On Finding God in Perpetual Days and Nights

One day, shortly before Ramadan began, my family’s idle chatter over a weekend lunch broached on the topic of the challenge faced by Muslims fasting while living in Canada’s Northwest territories.

My father thoughtfully recounted two verses of the Quran that made him think of this geographical phenomenon:

. . . If Allah were to make the night perpetual over you to the Day of Judgment, what god is there other than Allah, who can give you enlightenment? Will ye not then hearken? (28 : 71)

. . . If Allah were to make the day perpetual over you to the Day of Judgment, what god is there other than Allah, who can give you a night in which ye can rest? Will ye not then see? (28 : 72) *

It’s not part of the universal human condition to experience endless nights or endless days, blazing midnight suns or brunches by candlelight. The strangeness of places where this is a reality, my father was suggesting, is in itself a sign from God, no different from the way nature and seasons and the delicate balance of the human body’s system are signs from God. “See how it is when the night or day is perpetual? It’s Me who makes it otherwise,” Allah is telling us.

SubhanAllah. Makes you think.

* Translation by Yusuf Ali


On Intensive Recitation: Completing the Quran in Ramadan

Some Muslims are stellar when it comes to completing the recitation of the entire Quran during Ramadan. “No biggie,” they say. “It’s simple math. One juz per day, twenty pages per juz. Divide that into the five prayers: just read four pages after each prayer.” A lot of them manage to complete it year after year. I deeply respect them and admire them for their perseverance, and pray that Allah accepts this worship from them and increases their iman and understanding of this text.

I usually begin Ramadan with the intention of completing the recitation of the entire Quran, but have never managed to do it. But I am hoping that will change this year insh’Allah and have embraced the challenge for this Ramadan.

Part of the reason I haven’t been able to complete the Quran in the past is that I got bogged down in the day-to-day Ramadan routine that includes, along with Ramadanesque activities, the usual commitments due to work or school.

Another more significant issue I have had in the past is that I prize quality over quantity far, far too much. I get stuck on an ayah and because I haven’t truly understood it I read it over and over to make sure I have absorbed it in the way I’m supposed to be absorbing it. The thought that I’m not doing it justice makes me a little anxious, even. It’s part of the peril of being overly detail oriented. It’s the same reason that I’m not a particularly fast reader with regular books, either.

The emphasis on quality and understanding in my readerly Quranic psyche also comes from being raised by parents who feel the same away about it. My parents are always very devout in their worship and are always reciting the Quran throughout Ramadan and attending taraweeh prayers. But finishing it was never something that would was brought up much. My father usually got his completion not by reciting it, but by by means of attending all the taraweeh prayers frequently. My mother would mention attempting to finish it, but if she didn’t she didn’t beat herself up about it too much.

That’s why she was both encouraging of my personal challenge for this Ramadan, but, at the same time, trying to make me understand that it’s not that big a deal. She believes it’s something people have needlessly made obligatory upon themselves. Furthermore, she said knows knows several friends and relatives who read large chunks of the Quran, even up to five juz, in the course of a single day. “It’s possible. But that doesn’t mean that it’s better. It’s just recitation, just a movement of the lips. Won’t it be better to focus on the translation and take one’s time with it?”

What she says is definitely true. There is, after all, the saying that whoever completes the Quran in three or fewer days has not understood any of it.

But I argued that I had already used that approach in the past and that I never managed to sustain the habit beyond Ramadan to continue. There’s something about this month that drives me (and a great majority of practicing, conscientious Muslims, I imagine) to do more in terms of my worship. Shouldn’t I challenge myself, especially given that I do not have the usual work/study commitments I already do? Who knows when I will find myself with this much time, this much independence, this much freedom in the Ramadans to follow?

She agreed and prayed and wished me the best of success with this endeavor.

Photo credit: Salma J. This Quran looks exactly like the Quran I recite from.

I’m now embarking on the seventeenth day of Ramadan and am so far fourteen juz into the Quran. I’m lagging pretty far behind, but the journey has, Alhamdulillah, been mostly smooth so far. I do not feel the strain or dreariness I sometimes feel when I am reciting for long periods of time. That is partially because I’ve tried to address the reasons I usually don’t manage to complete the Quran and catered to them. I know it requires time, so I’m both able and mentally prepared to devote more time to it. I’m extremely blessed and far luckier than most people to not have any other serious commitments during this Ramadan, so I tell myself that, for now, I’m just doing this on a trial basis. I don’t believe in engaging in worship that feels burdensome, and I should work hard at not only the act of completiong its it should rarely, if ever, feel like a burden.

Recitation of course doesn’t mean sacrificing reading the translation and reflecting on it, so I am also reading a great component of the translation and, when I can, listen to online tafseer session. In light of my past experiences, I’m making a conscious effort to keep moving and not get bogged down in specific ayahs. What helps is reminding myself that there is no way that I can hope to understand an ayah completely; there are after all some verses whose meanings have been debated over for centuries. Who am I to try and understand them in so many dimensions? If my urge to know the context is especially strong, then I tell myself that I’ll just have to wait until I read or listen to a tafseer regarding that segment. And then I move on.

The two most important lessons I am learning in regards to completing the Quran during this Ramadan are:

Variety is the spice of worship.
Varying the way in which I recite is a very significant in having come this far. I sometimes recite just the Arabic, letting the rythym and beauty of the calligraphy, the language, the words I do understand, sink in. I sometimes read over the English translation ayah by ayah. Other times, I read several translated verses and then recite them. If sitting in one place starts to feel too monotonous, I try and incorporate the recitation into my sunnah and nafil prayers. I was at first very concerned about what I was going to do during the days I am not fasting or praying, but I have decided to listen to an audio version and follow along while using an an online Quran (as opposed to a paper mashaf).

The drive to keep reciting is like the drive to keep reading or writing.
Experienced writers know that when a wave of inspiration hits them–be it at the stroke of midnight, in the middle of lunch hour, or right before they’re supposed to be meeting up with someone–they have to ride it. And make the most of it as long as it’s there.

That’s how I feel about this kind of worship in Ramadan. There’s this huge wave of a drive for ibadah that we are riding, an enormous, bottomless well of possibility that we must drink from. Tapping into this divine resource, and learning that there’s no limit to it, is probably the most blissful experience a religious person can have.

It almost doesn’t matter if I finish the Quran. I’m grateful I engaged in this exercise, for I wouldn’t have immersed myself this much in the text otherwise. I would have been distracted, occupied with things that are much more worthy of attention during the rest of the year.

But I deeply hope to finish it not for its own sake, but for the sake of rejoicing in this gift while it’s still there.

On the Divine Paratext

I was really, really underhanded with that last blog. I can just imagine my agnostic friends reading that through completely unawares, thinking that this was one of my secular pieces. And then, at the last sentence, looking stunned. “That *bleep* set me up!”

Not intended, believe me.

I went on and on and on about paratexts and the world of literature, but it wasn’t until that last line when I was struck with this realization that it was the temporal world I was talking about. With that came another “aha” moment, where I was able to reach a high I rarely get to reach, when I manage to push and push the boundaries of the temporal world and then start talking about the divine on the same train of thought.

But it was so overwhelming that my brain was straining from the leap it had just made, and I had to cut myself off. “Too much. Thinking! Must go look at lolcats!”

So this post is to apologize to those of you who felt that you were set up, because you weren’t. If anything, I was just as surprised by that last sentence as you were. And in this post I also wish to clarify what I mean when I say that revelation has no paratext.

It’s laughable for me to put it in a literal sense: to say that the Bible or the Quran don’t have a paratext. Nothing could be further from the truth. Now, we need that auxiliary body of work, an evolving body of work that explains the revealed work to us, that makes it relevant to whatever time and place we happen to find ourselves in.

But the divine text is different. It’s not the text in any conventional sense. It was the brilliance that was so intense that its revelation at  times would take a physical toll on those who served as its vessels. The divine text, that, at its inception, was a stand-alone text.

It’s like the idea of how we must worship Allah, but He does not need worship. God does not need a flattering synopsis. He didn’t need no fancy cover for His text. He didn’t seek any blurbs and endorsements. He said “Be!” and it was, just as anything conceivable is created. And the work speaks for itself. If the act of revelation is the act of publishing, then really, the paratext started forming from the moment it took on a temporal form–after it was published.

No amount of paratext can ever do justice to its grandness. All the scholarly tafsirs (scholarly commentary) on the Qur’an are sprinkled with the qualifiers “Wa Allah hu alam:” This is what we say, but ultimately, Allah knows best. One can never, ever, ever say that enough. To me, that’s the best piece of paratext out there. An attempt to understand, but a self negation about that which is beyond our conception.

I’m tired of the word “paratext” for now. My brain hurts again. Must go back to my lolcats.