Q: What are the rulings on Salah, and can I pray in English?
A: بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم حامدا و مصليا و بعد
Muslims across the world tend to believe that Salah must be in Arabic and therefore would be unacceptable if any part of it was prayed in a language other than Arabic. There is a profound disconnect in this understanding and practice from the perspectives of both traditional and modern jurists on clear scriptural texts. One strange phenomenon I have come across is in how nuance on this subject is scarce and underrepresented in English books and search engines whereas we find broader depth and openness in Arabic resources both modern and traditional.
A considerable problem I intend to address is the fact that millions of Muslims don’t ever pray Salah and millions of others struggle to maintain it in their daily lives. Over the years, I have inquired with many of these people and found that either not knowing what Salah means or the loss of meaning through the repetitive ritual nature of their Salah are significant factors in their struggles. In essence, the mindful spiritual connection is missing.
For some time, I went the standard route of just encouraging them to learn the Arabic and of course they would take my advice and some would even ask for an opportunity to learn. Over the years, I have started many Arabic language courses in my community and they always start packed. Due to other commitments and obligations within a few months the class dwindles to a handful die hard students who are able to keep up. Through this process I came to realize that it is simply not realistic in our time and place to expect most adults to learn Arabic.
After Covid lockdowns, many Muslim family members came to me shocked at the realization of how many don’t really pray and are even averse to it! Consequently I embarked on a study to bring a better solution and am happy to say that I found the tradition is actually much more accommodating than even many Imams would think.
To be clear, this paper is not suggesting we change the external elements of Salah which bring crucial international unity among Muslims. The goal here is simply to present and analyze the texts and juristic precedents to offer solutions to the widespread problem of a lack of focus in individuals’ private prayers and remembrances towards a more meaningful spiritual Salah experience.
When it comes to the recitation of the Quran in the standing portion, the minority position is that one may recite a translation of the Quran until they can learn the Fatihah. This is the official Hanafi position with other scholars agreeing among other schools of thought and a growing group of modern scholars.
The majority view is that the Quran cannot be translated and must be learned and read as it was revealed and preserved. This goes back to Ayas explicitly defining the Quran as an Arabic scripture. Therefore, every Muslim is obligated to learn Al-Fatihah and any other Quran portion they read in Salah in Arabic. These scholars differed over what one would do in the standing position while learning al-Fatihah between using simple remembrances and reciting whatever they know of the Quran.
As far as the rest of Salah, there is a common opinion that one proficient in Arabic must stick to Arabic for his or her Salah to be valid. This opinion isn’t based on solid scriptural evidence. Rather it is simply relying on the practice of the prophet (pbuh) who happened to be an Arab. There also seems to be a concern for losing their connection with the original prophetic form which is the only proper reference.
As for one who is not proficient in Arabic, there are an array of opinions between permissible, dislike, and prohibitive. Each still maintaining the validity of Salah regardless. The standard position of the four schools of thought is to allow the use of other languages for one who is not proficient in Arabic.
The notion of a repetitive ritualistic Salah is in fact a cultural phenomenon rooted in an oversimplified default juristic ruling. It has led to a widespread practice that is actually quite divergent from the actual Sunnah of the prophet (pbuh) who both practiced and taught an organic mindful Salah.
Let’s Stay Principled
In Islamic legal theory, we have various principles. A couple useful ones are “There can be no juristic reasoning (Ijtihad) on a matter in which we have a decisive authentic text.” There are no direct decisive texts on this issue, but there are texts used to make a ruling which we will discuss in understanding a proper application.
Another one is “There can be no rebuking others in matters of juristic reasoning.” Matters that have been taken up for juristic reasoning exist because of vague texts, weak texts, or the lack of a text at all. While there is a general consensus on the Quran being revealed and preserved in Arabic as is mentioned in the Quran, still there is a debate among scholars about what to do if they don’t know al-Fatihah.
A majority of scholars have held that using a translation of the Quran would invalidate the Salah. When it comes to the remaining non-Quranic portions, due to a lack of clear scriptural evidence, very few scholars if any in the history of Islamic scholarship have suggested that one’s Salah would be invalid if not in Arabic. If the issue was as important as some believe, then it would have been clear from either the Quran or Sunnah.
Framing the Argument
So which evidences are used to make it necessary for a Muslim to pray in Arabic?
A common starting point for some is the hadith “Pray as you have seen me praying.” (Bukhari 6008). This is from a Hadith narrated by Malik bin Huwairith in which he and his brothers had converted and came into town to learn from the prophet. The prophet hosted them for a few days in his home and when he saw they had become homesick he sent them home with these instructions.
This is not a strong evidence for praying in Arabic since the word used was pray as you have seen me pray which is emphasizing the physical structure. That is the general understanding we find among traditional jurists. In addition to that, obviously as an Arab, the prophet (pbuh) would not have taught others (especially other Arabs) to pray in another language. This Hadith is not analogous to our discussion.
The other Hadith used to prohibit Salah in other than Arabic (pbuh) is when a man who said he couldn’t memorize al-Fatihah and another who just hadn’t learned it and the prophet told them to just praise and glorify God instead (Nasa’i 923). The context here was not a recipe for someone who didn’t know Arabic, but an Arab with a weak memory. This is a stronger case than the previous as it obviously relates to the Quran and while it is not directly addressing the issue at hand, it is seen as a useful analogy for what to do if one cannot recite the Fatihah.
Agreement upon the language of the Quran
The widespread agreement among jurists; both traditional and modern is that the Quran is revealed and preserved in Arabic and any translation would simply be a commentary on the meanings and could not be seen as the Quran itself. The standard ruling is that the recitation of the Quran in Salah would not be valid as a translation and due to Al-Fatihah being a pillar would thus render the Salah invalid.
That being said, the great Imam Abu Hanifa is well-documented to have permitted the use of a Persian translation even if the person knew Arabic. Even though it is held to be a mistake by almost all scholars, his concern for a need and willingness to state this position is still worth mentioning considering his profound position as Imam Shafi’ee said “We are the children of Abu Hanifa in jurisprudence”. It is reported in various places that his two top students Abu Yusuf and Muhammad Shaybani disagreed and only allowed it as a temporary measure for one who is not able to learn al-Fatihah. Later Hanafi jurists assert that Abu Hanifa retracted his position in agreement with his student’s position. Abu Hanifa’s school still holds that it is permissible for someone to use who is not proficient in Arabic, but that they are obligated to learn al-Fatihah.
(Hashiyat Ibn Abideen vol. 1 pg. 325)
There is a historic consensus among scholars that one who is proficient in Arabic, reciting the Quran in another language will invalidate the Salah since it wouldn’t actually be the Quran but a human interpretation of it and the prophet (pbuh) clearly said “The Salah for one who did not recite Al-Fatihah is invalid”. (Agreed Upon)
The 4 schools of thought regarding the rest of Salah
In the science of Hadith, we learn that the majority of scholars permitted transmitting Hadith by meaning is permissible. They base this understanding on the fact that a large number of Hadiths have reached us by meaning rather than using the exact wording of the prophet (pbuh). Some Hadiths were narrated in different words by the prophet and sometimes his companions would narrate his words with their own.
(Muqaddimah Ibn Salah pg. 20)
This is because unlike the Quran, Hadiths are inspired words of guidance and not actual divine speech. Many scholars said that a translation would accordingly still count as a Hadith as long as the translator is fluent in both languages.
Some scholars made a condition that it is not permissible to narrate a specific teaching of worship by meaning. They use one Hadith in which a man narrated a Hadith and accidentally replaced prophet with messenger and the prophet corrected him. Many scholars did not hold this to form the basis of a general condition as it is based on an assumption as to why the prophet (pbuh) corrected him. This is the stronger position especially in relevance to this topic. For example, when the prophet (pbuh) gave us a formula for the Tashshahhud which is an obligation, he gave some specific examples which slightly differ in wording thus further proving the point that it isn’t intended to be strictly said in one way as we will see for the entire Salah outside of Al-Fatihah.
In traditional treatises, whether for a specific school of thought or even some comparative works we often don’t see any mention of the issue of praying in Arabic as a pillar or obligation of Salah. When it is mentioned, the focus is on the issue of the Quran being translated for al-Fatihah. Some scholars make an analogy between the issue of Al-Fatihah and the rest of Salah albeit with less of concern for the soundness of the Salah because of the difference between the nature of Quran and Hadith texts. Such an analogy is strange considering that the singular point they make to prove the necessity of the Quran being recited in Arabic was due to it being divine speech.
The vast majority of scholars from the four schools of thought permit one who is not proficient in Arabic to make their praises, glorifications and supplications in Salah in their native tongue. In researching many juristic treatises, I couldn’t find one where they actually justified the prohibition or dislike of one proficient in Arabic using another language in Salah. This seems more of a point of view based on assumption of need.
I see no basis to differentiate between one who knows Arabic or not which is the predominant Hanafi position which allows using translations in Salah for anyone whether they know Arabic or not. (Bada’i As-Sana’i vol. 1 pg. 113)
The Maliki School only allows it if one is not able to properly perform it in Arabic. They made the analogy on the permissibility of personal supplications which are allowed in any language one understands whether Arabic or otherwise.
(Hashiyat Ad-Dasooqi vol. 1 pg. 233)
The Shafi’ee school of thought allows those who aren’t proficient in Arabic to use their native tongue until they can learn the Arabic as it relates to the parts of Salah that are based in Hadiths. (Al-Majmoo’ vol. 3 pg. 299)
Imam Ahmed’s school of thought is the same as Imam Al-Shafi’ee allows those who aren’t proficient in Arabic to use their native tongue until they can learn the Arabic as it relates to the parts of Salah that are based in Hadiths. (Kashshaf al-Qanaa vol. 2 pg. 32)
The bottom line here is that the scholars of juristic methodologies (Usool al-Fiqh) generally agree upon a principle in applying the law, “Hardship calls for facilitation”. While most scholars would say the ideal is to pray in Arabic as the prophet did, these representative opinions from each school represent an application of this principle.
The Core Pillar of Salah (Khushoo)
There are a couple phrases that come up in the condition for permissibility of praying in a language other than Arabic.
“The condition of permissibility is given for those who aren’t proficient in Arabic or unable to pray in Arabic. The obligation is for one who is proficient in Arabic or able.”
It simply cannot be that a proper understanding of the phrases “proficient or able” is simply the ability to recite Arabic even if not knowing the meaning. Ironically, this is what most people understand to be the case. This section of the paper is evidence that a good understanding of the meanings of Salah is key to its acceptance. Obviously for Arabs, they must put effort into a deep understanding of anything they are saying in Salah whether it be scriptural or their own wording. For non-Arabs, they can use their native tongue in order to achieve the most value from their Salah.
The standard practice of memorizing the Salah in Arabic from a young age coupled with a superficial encouragement to learn the meaning has proven immensely problematic to the nation of Muhammad (pbuh). Over the years, I have inquired dozens of non-Arabs from teenagers to seniors regarding the meanings of the Salah that they are saying in Arabic. Sadly very few understood even half of their Salah.
I have spoken with apostates who said part of their aversion to Islamic teachings was that prayer had to be in Arabic and that overall Islam prefers Arabs over non-Arabs. Many Muslims who don’t pray told me that they don’t get anything out of Salah because it’s in Arabic and while they have learned the translation before it goes away with time and the Arabic just becomes repetitive with little to no meaning. When I tell them they can pray the non-Quranic portion of it in English, they are confused why no one else ever suggested that! Others openly admitted that they were taught that the importance is to fulfill the obligation of “reading” Salah and that the reward and blessings will come even if one did not understand what they are saying!
The Prophet explained Salah in stark contrast to this cultural norm,
“Truly the nature of Salah for the believer is to have an intimate conversation with his or her Lord.” (Bukhari 413)
Naturally for the man who lived and taught the Qur’an, we see this same understanding at beginning of Surah Al-Mu’minoon as it describes ultimate success as achieved by the believers. The first quality and generally understood as the most important towards achieving true success is focus in Salah (Al-Khushoo’).
الذين هم في صلا تهم خاشعون
“Those who are humbly attentive in their Salah.”
The prophet (pbuh) described the value of Salah based on this humble attentiveness (Al-Khushoo’) “Truly a worshipper can pray and only be rewarded for a tenth of it, a ninth, an eighth, a seventh, a sixth, a fifth, a quarter, a third or just half.” (Nasa’i 611)
The commentaries agree that the meaning of the Hadith is that we are rewarded according to one’s attention both heart and mind to the meanings of their prayer.
In another Hadith that has been highly critiqued by Hadith scholars, but yet agreed upon by jurists makes the point crystal clear “The only benefit a worshipper will take from Salah is from the meaning taken from it.” (Noor alad-Darb 7/356)
At the end of the day in the absence of a clear text and varying positions on the matter among jurists, we have to look into the importance of the matter according to understood Islamic principles and necessities. As this section highlights, we are certain that there is a necessity (Duroorah) to understand one’s Salah at least in basic form as well as a need (Hajah) to have a deep understanding of what one says in Salah. In the absence of a textual obligation for praying the non-Quranic portion of Salah in Arabic, it is safe to say that praying in one’s native tongue fulfills the interest and intent of divine law in performing Salah. In the science of juristic methodologies (Usool al-Fiqh), we call this method of deriving a ruling “Bringing the Benefit” (Maslahah Mursalah).
Ritualistic vs. Organic Salah
The nature of human experience tells us that the core element of focus with a present heart and mind will dwindle if the entire Salah is said with the exact same words each time regardless of the language used. The fact is that the prophet very much practiced and encouraged an organic Salah. The only two parts of Salah that the prophet practiced and taught the same exact way is Surah al-Fatihah and the signals of movement i.e. Allahu Akbar, Sami Allahu liman hamida. The Tashahhud has different forms; each very similar. Outside of this the Sunnah was actually quite organic with varying elements of Quran, praise, glorification, and supplication.
Starting from the opening supplication (Dua al-Istiftah) we have many examples from authentic Hadiths varying in both length and substance. Some are related to the obligatory Salahs and others are mentioned in the context of the optional night prayers. Each school of thought leaned towards using one of these as a standard. Other scholars encourage us to use any one of those narrated to have been taught by the prophet (pbuh). With this approach, they are limiting something that the prophet (pbuh) obviously did not either by command or example. One point that seems to be missing is the assumption that the prophet (pbuh) would himself only rotate between these, but it very well could be that he employed many other prayers to open up his Salah. It makes more sense to perceive the Sunnah as actually an organic opening remembrance and or supplication.
When it comes to bowing many Muslims cite a famous Hadith which is debated among Hadith scholars due to problematic narrator, but used for a basic default in juristic texts among the four schools of thought. It reads “When the Ayah was revealed from the end of Surah al-Haqqah “فسبح بسم ربك العظيم” “So glorify in the name of Your Exalted Lord” the prophet then said “Make this remembrance in your bowing”. Similarly when the first Ayah of Surah al-Alaa was revealed “سبح اسم ربك الأعلى” “Glorify the name of your Lord the Most High” he said, “Make this remembrance in your prostration.”
(Abu Dawood 869)
Another Hadith with problems in its chain of transmission as well says “If one of you is bowing you should say ‘Glory be to my Lord, The Exalted’ and when in prostration ‘Glory be to my Lord the Most High’.” (Abu Dawood 886)
We have another Hadith which actually has a much stronger chain of transmission in which the prophet (pbuh) was on his death bed and when he heard Abu Bakr was about to lead Salah, he stood up and called out to the people to teach them.
“… I was forbidden from reading Quran while bowing or prostrating in Salah. When it comes to bowing you should exalt your Lord and when you are in prostration you should put your effort in making prayers (Du’a).” (Muslim 479)
Someone could infer based on this Hadith that he is confirming the previous hadith and the common practice of most Muslims. That can’t be true as his instruction for prostration in the same Hadith is completely different. The Hadith instructing believers to put effort making prayers in prostration is actually mutawaater meaning it has been narrated far and wide by many reliable narrators throughout the chain of narration.
A quick review of Shaikh Nasirudeen Albani’s book “The prophet’s prayer described” is filled with many authentic Hadiths of the prophet (pbuh) in which he practiced and taught varying remembrances and supplications in form and substance than the simple juristic default approach based on the two Hadiths narrated by Abu Dawood which have been declared weak by many Hadith scholars. Even if we accept that as an authentic hadith, it is better understood in light of the Sunnah as just a recommendation of a way to apply these profound verses in Salah.
The more one reflects on the Quran and Sunnah, it becomes clear that the prophet’s practice and advice i.e. his Sunnah on the matter of supplication and remembrance in the Salah was not a repetitive ritual at all. In fact, he was giving us an example of the general parameters of an organic connection with God in Salah. To put it in his own words (pbuh) “An intimate conversation with our Lord”.
This becomes even more obvious when we look at events in which the prophet (pbuh) actually heard someone being creative in Salah and immediately afterwards he praised and endorsed it. Some examples,
“A man came and joined the Salah winded and said ‘All praise is due to God. An abundant praise filled with blessings and goodness.’ After the Salah concluded the prophet (pbuh) inquired as to the person who said that praising it. The man said, I was out of breath happy to have joined the Salah and the prophet said, ‘I saw 12 angels competing to be the one to lift it up’”. (Muslim 600)
Abdullah bin Umar said, “We were once praying Salah with the messenger of God (pbuh) and a man said, God is distinctly greater, Plentiful praise is due to God, the Glory is God’s day and night’. After Salah the prophet inquired, ‘Who said such and such? The man said, ‘I did O messenger of God’ to which the prophet responded, I was moved by it, may the gates of heaven be opened for it.” Ibn Umar commented that he never left off saying that from then on.” (Muslim 601)
Abdullah bin Masood narrates, “The prophet (pbuh) once taught us the tashahhud… once finishing the testimony of faith then you can pray (du’a) as you like.”
Islam calls to a path of spiritual intellectualism on a social level rooted in mindful spirituality on the individual level. In my experience, a widespread problem that has taken root among the believers is a type of superficial symbolic sanctity joined with ritualistic worship and a literalist approach to laws which are seen as rules for the sake of rules rather than divine wisdom promoting ultimate human welfare.
There is also a sense of stagnancy in scholarship rooted in a sort of gatekeeping of the tradition. It is almost strange these days to seek divine wisdom toward cultivating genuine meaningful spirituality. This has greatly limited our capacity to communicate a principled understanding of Islam that maintains universal relevance. I hope and pray this presentation of our traditional teachings of Salah in way that will benefit many to cultivate a deeper spirituality. Perhaps it will lead some to a path seeking the knowledge of the original scriptural language as they yearn for a deeper connection!
-Imam John Ederer