When you join a new field – studies, work, religion, even some social clubs – you have to learn a whole new lingo before you can understand what your colleagues are talking about.
All of us converts face this, and the problem is sometimes aggravated by poor translations that don’t really say what the translators think they say.
I can think of several amusing misunderstandings in my early months as a Muslim (many years ago!). I first learned to perform salah (ritual prayer) from a book. The instructions said that I should not let a stranger walk in front of me while praying and I took that very literally.
I was then a graduate teaching assistant and shared an office with four other students. When it was time to pray, I would spread a prayer rug between our desks and pray. There was only a small area where I could face the qiblah, and it did not leave any space for someone to walk around or behind me.
My colleague John would often leave his desk at that time and go get something, which required him to cross directly in front of me. But he was no stranger! I knew him, so I never stopped him. It was only months later that I realized the book had meant to say not to let someone who is not a mahram (a close relative forbidden in marriage) pass in front of me.
Menstruating Women and Prayer
Another mistranslation was that a menstruating woman “does not have to pray.” I understood that to mean prayer is optional at that time if I want to. Fortunately, I asked about that one right away and had the notion corrected.
Iftar in Ramadan
I was sharing an apartment with five Malaysian students when my first Ramadan came. We all ate sahur (pre-dawn meal) and iftar (meal at sunset to break the fast) together.
One day my roommates told me that they had invited a large number of Malaysian students to have breakfast with us the next day. My jaw dropped at that! “You’re having guests at three o’clock in the morning?” They explained that break-fast was at sunset.
“No, no! Breakfast is in the morning. Just call it iftar so I know what you mean!” I told them.
Sometimes it really is easier to just learn the Arabic word and use it. A few years later I saw a book — originating in Pakistan, I think — about how to pray. It said that when rising from prostration, one should “stand on the hands.”
But I was wiser then and knew that you don’t need to be a gymnast to pray.
(This article is from Reading Islam’s archive and was originally published at an earlier date.)