Not a linguist myself, I come from a family of linguists. Perhaps that is why I appreciate the power of language not only in conveying information but in shaping one’s mind. Like all multilingual children, I grew up realizing that certain words in one of my languages did not have a translation or equivalent in another one. This conveyed to me not just a deficiency in vocabulary but a void of ideas. That the Urdu word nazar has no English equivalent meant to me that it must be only South Asians who believe in the jinxing effect of an envious evil eye. That Hindi has no commonly used words for “thank you” or “please” meant that perhaps Indians weren’t so concerned about manners—though I realized later it’s that the culture demands manners and respect in deed, not simply in words. This is a commonly accepted linguistic phenomenon—that a culture will only create a word for concepts it contains and will not have words for concepts unknown to its people. The words we use and the languages we learn define our world.
We have not used a lot of religious terms in raising our daughter. We don’t talk about ajar or hasanaat—the idea that God gives measurable amounts of divine rewards for our actions which are accounted for on the Day of Judgement in our balance of good and bad deeds. We don’t talk about angels or heaven. We don’t even use the words Islam or Muslim a lot, partly because I don’t want her growing up thinking of the world as some sort of Muslim/non-Muslim dichotomy. We focus on the idea of tawhid—that Allah (swt) has created everything, is all-knowing and all-powerful, and out of gratefulness to Allah (I even try not to use a personal pronoun because using “He” confuses her), we strive to please Allah and follow Allah’s guidance. All the other things—angels, divine rewards and details of heaven—are simply means of conveying the same idea, means of simplifying the abstractions. They are secondary to the core message of Allah (swt), who doesn’t need angels, books or anything else to convey Islam or to judge and hold us accountable.
I recently sat down with my daughter to explain some of the shorter surahs (chapters) in the Qur’an in greater detail. When she was a bit younger, I would simply give her the gist of the meanings. Now that she is older, I’ve started to explain more of the terminology and specific words she’s reciting. While reviewing “surat al-Maun,” I paused at the word deen. I realized that this was the first time I would define this word for her. My explanation could possibly stick with her for the rest of her life as the fundamental meaning of a term that is arguably one of the most important in my life. I couldn’t use “religion” because it’s not really accurate, and then I’d have to define that word too. I couldn’t just talk about Islam, because Allah (swt) talks about people who are not Muslims also having a deen. How could I convey this concept: a way of life that people choose to live by, one path of which is Islam as described in the Qur’an and through the Prophet Muhammad (saws)? The way of life that determines our every action, our thoughts, behavior and relationships. I’m reminded of the power of language in not only conveying words, but concepts like deen.
In the end, I asked Allah (swt) for guidance and I described it as just that, but in almost four-year-old words. “Oh… okay!” she says. Does that mean she got it? Does that mean I explained it so much that she just stopped listening? Did she even listen at all? I suppose I did the best I could. And then I think, perhaps she’ll come back to me in 10 years and define it for me, based on her experiences, ideas, and connection to Allah (swt). Our roles may be reversed and she may just change my worldview…she already has!