Reading the Qur’an Contemplatively
By Herman Roborgh
Growing up in a Christian environment, I never came across the Qur’an in my childhood. But this changed when I went to a Muslim country as a young adult to teach English. Having moved into a Muslim environment, I began to hear the regular call to prayer and to hear the sound of the Qur’an being chanted in the mosques. I became curious to know more about its message. Whenever I read the Qur’an in English, however, I wondered how this complex text was able to touch the hearts of so many people.
Every year, new translations of the Qur’an appear in English but none of them convey the power and the beauty of the original. Should I rely on a translation to discover the spiritual teaching of the Qur’an? Should I learn Arabic to appreciate its message? Perhaps a good commentary would help me to probe the depths of the Qur’an? But commentaries in English are hard to come by and also rather laborious to read. Another option was to find a group of friends with whom to read the text in a contemplative way.
Our Qur’an reflection group has been meeting regularly for over one year to ponder a passage from the Qur’an in English. We use the translation by M.A.S. Abdel Haleem (2005) as well as the translation by Maulana Wahiduddin Khan (2011). The group consists of three Christian men and three Christian women. We select and read a passage from the Qur’an without spending very much time consulting a commentary since we know that the Qur’an is addressed to all of humanity, not just to scholars.
Briefly, the group has adopted the following method. After spending a few minutes listening to a recording of the Qur’an being chanted in Arabic, a member of the group reads the selected passage aloud in English and we listen intently to each word. Next, we spend some minutes in complete silence, allowing a word or a phrase from the passage to draw our attention. After about ten minutes, we mention aloud the word or phrase that has caught our attention. The passage is read for the second time and another period of silence follows during which each person ponders the text more deeply. Eventually, the same passage is read for a third time and an opportunity for open sharing follows. So only after spending about forty-five minutes in silent reflection do we begin to share the results of our reflection in an open exchange with one another.
Christians are familiar with this method, which is called Lectio Divina. An Arabic word for the method may be taddabur (pondering, reflecting). But this Arabic word refers to an activity that is more rational and analytical than contemplative. A closer parallel with lectio divina may be the Muslim practice of dhikr Allah (the constant remembrance of God).
In order to read the Qur’an contemplatively, it is important to free oneself from myths and false concepts about the text. For instance, the word ‘God’ could be an obstacle for believers living in the secular world because the word has taken on negative connotations that distract from its true meaning. For example, God is commonly known in modern society as the punisher, the controller, the patriarch, the despot, etc. Society tends to forget that the language we use for God is allegorical and often anthropomorphic as well. God is not really ‘watching’ us from afar or ‘punishing’ us for our wrongdoing. Instead of oppressing people, God is actually providing new opportunities for frail and misguided human beings.
Reading the Qur’an contemplatively enables us to move beyond superficial stereotypes about words and concepts in the text. Contemplation will lead us to see that God is not just another being who is external and distant from human beings but that God is the very ground of our existence. As the Qur’an says:
God – there is no deity save Him, the Ever-Living, the Self-Subsistent Fount of All Being! (Surah Al-‘Imran , verse 2)
In another place, the Qur’an says:
Now, verily, it is We who have created man, and We know what his innermost self whispers within him: for We are closer to him than his neck-vein. (Surah Qaf , verse 16)
Contemplating verses like this shows us a God who is not oppressive and punishing but concerned for our well-being.
He it is who shapes you in the wombs as He wills. There is no deity save Him, the Almighty, the Truly Wise.
(Surah Al-‘Imran, , verse 6)
Contemplating the Qur’an also uncovers a multitude of connections with the Bible. Just one example will suffice:
It was you who created my inmost self and put me together in my mother’s womb; for all these mysteries I thank you: for the wonder of myself, for the wonder of your works. (Ps.139.13-14)
All these verses suggest that we cannot make sense of our human lives by trying to understand ourselves as separate from God, who reveals himself through everything within us and around us. As the Bible says: ‘In Him we live and move and have our being’ (Acts, 17.28). Human beings tend to think of God in a dualistic way as if God were living in a separate realm. To consider God as an object will lead us further away from the truth for we cannot objectify God in the way we normally objectify things around us. As Fazlur Rahman says in Major Themes of the Qur’an: ‘God is not an item among other items of the universe, or just an existent among other existents’. (Rahman, 1980, p. 4)
The Qur’an itself implies that ‘God-consciousness’ is not consciousness of an object among other objects for nothing is comparable to God (Q. 112.4). The Qur’an affirms that God’s ‘throne extends over the heavens and the earth’ (Q. 2.255), but Muslim theologians have not understood such language in a literal way. God is not sitting up there in the sky watching over us. A contemplative reading of the Qur’an will gradually dispel these false images of God. A hadith (Islamic tradition) known to all Muslims invites us to worship God as if we were able to see him.
Al-ihsan . . . is that you worship God as if you could see Him and if you see Him not, (know that) He sees you.
Seeing God does not mean that we are able to see God in the way we can see an object. A contemplative reading of this text will enable us to go beyond the literal meaning of words about God seeing us and invite us into God’s presence. In other words, by engaging in contemplation, a believer moves beyond trying to see God by means of external vision and enters into the vision of the heart through faith. A contemplative reading invites us into a deepening intimacy with God.
Yet sometimes even now, as I select the passage that our Qur’an reflection group will ponder at its next meeting, I wonder whether the passage will reveal its profound wisdom and enable us to go beyond the superficial meaning of the text. The language and content of the Qur’an can seem so alien to readers with a modern, rational mindset. For example, I am bewildered by passages like this:
God is severe in punishing. (Surah Al-‘Imran , verse 11)
God promises the Fire of Hell as a permanent home for the hypocrites, both men and women, and the disbelievers: this is enough for them. God rejects them and a lasting punishment awaits them. (Surah Al-Tawbah , verse 68)
Similar expressions appear on many pages of the Qur’an and tempt me to leap to conclusions about the meaning of a verse even before I have devoted much time to a contemplative reading of it. My rational mind will take control and will attempt to figure out logical and conceptual difficulties in the language. However, I now know from experience that to read the Qur’an with a rational, critical frame of mind will leave the reader unmoved and dissatisfied. A contemplative reading of the Qur’an, on the contrary, can open up completely new dimensions.
In short, I would summarize the method of reading the Qur’an contemplatively as follows:
· Form a small group of women and men, not just of men.
· For a few minutes, listen to the Qur’an chanted in the Arabic language.
· Read the English translation of a selected passage several times in a group, with a period of silence between each reading.
· Listen to the words contemplatively, with the heart, rather than deriving the meaning from scholarly commentaries.
· Allow the text to speak to one’s own situation instead of trying to imagine the circumstances in which the text was revealed.
· Search for the meaning of the passage as a group by listening intently to what other members of the group have to say.