THE tradition during Ramadan is to participate in the communal recitation of the Qur’an and to complete it (Qatam) on Lailatul Qadar, the Night of Power, which is believed to be one of the odd-numbered nights of the last 10 days of the month , with the 27th being most favored.
This Ramadan I have a more modest goal. I strive to seek and live the full meaning of the very brief Al-Fatihah, the opening Surah of the Qur’an.
With only seven easy to remember ayats (verses), Al-Fatihah is recited in all prayers.
My decision to do this over trying the entire Quran was a tacit admission of my own limitations, as well as a respect for the wisdom of choosing quality over quantity.
A study by the Universiti Pendidikan Sultan Idris showed that more than 90% of Muslim students do not understand Sura Al-Fatihah despite the heavy emphasis on Islam in its curriculum.
Surah Al-Fatihah is a divine revelation, a matter of faith. There is little point or use in debating it. You don’t have to be fluent in Arabic to feel its inner rhythm and exquisite beauty.
You don’t have to be a Muslim to appreciate its sonic splendor and absorb its transcendent wisdom.
Just as a native English speaker needs help appreciating Shakespeare, so too do Muslims with the Koran.
According to Elizabeth Rosenblatt, understanding a text combines its ability to stimulate ideas and imagination with what the reader makes them do.
We should not be surprised that the Qur’an is read and understood differently by a 7th-century Bedouin desert dweller than by the Muslim diaspora of 21st-century Western Europe.
The Qur’an is “for all mankind until the end of time”. As such, it must be contemporary and not be detached from current knowledge or accepted wisdom.
The late Tunisian philosopher Mohammad Talbi brought his insights into French literature to the reading of the Qur’an, giving us another dimension.
Peasant-taught and Harvard-educated Ulil Abdalla remarked that Eastern reading of the Qur’an was ritualistic and formulaic; Western, analytical and practical.
Much of the religious learning in the Islamic world is consumed with recitation but little action, according to Talbi’s “speech disease”.
He would rather that we “not parrot what has been discovered… but seek what constitutes the essence…” of Islam.
Malaysians have a laconic acronym reflecting Talbi’s lament: Nato – No action; just speak (or recite)!
Jaundiced Orientalists dismissed the Qur’an’s seeming literary jumble as incoherent, the astronomically challenged gaze at the starry night sky, and saw only twinkling lights.
For me, Al-Fatihah is less recitation, more understanding; less gourmet recipe, more profound aphorisms; less night stars, more my north star.
Like the rest of the Qur’an, Al-Fatihah guides me for this world. As for the hereafter, Allah hu alam (only He knows)!
The current discourses on Islam are long and loud in tone, but sadly somber and short in enlightenment, with obsession with the afterlife.
Intellectual traffic also only runs in one direction. Hours were spent glorifying the different names of the surah, as if putting different labels on it would explain things.
Al-Fatihah is already beautiful and exquisite; adding more superlatives is of little use. As Ayu Utami says in his novel Saman: “Apakah nahdahan itu perlu dinamai? (Does everything beautiful always have to have a name?)”
A popular Mufti, Dr. Maza (he calls himself his acronym) promiscuously inserts long, unintelligible Arabic at the slightest provocation; more to impress, less to appeal to audiences.
Another triviality is endless controversy, e.g. B. whether the surah has six or seven ayats revealed in Mecca or Medina, or whether it should be recited silently during congregational prayers.
Such childish disputes are not without consequences. The earliest and most significant was whether the Qur’an was created or is eternal.
Instead, heed his message; that should be the main occupation.
American Nouman Ali Khan, on a visit to Malaysia, spent more than three hours explaining Surah Al-Fatihah, mesmerizing his audience with his exquisite tajweed (recitations) and raving about its beauty.
At the end of his marathon session, he claimed with undisguised audacity that he could go on for many more hours.
He must have thought himself very effective as there were no questions asked after his long monologue.
Such preachers do not respect their listeners’ time. They also insult the intelligence of their listeners with frequent infantile rhetorical questions.
Theirs, to quote Khaled El Fadl, is more authoritarian than authoritarian.
These ancient scholars made their amazing contributions and we owe them a great debt of gratitude.
However, their world was very different from ours, and so were their challenges. Much of contemporary Islamic discourse is as irrelevant as mental health lectures, where speakers endlessly argue about Freud and Jung but remain silent about antidepressants and neurotransmitters.
By embellishing Al-Fatihah’s supposed miraculous powers, our ulama may be sending a misguided message.
If you are ill you should seek expert medical attention or in a pandemic such as the current Covid-19 get vaccinated and practice social distancing.
Only then recite Surah Ash Shifa. Malaysians need no reminder that the first and largest outbreak of Covid-19 followed a gathering at Tablight in February 2020.
There are exceptions to this sad state of religious discourse, and thanks to social media, they are becoming more widely known.
One of them is Garasi TV, the brainchild of award-winning journalist Zainal Rashid Ahmad. His most recent (March 30, 2022) program – Puasa Atau Dusta (Fast or Farce, https://youtu.be/iOAKhoQCGhI) – was refreshing, insightful and free from unnecessary Arabic incantations.
I commend the courage of him and his team, but even there they never venture on contemporary issues such as the faulty behavior and corruption of sultans and political leaders.
Al-Fatihah is Umm Al Quran (Mother of the Quran). In today’s language and practice, that would be the “book cover”.
Aside from telling potential readers something about the book, it also serves as a “hook” to attract potential readers.
My intention here is more to research Al-Fatihah so that she can continue to guide me, less to quote old tomes.
To paraphrase Robert Frost, I begin my journey with much joy and hope to end with some wisdom. – April 4, 2022.
* M. Bakri Musa reads The Malaysian Insight.
* This is the opinion of the author or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight.