The pristine Qur’ān sits on the highest shelf in your home – its spine smooth and rounded with shining, elegant, gold-foiled calligraphy, and out of the corner of your eye you see it sparkle when the declining afternoon sun hits it just right. It’s a perfect Instagram post and the aesthetic value is undeniable, but unfortunately it is more or less equivalent to a piece of tinfoil that glimmers for all that it is benefiting you. The Qur’ān that remains on a bookshelf is serving nobody except the spiders that weave their webs in the slight openings between pages, or the ants that march down the cover in search of an afternoon snack.
Are We Connected to the Qur’an?
The word of God is an eternal challenge to humanity: will you listen to, engage, and struggle to embody My guidance? The Qur’ān’s dynamic purpose is not in hushed or rushed meaningless chanting, but instead in its slow, thoughtful, and deep engagement with individual and collective hearts and minds. Its purpose is found through repetition, letting it wash over you in every season, every stage of life, and every state of being. This intellectual and emotional engagement is what softens the heart, clarifies the mind, and motivates the limbs to action.
This rosy picture, however, obscures the struggle of engaging with God’s word: facing the original Arabic as a non-Arabic speaker, parsing obscure translations in archaic English, stumbling on ideas that challenge our sensibilities and test the limits of our intellects and imaginations. There can be many barriers to entry for a believer who has been told that the Qur’ān is a book whose meaning is obscure and out of reach, except to those with extensive training, fluency in Classical Arabic, and/or scholarly
Once we move past the simple aesthetic value of the Qur’ān and begin to engage with its content, we are often hit with a crisis of confidence. What does God really mean by this? What am I supposed to do with this verse? Does it really apply to me, here and now? When I feel unsure about what God is saying, can I trust my understanding or interpretation? If I don’t feel a strong emotional reaction to what God is saying (especially fear, anger, rejection, or disgust), does that make me a bad Muslim?
Usually, when we get overwhelmed by this type of emotional reaction, we begin to think, “Perhaps it is better I close the Qur’ān and just focus on being a good person. I should just skip my own intellectual struggle and just find an expert to explain everything to me.” At this point, you will put the Qur’ān back up on the shelf and turn instead to one of the numerous books available to teach you how to read the Qur’ān: from the phonetic nuances of tajwīd, to Arabic grammar, to academic overviews, to endless commentaries, to summaries of certain surahs, to books that explain the legal implications of particular verses in conversation with ḥadīth literature. It feels safer to start with someone else’s explanation of the Qur’ān than to venture into its content alone with your thoughts, in a vulnerable space with God. But even with so many books available, we can become overwhelmed with the many purposes in reading the Qur’ān.
Instead of engaging the Qur’ān directly, we jump from one scholarly discipline to another, getting piecemeal grammar lessons, disconnected and irrelevant tafsīr, and abstract social commentary written for a wholly different time, place, culture, and context. Our own direct engagement with the Qur’ān slowly diminishes out of discomfort, fear, and fatigue, so we resort to only the perfection of tajwīd, moving the Qur’ān from our hearts and minds to only our tongues.
Qualitative vs. Quantitative Engagement With the Quran
Yet still we hear the call to “read the Qur’ān” daily, and especially in the month of Ramaḍān. In order to meet this expectation or requirement, we engage the Qur’ān in the most superficial way possible in order to check the item off the list without investing our minds, without struggling with our emotions or coming to God’s guidance with a vulnerable heart humbly seeking guidance.
This is because we usually only hear about the quantitative discipline involved in reading the Qur’ān: how many verses, pages, or juz’ did you recite per day? How many times did you finish the Qur’ān during the month of Ramaḍān? How many ayāt did yo recite during how many rak’āt of Tarawīḥ?
What we rarely hear about it is the qualitative discipline necessary for engaging the Qur’ān: How much of God’s guidance did I actually understand? How much of it will I actually remember even a few hours from now? How much do I feel confident applying in my life? How many questions did my reading inspire? How much effort did I expend in reflecting or researching meanings and applications of God’s guidance? Did I experience or build a community of Qur’ān readers around me? Could I explain this to a close non-Muslim friend or family member? Would I be able to explain this to a new convert who is hungry to understand God’s word? Do I understand it enough to let the Qur’ān influence how I see the world or make decisions today?
This qualitative practice is the starting point I suggest for Qur’ān journaling. Once we shift our mindset to see the Qur’ān primarily as a book of content, our minds will likely explode with questions. When we keep in mind that the Qur’ān is not a one-time read through, it becomes a book that benefits us from every read through, every glance, and from every angle.
The Qur’ān Journaling Starter Pack
What do you need to begin Qur’ān journaling? All you need is a piece of paper and a writing instrument. If you’re not so much into the pen-and-paper journaling, you can open up a word document and use stylistic fonts and clip art, or you can start recording voice notes of your reflections and questions. Again, without getting caught up in the aesthetics, your Qur’ān journaling is primarily about keeping a record of your reflections, questions, and growth. You can include questions and your conversation with God. When God speaks to us through the Qur’ān, we can speak back to Him through our duʿās. “O God, ya Allāh, I didn’t understand this verse” and/or “this concept is really challenging for me, please guide me towards the best understanding and the best application. I want to be guided and to live my life according to your guidance, but I am scared/angry/confused by what I am reading.”
“Do they not contemplate the [meaning of the] Qur’ān? Or are there locks on their hearts?” [Surah Muḥammad:24]
As we explored earlier, there are many locks that Shayṭān attempts to put on our hearts when we read the Qur’ān: the fear of misunderstanding, the confusion by strong emotional reactions to what God says, feelings of inadequacy to approach the text, and desire to check out from facing Revelation head-on. We can slowly begin to unlock our hearts when we turn to God, knowing that God also turns back to us, confident that the more we engage with sincerity, the more we will love the Qur’ān and in turn receive from it. Taking notes and engaging the Qur’ān thoughtfully are part of the effort that goes into being a person of faith. We also can take comfort in the strength of our hearts and minds as humans: while the Qur’ān is a weighty book that challenges us and God tells us that mountains of stone would be humbled by it1, ultimately it is through remembering God that our hearts find solace.2
The two best resources for further reading are Khurram Murad’s book ‘Way to the Qur’ān’ and Mamnun Khan’s PDF “Learning how to be guided by the Qur’ān.” I personally recommend the “Qur’ān Overview” program this Ramaḍān. You may find Qur’ānic journaling and Islamic planning materials at my Etsy shop DhikrSticker.
MuslimMatters and DhikrSticker have designed a mini Ramadan planner and Qur’an journal for free download and use, just for our readers! You can download your own journal and mini planner here.
Source: Muslim Matters