Growing up in the United States, I assumed that the language of the khutbah, the Muslim Friday sermon, was not an issue of serious contention. Since my community is very diverse, the common language is English. Arabic is used when the Qur’an is cited, hadith related, and supplications recited. However, the English translations are usually provided. Of course, there are many communities with a large percentage of a particular immigrant group in which Arabic, Urdu, Somali, etc. are used.
I always assumed that the reason why English was used in my community stemmed from the need for the congregation to comprehend and reflect on the message of the sermon, which they could only do if they understand the language. Moreover, since many Muslim Americans like me grow up being exposed to Arabic but not necessarily understanding it, it was important to find a way to make young Muslims feel connected to the mosque and language plays a big role in that.
There are different opinions on the validity of the khutbah being in a language other than Arabic. However, according to Abu Majeed on suhaibwebb.com, the general opinion among scholars is that other languages are acceptable for the sermon. Abu Majeed does say, though, that when he used English in one of his khutbahs, he was criticized for his modernist views on Islam.
What this issue highlights for me is the role of language in Muslim identity. Arabic’s centrality to Islam has played a big role in unifying Muslims worldwide, but that does not mean that every aspect of faith is required to be in Arabic. Some rituals must be done in Arabic like prayer, but there are others, like the khutbah, where there is more flexibility since Islam is an inclusive and diverse religion. Having said that, Muslims are not the first group to engage in this kind of discussion over what language is used in which context. For the most part this decision has depended on the needs of each individual community.
Do you think the Friday sermon should only be in Arabic? How important is language to religious identity? Should the diversity of a community matter in a ritual? Please share your comments below.