ARE YOU ONE of many who—after years in Islam—has not succeeded in making the Quran your companion and link to Allah?
Maybe you’ve tried your darnedest but found no user-friendly resources on offer or programs you felt do-able by you. You might have asked: “Is the problem with me?” Is it a lack of the needed kind of educational preparation or learning skills? Is it a mismatch of culture, or communication methods, with a would-be mentor? Or is the problem with the Ummah—its lack of capable coaches (beyond the A-B-C’s)? Maybe it’s all of the above?
But just maybe the problem is less profound than all that. Right and reset your intention. Then become empirical, practical, and prosaic about it, and thoughtfully, realistically plan out your approach.
Preparing for the Journey
Some of us can go through certain preparation stages for the study of the Quran on our own. Other stages, depending upon one’s background, or lack of it, need a teacher, a mentor, or a coach. At all stages, everyone will benefit from knowing that a knowledgeable person is available for encouragement and setting one straight. As with any new field one enters, it is essential to ensure that the foundational structure is accurately and solidly laid.
Stage 1: Getting Oriented
Reading the Quran is hard for us mono-language English-speakers: A new alphabet, difficult-to-pronounce sounds, alien ways of putting words together (‘grammar’), special know-how for finding forms of root words in a dictionary. Couldn’t we just “read” a translation, instead?
Okay, so “reading” a translation is to miss the layers of meaning, the enchanting literary features of the actual Arabic Text, the compelling effect of the “proofs” of Allah and His guidance. Then, why can’t we just depend on recordings for vicariously experiencing the sound effects while we look to commentaries for meaning in more depth? Does Allah expect of us more than we can reasonably do? (Nnnn-ooo, but from stage-to-stage, one may need to re-calculate ‘reasonable.’)
Stage 2: Hands-on
Alright—we’ve made the effort: We can read the Arabic letters, pronounce the sounds reasonably accurately, figure out the correct pronunciation of the complete word—if we are patient with ourselves. But when reading a string of words—even just a short verse—maybe we can’t get the rhythm and intonation pattern. (Maybe we are not really even accurate with our basic pronunciation?) Yes, we do need time with a coach. The Companions l had the Prophet œ as their ultimate coach—and each other! Why could this not be the model for us? A perfect model, plus helping each other!
Stage 3: Group Tracking
Now, you’ve been through tajwîd training, maybe several times. You understand the linguistic concepts, but your tongue stumbles and falters. Practice, you say? How? You need a patient guide for some intense work. Your eyes don’t focus smoothly and they move against resistance—pushed the wrong direction, right-to-left, rather than left-to-right. It’s tiring to zigzag up and down—above and below the line of words—so as to interpret the voweling marks. You can’t maintain momentum. The eye muscles lock up. Glasses on—glasses off. Large-size print—medium size? Nothing helps. Ya Allah!
A Eureka Moment: Aural-Oral Modality!
Let us appreciate what the Quran is: The “qur’ân” is NOT primarily an in-print Book. Rather, it is a recitation—taken in through the ear and engaged in through the vocal apparatus of the mouth and throat—kept track of in the brain and imprinted in one’s “grey matter.” The Quran we hold in our hands is a maximally-transmitted, tawâtur (to use a ^adîth term) ‘memory’ of the recitations revealed to Prophet Muhammad œ—now reduced to writing, a divinely-arranged collection of divinely-disclosed Scripts (that is, Sûrahs composed of signs that are verses), waiting to be vocally “read,” whether secondarily from the page—or primarily from a live voice model.
The act of echoing the sign-verses orally moves toward internalizing them—as a first step on the way to activating their ever-available message of Guidance. The key words in this process are ‘aural’ (through the ear) and ‘oral’ (through the mouth). The in-print Book is a Divinely protected crutch and one should not hesitate to use it when a written Script is wanted or when an expert live model is unavailable.
Stage 4:Personal Attention
The end product we are striving to attain, then, is an oral recitation—whether for our own private worship, for passing on to others, for public use in Friday |alâh or Rama\an tarawîh, etc. Accordingly, this stage begs for a live mentor. A recording can help, but a properly qualified Stage-Four “personal trainer,” or Stage Coach, can make one’s self-study bloom and flower into the real deal.
Along the Way
Yes, one must make the effort to understand the Quran’s vocabulary and its technical terminology. One must absorb the way that the Quranic language hangs verses together. And one must internalize Islam’s attitudes, priorities, and principles of divine and social engagement. The Quran is something that sinks into the sincere soul by conscious association with it. It grows on one, especially through oral engagement with its Text. It is, after all, Allah’s Speech, His Disclosure to those who seek His Way.
A translation is a useful bridge to making the connection—and for some the only connection. If you have been one of those dependent upon a translation, then make maximum use of it and other English-language helps. But don’t stop there. Start with Stage 1 (or 2, or 3) and move ahead. Most valuable is a qualified Quran Coach—again, our esteemed Companions had such mentoring! Can’t we imitate them in this matter? One must help oneself along the way, from stage-to-stage—but a Coach can seal the deal.
Engaging with the Oral Book
If the Quran is the “Speech” of Allah, then don’t we need to engage the Quran as speech? First, by receiving it through the ear—and whatever is required visually (through the eye) in the way of printed books, so as to maximize, in our own hearts and minds, its import; translations, commentaries, vocabulary studies, researches on the life of the Prophet œ and of his Companions l; and second, by affirming the Quran through the echo of personal oral recitation.
A great many in our community—maybe most of us—need oral coaching in the Quran. Tajwîd is the body of rules for proper recitation of the Script, but, I suspect, it should be the Coach’s reference book, not the be-all-and-end-all of the student’s curriculum. At best, I suggest, can’t it be a jumping-off point, whether its rules are mastered or not? The yardstick of the perfect Recitation. Oral recitation is learned by doing oral recitation—and perfected with skillful guidance.
(Old-fashioned cassette “tape-loops” used to help with listening to short stretches of any oral text—repeatedly until it became emblazoned in the memory. Is there, for self-study purposes, an equivalent with perfect sound reproduction in more modern technology?)
Once the vocal apparatus is in motion, it is set up to learn control and fluency. Learning the recitation Rules of the Road (tajwîd) is essential, but those can be no more than latent and inoperative until the vehicle (vocal tract) is in gear and lunging forward, even if joltingly.
Institutionalizing the Stages: The Ummah’s Learning-Teaching Mission
The English-speaking, would-be Quran-learner can benefit from help at each stage of his preparation. Why not weekend Islamic school classes for adults wanting to engage the Quran? “Each one, teach one”—whether as teacher or learner, with all members of the community actively engaged in knowledge building.
Why can we not as a community get beyond the concept of our designated imam as sole resource, too often limited to less innovative roles? The American Muslim community—in all other aspects of their lives—is a highly educated and productive group. Why should Islamic knowledge be kept crippled?
Let our communities be places of learning and teaching, each member rising to his or her highest level of expertise or certification so that in every community and at each stage of Quran learning, there are coaches who can mentor all others looking for quality help, at whatever stage. And those of us long secretly wishing for personal Quran coaching, come on out of the woodwork!
Remembering the Stage Coach
In our not-so-distant past, and still alive in American ‘Westerns,’ frontier passengers using the Stagecoach often traveled long distances, but at each station, fresh horses took up the task of conveying the traveler to the next post. If you are limited to Stage 1 as a tutor, then dispatch your tutoree to a Stage-2 tutor, when he or she has mastered all you can impart.
In the Muslim journey of life, we need to be progressing with the treasure trove of Allah’s Book. “Reading” a good translation is a crutch for us, valuable until we can “walk” on our own—or eventually “run”—in reading orally (reciting) the actual words of the Divine Speech. No one should think it impossible to get beyond the basic crutch stage (reading an English translation) and even Stage 1.
Look for a coach near you for each stage where you need help. If you can be a coach for someone else, offer your services. If you, as a would-be student, are ready for a coach, make your needs known. Inshâ’Allâh, a student or coach is ready and waiting for you. If such is not immediately discovered, then join with someone in a knowledge-based partnership and together engage the Quran, stage-by-stage, until there comes along a more knowledgeable coach, suited to meet the needs of one’s stage of Quran learning.
As I recall, reading was so important to the Muslim Ummah that Prophet Muhammad œ promised freedom to any prisoner of war who taught Muslims to read. It was “reading” the Quran, of course, that the Prophet œ was ultimately promoting. Let us, as an Ummah, again be learners and reciters of Allah’s Text.