Going by the book

Faith: Many in the Islamic community participate in the sacred act of memorizing the Quran - all 6,666 verses of it.

November 24, 2001|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

On the carpet of a Woodlawn mosque, rows of schoolboys kneel in front of long wooden bookstands holding volumes of the Quran, their voices rising in a melodious chorus of Arabic.

As the Muslim world fasts and prays during this month of Ramadan, these boys are continuing a centuries-old tradition of committing the holy scriptures of Islam to their hearts and minds.

With its lyrical Arabic, the Quran, which tradition says was spoken to Muhammad by the angel Gabriel, is a book that is meant to be recited. And for many Muslims, it is a sacred act to recite the entire Quran from memory.

At Al-Rahmah School in Woodlawn, the boys are beginning to memorize the Quran. Their teacher, Muhammad Zahid, is a hafiz, Arabic for "guardian" and a term designating the respect bestowed on those who can recite the Quran by heart.

"I started when I was 5 years old," said Zahid, 32, recalling his early schooling in Karachi, Pakistan. "When I was 9 years old, I had memorized the whole Quran. I just took it step by step."

Those steps involve memorizing the 6,666 verses of the Quran, which is divided into 114 surahs, or chapters, and is about the same length as the New Testament of the Christian Bible. It's an impressive feat. And yet, there are plenty like Zahid throughout the Islamic world.

"There are hundreds of thousands of people like that all over the world," said Sulayman S. Nyang, an Islamic scholar at Howard University in Washington.

A hafiz worth his salt not only can recite the Quran from start to finish, but can start anywhere in the text. "That's one way of showing your mastery," Nyang said. "You can wake them up from a dead sleep and tell them to start Chapter 26, and they will start there. They will play these kinds of games with each other."

Or they'll take the longest surah, the second, which has 286 verses, and tell each other to start at a specific verse and finish the rest. "The guy is like a computer and will go to that part," Nyang said.

Each night during the month of Ramadan, which commemorates the revelation of the Quran by Allah to the prophet Muhammad, a portion of the Quran will be recited in mosques worldwide after evening prayer. By the end of the month, the entire book will have been heard. In many countries, it can be heard through radio broadcasts. Locally, the Islamic Society of Baltimore offers a live webcast each day at 8 p.m. at www.isb.org, featuring Zahid's lyrical recitation.

Revealed over 22 years

The Quran's content includes collections of laws; descriptions of hell, heaven and judgment; and stories of prophets that preceded Muhammad, including Adam, Abraham, Moses and Jesus. According to Islamic tradition, the Quran is the direct word of God that was first revealed to Muhammad as he meditated in a cave during one of the last nights of Ramadan in 610.

The revelation of the Quran to Muhammad continued for the next 22 years. Muhammad would repeat it to his followers, and scholars believe that some of them wrote portions of it down - on pieces of papyrus, leaves, shoulder blades and ribs of animals, pieces of leather, whatever was available. But mostly it was committed to memory and recited to preserve it.

"The hafiz tradition is a continuation of the pre-Islamic poets who memorized hundreds of verses of poetry, just like the griot [or storytelling] tradition in African society," said Nyang. "The hafiz became the intellectual vehicle of Islamic oral literature."

Even though there was an authoritative edition of the Quran by the time of the third caliph, or successor to Muhammad, the tradition of memorizing and reciting the Quran endured. Until recently, and in some places still, early Muslim education consisted of memorizing the Quran. At Al-Rahmah School, the Quran class forms a small part of the curriculum.

Traditionally, Muslim youth attended schools specializing in Quranic memorization. "One of the teachers recites before them and they recite it back to him," said Imam Khalil Majdalawi, spiritual leader of the An-nur Mosque in Carney. "If they are short chapters, they recite the whole chapter before their teacher. And then they move to the next one."

When the task of memorization is complete, determined by oral examination, the successful student receives a certificate, and there is usually a gathering to celebrate.

An early Maryland hafiz

Not surprisingly, most hafiz live in Islamic countries, although their number is growing in the United States along with the Muslim population. One of the first hafiz in the United States lived in Maryland.

Job Ben Solomon was a slave on a tobacco plantation in Kent County in the 18th century who had memorized the Quran by age 15 in his home in West Africa. He later was returned to his homeland through the intervention of James Oglethorpe, founder of Georgia, but not before visiting England, where he stunned scholars by writing out three copies of the Quran without once referring to the text.

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