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Students stress importance of Arabic

BY ARIANA WITT | MARCH 09, 2010 7:30 AM

Brenna Norman/The Daily Iowan
Sarwat Shaheen finishes prayers with other women in the Iowa City Mosque on Monday.
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UI freshman Shazmin Izhar didn’t grow up speaking Arabic.

Though the Muslim student was born in Maylasia and thus spoke Malay, Izhar decided to study his religion’s language.

“I learned it so I could pick up on the feelings of the prayers,” Izhar said. “Parents in my country usually just tell their children about Arabic and its importance, but I decided to learn it for myself.”

Prayers in the mosque are traditionally in Arabic, and the Iowa City Mosque is no exception. This doesn’t bother student members such as Izhar.

But recently some Muslim youth in the United States have debated replacing Arabic with English in mosques.

Izhar and Seniha Kraina, a UI senior and member of the UI Muslim Students Association, are not among them.

“Some Arabic just can’t and shouldn’t be said in another language,” Kraina said. “It’s about respecting the words of God.”

The native Serbian speaker said young followers of Islam should make the same efforts she did to learn Arabic. She said her decision is based on drive.

Kraina said she gave a speech in her sociology class at the UI defending Muslim traditions, such as wearing the headscarf, but realized she didn’t actually adhere to many customs herself.

“A person’s level of faith in learning the Koran is very important,” said Kraina. “Three years ago, I would not have classified myself as religious, but now my drive is up to the sky, and knowing Arabic is a big part of that.”

Followers of Islam believe their book of worship, the Koran, consists of the words God spoke in Arabic to the prophet Muhammad. Many non-speakers of Arabic learn the basics of the language in order to understand verses recited during prayers.

“The prayers should be in Arabic because the Koran is in Arabic,” said UI senior Omer Elgaali, the president of the Muslim Students Association. “I don’t see that ever changing.”

He is one the of native Arabic speakers who make up 15 percent of the world’s Muslim population. A native of Saudi Arabia, he has lived in the United States for six years.

Arabic prayer is something shared by mosques in Saudi Arabia and Iowa City. Elgaali doesn’t think that will ever go away.

“The message from the Koran is the message of God, so translating it would cause that message to be lost,” he said.

To gain more awareness of the language, the Muslim Students Association is working on making Arabic tutoring lessons available for those who would like to learn the basics of the language.

“People can hear the verses in Arabic and run to translate them to English, but that can be confusing,” Elgaali said. “We want them to be able to just read the Koran and learn from it.”

And though the local mosque has an English speaking imam, headphones, and an English translator for its multicultural members, Kraina thinks Arabic should be second nature to Muslims.

“I would recommend all followers of Islam teach their children Arabic, at least to understand the Koran,” she said. “I would love for my children to know Serbian, but Arabic will definitely be a must for them.”


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