Back in the sixth grade, I was the only Muslim in my class. My sixth grade teacher was a nice lady who, now that I think about it, was rather open minded. I don’t remember how this came to happen, but one time, she had me read a story from this book I had called “Stories of the Prophets”, which was a short collection of stories from the Qur’an about prophets in Islam.
I stood up in front of the class and read the story about Prophet Nuh and the flood. When I finished reading, she said: “So that’s Noah.” Not really asking, but making a logical, respectful statement.
“Uh, yeah,” was my reply. I didn’t really know what she was talking about.
I didn’t realize back then that “Nuh” was the Arabic name for “Noah” and that he was considered a prophet in the Jewish/Christian traditions as well. In my defense, there really wasn’t an avenue in which one would learn about other religions besides the faith that one is explicitly taught growing up. Not at that age. The only thing I really knew about Christianity at that time was that they celebrated Christmas and we didn’t.
The Qur’an mentions some of the key players in the other Abrahamic religions, including Adam, Mary and Jesus, David, and Moses.
The Qur’an itself is something that a lot of Muslims aim to read more of during Ramadan, trying to finish all 30 chapters before the month is up. Muslims believe that the Qur’an is the word of God, told verbally to Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) through the angel Gabriel over 23 years. It’s in Arabic and most Muslims make a conscious effort to learn to read Arabic to read the Qur’an.
The first time someone reads through the Qur’an, it’s a huge deal. I first finished the Qur’an when I was 7 years old, along with my older sister and brother. Even though the three of us finished it at the same time as we were all in the same class, I felt much cooler because I technically finished the Qur’an at a younger age and that pretty much meant I was more awesome.
Yeah, I was that kid. I promise I have matured since then.
Like a lot of people learning to read the Qur’an who can’t claim Arabic to be their native tongue, we just learned how to read it, not to understand it. Translations exist though in pretty much any language, which anyone can read through at any time.
The problem is though, none of us ever did read through the English translation of the Quran back then. It wasn’t until I was in high school when it even hit me that maybe I should read the English translation to see what I was reading?
Some of you from other faith backgrounds are probably shaking your heads right now, thinking how foreign the idea is of not understanding one’s Holy Book.
We already had an english translation in our home, so I read through it. It wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be. Because the Qur’an is in classical Arabic, the translation was in Shakespearean English, which became hard to read. And then there were a lot of footnotes to a lot of the verses. I found myself getting a bit overwhelmed so only consulted a footnote when I was totally confused.
The translation was a reputable one but I started looking for different translations as well. These days, I’m reading through another translation with extensive commentary which I’m finding fascinating. I realized though that I should eventually go through that first one I read again as well, if only because I have more patience to read through it to appreciate the english rather that try to zip through it as was my tendency all those years ago.
What I have realized reading/trying to read various translations here and there over the years is this: One shouldn’t really read a translation of the Qur’an without any kind of notes or commentary. Because, as Muslims believe, a lot of verses were revealed to the Prophet (peace be upon him) according to certain situations, it wouldn’t be quite right for us to read those same verses without understanding the context and background in which it was revealed. If someone really wants to understand the Qur’an, Muslim or not, they should definitely make sure to read it with that understanding. Cherry picking verses here and there is something done by both opponents of Islam and by extremists in our religion so just knowing that whatever they are saying about Islamic views is not accurate goes a long way.
Despite my best efforts in previous Ramadans, I have finally been able to delve more deeply into the Qur’an this time around, a practice that I hope to continue after Ramadan is over. It’s taken me a while to come to the point where I am at and although I do wish I figured everything out a long time ago, it’s never too late to get started on the journey of truly understanding one’s faith and to seek knowledge.
All right, all right, I’m done lecturing :) I will just part with a link to this video of Mehdi Hassan, Political Director at Huffington Post UK, at Oxford Union talking about why Islam is a peaceful religion. It’s part of a debate – the video of the previous debaters can be found as well but he talks a bit about context in the Qur’an so I felt this was relevant: