Friday, May 19, 2017

The Qur’an and Ramadan, a mansion of many spacious rooms

Photo © Shafiq Morton

RAMADAN, as we all know, is regarded as the month of Qur’an. Historically, the Qur’an was revealed on its 27th night. Its verses are recited every evening in mosques across the globe, and many try to read it from cover to cover in 29 to 30 lunar days.

This is a truly astounding phenomenon – one that resounds in the heavenly realms as Divine Mercy descends to earth on the Night of Power. A Godly gift said to reside in the last ten days of Ramadan, it offers the immeasurable rewards of having worshipped for over a thousand months.

Ramadan, resplendent with layered significance, offers grace, mercy and forgiveness in equal measures. It offers exoneration of sin to those who have fasted with a good heart; it gives equal relief to those who have paid their fidya, or expiation, if one cannot fast.

As the fast is a secret for each person, something known only to Allah, Ramadan is a mansion of many spacious rooms. Its outward measures – such as protecting the tongue, the pre-dawn meal, hastening to eat when the sun sets and being generous – are the embellishments of those who submit. 

But the greatest thing of all is the speech of Allah, the Qur’an. The Qur’an – as its descriptive moniker indicates – is a revelation and it talks to each of us with a rare intimacy. Yet it is not a poem, nor a work of prose. As Allah himself tells us, it is for recitation, and its recitation is highly recommended during Ramadan.

Ramadan, lest we forget, is also a celebratory month. It is not a time for morbidity and moroseness. It is a time of measured action and reflection, of seeking bright blessings. Tarawih – the traditional communal night prayers – is derived from the root word, “raha”, which means to rest. The beautiful incantations recited after the prayer cycles, allows the worshipper to rest.  

In other words, Ramadan is not a time for rushing through things. It is a time for savouring the moment, for allowing the Qur’an’s linguistic mastery, its cadences, its amazing transitions and its subtleties to wash over our senses.

It is for this reason that I always struggle to understand why certain mosques – albeit with good intentions – will race through the Qur’an, the youthful reciters going so fast that the words become an unintelligible jumble. Tarawih becomes a sweaty session of going up and down.

It begs the question: are we reading the Qur’an just to finish it? Is our haste not waste? Does a complete reading for its own sake become the equivalent of a meaningless trophy? Or do we read the Qur’an because we want to really listen to it, because we really want to swim in its deep pools?

Imam Qurtubi, the great 13th century scholar – whose tafsir (or exegesis) of the Qur’an is authoritative – said that the Qur’an had to be recited without haste. The reader had to clearly pronounce every word. Each letter, said Qurtubi, had to be given its proper due as it invoked the weight of ten rewards. Or as the Companion, ‘Amr ibn al-‘As, commented: “Every Qur’anic verse is a stair of Paradise.”

Quite evidently, Imam Qurtubi is being mindful of the Prophet [SAW], as Bukhari and Muslim both report the Prophet [SAW] saying that “he is not one of us who does not make his voice melodious whilst reading Qur’an.” In another tradition, via Abu Dawud, the Prophet [SAW] exhorted us to beautify the Qur’an with our voices.

Further traditions say that the Prophet [SAW] used to recite slowly, clearly enunciating each letter and lengthening the vowel – or madd – sounds in words such as Raheem.  He also used to pause after every verse, until it appeared – said the Companions – to sound longer than it actually was.

Imam al-Ghazali, the 12th century colossus, encapsulates exactly how we should approach Qur’an. He says that we have to taste the Qur’an in our hearts. We do this by magnifying its speaker, who is Allah; we do this by paying attention to its letters and words; we do this by pondering over its verses; and finally, we do this by seeking its linguistic, scholarly and contemplative dimensions.

For our response to the Qur’an to be effective, says Imam Ghazali, we have to lift four veils. The first is being concerned merely with outward recitation. The second is bias. Super-imposing our bias over Qur’anic messages prevents their true nature from being revealed. 

Thirdly, sin clouds the heart and obscures understanding. And fourthly, tafsir shouldn’t inhibit private reflection (without stepping over the bounds of Shari’ah).

A worshipper, said Imam Ghazali, had to rise in three degrees of recitation, bearing in mind that any act of Qur’anic recitation already represented a tremendous grade, or state of being. The lowest grade, he wrote, was reading the Qur’an as if one were standing before Allah, pleading, entreating and supplicating.

The middle grade was when we realised that Allah was actually addressing us with His favours, that he was bestowing gifts of meaning, us receiving them with modesty and magnification. This grade led to feelings of ecstasy, thankfulness and joy. The highest grade was when we beheld the Speaker and His attributes, when we saw the address of Allah, and only then, realised our recitation.

Whilst the comprehension of Qur’an is a noble aspiration, Imam al-Ghazali – like all the scholars of repute – says there are equal mercies in reciting the Qur’an for those who understand it, and significantly, for those who also do not understand it.

He relates a story from Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal, who said: “I saw Allah, Great and Mighty, in a dream and asked Him: ‘O, Lord, how have those who have drawn near to You  achieved this intimacy?’ And Allah, the Almighty, replied: ‘By My speech, O Ahmad.’

“Imam Ahmad then asked: ‘Lord, did they do this by understanding the meaning of Your Qur’an, or without it?’ To which Allah, the Most Merciful, replied, ‘O my dear Ahmad, ‘by understanding it as well as without understanding it.’”