The Power of Language

I spent a lovely week with a friend at her hospitable house in Riverside California. Second day while I was sipping coffee at her backyard, under a shed that hardly shaded the lively rays of California sun, appreciating the beauty of nature, I realized that I could go on for long without the Internet, how could I do that and love it! That was the mystery.
In solitude, I was listening to some birds chirpy-chirping on the west, as if calling someone. And some other birds in the east echoing. And wondered how that resembled us, people. Can one survive without communicating for long!
One day before Valentine, Delilah, the lady of the house, was cooking rice mixed with milk and love, and smeared in Rosewater in her lovely kitchen. She didn’t care much for Valentine, she said. To them, everyday was Valentine ever since they were coupled in the holly matrimony, and they both worked hard to keep it that way. She has been happily married for a long time. Their kids have grown and each has gone his/her own way in life. Only their memories remained in the empty-nest they outgrew. Yet, the nest was not exactly empty, everything around them spoke of true love, mature love. That true love that the lovely couple convinced me that it could still exist, and their secret was communication.
That day I felt my eyes shining green with the reflection of the earthy colors of nature. I felt closer to my origin; everything seemed to be clustered into one being.
I went close to a tree to have a better look at a black bird reflecting shades of blue, which was drinking water from the container the lady provided. I tiptoed closed and it flew away, scared. There was some type of exchanged body language between that bird and me. When I got closer, it realized that I have gotten into its comfort zone, and as a reflex, it flew away, annoyed by my intrusion. At that instance my mind wondered; did people coexist with dinosaurs? And who was the first to frighten the other? And where there any exchanged communication between them as we have today with other creatures in nature?
Now the dog next door was barking, or was it calling! Another one far away answering, and still a further one appeared to be interested and wanted to share the conversation.
Spirituality, which I define as the ultimate human emotions to reach the utmost level of the process that transcends the mind to a peaceful state, was felt all around. The mystery of language, in all its forms, that keeps us ticking with life. What a world would be to live in without language and communication. Or rather, would it be possible to live and survive in such a world?
The power of language mixed different ethnic groups in human history, like a “ball of soup” and brought them closer at times, it also caused wars at other times. Most holy books were either misinterpreted or mix-interpreted and caused disastrous wars in human history. Understanding and feeling the language was always a source of either happiness, or despair.
The Abbasid epoch of the Islamic history marked the beginning of the Islamic civilization when Muslims appreciated the power of the communicated word. Al-Ma’mun, the first son of Haroon Al Rasheed (Aaron the Upright), was said to have paid for each translated book, its weight in Gold. Competition led to enhanced quality, and abundance in quantity. It also encouraged the translation of books from three continents; Persian, Indian books as well as the most creative ones of the time Like “Kalila wa Dumna” and “One Thousand and One Nights” appeared. And needless to say that translating Greek and Syriac books marked the zenith of that period. Fiction, religion, arts, science and philosophy were adapted and eventually enhanced. And because Islamic preaching instituted the reciting of Koran in its original language, it was essential for the new, none-Arabic speaking converts and inhabitants of those lands to learn the language. In Andalusia, Jewish philosophers like Moses Maimonides and others, even translated their own ancient religious book from Arabic back to Hebrew and later to Latin. Arabic added the missing romance to the rigid poetry of Latin, and brought life to Christianity of the middle Ages. Can this process be reversed? Can we take this sentiment out of our language and start inserting some logic instead? Can our empty nest be filled with mature love, instead of empty sentences that do not have any base?
I remember when I was in grade school we used to have a class where we had to copy an Arabic proverb that says,” لسانك حصانك، إن صنته صانك، و إن خنته خانك (your tongue is your horse, if you maintain it properly, it will maintain you. And if you betray it, it will betray you)”. My grandmother also used to say that humans are nothing but a piece of meat, and she pointed to her tongue”. It is really amazing how language affects our everyday life. And it’s more amazing how it developed as we evolved and new vocabularies emerged, while other vocabularies we outgrew with each new generation. The more cultures mixed, the more new languages emerged. And the more we got educated, the wealthier our source of communication became. Our vocabulary became essential for communicating exactly what we mean; a tool to avoid misunderstandings and emotional consequences.
And what can stir our emotions more than the word “God” and it’s derivatives? The only language that we humans never outgrew!
God has been with us, for such a long time that it had invaded the most romantic part of our language. Even when our beliefs change with time, we find it difficult to get rid of our “Godly” language. When someone sneezes, we automatically say,” يرحمك الله”. When someone travels we say,” الله يحفظك”. And whenever I said to my grandmother something that she did not like to hear, she’d reply, “ الله يهديك”.
When those Arabic sentences are literally translated to English, they become; “may God have mercy on you”, “may God save you” and “may God direct you to the path of correct.” English-speaking people have already outgrown such vocabulary. It perfectly has the same impact if in the same above situations these sentences were used instead, “ Bless you”, “have a safe trip” or “ I do not agree.”
Now imagine if someone says to us, “ may Ahura Mazda be with you”, how would that sound to our ears? And would that make us emotionally engaged?
For someone who doesn’t believe in God, that should sound exactly the same, yet it doesn’t. When we say those words, we don’t really think of the actual meaning they embed. It is the romantic impression imposed on us in this language that we absorb, the general meaning of well wishing with a hint of emotion is much more appreciated when “God”، “heaven”, “angels” or even “eternity” are inserted in our language. Arabic language is much richer with this romance than Latin.
For a very long time I have denounced my religion. Yet, it was hard for me to give up “God”. When God had intruded in every aspect of our lives, how could I let go of it? It was not an easy task, nor I was ever ready for it. Even at the time when I was convinced that it was just a word invented by humans, not different than any other word. To me, God was not only a mystery; it was practically the essence of everything that I grew up to believed. Whenever I felt frightened I called on Him. Whenever I needed help, I, absent-mindedly, prayed to him.
This morning my mom called from Kuwait, she asked how the boys and I were doing, when I told her that I’m OK and everything is fine, she said “thank God, I pray every night for you”. And I told her, courteously, that it must be your prayer that’s keeping me well. She needed to hear that, and I couldn’t do anything but to say what she wanted to hear.
When Dan Dennett, the great contemporary philosopher, was sick and in critical condition, his friends and relatives gathered around him praying and reading the Bible for his safety, just like we Muslims do with our loved ones when they are not well. And when he recovered they asked him what he thought about the “near death experience” and whether or not he should be thankful to God for saving his life, and this is what he said, “To whom, then, do I owe a debt of gratitude? To the cardiologist who has kept me alive and ticking for years, and who swiftly and confidently rejected the original diagnosis of nothing worse than pneumonia. To the surgeons, neurologists, anesthesiologists, and the perfusionist, who kept my systems going for many hours under daunting circumstances. To the dozen or so physician assistants, and to nurses and physical therapists and x-ray technicians and a small army of phlebotomists so deft that you hardly know they are drawing your blood, and the people who brought the meals, kept my room clean, did the mountains of laundry generated by such a messy case, wheel-chaired me to x-ray, and so forth.” And he added “These people came from Uganda, Kenya, Liberia, Haiti, the Philippines, Croatia, Russia, China, Korea, India—and the United States, of course—and I have never seen more impressive mutual respect, as they helped each other out and checked each other’s work. But for all their teamwork, this local gang could not have done their jobs without the huge background of contributions from others.” In other words; Dennett was thankful to science, and physicians, as well as other people who worked hard to save his life, not to an imaginary God who had nothing to do with it, and took all the blessings and the praise .
But can we ever reach to that level where we can tell our loved ones, that all their previous beliefs were built on sand castles? And if we take God out of our vocabulary, what would we replace Him with? Or do we need to replace Him?
My friend Delilah said that God is an essential need for most people, not only religious ones, even if He did not exist. So long that He exists in the mind; then he’s real. But I say, if we want to get God out of our lives, we must first kick Him out of our language, and that may take generations. But then again, there is no guarantee that God will ever leave us, no matter how much science advances to assure that He doesn’t exist, and no matter what we believe in.

3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Angelo
    Feb 23, 2008 @ 13:13:50

    That was very beautiful and illustrative Ayya. I honestly haven’t looked at the power of language that way, especially when it comes to adage and proverbs that is embedded in our language (Arabic specifically). To think that English speakers have “outgrown” the usage of the word “God” like that; I’m surprised I didn’t even notice it.

    That reminds me of an occurrence that happened between me and one of my best friends who describes his “religious identity” as atheist Jew (can you shade some light to that Ayya, I had no idea what he meant when he said that LOL?). Anyway, we where talking about something (I completely forgot what it was) and he said “Oh My Dog”, and then he heard himself saying it and looked at me an apologized. I laughed. I told him that’s OK and I wasn’t insulted, I say stuff like “Holy Cow!” and “Jesus” like every now and then. That is, I understand the intention behind these expressions. But reading what you said, it seems English-speaker are slowly substituting the word “God” for another words that either have similar meaning or the same tune such as “for Pete’s sake”, instead of “for the God’s sake”.

    I really hope that your grandmother stops saying stuff like “may God direct you to the path of correct.” Again, I understand her intentions were for your good, just as your mother’s constant prayers, but then again, I hope they realize that your decision to be an atheist wasn’t made in a whim. From what I see, your decision came after long years of consideration and “faith”, or just as we say 8ana3ah. They should neglect the whole “you didn’t get IT” mentality. That reminds me when I told my mother and father that I converted to Sufism two years ago. Originally, I was raised as a Shi’a but they were many things that didn’t “click” to me back then (i.e. certain rituals and the whole mo7aram thing), and “Sunniism” was even worse to tell you the truth. However, after I read several poems from Al-Rumi and experienced it when I went to Turkey during the summer of 2005, I actually fall in love with Islam again. From that point on, I always tell people that I am a big fan of “faith and spirituality” but not so much in “authoritative religion”(hence I liked His Dark Materials trilogy even though there are some aspects I didn’t agree with), and as long people are spiritual and not shoving their beliefs into other people’s throats…than that’s fine.

    Anyway, it seems I babbled so much that I think your head will explode from the amount of text LOL. Nice post over all.


  2. AyyA
    Feb 25, 2008 @ 00:06:32

    I have been a Sufi for a long time, Erfni Sufi that is. It was the invasion of Kuwait that changed me to conservative Islam. And my personal quest, deep into my religion, and interest in science that lead me to atheism.
    Keep babbling dude, you know I like that. it’s the ability of each of us to speak our minds without being judged that brings us together, not our 100 percent agreement.


  3. Asad
    May 19, 2008 @ 16:56:17

    I think God and Allah will be in our language for a long time. Consider the ancient pagan deities whose names we still say like Thor in “Thursday” and Janus in “January.”


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