Embodying Sacred Texts

by Jawad Anwar Qureshiquershi

In his exceptional study of West African Quran schools, The Walking Qur’an, Rudolph Ware describes Islamic learning as follows:

“Islamic knowledge was being transmitted as much through bodily practices as mere words. This focus on bodily transmission of religious ideas expresses as understanding of knowledge as a thing that inheres in the body. What it meant “to know” in the context of Senegambian Qur’an schooling differed dramatically from what it meant for contemporary Westerners. Knowing was produced as much by the limbs as by the mind. Imitation of the teacher’s gestures and comportment was as much part of the educative process as the texts that one was required to read. Memorization of texts allowed for a person possession of the Word in the body, without requiring recourse to a written source external to the self. The people were the books, just as the Prophet was the Walking Qur’an. Islamic knowledge was embodied knowledge.” (The Walking Qur’an, p. 49)

What Ware is highlighting is that people of different faiths relate to their scriptures in unique ways. Not all religious traditions emphasize direct access to the discursive aspect of scripture through translations into the vernacular of a community. For many religious traditions, the language of scripture is usually foreign and incomprehensible, yet despite this, there is still often an intense relationship to these texts. One of the challenges that I face when teaching the Qur’an is considering how to teach the ways in which Muslims relate to their scripture. In addition to the discursive ways in which the Qur’an shapes Islamic normative traditions of theology, law, and ethics, the study of the Qur’an by Muslims through memorization and recitation shapes Muslim subjectivity in a pre-discursive fashion. How does one draw attention to this in the classroom?

The exercise I came up with is to have students in my Qur’an class memorize a portion of the Qur’an. Not the English translation, but the original Arabic. To set up this exercise and to introduce this problem, I first screen the documentary Koran by Heart, which follows the story of three young Muslim children as they compete in a competition for Qur’anic memorization and recitation in Cairo. The children are from different Muslim countries and none of them speak Arabic—Rifdha is a young girl from the Maldives, Nabiollah a young boy from Tajikistan, and Djamil is from Senegal. While the movie touches on many aspects of contemporary Islam and the tensions therein, the key feature that it draws attention to for my purposes is the value that Muslims place on the memorization and recitation of the Qur’an, with little concern for exegesis.

As further set up for this exercise, we spend some time considering the soundscape of qur’anic recitation as discussed by Michael Sells in his Approaching the Qur’an. Sells dedicates two chapters to introducing the soundscape of short surahs and also includes an audio CD that has various recitations of the same passages. Sells’ work opens up the affective aspects of the Qur’an through focusing on sound. Additionally, and what makes this exercise possible, he includes a transliteration and close phonetic analysis of select surahs.

With this set up, I have the students carry out their own Qur’anic study by memorizing one of the chapters that Sells studies. The chapter that I use is surat al-Qadar (Q. 97). This is one of the shortest chapters of the Qur’an and consists of merely five verses, just over thirty words in all, with some repetition. The verses read (Haleem’s translation):

We sent it down on the Night of Glory.

What will explain to you what that Night of Glory is?

The Night of Glory is better than a thousand months;

On that night the angels and the Spirit descend again and again with their Lord’s permission on every task;

peace that night until the break of dawn!

Using the transliteration provided by Sells as well as the audio recordings (I also give them certain YouTube videos of the surah as well), I set the students on the task of memorizing this short surah. The objective is not to learn what the Arabic means, nor even to focus on the translation, but rather to open questions about this widespread Muslim practice. I start by having students consider how they memorize things. Were there any particular body practices (rocking back and forth, or sideways) that they employed? Did they recite aloud as they repeated the words, or silently? Did they listen to the recordings as they memorized, or did they rely on reading out the transliteration? How did they work on their pronunciation of some of the difficult Arabic letters? More importantly, how is this different from the other ways in which they learn at the university?

(If there were some form of a Qur’an school nearby, I would also have students visit for a day as participant-observers for greater effect.)

With these questions in mind, I wrap up this exercise by reading sections from Ware’s book, The Walking Qur’an, expanding on different modes of embodiment beyond memorization and recitation, and what this means epistemologically.

The point of the exercise is to move away from—if even for a short period—from what thinking about what the text says to draw attention to how one relates to the text. This is done through drawing attention to the affective and embodied aspects of how Muslims relate to the Qur’an, through sound, recitations, memorization, and the attendant body practices. The focus on the body as it relates to sacred texts is not in opposition to the discursive aspects of those texts but to think about this perhaps as a condition for undertaking a particular form of discursive study related to Muslim subjectivity.



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