Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Quran: Part II--For New Readers and Readers Anew

A boy holds candy in his hand as he reads the Quran in a mosque during Ramadan, in Amman, Jordan on August 22, 2009. (REUTERS/Ali Jarekji (JORDAN RELIGION SOCIETY IMAGES OF THE DAY)[Boston.com]

One of the special acts of piety during Ramadan is to read the entire Qur'an over the month. This may be accomplished privately or communally during Tarawih prayers at the mosque. As a guide, the Quranic surat are divided into 30 parts for daily readings, each part or juz' being of approximately equal length. Each juz' is subdivided into 2 groups, or azhab (pl), and each group, or hizb (s), is further divided into quarters. The 30th juz', the "Juz' Amma" is perhaps the best known, as it is the first one taught to children, and is the most commonly memorized, read during regular prayers, and referenced. It is comprised of the last and shortest surat of the Qur'an: 78-114.

A more intense way to read the whole Qur'an is over the course of a week, reading one manzil (s) or ~1/7 of the Qur'an each day. The manazil (pl) are thus of roughly equal length. Each is comprised of complete surah: I 1-4; II 5-9; III 10-16; IV 17-25; V 26-36; VI 37-49; VII 50-114. The number of surat increases because the later surat are shorter, so that it is the ayat and total words which are roughly equal in each manzil.

The juz' and manazil follow the traditional ordering of the surah as presented in the Quran. Another way to read is to read the Qur'an by the chronological ordering of the surah as they were revealed, first those as they were revealed in Makkah and then those as they were revealed in Madinah. Some may even with to read in numerical order beginning with the shortest surat first and progressing to longer ones. An alphabetical ordering by surah name is provided here, perhaps for quick reference.


The Quran may be read for different levels of understanding, both literal and metaphorical. There is a rich history of Quranic explication (tafsir) and exegesis (ta'wil), just as there is for other holy books. Which tafsir and ta'wil one chooses to read will colour one's understanding, but hopefully increase comprehension, and ultimately allow for better understanding.

Also, like other holy books, one might describe the literary genre of the Quran as an epic in prose poetry form. Multiple repetitions, rhyming, and repeating motifs aid in learning and memorization. This is particularly important for those who are unable to read, as many have been over the course of human history, and as many continue to be in a number of nations.


A thematic reading of the Qur'an would follow all the surat and ayat on a particular Quranic figure, or historical, political or social theme. An index to the Quran will provide these by topic, and serve as a guide. Such an index, which is included in some printed texts, and most often in online texts or applications, can be a useful guide at any point to learn or to be a reminder of the Quranic perspective on a particular topic, eg. covering, marriage and divorce, children, charity, etc.

Non-Muslims, particularly those familiar with the Torah and the Bible, may find it easiest to read following a concordance of Biblical narratives, as they appear at different points within the usual ordering of the Qur'an. One may thus follow the narrative arc of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, and appreciate the similarities and differences with the Biblical accountings. Or one may choose on which Quranic narration of Biblical narratives to focus, perhaps in conjunction with major events in the liturgical calendar, or in the Islamic calendar. For example, one might read the story of Abraham/ Ibrahim and his son who was to be sacrificed and then spared, specifically during Eid Al-Adha which is the celebration of the event.

Some recommend to begin with Surah 3 Al-i-Imran (the Family of Imran) as it recapitulates the chronology of the Bible and of the Prophets from Adam to Jesus/Isa. I often recommend Surah 19 Maryam, for those interested in beginning to read the Quran; and especially at Christmas time for those interested in an interfaith perspective. In fact, Al-i-Imran followed by Maryam would be a good combination.


Finally, well written children's sources, or following the readings as usually taught to children, are good ways to familiarize oneself with the Qur'an. In a way, this corresponds to some pedagogical approaches to bilingualism which aim to imitate the experience of learning a language as a child acquires it.

For non-Arabic speakers, or those whose mastery of Arabic is not yet sufficient, numerous translations exist, which would provide for better comprehension until one is able to read the original Arabic sufficiently well. Many of these translations are available online, and may be compared simultaneously, including against the Arabic original, or transliterated Arabic. Some translations are more respected than others for their accuracy.


In other instances the choice of translation may be a preference for the style of language used, whether more traditional, like that of Yusuf Ali, or more contemporary Shakir. This is similar to choosing between the King James Version of the Bible and the American Standard.

A Kenyan child reads verses from the Quran on the fifth day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in a Madrassa in Nairobi, Kenya on Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2009. (AP Photo/Sayyid Azim) [Boston.com]

While a very simple overview, this post was meant to give some ideas to those new to the Qur'an, and to those wishing to consider reading in a different manner. Other posts will elaborate on some of the aspects raised here, and on different ones.

Related Post
The Quran: Part I--The Revelation of the Recitation (Ramadan 610-632); A Book of Revelations

Your comments, thoughts, impressions, advice, experiences?

2 comments:

Susanne said...

I read a translation of the Quran earlier this year and enjoyed seeing what was similar and different than the Bible's accounts/teachings. One conclusion I reached about halfway through was that the Quran surely did like the story of Moses and pharaoh! :)

Thanks for the informative post!

Chiara said...

Susanne-thank you for your comment, and for sharing your experience. As you are probably aware, in Islam there are a number of prophets, and Musa/Moses, and Isa/Jesus are held in especially high regard along with the final Prophet/Messenger Mohamed. The first brought the Law to the Jewish people, and the second Love (and forgiveness) to the Christians, while the Prophet Mohamed brought the message of Submission. All 3 messages are for the Muslims, indeed for all 3 Abrahamic faiths though the Jews and Christians have not embraced Islam. Thanks again for sharing your experience and perception! :)

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