Qurʾān: Its Role in Muslim Practice and Life
QURʾĀN: ITS ROLE IN MUSLIM PRACTICE AND LIFE
The Qurʾān is the primary source of theological and religious knowledge in Islam. Its significance goes beyond the concept of a mere written document, for it is seen by Muslims as a paradigm for God's communication with human beings and as a token of divine presence in the world. Reflecting its paradigmatic nature, the Qurʾān calls itself Umm al-Kitab (literally "Mother of the Book" or "Sourcebook," sūrah 13:39). It is made up of "signs" (ayah, pl. ayat ) whose semantic messages replicate all of the "languages" that are to be found in the world of human experience. As a form of divine expression, the Qurʾān acts as a spiritual touchstone and code of conduct, detailing the main themes of the message of Islam as revealed to the Prophet Muḥammad. As a theological statement, it is a criterion of discernment (furqan ), which demonstrates the existence and nature of Allāh, the One God. As a form of literature, it is regarded by both Muslims and Arab Christians as the source of the Classical Arabic language. As a work of meta-history, it imparts meaning to human affairs by detailing God's plan for the world in the rise and fall of civilizations and in the creation and end of the universe.
As the written text declares, the original form of the Qurʾān is with God, "a Glorious Qurʾān preserved in a well-guarded tablet" (85:21–22). Although it takes on the character and logic of human language, the Qurʾān remains in essence a transcendent medium of communication, free from the limitations of purely human expression. This essential Qurʾān was communicated to the Prophet Muḥammad through the mediation of Gabriel, the angel of revelation, in words that were written down and memorized by the pious and later codified into an official document (mushaf). However, the Prophet claimed that he also received the Qurʾān in humanly unintelligible sounds like the ringing of bells: apparently, at least part of the revelation came to him as an inspiration directly from God. This bestowal of divine knowledge, which according to the Qurʾān was sent down directly onto Muḥammad's heart (26:94) on the Night of Power (laylat al-qadr, 96:1), enabled the Prophet to become not only the mouthpiece, but also the prime interpreter of the divine word.
For more than fourteen centuries, Muslims of all sects and schools of thought have internalized the Qurʾān as the transcendent word of God, which is relevant for all times and places. Because its divine origin makes the Qurʾān a sacred, and therefore unique, form of communication, its significance depends on a worldview that accepts its authenticity. Consequently, its significance for the pious Muslim is entirely different from that of the non-Muslim or agnostic. Because each and every written word or recited sound of the Qurʾān is revered as divine in origin, any attempt to create a critical or historicist interpretation of its text can only do violence to the revelation in terms of its meaning to its audience. One who wishes to understand the resonance of the Qurʾān in the heart of the Muslim believer must not overlook the surplus of meaning in a text that is considered so sacred that it is often recited in a baby's ears as soon as it emerges from the womb. As the sixth Shīʿī imām, Jaʾfar al-Sadiq, declared, "Whoever recites the Qurʾān while yet a youth and has faith, the Qurʾān becomes intermingled with his flesh and blood" (Ayoub, vol. 1, p. 12).
As a revelation directly from God, the Qurʾān is the main theophany of Islam. Although it was revealed to the prophet Muḥammad in the Arabic language (12:2), its text is believed to consist of divine rather than human speech (9:6). Thus, its significance for Muslims is similar to that of the Logos (divine speech) in Christianity. However, unlike the Christian view of scripture as a divinely inspired discourse, the words of the Qurʾān are regarded by Muslims as divine in and of themselves. In Islam, the divine word does not become flesh, but the words and letters of the Qurʾān retain a profound sense of power and mystery. Muslims show their reverence for the Qurʾān by approaching it in a state of ritual purity or ablution (ṭahārah ). At times, it may also be treated as a prized artifact, as demonstrated by the production of hand-decorated, calligraphic copies and the popularity of medieval Qurʾān manuscripts in collections of Islamic art. Ṣūfīs, Muslim mystics, have long regarded the Qurʾān as a paradigm for divine knowledge and inspiration. In the thirteenth century, the great Andalusian Ṣūfī Ibn ʿArabi organized the entirety of al-Futuhat al-Makkiyah (The Meccan inspirations), his magnum opus, to conform to the order and meaning of the discourses and signs of the divine text.
Power and Protection
Because the word of God resonates continually in sacred scripture, the divine text and even the calligraphic text of the Qurʾān are believed to possess awesome powers. In a well known verse the Qurʾān states: "Were we to cause this Qurʾān to descend on a mountain you would see it humbled and torn asunder in awe of God" (59:21). A tradition reports that when the fifth sūrah was sent down to the prophet Muḥammad while he was traveling on a she-camel, the animal fell to the ground, unable to support the divine words. However, this divine Qurʾān, which even the mountains cannot sustain, is also a source of tranquility and peace for the hearts of those with faith. Muslims consider this quality a divine gift of mercy; as the commentator al-Qurtubi asserts, "Had God not fortified the hearts of his servants with the ability to bear [the Qurʾān], … they would have been too feeble and distraught before its great weight" (al-Qurtubi, vol. 1, p. 4).
The powers of the Qurʾān are reputed in Muslim folklore to heal the sick, to cause strange natural occurrences, and even to charm snakes and find lost objects. When placed in a locket, a verse of the Qurʾān may protect a child from the evil eye, and strengthen, or break the bond of love between two people. Qurʾanic verses are often inscribed on vehicles, shops, and entrances to homes or public buildings to provide protection against evil and to express gratitude for God's bounties. In medieval Islam, Qurʾanic words, phrases, or even entire verses were often written or uttered in combination with ancient Aramaic words or symbols as formulas against magic. Today, Muslims of all beliefs, from literalistic Wahhābīs in Saudi Arabia to mystical Ṣūfīs and rationalist Pakistani engineers, often recite selected short sūrah s of the Qurʾān as a protection against evil or ill fortune. Sūrah s that are especially popular for such purposes include al-Kahf (The cave, 18), Ya-Sin (36) and al-Waqiʾah (The event, 56). In modern Egypt, these and other protective sūrah s are compiled in small booklets that police officers carry in their shirt-pockets as a protection against the dangers of their job.
In times of sickness and adversity, believers turn to the Qurʾān as a source of "healing and mercy for the people of faith" (17:82). The first sūrah of the Qurʾān, al-Fatihah (The opening) is sometimes called Al-Shafiyah (The healer). It is often recommended that a sick person drink the water in which a parchment inscribed with Qurʾanic verses has been soaked; this custom has persisted to the present day in many areas of the Muslim world. In some countries, Qurʾanic verses are written on incantation bowls with a special type of ink. When the bowl is rinsed with water and the water is drunk, the power of the Qurʾanic verses in the ink mixes with the water and enters the body of the believer as a charm. The commentator al-Qurtubi cautions that when using the Qurʾān for such purposes, a person seeking a cure must invoke the name of God in every breath he or she takes while drinking the potion, and must be sincere in prayerful attention, because his or her reward depends upon that sincerity. In the text of the Qurʾān itself, the medicinal power of the Qurʾān to heal is often linked to its rhetorical power to persuade, as in the following passage: "Oh humankind! An exhortation has come to you from your Lord, a healing for what is in your breasts, and a guidance and mercy for those who believe" (10:57).
Comfort and Need
The Qurʾān also serves as a source of strength and reassurance in the face of the unknown. For pious Muslims, the Qurʾān provides a means of controlling future events or mitigating their outcome through istikharah, seeking guidance or a good omen in the text. Istikharah represents the choice of what God has chosen. It is carried out by averting the face, opening the book, pointing to a randomly chosen verse, and letting the verse speak directly to one's need or condition. This action is often accompanied by specific prayers or rituals. According to the famous Ṣūfī and theologian Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī (1058–1111) companions said that the Prophet emphasized the practice of istikharah as much as he emphasized memorizing the Qurʾān itself. Al-Ghazālī recommends reciting the Fatihah, the Sūrah of the Unbelievers (109), and the Sūrah of Sincerity (111) when practicing istikharah. Then the following supplication is to be made:
Oh God! I seek goodness from you through your knowledge, I seek power from you through your power, and I beseech you through your great favor. For you are powerful and I am powerless, you are knowledgeable and I am ignorant, and you are the Knower of the Unseen. If you know that this matter will be good for me in my spiritual and material life and at the end of my life whether it tarries or hastens, then make it possible for me, and bless me and ease my life through it. But if you know that it will harm me in my spiritual and material life and at the end of my life whether it tarries or hastens, then avert me from it and avert it from me and empower me with good wherever I may be, for you are powerful over all things. (al-Ghazālī, vol. 1, p. 206)
The good bestowed by the text of the Qurʾān is a mercy for believers both in life and after death. In his discussion of ṣalāt al-Hajah (The prayer of need), al-Ghazālī states that petitioners to God should perform twelve prostrations, each of which is to be preceded by recitations of the Fatihah, the Verse of the Throne (2:255), and the Sūrah of Sincerity (al-Ghazālī, pp. 206–207). Often, before a Muslim dies, he or she stipulates that the Qurʾān be recited at the grave for three days to ensure the repose of the soul. Sometimes, at the tombs of rulers or great Ṣūfī saints, teams of readers would be employed to recite the sacred text around the clock. Whenever a deceased person is remembered by friends or family, the Fatihah is recited; it is considered a gift to the dead, a fragrant breeze from Paradise to lighten the hardship of the grave. However, the verses of the Qurʾān that are learned in this world will bring believers the greatest merit in the Hereafter. The Prophet Muḥammad said, "It shall be said to the bearer of the Qurʾān [after death], 'Recite and rise [to a higher station]. Chant now as you did in the world, for your final station shall be the last verse you recite'" (al-Qurtubi, vol. 1, p. 9).
Recitation and Memorization
Because the Qurʾān contains the word of God, its text stipulates that no one should touch it but the purified (56:79), nor should anyone recite it that is not in a state of ritual purity. Before beginning to recite the Qurʾān, the Muslim is encouraged to clean her teeth and purify her mouth, because the body will become the "path" of the Qurʾān. The Qurʾān reciter must also put on her best attire, as she would when standing before a king, for she is in fact speaking with God, in God's own language. Likewise, because the Qurʾān is the essence of Islamic prayer, the reciter should face the qiblah, the direction of prayer toward Mecca. Muslims believe that anyone who yawns while reciting the Qurʾān is obliged to stop, because yawning is caused by Satan. Normally, the recitation of the Qurʾān begins with the formula of refuge (al-taʾwiz ): "I take refuge in God from Satan the accursed." It is therefore necessary that the reciter seclude herself whenever possible so that she not be interrupted. If the word of God were to become mixed with profane speech, the reciter would lose the power of the formula of refuge with which she began her recitation.
According to a well-known tradition, those who have memorized the Qurʾān (the "Bearers of the Qurʾān") were described by the Prophet Muḥammad as being specially favored with the mercy of God because they are the teachers of his word. The tradition goes on to assert that God protects those who listen to the Qurʾān from the afflictions of this world and protects its reciters from the trials of the world to come. The Prophet is said to have further asserted that God would not torment a heart in which he had caused the Qurʾān to dwell. All obligations of worship are believed to cease with death except the recitation of the Qurʾān; it will continue to be performed forever as a delight for the people of Paradise.
Teaching and Interpretation
According to Muslim convention, the Qurʾān is not a book with a beginning, middle, and end. Every portion, even every verse, is a "Qurʾān," a divine lecture, just as the entire book is the Qurʾān, properly speaking. In the history of Qurʾanic exegesis, this belief has led to an unfortunate tendency to take Qurʾanic verses out of context. However, this decontextualization of the Qurʾān has a spiritual benefit, in that the study of the Qurʾān is a journey through an infinite world of meaning, a journey to God through God's own words. The outward purpose of this journey is to shape one's character and life according to the word of God, and thus to attain God-consciousness (taqwa ). The inner purpose of the journey, the path often followed in the Shīʿī and Ṣūfī traditions, is to travel toward God through the practice of deep hermeneutics (taʾwīl), and thus to attain a direct knowledge of God (maʾrifah ) by repeatedly going back (taʾawwala ) to the divine speech that is the basis of all creativity. A man is reported to have asked the Prophet Muḥammad, "What is the most excellent deed?" He was told, "Be a sojourning traveler." The man then asked, "Who is the sojourning traveler?" The Prophet replied, "It is the man of the Qurʾān, he who journeys from its beginning to its end, and then returns again to its beginning. Thus, he stops for a brief sojourn and then departs" (al-Qurtubi, vol. 1, p. 36).
Muslims believe that the Qurʾān guides its bearers to the eternal bliss of Paradise. It will pray on their behalf, and God will bestow upon them the crown of glory and will be pleased with them. Those who have internalized the sacred text through memorizing its verses and who recite it and teach others the art of recitation are described in a famous prophetic tradition as the people of God and his elect. According to another tradition, the best person is the one who studies the Qurʾān and teaches it to others. This is why people who teach the Qurʾān to children are highly respected throughout the Islamic world. The prophet Muḥammad declared that the highest merit for which a person can hope in the world to come is that of engaging with others in the study of the Qurʾān: "There is no people assembled in one of the houses of God to recite the book of God and study it together but that divine tranquility descends upon them. Mercy covers them, angels draw near to them, and God remembers them in the company of those who are with him" (Ayoub, vol. 1, pp. 8–9). The Qurʾān states that divine light descends upon houses in which God's name is remembered (24:36). All of God's ninety-nine "beautiful names" (7:180) are to be found in the Qurʾān. For this reason, the text of the Qurʾān is considered the truest approach to knowledge of God.
However, blindly reciting verses that are not understood, whether linguistically, intellectually, or spiritually, is not the best way to approach the Qurʾān, according to the majority of Islamic scholars. A person has not truly read the Qurʾān if both the heart and the mind are not fully engaged in understanding it. Approaching the Qurʾān has an outer, ritual dimension, and an inner, conceptual dimension, of which both are necessary for a full appreciation of the text. For al-, the "inner practice" of approaching the Qurʾān consists of ten levels of understanding that must be cultivated by the informed reader:
- The reader of the Qurʾān must have a basic understanding of theology, so that he or she can appreciate the divine origin of its words.
- The reader must fully understand the exalted nature of the divine speaker and the difference between Qurʾanic discourse and human speech.
- The reader must cultivate the faculties of the heart and suppress mind-chatter so that the spiritual nature of the divine discourse may be revealed.
- The reader must practice disciplined concentration when reading or reciting the sacred text.
- The reader must concentrate on the attributes, actions, and states of God revealed in the text in order to understand how God works in the world.
- The reader must eliminate all intellectual impediments that may block his or her understanding the spiritual message of the Qurʾān.
- The reader must understand the contextual nature of the divine commands and prohibitions in the Qurʾān and be aware of the limitations to be applied when following its rules.
- The reader must allow the discourse of the Qurʾān to influence the attitudes of the heart in its emotional states.
- The reader's understanding of the text must "ascend" such that one hears the word of God speaking in the Qurʾān and not one's own ego.
- The reader must attain "freedom" through understanding the Qurʾān from the limitations of personal effort and initiative in seeking the blessings and favor of God. (al-Ghazālī, vol. 1, pp. 280–288)
True reverence of the Qurʾān and awareness of God's will for humankind demands an approach that favors intellectual and spiritual inquiry over the mere memorization of the text and its explanatory traditions. Refuting a tradition in which the Prophet Muḥammad supposedly stated, "Whoever interprets the Qurʾān with his own opinion will find his seat in Hell," al-Ghazālī asks, "How can one possibly understand the Qurʾān without studying its interpretation?" Anyone who believes that the only way to understand the Qurʾān is through its superficial meaning has in fact limited the meaning of the word of God to the limitations of one's own understanding. Such a person is trapped in what modern scholars would call the "hermeneutical circle" of traditional knowledge (ʿilm al-naql), which literally "transports" text but not meaning. On the contrary, says al-Ghazālī, a complete and balanced knowledge of tradition would reveal that the ways to interpret the Qurʾān are wide for those who understand (al-Ghazālī, p. 289).
Every verse of the Qurʾān contains seventy thousand potential ways of understanding its text, because each Arabic word of the Qurʾān bears multiple, legitimate levels of meaning. Understanding this truism of Arabic hermeneutics is key to understanding the importance of the Qurʾān to Muslims. Even beyond the creedal confines of Islam, the Qurʾān has set the standard for Arabic language and literature as the highest expression and model for literary Arabic. Its style of storytelling, its similes, and its metaphors have shaped classical Arabic literature and have even influenced modern writers. It was the demand for absolute correctness in studying, writing, and reciting the Qurʾān that provided the basis for Arabic grammar and other linguistic sciences. Qurʾanic maxims and phrases have permeated all the languages of the Muslim world, and beautifully rendered Qurʾanic calligraphy graces the walls of mosques, schools, and the homes of the pious.
The Qurʾān is one of the most important bases of unity in a highly diverse Islamic civilization. Its impact on the life of Muslims may be summed up in a prayer attributed to ʿAli and intended to be offered at the completion of a Qurʾān recitation: "Oh God, relieve with the Qurʾān my breast; occupy with the Qurʾān my entire body; illumine with the Qurʾān my sight, and loosen the Qurʾān with my tongue. Grant me strength for this, so long as you allow me to remain alive, for there is neither strength nor power except in you" (Majlisi, vol. 89, p. 209).
The role of the Qurʾān in Muslim piety, although crucial to Islamic spirituality, has until recently been neglected in Western scholarship. More surprisingly, it has also been neglected in contemporary Muslim scholarship, where moral and political approaches to Islam have been considered more important. Since the late 1980s, however, the subject has begun to appear in the writings of Muslims, many of them converts to Islam, who live in Europe and the United States. Several recent introductions to Islam contain important discussions of the spiritual importance of the Qurʾān. Exegetical works that combine scholarly and personal approaches also have appeared, which include readings of the Qurʾān from the newly relevant perspectives of gender and social justice.
Premodern discussions of the importance of the Qurʾān in Muslim spiritual life are typically found in "Virtues of the Qurʾān" (fadaʾil al-Qurʾan ) literature. Such discussions are included in many works of Qurʾanic exegesis; see, for example the work by Ibn Kathir (d. 1373) titled Fadaʾil al-Qurʾan and appended to volume 7 of his Qurʾān commentary Tafsir al-Qurʾan al-ʿazim, Beirut, 1966. This literature also forms a part of major collections of tradition. See, for example, the chapter on fadaʾil al-ʾan in Sahih Bukhari, translated by Muḥammad Muhsin Khan, Translation of the Meanings of Sahih al-Bukhari, Beirut, 1979, volume 6.
The sources used for the present article are representative of these literary traditions. Muḥammad al-Qurtubi (d. 1273) was a noted Qurʾān commentator and jurist who lived and wrote in Egypt. Abū ʿAli ibn al-Hasan al-Tabarsi (d. 1153) was an important jurist of the Imāmī Shīʿī tradition, whose commentary is considered foundational to Shīʿī thought. Mulla Muḥammad Baqir al-Majlisi (d. 1699) was one of the most prolific Shīʿī traditionists. Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī was one of the most important theologians of Sunnī Islam. He was uniquely influential in setting the standards for Sunnī thought and practice in late medieval Islam.
Ayoub, Mahmoud M. The Qurʾan and its Interpreters, 2 vols. Albany, N.Y., 1984.
Chodkiewicz, Michel. An Ocean Without Shore: Ibn ʿArabi, the Book, and the Law. Albany, N.Y., 1993. This work discusses the meaning of the Qurʾān to the Spanish Ṣūfī and mystic Muhyiʾ al-Din Muḥammad ibn ʿArabi (d. 1240).
Eaton, Charles Le Gai. Islam and the Destiny of Man. Cambridge, U.K., 1994. See especially Chapter 4, "The World of the Book."
Esack, Farid. Qurʾan, Liberation, and Pluralism: An Islamic Perspective of Interreligious Solidarity Against Oppression. Oxford, 2002.
Ghazālī, Abū Ḥāmid al-. Ihyaʾ ʿulum al-din, 5 vols. Beirut, n.d. The material used in this article comes from Kitab adab tilawat al- Qurʾan, which is found in volume 1. Al-Ghazālī's approach to the Qurʾān is strongly influenced by Ṣūfī notions of piety.
Isutzu, Toshihiko. God and Man in the Koran: Semantics of the Koranic Weltanschauung. New York, 1980. This is a uniquely valuable study of the meaning of the Qurʾān to Muslims. It was written by a Buddhist scholar who was a pioneer of the academic tradition of Islamic Studies in Japan.
Majlisi, Mulla Muḥammad Baqir al-. Bihar al-anwar. 110 volumes. Beirut, 1983. See especially, volume 89, which discusses the Qurʾān and its virtues.
Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. Ideals and Realities of Islam. Chicago, 2000.
Qurtubi, Abu ʿAbd Allah Muḥammad al-. Al-Jamiʾ li ahkam al- Qurʾan. Cairo, 1966. See especially al-Qurtubi's introduction to this work.
Schuon, Frithjof. Understanding Islam. Bloomington, Ind., 1994. See especially the chapters entitled "Islam" and "The Qurʾān."
Tabarsi, Abu ʿAli al-Fadl ibn al-Hasan al-. Majmaʾ al-bayan fi tafsir al- Qurʾan. Cairo, 1958.
Wadud, Amina. Qurʾan and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman's Perspective. Oxford and New York, 1999.
Mahmoud M. Ayoub (1987)
Vincent J. Cornell (2005)