During one of many late nights in Ramadan, I stood praying, nestled between two other women in a dimmed space, all of us listening to the recitation of the Quran. There were a number of us who had gathered at the masjid to perform the optional Taraweh prayers of Ramadan, lasting between 90 minutes and two hours each night with the aim of completing the recitation of the Quran by the end of month. The Qari leading the prayer recited a verse, and he then repeated it. The woman on my left began gasping, and at the line’s repetition, began sobbing. I became incensed.
I had never been so jealous in my life.
Ramadan is the Islamic lunar month most often equated with the practice of fasting from dawn until sunset. But for those seeking more from this time than just hunger, Ramadan is the month of the Quran. It was the month in which the Quran was first revealed to the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings upon him, by the Angel Gabriel.
In their first encounter, the Angel appeared and told him to recite. The Prophet did not know what to say and explained that he was an unlettered man. Three times the angel said, “read,” and would squeeze the Prophet’s body until all breath had left it. Upon the third time, the Prophet began to recite the first words of what is now chapter 96 of the Quran,
“Read! In the name of thy Lord and cherisher, who created man out of a clot of congealed blood. Recite, and your Lord is most bountiful, he, who taught the use of the pen – taught man that which he knew not.”
Like the majority of the world’s Muslims, I am not Arab. Though often erroneously equated, only 15 percent of the 1.5 billion person Muslim population is Arab. While there are millions of non-Arabs that can speak the language, I am not one of them. This creates a conundrum: If I do not speak Arabic, how do I do as commanded, and read?
Growing up in a Muslim household, my parents hired an Arabic tutor to give weekly lessons to my brothers and I. By the age of 6, I could read and write Arabic, though my skills have not progressed far beyond that point. One of the noblest tasks a Muslim can do is commit the entire Quran to memory, earning the title of Hafidh. In that spirit, many individuals spend hours in recitation and memorization. Proper pronunciation and rhythm is its own discipline, called Tajweed. During middle school, I was enrolled in a weekend Arabic course to acquire these skills. I was most focused on being first in line for the foosball table at break time.
As an adult, I find myself in the peculiar situation of having the basic ability to read Quranic Arabic, but not understand what I’ve said. Even with my small Arabic vocabulary consisting mostly of cognates, I do not comprehend the meaning without an English translation. I respect and appreciate the people, mostly men, who researched and wrote these essential translations, which can be found in many languages. Marmaduke Pickthall’s translations are of an old English style, while Muhammad Asad takes a more contemporary tone. The Yusuf Ali edition provides short commentary, sometimes quoting from poetry of Tennyson or Longfellow. The Quran in Arabic remains identical from book to book, but there are differences between translations, and differences in opinion over the meaning derived from each. English translations remain interlopers between me and the word of God.
The emphasis on the oral recitation of the Quran is because it’s the form in which the words are fully realized. The way words are pronounced often reflects the word itself, such as when the word for sky, samaa, is extended, versus ard, the word for ground, which is staccato and hard. Many of the mellifluous qualities of the Quran lie in the numerous, sometimes unexpected, rhyming patterns, which also serve to ease memorization. And the Quran directly speaks to the listener, often with queries:
Knowest thou not that Allah Hath power over all things? 2:106
Have you not considered how Allah sets forth a parable of a good word (being) like a good tree, whose root is firm and whose branches are in heaven? 14:24
And We have certainly made the Qur'an easy for remembrance, so is there any who will remember? 54:32
I know that for many people, overcoming this loss in translation was achieved by studying the language. While studyinig Arabic remains a perennial personal goal, procrastination and mid-level disorganization have kept me from its realization. I comfort myself with the knowledge that the Prophet said those who struggle in their recitation gain twice the reward, and pray that God one day grants me access to the language.
When listening to the cracks in the Qari’s voice as he can barely finish a verse through his own tears, I am reminded that the reaction to the words of God at such a visceral and immediate level is an experience I covet. The confluence of concentration, voice, and spirit is rarely there for me.
So, I do my best to prepare. I preread chapters recited each night in Taraweh. I read and reread the Quran with translations, hoping to absorb the meaning, eventually memorizing word for word the English for many chapters. Though when the woman next to me begins weeping at a verse I cannot quite understand, I know my preparation is a poor replacement.