[In the summer of 2008, the National Post newspaper in an ongoing series — Four, Fourteen, Forty … Forever, asked its contributors to weigh in on the best books to read to young children, to nourish one’s intellect during the formative teenage years, to sustain readers in middle age and to provide succor in life’s final stages. This piece was my contribution to that series. Read and reflect.]
My earliest memory of a book is a pirated reprint of nursery rhymes and a Jack and the Beanstalk pop-up book that Uncle Joe D’souza had given as a birthday present. Then there was a treasured Tarzan comic I stole from cousin Ayaz.
But in terms of a real book, a book with a hard cover and a spine, it was the Quran. Long before I got to touch, let alone read the book, it had already become part of my existence. I am told, within an hour of my birth, my father had recited a verse of the Quran into my infant ears. Mum claimed I stopped my wailing as soon as Dad had done so.
Today, Muslims worldwide welcome Ramadan, the Islamic calendar’s holiest month, marking the time when, 14 centuries ago, the Prophet Muhammad (may peace be upon him) received the first verse of the Quran from God. The Archangel Gabriel approached the Apostle, who was meditating in a cave, and commanded him to “Read.” As Muhammad hesitated, the archangel persisted, as described in Sura 96 of the Quran:
Read in the name of your Lord who created —
From an embryo, created the human
Read, for your Lord is most Generous
Who taught by the pen
Taught man what he knew not …
They were words that changed the course of human history.
21 Aug 2009
By the time I was four, this book had me intrigued. Every morning, I would wake up to the soft chant of my mother reciting verses in Arabic. Gentle whispers that flowed like silken rhymes through our Karachi home, uplifting the morning breeze. It was as if my ears literally tasted sweet honey, nudging me to wake up and lap up some more. No other sound has given me as much solace and warmth as the hum of a Quranic recitation.
Even today, as a hardened secularist, bruised and battered by never-ending skirmishes with my Islamist naysayers, I am still captivated by the reverberation of the Quran. For reasons unexplainable, if I hear the recitation, I have to stop what I am doing, often tearing up, embarrassed that I cannot rationalize the magical grip this sound has on my soul.
Back in the early 1950s, it would still be dark outside when Mom’s soft recitation of the Quran would be gently drowned by the neighbourhood mosque’s call to Morning Prayer. Through the open windows as half curtains fluttered, the voice of the Maulana would traverse through our home, gently nudging me out of sleep.
“Haia al salaah … Haia al falah… As salatus khairum minan naum…”
(Hasten to prayer … hasten to success … prayer is better than sleep…)
Memories are foggy, but I do remember being by my Mum’s side, as she would resume the reading of the Quran after her Fajr prayers. As she would sway back and forth, murmuring the verses, the book itself appeared huge as it lay open on a wooden holder, the rihal. Golden edged pages, leather spine with a green satin ribbon that was wedged tightly between those majestic pages.
I would pull at it and she would give a tight slap on the back of my hand. Her devotion to the Quran was absolute. I remember in later years, Dad would get upset, as no one was allowed to speak other than in whispers in its presence — and she would shush him as he would fidget with the shortwave radio trying to catch early-morning Radio Ceylon and sing along with K. L. Saigal and Pankaj Mullick, before he went to work.
Bollywood had to wait; Jamila Fatah was reading the Quran.
In those years, Dad never prayed more than once a year, to celebrate the end of Ramadan. She, on the other hand, prostrated herself toward Mecca five times a day.
When she was done with the daily recitation, Mum would then call us kids, one by one, touch our heads, and lightly blow into our faces. Through her loving breath and caress, the magical holy verses were supposed to bless us and protect us.
To the non-Muslim, the dedication of the ordinary Muslim to the Quran is perplexing. Whether it is a Uighur in Xingjian or a Sufiin Mexico City, be it an orthodox cleric in Toronto or a secular humanist in Tehran, the Muslim will treasure his or her Quran as if it was a member of the family, not just a holy book. The Quran is, for some, the very embodiment of God himself.
AT AGE FOUR
For the four-year-old Muslim child, a verse from Sura four (entitled An-Nisa, or “Women”) is the most appropriate. Parents should take particular care to read to their kids, again and again, verse 135, which will instill in the child an ethic that could become their moral compass for the rest of their life — the ethic of speaking the truth, no matter what.
O you who believe!
Stand firmly in upholding equity
Bearing witness to the truth for the sake of God
Even though it be against your own selves
Or your parents and near relatives
Whether the person concerned is rich or poor
For God can best protect both.
Mum might have felt that she did too good a job instilling this verse in me. As we passed through Canada Customs all those many years ago, we were asked: “Do you have any jewellery to declare.” She said, “No.” Whereupon, I whispered in her ear, “Yaa ayyuhalladhina, ammanu …” (O you who believe…) She hesitated, and then told the Canada Customs agent, “Oh yes, I forgot, I have a 24-carat gold necklace.”
AT AGE FOURTEEN
By the time a Muslim reaches the age of 14, he or she would have completed reading the Quran, but few understand what they have read. This is the age where youth should incorporate the values of pluralism and universality that they can find expressed in the holy book of Islam, rather than fall prey to the forces of segregation and exclusivity.
To Muslims in high school, especially in the West, verse 62 of the second Sura of the Quran. (Al-Baqarah, or “The Cow”) should be their guiding light as they navigate through the competing influences offered by a multiracial and multi-religious liberal democracy.
Those who believe [in the Quran].
And those who are Jews,
And the Christians and the Sabians,
And whoever believes in God,
And the last day [of judgment]
And do good deeds,
They shall have their reward with their Lord
And no fear need they have,
Nor should they grieve.
AT AGE FORTY
The number 40 has a special mystical significance in Islam. The Prophet was 40 when he received the first revelation from God. The Quran makes mention of this in Sura 46:15 when it says, “At length when he reaches the age of full strength and attains 40 years.” The most respected translator of the Quran, A. Yusuf Ali, says the Quran suggests a human’s “spiritual faculties gain the upper hand after the age of 40.”
For those who have “gained that upper hand,” here is some wisdom from the Almighty that may help you navigate through our troubled times. Here is verse 13 of Sura Al-Hujurat ( “The Private Apartments”):
O mankind. We created you,
From a single pair
Of a male and a female,
And made you into
Nations and Tribes, so that
You may come to know one another
(Not that you may despise each other).
Verily, the most honoured among you,
In the sight of God
Is the one who is most Righteous of you.
And God has full knowledge
And is well acquainted with all things.
As I approach 60, and on the last leg of my journey of life, I am drawn back to the beauty of two particular Suras. One is the very first Sura of the Quran, the Fatiha, literally “The Opening.” It reads:
In the name of God, the beneficent, the merciful.
Praise be to God, Lord of the worlds,
The beneficent, the merciful, Master of the Day of Judgment.
You alone we worship, and You alone we ask for help.
Guide us on the right path,
The path of those upon whom You have bestowed your favour,
not of those who have earned Your anger, nor of those who go astray.
Over centuries, hundreds of millions of little boys and girls have memorized these seven sentences as their gateway to Islam and as the foundation of their lives as Muslims. The Fatiha is to Muslims what the Lord’s Prayer would be to Christians. These seven verses constitute the Muslim prayer for guidance and are repeated at least 32 times a day.
As the scholar Michael Sells points out, “It is the most recited of all Quranic Suras, not only in prayers and liturgy, but also in everyday life. After business transactions, for example, ‘The Opening’ is recited by both parties as a mark of good faith and a solemn affirmation of the responsibilities affirmed by each partner.”
From the most orthodox conservative Muslims to secular liberals such as myself, the word Bismillah… (In the name of God…) is part of our psyche. I have witnessed hardened communists start their meetings asking “comrades” to come to order with the expression Bismillah.
The other Sura that comforts me as I approach the dusk of life is Sura 89, Al-Fajr, “The Dawn.” Rather than explain its significance, I will merely quote from it — and let readers understand its significance for themselves.
By the dawn
By the nights ten
By the odd and the even
By the night as it eases away
Considering all this -could there be to anyone, endowed with reason
A[more] solemn evidence of the truth?
Tarek Fatah is the author of Chasing a Mirage: The Tragic Illusion of an Islamic State (Wiley 2008). He is currently working on a book about the roots of Jewish-Muslim friction that will be launched in fall 2010 by McClelland & Stewart.