For quite a while, many scholars and preachers have called for believers to understand the scriptures revealed by God and to engage the divine message, yet the majority of British Muslims do not, opting instead to hastily get through the Qur’an as Arabic phonemes (units of sound), and as many times as possible. It’s absurd, and only the devil could make us believe the situation is both logical and/or acceptable.
To believe pronouncing phonemes suffices is to undermine the entire reason why messengers were sent to mankind, “They were messengers bearing good news and warning so mankind have no excuse before God…” (Q 4:165) We’re told that it’ll be said to the disbelievers at the gates, “Were you not sent your own messengers to recite the revelations of your Lord to you and warn you that you’d meet this day?!” (Q 39:71) Of course, by “recite revelation” the gatekeepers will not mean pronouncing Arabic phonemes, but reading and understanding what God said. Understanding is inherent in all of these verses (and many more) since they wouldn’t be valid points otherwise, yet the bizarre status-quo has most of us doing something else and then presenting poor arguments to justify it.
Having discussed this with many people, I’ve come to see a general pattern of conversation and debate. So to summarise, here is a brief presentation that attempts to provide a holistic understanding towards Qur’an recitation in Q&A form. Please bear in mind that I do not utilise every argument nor every response to possible retorts, it merely concerns itself with the oft-invoked sources and arguments used to justify the ill-informed status quo.
1. “What has God explicitly told us the Qur’an is for, the purpose of revelation, and its function?”
- The purpose of the Qur’an is to provide guidance to the righteous: “a guidance to those conscious of God” (2:2) and warn those who deviate and turn away. (39:71)
- It was revealed for contemplation and to take heed: “This is a blessed scripture which we sent down to you, for people to think about its messages, and for those with understanding to take heed.” (38:29)
- God revealed it to the final messenger to warn people: “This recital (Qur’an) was revealed for me to warn you and everyone it reaches.” (Q 6:19)
It is in light of these sentiments that we interpret everything else, from verses on healing (shifa), to hadith on rewards (ajr) and blessings (barakah). Noting the purpose and function of revelation as understanding and operationalising it does not undermine notions of rewards, blessings, healing (shifa), treatment (ruqya), etc. But as a point of basic interpretational methods those notions are understood in light of the purpose of revelation otherwise they’re arbitrary interpretations stemming from presuppositions. This means that we decide what we want the Qur’an to be rather than allowing it to inform us of what it actually is.
2. “What is meant by qira’ah and tilawah?”
Qira’ah and tilawah are only to be considered such when someone understands what they’re reading. Otherwise the person is simply articulating Arabic phonemes and not engaged in qira’ah and tilawah. The Hanbali scholar Ibn al-Qayyim put it that sahabah (prophetic companions) such as Abdullah b. Abbas and Abdullah b. Mas’ud viewed qira’ah as: “linguistically understanding it, contemplating it, understanding its deeper meanings, and acting on it.” (Zad al-Ma’ad)
al-Qurtubi explained God’s reference to tilawah in 2:121 as, “They pronounce its words and understand its meanings, because only by understanding its meaning can one follow (it)…” This point is particularly poignant when it comes to understanding what the Prophet meant by qira’ah when speaking of rewards.
3. “Are we rewarded for reading (qira’ah/tilawah) the Qur’an?”
Yes indeed, but as question 2 clarifies, the act which is rewarded can only be defined as qira’ah/tilawah when what’s being uttered is understood. The rewards articulated by the Prophet isn’t in the utterance of phonemes but reading scripture. Predictably, it’s at this point that the hadith of Ibn Mas’ud comes up, where the Prophet said that the reading of each letter equates to ten rewards, with the Prophet then using الم as an example. The problem has been that this hadith is cited superficially without framing it in its context:
- The huruf muqata’ah (disconnected letters) are not words but letters, and letters do not offer linguistic meanings for that’s not their purpose (although they obviously represent something in Qur’an). So they’re not analogous with words in the way people use them as an example here since words exist to convey meaning. To argue otherwise is to suggest words exist to convey sounds (a claim that doesn’t go beyond onomatopoeias).
- We must understand the context of the hadith: Firstly, it’s quite obvious that the Prophet was speaking to Arabs who spoke Arabic and encouraging them to read the scriptures and engage the message. To suggest the Prophet intended this to establish the primacy of sound has no basis in the prophetic tradition. Secondly, there is no clear shar’i evidence for such a claim. Reading this into the hadith is a presupposition. It’s like a professor telling his English-only speaking students to read Plato in Koine Greek because Plato encouraged his Greek students to read his work.
- Why did the Prophet speak of rewards for reading letters? It’s known that vast majority of Arabs were illiterate (see Q 62:2) but with tawhid came an all-important literacy project. As the people who were newly literate they’d struggle to read although they obviously understood everything they did, so the Prophet highlighted rewards for reading even a little to encourage engagement. Did the Prophet intend they just read three letters (الم) or the other disconnected letters to gain rewards? Of course not, he was expressing how greatly they’d be rewarded for their efforts, even if they only got through a little, but often. The hadith on sahabah being rewarded twice for struggling to read highlights this point. To apply this to a situation that has little to do with it is unsound. The Prophet never said this to non-Arabs and there’s little evidence to suggest that he intended those who didn’t understand Arabic.
- We should generally understand such ahadith in light of the verses of the Qur’an that explicitly tell us the purpose of revelation (understand, contemplate, take heed, be warned, and act). Any other way is to presuppose what the ahadith mean and impose our presuppositions and interests on what the Prophet said.
4. “Isn’t there barakah (blessings) in reading?”
Well yes of course, it’s the purpose of revelation! But keeping question 2 in mind, and the fact that barakah means to increase, flourish or improve, the barakah of qira’ah is how divine guidance improves your life, causes you to flourish (both materially and psychologically), and optimises your outcomes. God offers us the algorithm to a happy and successful existence on earth, where compliance also means being in God’s good books which translates as being favoured in the hereafter. God explicitly associates this “blessed scripture” with people thinking about its messages and for those with understanding to take heed. (Q 38:29)
But what about the things a person might receive in the hereafter? Well that’s not barakah, that’s reward (ajr) – see question 3. Barakah has to do with this life (and is a widely misunderstood concept). To be clear, I’m not saying God will not ‘bless’ or reward a person in a way unrelated to the specific guidance of a verse or chapter – it’s fully conceivable that being pleased with the effort and righteous sentiments of His servant He chooses to bless worshippers in other aspects of their lives. But this barakah is to do with their intentions and sentiments, and equally relates to any righteous act we do – it isn’t specific to reading the Qur’an as it isn’t the blessing specific to qira’ah (see Q 38:29). This should not undermine the purpose of a specific act.
5. “Isn’t the Qur’an a shifa (healing) and doesn’t that undermine the primacy of meaning?”
Yes, the Qur’an is a shifa (Q 17:82), but in what sense?
- Verse 17:82 is preceded by a statement on truth and falsehood, suggesting that the Qur’an is the truth that cures ignorance and the malady of misguidance. It’s a healing “to those who believe” in the form of guidance as stated in 2:2: “a guidance for those God-conscious.”
- The verse ends with telling us that “those who disbelieve, it only increases in their loss.” So if the Qur’an is taken as a medical treatment, why does it increase the disbeliever’s loss?! It’s because the healing here is to do with the purpose of revelation, which is for us to understand it and then rectify ourselves. The Shafi’i scholar Abu Bakr al-Ajurry wrote: “Whoever reflects on the Qur’an will know the Lord…he’ll be cautious of what His Lord has warned of, and desire what He has encouraged. And whoever embodies these characteristics whilst reciting the Qur’an as well as listening to it then the Qur’an is a shifa for him.” (Akhlaq Hamalat’l-Qur’an)
- The Maliki exegete al-Qurtubi points to a difference of opinion amongst scholars, with the first group saying “it’s a healing for the hearts by the eradication of ignorance and removal of doubt.” The other group speak of shifa as also being ‘ruqya’ and ‘ta’awudh’ which I believe is also valid, but even here, meaning doesn’t lose primacy since ‘ruqya’ and ‘ta’awudh’ operate as forms of supplication to God – there’s no coincidence that the mu’awwidhatayn is explicitly about seeking refuge in the Lord. (Ruqya shar’iyyah is a very interesting study which I’ll leave for elsewhere.)
6. “But doesn’t just the sound have an effect?”
It’s interesting that those who disagree with, and take offence at, being told they’re reducing the Qur’an to sounds, then make the argument that it can be taken as sounds, and that sounds have an effect! The problem is that there isn’t any shar’i evidence to suggest this nor do I believe taking the Qur’an as ruqya establishes this. The Jinn said: “We have heard a wondrous recital (a qur’an): it gives guidance to the right path and we have come to believe in it…” (Q 72:1-2) God tells us things for a reason, and every reference in the Qur’an to people or jinns hearing revelation is always based on it being understood. Never do they marvel at sounds and rhythms.
- When people speak of the Qur’an as effecting sounds, they’re affected by the reciter’s melody. Singing the Qur’an was something the Prophet commanded his followers to do, “Beautify the Qur’an with your voices,” which suggests that the beautification they find mesmerising is actually from the reciter. The Hanafi scholar al-Sarkhasi suggests, drawing from Imams Abu Hanifah and Abu Yusuf that the i’jaz is in the meaning of revelation which is from God, for the sound is Arabic – a human language.
- Even if (for the sake of the argument) the sounds do have an effect, it is not a legitimate reason alone for simply articulating phonemes.
- People often refer to anecdotal experiences which are very subjective and not shar’i evidence. Yes some might be moved by sounds, but others might find them irritating – neither of these experiences validate anything.
- Some draw an analogy with music which I find quite disturbing. If the Qur’an is kalam’Allah (speech of God), a divine attribute, then drawing analogies with music, a form of lah’w (banal human pursuit), is the last thing we should be doing.
- The Qur’an is kalam’Allah (speech of God), kalam here being a divine form of communication. To reduce God’s communication to sounds is deeply problematic for reasons that should be quite obvious.
7. “Are you saying that our parents and grandparents wasted their time? My grandmother read loads of Qur’an and was very righteous!”
This is an emotional argument that has no bearing on the purpose of the Qur’an, the cogency of a position, or this post. This post is not in judgement of people, it’s establishing a normative position which cannot be dictated by what people do. I sympathise with some of the anxiety around this issue, but people are judged on what they know and what they intend and I believe in a reasonable and merciful Lord who takes everything into account, for He knows and sees all. I’m speaking to our context in which literacy is high and people are being informed, and I’m saying that it’s unacceptable to neglect what God has sent to us and treat revelation (through our actions) like mere phonemes.
8. “If I don’t know Arabic, is it pointless to read the Qur’an until I do?”
Not at all. It’s all very simple: read the same portion in a good translation which means you’ve said God’s words and then comprehended them in a language you understand. That’s the starting line. It’s really not that deep.
Now one thing it seems holding believers in some reticence on engaging what God actually said, which undermines religious literacy, is a misplaced focus on tangential metaphysical points. It must be made clear that these points are not the purpose of revelation, nor the primary motives the believer ought to be driven by.
We call people to read the Qur’an as a meaningful text that gives guidance, that they should seek to be enlightened and edified by it, and to operationalise it intelligently. To assume secondary matters (such as rewards and blessings) are not secondary but of similar importance to the purpose of revelation which is to understand the Book, contradicts the Qur’an, the sunnah of the Prophet, the outlook of the sahabah and tabi’in, and the righteous learned who followed in their culture/outlook. I’m positive everyone will get this when they engage in good faith, but there are also some who will dupe you with all sorts of bizarre logic and superstitions. That’s not the Abrahamic way, if that’s what you’re about.
To end, as the Prophet put it, peace be to those who follow the guidance.