This winter, during a period of unemployment, I studied the Qur’an at the Howard University School of Divinity. I have the course instructor, Dr. Zainab Alwani, to thank first, followed by her students and Howard University, for this extraordinary opportunity. I am profoundly grateful to them and to the many generous friends who have guided and encouraged me along this illuminating interfaith journey. How I came to Dr. Alwani’s class is a good story worth telling, but not here. Suffice it to say my friends tell me it is no coincidence that I was without work when the opportunity presented itself.
Anyone approaching the Qur’an recognizes that it is a daunting volume. For those who don’t speak Arabic – which includes the majority of Muslims – the book is usually read in translation. This should not be an obstacle until we realize that the Christian Bible has been translated into European languages from its original languages for more than a millennium. The oldest English Bibles predate the Norman Conquest and the Tyndale and King James translations have had centuries to pervade our language. By contrast, the earliest English translation of the Qur’an dates from the 17th century and translations do not occur nearly as frequently as the Bible. Consequently, its influence on Western and Anglophone culture was less profoundly absorbed, even setting aside the political conflicts dating from the Crusades onward.
The first English translation of the Qur’an, completed by George Sale, 1734
The Qur’an’s rhetorical structure may not be immediately familiar to the late, modern or Christian reader. It is interesting how much even secular Westerners accept without notice being raised in the Church and Christian-influenced culture. The Qur’an, for someone not raised with it and steeped in the culture it has influenced, requires a strategy. Attempting to read it alone and unaided, I had none, which led me in large measure to Dr. Alwani’s class.
The Book is the Miracle
I joined Dr. Alwani’s seminar in upper northeast Washington, D.C. The Howard University School of Divinity is a small, quiet, bucolic campus near the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land. I had never taken a religion course before and now I would sit in a class with master’s students who were Christian scholars. The seminar was small, about five students, among them a prison pastor’s son, a retired Air Force officer working for the Veteran’s Administration, and an accountant who could quote Bible verse at will.
I quickly realized an introduction to such a book was like an introduction to Constitutional law, or the Bible, or moral philosophy. The Qur’an is an intellectual and spiritual universe and there was no conceivable way we could capture its entirety or plumb deeply the entire book or even explore single themes, surahs (chapters) or characters in great depth. Indeed – to provide a sense of scale in this endeavor – Dr. Alwani told us, “Every word in the Qur’an is a concept.” If my friend in Sarajevo, who had set me down this path by inviting me into her intellectual and spiritual home, in this survey course Dr. Alwani had invited us into a library – a vast civilizational Alexandria, with the surahs of the Qur’an marking the stacks.
Nevertheless, I was not daunted or dismayed. In fact, I was invigorated. I had been discouraged when a friend’s gift of a book (The Road to Mecca by Muhammad Asad) revealed to me the profound gulf that existed, quite in spite of my efforts, between my knowledge and the vast range of Islamic scholarship available in English. Now, Dr. Alwani was laying out guideposts that would become more familiar as I moved through the Qur’an.
This was a different way of thinking. By way of example, one of the early questions for the Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) was why, if he was delivering the word of God, he should not perform miracles like his predecessors. Indeed, the notion of miracles is so ingrained in American, Christian and even secular Western society that we may not know that unlike most prophets of Judeo-Christian tradition, few miracles are attributed to Muhammad.(1) The Qur’an reveals that the message is the marvel – that (Dr. Alwani, striking a pose like Charleton Heston, her Qur’an held aloft for emphasis) the book is the miracle.
I found this profoundly satisfactory but I had to think about it to understand why. Partly, I realized, was the fundamental humility of the assertion. The focus of the Qur’an, while clearly aspiring to the hereafter, is nonetheless on questions of how to live in the here and now. The book is stripped of all supernatural trappings save the revelation itself. It draws the reader’s attention to its word, message and actions rather than the “magic” of the super-endowed ur-humans Westerners are accustomed to as our prophets – parting seas, walking on water, healing the sick, and the rest. Without these distractions, we can concentrate on what is important: our behavior towards one another.
But much more of my personal satisfaction is rooted in language. I write; I live through and in language. We are immersed in language. The Qur’an as we comprehend it now – written down, printed, and bound in a book or transmitted by electronic means (six translations are available free on my smart phone) – existed before the means to record it. Indeed, as Dr. Alwani noted, this points directly to the notion that the words existed before the revelation and that they are one and the same with God. They are eternal and exist quite separately from the “book” itself. This illuminates one of the most famous lines from the New Testament, indeed, in all of English: “In the beginning, the word was with God, and the word was God.” (John 1:1)
The Qur’an itself means “the recitation,” and the thrilling first words of the revelation to the Prophet – “Recite!” (Qur’an 96:1) – is a divine exhortation to public language.
Muhammad recited for 20 years until his death. His Companions, at that time, memorized the recitation. This is important to contemplate for a moment. I recalled the oral traditions of the early epic poems such as the Odyssey or Iliad, which existed in large measure in the mind of the bards who recited them. I also remembered the ending of Fahrenheit 451, when the hero joins a band of other men who have memorized whole volumes that have been destroyed by burning. Literature, indeed language as we know it, began in the mind and was transmitted in the spoken word. This is how the Qur’an was first communicated and preserved. That alone seems miracle enough.
But of course that is not the miracle Dr. Alwani was speaking of. The Qur’an asserts it is the direct word of God without intermediation. Only when reading in translation is there something lost, although it is clear in its reading, and reading the tafsir (exegesis) and Islamic jurisprudence, that the original language leaves much to interpret. (We who must read the Qur’an in language other than Arabic are at a further disadvantage.) Nevertheless, it is both comforting and awe-inspiring to hold the book and know that God’s revelation is contained between the covers.
For anyone remaining skeptical that the text is miraculous in either the divine or human sense, Dr. Alwani shared with us the tradition of tajweed, or beautiful recitation of the Qur’an. For Muslims this is taken as given; the nearest modern analogy for Christians I can think of is devotional music such as G.F. Handel’s Messiah, in which Biblical verses are set to music. In tajweed, the Qur’an itself is sung. Here is an example, made all the more astonishing for the spectacle of children memorizing the entire Qur’an and reciting ayah, or verses, in tajweed:
I believe I can speak for the other students who were spellbound listening to the children, many of whom did not speak Arabic. It only takes a rudimentary understanding of music to recognize the beauty of tajweed, which lies at the very heart of the Qur’an and Islamic belief. Tajweed is by necessity bound up with the language of Arabic and Arabic script. My father remembers a colleague who expressed the three-fold beauty of Qur’anic inscriptions that illuminate mosques the world over: “The writing is beautiful, the sound is beautiful, and the thoughts are beautiful.”
Detail of Qur’anic inscription from the interior of the Blue Mosque of Herat, Afghanistan. Photo by Mark Schlagel
Again I thought of how much my own belief was directly affected by language (specifically and necessarily English); how much I enjoyed reading scripture when bored by homilies during Mass; the ecstatic feeling I experienced joining hundreds singing Messiah’s Hallelujah chorus; Wynton Marsalis describing the sacred music of J.S. Bach, “like God entering the room”; how so many forge a relationship to the divine through music whether it is Cantor Helfgot’s or Ali Khan’s or John Coltrane’s.
NEXT: The Book is a Conversation.
(1) This is not without debate, of course. Islamic scholars attribute many miracles and miraculous aspects to Muhammad. Qur’an 54:1-2 relates the miracle of “splitting of the moon” in the presence of the Prophet and the rest of the surah enumerates the scourges of the Old Testament (significantly, this surah names the Qur’an as a miracle several times. The Qur’an (17:1) also notes Muhammad’s miraculous miraj to Jerusalem.