Reading the Qur’an: Wherefore Art Thou?

When you take away 1400 years of historical context to the act of revelation, and you take away belief in that revelation being from a sacred source —God—you are left with a text. I once heard Huston Smith, the religious studies scholar, say that the Qur’an does not reveal itself to non-believers. I was taken aback by that statement, until I heard a Muslim who is also a religious studies scholar say the Qur’an did not reveal itself to him until he began reading certain Sufi interpreters. All this was unfathomable to me, the person whose Islam was transformed on the basis of just reading the English translation.

But then, years of teaching religious studies myself and trying to “introduce” the Qur’an to English-speaking students, or to go in greater depth with a course focused just on the Qur’an in an Islamic university, I think I can better mediate between the presumption that everything is self-evident and the need to bridge the mystery with the pedagogical.

So this is not a discussion of history, evolution, or even of significance of the Qur’an, but more like a conversation about ways to read and ways the Qur’an is read. And since it is an Arabic text, read by others beside Arabic readers, I will distinguish between these two kinds of readings. So first, let me say some things about the Arabic text and its readers.

There are some ways of reading the Arabic of the Qur’an which matter little if you are an Arab or a non-Arab competent to read Arabic. For one thing, the Arabic of the Qur’an is not spoken by anyone. I could say not spoken by anyone anymore, but I would rather say not spoken by anyone ever. It is much closer to the Arabic spoken at the time of the Prophet. But a careful study of ahadith, statements recorded and passed down from that time, and of the Arabic of the Qur’an, indicates two parallel but stylistically distinct speech acts. Certainly they stem from the same grammatical rules and vocabulary, but they do not read like one and the same author.

The Qur’an is the standard bearer. It sets the bar. And at this point, all acts of linguistics and semantics in Arabic are compared to it, whether by Muslim or non-Muslim Arabic speakers. But again the style is much, much higher than ordinary usage; both at the time it was revealed and most certainly now. It is a bit like Shakespeare in English. Everyone who can read English can read Shakespeare, but it doesn’t mean we understand everything. The style is much higher and yes, some of the forms are archaic. For example: “Wherefore art thou, Romeo?”; is more like What for, or simply, why are you (called) Romeo?

We can figure it out with references to the usage of language at the time, but we cannot construct it now with the same sha-zzam and eloquence. That is one of the reasons why it is called inimitable (I’jaz). So, with respect to understanding it, anyone has equal chance, but only if they prepare for it as a composition within itself and as a style much, much higher than even the most eloquent of poetry from that time or since. And when you do, when you prepare, then it is overwhelming both in style and in content.

This style is not just in how it says what is says relative to the language, but also to the sounds. To read the Qur’an “properly” is to read it with full tajwid. These are pronunciation techniques which can be mastered in a very short while and then practiced on the text to perfection. Each year, especially during the sacred months, starting with Ramadan, there are global tawjid contests with the best reader awarded recognition. You’ll be pleased to note that female readers from Indonesia are amongst the stars of recitation in these contests. Imagine that.

When I say that anyone can learn, Arabic is the most consistent of languages such that learning to pronounce is really a very simple, even rote, process. One can read and read well without knowing a single word of it meaning-wise. And so we all learn some, we teach our children some, and everybody can read a little of the Arabic text—some more eloquently then others. The rules of tajwid enhance the quality of the sound of readings, but for me, still there is something qualitatively different when a reader also knows Arabic with the tajwid.

The mp3 version I have is recited by an Arabic speaker competent in the language of the Qur’an meaning-wise and competent in tajwid. On many occasions in order to fulfill the rules of tajwid, he will repeat a part of a phrase. This has to do with the part of tajwid that deals with breathing, and holding a vowel for a certain number of counts. Sometimes you just need to catch your breath and complete the sentence the ayat, the passage. When he stops, and then repeats a portion it is always logical relative to the meaning as well.

It would not do, (no, it) would not do, to just repeat, repeat, repeat. It matters how and when a certain phrase is repeated even if only technically in order to catch your breath. I remember when I was first learning to read the Qur’an followed by first learning to read Arabic, I struggled with these ‘hold your sounds, then stop take a breath’ stuff for some time. It was a consolation to hear that hadith that said every letter every vowel, every consonant is a barakah, a blessing. But once fluency is attained it almost makes no sense that one would struggle, because both the meaning and the tajwid flow seamlessly together.

Most people who read the Arabic of the Qur’an read it only by rote. They make the (nearly) right sounds (give or take pronunciations and accents) but they don’t understand a single thing they say, except maybe occasional repeating of the word ‘Allah.’ For example, my teacher has a Qur’an-reading evening when members of the community will recite at the same time in low voices from each of the 30 parts until in one session (lasting less than an hour) the entire Qur’an is read. The sound is like Qur’an schools with kids (and some adults) learning to memorize the entire text and doing so by practicing out loud, each at different places. It is not a cacophony of sound as you might expect. There is still melodious rhythm and flow even in this. The sound of the Qur’an is soothing.

This is reading as worship. It is a symbol and how much one personally understands at that time is not the point; the act of devotion is. For such reading then one should always get in the proper state. That means ritual purification and sincere intention. There will be a lot of this going on around the ka’abah as there is all during Ramadan in almost every mosque. It is recitation for recitation’s sake. If you understand more about the meaning you can still participate in this devotion, but the process is slightly different. For one thing, it takes longer, no matter what, to recite when you also understand.

Some people who do not know Arabic and do not have a transliterated text will read the Qur’an in their native languages also as an act of devotion. This too is done with the proper preparations, with ablutions and with the proper intention. It’s just that it means a lot more regardless of the original Arabic. I know I was smitten by the Qur’an only in English translation. It inspired me to learn Arabic and then the process was different but still I was smitten.

But then, there are lessons and information in the Qur’an that can be shared or imparted with out necessarily making the read an act of devotion. Or anyone can read this “text” whether they believe in its message, its history, or its significance. In this regard, I rather think that reading is academic. We read to find out stuff, believer and non-believer alike. For me to write my dissertation I had to read Qur’an everyday and make cards about its information. I am a believer and this act was invested with my devotion but it was really just academic. I did not “prepare” to do it; I just picked it up and took notes. Nowadays when I make a reference to a passage, I also do not “prepare.” I just mention it, Arabic and/or English, based on the context that comes to mind. I do this all the time. The Qur’an is a major reference point for me, and for many others. So, we do make this reference with portions of the text even if we are not in a state of ablution.

Finally, there is the idea of reading to understand. If some one asks me about Islam, I usually suggest the Qur’an itself first and foremost. But I tell them to start reading around the ninth chapter. This is nearly halfway through the text. The reason is because of the style, and in other ways, the content of the first eight chapters. The Makkan period of revelation is more poetic and lyrical. The themes are more universal.

More of the Madinan period of revelation is in the first few chapters and these rather get down to the business of making a living practicing community. Sometimes, I even find it boring to traipse through them, and I love the Qur’an so I think maybe I could spare a new reader by suggesting that the order of the text is not as significant as the process of trying to read it through; and a better way to read it through is to get into the rhythm of it and then proceed to complete it by reading the first eight chapters last.

But then I do also recommend straight reading. Just read. I am still amazed to learn how few people have actually read through the whole thing—even Muslims. Or maybe I should say I am mostly amazed to learn that Muslims do not read through the text entirely in their lifetimes. And then they complain that Islamophobes read out of context!

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