Tajwid: To Read with Love… and Competence

Believe it or not, I actually missed my local mosque, that one day I took off. Yep, it was really good to get back there the last few nights. Keep in mind that I am only going there at night: with my limitations and challenges. This is what I learned. You know how I was complaining about the women’s entrance in the back? Well, actually the men’s entrance is back there too. It’s a rather large, one-story building, spread out, and since the direction of prayer or qiblah is towards the front, no one enters there. Instead there is this gated parking lot in the back with both entrances. I never saw any men coming and going so it took me some time to notice — my focus was on making my own entrance. Also, the kids, all the way up to the teens, whether female or male, enter the women’s side, and this further confused me.

I am having better luck finding my own parking. Of course the spaces on the property are gone when I get there. Apparently they have some kind of deal with the Burger King across the street, provided they only use a certain half of that lot. They mentioned this once or twice, and nightly there are lots of fasting Muslims parking there. Street parking around the mosque is free but they’ve been filling up pretty fast. So I had to walk a block to get to the mosque and then another block around it to get to the women’s entrance—or should I say the entrances—in the back. These past few times I was able to park across the street from the side of the mosque. When I leave after my eightraka’at, I don’t feel so out-in-the-dark-woman-alone kind of thing.

There are a lot of women in these prayer lines. That’s pretty cool too. According to their choice of dress, reflecting their cultural background, they are from all over: Arab, Middle Eastern, African, and South Asian. I at least saw one other African-American woman once. Keep in mind that I am arriving only to time to join the already-formed prayer lines, which means I tend to see more of the women from the back deal. These assessments might be also inaccurate. As I said, I plan to go for iftar on Sunday and get some eye contact.

Now that the speaker volume has been adjusted, I must say I’m in love with this recitation. No, I’m not kidding. Really. It is actually better than the al-Qushayri mp3 player. Don’t get me wrong. I am still so grateful for having that. Three days ago I figured out that I can plug it into the USB port in my car and listen to Qur’an as I run my errands. Yep, another technology perk! It even reads off what surah is being recited on the player screen and I have those buttons on the steering wheel, so I can fast forward or repeat as I drive. The only annoying thing is that for some reason it always starts back at surat-al-fatihah, the opening chapter, when I take it out for my morning reading and then return it to the car.

So anyway, I’ve got Qur’an coming at me in every direction. My morning reading is the most intimate and also the one where I pay the most attention to what I am reading. It’s my daily reading that gives me food for thought for this blog sometimes, as you may have noticed. So I’m really attached to that. On the practical side, it gives me something to do while I let the food from suhur digest before taking the morning nap.

There’s a lot to be said about the tarawih prayer that has the daily juz’ in it. If you do not have time for your own personal reading then you get a flash version of the Qur’an while performing the ritual. The tradition was that it acted as a kind of review session for the Prophet, with the Angel Jibril checking his recitations and memorization. It is still practiced; and I hope it is clear that we are still a people of the book. In fact, we have so much emphasis on “the book” that almost every Muslim has memorized some, at least enough to be able to perform the ritual prayers. Many still send their kids to memorize the entire Qur’an. This can actually be achieved in one or two year’s time. Then it’s done. It’s there; preserved for all posterity. So we will never lose the book should our technology fail.

When Ramadan comes along those who have the Qur’an memorized, the hafiz can assist with the tarawih prayer performance and this acts as a review of their memorization as well. I don’t know how many people notice it, but some times, the one leading makes a mistake and there is some one from the men’s lines who offers the correction and then the one leading corrects his recitation and then goes on. It is happening very fast, and I would not recommend this as the way to learn about the Qur’an. It’s like any other review session: swift.

Plus, if you think about it, there is a lot of text to get through, albeit with 20 raka’at to do it in. The slower the pace of the leader, the longer the congregants are standing. It is a mercy to be able to render this as swiftly as possible and still be audible. The other night I was standing behind a teenage girl with overly-long sweatpants, with which she fidgeted constantly as she stood. It was an annoying distraction; so last night when I joined the lines and she was standing in front of me, I saved myself the temptation and actually moved in line so I would not notice.

I spend my time listening intently to what is being recited. If my mind wanders— and it does— it helps not to have something to keep my attention away from intense listening. As I stand I do nod my head in agreement or shake it in astonishment at the dhikr, the reminder of our intimate relationship with Allah, with all creation and with each other. I don’t know what this would be like anymore if I had no knowledge of Arabic or of the Qur’an.

A friend of mine in Malaysia was complaining that her local mosque had decided to go with an Egyptian hafiz rather than the basic eight by the local imam from his limited memorization. I don’t know why, she said, since most of us do not understand Arabic. Do they think they have to go with some Arab? I guess it must be difficult to stand and not understand, but I also think after more than 50 years as a Muslim we choose what we put our energy into and she could just as well as anything else put more energy into understanding the Qur’an. Even if only to enjoy these rituals in their maximum form. Why bring the religion down always to the lowest denominator, if that denominator doesn’t seem to be rising up any to the religion?

I don’t understand all of it, but enough that I can follow. On the years when I am reading on my own the same juz’ that is being recited I get the most out of it. This year, I am taking up where I left off last year because of my accident. It’s a decision that I made so I get the most contemplation on my personal reading and still pay close attention during the tarawih. This particular imam really helps. His recitation or tajwid, is crisp, thick and eloquent. When I say thick I mean he does not have a thin voice. That can be annoying. Too much of a nasal voice is annoying to me as well.

I find myself actually wanting to see who this person is, with this voice and this high quality of recitation. I feel like a thieving lover, who comes in the night: I steal the voice, enjoy its lilt and then run off again to my regular lover. He also has a wonderful manner to his prayer performance, not rushing from one posture to the next. I think these spaces in between the recitation are important balance to the recitation. He keeps going a long at a rather hasty clip, but then when we fulfill the unit of prayer we have time to reflect on Allah, on our worship, on Ramadan and on our lives—to be grateful to be able to stand for prayer because sometimes people cannot. And it is more then just a complaint about Arabs reciting Arabic text that keeps them out.

I lost out last year because after my accident I could no longer bend from the waist or prostrate. That much blood rushing to my head was painful, while the stitches were still there; and even after they had been removed. It was not the custom at the musallah, small prayer space, closest to my house for women to sit on a chair. Those with less ability to stand and proceed through the different postures would perform the prayer from the sitting position on the prayer rug. I was not able to do that, as bowing forward was impossible. So I missed most of tarawih last Ramadan as the accident happened after the first week. Even once I resumed fasting I was shut out of this collective performance.

I have one last confession to make. One year, I went to my favorite mosque out here and they had a young South Asian hafiz leading the tarawih prayers. It was great for him, I guess, to be able to get that annual review, but his recitation was horrible. Not only did he sound like he had marbles and salt water in his mouth: swallowing vowels and spitting out consonants, but he had no phraseology. I mean there is meaning in this text, and beautiful recitation, or tajwid, as any of the wonderful Javanese readers can demonstrate, can be done by any one, even if they do not know the language of the Qur’an. But I guess this guy memorized as a kid and never put in the time to figure out what he was reciting and I could tell, It was so bad, I left before my requisite 8.

There, I said it; and now you know. But truth be told, Allah already knew, and that was my only concern. That time I opted for justice to Her word over justice to the number of units. May I be forgiven. Amin

Editor’s Note: To follow all of Amina Wadud’s daily posts, as she blogs from Ramadan through her first hajj, check here.

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