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A 13th century tile panel with Quranic verse (Photo by Roberto Machado Noa/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Learning to speak Islam

Essay | 11 minute read
A writer set out, after 9/11, to learn Arabic, Urdu and Persian. He reflects on religion as a kind of language that has the power to communicate across countries, cultures and time

On a blazing Sunday morning in July, I went in search of my grandfather’s grave. Born in 1900 in Zanzibar, off the East African coast, Hussein Allarikhia Rahim died in 1979 in London, and was buried in Brookwood cemetery, near Woking, where Britain’s first mosque still stands. I was born too late to ever meet him, but I always heard ‘papa’ (equal weight on each syllable) spoken about at home with hushed respect. He surveyed us from a black-and-white photograph in the living room, sitting on an ivory chair at Zanzibar’s High Court, where he worked first as a prosecutor and later a magistrate. Clustered on his chest are the medals he won for his service to the empire, including the Coronation Medal and an MBE.

In East Africa many people of Indian origin cooperated – some might say collaborated – with their British rulers. Wandering through Brookwood’s parched stubble, searching for a grave that I hadn’t visited for more than a decade, I noted with a friend dozens of Indian Muslim sepoys, soldiers, sailors and cooks who had fought for this country during the wars.

Mulla Hussein A’Rahim

We also stumbled across some early British Muslim intellectuals: the convert Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall, an English Indiophile; and Yusuf Ali, an Indian Anglophile who, like my grandfather, hailed originally from Gujarat, and who died destitute on the streets of 1950s London. Both Pickthall and Yusuf Ali produced rival English translations of the Qur’an in the 1930s – two of the earliest done by Muslims. They were rivals, not friends: Pickthall dismissed Yusuf Ali’s work as only fit for Muslims who ‘know English better than the teaching of their own Qur’an’. Fate, though, has decreed they are now only a few plots away from one another.

I grew up reading both translations, and both have their virtues. Pickthall channels the poetic archaisms of the King James Bible to imitate the lofty style of the original Arabic. Yusuf Ali, though less elegant, adds an eccentric commentary that compares passages from the holy book with Shakespeare and Milton. In fact, I must have first come across these English poets in Yusuf Ali’s Qur’an commentary – a pleasing overlap between my twin literary inheritances. Meanwhile, in Zanzibar, my grandfather – who in his spare time was a preacher, scholar and linguist – was preparing his own English Dictionary of the Holy Qur’an.

The legacy of these almost-forgotten personalities, equally at home in the western canon as the Islamic, offers a suggestive example to modern British Muslims. Jihadist attacks have put us under scrutiny. The deluge of commentary about what one tabloid commentator has called ‘the Muslim problem’ is now pervasive. Sometimes it feels as though we are regarded as (at best) an anomaly needing to be civilised into modernity; and (at worst) barbarians hell-bent on colonising Britain’s streets.

These binary expectations have created an insecure generation, continually under pressure to explain – or even justify – a faith they may not really know that much about. Insecurity breeds fractured selves, divided families, welling resentments. The danger thus arises that, in pursuit of an authentic ‘Islamic identity’, some may be drawn to charismatic preachers offering a simple, ready-made version of Islam, for the price of a few YouTube clicks. British Muslims often complain about western ignorance. Just as worrying, though, is our own ignorance of a rich and varied religious and cultural inheritance; one that doesn’t much resemble the version I sometimes hear preached on the high street by men flaunting their beards and badly printed pamphlets.

For a long time that ignorance was my own. Growing up in a west London suburb, I had a typical enough religious education, learning to recite the Qur’an without knowing what it meant and sitting through hours of incomprehensible Urdu lectures. My parents sent me to Arabic school on a Saturday morning though I never got much beyond alef-be-te. (I was too busy mooning after the silken-haired Egyptian girl on the opposite side of the class.) By the time I turned eighteen, I was bored of religion and threw myself instead into English literature.

Then came 9/11 and suddenly being a Muslim became political. I began to be asked questions that my mosque education had not equipped me for: about the rules of war, about the Prophet’s treatment of Jews and women, and the apparent intellectual stagnation of the Muslim world. At a party, I was told by a senior journalist who fancied himself an expert on these things: ‘Of course the problem is that al-Ghazali closed the gates of ijtihad.’ I didn’t know what to say. At the time I was hazy about the word ijtihad – in fact it means the effort of interpretation, and has the same root as the word jihad – and barely knew anything about al-Ghazali. (I know a bit more now and if my questioner is reading this: you’re wrong, the gates remain wide open.)

I felt unsettled by my ignorance of Islamic philosophy, theology, literature and the languages they were written in. Especially the languages. My papa was an expert in three of the four main languages of Islam: Arabic, Persian and Urdu. (Ottoman Turkish is the other.) What did I have? Just plain old English.

I wasn’t alone. In his much-discussed book What is Islam? (2015), the Harvard scholar Shahab Ahmed identifies this descent to monolingualism as a general historical phenomenon: ‘In the pre-modern period,’ he writes, ‘the educated elite of the Balkans-to-Bengal complex would, as a matter of course, have been proficient in reading texts in Arabic and Persian . . . this is no longer the case.’ Ahmed was right that such linguistic narrowing had damaged the intellectual culture of the Islamic world.

Especially so for British Muslims, I would argue, many of whom have absorbed their compatriots dislike of learning languages. The result? We are cut off from the past 1,400 years of interpretation and re-interpretation, from the poems and songs, the commentaries and treaties, the folklore and stories that make up Islamic civilisation. And all we are left with is a Wahhabi-fied religion starved of the revitalising infusions gained over the centuries from the people that the religion first conquered, and whose cultures then conquered it.

All of which is my way of explaining why over the last ten years I’ve been studying, with varying degrees of application and more than one fallow period, Arabic, Urdu and Persian. Amid the usual frustrations and setbacks, I’ve become addicted not only to the languages themselves but also to the environment of the language class. Naturally, I started with Arabic, Islam’s central liturgical language. In my mid-twenties, I went to Syria for six months to study at the University of Damascus. It’s hard to recall those days, of course, without also thinking of the destruction since rained down on the country – the language centre I studied at has, I was recently told, been struck by rocket fire. But I shall do my best to remember it as it was.

Along with mostly non-Muslim Italians, Danes and Swiss (not many Brits or Americans), I studied modern standard Arabic or fusha – a formal lingua franca used in news broadcasts and novels, but rarely heard in ordinary conversation. Fusha is related to the language of the Qur’an, and requires fastidious application when speaking or writing it. (You got some funny looks chatting to ordinary Syrians in fusha: think of someone using a stiffly condescending English, except littered with errors.) Pretty much every Muslim thinker down the centuries has mastered Arabic. It is Islam’s linguistic backbone; the language of revelation, of course, but also law, philosophy and theology. Many of these great thinkers weren’t actually native Arabs: the infuriatingly complex grammar, for example, was defined by an eighth-century Persian named Sibawhay.

I remember one Syrian teacher especially. Fatima, dressed conservatively in a blue overcoat and white headscarf, always seemed to be giggling. She was doing a masters in linguistics and, towards the end of term, shyly asked if I wanted to read one of her English essays. Since I had only spoken Arabic with her, I didn’t know what standard to expect. It turned out to be a word-perfect academic essay on Roland Barthes. She guessed that she had confounded my expectations of what a religious Syrian woman might be interested in. What she and the other Syrians I met taught me, though, was that in a country where it’s unremarkable to be Muslim, there is scope and space to be many other things as well.

Studying Arabic helped me understand the Qur’an. But I also read the poems of Nizar Qabbani and the prose of Naguib Mahfouz. I learned that large tranches of Arabic culture were not especially influenced by Islam: religion was a background hum that could be turned up or down depending on personal preference; it did not have to be a self-conscious ‘identity’. (This was before jihadists took over parts of Syria.) On my last trip to Damascus in 2009, I visited the shrine of Ibn Arabi, the thirteenth-century Spanish mystical poet. I have a copy of his spiritual odes with a translation by the great orientalist Reynold Nicholson. It’s a book I often turn to after switching off the news from Syria.

Back in London, I continued with Arabic for two years before switching to Urdu. After all those childhood lectures I should have had a feel for the language, but I quickly realised I knew less than I thought. The combination of a charming but useless teacher and my own laziness meant I gave up after a year.

Still, I found these courses anthropologically fascinating. The students could be divided into two types: British Pakistanis wanting to read and write a language they could already, more or less, speak; and the English spouses of Pakistanis who wanted to better communicate with their in-laws – or at least wanted to be seen to be making the effort. At the time, I was working at a newspaper where I was pretty much the only Muslim. I found it delicious, I admit, to spend a couple of hours a week in a place where the hierarchies were reversed, and white people were stumbling over words I could at least pronounce easily. At the weekend, I visited my mother and instead of watching television we would translate Mohammed Rafi songs.

Statue of singer Mohammed Rafi, near Amritsar, India (NARINDER NANU/AFP/GettyImages)

At the start of 2017, I embarked on Persian, which has proved the most enjoyable of all. For centuries it was Islam’s premier poetic language, not only in what is now called Iran and Afghanistan, but all over the Indian sub-continent – Mirza Ghalib and Mohammed Iqbal often used Persian. Grammatically simple, it has a lightness and musicality that balances the grave beauty of Arabic. There is something exquisitely feminine about Persian, a language whose gender ambiguity extends to not even having a different word for ‘she’ and ‘he’, as contrasted with Arabic’s muscular rhythms. As I heard someone once say, Arabic is my spouse but Persian is my mistress.

By now we are studying extracts from Saadi and Rumi, folk-stories about prophets and holy men that I half remember from the picture books of my youth. My Indian ancestors were converted to Islam by Shia Persian Pirs or holy men (or so the story goes) and my family’s language has been shaped by Persian in ways I never quite realised. We call the Prophet’s birthday a khoshali, originally (via Urdu) from the Persian khosh-hal, to be happy. We say goodbye saying khoda-hafiz, or God protect you, using the Zoroastrian word for Ahura Mazda, Khoda. (There is a recent fashion in Pakistan to say Allah-hafiz, trying to purge the term of its supposedly un-Islamic meaning.) I have made other pleasing re-connections: in the advanced class before me, I overheard my uncle Maqbul – papa’s nephew – speaking fluently to our teacher. It felt good to greet another Rahim (in Persian, no less) as he left his lesson, and I arrived for mine.

Ruins of Rumi’s house in northern Balkh province, Afghanistan (FARSHAD USYAN/AFP/Getty Images)

I’m under no illusions about my proficiency. Anything more than a simple text or news report – literature, for example – requires me to consult an English translation. I’m getting only the merest scent of what a native speaker can apprehend. But a scent can lead you to a promised garden, which, in my imagination, looks something like a flower-filled miniature by Bihzad of Herat.

T. S. Eliot wrote that: ‘One of the reasons for learning at least one foreign language well is that we acquire a kind of supplementary personality.’ That supplementary personality, for me, is the Muslim side of being a British Muslim. I’ve learned more about the religion and its myriad cultural forms in the context of these language classes than I ever have in a mosque. If there are any politicians reading, I have one piece of advice: scrap Prevent; teach Persian instead.

For what is a religion except a kind of language? One that enables you to communicate across countries and eras; that can be spoken with ugly words or beautiful ones; that can lie or tell the truth; that can be spoken in different accents while remaining recognisably itself; that is flexible and always evolving, even if the myth of pristine origins dies hard. My new languages are giving me the tools to speak a more fluent Islam; and perhaps also to work out how the religion will change as a new language flows into its stream: English.

After hours searching for papa’s grave, we gave up. I just couldn’t find it. We sat next to an unmarked grave and I recited a passage from the Qur’an. Then we ate some apples and threw the cores in the bushes. I left disappointed I didn’t find what I was looking for. But I promised myself I would try again, this time armed with a map, which will, I’m sure, lead me where I need to go.

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