Listening to God in Community

by Seher Siddiqee |

"Then which of the favors of your Lord will ye deny?" SURAH RAHMAN (55)


Growing up as a Muslim, I learned that the Qur’an is the sacred text for Muslims, believed to be the direct word of God revealed to the Prophet Muhammad as the final message to humankind.

Yet often when I thought about the Qur’an, I thought of a book, hundreds of pages filled with words and verses, bound by two covers that sits on my shelf. In Arabic, the word “quran” comes from the trilateral root “q/r/a,” which means “to declaim; to recite.”(1) So the Qur’an is actually more than just a “book”—it is itself a proclamation, the Word of God. But what does all this mean to me? And what role does the Qur’an hold in my studies and life as a Muslim student at a Jesuit, Catholic university?

When I was four years old, I started learning the Arabic alphabet so that I could read the Qur’an. To be fair, I was not actually learning to read the Qur’an and understand it, I was learning how to pronounce the words. I worked with my teacher and read it from cover to cover, along with memorizing surahs (chapters). After completing this, I continued memorizing surahs, and one of the first ones was Ar-Rahman, “The Merciful,” considered to be one of the most poetic surahs in the Qur’an.(2) A couple of years later, I stopped meeting with my teacher and soon after that my regular interaction with the Qur’an stopped too, and I could feel what I had learned beginning to slip away.

For most Muslims, the recitation and memorization of the Qur’an are just as important as being able to read the Qur’an. Many Muslims spend years perfecting their recitation—often sounding musical (3)—and this is one of the ways Muslims are able to develop a shared experience of the Qur’an across time and space. However, when I was learning to read and recite the Qur’an, I did not realize the power of listening to the Qur’an and engaging the Qur’an in community. Because I previously started memorizing Surah Rahman, I occasionally listened to it for its familiarity, but the significance of incorporating this recitation and listening into my regular practice had not yet clicked.

The first 13 verses of Surah Ar-Rahman in arabic. Seher Siddique

 
In the summer of 2012, between my sophomore and junior years at Santa Clara University, I participated in a two-month Arabic language intensive program. I was excited to learn the grammar and vocabulary necessary, not just to pronounce or recite the Qur’an, but to understand the Qur’an. This program became the opportunity I was waiting for, and opened up my experience and engagement with the Qur’an in surprising ways. Every night all of the enrolled students in the summer program gathered together to recite a passage of Qur’an before bed. Each voice joined with the others in one harmony. This came to be one of my favorite parts of the program; no matter what happened that day, we were all together sharing a sacred moment and connection that went beyond the walls of the room to the larger Muslim community and to God.

So the Qur'an is actually more than just a "book" - it is itself a proclamation, the Word of God. But what does all this mean? And what role does the Qur'an hold in my studies and life as a Muslim student at a Jesuit, Catholic university?

When the program ended, I continued reading a passage every night. In order to maintain a practice similar to my experience at the summer intensive program, I also listened to a recorded recitation as I read. I began listening to the Qur’an daily on my drive to and from school, and through this I learned some of the chapters by heart, much like the lyrics to my favorite songs. I found a translation of the Qur’an that I liked, and I took time to read passages in English along with listening. Each of these new activities and steps became intrinsically motivating and satisfactory. Although many times the passages were random, I came back to ones that were familiar, such as Ar-Rahman. Not only did I remember what I learned, but also the time and precision my teachers took to unpack the larger meaning of these passages.

During my time at Santa Clara, I have had the honor of cultivating friendships with people I would have never imagined possible. Having a respectful relationship with someone who does not share your most fundamental and central beliefs can be challenging, but it is also inspiring and encouraging. Because of our differences, we are compelled to encounter one another with a deeper level of love and respect.

Illuminated Koran circa 18th century, written by Uthman, servant of Zulfiyan Mosque. Courtesy of SCU Archives and Special Collections.* Cari Ferraro

 
As the days have passed, these practices have become something I rely on—my background “music” for more of my daily activities: writing papers, reading for class, or sitting in my bed, doodling. The more interaction I have with the Qur’an, the more I recognize stories, names, and words, and the more excited I become. A text that previously felt quite foreign to me, that I wasn’t able to fully understand in all its forms, is now finding a unique meaning in my life. There is a common Muslim saying: “If you want to talk to God, perform the daily prayers. If you want God to talk to you, read the Qur’an.” I am now taking a more active and present role in the development of my faith. When I choose to memorize a passage from the Qur’an, it is because I want to enter into the text, to experience a meaning beyond the words on the page. God is talking to me, conveying God’s message to me.

One of the most frequent questions I am asked, and subsequently have spent a lot of time reflecting on, is: “How has your faith been affected being a Muslim at a Jesuit university?” Santa Clara University has been a place where my faith has been strengthened tremendously. I am in my second year serving as the Interfaith Intern in Campus Ministry. As the Interfaith Intern, I help create space and opportunity for dialogue between individuals of many different traditions. This has allowed me to cultivate my own relationship with people from diverse traditions. As I learn more about the faith and journeys of others, I have in turn been prompted to learn more about myself. This happens most frequently when I am asked questions that I do not know the answers to! Because of my limited knowledge of Arabic, I am often prompted by these questions to consult secondary sources and commentaries of relevant passages to find a response.(4)

Surah Ar-Rahman talks about all of creation and all the blessings God provides—from the perfect balance of nature, to the trees that will greet us in heaven. Beginning with the thirteenth verse, and successively after almost every other verse, this chapter includes the repeating refrain: “Then which of the favors of your Lord will ye deny?”(5) At first I understood this question to refer back to all of the gifts of creation and the heavens that are mentioned in the alternating verses. However, upon further study and reflection, this question became one that I could apply to any and every part of my life. Everything is a blessing; which of these blessings will I deny? During my time at Santa Clara, I have had the honor of cultivating friendships with people I would have never imagined possible. Having a respectful relationship with someone who does not share your most fundamental and central beliefs can be challenging, but it is also inspiring and encouraging. Because of our differences, we are compelled to encounter one another with a deeper level of love and respect. Surah Ar-Rahman offers a framework for my engagement with the world, and for my relationships in the world. As I continue my journey at Santa Clara and beyond, I am excited to see the development of my faith within the framework of the Qur’an, asking myself, “Then which of the favors of your Lord will ye deny?”


SEHER SIDDIQEE is a junior Religious Studies and Psychology major at Santa Clara University and serves as the Interfaith Intern in the Campus Ministry Department. When she graduates, Siddiqee is planning to pursue the Islamic Chaplaincy Program at the Macdonald Center for the Study of Islam and Christian- Muslim Relations at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut.
 

 

Endnotes


  1. Hans Wehr, Arabic-English Dictionary (Wiesbaden:Harrassowitz, 1993).
  2. Surah Rahman is the 55th chapter in the Qur’an.
  3. By typing Surah Rahman into a search engine, you may hear a recitation online.
  4. These invitations to learn more about my own tradition and my place within it led me, in part, to participate in the summer Arabic Language Intensive Program between my sophomore and junior years at Santa Clara.
  5. The Glorious Qur’an, trans. Abdullah Yusuf Ali (United States: Library of Congress, 1977). This may be incomplete as Ali’s translation was in 1938 published in Pakistan.

 

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