laughable. I’ll tell you why.

Wherever I go across the states, this is how I hear Mosques described: “that’s the Turkish Mosque” or “Somali Mosque” or “Palestinian Mosque” or “Bosnian Mosque.” That’s why I think of it as laughable, I mean sure, being a non-Arab at an Arab Mosque, and people will, I dunno, wonder why you are there, but be a non-Albanian at an Albanian Mosque and the same problem exists. I’ve heard being a Syrian at a Egyptian Mosque is tough, and they’re both Arabs, so what does that tell you?

Do I exempt Arabs from “othering?” Of course not, the point is, in America, we segregate ourselves, which is actually the most sad because in America we have every opportunity to stop this, to truly live up to the Islamic ideal of openness, but we do not.

In short, to mark “Arabization” as a wide-ranging problem, I would argue this is more of an issue in South Asian populations, but one that does not emerge from outside themselves, but again, as Sirhindi and Mawdudi (among others) illustrate, it is also a product of power-relations and the relative place “Islamic authenticity” was deemed (by indigenous elites) to emerge from.

Muslims in Indonesia, Malaysia, China, Albania, do not have the same stances towards “Arabization” or even participate it in the same way, and so, if you want a Tumblr-level debate, then utilize anecdotal evidence of various users’ experience, but, if you want an answer on this issue that is academic, then you have to deal with the works of Sirhindi, et al, as well as explore the differentiation between Turkic, Indonesian, and Middle Eastern population relationships versus South Asian ones, in that, whereas Middle Eastern (not Arab, mind you) Muslim Empires began as minorities, over time they became rulers of Muslim majorities, whereas in the South Asian historical experience Muslim rulers (and their populations) were minorities, and stayed that way, which created a central difference in their perception of Islamic authenticity.

There is no doubt that I find the “othering” of any Muslim population problematic and in serious conflict with the dictates of Islam, this is my stance, without question, but I want to be clear on our terms, the reality, and the relative existence of “Arabization,” which if it does exist, to establish where does it emerge.

On the off-chance that this question was directed towards “Arabization” as it relates to the Maghreb and Berber/Amazigh people, then ask someone else, as I do not feel I am the right resource for such an issue.

I pray this reaches you and your families in the best of health and Iman, insha Allah.

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