Koran by Heart: Wajahat Ali

Koran by Heart: Wajahat Ali August 29, 2011


We are winding down the days of Ramadan, a spiritually potent month in which Allah revealed the Quran. Since this is a month of remembrance, reflection, reconciliation and resilience, Muslim communities worldwide devoted the month to reciting as much Quran as possible and attending nightly tarawih prayers at the mosque, in which the entirety of the Holy Book is completed roughly over a course of nearly 30 days.

Although these are not obligatory rituals, there is massive spiritual brownie points involved and the communal experience of Ramadan is heightened by participating in these nightly events.

Back when I was 21 years old and attempting to become an Optimus Prime Transformer Muslim, I made sure to hit every Tarawih prayer and read or listen to as much Quran during this month as possible.

Sadly, this year I spent more time listening to Kanye, Jay-Z, Lil Wayne and Benassi. This was more a reflection of my insanely busy work schedule and compulsive need to stay awake at night doing work by listening to throbbing beats, instead of a heathen-sabbatical lathered in Godless-hedonism for those who are quietly judging or inquiring.

Regardless, I’ve attempted to come up with some intelligent defenses, such as, “Dear Lord, had you not blessed Kanye with such sic beats, then I would not be compelled to listen to the album “Watch the Throne.” So, essentially, by listening to “Who Gon’ Stop Me?” and appreciating the dope beats, in a sense, am I not in awe of my Creator who inspired such dopeness?”

Of course, I do not confess this prayer outloud in fear of beign struck by thunderbolt and lightening.

But, I do yearn to understand the Quran by heart, to really digest it and taste its overwhelming complexity and intimidating beauty. Sadly, I don’t speak Arabic, despite an honorable attempt at taking 1 year of it at UC Berkeley. Like most good Desi kids, I learned to “read” the Quran and “finished” it by age 7 so I could have a party, an Ameen, where my parents invited people I didn’t know and I was forced to wear 5 lb garlands and eat large, fattening ladoo balls.

The language of Arabic is so intense that it has made its students break down and cry. I’ve seen this happen. I admire my Arab friends who were born with Arabic – it’s a gift to understand the “words” of the Quran by simply growing up in an environment where it was your first language.

The rest of us have to spend our lives acquiring it, learning it, and perpetually working on it.

As a result, I’ve felt both shame and embarrassment at being 30 years old and not knowing the “language” by which Allah chose to communicate his message to his believers.

But, mostly, I’ve felt distance from the Quran – yes, it is the Holy Book, but if I cannot understand all the words in the language its meant to be recited in then how can it truly penetrate my heart and enlighten my soul?

Of course, this leads to moments of “zoning” out during my ritualistic prayers. I pick up some words here and there, but largely I cannot understand what’s being recited by the prayer leader, or imam.

Tarawih prayers during Ramadan thus become exercises in combating attention deficit disorder. First, one has to endure the endearingly awkward and eccentric characters that appear at the local mosque. You stand in rows, shoulder to shoulder and feet to feet [sadly, some take this literally and thus grind against you in a way that would warrant a restraining order or at the very least the purchase of 2 non-alcoholic beverages], and attempt to concentrate for an hour as the imam finishes a section of the Quran.

Now, I have always told myself had I known Arabic fluently maybe I’d save my mind from wandering into the inevitable Tarawih Twilight Zone. About 12 minutes into the prayer instead of concentrating on my Creator, I’m assaulted – like clockwork – with a collage of stream of consciousness randomness.

Recently, I contemplated the exorbitant price of gasoline, which made me think of the dilapidated state of my ’97 Camry, which in turn made me contemplate buying a new car and figuring out means to pay for such a lofty expense, which in turn led me to question my career choice and imagine alternative lucrative careers such as applying for “chai walla” positions at Google.

This fantasy randomly ended with me riding a gilded horse wearing battle armor attacking a fortress of goblins with a machine gun.

Another time I caught myself “tarawih twilight zoning” while engaged in a brutal “thought-off” with my brain, whereby I countered my impious thoughts with pious thoughts only to be caught in the most awkward, internal, circuitous cacophony of mental images since puberty.

I randomly remembered trying to pay attention to prayer when I was 12 years old only to be bombarded with highly suggestive sexual imagery. Now, if anyone knows anything about 12 year old boys, you know we only have one thing on our mind – and it isn’t religion. Seriously. It isn’t even our fault. We’re designed this way. We could do the least sexual thing imaginable – like staring at red bricks – and somehow, in the most sick, twisted yet creative fashion, create a highly pleasurable and deviant sexual scenario.


So, these were thoughts that attacked me recently while I was trying to concentrate during my prayer.

1992 Cindy Crawford Sports Illustrated picture.

“Cindy? I havent thought of you in a decade! How’d you get in there?  Crap! Astagfurallah! (May God forgive me).”

Salma Hayek from Desperado.

“Salma, stop tormenting me!”



Salma Hayek, this time from this terrible movie I saw on the plane called “Grown Ups”

“Movie sucked. Adam Sandler, what happened to you? Salma is still hot.”

A unicorn.


The last scene from “Blade Runner” in which Harrison Ford holds a Unicorn Origami.

“They are re-making this. It might be good. I hope so. I hope Ridley Scott’s Prometheus is good next summer.”

The terrifying Devil villain from Ridley Scott’s 1985 movie “Legend” starring Tom Cruise, Sloane from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off “and Tim Curry and…a unicorn.

“La howla wa la Khuwata! (There is no might or power except through Allah!)”

The Devil from the movie kept popping up in my brain and it immediately shocked me to my senses.  I could once again hear the Quran clearly as I stood in the prayer line. I took a glance at the imam and noticed he was  just a young kid. A young boy leading an entire congregation.

What a responsibility on this young man’s shoulders, I thought. How old is he? 16? When did he start learning to recite? Amazing – this kid knows the entire Quran.

And that’s when I remembered this fantastic documentary I had just seen entitled “Koran By Heart” which follows the stories of several Muslim youths from different countries seeking to win the annual, prestigious Quran recitation competition in Egypt. The movie is riveting, much like the spelling-bee competition documentary “Spellbound,” but also a humanizing and warm-hearted reflection of the diversity of Muslims and the influence of the Quran, their families and their communities on their lives.

Although there is no “central hero,” the film traces the competition through the eyes of adorable, gifted young children whose talent of recitation often makes the elderly judges weep. The documentary also interviews a non-Muslim academic who has devoted her life studying Quranic recitation as a form of art.

I envied this woman who somehow found both spiritual and artistic ecstacy by hearing the Quran despite not being a Muslim.

I wanted to experience the Quran as she experienced it.

There is something powerful, arresting and truly enchanting about hearing the Quran being recited by eloquent artists. There is a rich texture to the voice, language and intonation that I’ve yet to hear elsewhere. It is otherworldly.

The diversity in its recitation is matched only by the diversity of the artists who have attempted to master its magic.

So, I stood there, during Tarawih prayers, in the prayer line as the awkward uncle grinded my leg, reflecting upon the Quran as celestial art.

How apt, I thought.

There is a saying of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him): “Allah is beautiful and He loves beauty.” The intent of the Creator is often reflected in the beauty of His creation, especially if it is fashioned with love, care, passion and sincerity.

And so I stood there listening to the Quran, the language of Allah as spoken through his messenger for His creation.

And for the first time in a long time, I knew and understood the “language” despite not knowing or understanding the language.

I was in awe of the Artist and allowed myself to enjoy His artistry.


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