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Islam in Dubai: It's not just for Arabs

In the UAE's biggest city, you are hard-pressed to get much of anything in Arabic - unless it is religion.

Last Modified: 29 May 2013 11:03
Haroon Moghul

Haroon Moghul is a Fellow at New America Foundation and the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. He is an author and a graduate student at Columbia University.
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Visitors and residents come to Dubai from around the globe and many quickly feel at home [AP]

Friday prayers in Dubai offer an opportunity which must be approached strategically. 

There on time? Sure, you might find parking, of a kind that would be illegal on any other day of the week, but then you will nearly certainly end up outdoors. God help you if you forgot your prayer rug or the mosque ran out of them. Dubai loses significant revenue, I would imagine, from the heatstroke that keeps potential shoppers and diners sleeping off their devastating post-prayer dehydration.

There too early? Then, with little to do, your expectations for the sermon mount. Inevitably, once it starts, however, it is nigh impossible to meet your expectations. Unless you were where I was for the past two weeks running. The imam's Arabic was clear, lucid and direct; he sounded interested and engaged. He wanted us to follow along with him. And he was the kind of speaker you wanted to follow. 

Good public speakers are few and far between; I know, in this case even more so than usual, because I am a non-native, non-speaker. While I can understand fus·ha, what is termed modern or classical Arabic - wrap your heads around that categorical conundrum - speaking is not my strong point. And how much Arabic I understand, in turn, depends on who is speaking - and how.

This imam was great, his every point made methodically and deliberately. I told myself: "I'm going to come here every week." Then I thought: "I will tell friends and colleagues too, that I have found a great khateeb ["preacher"], one worth going out of your way for." Until I looked around. Did you know that the most ethnically diverse religious community in the US is Muslim?  

I once attended a mosque in Oregon where more than 30 languages were spoken. 

It was hard to pray there, as I kept wondering: "What 30 languages could these possibly be?" Reasonably enough, I had long figured that, Mecca and Medina aside, there would be no comparable congregational pluralism anywhere to be found. Until Dubai. Dubai is one of the most polyglot places in the world. The title of Parag Khanna's recent CNN column, Is Dubai the Centre of the World (Again)? said it all. And Dubai can be so central because of its use of English.

It is one thing to talk the talk and another to walk the walk. For example: I am in love with Istanbul, which is possibly the Muslim world's only rival to Dubai, in terms of potential, significance to the global economy and dynamism - in many ways, Istanbul is a much more critical city. Size has a big part to do with it. But good luck getting around Istanbul in English; though things are changing, it is still, reasonably enough, a Turkish city. 

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In Dubai, English and Urdu are the languages of popular discourse. So much so that visitors and residents come here from practically everywhere in the world and feel nearly instantly at home. How many cities can do that? That alone explains Dubai's successfulness in the Indian Ocean region, and as a city that is recognised across the world. But there is an interesting exception, a downside to the upside, a space in which access is the exception, not the rule. 

Over the past week, I have been driving over all of Dubai (sometimes intentionally). I always smile when I spot prayerful invocations placed alongside highways. These invariably reference some Muslim supplication or creedal formula: "I seek God's forgiveness." "There's no god but God." And, one I had never seen anywhere before: "My Lord, increase me in knowledge." These are, of course, in Arabic. But only Arabic.  

The problem here is that the majority of Muslims in Dubai are not Arab, and do not speak Arabic. There are also quite a few Arabs here who are not Muslim. Right before you take off on a number of regional airlines, you will get the traveller's prayer, or du'a as-safar, in Arabic - untranslated. Now, there is no reason for Dubai to throw religion in people's faces, but the assumption that the Muslim religion is only for Arabs is questionable. Actually, no. It is plainly and profoundly inaccurate.

In Dubai, you would be hard-pressed to get much of Arabic anything. Unless it is religion. And then you have the opposing challenge. When I mentioned mosque diversity, I should have included Dubai. On Fridays, it seems representatives from every part of the planet have shown up, fortunate if they have made it inside in time, but most of these folks have, nevertheless, a problem. They do not know what the imam is saying.  

Considering that Friday prayers are not a "public spectacle" - you can go if you want and do not have to if you do not want to - why cannot you get your religion in your language? Just as Dubai attracts the world, it reflects the world. To build an infrastructure for tourists the world over is laudable; to become known on the world map after never having been on it is, without a doubt, some kind of achievement. So why the confusion and conflation of Arab and Muslim?  

There should be accommodations made to English-speaking and Urdu-speaking Muslims, at the least, since these are probably the most widely spoken languages in Dubai's Muslim community. Otherwise we end up with a city where English is the lingua franca, but comprehension of one's religious services remains, apparently, off-limits. Dubai has at least demolished the myth that dynamism can only be found in certain cultures and peoples, but in so smashing stereotypes, why not challenge the equation of Arabness and Muslimness?

Haroon Moghul is a fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding and a fellow in Muslim politics and societies at the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School.

Follow him on Twitter: @hsmoghul

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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