Bismillahs and Ameens
By Dr Mahjabeen Islam
For anyone even vaguely familiar with Lahore, Pakistan,
3 p.m. in July is the picture of sultry suffocating heat. Whilst my mother had
her siesta, her three children were subjected to Maulvi Sahib for a whole hour
of learning to read the Qur’an.
The poor man biked from God-knows-where and in the
curtained but not air-conditioned room gained some respite from the elements. My
brothers and I were always resentful that his respite was our punishment. In
retrospect, one wonders why the conspiratorial trio, namely my parents and
Maulvi Sahib, did not find a more humane hour for a task that was so tough.
“Read, in the name of your Sustainer who has
created - created man out of a germ-cell” (96:1) said Gabriel to the
unlettered man (pbuh). And so started the revelation of the Qur’an and the
beginning of the seal of Prophethood.
Akin to and in a sense celebrating the revelation of
the primary source of all of Islam, Muslims are initiated into learning to read
the Qu’ran in Arabic. “We have sent it down as an Arabic Qur’an in order
that you may learn wisdom” (12:2). It is absolutely marvelous to note that
people from across the globe whose native tongue is not Arabic are able to read
the Qur’an fluently.
Prior to the afternoon Maulvi Sahib sessions in Lahore
was my Bismillah, which literally means to start in the name of God, and
practically the initiation of reading of the Qur’an. Dressed in brocade and
silk, the unwilling victim of generous amounts of kohl in the eyes I read out
“Iqra bismi rabikkal lazi khalaq khalaqal insana min alaq” (96:1)
flanked by soccer-ball sized laddoos (a celebratory sweet made in South Asia).
The presents and the money were profitable, but the trip to the photo studio was
quite the pain.
The gold fringes of the brocade outfit started to get
under my skin in the real sense of the word as did the gold necklace and I
itched to get out of them. This resulted in a disagreement with my mother,
causing her to puff out her cheeks in imitation of my expression, which in turn
caused my already generous cheeks to swell further. And the black and white
photo caught my pout perfectly.
Maulvi Sahib like millions across the globe had
memorized the Qur’an and would settle down to listen to and correct his three
charges. I was a nerd-wimp combination so not too much of a problem but my
brothers did not feel the need to try to read accurately in the face of a
semi-snoozing man. Even at the young age of five I would be amazed at how in 100
degrees F heat this man would drop off at the sweet rhythm of the recitation and
as soon as my brothers would skip and get sloppy, he would jolt awake and award
a tight rap on the skull of the perpetrator.
Their mischief and the miracle of the Qur’an would
manifest itself time and again, and the essential predictability of Maulvi Sahib
correcting us when the words were slaughtered or skipped, convinced me that this
was The Word of The Divine. And now I am moved to read that the Qur’an says:
“This Qur’an is not such as can be produced by other than Allah.” (10:
The Qur’an has 114 verses, and these have been divided
into 30 chapters. It is not a skinny book and I cannot marvel enough at how
people from Malaysia to America commit it all to memory. What is also
interesting is that in international Qur’anic recitation competitions, frequent
first prizewinners are not Arabs.
The South Asian Muslim culture of teaching children to
read the Qur’an starting at the young age of four has a great deal of merit and
it is interesting that many an Arab youth in North America speaks fluent Arabic
but is frequently unable to read the Qur’an. Perhaps there is a sense of taking
one’s mother tongue for granted. “When the Qur’an is read listen to it with
attention and hold your peace so that you may receive mercy” (7:204). Even
though the Qur’an is in classical Arabic, most Arabic-speaking people are still
able to get the gist of the recitation, just as English speakers are able to get
the drift of a Shakespearean play. Arabic speakers do not realize how blessed
they are for people that do not understand Arabic get only the comfort of the
Qur’an’s rhythm and indefinable power. And of course the barakah or blessing
that God has promised.
There are approximately 84,000 words in the Qur’an and
after accounting for repetition this is reduced to 2,000 words. In these there
are about 500 Arabic words that are common to Urdu, Persian and Turkish . If
these native groups were to learn only about 1,500 Arabic words they would
understand this magnificent text. And that is certainly not a tall order if one
puts one’s mind to it; five words a day and in a year a whole new vista could
This would be even more gratifying during Taraweeh
prayers, which are held in the evenings in Ramadan and in many a mosque the
entire Qur’an is completed in the thirty days.
The commitment to having their children complete the
Qur’an has persisted amongst South Asian parents in the United States and there
is a daily influx of what my daughter likes to call “the Qur’an kids” to my
mother’s house. Using the phonetic rather than the spelling technique she is
able to accomplish awesome results.
My three daughters are the pioneer graduates of their
grandmother’s informal school, but none of them was as young as Nazia Bhatti
when they finished the Qur’an.
Nazia would come to drop her sister off to Mrs Islam’s
house for Qur’an lessons and one day decided that she too would take lessons.
She was the youngest in the kids that do, having started at age four-and-a-half.
Though she subjected her three children to Maulvi Sahib, my mother is the
epitome of affection and patience. Each child comes with his/her unique
strengths and idiosyncrasies and she does such an awesome job that these kids
run to hug her wherever they see her.
Perhaps the language area of Nazia’s brain is now so
attuned that she is able to read English, causing consternation amongst the
parents of her kindergarten class, where the students can barely spell. At age
five-and-a-half she is the youngest of Mrs Islam’s students to have finished the
Qur’an. And as a matter of fact may well be quite the rarity even if she were
living in Pakistan or India for the commoner age for Ameens there is seven or
eight. And of that my brothers and I are testimony.
Man being the social animal that he is there is always
a number of parties at any given time. Just as South Asian Muslims have
incorporated learning to read the Qur’an in their psyche so to speak, they must
incorporate the celebration of a Bismillah and an Ameen in their repertoire of
parties. Instead of aimless gossipy dinner parties it is so much more
interesting to see the soccer ball sized ladoos, or a variation thereof, and a
little person all dressed up and reading the Qur’an.
In an Ameen any random page of the Qur’an is opened and
without preparation the child reads which becomes an attestation that the child
has truly finished the Qur’an. At the end of all Qur’ans is a dua for finishing
the Qur’an, which is also read at these Ameens. Additionally the teacher or an
Imam gives a short speech underscoring the miracle that the Qur’an is and the
importance of learning to read it in Arabic.
The natural course of events is that after the Qur’an
is finished in Arabic the child starts classes in which the translation and
commentary of the Qur’an are explained.
The process that we begin at age four and usually
complete at age seven, should continue in an upward gradation throughout our
lives; reading in Arabic, understanding in our native tongue and then learning
the Arabic of the Qur’an so that wherever one hears it, it is music to one’s
ears, a symphony that one even understands! And God-willing on the Day of
Judgment the Qur’an will not testify against us and say that we put it away in
high-never-accessed shelves, inshaallah it will say that it was read, recited
(Dr Mahjabeen Islam is president of the Islamic Center
of Greater Toledo)
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