The Qur’an: Songs, Sounds, or Meanings?

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The current status quo has meant that we marvel at those who memorise the Qur’an, and commend its articulation as phonemes. Is this the particular status-quo that God intended, and is it okay to say this is enough?

God said of the Qur’an and revelation:

  • ‘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.’ (Q 38:29)
  • ‘This, too, is a blessed 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.’ (Q 6:155-156)
  • ‘Be devoted to God (rabbani) in that you teach the Scripture and in that you study it.’ (Q 3:79)

There is nothing in the Qur’an that tells us that God seeks the mere articulation of Arabic phonemes, and when we think about it, to treat a message like this in any other context would be quite strange. The assumption that mere recitation or memorisation, whether of ourselves or our children, is a saving grace, is deeply misplaced.

How so?

Ziyad b. Labid said: The Prophet mentioned something and then said, “…that shall be in times when knowledge (in the form of guidance) is gone.” I said: “Messenger of God, how shall (such) knowledge disappear when we recite the Qur’an, and have our children recite, and our children shall have their children recite it until the Day of Judgment?” He said, “Woe to you Ziyad, I considered you the most intelligent man of Madinah! Do not these Jews and Christians recite the Torah and Bible, but know little of what is in it?”

Ibn Majah

So is this not the case with western Muslims? Do we not rejoice at the thought of beautifully sung exotic sounds – believing that being moved by melody is a ‘spiritual’ effect (which in fact can equally go for various genres of music)? The Qur’an points to understanding rather than sounds: ‘Will they not contemplate the Qur’an? Do they have locks on their hearts?’ (Q 47:24)

Due to this misfocus the purpose of revelation is being lost. As the hadith of Ziyad intimates, knowledge (in the form of guidance) remains in the Quran. What type of knowledge? It is popularly assumed it is ‘religious’ knowledge, reserved for the Maulana/Alim types, but this deeply incorrect. God guided the ‘normal’ man through the Quran, in his daily political, social, and economic life, imbuing every step with an ethical and productive trajectory.

There is no ‘Muslim leadership’ without knowledge of what’s in the Qur’an. Leadership isn’t merely to make PR statements or to assume some secular pursuits but to know what God wants and to help guide people to it, to champion it, and to seek to preserve it. We are at liberty to ask: do Muslim leaders represent an ethnic group called ‘Muslims’, or do they represent believers? If it is the latter, then surely they should be those who are most informed in the Qur’an, and on social and political matters. Equally, there is no ‘da’wah’ without knowledge of what’s in the Qur’an, both in method and in objective, otherwise what exactly are we calling to? There is no discussion on social inclusion, integration, or the ‘common good’ without knowledge of what God has said in terms of fundamental objectives. The Qur’an is the basis of everything ‘Islamic’ and without intimate enquiry any ‘Islamic’ or ‘Muslim’ related claim is rendered redundant.

Whilst there exists a culture to have our children memorise the book of God, often to accrue some form of social capital amongst other Muslims, consider this: Imam Malik was asked about seven year old child made to memorise the Qur’an. He said “I don’t think that is appropriate.” al-Abhari said in explanation: ‘Malik disliked it, because if a person memorises it this quickly he cannot properly retain it, knowing the parameters it sets. The path of he who learns the Qur’an is that he studies it, unearthing it’s laws and knowing the parameters it sets, according to his ability, and a child in most cases is unable to do this. The Companions would remain with one long surah studying it, uncovering all the ahkam within it.’ (Sharh al-Jami’, Ibn Abd al-Hakam)

Many overlook the notion of specific Qur’anic guidance on contemporary issues, but only because they do not know how to benefit from the revealed word or extract that guidance, and having been witness to many a charlatan stating generalities or far-fetched interpretations that rail against common-sense, they understandably conclude, often subconsciously, that the guidance of the Qur’an is abstract or non-existent. However, the Qur’an is explicitly relevant to 21st century western issues, in fact, most of it is in plain sight. What we clearly have to do is commit some time to giving this knowledge its due, otherwise we proceed merely with Improvised Religion. The Prophet explicitly warned of the state of Christianity or Judaism – despite ‘reciting’ revelation, they had little guidance because of ignorance concerning what revelation contains, and neglecting to learn how to be informed in their personal, social and political affairs by it, or how to operationalise it. Essentially, it led to great deviations from what God wants.

This is something we all ought to reflect upon, and seek to address, preferably together!

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