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'Read, in the name of your Lord!'

By: Alexander Khaleeli
Any discussion of developing Islamic literacy must, first and foremost, begin with the Qur'an, says Alexander Khaleeli


Read! (iqra') was the first word of the Qur'an (96:1-2) revealed to the Prophet Muhammad(s); a command enjoining him not only to read to himself, but to read aloud to others (qira'ah). The verse continues, '...in the name of your Lord who created; created man from a clinging mass.' The command to read is then repeated again: 'Read! And your Lord is most generous, who taught by the Pen, taught man what he knew not.' Whereas the first command is connected to the act of creation, the second command is connected to knowledge, suggesting that attaining knowledge is the purpose for which Man was created, and that this act of reading is what conveys him to this ultimate purpose. This is, of course, no ordinary knowledge, but knowledge of the Divine. Nor is the act of reading here ordinary, it is reading the revelation aloud to mankind to convey that knowledge of the Divine.

The Qur'an frequently describes itself as a book (kitab), the last of many books which God has sent to mankind, including the Torah and the Evangel. In this way it situates itself in a literary tradition of divine scriptures. Scattered throughout its verses are allusions to the implements of writing; pens (68:1), ink (18:109), parchments (52:3) and scrolls (21:104), as well as the act of writing itself in many forms.

This association between the Qur'an and a written tradition stands in stark contrast to the environment in which it was revealed; the literary tradition of pre-Islamic Arabia was primarily aural in nature. The poetry of the Jahiliyyah (time of ignorance) was fluid and transmitted orally, while the Qur'an is a fixed, inscribed text. Its self-description as a written book would have great import for the early Muslim community.

Literacy naturally became of paramount importance, such that after the Battle of Badr, the Prophet himself promised to set free any prisoner who taught ten Muslims to read and write. He also appointed scribes - one of whom was Ali ibn Abi Taleb(a) - to write down the revelations he received and oversaw their arrangement into surahs (chapters). We also see that this had implications beyond the Qur'an itself. Because Islamic knowledge comes not only from the Qur'an, but from the Sunnah (words and deeds) of the Prophet, the Sunnah by extension became something people wanted to write down and preserve. In a famous incident, a companion by the name of Abu Shah asked for something the Prophet said in writing, to which the Prophet asked his companions to 'write this for Abu Shah.'

The emphasis on literacy that began with the Prophet continued with the classical scholars, who saw writing as the foremost means of preserving and transmitting knowledge. This is reflected in the fact that major Islamic centres of learning, such as the Dar al-Hikma in Abbasid Baghdad, began collecting, translating and copying manuscripts on a near-industrial scale. Discussing the relative merits of speaking and writing in his Munyat al-Murid, the great Lebanese scholar, al-Shahid al-Thani (d. 1558), ranks writing as superior because it persists in its existence and remains useful even after the death of its author, whereas speech vanishes from the external world nearly as quickly as it appears. In this way, a written book becomes an ongoing source of divine reward (sadaqa jariya) for its author.

The written text, it would appear, is a divinely-favoured mode of communication from many angles. But, as I alluded to initially, the act of "reading" (qira'a) retains an aural aspect in that the verb actually means to read aloud to an audience. In fact, the word Qur'an means a text that is recited, not merely read. Classically, reading was a collaborative process; a teacher would read a religious text aloud to his students and comment upon it, they would copy it down and annotate it; they would then rehearse the text between themselves (mubahatha) before later reciting it back to the teacher and having it corrected before receiving a licence (ijaza) to teach it. Whereas today, reading is very much seen as an individual activity, the Islamic tradition maintained a communal aspect to it.

Today, one of the major problems facing Muslim communities in the West is a lack of Islamic knowledge. One reason for this is a shortage of scholars who are fluent in the languages of Europe and America (especially languages other than English), familiar with the cultures of this region and equipped with the necessary level of Islamic knowledge to offer guidance to others. This problem is compounded by the fact that levels of secular education in the West are very good, whereas Islamic education is widely-perceived to be lagging behind.

We are in a situation in the West where basic literacy (the ability to read and write), thanks to the advent of near universal education, is widespread. This is, without a doubt a positive development. But unless it is accompanied by a correspondingly well-developed programme of Islamic education and learning, it is likely that many of those who enjoy the benefits of a good secular education will turn their backs on what appears to be an illogical and out of date religious tradition. It is unthinkable that the Ummah (community) of the Prophet whose revelation began with the command "Read!" should be virtually illiterate with regards to his teachings! Any discussion of developing Islamic literacy must, first and foremost, begin with the Qur'an. The Qur'an has to be one of the most-read but least understood books in human history. Whether it is a recitation for a deceased loved-one, the month of Ramadhan or an istikhara (seeking guidance from God), the Qur'an is often opened and recited, but if this act of reading is to bring us to knowledge of God, it must be accompanied by a genuine understanding of the words being read. As God's final revelation to mankind, is it really befitting that we should understand so little of its meaning while we read so many of its words?

To remedy this, a working knowledge of Arabic is essential. It is not enough to read translations of the Qur'an without being able to refer to the Arabic, as God says 'Indeed We have sent it down as an Arabic Qur'an so that you may apply reason.' (12:2) First, part of the miraculous nature of the Qur'an is the peerless eloquence of its elegant, rhyming prose, which can only be appreciated if someone, has at least a working knowledge of Arabic. Second, there are many verses of theological or legal significance whose meaning is subject to disagreement amongst different schools of thought. Take the Verse of Purification (ayat ul-tathir 33:33), for example. Without knowledge of Arabic, how will the reader know that the pronouns in this verse are all masculine, while the pronouns in all the verses around it are feminine, indicating a shift in the object of purification?

Different translations will only reflect the biases of their translators; without Arabic, the reader will not be able to discern which one is most faithful to the text. Fortunately there are now many excellent courses online, as well as textbooks, teaching both Quranic Arabic and Arabic in general. This must also be accompanied by an effort to develop a familiarity with the Qur'an by reading the Arabic in parallel with a reliable and scholarly translation (such as that by Ali Quli Qara'i) on a regular basis, preferably a little (even a page) every day. Setting aside thirty-minutes for Qur'an study and noting down any questions or interesting points that emerge from the text will also help to nurture a basic understanding of the text and its contents.

But as well as striving to acquaint ourselves with the Arabic language, it is also essential that we strive to bring books from Arabic (and other Islamic languages) into English through translations. It is only in this way that we will be able to provide educational resources to the next generation of our own communities, a generation whose mother tongue is largely that of the country which they grew up in, and also produce materials that will benefit non-Muslims interested in learning more about Islamic wisdom. It is only through this reciprocal movement into and out of Arabic that we can hope to fully emulate the multifaceted reality of the injunction "Read!"

Originally published in islam today magazine UK, issue 14 vol.2 | December 2014. It has been republished here with permission.



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