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In his great seminal work, Ihya Ulum al-Din (Revival of the Religious Sciences), the luminary scholar Imam al-Ghazali discusses some of the deeper and more spiritual dimensions of Salah (ritual prayer). In this discussion, he emphasizes the need for understanding and reflection on the words of the salah, for it to have an effect on one's heart and soul. This is where we can see our study of Arabic having a practical, every-day benefit to our religious practice: What better way to make our acts of worship more meaningful, than to learn and appreciate the meaning of the words we utter in them?
Here are some translated excerpts from his book:
On reflecting on the meaning of the words of the prayer:
Understanding the meaning of one’s words [in Salah] is something that goes beyond awareness, for one may be conscious of making an utterance, yet not be aware of the meaning of that utterance. What we mean by understanding, therefore, is an awareness that also includes comprehension of the meaning of one’s utterance. People differ in this respect, not sharing a common understanding of the Quran and the glorification.
How many subtleties of meaning we come to understanding in the course of ritual prayer! Things that had never occurred to us before... It is in this context that prayer becomes a deterrent to indecency and mischief, for the understanding it brings is a positive obstacle to vice.
On prayer as a remembrance (requiring understanding and reflection on what one is saying):
The Prophet, on him be peace, said: 'A man gets credit only for that part of the prayer of which he is conscious.' This is confirmed by the tradition: 'When performing the prayer, one is conversing intimately with one's Lord.' Speaking in a state of heedlessness is certainly not what is meant by intimate conversation with the Lord.In contrast to these other religious duties, ritual prayer consists only in remembrance, recitation, bowing, prostration, standing erect and sitting down. As for remembrance, it is proximity to God, Great and Glorious, and communion with Him. If its purpose is not conversation and dialogue, it must be a verbal and vocal exercise, set to test the tongue in the same way as the belly and genitals are tested by abstinence during the fast, as the body is tested by the ordeals of pilgrimage, or as one is tested by having to part with beloved money in paying the alms. Without a doubt, this latter supposition must be wrong, for nothing comes more easily to the heedless than idle tongue-wagging. It cannot, therefore, be a simple physical exercise. The sounds produced are significant only when they form articulate speech. Articulate speech must be expressive of what is in the heart and mind, and this is not possible without conscious awareness.
What is the point of praying: 'Show us the straight path,' if one is in a state of absent-mindedness? If it is not intended as a humble entreaty and supplication, why bother with the idle mouthing of the words, especially if it has become a habit?
The purpose of Quranic recitation and expressions of remembrance (at various stages in the ritual prayer) is undoubtedly praise and glorification, supplication and entreaty, addressed to God, Great and Glorious. But the veil of heedlessness screens the heart from Him. Far from seeing or witnessing Him, the heedless worshipper is not even aware of Whom he is addressing, as his tongue moves purely from force of habit. How remote is this from the purpose of ritual prayer, which was prescribed for the refinement of the heart, the renewal of Divine remembrance, and to secure the knot of faith!
May Allah Most High make us of those whose prayers are beautiful, filled with contemplation of Sacred words and Divine remembrance! Ameen!
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