By Ziauddin Sardar
January 11, 2008
The Angel Israfil. A painting from the Aja'ib al-Makhluqat of al-Qazvini. 1365-1425, Mamluk, Iraq. Illustration supplied by the British Museum
I grew up reading the Qur'an on my mother's lap. It's an experience shared by most Muslim children. It's usual, once children are about four or five, for mothers to start reading the Qur'an and getting the child to repeat the words, again and again, till they become familiar and can be easily recited from memory.
Actually, I started a little late - when I was pushing six. In those days, we lived in a small town on the Pakistani side of the Punjab. After dinner every Thursday evening, my mother would shout: "Sipara time!" I would stop playing, run to her, jump on her lap, and put my left arm around her neck. She would open a slim, rather torn booklet, and start reading: Bismillahir -rahmain nlirahim. In the name of God, the beneficent, the merciful. I remember how she would pronounce each word distinctly and separately. I would repeat each word after her and then she'd have me repeat them again to make sure I pronounced each word correctly.
A sipara contains a section of the Qur'an. The word "Qur'an" means reading; and the holy book is often described as "the noble reading". To make it easier to read, it is divided into 30 sections known in Arabic as juz-un. Sipara is the Urdu equivalent, sometimes shortened simply to Para. Reading one Para a day, you can complete the whole Qur'an in a month. This comes in handy during the fasting month of Ramadan when the whole Qur'an is read, one section on each of the 30 days, to vast gatherings at special congregational evening prayer sessions. The special emphasis on reading the Qur'an during Ramadan is because it was during this month that the first words of the Qur'an were revealed to the Prophet Muhammad.
Children begin their reading at the end of the book. So I started with the 30th sipara. It contains short chapters, or Suras, some just a few verses long, all rather easy to commit to memory. When I had memorised most of the chapters in this sipara, and it was time to tackle the longer Suras, my mother decided to send me to a madrasa in the local mosque. It is vaguely equivalent to going to Sunday school, but with rather more emphasis on the school, since the curriculum is set and the same everywhere: learning to read the Qur'an.
Most mosques have a madrasa, or a religious school, attached to them. And I suppose my madrasa was like that found in any mosque, anywhere in the world. It was a small, darkly-lit room. Children would arrive at an appointed time, in my case after midday Friday prayers. On arriving we'd all perform the obligatory ritual of ablution. Then we'd all take our places on small stools behind a long, narrow table. The imam sat on a chair in front of us, waving a long stick. By the age of seven or eight, children are expected to know the words and be able to read the Qur'an themselves. We would be instructed to open our sipara on a specific page - and start reading aloud. The imam would listen, paying specific attention to each child. If someone got the pronunciation of a word wrong, or made some other mistake, down would come the stick. I don't remember anyone actually being hit; the punishment seemed to land on the table. But I do remember the rapid-fire swish and thwack frightened all of us.
I wasn't enthusiastic about my madrasa lessons, which lasted about an hour. They lacked the loving touch of my mother. But I loved what happened frequently after lessons. The classes were not graded, everyone from the locality came, all ages and stages mixed in the harmonics - to an untrained ear, cacophony - of reading aloud their personal assignment of different parts of the Qur'an. So someone in the class would always be about to reach the completion of the whole Qur'an. When they did, their family would celebrate with a general and generous distribution of sweetmeats. You know: things like Gulab Jamun, Rasmalai, and my all-time favourite, barfi. I'd gorge myself and always got to take a plateful home.
A select number of students would manage to memorise the whole Qur'an. They would be honoured with the title hafiz. And then their family's joy would know no bounds. There would be barfi by the truckload!
Of course, the classes I attended were for boys. But exactly the same classes and system were held for girls; how else would there be mothers ready to teach their children? But, after the madrasa, the awful difference in attitudes to and provision of education for women in many Muslim countries never ceases to outrage me.
My madrasa lessons did not last long. When I was nine, my family moved to Clapton Pond in Hackney. In the early 60s, there were few mosques in London. There was no chance of me going to a madrasa. So back I went to my mother - but her lap was now occupied by my younger sister. Besides, she expected me to read the Qur'an by myself. This wasn't really surprising, since I had reached the end of the 29th Para. My mother was insistent that I start from the beginning again, with the 30th Para. But this time I had to read the words with meaning.
For Muslims, the Qur'an is the word of God. In fact, that's how we define a Muslim - someone who accepts the divine origins of the noble reading. To read the Qur'an is to see and hear the very words of God. This is why we read it in its original form - in Arabic, just as it was revealed to and then recited by Prophet Muhammad. Translations may convey meaning, but all translations are at best approximation, and in this instance definitely not the actual words of God. As such, they do not amount to prayer or worship, which in Islam amounts to little more than reading the Qur'an. When my mother was taking me through my first siapara, it was nothing like her reading me a bedtime story, which she sometimes did - mostly short, Urdu versions of Arabian Nights. When my mother taught me to read the Qur'an it was an act of worship and prayer. She was, in fact, teaching me how to pray - or rather, exactly what to recite as the basis of the five daily prayers.
Even before I started to read the Qur'an with meaning, I had developed emotional connections to the sacred book. I felt a deep love for the text; it grew naturally just from the experience of learning with my mother and how she taught me to read. The glorious Qur'an, as far as she was concerned, was all about love. Love of God. Love of his words. It was a deep, all-pervasive, unconditional love - like that of a mother for her son.
I also felt reverence for the Qur'an. This came from watching how my mother herself approached it: with total respect and humility. And I felt fear. Somehow, reading the Qur'an always invoked the memory of the madrasa and the Imam Sahib with his long, bamboo stick. Swish! Later, I rationalised this fear as the apprehension of actually encountering the majesty of God. Once you know the significance of the Qur'an then you know each time you open the book or hear its words, right then and there, in the here and now, you are receiving the direct word of God without intermediary. So trepidation, more than a hint of caution is no bad thing and a large dose of humility is certainly needed. Or just plain fear: fear of misunderstanding or misinterpreting his word.
My emotional connection became more complex when I started to read the Qur'an with meaning. Now, I had to engage my mind; and an inquiring, restless mind being shaped by different educational experiences and systems found reason makes its own demands. In London, the ritual of reading the Qur'an in our household changed. Both my parents worked from Monday to Friday. So Qur'an reading took place on Saturday mornings. Sundays, my mother devoted to more profane ritual: she went, without fail, to the local fleapit to watch the latest offering from Bollywood.
I would sit in front of my mother and read out some selected verses. She would then explain their meaning in Urdu with the aid of a translation. I would then read out the English translation of the same verses. Then, we would chat; and totally disagree.
My first problem was with the Urdu translation. Urdu is an exquisite, beautiful and poetic language. It is suffused with Arabic words. That's why those, like me, who read Urdu find it easy to read Arabic. (We simply read Arabic as though it was written in Urdu!). But I found Urdu translations of the Qur'an to be rather ugly. Worse: the Urdu translation was often at odds with the English translation. The same verse sometimes conveyed quite different meanings when read in Urdu and English translations. Reading the Qur'an, I quickly realised, is one thing, understanding it is quite another.
Most of my life since adolescence has been a struggle with the meanings of the verses of the Qur'an. During my university years, when I was active in various student Islamic bodies, I joined a study group - or usra. Each member took turns to host our sessions. We studied the Qur'an systematically with the aid of a number of classical and contemporary commentaries, under the guidance of a well-known scholar. As my career developed, I attended innumerable conferences of Muslim scholars, visited many Muslim countries, and met many people who argued about the meanings of the sacred text. The more I learned about the Qur'an, the more I engaged with the sacred text, the more intense my struggle became. The more I learnt of Muslims' intellectual history and thought about the differences and distinctions, as well as similarities, between classical and modern scholars, the more I had to struggle with what Muslims throughout their history have made of Islam. Different people, it seemed to me, were finding different meanings in the Qur'an, and interpreting it in different ways - some I could hardly agree with.
Every Muslim will tell you the Qur'an is eternal. It is timeless, its words unchanged, it is ever present. The Qur'an addresses us directly, as it always has. But religious texts, by their very nature, are complex. And one of the most insistent commands in the Qur'an is: Think! Reflect! So the struggle to understand and interpret is also our eternal challenge; there is no getting away from it. The Qur'an does not change but the circumstances of human life, the potential of our thought and action; the social, economic, technological, environmental and political conditions of our times are ever changing. As well as requiring us to think, the words of the Qur'an also imply movement: the religious life, it tells us, is not about standing still but always striving to make our life, our society, the entire world around us a better place for everyone, all of God's creation without exception. And that means we have to keep on asking what the sacred text can, should or ought to mean and how it should apply in the circumstances of today.
The holy book has no significance for us outside our own time. The significance and meaning of the verses of the Qur'an have to be rediscovered by each generation in the context of its own time. Things change; contexts change, and old meanings, the customs born of old interpretations, far from liberating you can actually suffocate you. Or worse, can be turned into means to oppress or oppose other people whether fellow Muslims or not.
These blogs are a continuation of my struggle with the meaning of the Qur'an. They explore what the Qur'an means to me - here and now. I want to share what I understand and think of the Qur'an as a dynamic text, of whose relevance and implications for our time we have hardly scratched the surface. And, of course, that means reflecting on the thinking and ideas of other Muslims, and non-Muslims as well.
However, what Muslims make of the Qur'an, the meaning and significance they derive from it, is important not just for Muslims but for everyone. Look around you. Notice just how many conflicts, how much strife, is generated around the world based on what Muslims think they are reading in the Qur'an. Everyone is affected, directly or indirectly, by how the Qur'an is read and understood.
I have no qualms in admitting that, in many ways, I am not the most qualified person to talk about the Qur'an, let alone venture into the thorny territory of interpretation (pdf). I am not a hafiz, or an imam, or an Aalim - a religious scholar trained for years in a religious seminary - although on certain bad days, I do imagine myself as a Muslim thinker of some repute. Worse: I don't even speak Arabic.
But the vast majority of Muslims are in exactly the same position as me. Indeed, of the 1.2 billion Muslims who populate the planet, only around 300 million are Arabic speaking. But native Arabic speakers are not in a privileged position. Today's vernacular Arabic comprises a great variety of dialects and is and has always been quite distinct from the Arabic of the Qur'an. Native Arabic speakers may have an advantage in pronouncing its words correctly, but they are in the same boat as everyone else when it comes to struggling to discover the meaning and contemporary relevance of the words and verses of the Qur'an.
The point is we all, whatever our state of knowledge and station in life, have to struggle with the sacred book. I write as every Muslim; as an individual trying to understand what Islam means to me in the 21st century. After all, one can only have an interpretative relationship with a text, particularly when the text in question is regarded as eternal. And this relationship is as much individual as communal: everyone who claims to be a Muslim must struggle with the meaning of the Qur'an. There is no get-out clause, no escape. This responsibility is not fulfilled by merely reciting its words. And it is certainly not accomplished by just waving the Qur'an and shouting slogans. It requires sitting down to some serious reading and sweaty thinking.
Before we get down to serious reading, I am going to devote the next two blogs to exploring the special nature of the Qur'an and discussing the basic rules for reading and interpreting the sacred text. Meanwhile, perhaps you can let me know about your own encounters with the Qur'an.
So, are you sitting comfortably?