Qur’aan – a matter of recitation

August 18, 2006 at 5:05 pm (Islam, Judaism, Religion, Religions)

I read “Glorifying Uselessness” by Isaac Schrödinger of Isaac Schrödinger. Very fascinating and true.

It used to be tradition that when the weekly Torah portion is read, one would follow along with Targum Onkelos, an Aramaic translation of the Torah (which was written and useful back when Jews spoke mainly Aramaic; large portions of the Talmud, for example, is in Aramaic, and a number of common prayers are in Aramaic). Or it would be read out loud after the relevant portion. This is so that one understood what was being chanted. Of course, now that people understand Hebrew more than Aramaic, this practice no longer exists. (Nevertheless, some chumashim1 have Targum Onkelos printed next to the Hebrew text.)

Whereas “Torah” (Hebrew) means “Law” and “Biblia” (modern Greek: “Vivlia”) (Greek; from which word comes “Bible”) means “Books,” “Qur’aan” (Arabic) means “That Which Is Recited.” The emphasis, therefore, is on recitation. It is in written form only to preserve the text. For most Muslims, it is not meant to be studied or understood: it is meant to be recited.

All over the world, Muslims learn to read Arabic and with that knowledge recite the Qur’aan. It is considered practically mandatory for every Muslim to recite the Qur’aan once in one’s lifetime. Among South Asians, a lavish party (known as a “Bismillaah”) is sometimes thrown when a child begins to recite the Qur’aan, and often a party (known as an “Ameen”) is thrown when the child finishes the Qur’aan. At an Ameen, the child will usually recite the last few soorahs of the Qur’aan in front of the guests. Throughout this time, no one actually teaches the child the meaning of what he or she is reciting.

Even adults will spend time every day reciting the Qur’aan without understanding its meaning. There are many editions where there is a running translation in Urdu under the Arabic text, but most people ignore the translation: they are reciting the Qur’aan for the sake of reciting it. (Interesting point: Many translators ensure that they say that their translation in English is not a translation. They may call it a translation of the meaning of the Qur’aan, a translation of the interpretation of the Qur’aan, and so on. In Urdu, however, there is no such dancing around the issue: translations of the Qur’aan are called exactly that (“tarjuma-e Qur’aan”). This makes me wonder why there is such a debate in English whether a translation is a translation of the Qur’aan or a translation of its meaning, proponents of the latter saying that the Qur’aan, per se, cannot be translated.)

Partly because of this oral component, the Qur’aan‘s text has become something of a fetish. Its recitation is said to accrue for one merit (thawaab or sawaab), can protect one, can drive away the evil eye and evil spirits, can heal, et cetera. Despite the fact it is in Arabic (which, because of a number of its consonants, can sound a bit jarring), Muslims are obligated to believe it is the most beautiful-sounding thing in the world. Among South Asian Muslims (I don’t know about Muslims elsewhere) there are what are called wazaa’if (singular: wazeefah) which contain Qur’anic passages and supplications and dhikrs/zikrs for people to recite for a given purpose. It is said that they are so powerful that messing one up could have harmful consequences. (A cousin of mine died of some Ebola-like virus a few years ago, and the reason given by the religious quacks his family consulted was that he used a wazeefah incorrectly.)

Some would go so far as to say that ordinary Muslims should not study the Qur’aan. Only experts can study it because if an ordinary Muslim does, he or she may be led astray. Interpreting the Qur’aan is a matter for experts only. Sounds a bit like the arguments against reading the Bible back in the day.

It really is fascinating to compare how Christianity and Judaism treat their holy texts, and how Islam treats its holy text. No one memorizes the Torah or Bible by heart (what’s the use, really?), but the world over people pride in having memorized the Qur’aan even if they don’t understand it at all. In fact, some Muslims believe this phenomenon proves that Islam is correct and other religions are not or that Islam is superior or that Islam’s claims are true.2

1. A chumash is a book containing the text of the Torah (with vowels and other markings), often with commentary, translation, Sabbath prayers, haftarot (portions from the rest of the Hebrew Bible read after the Torah portion), and megillot (“scrolls,” which are read at various times during the Jewish year), which one uses to follow along what is being chanted from the bimah. The word comes from the Hebrew for “five,” “chameish”, referring to the fact that it contains the five books of the Torah.

2. They would be a little shocked to find out that this memorization of texts is not confined to Islam alone. It is customary for the Vedas to be studied and memorized, going so far as chanting the same text in a variety of ways to ensure that one knows the text backwards and forwards (literally!). If one attends a Hindu puja (especially an abhishekam), one will be amazed at the amount of text the priests have memorized: they would be chanting practically the whole time without the use of books or written aids!

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2 Comments

  1. Michael van der Galien said,

    Whereas “Torah” (Hebrew) means “Law” and “Biblia” (modern Greek: “Vivlia”) (Greek; from which word comes “Bible”) means “Books,” “Qur’aan” (Arabic) means “That Which Is Recited.” The emphasis, therefore, is on recitation. It is in written form only to preserve the text. For most Muslims, it is not meant to be studied or understood: it is meant to be recited.

    Fascinating, I didn’t know that the meaning of “Qur’aan” is “that which is recited”. It indeed explains a lot.

    It really is fascinating to compare how Christianity and Judaism treat their holy texts, and how Islam treats its holy text. No one memorizes the Torah or Bible by heart (what’s the use, really?), but the world over people pride in having memorized the Qur’aan even if they don’t understand it at all. In fact, some Muslims believe this phenomenon proves that Islam is correct and other religions are not or that Islam is superior or that Islam’s claims are true.

    Indeed, that’s how Christians / Westerners dealt with Christianity / the Bible as well. One of the most important changes in Western history, according to some, is when people, the ordinary Christians started reading the Bible themselves (with reading I also mean understanding what one literally ‘reads’).

  2. Dex said,

    From a purely practical standpoint, this process would ensure the absolute preservation of the text from copying error and/or persecution. It’s a brilliant survival mechanism built into the religion.

    When I was a kid we memorized verses of the Bible (in vernacular, not Hebrew or Greek), but not the whole thing.

    I believe that at a Bar Mitzvah or Bat Mitzvah, the kid recites a passage from the Torah in Hebrew. Is the passage usually pre-selected?

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