Seeking Deeper Understanding of the Koran

January/February 2002

Reading time min

At the end of the line, the reciter stops and lets his voice trail off,” one student said, visibly moved by the CD he’d just heard. “It gives the verse an ethereal quality, and gives you time to think about what the words are actually saying.”

As the audience of 13 listened to chapters 82, 91, 97 and 99 from the Koran (Qur’an), associate professor of history Ahmad Dallal pointed out the differences between the two principal recitation methods they were hearing—the straightforward tartil and more expressive tajwid.

The freshmen enrolled in the introductory seminar The Qur’an in History had read translations of the verses before class, but as they followed the words of the Islamic text and listened to the melodic invocations of Allah and the dramatic quavers that introduced apocalyptic themes, they appeared to be absorbing the lines for the first time.

“Students who take these seminars are driven and want to learn, and then there’s the incentive of wanting to know more about Islam today,” Dallal says. “They won’t come out of the class as experts on Islam or the Koran, but they will have a familiarity with the Koran and its place in history.”

A specialist in the intellectual traditions of Islam, the Lebanese-born Dallal is teaching this course for the second year in a row. He wants students to know about the many schools of thought that have interpreted the foundational scriptures, from fundamentalist, sectarian and mainstream to modernist. He asks them to reflect on a theme of their choice in written assignments—the notion of prophethood, the literary dimensions of the Koran, the question of authorship.

“This isn’t a course on religion, and it’s not about simply reading the Koran and figuring out its meaning,” he says. “It’s an exercise in historical methodology, and I want them to be aware of the diversity of interpretations that exist.”

The class does, of course, turn its attention to the text’s meaning, especially in light of recent violent acts committed in the name of Islam. As students have read selected passages from the Koran and the longer Hadith—sayings of Mohammed that were compiled in the third century and have been used to explain ambiguities in the Koran—they have encountered passages that trouble them. “I found it very disturbing,” one student said about a description of the Prophet punishing a group of men who had embraced and then denied Islam—by cutting off their hands and feet and burning out their eyes. “This describes some extremely violent behavior.”

Dallal encouraged the critical examination and then offered an explanation: “It does sound like very cruel punishment,” he agreed. “But those were common penalties by the standards of the time.”

But more often, he focuses on how different “historical communities” have related to the Koran over the years. Tajwid devotees, for example, turn out in hometown streets by the thousands to hear recitations, and are often moved to respond aloud (although few clerics participate and some criticize musical performances of the Koran). “Basically, people want to enjoy the text,” Dallal explained to the class as he turned up the volume on a CD that featured two well-known Egyptian reciters who have attracted fans across the Islamic world. “The Koran is fixed, [but there is] an interplay of form and content. It functions as an epic, oral tradition, and people contribute to it. Audiences often shout, ‘Yes, this is very true.’”

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