Humans are like that fish who decided to see the land. When she returned to the sea, she had difficulties describing what she saw to other fishes. She failed to explain verbs like flying or walking.
Here are two stories I witnessed that show the importance of having a culturally diverse dictionary. I learned that the bigger and more diverse our cultural dictionary the more open we are to accepting other cultures.
Every year, the Muslim Student Organization (MSO) at my university host an Islam Awareness Week and invites an Islamic Studies Scholars to talk about Islam to the public. During a meeting for the MSO executives, to decide on who to invite in our next event, someone mentioned the name of a speaker who was invited before and they wanted to invite him again. The speakers’ name is George Saliba, he is Professor of Arabic and Islamic Science at Columbia University. I never heard of him before, but it seems some MSO executives liked his speech. Someone asked whether he is a Muslim or a Christian. Being the old me, naive with a small local dictionary I answered with a smile “of course he is not a Muslim.” At that moment, I even found the question to be unintelligent because I assumed everyone should know George is a Christian name.
“My name is Phillip and I am a Muslim,” commented Phillip. I am so lucky to be schooled in the best possible way. Phillip remark had added more cultural words to my dictionary. For sure the name of a person doesn’t dictate their religion, Muhammad could be an atheist.
Every Ramadan the MSO arrange a Fast-A-Thon event on our campus. The idea of the event is to give non-Muslims the experience of both fasting and breaking their fast with Muslims. A week before the event, the MSO put a booth on campus promoting the event. Fasting for non-Muslims is of course optional since what is more important is attending the Iftar (breaking the fast.) Nevertheless, some non-Muslim students do fast for the full experience.
I don’t remember the topic of the khutba that Friday week of the Fast-A-Thon, but I remember the khateeb was furious. Something he read in the university’s newspaper made him mad. He couldn’t believe that a Muslim had said what he said. The khateeb believed that such thing coming from a Muslim man is a big mistake. He blamed the Muslim community in our small college town not educating their children the true values of Islam.
During the Fast-a-thon event, a student journalist from the university newspaper interviewed some attendees. One of these interviewed was an MSO executive. I don’t remember what was the question but he said something like “… We had lots of food. We pigged out …”
Some Muslims have concerns using phrases not in the dictionary they grew up using. “Pig out” to Muslims is a foreign verb.
Our ‘culprit’ in this story was only 18 or 19. He is an American born to Pakistani parents. He was born a Muslim, but his dictionary is American. “Pig out” is in his dictionary, although not in his parents’ dictionary. To him pig out means overeat not an animal that is not halal to eat.
I understand that non-Muslims find the khateeb’s outrage funny or scary, depending on how you see the matter. To be fair his anger comes from the need to educate the young Muslim generation born in the USA the Muslims’ values which means preserving Muslims’ dictionary.
Unfortunately, some Muslim scholars fail to accept that for Islam to sustain the changes our understanding of Islam need to evolve. European Muslims dictionary is not identical to Arab Muslims dictionary.