Why must Muslims pray using the Arabic language?

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The following is excerpted from Introduction to Islam, by Dr. Muhammad Hamidullah, and it most thoroughly answers your question:

Paragraph 575/a. 

(i.) It is well known that during their service of worship [prayer, in Arabic - Salaat], Muslims employ only the Arabic language: They recite certain passages of the Qur’an and pronounce certain formulae to attest to the sublimity of God and humility of man. This is done both by the Arabs and the non-Arabs, even by those who do not know a word of Arabic. Such was the case in time of the Prophet Muhammad and such has been the case (since to this day, whatever the country and the tongue of Muslims. 

(ii)  At first sight it may seem normal and even desirable that the faithful should address his prayer to the Lord in a way that he is fully conscious of what he says. Of course, the mother-tongue, the medium best suited for the purpose, the worship being performed in as many languages as are spoken by the Muslim community. But a little deeper consideration shows that there are reasons that militate strongly against such a solution. 

(iii)   First of all, a metaphysical or psychological point. According to the Holy Qur'an (33:6), the wives of the Prophet are mothers of the Muslims. We know that all of these revered ladies spoke Arabic. Therefore Arabic is the mother-tongue of all the Muslims. Who can object to praying in one's mother-tongue! 

(iv) Perhaps this argument does not suffice to convince everybody. Pushing further, it is noteworthy that according to the Islamic belief the Qur'an is the Word of God, the recitation of which is considered by the Qur'an as something meritorious. This is evident from the spiritual point of view. The faithful journey's unto the Lord through the sacred word of the Lord Himself. His Word is the path towards Him, something like a wire to conduct the electrical current that illuminates the bulb. The journey unto the Lord is of course the ultimate goal that every soul aspires to reach. The original Word has been revealed in Arabic: any translation would be a human work and human word, and this can scarcely serve the purpose of this mystical journey. 

(v) For those who would seek more mundane reasons, let us recall first that a clear distinction is to be made between prayer, in the sense of supplication (du'a), and the prayer in the sense of the service of worship to God (salaat), in so far as du’a is concerned --  i.e., the prayer in general and outside the formal way of worshiping God, the tete-a-tete with the Lord (munajaat)-- nobody has ever raised the slightest objection to the liberty of the individual to address one's need, one's petitions to the Lord in any language and in any physical posture one prefers. It is purely personal and private affair and concerns the relations of the individual creature directly with the Creator. The salaat [prayer], on the contrary, is a collective and public affair, where the needs and requirements of other companions of the congregation are evidently to be taken into consideration. It is pointedly to bring into relief that the salaat is in principle and preferably to be performed in common along with others (jama’at): the salaat individually and in isolation is only tolerated and never recommended, the preference going to the congregational service. Let us see now more closely the diverse aspects of this collective and public act which is performed in the company of others. 

(vi) Had Islam been a regional, racial or national religion, one would certainly have employed the current language of the region, of the race, of the nation. But quite different are the requirements of a universal religion, whose members speak hundreds of regional languages -- of which each is incomprehensible to all the rest of the human groups -- belonging to all the races and inhabitants of all the regions of the earth. Our life today is getting more and more cosmopolitan, and practically every town has Muslims belonging to several linguistic groups, both from among the permanent residents and the travellers in transit, and has to take into consideration the aspect of courtesy and hospitality to strangers. Supposing an Englishman goes to China and knows not a word of its language, and supposing he hears in the street something like "chen chu chih shan", evidently he would not understand what is intended thereby; and if it is the regional translation of the well-known call to prayer, the Allahu Akbar, he would fail to perceive it and would miss the weekly prayer on Friday, or the congregational prayer of the moment. (Incidentally, the mosques in China do not ordinarily resemble those in England, France or elsewhere in the Orient, and ordinarily have no minarets either). Similarly a Chinese Muslim, travelling through other countries, would find nothing in common with his co-religionists if these others said their collective worship in their local tongues. So a universal religion requires certain basic things to be common to all the faithful. The call to prayer and the formulae to be recited in the act of worship evidently constitute part of such fundamental and basic elements of the practice of the cult. A passing remark may be made about the fact that sometimes words of two different languages sound alike but have different signification's, at times the harmless word of one signifying something ridiculous or obscene in another. Such a risk is greater in languages with which one is utterly unfamiliar, and hears them only during a journey for example. This would be contrary to the dignity of the service of worship to God. Things familiar from childhood avoid such complications, even if the individual is a non-Arab and recites in Arabic the required formulae. 

(vii)  One cannot neglect the psychological aspect of human beings who have at times petty prejudices of xenophobia. Occasions would arise daily when political (national) or even personal and individual frictions would induce, for instance, an Englishman not to participate in the salaat led in French or Russian or some other language. Arabic, as the language of the Qur'an and the Hadith, has a respect and a halo in the minds of every Muslim, and one employs it not as the language of the Arabs but as the language of the Prophet Muhammad, the language of the mothers-of-the-faithful, the language God Himself has chosen for revealing His latest Word for us. 

(viii)  The needs of unity among the co-religionists can never be too much stressed upon. One should create new links to strengthen their ties of fraternity, rather than destroy those that already exist. 

(ix) One may also cite the example of international congresses and meetings. When, for instance, one attends the United Organization session, one cannot select the medium of expression according to one's whims and fancies, which would be contrary to the object of the meeting, and one would fail to reach others attending the session; one is obliged to employ himself or get his speech translated into the officially recognized languages, which are for all practical purposes either English or French, and nobody objects to this state of affairs. In the general interest, one has to sacrifice the particular interest, on pain of losing in the long run, even the particular interest. 

(x) There is another aspect of the question which is no less important. In fact no translation ever replaces the original. There are for instance, nowadays numerous translations of the Holy Qur'an in English (as also in practically every language of the world), yet every now and then there are new and unceasing attempts to produce another translation, thinking that the older ones are partly defective. This is true not only of English but of every language of the world, and true also of the translation of any and every work. Should one utilize a defective thing or the perfect one, the translation or the original? 

(xi)  Let us recall in this connection that practically no religion, excepting Islam, possesses today integrally the original of the Revelation on which it is based, the original teaching of its founder: It is the translation, or at best fragments, of which dispose the Christian, Jewish, Parsi and other communities. How fortunate the Muslims are that they form an exception, and possess integrally the original text of the Revelation, the Holy Qur'an! 

(xii) What is more, the Qur'an, although in prose, possesses all the qualities and charms of poetry, such as rhythm, resonance, grandeur of style, etc., so much so that the omission or addition of even a single letter in the text disturbs it as much as it would disturb the hemistitch of a verse. Some time ago, it happened to the present writer that a Muslim French convert, who is a musician by profession, one day assured me that in chapter 110 of the Qur'an some passage seemed to have been lost, for it reads ‘fi dinillahi afwaja. Fasabbih . . . ‘ , which is musically impossible. My scant knowledge of the art of reciting the Qur'an came to my aid and I replied: "No, the correct reading of the passage is: ‘fi dinil-lahi afwjan-v-fasabbih . . .’  (the n and f getting assimilated, so after n, there is a slight v, before pronouncing f of fasabbih. " Thereupon the musician and well-meaning brother exclaimed at once: "I renew my faith; with your explanation there remains nothing objectionable from the musical point of view, and no passage seems to be lacking." The prose of  the Qur'an is as much measured as the lines of a poem. And if this is so, who would desire to replace something perfect and splendid by something comparatively mediocre! 

(xiii) One should not lose sight of the fact that in the entire salaat there are very few passages to recite. There are first the adhan and iqamah (call to prayer). Then inside the service of worship there are the formulae Allahu-Akbar, subhana rabbiyal-'azim, subhana rabby-ala, the short chapter al-Fatiha, two other short chapters, and the prayer of tashahhud, and that is all. The totality does not exceed a page of small size, and most of the words of these texts are commonly understood by the Muslim masses and have penetrated into all the languages of the Muslim countries,  so  much so that even a child or a beginner learns their meaning without pain and without strain. And once the significance of these formulae is learnt, the salaat of a Muslim remains no more a mechanical recitation without understanding. 

(xiv) Personally, this writer thinks that no Muslim would ever bestow the same respect on a translation of the Qur’an as he does on the original revealed by God to His messenger. For the translation would be done by an ordinary human being and not by an infallible person who should be protected by God against error, as is the case of a Prophet. 

  (xv) There is an aspect of Arabic language which merits to be brought into relief here. Apart from its incomparable musical qualities, recognized on all hands, the Arabic language itself, in its literary form, has changed since at least 1500 years neither in grammar, nor vocabulary, nor spelling, nor even pronunciation. Those who understand the language of Arabic newspapers and radio broadcasts today understand as perfectly the language of the Holy Qur’an. For a religion brought by the last of the Messengers of God and the Seal of the prophets, and also destined for all times till the end of the world, is it not providential that the language selected for this Message should also be otherwise stable and unchanging? Otherwise God in His unlimited mercy would uselessly be obliged to repeat the same Message to a new prophet in a new book comprehensible to the living men. 

 (xvi) One day a young student kept insisting on the importance of understanding what one says (or prays). When all other argument seemed to fail to convince him, the author ironically said: “If you promise me that you will perform regularly the five daily services in your mother-tongue, I authorize you to do so.” Forthwith he interrupted the discussion, and never came again to speak of it. In other words, those who insist on regionalizing the faith and cult are those who do not practise it themselves: at least, such is the case with the immense majority of them. A believer has no need to take counsel with those who do not believe in or do not practise Islam. 

(xvii) To end, there are writers who say that they have the backing of such authorities as the Imam Abu Hanifah (d. 767 C.E.) to say that the recitation of the translation of the Qur'an in the service of worship is permitted. But this is only a half-truth. These writers omit to mention that the Imam Abu Hanifah, although he had this opinion in the beginning changed it later on (as we find express precision of it in the authoritative manuals of law such as the Hidayah of al-Marghinani, the ad-Durr al-Mukhtar of al-Haskafi, etc.), and that he rallied to the general opinion that in normal cases only the Arabic text is to be employed in the services of worship. Of course, there are provisions for exceptional cases, such as the needs of a new convert: immediately on his embracing Islam, he has to commence to perform the five daily services in which it is necessary to recite by heart the prescribed formulae. Until such time as he learns these formulae by heart, he may use their sense in any other language he can. For this we have the very high precedent of Salman al-Farisi, who sent the translation of al-Fatiha to some Persian converts, with the authorization of the Prophet Muhammad himself and they used it until their tongue got familiarized with the Arabic text. So, for some hours or some days, the new converts may use validly the translation. 

(xviii)  One will see that there are advantages and disadvantages, both, in the use of a foreign language in one's service of worship. This is also the case with regard to the use of a regional language (viz. mother-tongue) for this purpose by members of a universal religion. In such cases one makes one's choice by weighing the advantages against the disadvantages, and one sees where lies the lesser of the two evils.