An anecdotal account of a Muslim convert's experience in dealing with the process of learning Quran'ic Arabic and mastering the art of Quran'ic recitation
Mastering Qur’anic Arabic
And recite the Qur’an with measured recitation. (73:4)
It is the holy month of Ramadhan once again and the blazing heat of the desert sun makes its impact felt on the tongue as hunger and thirst and on the mind as a commitment of “will” to follow the rigorous code of the Ramadhan fast. I hear the sweet voice of numerous children reciting the Qur’an in a melody of sound that echoes and mimics the bird chatter one hears in the trees at sunset. The Qur’an tutor sits with the eight children of the Pathan family I have adopted on the outside porch under the mimosa tree, pacing the pronunciation and rhythms of the sacred verses with his dry stick as an extension of his withered hand. The children love their tutoring sessions of Qur’an recitation and run to their places around the table at the sound of the imam’s bicycle bell, the children clutching their Qurans that are wrapped and tied respectfully in cloth. Muhammad Raouf, the 8 year old, has just finished one full reading of the Qur’an and his face is beaming with pride. A sheep will be slaughtered and the meat will be distributed to the poor in the surrounding neighborhood. Thus continues the cycle of learning to recite the Qur’an that has occurred in the same traditional manner across the Islamic crescent down through the centuries since the time of the Prophet.
Through a madrasah Qur’aniyah system of education in all traditional Islamic cultures, the study of the Qur’an begins in early childhood at the age of reason, concentrating on the correct recitation of the Arabic letters, sounds, words, phrases, and finally full verses in all Arabic-speaking countries, and also most notably in Islamic countries where Arabic is not the native tongue. Because the verses of the Qur’an are considered to be the absolute word of God, it is imperative that young children gain mastery of the fundamentals of Qur’anic recitation in Arabic at an early age, no matter what their mother tongue is, a skill they will carry with them for the rest of their lives., not to mention the countless blessings that come with Qur’anic recitation in its original Arabic, just as it was delivered to the Prophet himself.
The tradition of the Qur’anic madrasah began with the first madrasah in the mosque of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) where the “Companions of the Bench” devoted themselves to the study of the Qur’an from the Prophet himself, in itself a privilege and blessing that one can only imagine and pretend to appreciate. It is hard to recreate the thrill it would be of actually learning verses of the Qur’an from the Prophet himself. Many of his companions, the original first Muslims, then traveled far and wide in the propagation of the newly emerging religion, reciting Qur’anic verses to people they met as they travelled to countries beyond Arabia. They established mosques and settled in distant lands to the Maghreb in the West and as far as China in the East, where they started to teach Qur’an and Hadith to students seeking knowledge of Islam using its original sources. Thus, they initiated and perpetuated the tradition of the madrasah by carrying on the isnad or chain of transmission from the beloved Prophet himself.
I recently asked my faithful Pathan friend Farman Ullah about his madrasah experience as a child, wishing to hear firsthand the native impressions of a devoted, traditional, and conservative Muslim. “We study morning and evening at mosque after prayer and sit in a circle with imam,” he says with bravado. I asked him what he remembers learning. “We first learn the graded books that introduce the system of Arabic letters and their correct pronunciation.” Coincidentally, these innocent exercise books are called al-qaeda, which in Arabic means “base” or “basic,” a term that is now universally recognized as the name associated with Osama bin Laden’s terrorist organization. “Did you know what you were reading,” I asked my friend tentatively, not wishing to offend. “Of course,” the Pathan shouts with good-humored indignation. “We know and love our holy book. What you thinking? We prepare ourselves to make reading with the ritual ablution. I doesn’t touch book otherwise. We very respect Qur’an at that age and every time.” And I think that his love of the Qur’an has its roots in a holy instinct that was born early in childhood as he studied with vigilance the letters, words, and phrases of his qaeda reader that to his young, innocent mind comprised the very words of Allah. There is no compromise when it comes to the Qur’an; devotion is instinctive and a matter of personal honor among devout Muslims to maintain a close and respectful relationship with the Holy Book of Islam.
I came to Islam as a grown man who had embraced the religion as a matter of decision and active choice, but this was only the first step on a long road of realization of the doctrine and practices, together with acclimatization that was required in coming to terms with the true Islamic culture, a spiritual culture that identifies what it means to be a practicing Muslim—and what it means to mean effort of self-discovery and consciousness-raising that is personal and unique to each individual. “For every soul,” according to one well known tradition, “there is an individual path to follow.” As such, I knew that I had to learn and be able to read the Holy Qur’an in its original Arabic, if not then when I first became Muslim, then eventually over time, the Noble Book being the alpha and omega of all Islamic spirituality, its source material and its means of expression and worship. The religion began with its first descent into the mind of the Prophet in the Cave of Light in Makkah, and will come to fruition through the sincere expression of each individual Muslim life faithful to its dictates and guidance.
In my childhood, I attended catechism class regularly and had religious teaching in the Catholic grammar school that I attended. I initially knew nothing about a traditional Qur’anic madrasah because I was not born Muslim and converted to Islam later in life when I first went to work at a university in the Middle East over forty years ago. I have documented the story of my conversion in one of my earlier books.61 However, like all serious devotees of the religion, I very soon set about learning the intricacies of Qur’anic recitation, without which Islamic worship in the form of prayer, which uses Qur’anic verses as part of its ritual or Qur’anic recitation, would be impossible.
While my initiation in the mysteries of Qur’anic recitation as a Muslim convert was quite different from the traditional one of the madrasah for young native born Muslims, I have traveled extensively throughout the Islamic crescent and visited a number of traditional Qur’anic madrasah along the way. Recently, I took the opportunity of accepting an invitation from a friend who had two young sons to visit their madrasah in Abu Dhabi where I lived at the time. Various classrooms fanned off a corridor adjacent to the mosque. After a brief introduction to the director, a pleasant and indeed surprised Bengali Muslim who graciously allowed me visit the madrasah, I entered a room filled with a number of children in various stages of recitation. Was the Western-style classroom with its awkward little desks and chairs a concession to what is considered a modern academic setting? It didn’t seem to matter to the children whose ages ranged from about 7, the “age of reason” in Western parlance to about 12, the age of approaching puberty, who hovered over their graded readers (qaeda) in various stages of absorption to the task at hand. One little fellow had taken the luxury of falling into an innocent sleep with hishead on the desk. Happily, there was a normal cross-section of children representing humanity and not the fanatic, gargoyle-like urchins from the abode of the jinn and the shayateen (devils), the so-called “jihad machines” that Western writers would have people believe take up residence in a Pakistani-style madrasah. A number of children sat in their chairs cross-legged almost in instinctive defiance of the schoolroom setting, as if the cultural ambiance of traditional Islam had found its way into the double helix of their DNA in spite of the imposition of the modernistic rather than the traditional setting when worshippers and students would sit on carpets on the floor.
As images of seer-eyed young extremists and radical youths with twisted faces roamed in the backdrop of my mind like a desert mirage, I gazed reflectively upon the young children gathered in front of me. In truth as I looked upon the pure faces and miniature bodies of these young boys and as they briefly looked back into my own eyes as if placing the open book of their souls at my disposal, all I saw was a group of young boys earnestly attempting to come to terms with the rigors of the Qur’anic text. They looked as if they had been touched by the wand of heaven, leaving behind in its wake the sweet aura of innocence that settled over the children like early morning dew. These innocent waifs called to mind the poetic words of Ralph Waldo Emerson:
The hyacinthine boy, for whom
Morn well might break and April bloom,
The gracious boy, who did adorn
The world whereinto he was born
And by his countenance repay
The favor of the loving Day.
Was I left with images of young jihad machines slavishly, indeed robotically, absorbing the essence of a fanatical code bent on the destruction of all worlds alien to their dogmatic beliefs or was the sober but determined effort of these young children to come to terms their Holy Book enough for me? The answer lies embedded in the original intent and purpose of the traditional madrasah. What takes place there—and in countless traditional madrasah across the Islamic crescent—remembers and recreates the sacred sensibilities of earlier times when the youth of a well-defined traditional culture such as Islam adopted the early markings of a spiritual discipline that will awaken in them a feeling for the otherworldly as they make their way through “this world”. The message of Islam is the message of interface between two concurrent worlds, where the simple, uncorrupted mentality of a young boy can walk from one world into the next and back again without noticing any border and without anyone else asking awkward questions or even taking notice.
The inner connection to another world makes the story of the traditional madrasah a unique one that may be difficult to comprehend in today’s modern, secular world. This invisible door to a higher reality dispels the erroneous conception of the contemporary madrasah as an institution of propaganda and indoctrination and as an outmoded form of education based solely on memorization and rote learning. What we have attempted to portray here is the ambience that lies at the heart of the traditional madrasah, where the sacred resonance of the Qur’anic text and the calligraphic art of the Arabic language is reflected in the mind and heart of those for whom “the dawn breaks” and “the flowers bloom”
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Once I had familiarized myself with the meaning of the Qur’an in translation with the aid of my Sufi friend Haneef, I set myself the task of learning the basics of the Arabic script. Of course as a Westerner, even though I had a focused interest in other languages as an English teacher and spoke French and German with ease having lived and worked in Belgium and Germany before coming to the Middle East, I had great difficulty initially with the Arabic letters. Yet there was an appealing magic to the formation of the letters that radiated a whimsical quality of arabesques and changing profiles that seemed to spread across the page like untied knots leaving behind initially a bold air of incoherent mystery. Once thoroughly familiar with the alien letters and their related sounds, however, I set about reading and repeating the words and phrases of the sacred text, just as children do in the Qur’anic madrasah.
A point of interest worth mentioning in this regard is the fact that Arabic is still a pure language, that is to say, a phonetic language in which every letter of the alphabet has a specified sound and there are no exceptions to this rule. This is in counterpoint to English, for example, or worse French, where there are many individual letters and combinations of letters that either produce no sound (as in French) in the speaker or produce a sound that is not in keeping with the original sound associated with a given letter (as in English), no doubt a merciful coincidence for many. The phonetic characteristics of Arabic allow a non-native speaker to read Arabic with ease without making mistakes, once they have accurately mastered the alphabet and its related symbolic sounds.
Eventually, I felt comfortable enough with the letters to enable me to begin mouthing the sacred speech with reasonable accuracy. It is one thing to be a child and undergo the demanding rigors of learning the basics of one’s mother language letter for letter and sound for sound as though playing a game and quite another to be a grown adult in the throes of an alien wilderness of symbols and sounds patched together with an exact science of pronunciation (tajwid) with fixed rules and regulations that require the intonation of a chanted psalmody as a natural rhythm of sound emergent from within the sacred text and given life by the human voice. How was I to learn this on my own? I couldn’t very well sit myself down next to the seven-year-olds of a Qur’anic madrasah; at least my state of development at the time would not have permitted such recourse. Nor could I sit myself down amid the faithful who often gather after the early morning fajr prayer in many mosques across the Islamic crescent to fine-tune their Qur’anic recitation skills, a difficult and exacting feat even for native-speaking Arabs. Any genuine attempt to read the Qur’an at that stage in front of Arab speakers would have proved most embarrassing if not downright scandalous. Somehow, I needed to develop a reasonable amount of skill and accuracy before gathering the courage to join the circle of worshippers after the dawn or sunset prayer.
The next phase in this process of familiarization with the physical demands of the text in terms of pronunciation, intonation, and the rhythmic tonal qualities implicit in correct psalmody led me to the convenience of a newly developed technology at that time in the mid-70s, the walkman tape player. While nowadays our smart phones would make us laugh at this cumbersome device and its countless tapes (30 all told), it was a remarkable device at the time that was not only convenient but very fashionable, particularly with joggers and bicycle riders. In this age of pre-internet, the Qur’an was conveniently available in its entirety on a series of tapes; some of the traditional Egyptian and Syrian sheikhs who are adept at the fine art of Qur’anic recitation are legendary. There are of course different styles of psalmody; I followed the advice of a Muslim friend and purchased the entire Qur’an recited by an Egyptian sheikh known for the quality of his “sound” and the perfection, accuracy, and clarity of his pronunciation. The entire Qur’an came to thirty different tapes that coincided with the thirty equal parts (juz) that the Qur’an is divided into.
After the maghreb prayer at sunset, I would set aside a half hour’s time and listen to the tape while reading aloud and meticulously following the progress of the text. In this way, I was able to detect whether I was making a mistake or not, and I read along while simultaneously listening to the sheikh’s pronunciation through earphones. The tonal clarity and the vibratory resonance of the sound of the human voice intoning the sacred verses rang through my head with the clarity of a resounding bell, echoing the famous comment of the Prophet when he told his wife Khadijah that when he heard the first verses of the revelation being recited to him by the Archangel Gabriel, they had the clarity of a clarion bell, and later he was to say: “It was as though the words were written on my heart.” I spent about a year in this process of becoming more familiar with the text until I felt that the words were somehow written on my mind as resonant echoes from some distant, higher plane; but they were yet to be written on my heart.
One lesson had already come clear to my novitiate mind: the Qur’an is by name a recitation rather than a reading per se, meaning predominantly an oral tradition in commemoration of earlier revelations delivered to peoples of other time periods and recalling the universal quality of legends and myths whose knowledge and meaning conveyed truths delivered orally and that were intended to be transmitted orally. As such, the Qur’an is yet another manifestation in a long history of oral traditions that have been passed down through time as sacred forms of communication that are direct and immediate between people, rather than being relegated only to some fixed place on a page, lying closed in and sequestered within the covers of a book. The symbolic value of an oral text conveys meaning effectively and economically to the mind without necessarily having the intermediary of a formal script whose practical value now serves us well, but that does not supersede or enhance the intuitive directness that takes place orally between people. The written page contains nostalgia for the time when the words on a page were spoken as oral poetry or solar speech; the meaning transcends dimensions as well as distance. These oral revelations were as intangible and invisible as the Spirit the words convey and as eternal as the Cosmic Mind from which they were born.
I was yet another recipient vessel among generations of humanity poured full of knowledge and blessing, but I still couldn’t claim to have gotten inside the words of God any more than they have gotten inside me. In truth, as a vessel of the Divine Spirit, I felt as hard and brittle as glass, ready to be broken and shattered into pieces at the slightest whim of destiny and at the merest contingency of this world. How I needed these words of revelation to fill me up and cast me to the spirit of the wind that “bloweth where it listeth.” I was gradually becoming more familiar with the formalities of the text; but its inimitable spirit and the higher consciousness made available through the intonation of the text still eluded me. Where was the “holy presence,” the descent of the sakinah, I had read about in all the traditional books that I so eagerly devoured? Where was the beloved presence that creates within the human mind a sparkling consciousness cracking open with fresh awareness like the report of river ice in a raw winter dawn? Was I only a dense and tightly woven sieve leaving the thick film of sweet nectar behind at the doorstep of my being? I continued to search for the living reality of the book that would not come easy and without care, and I continued to work at the process of internalization of its knowledge and blessing that would hopefully set me truly on the quickest and surest path of return to God until reaching the spiritual station of no return, even if it took a lifetime of effort.
Only when I felt sufficiently comfortable with listening to the tape-recorded text did I consider myself qualified to enter, not a madrasah Qur’aniyah as such, but a Qur’anic circle of the type held after the early morning (fajr) or evening (maghreb) prayer in many mosques throughout the Islamic crescent for reasons that have hopefully been made clear. For one full year, I sat in a small group of Muslims with the imam of a mosque who guided us through the intricacies of learning the “science of tajwid” mentioned earlier to facilitate correct Qur’anic reading. It is a complicated reading discipline designed to enhance and stylize the forward movement of the text with well defined rules that involve correct pronunciation of each letter, the elongation of certain vowels, the use of ellipses, indications to pause and stop in the reading to facilitate breathing and to enhance meaning, to name only a few of the ritual complexities required in order to achieve correct recitation.
This is not even to mention the psalmodic chanting that the voice eventually assumes, a skill that comes with practice and time. It takes diligent effort to become adept at Qur’anic recitation, but having once passed through the rigors of this well-specified discipline, it becomes an aspect of sacred ritual that every Muslim takes very seriously, not wishing to misread and distort the sacred flow of the text. Any interruption in the flow of the text and any misreading or mispronunciation is immediately repeated correctly to preserve the integrity of the meaning and out of deference and respect to the integrity of the sacred text.
I feared that this kind of public Qur’anic recitation would take on the character of a trial by fire that I was not prepared for. As a foreigner and non-Arab, I would obviously be subject to rigorous attention, a novice subject to close scrutiny among a den of wolves. This, however proved to be pure fantasy on my part and had no place in the reality of the experience. The Sheikh exhibited infinite patience as well as an infinite rigor appropriate to the demands of the task. One did not make mistakes in reading and reciting the text without strict censure, as even the slightest errors of pronunciation, intonation, and rhythm were not overlooked. Certain Arabic letters such as “ayn” (ع), “ghayn” (غ), “sad” (ص), and “dhad” ض do not exist in the Western alphabet and are extremely difficult to pronounce like a native speaker; but with practice, I soon learned that anything is possible.
I discovered to my surprise that Arabs themselves have difficulty reading the Qur’an without making errors of some kind. Either a lack of habit in routinely reciting the text or perhaps occasional over-familiarity with the Arabic language and a tendency to resort to colloquial pronunciations sometimes hindered an accurate delivery. In fact, my slavish devotion to the literal text and my conscious effort at the correct reading of letter for letter gave me an edge over those native-speaking Arabs who felt lulled into a false familiarity with the classical Arabic of the text that they had not truly mastered. I took nothing for granted and worked hard at becoming adept at recreating every letter and sound with precision and accuracy.
Had I arrived at the “holy gate” of some cosmic experience that could propel the mind and heart across eternities of cosmic awareness and infinitudes of cosmic space? The answer must be a resounding “no!” One does not approach the book with the intention of shattering cosmic barriers and arriving on the shores of some vast enlightenment. It was enough for me not to make too many mistakes, taking care not to betray the integrity of the sacred speech and to fulfill the mandate of its ritualistic discipline and worship. I just wanted to get the text right; the rest of the experience I would leave to the discretion of God.
At some point within this time frame—it must have been nearly a decade into my experience as a Muslim living in the Islamic world—I decided it was time to carve the words of some of the verses onto the encasement of my stone heart. I still did not feel the softening of the heart that I had read about in some of the mystic literature of the Islamic traditions, and still less the expansion of some higher awareness raising my consciousness above the mundane level of my own immediate concerns. Where was the burning desire to transcend my limitations; when would the melting of the heart take place before it could flow through some alchemical metamorphosis into the realms of the higher sentiments and spiritual emotions? When would I experience the “gift of tears” that I had read about or smell the heavenly perfumes that betoken higher levels of spirituality? I decided to learn some of the ayat(s) (verses) and surah(s) (chapters) so that I could recite them from memory. I wanted to learn some of the Qur’an by heart, as the idiom goes. In other words like the Prophet, I wanted to learn the verses to the extent that they were “written on my heart.”
There is a well known and enduring tradition in Islam of committing large portions of the Qur’an—if not the entire Qur’an—to memory, a tradition that goes back to the Prophet himself and most of his original companions. To become hafez al-Qur’an—preserver in memory of the Qur’an—remains a deep aspiration for many devout Muslims. We can only imagine the incredible intensity of the people of that time, not only living in close proximity to the Prophet himself, but also listening firsthand from his holy person to the very words of Allah as they were revealed to him. It is small wonder to imagine the fire and the determination to internalize these words in whatever manner possible, not the least being their full memorization. The tradition has lasted down through the centuries to this day, when young children still learn large portions of the Qur’an by heart. It is an on-going commitment that must be maintained through a systematic process of daily repetition and review, a process that amounts to continually living in the presence of the Noble Book.
Once I had committed my mind to the task and set myself on the road of memorization of certain of the shorter “Makkan” chapters of the Qur’an that traditionally come in the last several parts (juz) of the book, I began the slow and meticulous process of committing to memory verse by verse of one, then a second and a third chapter, until I had finally accumulated a goodly number of surahs within easy reach of my mind. I had set myself the task of learning the verses “by heart” and ended up learning them “with the heart.” It is interesting that in the Islamic perspective, Muslims refer to the heart when explaining such matters rather than the mind. Indeed, the heart is the “seat” of the intelligence according to Islamic scholars, the place where the fusion of knowledge and sacred emotion takes place in order to bring about the full realization of the truth that lies embedded within every aspect of existence. As the symbolic pulse of the human entity, it is knowledge of the heart that will lead us out of ourselves on the road to union with the Supreme Being.
The process of learning something by heart implies first of all the realization of how true learning takes place. Wanting to understand and have some knowledge internalized within one’s being as an applied wisdom is not enough. Before truly understanding a thing as an internalized reality, the simplicity of true learning is required. Using the senses, first the eyes are engaged in reading the letters and words, then the tongue is engaged to give voice to the words as they were intended to be heard and whose resonance moves out into the atmosphere like ripples on a placid sea. Repetition is the key: The fervent and continuous perfecting of the sacred words through the repetition of the syllables, far from eroding the language and wearing it down into platitude, actually energizes and revives the words, making them real on the tongue and then sacred within the heart. I repeated syllable by syllable, phoneme by phoneme, word by word, phrase by phrase, verse by verse, both visually and verbally, until I felt that they were committed to memory. The next day, I would review what I had learned to make sure it was still a part of me and if it wasn’t, I repeated the process until it was firmly embedded in my mind. There were of course advances and retreats, peaks and valleys, slow conquests and persistent failures, until the moment arrives when the verses are engraved on the heart. To this day, there are verses written on my heart in indelible ink that I memorized thirty years ago. They are with me now forever as part of my permanent record.
In truth, what happens is that the mind falls down into the well of this learning process; one feels awash in the sacred text partly because it opens onto a world of transcendence and enlightenment and partly because of the harmonious effect the vibratory sound has on the physical body. Oftentimes, you will see Muslims in the mosque swaying from side to side during a Qur’anic reading, a habit that I found myself falling into as well, if for no other reason than that the entire body seemed to want to take part in this sacred adventure in worship and praise of the Divinity. The end result is that the doctrine is not learned mentally as we are accustomed to learning things in the West, imposing so many facts onto the plate of the mind. The living experience of the Qur’an is engraved on the heart as a prelude to becoming a part of the person’s entire being, internalized as it were as part of the fabric that makes a person what they truly are in their essence, the verses ready to be drawn upon for guidance and support during the course of a person’s life, as the need arises in making decisions and going about the business of living. Being able to summon the words of revelation and draw them out of the well of one’s inner being without the aid of a book gathers together the spirit and the voice from
what a person has internalized rather than calling upon some reasoned or intellectualized meaning from the mind alone.
The art of memorization has been lost in the Western world. Even as a child over half a century ago, I used to memorize portions of the catechism and learn poems and nursery rhymes by heart. Being able to recite them at will was considered a high accomplishment, representing a kind of internalization of the poetic ambiance and mind of the poet himself and in this way the creative process he went through remains a living reality through the force of the words imprinted on the memory. Children seem to understand and take delight in certain things of the natural order that adults only make fun of and laugh.
People in the West have nearly forgotten the value of reciting sacred verses from memory in the tradition of Qur’anic recitation or as in the Hindu tradition of repeating sutras in the Vedic scriptures. In their need for mobility, speed, and continual change, the idea of repeating a sacred scripture, a consecrated mantra, or one of the Names of God seems tedious, repetitious, and without value. We have lost the realization that through such repetition of the sacred Name and/or memorization of revelatory verses of scripture, a person comes to identify him or herself with the divine name and consequently with God Himself.
According to Ramakrishna, “God and His Name are identical.” In Christianity, the Hesychastic “Prayer of the Heart” continues the Brahman tradition of repetition of the Name by repeating the name of Jesus over and over again until it becomes “second nature.” The verses of the Qur’an, the names of God, the sacred epithets incorporated into the language even are all there as reminders of “the one thing needful.” Their repetition are exercises in concentration and application of principial knowledge that brings about an appeasement of the mind and a strengthening of the spirit. Who could ask for anything more?