‘A Qur’aanic Odyssey: Towards Juz Amma’ by Umm Muhemmed and published by Greenbird Books launched in Houston, Texas, April 15th, 2012. Little by little, the book takes its own journey. Among the most recent stops: the Freeport Community Library in Maine (June 28th, 2012). Following a presentation about hifdh al Qur’aan, the motives behind the book, and examples of inter-faith and inter-cultural exchanges, there were many questions asked by attendees. Some were asked during the formal Q&A and some raised after. In the space below, I (the author) have attempted to capture some of these questions and provide answers. It should be noted at the outset, the group was incredibly diverse (and talented), but it was a non-Muslim audience, which may explain the nature of some of the questions and answers. The above-noted is not meant to discriminate but rather to clarify.
1) Does the memorization and recitation change you? Ideally memorization and recitation should be a transformative activity. The words, which are considered revelation by Muslims, are inherently holy, and therefore the mere utterance of such words should introduce an element of holiness into one’s being. This is the goal. Sometimes amidst our busyness it does not always occur, but we keep striving. When I face a particularly contentious situation with family (children arguing etc), I often start reciting Ayat-ul Kursi (the Ayah/line of the Throne, 2:255) in an attempt to put positive energy back into the situation and dispel the tension. It is often effective, and has the potential to change the focus.
2) Do the children understand the Arabic of the Qur’aan? We always start each surah (chapter) by reading the translation, however, the children presently do not memorize the word for word translation. Sometimes, extensive understanding is quite taxing for younger children, and it is easier simply to memorize the ayaat (lines), first. Understanding is highly valued in hifdh al Qur’aan, however, it is often done in a second, later phase, when a child is slightly older. That said, our children are learning Arabic, apart from their Qur’aanic study, and we do pause our recitation to identify key words that they recognize. There are diverse opinions on this subject and our approach is one of many. Finally, it should be noted, that although a huge value is placed on understanding the text, since it is believed that the verses are revelation, there is an inherent value in saying them (even without full understanding).
3) Is Qur’aanic recitation a communal or individual activity? From observations, particularly of madressas in Central Asia, my understanding is that it is largely a group activity. How does that work in terms of what you are presenting, namely home-based hifdh? Qur’aanic recitation has both communal and individual elements, as seen with many sacred text. Madressa activity may often be communal, but even then, there is generally a time when students will recite on their own, and/or individually with a teacher. Likewise, learning at home, has the potential to be communal, as children recite with parents, other relatives and teachers. In terms of group salah (prayer), there are portions that are said in unison and portions that are said individually. It is a constant interplay. Quite apart from dedicated learning time (at madressa and/or home), and salah time, Qur’aan is also often recited collectively and individually by Muslims as a further form of ibadah (worship) throughout the day.
4) Is there a belief of re-incarnation in Islam? There is no belief in reincarnation of which I am aware, but belief in an afterlife is integral to Islam. Furthermore, as we recite, in the same way that we aspire to introduce an element of holiness, ultimately, we seek to become ‘living Qur’aans’, i.e. our actions and our thoughts reflect the Qur’aan. This is not ‘re-incarnation’ per se, but it is intended to be a transformative and transcendental process that ultimately leads us (back) to the Prophetic tradition. Furthermore, there is a belief in an afterlife.
5) The memorization approach that you describe seems to resemble ‘the whole language’ approach to teaching. Could you comment on this? Yes, there is a slight parallel with the ‘whole language approach’, notwithstanding my previous comment about the children not grasping the full meaning of every ayah (line). We have focused on the building blocks of words through the Qur’aanic primer (or qaida) phase (more like a phonics approach). Then, we have moved into full words and full ayaat (lines), trying to make sense of the text in many different ways. This includes copying down the text as well as writing from memory, listening, repetition, inclusion in salah (prayer), drawing, recording our own voices (and sending voice memos) and even reenacting. It is my belief that the more the children can ‘see’ and experience the text, the more meaningful it will become inshaa Allah. Paramount is for them to begin to feel and appreciate that they are safeguarding the text–preserving and protecting it, in the true spirit of hifdh.
6) When you were reciting to us, why were you looking down? I was largely looking down to keep my concentration. There are many familiar faces in the room, here, and I wanted to maintain my focus. In reciting in prayer, I would also look down, with my eyes open, as is sunnah (practice of Prophet Muhemmed, peace be upon him). When I teach our children and others, I often look into the faces of the students in an attempt to connect the words to them. We often engage in a ‘call and response’, e.g. I say one ayah (line), they say the next. Going back to the earlier question of ‘communal vs. individual’ recitation, the position of the reciter changes based on the situation.
7) How did you come to Islam? As with many people, my conversion story is lengthy. It involves a considerable journey through the Episcopal Church, Syria, Pakistan, Middlebury Language School, and the Associated Press (where I worked as a researcher), among other places. It is one based on constant inquiry and truth seeking. It is also an evolving story. Although one makes a decision at a certain point in time, one reaffirms that decision each moment, each day, akin to a marriage vow. There is a certain date when we are married, however, we live our vows day after day, and hopefully seek to increase the love in our relationship. Such is the faith quest, as well.