Alija Izetbegović (1925-2003)
Translator's note: In this wonderful reflection, the former president of Bosnia and Herzegovina shares his views on how to read the Qur'an. He was not a graduate of an Islamic seminary or a madrasah. Instead, he offers his views on the Qur'an as a well-educated lay intellectual. It shows that, sometimes, having no technical knowledge of Arabic and the Qur'anic disciplines is not a barrier to understanding the Qur'an. One could argue that it liberates a person from the conventions set by the disciplinary boundaries and traditional approaches. Such reading carries certain risks, but it also allows a deeper personal journey into the depth of the Qur'anic meanings. ES
During my life, I have read the Qur’an many times, but I have never really asked myself: how should the Qur’an be read? Your question made me think about it, and here I will present some of my thoughts as they come to me.
Before anything else, it should be kept in mind that the Qur’an is the whole. No Qur’anic verse, when taken out of its context, is the whole truth but the part of that truth. Only the Qur’an (as a whole) is a complete and intact truth. Quoting individual verses is an inescapable activity, but we should always be aware of the limitations of this approach. It is like a mosaic. A black or a red tile only gets its full meaning in the full composition. Taken out of it, they contribute little or nothing to paint the picture which they form. To explain this, I will give a few examples.
One Qur’anic verse prescribes retribution, an eye for an eye (al-Baqara, 179), while another calls for forgiveness. One verse says: “Do not hold as unlawful the good things which Allah has made lawful to you” (Al-Ma’ida, 87), while another advises: “Do not turn your eyes covetously towards the embellishments of worldly life” (Taha, 131). A superficial reader would think there are contradictions in the Qur’an. This is not the case. On the contrary, this is about something that constitutes precisely the highest and exclusive quality of the Qur’an and Islam: the synthesis of these seemingly contradictory demands. The Qur’an does not want one of the two; it wants both. It does not want only retribution, it wants forgiveness too. Likewise, it does not want only this world or the next, never only one. People who would always only punish, even if justly, would not be true Muslims, because they did not forgive. But those who would always forgive, and not repel evil, would not be true Muslims either. True Muslims are those who know the measure of both things.
The aforementioned conclusions, as we have seen, can only be possibly derived from the Qur’an as a whole, not from individual verses read separately. I believe this is the only method that helps us to gradually elevate ourselves to the full meaning of Islam and the essence of its message.
The second rule of reading the Qur’an could be written as: read the Qur’an always anew, with some pause in between. This method will help in discovering that which could be called the “layering” in the Qur’an. Every reading will discover in the Qur’an something new. The Qur’an of course stayed the same, but something else changed: you have changed, or your situation, or the world in which you live. These changes make it possible to discover in the Qur’an a new layer which you have not noticed before, while some verses, which you have glossed over previously, now echo in your soul in a new way. Everyone can find this out. I will, as an example, give a few instances from my own experience.
When as a young man, a while ago, I read the Qur’an, I often paused at the verses that talked about work, struggle, and justice. A small notebook from that time is a witness to this. By chance, it survived, and it’s filled with such excerpts from the Qur’an. I remember it well, being impressed as a young man with the verse that talks about resisting tyranny. In one place, talking about the believers, the Qur’an describes them – among other things – as those who “whenever tyranny afflicts them, defend themselves.” (Al-Shura, 39). I remember citing this verse gladly on every occasion. Today, however, I am more attracted to the verses that talk about God, the relativity of life, even its passing. In other words, the verses that guide to meditation, not to action. I remember how I was deeply struck by the Qur’anic verse that talks about God as the only reality that cannot pass: “All will perish except His Face.” (Al-Qasas, 88). God, therefore, is the One who was before the stars and who will remain after them. He is the Only and True Reality.
When my mother passed away, and while the pain in my soul was still fresh, I would happily open that page in the Qur’an which had these beautiful sentences: “O serene soul! Return to your Lord well-pleased, well-pleasing. So enter among My servants and enter My Paradise.” (Al-Fajr, 27-30). Although these verses drew me to tears, they also provided the best consolation. I thought then: what better words of solace can be said by a person who had to see the face of his/her dead child? The Qur’an is, then, in one instance the law and the battle cry, and in another the consolation for the inescapable sufferings of this world. In one situation we will notice one aspect, in another a different one.
This discovery of different “layers” or tones of the Qur’an which is contingent on the personal situation of each individual applies to the community life too. In that sense, we are speaking about the special topicality of some Qur’anic verses. Where racism is rampant, a special meaning would be assigned to the verses that talk about the common human origin, therefore equality of all humans (for instance, the first verse of the Surah al-Nisa’, the fourth chapter). Where religious violence and exclusivism are prevalent, we need to emphasize that biting three-word [technically, four] verse: “(There is) No compulsion in religion.” (al-Baqara, 256) We, Muslims, do not distinguish among the Qur’anic verses, but it is almost a consensus among the non-Muslims that this verse which we just cited is the most elevated in the Qur’an. It would be possible to expand on this but it goes beyond the limits of this short essay. When we talk about reading the Qur’an, we should mention something about the special type of reading: that which we usually call recitation, i.e., recitation or listening to the Arabic original.
Some people do not assign a special value to this type of “reading,” because most of us do not understand it. I have to say I do not agree with this opinion. I can’t help but to recall at this moment an event I would never forget. A few years ago I had an opportunity to attend a conference dedicated to the issues in Islamic revival. During the conference, which was held in a large European city, a good number of recognized ‘ulama (scholars of Islam) presented their ideas about the issues related to the religious and other types of Islamic renewal. Every day, the proceedings would begin and end with the recitation of a portion of the Qur’an, recited by one of the world-renown hafiz (the one who memorized the whole Qur’an in Arabic). Although the people were attentive during the proceedings, you could still feel the presence of the masses (several hundreds of people): some whisper, the chair noise, rattling of papers, and so on.
But when a hafiz would start with the Qur’anic recitation, everything would quiet down, until – a few moments later – there would be dead silence. In the pauses made by the reciter, you could not hear a noise. It seemed like nobody was breathing. It is the type of silence when people can hear the regular beating of their hearts. The Qur’an coming out of the mouth of this hafiz would sound like a flowing river. At times, it was silent, at others it transformed into a loud waterfall, which threatened to take over and take you away. The pinnacle of this experience was during the last day of the proceedings, when a hafiz decided to grant us a special gift, as a farewell. That time he recited the wonderful sura al-Rahman, known for its beauty and composition. I believe I can’t fully describe that moment. I did not know the meaning of this chapter (except that one sentence which is repeated again and again [“so which of the favors of your Lord would you (two) deny”]), but I felt like I knew it, me, and everyone else. After this recitation, I felt immeasurably closer to everyone else and it seemed like everyone wanted to tell everyone else: can’t you see, we’re all brothers!
Never, after this experience, would I question the value of public recitation or listening to the Arabic Qur’an. Every true Muslim understands the Qur’an, in one way or another.
I want to conclude this short exposition with the thought that reading the Qur’an is like traveling through known and unknown lands. Two people pass the same route. One is full of impressions, the other feels like he passed through it with closed eyes. That depends on them, not on the landscapes and cities they traversed. Therefore, everyone will find in the Qur’an his/her worth.