Praying in Sign Language? A response to Dr. Shabir Ally
In July of 2016 a watcher of “Let The Quran Speak”, a weekly talk-show that promotes understanding and appreciation of Islam and Muslims in Canada, submitted a question to Dr. Shabir Ally the president of the Islamic Information & Dawah Centre International in Toronto. The Question read, “If a deaf Muslim cannot speak or prefers to use sign language instead of speaking, either one, can he or she make the intention to prayer using Sign language?”
Here is the video of that specific segment:
Be sure to watch the video and turn the captions on.
I want to look at this question in 3 parts. 1) The perceived intent of the question 2) Dr. Shabir’s lack of understanding of Deaf culture/ Sign Language 3) The context behind praying in a heart language.
It isn’t unusual in deaf ministry for someone who is a native signer to ask, “Can I pray to God in sign language?” Actually, more often than not, they just assumed that they can’t. Especially in developing countries where accessibility and equal rights is non existent which causes great oppression of sign language users. It is my opinion based on working within this community for a number of years and even growing up in the deaf community that the viewer who is asking the question is wanting to know much more than if he/she can merely recite the prayer in sign language.
Dr. Shabir seems to think that the question is a matter of “do I have to do this in sign language?” rather it is more of a “can I do this in sign language”. Those are two very different questions. One is the removal of a religious burden the other is the removal of a barrier and access to the “superior”. The signer is asking, “Can I communicate with allah in MY LANGUAGE?”
I find it fascinating that Dr. Shabir seems to down play the effectiveness of being able to recite the prayer in sign as “well we don’t really voice these prayers but just move our lips. so it really isn’t necessary.” It seems to show a lack of understanding of the challenges the Deaf community faces. I wouldn’t be surprised if the question was coming from a place of experience. Maybe the viewer is deaf and has tried to recite the prayer in his/her sign language but their family or peers chastised them for doing so. Maybe this is a hearing viewer who has a deaf relative who is wanting to recite in sign language but isn’t sure if allah would accept such a language.
Though the true intentions are hard to tell it is clear that Dr. Shabir has completely missed an opportunity to lift up sign language and show true access to allah for deaf people. However, I believe that there is much more behind that approach that stems from basic islamic theology. I believe that Dr. Shabir’s understanding of prayer is very different from mine, which are based on the teachings of Christ.
The show host seems to really bring things into perspective when she asks about reciting the Quran in sign language. Here Dr. Shabir begins to say that speaking is necessary for the reciting and can be done using a braille copy. Did you catch that? A BRAILLE copy. One, we were supposed to be talking about sign languages and the deaf but somehow once again braille is brought into the picture. Though, I can’t criticize him too much for that as I have linguists who still ask me why braille isn’t an effective solution for deaf communities and them engaging with the Bible. If you are still wondering the same thing I’ll give you a moment to think it through.
Dr. Shabir ends by saying that if a deaf person wanted to share the teachings of the Quran to another person that sign language might be used but that it was a different subject from the question. Somehow I can’t seem to separate the reading of my Bible from my prayers to God. Dr. Shabir implies that prayer is communication but for there to be real communication between two parties that must mean both parties have the ability to speak. Now we know that Hebrews 1:1-2a says, “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, 2but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.”* These things that were spoken by the prophets and by the Son were recorded in what we know as the Bible.
I believe that a deaf person not only has the right to pray in their sign language but should be encouraged to do so. BUT the communicating doesn’t stop there. I believe God would have his word (the Bible) communicated to this person in their sign language as well! Just as much as he wants us communicating with Him, He still wants to communicate with us. The basics of this question boils down to “Does allah know my language? Can I pray to him in my language? Will he speak to me in my language?” The response was “It’s really a great burden.” So in short… the answer was NO.
Fortunately the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, His Son Jesus, and the Holy Spirit operate quite differently. Salvation through Christ frees us from the punishment of sin and liberates us from the bondage of sin. Some of the fruits of sin in our lifetime on this planet are oppression! Through Him he is to be made known among all people, language, and tribe and that means every sign language!
This is one of the reasons Deaf Bible Society exists. To help educate people about sign languages, and to make God’s word available in every sign language so that every Deaf person can receive communication from God and then in result of a transforming of the heart cry out to Him in their sign language for salvation.