An Intimate Portrait of the Holy Qur'an
When I first became Muslim, I had no idea of the possible intimacy that could be developed in one’s relationship with a book. I nurtured a love of the classics, had read the Russian and British 19th century classic novels, studied the famous essayists from Charles Lamb to Ralph Waldo Emerson and treasured not only the beauty and style of the language that I hoped to emulate as a writer myself, but also recognized the extraordinary benefit that I have taken from these great works of literature in terms of their ethics, their higher sentiments, and the deep abiding life-values these works convey to the reader. Nothing, however, could have adequately prepared my well-nurtured mind for the encounter with the Qur’an in terms of the depth, the intimacy, and the close companionship that would result from reading its chapters and verses word for word as the actual words of God.
Not long after formally embracing Islam as my religion of choice as opposed to the religion into which I was born, I set myself the task of getting to know the Holy Book in the deepest manner possible as a life journey in quest of mystery and revelation. I held a deep fascination for what the book may contain once I embraced the Religion of Islam and accepted in principle its doctrines and principles. If God had chosen to speak to humanity in words, what, then, would He reveal to us as His thinking, talking, human creation? We profess to believe in God. We believe that there has been a descent of knowledge in the form of revelation with letters, words and verses that actually constitute the actual sacred speech of the Divinity.
We call the book the Noble Book and the Holy Book. We wrapped the actual book in velvet cloth, and it holds a position of prominence in the house. Before touching or opening the book’s pages to proceed with a Qur’anic recitation, a Muslim is obliged to perform the so-called ablution, or wudhu as it is referred to in Arabic, in the same manner as when one prepares to perform the Islamic prayer ritual five times a day, as a symbolic as well as literal gesture of purification. Before recitation, Muslims may kiss the book, touch it to their foreheads and hearts in ritual gestures of reverence and love, then place it on a Qur’anic reading holder usually made of carved wood. The book is always there in the background of a Muslim life. It is read in stages on a weekly if not daily basis. Muslims traditionally read the entire Qur’an during the holy month of Ramadhan in commemoration of its first descent on the Night of Power identified in the Qur’an as the Laylat al-Qadr, a night that is “better than a thousand months”, when time stands still, when the angels and the Spirit of God descend to witness its first recitation.
Before I came to know of and experience the blessed Qur’anic recitation in its true form after I became Muslim, with its precise knowledge, its sense of sacred history, its mysterious presence, clear guidance, and comforting sense of tranquility and peace, I had no idea that such a book existed, a book of universal principles with the power to raise spiritual consciousness and thereby transform lives. I had wandered through life thinking I could make my simple way through life on my own. I enjoyed vague premonitions of God; I didn’t disbelieve; but instead I had a simple faith in a Supreme Being who created the universe and everything in it; but I had no idea how to relate to this and had no experience that could be characterized as truly spiritual, otherworldly, or inspirational. I wanted to be a good person; but had no idea how to go about being good, knowing full well my own limitations and weaknesses, my fears and psychological complexes that prey upon the immature mind, and the overwhelming uncertainties that plague our daily lives with their inscrutable mystery. What mysterious force would cradle me in its arms and lift me out of myself, well beyond earth’s gravity and the downward inclinations of the lower soul?
It seemed to me that for all my life prior to becoming Muslim, the desire to have what could be called genuine spiritual experience always existed; but the experience itself had never made its presence known in any convincing way. I wanted to feel the holy presence of something that lingers inside as some mysterious secret waiting to be revealed that would enrich my life and give me the direction I sought in fulfilling my destiny. I wanted to raise my consciousness beyond the mundane world in order to uncover the extraordinary potential that seems to lie all around us in the natural world. Why shouldn’t that potential exist within myself as well?
I had taken note, for example, of the instinctive intelligence of the animals, the symmetry of the natural laws of gravity and regeneration, the harmony implicit in the phases of the moon and the changing of the seasons that find their source in their earthly orbit around the glorious sun which itself is not stationary but moves majestically around a higher nexus within the galaxy, but the messages of the natural order had remained asleep within me and never stirred beyond vague aspirations to be good, to refine my character, to develop my personality, and ultimately to find my true self. Nature’s messages were there to behold; but how were they to be internalized into the heart as the spirit of the soul?
Little did I know that an unexpected awakening lay in wait for me to opening . . . what (?) . . . my eyes, my heart. I could well have moved beyond my youth into maturity and old age and never felt the whisper of some sacred breath into the ear as a holy incantation, the sudden beating of the heart from a feeling of unannounced, ecstatic joy that momentarily fans us with wings of happiness, the hint of a shadow in the mind that suddenly turns to the consciousness of light that fills us with delight by the luminescence of its sheer presence. I could have gone on believing that certain doors would never be opened, that certain longings would remain forever unsatisfied, that certain questions and mysteries would continue to tempt and lure me out of myself; but would never give up their sweet nectar in the form of a revelation that would sweep aside all uncertainty and doubt, at least in principle, and open the heart onto a world of eternal discovery and a world without end.
I soon discovered that the Qur’an is a book like no other, a companion and friend that never grows old, a narrative tale of ancient and sacred history that never fades because of its universal appeal and symbolic significance, with powerful forces of energy and harmony, wisdom and blessing that overlay the mind and heart of the reader/reciter with a luminescent clarity and sense of sacredness that bring peace of mind and surety of heart to the faithful soul. It is a book that takes every Muslim on a journey through time whose ultimate destination is midway between eternity in the here and now; at the still point of the turning world, neither going nor coming, where past and future are gathered into the eternal moment of now. Every recitation and reading becomes a journey through the landscape of a strange and alien world whose essential knowledge identifies the true nature of everything within the creation. It is a journey that begins with the creation of the universe and the establishment of the sacred trust between the Divine and the human, and a journey that ends within the Paradise where rivers flow freely, and where the souls of the innocent and the just will reap in the “next world” what they have earned within the dimension of “this world”.
The journey of the book takes us gingerly across the minefields of ignorance, human weakness and all the major vices that in the Western world are referred to as the seven deadly sins. Prominent among the forms of ignorance that plague our waking moments are hypocrisy and polytheism, hypocrisy being the veil of lies that we send forth as a psychological mask of pretending falsehoods in place of our true intentions that when unveiled would reveal us to be the venal, dishonest, and low-life individuals that we truly are, always seeking personal advantage and gain at the expense of others unless we work on ourselves in a manner that the Qur’an exhorts. “We created man in the best of forms; they we cast him down as the lowest of the low.” (95:4) The hypocrites feature highly in the Qur’anic narrative, real life people who lived at the time of the Prophet as representatives of the time, but who live in every time as models of falsehood and treachery. In point of fact, we know very well who the hypocrites are because we can see their very shade and color within ourselves if we look closely enough. It is hypocrisy that we have to fight within ourselves before we start making accusations of hypocrisy against those around us.
However, polytheism is an idea with great symbolic value shedding light on human nature in present times, in addition to being an ancient, historical phenomenon identified with the belief in multiple gods and deities. Polytheism actually lives within us as an artifact from an ancient time as a manifestation of our human nature to value that which is purely earthly and attached to the so-called “gods” of this world, a value and belief system that will actually lead us away from the spirit of our true nature which yearns to believe in a supreme Reality, an intelligent Creator and true Friend. What are the gods and deities of this era that fill our hearts of longing and desire, but the very artifacts of the modern world that provide us with our motivation and that actually form the foundation and ground of our personal goals and desire to succeed. What are the 21st century gods but the flourishing of the personal ego (we are our own gods), the desire for money at any price (even at the expense of our own integrity), and the pursuit of power and authority over others (even at the expense of the abuse of power). We want these things without fully knowing why; we think that satisfaction of the ego, the accumulation of money for its own sake, and the freedom that power and authority over others gives us are the three great keys to happiness and success in the modern world, only to realize that there is very little satisfaction in self-reliance and even less certainty as the vicissitudes of life force us to realize that we cause our own miseries in spite of ourselves, that with unlimited amounts of money we are still unhappy, and that power and authority over people leads to the dead end of a cul-de-sac unless it is used in the name of supreme and universal principles that transcend the individual ego, the wealth of the world, and the power of individuals to rule over others for their own sake.
The journey of the book takes us through the modern-day wilderness of spiritual insight and holy experience. The human mind would constitute a wilderness of cognitive speculation, lost in the mystery of an unfathomable sense of origin, purpose and destiny within the human condition, if it were not for the intuitive yearning to meet the counterpart of the soul in the Spirit of God. The spirit of the Qur’anic journey takes us by the hand and leads us through the peaks and troughs of life with the piercing illumination of a light house perched like a pre-historic bird on a stormy promontory illuminating the obscure darkness of the land. The Muslim journey begins with the proclamation of the one Reality and ends with a person’s final accounting on the Day of Judgment, the balance of good and bad actions, and ultimately salvation of soul and fulfillment of the eternal condition in eternal repose within the embrace of the Supreme God, identified by name in the Qur’an as the Living, the Eternal.
Each encounter with the sacred words casts a spell of mystery and wonderment that bewitches the mind and heart with its sacred history, spiritual guidance and secrets of the natural order; we come to the book as to a fresh beginning or the dawn of a new day. Every time a Muslim picks up the book, he or she has entered a new world to be transported to another place and another time from the world we experience in the here and now. We can momentarily leave behind the myriad wonders and mysteries of this world, an informed touch that sends beautiful notes from the harp, shadow playing with sunlight on the river, clouds brushing mountain peaks with their evanescence, a silent bell waiting to be rung, the dust and ashes of forgotten dreams that will never become true . We sing songs of nostalgia and longing on our own, while centuries disappear, only to be reborn as the future’s now when we pick up the book to read the words and verses of the revelation. In hearing our own voice, we hear the voice of the Prophet to whom the revelation came many centuries ago. To hear the Prophet’s voice is to hear the voice of the Archangel Gabriel who appeared standing on the horizon in the aura of a white light amid a flutter of wings, intoning the majestic verses with the sound of thunder. To hear the voice of the Archangel Gabriel is to hear the very Voice of God resounding like the roar of waves on the shore of the mighty empyrean.
We invoke the traditional bis mil-Llah, which translates as the invocation “in the Name of God”, for everything we begin anew is enshrouded within this formula of entreaty to the Sacred Name to hear our voice and recognize our efforts. Only when we put down the book and leave our prayer carpet is the captivating spell broken, as we come back down to earth and enter once again into the rigors of the world; no longer orphans and exiles, but now as revitalized beings, new Muslims born again after every recitation into a world that is wrapped in blessing and promise, to live another day in the shadow of the Divinity, the day itself opening before us like the unraveling parchment of a sacred scroll. We respond to the summons of the book as an invitation and take with us the knowledge bestowed and the experience fully lived. If only we could remember throughout the day the sense of purpose and continue to feel the latent energy that accompanies Qur’anic recitation; indeed, the angels witness every reading of the Book after the dawn prayer (al-fajr). As such, as we move into the broad avenue of the morning, we have no need to fear life’s outcome or feel unease about the forces of our destiny. They are meant to happen in the same way that God is Merciful (al-Rahman) and Generous (al-Karim).
As with a true friend with whom silence offers an easy familiarity, there is no need for words. A profound silence reigns within the book, within the room, within the heart, as we take up the book, sitting cross-legged on a prayer carpet. In our hands lies a jewel of incredible value ready to sparkle with the incandescence of heavenly light, if it weren’t for the pre-dawn shadows, sitting in silence and darkness until the first sound is intoned on the tongue, within the mind, within the heart.
ALIF . . . LAM . . . MIM are the first sacred symbolic sounds of the reading, whose purpose and significance have been written about and speculated upon down through the ages. These are the sacred letters that open various verses of the Qur’an: ALIF is the vertical symbol, the vowelization of the aaahhhh of the Name Allah, a heavenly sigh as old and enduring as eternity, a visual symbol of vertical man standing erect among the other animals on the horizon of the animal kingdom, featuring Homo sapiens as the human alif.
Lam initiates the negative impulse so critical as the basis of our ethical behavior, and verbalizes into sound the primal impulse stated succinctly in the shahadah to deny multiple gods for the sake of the one God. Mim is one of the roots of the Arabic word to believe and recalls the believer (mu’min), the imam (imam), the mosque (masjid), all characterized by the beloved letter mim. The sacred sounds begin to emerge from the deep well of the soul which in turn links and moves outward in harmony toward the universal spirit that substantiates the essence of the creation.
Within seconds of commencing the recitation, we are transported for a brief moment back into the Cave of Light, in commemoration of the original command of the grand Archangel who recited the first revealed verse on behalf of the Divinity “Recite in the name of your Lord Who created, created humanity from a clay mixture.” (96:1) Through the words, one transcends this body of flesh and bones to become like pure essence moving across the page, across the mind, across the soul. There is movement inside and outside the body in the form of sacred vibration and energy, looking up from below and looking down from above, indulging in what it means to be air, wind, spirit, infiltrating everything between the light and shadows of the room, between the leaves and branches outside the window, between the fingertips and the book they hold. There is no past or future, only the present moment conveying a sense of the eternal continuum of time. We can give ourselves up to the sweet embrace that lives within the world of the revelation through surrender to the Divinity that will give us back our true selves. The reading or recitation moves forward through precise sound like the elegant script of the letters across the page; but life is held in check for these moments of suspended time and we are reminded once again of what it means to be worthy of the Sacred Presence that invades the profane moment with its haunting aura of another world.
The core reason for it all—the words, the sound, the good intentions, the heart and spirit lies in the knowledge, the consciousness, the serenity and the certainty encased within the calligraphic script and wrapped in the beauty of sound with ribbons of energy and light. Reading becomes a divine delight that has no comparison in this world. Everything about us becomes rewritten as a changed being as we sit cross-legged on the carpet. New things become possible and transformations are ready to take place that we would not otherwise experience on our own. It makes a person appreciate the obsession that the alchemists had for the transmutation of lead into gold. Through the reading, the human consciousness is lifted out of the doldrums of this world to a higher level of awareness, something has vanished of our former selves like the dead skin of a snake, and we are lost now amidst the stars and their luminescent ways. The experience lies beyond the human realm and we feel that we have awoken into another world, as though we are for a moment uncreated once again and lie within the “eye” of Allah as a promise with a name and a destiny.
Qur’anic recitation determines the very framework of the spiritual life of a individual. Muslims draw on the language of the Qur’an to give a spiritual frame to their hopes, fears, sorrows, regrets, and aspirations. They use the Qur’an as a means of withdrawing for a few moments during the course of the day, either in the early morning when the birds sing their own sacred verses, or after the sunset prayer when the calm of dusk merges into the stillness of night. The holy recitation relieves the mind, the psyche, and the soul of those who intone its verses from the gravitational pull of this world with its implicit imbalance, disharmony and lack of peace. When the Muslims arise in the morning at the call to prayer, they have available to them the sacred book that contains all they need to know and therefore they possess the means to realize that knowledge in their daily lives. Small wonder, then, that devout Muslims turn to the Holy Qur’an for sustenance and strength on a daily basis throughout the course of their lives, a turning that preempts doubt and despair and leads their inner being back to the center and source of their existence within the Divine Being.
At the dawn prayer (salat al-fajr), the shadowy rays of a saffron moon float serenely across the window sill. In the pre-dawn darkness, the dark plate of the night sky shines forth the light of ancient stars with their message of eternity within time and infinity within space, before disappearing with the coming of the dawn. There is a hint of incense and musk in the air whose assault on the senses captures a feeling of sacredness that becomes a moving force within the mind and heart. Heavenly scents accompany the two angels who descend to witness the Qur’anic recitation that occurs in one place or another every morning across the crescent of the Islamic world. Having performed the ritual ablution and prayer ceremony, Muslims in various corners of the globe sit cross-legged on a prayer carpet and reach for the Noble, the Generous , the Holy Qur’an, an Illuminated Book (al-kitab al-mubin), a document that is “on a tablet well-preserved in heaven”, as well as a printed book held in the hand. They kiss it out of profound respect, place it on forehead and heart, and then commence to recite the words and verses of the Holy Book. Alif, Lam, Mim, they chant sonorously the Arabic letters that commence the recitation and then recite the first verse: “This is the Book, of which there is no doubt, and guidance for those who fear God” (2: 1).
With the divine words of revelation, the Muslims forever repeat the task of planting in the ground of their soul the seeds of a divine knowledge that brings guidance and certainty to those who believe in God. They listen to His words and verses, and hold in reverence and awe the coming of the Sakinah or Holy Presence of the Divinity. When the mind becomes illuminated with divine knowledge, when the heart is on fire with desire, when the imagination paints dreams of mystery and beauty, and when the higher emotions are brimming with devotion and love, the seeds of the divine Mystery (al-ghaib) take root and grow, giving entrance into a realm beyond legends and myths where mystical power and self renewal far exceed anything we are capable of creating by ourselves. Dust settles on the furniture and the early dawn light creeps cautiously across the windowpane while the outsized autumn moon sinks heavily below the emerging horizon. As the words of revelation echo through the coming dawn, the aspiring soul becomes a staging ground of worship and praise that rises through levels of conscious awakening until it returns full circle to its origin and source in that universal consciousness radiating outward from the Mind of God.
Finally, reluctantly, the sublime recitation of verses from the Holy Book comes to a close and we take leave of our prayer carpet to attend to the duties of another day. The book lies there in silence once again, although the echoes of the recitation resonate their harmonies and energy across the coming hours of the day. We take with us a feeling as if some candle has been lit to illuminate the shadows of the mind. A velvet awakening and ribbons of blessing wrap around our ears and eyes, around our mind and heart, bringing the supreme knowledge of God down as the guiding principle of our lives. We begin to realize that something of ourselves has disappeared, in order to make room for the appearance of the Supreme Presence, as the soul of the book enters the soul of the person we wish to become.