For some of us, our journey began with the Qur’an. I was an agnostic in my first year at university when I bought my first translation. It was a paperback Penguin Classic edition entitled, The Koran, translated by N J Dawood. An overseas student from Pakistan did not approve, because Mr Dawood was Jewish, but I worked my way through it none the less. Verses here and there I now find underlined in black biro ink or faint pencil: sometimes a passage that must have seemed significant at the time, sometimes words that repulsed me, causing alarm.
I later replaced that translation with a compact copy of The Meaning of the Holy Qur’an by Abdullah Yusuf Ali, printed in absolutely tiny type on seventeen hundred pages of hair-thin, semi-translucent paper, and accompanied by copious footnotes in even tinier type. It was hardly a comfortable reading experience, but my eyes were better then, and as a desperate agnostic in search of meaning I persevered.
I don’t know that I ever read either translation from cover to cover in those early days of exploration. I do recall particular verses reigniting my belief in God as my studies grew more serious during my second year at university. I responded by joining for a very brief time an evangelical cult that met close to my student flat. When, eventually, I found myself professing belief, it was not having read and considered every single word or verse. Back then, a scattering of verses were enough for me, convincing me to accept the whole by virtue of association.
One such passage is found in the seventy-fifth chapter of the Qur’an, surah Al-Qiyamah — the Resurrection — which struck me at the time with such intensity that I felt compelled to respond without delay:
“I swear by the Day of Resurrection. And I swear by the reproaching soul. Does man think that We will not assemble his bones? Yes. We are able even to restore his fingertips. But man desires to continue in sin.” — Qur’an 75:1-5
And so it was: immediately after the early May Bank Holiday weekend nineteen and a half years ago, I counted myself amongst those who believe. I had found in the Qur’an some of what I was looking for and started out along this road, negotiating the competing and confusing directions of friends, acquaintances and adversaries. I was now a Muslim, no longer an agnostic; no longer an I-don’t-knower; all of a sudden open to every idea passed off as belonging to the whole.
I had come to this point by way of the Qur’an — by reflecting on its verses rendered into English — but now, having arrived here, the Book found itself subordinate to the demands of becoming a Muslim, and the right kind of Muslim at that. In the company of fervent Salafis, many a devoted disciple learns to embrace Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim as knowledge comparable to the Qur’an. Hadith now take the place of the verses that brought the new believer to this juncture, but he is too overwhelmed to notice.
In the company of Traditionalists, meanwhile, scholars repeatedly proclaim that only the qualified are permitted to interpret the Qur’an; that it is not for the masses to take meanings from it as they please. Though the new believer could not possibly have reached this juncture without reading the verses of the Book, he now retreats, placing it back on the shelf, allowing others to define the religion on his behalf. Recite it — yes of course, and the rules of recitation are everywhere taught — but do not be of those who become misguided by reading a clear book with your own intellects.
It never occurs to the new believer, who came to this juncture by way of the Qur’an, that he may have become of those who have forsaken the book of guidance.
“And the Messenger has said, ‘O my Lord, indeed my people have taken this Qur’an as a thing abandoned.'” — Qur’an 25:30
But in recent times, this is precisely the thought that recurs within. Verses of the Qur’an brought me this way — not all of them, but some — convincing me that God exists, that we will be held to account, that revelation is possible, that we will be resurrected on an awesome day, the like of which is fifty thousand years. In recent years I have tried to return to the Qur’an — as much as I am able to with my deficient language skills. I have bought yet another English translation, to add to my burgeoning collection, already swelling with multiple renderings.
I try to read and reflect, but in truth I often wrestle with it, or it wrestles with me. My companions who recite it daily with beautiful tajweed, yet do not understand a word, look upon me as a heathen. They are absolutely certain and unshakable. Sometimes I admire that, sometimes it drives me mad. It is a lonely road. They find comfort in their recitation, and I do too when it is handled with care, by a reciter who respects what he is reading. But these words carry meaning, intended to be understood, so I try as best I can to understand.
When faced with obstacles I say to myself: I will return to this later. Or: perhaps the true meaning has been lost in translation; and in those cases I try to listen to the verse in Arabic to hear how it sounds. Be patient, I tell myself: take your time. It is hard, for I am not sure how to approach this book. Whether to read it from start to finish, like an ordinary book, or to choose chapters and verses at random.
Sometimes its verses speak to me directly and profoundly. Sometimes I feel that it is rebuking me. Sometimes a chapter awakens my senses, drives me to repentance and regret, and to make changes for the better. Sometimes a verse recurs to me repeatedly throughout my day, or at particular times, or hits me out of the blue at just the right moment. But sometimes I just don’t get it: sometimes a verse perturbs me for days or weeks or months on end, rendering me immovable. Be patient, I tell tell myself: take your time.
It is difficult trying to disentangle yourself from years spent walking a particular path, thinking it was what you were called to. I found guidance in the Qur’an, but it was my companions and popular culture that defined the path for me. I became a Sunni Muslim; with different company I could just as easily have been a Shia Muslim. No matter: both labels are purely political, of no real worth or meaning, brought to life only by the forces of empire. I walked with Salafis, worked for Deobandis, worshiped with Barelvis, bought The Reliance of the Traveller and listened to the scholars of America. Around myself I have built a construct that I call Islam, built on all these factors and a multitude of others. But what is missing is the Book.
The Book has been sidelined. It is not read to be understood. Our practices frequently contradict its verses. Muslim popularism calls us to abandon its arguments in favour of our own. It calls us to think, but we do not think. It tells us not to blindly follow others, but we blindly follow others. It tells us not to make religion complicated, but we make religion complicated. It asks us to follow its guidance, but we follow something else entirely.
“These are the verses of God which We recite to you in truth. Then in what hadith after God and His verses will they believe?” — Qur’an 45:6
I am determined, though it is a real struggle at times, to return to the Book which guided me twenty years ago. To ponder and reflect on its verses once more. I want to seek a Book about which there is no doubt.