Islamic Garden

Islamic Garden
Islamic Garden in Lausanne, Switzerland

Monday, January 21, 2008

The Ruh of al-Quran

Michael Sells' book "Approaching the Qur'an" evokes a slice of life on a public bus in Egypt, as passengers scramble aboard and jockey for position. There is standing room only and its hard to breathe. But at a certain moment when the bus begins its journey, a tape cassette of al-Quran is played and "a meditative calm begins to set in. People relax. The jockeying for space ends. The voices of those who are talking grow quieter and less strained. Others are silent, lost in thought. A sense of shared community overtakes the discomfort. What seemed at the beginning like a long ordeal is suddenly over. As the bus pulls into its destination, the spell is broken and the passengers disembark."

Sells then asks a question that points to the physiological and psychological benefits of the recitation of al-Quran and this, of course, includes al-Fatiha:

"What was the spirit that came over these passengers? In asking such a question, I use a word, spirit, from everyday language that is also at the heart of the world's religious traditions. Among the common meanings of the word are: "an animating or vital principle; a supernatural being; a temper or disposition, especially when vigorous or animated; the immaterial intelligent or sentient part of a person; and an inclination, tendency, mood." The English word derives from the Latin spirare (to blow, breathe) and the related word, inspiration, means etymologically, a breathing into. There is no doubt that Qur'anic recitation is based on patterns of breath and has an effect on the breathing patterns of those who hear it. The slowing down of breathing is an essential aspect in almost all meditative traditions, and Qur'anic reciters are trained rigorously in breath control. As they recite the Qur'an in long phrases based on deep, slow exhalations, and as they leave a meditative silence during inhalation, those hearing such patterns begin to breathe more slowly and deeply.

Beyond the effects of breathing, there is a particular quality to the sound of the Qur'an that anyone familiar with it in Arabic will recognize. For centuries, Qur'anic commentators have discussed the power and beauty of this sound, what they call the nazm of the Qur'an, the composition, or more loosely but perhaps more richly translated, the Qur'anic "voice." In turn, nazm, is one of the key concepts in i'jaz al-Quran (analysis of the inimitability of the Qur'an) which is a standard feature of Qur'anic commentary. Yet, while we have a rich history of testimonies to the power and the beauty of the Qur'anic voice, few explanations have been offered for how that voice works in relationship to the sound of the Qur'an. Here I will discuss the elusive relationship of sound to meaning in the Qur'an by focusing on the Qur'anic understanding of spirit (ruh), a word that in Arabic is also related to breath. Much of the discussion of spirit in the Qur'an, in both classical commentaries and modern scholarship, is an attempt to define it as a particular being - as Gabriel, or another great angel, or yet another delimited entity.
~ excerpt from "Approaching the Qur'an" by Michael Sells, pp. 183-184

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