By Oswald Sobrino, J.D.; M.A. (Econ.); M.A. (Theo.); M.L. (Master of Latin), doctoral student, University of Florida.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Something Muslims and Catholic Traditionalists Have in Common


One thing they have in common is the tendency to raise one single language above all others when it comes to the holy.  The book at left is one I am reading now on the history of Christianity. In the course of the book, the author must, of course, deal with the rise of Islam. In doing so, he reminded me of how, for Muslims, the Arabic language of the Koran has a singularly privileged role and how any translations from the Arabic are viewed as deficient:

Muslim sources have often ascribed the Qu'ran's power to its exceptional beauty in the Arabic language, and the Qu'ran does not translate well, particularly into English.

MacCulloch, Kindle location 4788.

Here is how one Muslim source describes the Muslim view of Arabic's importance:


Ninety percent of the world's Muslims do not speak Arabic as their native language. Yet in daily prayers, when reading the Qur'an, or even in simple conversations with each other, Arabic rolls off any Muslim's tongue readily. It may be broken or heavily accented, but most Muslims make the attempt to speak and understand at least some Arabic.
Why is Arabic so important to understanding the faith of Islam?
Regardless of their linguistic, cultural, and racial differences, Muslims form one community of believers. This community is based on their shared faith in One Almighty God, and the guidance He has sent down to mankind. His final revelation to mankind, the Qur'an, was sent over 1400 years ago in the Arabic language. Arabic thus serves as a common language among this diverse community of believers.
The original Arabic text of the Qur'an has been preserved from the time of its revelation. Translations have been done into various languages, but they all refer back to the original Arabic. In order to fully understand the magnificent words of their Lord, Muslims make every attempt to understand the rich and poetic classical Arabic language.
Source link (emphasis added by blogger).

Hebrew plays a similar role among the Jewish people. Yet, in the Jewish case, there is the difference that Hebrew is also the historical and cultural language of ethnic Jews who make up the overwhelming majority of the Jewish religion. In contrast, Islam emphasizes Arabic even for the 90% of Muslims who are not ethnically Arab.

Interestingly, some Catholic traditionalists act as if the Catholic Mass is best celebrated in the Latin language (although the Roman or Latin liturgical rite is only one of several linguistically diverse liturgical rites in the Catholic Church).  I like Latin very much, to say the least--but such a view of language strikes me as more Muslim than Christian. The Pentecost event (described in Acts 2) gives us the distinctively Christian approach: let the celebration of Christ's sacrifice take place in all the languages of all ethnic groups. No one language is intrinsically privileged over any other as the essential vehicle of divine revelation or as the essential means of liturgical celebration of that revelation.

Yes, it is good to study Latin to go deeper into our faith by studying the writings of our great Latin theological and spiritual writers. It is even better to study biblical Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, the languages of the Scriptures which are uniquely central to Tradition.

Nevertheless, for Christians, at the end of the day, no one language can claim an intrinsic preeminence remotely like that of Arabic in the Islamic world. That linguistic difference is an important theological difference between Christianity and Islam that we should not be in the business of blurring.