Who is qualified to read the Qur’an?
INsights 037, Friday 24th March 2023
Who is qualified to read the Qur’an?
INsights 037, Friday 24th March 2023
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Assalamu-alaikum. Peace be upon you.
Yesterday I was delivering a live online session about how to get the most out of Ramadan. It was for members of the Muslim network of one of the world’s largest professional services firms.
One of the points I raised was the importance of engaging meaningfully with the Qur’an. I suggested that in order to derive guidance from revelation, a regular reading of the translation is necessary for most of us who don’t know Qur’anic Arabic well enough, or at all.
In the Q&A segment, one person asked a question that I have been asked many times before. I’ll paraphrase it as follows:
“Am I really qualified to read the Qur’an on my own?”
The concern behind this question is understandable. Many people find the Qur’an daunting or confusing, or both!
Generally speaking, we are not used to engaging directly with it unless it’s for the purpose of recitation.
We have become accustomed to being taught lessons from revelation by those we regard as scholars or experts, rather than seeing what God has to say for ourselves.
We consider ourselves so inadequate to deal with the message that we are far more comfortable with anyone else’s explanation over our own. To think for ourselves or to have an opinion almost feels blasphemous.
I don’t doubt for a moment that there is humility and sincerity behind these thoughts and feelings.
But I also don’t doubt that they are somewhat misplaced.
What qualifies someone to read the Qur’an?
This is a blessed book which We have sent down to you [Prophet], for them to ponder its verses deeply and for people of insight to take heed.
(Chapter 38, Sad, Verse 29)
You cannot outsource the cultivation of your relationship with your Lord.
Your understanding of Him and what He wants from you has to make sense to you. Your obedience to Him will be particular to your circumstances. In the end, your judgement by Him will be conducted on the basis of your intentions and actions.
God sent revelation for all people, so understand this: you are qualified to read the Qur’an by virtue of being… a human being!
Do we not affirm that the Qur’anic message is a universal one? Do we not believe that all human beings are essentially equal in the eyes of God, distinguished in His sight only by their virtue, whose reality can be known only to Him?
If so, why do we write ourselves off so easily when it comes to engaging with revelation? Why do we rely entirely on intermediaries?
Can you learn from others?
There is no priestly class that has been designated with authority by God to speak on His behalf to everyone else. There is no qualification that puts someone beyond the possibility of error or even grave misunderstanding.
Regard your direct engagement with the Qur’an and asking for guidance from your Lord as primary. Understand that consulting other sources and people’s opinions should be secondary.
You should begin or continue your own engagement with the Qur’an based on wherever you are in your journey, even if you see yourself as a total beginner. Every expert was a beginner once. So take the next step. Do what is within your reach.
It’s important that we take responsibility for ourselves, become much more familiar with revelation, and begin to increase our capacity to derive guidance, discern truth from falsehood and develop wisdom.
Should we consult and can we learn from others? Yes, of course.
But when you prioritise your own thoughtful engagement with revelation, you will actually benefit a lot more when you seek to learn from the approaches and opinions of others.
My personal experience
When it comes to trying to understand certain things about revelation, I myself read extensively and widely both historical and contemporary sources, in Arabic and in English. But I do this in a way that is supplementary to my own recitation and reflection, based on the following principles:
a) I make my own attempt to situate what I’m reading in context and to consider its relevance for my decisions and actions, and implications in my life.
b) I recognise the greater experience and expertise of others over my own, but I never put anyone on a pedestal, regarding them as an absolute authority.
c) I keep an open mind, realising that I don’t need to have definitive answers on most questions straight away.
d) Whenever I come across something new or unfamiliar to me, I don’t dismiss it immediately but add it into the mix and see if the idea holds weight over time, especially in our current lived reality.
Applying this approach over years has been empowering and life-changing. I’ve taken major life decisions based on my learnings from revelation. I have felt deeply the power of its guidance. It has been nothing short of instructive, illuminating and inspiring.
That’s not to say it hasn’t been very difficult and challenging at times. It certainly has been. I’m sure it will continue to be that way from time to time in the future. But when I find myself in the midst of confusion, I rely on God to guide me and keep moving forward.
In my case, the process has been helped by the fact that I learned Qur’anic Arabic to a reasonable standard at a fairly young age. That’s why I encourage you to learn the language of the Qur’an if you can and to make sure your children do so as well. But even without Arabic, the process of engagement can still happen and still be highly beneficial.
But isn’t the message lost in translation?
The vast majority of what most believers need to know from revelation can be gained from a translation...
So don’t let your lack of Arabic be an excuse for abandoning a normal but effective engagement with the text.
Just read attentively as you would read any other book, with added reverence for the fact that you are reading a translation of the ultimate Book.
Here’s a formula:
sincerity + curiosity + humility + daily discipline =
guidance and progress
I recommend the Oxford World Classics translation by Professor Muhammad Abdel Haleem. I also like The Clear Qur’an by Dr Mustafa al-Khattab.
I also benefit from comparing and contrasting a wide range of translations, especially when it comes to passages or verses where the precise meaning of certain words is contested. Quran.com has pretty much all you need for this purpose.
If you know Arabic, then tafsir.app is a phenomenal resource to access classical dictionaries and commentaries.
Dive deep this Ramadan
If We had sent this Qur'an down to a mountain, you would have seen it humbled and split apart in its awe of God: We offer people such illustrations so that they may reflect.
(Chapter 59, The Gathering, al-Hashr, Verse 21)
Don’t miss the opportunity this Ramadan to increase your familiarity with the key messages in revelation.
I don’t discourage you from reciting and listening to the original Arabic of course. But doing that at the expense of understanding the meaning would be a major mistake.
Why not set yourself a daily target to read a certain amount of the Qur’an in translation this Ramadan? Select an amount of time that you are confident in maintaining throughout the month.
If you’d like a simple framework for the purposes of reflection, then try jotting down some answers to the following questions in relation to any verse or passage that you want to spend more time pondering:
1. Why might God have decided to reveal this particular verse or set of verses in the first place?
2. What is the general lesson from this passage? What might my Lord be telling me exactly, given my current situation and context?
3. How should I change, either in terms of attitude or action, as a result of these words? What can I commit to going forward?
Your notes will become a very useful starting point for further research and consultation where necessary.
God has sent down the most beautiful of all teachings: a Scripture that is consistent and draws comparisons; that causes the skins of those in awe of their Lord to shiver. Then their skins and their hearts soften at the mention of God: such is God’s guidance. He guides with it whoever He will; no one can guide those God leaves to stray.
(Chapter 39, The Throngs, az-Zumar, Verse 23)
You know that revelation is having its guiding effect when you first feel an internal and possibly physical impact – like a shudder or goosebumps – as a result of what you’re reciting or hearing.
Then comes an actual tangible insight and a greater inclination towards God.
Then comes a resolution to change something for the better to reflect the guidance in your attitude and decisions going forward. Things seem clearer. You feel informed and inspired.
Ramadan and life itself are all about being with your Lord and His revelation, plumbing the depths of your soul and emerging from the process stronger, clearer and happier.
So start taking your journey through revelation more seriously than ever before and trust that God will guide you with it all the way into the light.
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Have a blessed fortnight. I'll see you in two Fridays, God willing.