Salam Dear John,
Thank you for your question and for contacting Ask About Islam.
Allah Understands All Languages
The knowledge of Allah encompasses all languages, thoughts, intentions, events, and things.
He knows the fleeting thoughts that flash through your mind, even those that you yourself barely register.
As He willed the existence of different languages, He naturally understands them all.
He understands the prayers of all peoples, notwithstanding the differences in their languages, dialects, levels of coherence, and sophistication.
Even those who cannot speak are understood by Allah.
But Salah Must Be in Arabic
On the other hand, the ritual Prayer, which is the daily salah that is performed at least five times daily, is conducted in the Arabic language according to the consensus of Islamic scholars.
The only exception to this rule would be if a very new Muslim has not been able to memorize the few lines of Arabic necessary to complete the Prayer.
In that case, some scholars hold that he may recite in his native tongue on a very temporary basis rather than miss the Prayer altogether.
In answer to your question, the true Quran is in Arabic. Anything else is merely a translation of its meaning.
This simple fact has served as a powerful unifying factor within the diverse Muslim world for the past 1400 years.
You should not despair because of your lack of knowledge of Arabic, because truth be told, the Arabic of the Quran is very different from the Arabic spoken (and arguably read) by the Arabs today.
In other words, you are at no disadvantage in learning the language of the Quran when compared even with your Arab counterparts.
The minimum Arabic required to carry out the Prayer is approximately 80 words (based on my quick estimate).
I imagine that a person of average intelligence and foreign language skills could memorize this within a few days.
Furthermore, he could easily memorize the meanings of the words in his native language in even less time.
I myself went through a similar learning process after accepting Islam a few years ago.
Duaa’ Can Be In Any Language
On the other hand, supplication ( du`aa’) of Allah and glorifying Him verbally can be done in any language.
Thus, the fact that the ritual Prayer must be conducted in Arabic in no way detracts from a non-Arabic-speaking Muslim’s personal relationship with his Creator.
Your praising, asking, and seeking forgiveness from Allah in your native language facilitates reverence, love, and sincerity with Him.
It is for this reason that supplicating Allah is considered worship in Islam and is one of the best ways to achieve closeness to Him, as the experts agree.
To conclude, you must not let yourself feel frustrated or overwhelmed by the use of Arabic in some aspects of Islamic worship.
Allah intended Islam for all peoples and tongues until the end of time.
Though only 20 percent of Muslims worldwide are of Arabic-speaking ethnicity, the use of elevated Quranic Arabic in the Prayer has never generated complaint or dissension.
Rather, the device has stood as a strong unifying factor for Muslims worldwide, and it has kept us connected with the original Word of Allah in its exactly original and unadulterated state.
Islam is unique in this regard.
Thank you for your question, John, and may Allah guide us all to His single, eternal Truth, for He alone gives guidance and ability. Please keep in touch.
(Originally published in October 2016)