So it should come as no surprise that Muslims everywhere revere the Qur'an, purifying ourselves before touching it, clearing our top book shelf for it, committing it to memory. We dust it, kiss it, touch it to our foreheads. Yet in the end, the Qur'an, like all books, is there to be read.
Ramadan is when we oblige. Muslims try to read the Qur'an, cover to cover, this month. Some, including those who can't read, hear the verses at taraweeh prayers, the month's marathon sessions of group worship, which can last for hours each night. In groups or alone, we read the Qur'an aloud -- one-thirtieth per day -- to catch a glimpse or hear the crackle of what is, after all, our Burning Bush.
How does one read a miracle? Anyone who's tried to get through the entire Qur'an, or even one of its longer chapters, can tell you: It's a test of endurance, with many rules for the exercise -- when to stretch a vowel, when to cut a consonant short, when to double it up (such as the L in Allah.) The rules help us find the Qur'an's groove, which can sound like a sonnet or haiku, depending on the lesson.
Still, if the Quran is indeed our Burning Bush or our Parted Red Sea, we need more than grammar to uncover its mystery.
Sometimes the book drops hints about itself. Suppose God sent the Qur'an hurtling down upon a mountain. What then? The mountain would be "humbled and cleft asunder"--that's what. In Arabic, these words read like waves in crescendo, a sequence of vowels crashing into consonants, which then linger like a banged gong. Or a plucked chord. Or an echo. (Click here to listen to the Qur'an.)
Most of the time, the Qur'an seems like an enigma. We approach it wide-eyed but end up squinting, sometimes stumbling over familiar phrases. The most familiar are those we learned first, like the lines we use to make the 17 prostrations of our five daily prayers. These include the fatiha (literally "opening") of the Qur'an:
Praise be to God, Lord of the worlds The Forgiving, the Merciful Master of the Day of Judgment You alone we worship and in You alone we trust Show us the straight path...
My father, the son of a Sufi teacher, put it this way: We are all tethered to the straight path because we are Muslims, though we frequently lose sight of it. Some of us wander further afield. For some of us, our tether--like our conscience--is more relenting. Perhaps we drink alcohol, avoid prayers, break the Ramadan fast. Still, we always wander back.
But getting back isn't always easy.
Emerson said, "Do not follow where the path may lead...go instead where there is no path and leave a trail." For Muslims, the "verses" of the Qur'an leave all the markers (the Arabic word ayah actually means "sign," not verse). And finding these can be a dizzying, lifelong experience. We begin, as children -- memorizing short surahs (chapters) about figs and olives and gentle (Godly) metaphors. As we grow to pray, to fast, to do good works -- and bad -- we circle back around to the longer surahs, reading about our duties and transgressions, our rewards, our punishments. Far from following a straight path, we spend most of our lives meandering through the Qur'an, never bothered by where our journey began or, indeed, where it will end.
But Ramadan is not like the rest of our lives. This month, we brave the beginning (Show us the straight path.) and work our way, painstakingly, to the end. We try to swallow the Qur'an whole. We carry the book on trains and buses, read while the rest of the world takes its lunch break, while the kids are napping, while even the birds sleep. We read like ones possessed.
God says of humans: "We are nearer to him than his jugular vein."
The line was said to be a favorite of the Prophet Muhammad, who recited it after many a Friday sermon. Like much of the Qur'an, it offers a kind of rebuttal to the prophet's naysayers, according to Islamic scholar Abu Ala Al Maududi.
"When the Holy Prophet began preaching his message in Mecca, what surprised people the most was the news that they would be resurrected after death," writes Al Maududi. How could the dead, drained of life and blood, suddenly reappear? God's response -- that the maker of life doesn't need blood -- was a one-liner.
It's a novel concept: Man scoffs, and the God of tsunamis responds -- not in a hail of brimstone, but with chapter and verse. To read the Qur'an, to truly struggle with it, is to learn that lesson over and over again. It is our book, our miracle.