This article is to clarify where ‘barakah’ actually comes into play when reading the Quran, according to God Himself. To begin with, there are three distinctions I’d like to make:
- Reading mindfully: To read something one understands (semantics) and pay attention to the content (pragmatics).
- Reading without understanding: To read something one understands without paying much attention to the content (semantics but no pragmatics).
- Phonemic practice: To sound out the vowelised Arabic script of the Quran not understanding what is being sounded out (no semantics nor pragmatics).
None of these distinctions are intended to be pejorative: they are merely terms I intend to use so that the points I make here in good faith are clear.
My point in this post (like all others I write on this theme):
It is one of the greatest obligations (wujūb) in the shari’ah to read the Quran mindfully. That means reading the Quran in a language we understand and paying attention to what God said. Bar legitimate impediments, sufficing with phonemic practice is wrong. God puts it plain and simple.
The Quran is self-referential and addresses its own purpose regularly and repeatedly throughout the text. The first reference very early on, in 2:2, tells you that it is “a guidance for those who are conscious of God.” God repeatedly explains the importance of the message as guidance through examples of 1) those who believe, 2) those who claim to believe but are disloyal, and 3) those who disbelieve. Believers are those who engage its content, reflect on its meanings, and enact God’s guidance in their lives. The primary problem that God identifies with the enmity-filled disbelievers, as the allies of satan, is their refusal to engage with the message itself (content, form, or messenger) and subsequently their refusal to acknowledge the life to come. As a result of their intentional ignorance, they remain untouched by God’s guidance and steeped in superstition, irrationality, arrogance, and untruths.
The two key objectives of satan:
- To divert people away from the content of the message to ensure that they have little idea of what God wants and little connection with God Himself in the way He self-characterises.
- To distract people from identifying and appreciating God’s bounteous blessings in order to inspire ingratitude (both consciously and unconsciously) towards the Most High.
If we understand the above, it becomes clear how satan has used popular discourse to undermine reading the Quran mindfully and dupe intelligent and sincere people into being satisfied (and even gratified!) with phonemic practice.
But how has it worked so effectively and what has been his overarching strategy?
- Spreading the baseless idea that phonemic practice is a sanctioned ritual and thus beyond the purview of reason.
- The imaginative idea, also inspired by satan, that abstract ‘blessings’, rather than substantive benefits is a primary benefit of engaging God’s message. In the popular imagination, reading Arabic phonemes produces a kind of magical dust nebulously termed ‘barakah’, which comes about from a phonetic practice that impudently misuses Quranic sounds as spells. So no matter how absurd it would normally be to an intelligent person, it seems to be acceptable in ‘religion’ which secularism has effectively pushed into the domain of mysticism. And consequently, every hadith on the virtues of actually reading the Quran is bizarrely interpreted to include phonemic practice.
I now turn to deal with a significant tactic satan has successfully employed amongst literate masses, despite it being both illogical and unsubstantiated by God: “There is ‘barakah’ in the sounds of the Quran.”
This is not a rebuke of sincere people but to expose the devil’s schemes. Despite the popularity of the idea, there being ‘barakah’ in phonemic practice has no basis in the Quran. Not only has God never said such a thing nor implied it throughout His message, but it also opposes everything He has actually said.
The word ‘barakah’ refers to something good from God that’s beneficial (See al-Rāghib’s Mufradāt). It also refers to an increase. When something is ‘mubarak,’ it contains a goodness that’s highly beneficial. When Jesus is quoted as saying “He (God) made me ‘mubarak’ wherever I am” (19:31) he meant, “He made me beneficial to people…” (See al-Suyūṭī’s Durār al-Manthūr and al-Bayhaqī’s Shu’ab al-Īmān). God speaks of water from the skies as ‘mubarak,’ as it benefits plants. (50:9) These types of benefit are not abstract or irrational, but they are clear and often observable.
Now God tells us that the Final Message is ‘mubarak’ (benefit-granting) on four separate occasions. Here I briefly go through each one:
- “This is a ‘mubarak’ Scripture that We have sent down to confirm what came before it and for you to warn the Mother of Cities and all around it. Those who believe in the Hereafter believe in this Scripture, and do not neglect their prayers.” (6:92)
What is the benefit spoken of here? The previous verse (6:91) explicitly tells us that the benefit is “a light and a guide to people” and that they were being “taught things that neither you nor your forefathers had known” that was a continuation of the Torah and a message with which to warn the Makkans and surrounding towns. In other words, the benefit of the Quran is in the content of the message that teaches, guides, and informs people of the reality of God, the world and God’s creation, and what God wants from them in this life.
- “Once again, We gave Moses the Scripture, perfecting [Our favour] for those who do good, explaining everything clearly, as guidance and mercy, so that they might believe in the meeting with their Lord. This, too, is a ‘mubarak’ Scripture, which We have sent down – follow it and be conscious of your Lord, so that you may receive mercy, lest you say, ‘Scriptures were only sent down to two communities before us: we were not aware of what they studied,’… Now clear evidence, guidance, and mercy have come to you from your Lord. Who could be more wrong than someone who rejects God’s revelations and turns away from them?” (6:154-157)
Here God is telling us that the Quran is of benefit like the Torah was, “explaining everything clearly, as guidance and mercy” and to receive its benefit (barakah) one must “follow it and be conscious of your Lord” which is enabled through studying it.
- “We gave Moses and Aaron [the Scripture] that distinguishes right from wrong, a light and a reminder for those who are mindful of God, those who stand in awe of their Lord, though He is unseen, and who fear the Hour. This [Quran] too is a ‘mubarak’ message We have sent down – are you [people] going to deny it?” (21:48-50)
Here God is telling us that the Quran is of benefit like the Torah was, “distinguishes right from wrong, a light and a reminder for those who are mindful of God, those who stand in awe of their Lord.” So when it comes to the Quran and seeking its ‘barakah’, being truly mindful of God (taqwā) and standing in awe (khashy’ah) is to take the message as a reminder and use it to distinguish right from wrong. Denying the Quran is to reject it as a means for making sense of right and wrong, a guiding light, and a reminder and to act accordingly.
- “This is a ‘mubarak’ Scripture which We sent down to you for people to think about its messages, and for those with intellect to take heed.” (38:29)
This verse tells us that the purpose of revelation is “to think about its messages, and for those with understanding to take heed,” which then brings about its benefits (barakah) that increase the goodness in peoples’ lives. As al-Qurṭubī conclusively put it, “In this (verse) is evidence of the obligation (wujūb) to understand (fahm) the meanings (ma’anī) of the Quran.”
As we have seen clear as day from the references, when it comes to barakah (benefit) related to the Quran, God tells us that it is related to its study, thinking about its guidance, taking it all on board and acting in accordance with God’s decree. Clearly, phonemic practice doesn’t get a divine look in.
“But no one else is saying this! Who else is?”
Well firstly, God explicitly said that the primary purpose and benefit of the Quran is its meaning, so that should be enough. Secondly, everyone has said it. It is worthy to note that our exposure tends to be limited to the few preachers in our vicinity and social media timeline (dictated by algorithms), very rarely are people exposed to the full range and depth of Islamic scholarship. I fully sympathise with the predicament people face, but there is a marked distinction that ought to be made between popular personalities and scholars – and there has never been a scholar who hasn’t said this. Putting it this way, there are millions of examples I could provide, but for brevity take the famous Quran scholar al-Zarqānī (in Manāhil al-‘Arfān) writing about his environment in which people actually understood the language they read:
“As for the majority of Muslims today, they are satisfied (taking from) the Qur’an words they repeat and melodies that they sing at funerals, cemeteries and homes, and with copies of the Qur’an they either carry or leave in their homes. They forget that the greatest benefit (barakah) of the Qur’an is in contemplating and understanding it, and in sitting with it and benefiting from its guidance and exhorted behaviour, and then in standing by its commands and what conforms to it, and keeping away from its (threatened) wrath and prohibitions.”
Generally, when Arabic scholars referred to people merely reading the Quran, they were not referring to phonemic practice – the very idea would be logically absurd (to anyone). ‘Reading’ meant semantics, or making sense of the language itself, and ‘understanding’ meant pragmatics, or making sense of the content of the text.
I’ll provide one relevant example here, that of the erudite exegete, Ibn ‘Ashūr. He wrote on 6:92:
“The Quran is ‘mubarak’ (benefit granting) because it points to profound goodness. Benefit (barakah) is intrinsic to it, as if benefit was placed in its very words – because God the Most High placed benefit in it for the reader engrossed in it as benefit/increase in this worldly life and hereafter, and because it includes – through acting on it – the perfection and purity of the soul by means of theoretical, and subsequently, practical knowledge. So benefit (barakah) is inherent to (or inseparable from) reading and understanding it.”
Clearly the benefit (barakah) placed in its words is not intended as phonemes since Ibn ‘Ashūr characterises it as theoretical knowledge that informs the practical application of divine guidance. In discussing the ‘barakah’ of reading, he is referring to semantics and to suggest otherwise would be both to decontextualise him from his environment, as well as somewhat anachronistic.
There is an ultimate logic that is important to note: The benefits and virtue of reading the Quran go back to the purpose of revelation. Anything else is quite illogical and entirely insufficient.
So far I have briefly touched on the shar’ī benefits of reading the Quran as God puts it. However, I acknowledge that there are circumstantial benefits for phonemic practice but these go for dire situations. For example, where some non-Arabic people have no access to a translation and their only means of any connection with God is non-meaning phonemic practice, then for them, such an activity is their only association. And yes, it is perfectly reasonable that for such peopleGod will grace these underprivileged souls with benefits (barakah) in their lives due to their inability to extract the guidance themselves from the scriptures, recompensing their devotion. But let’s be clear: this is not reading the Quran. This comes under ‘acts of devotion that honour the sacred ordinances of God’ (ta’ẓhīm sha’ā’ir-Al’Lāh – See Surah Ḥajj). The benefit here is not related to reading but to maintaining some semblance of a connection to God’s revelation – meant only as a temporary and partial solution to a problem that might be resolved in the future or by later generations. In no way can these be construed as the type of benefits we actively seek, because they’re not benefits for us. In fact we’re settling for other than what God has asked of us and evading the command to engage with revelation. By sanctifying the phonemic practice as a normative, legitimate way to “access” the Quran without engaging a translation or learning Classical Arabic ourselves, we invite the opposite of ‘barakah’! Put precisely, only in such a dire situation is phonemic practice strategically better than absolutely nothing. But when it comes to our context, what an absurdly substandard benchmark to set for literate and resourced believers!
It is also a frequent response that people want to imitate God’s literal words even if they do not know what it means. Again, I fully sympathise with the underlying sentiment but invite the response to consider the mischaracterisation of the Quran here. God did not reveal ‘words’ – the Quran is the speech (kalām) of God and as such, a communication. A communication by its very nature is not fragmented into words nor is anything gained from doing so. Yes, the choice of words affect the clarity and efficacy of the message, but it remains about the message. As the Quranic references cited earlier illustrate, God did not reveal the communication so that people would imitate words but to “think about its messages, and for those with intellect to take heed.” (38:29)
I fully acknowledge that many well-intentioned people view phonemic practice as a means of venerating something associated with God. But I would assert here that it isn’t a natural proclivity – it is learnt behaviour. Sincere people have been taught to do this, to settle for this, and to celebrate this. I very much doubt people wake up in the morning and intuitively decide to resort to phonemic practice without being instructed to do so. Most people in a normal situation would simply say “I’d like to read this message from God so let me find a way to read what He sent to us (such as via translation), because I don’t understand Arabic.” While we do not disparage the praiseworthy sentiment of veneration, as I’ve clarified above, phonemic practice is not the type of veneration that God wants from us. As such, this method of veneration should never become legitimised for us as it contradicts the very purpose of revelation and serves as a ploy satan uses to mislead people away from the actual ‘barakah’ of reading revelation meaningfully.
Here is a practical example of how satan uses any means at his disposal to subvert the Prophetic mission, and how a lack of robustness in our attitude allows for little gaps through which satan guides the unsuspecting:
“Yes, read the Arabic (you don’t understand) for half hour, and then read some meanings.”
What this affirms for people:
1. There’s a shar’i benefit in phonemic practice.
2. That phonemic practice comes first (because it was placed first in the order).
3. Meanings are supplementary and an “add on”.
So now in practice:
1. People often don’t have time for both so they’ll prioritise phonemic practice even if they’d like to also read some meaning – and we’re back to square one.
2. They’ll prioritise tajwid over meaning.
3. It buttresses the magical thinking concept (the barakah of phonemic practice).
4. Their entire engagement with God’s message, due to social pressures and environment remains predominantly with mystical thinking rather than operational value as God intended.
Of course, this then seeps into every other aspect of their religious thinking which completely hamstrings their godly, social or political endeavours. But where we realise the devil’s game and firmly close shut possible back exits, a person can only think “Why am I going to sit here and impudently treat the Quran as phonemes? Not only does it not make sense, I feel silly. Let me mindfully read surah x and see what guidance I can take.”
I also sympathise with the notion of being well-intentioned but it isn’t relevant here. God tells us in 57:27 that those who followed Jesus were good people in whose hearts God put “compassion and mercy,” but they invented things seeking God’s pleasure which He did not ordain for them. In other words, they had good intentions (on one reading) but they did not observe what they were doing properly. God gives us this example to save us from their bad outcomes – we should pay attention.
Mindfully reading the Quran is decisively an obligation, phonemic practice is not. So our practical priorities ought to be absolutely clear. Anything that blurs this distinction even remotely, despite one’s good intentions, is to inadvertently fall into satan’s trap. I merely call us to save ourselves. When it comes to the unfortunate status quo, the sincere believer ultimately has a choice to play along with what is popular in their circles and emotionally satisfying due to its familiarity, or to adapt to what God clearly tells us that He wants from us.
May God grants us guidance and understanding of the scriptures, and save us from the schemes of the devil.