It happened at an international inter-faith conference. The organizers decided to end the conference with readings from the scriptures of major religions, done by followers of other religions. As it happened, an Arab Christian read a passage from the Qur’an. He was a good reciter. Every one seemed to be moved by his heart-rending reading, including the reciter himself. Immediately afterward, prominent Muslim thinker and writer, Maulana Waheeduddin Khan, who narrated this story, asked him: "Do you think Qur’an is the Word of God?" In a moment of truth he said: "Yes." But, then, he had second thoughts so he added: "But only for the Arabs."
Actually not only the Qur’anic message keeps attracting people all over the world, its words also move people who may not know a word of Arabic language. Famous Egyptian reciter Qari Abdul Basit reportedly once accompanied then President Gamal Abdul Nasir to a meeting with the Soviet leaders. During a break in the meeting, Nasir asked him to recite the Qur’an before the top Soviet leaders. When he finished the recitation, Qari Abdul Basit saw four of them shedding tears. "We don’t know what it was," they later explained. But there was some thing touching in those Words!
Ironically at that time Qur’an was the forbidden tree for the Muslims in the Soviet Union. Reading, teaching, or even possessing a copy of the Qur’an resulted in the most severe punishments. The KGB was always on the lookout. Its agents could enter any house, any time, if they suspected anyone inside of reading Qur’an or offering prayers. Religious leaders were drafted for compulsory labor. Mosques and Islamic schools were closed down and turned into cinema houses, factories and offices. One could not find a copy of the Qur’an anywhere. The ruthless state machinery did everything within its power to extinguish the flame of Qur’an from the empire. Yet during those seventy dark years Muslims kept the flame burning. They developed elaborate camouflage mechanisms, at tremendous risks, to teach Qur’an to their children. Little children had to stay away from their parents for months at a time as they retired to secret hujras (rooms) where they memorized Qur’an and received religious instructions without ever having looked at a printed page. Their stories remain a neglected but extremely bright part of our recent history.
What kind of Book can command such devotion and sacrifices? Only the Book that begins by asserting:
"This is the Book; in it is guidance sure, without doubt, to those who fear Allah." (Al-Baqarah 2:2).
And then each and every line of it attests to that assertion. It declares:
"The Most Gracious! It is He Who has taught the Qur’an." (Al- Rahman 55:1-2).
"Say If the whole of mankind and Jinn were to gather together to produce the like of this Qur’an, they could not produce the like thereof, even if they backed up each other with help and support." (Bani Israel 17:88).
"Verily it is We Who revealed the Remembrance and verily We are its guardians." (Al-Hijr, 15:9).
Qur’an is the first document in the Arabic language. There is no other language of the world that has withstood the passage of fourteen centuries. Over the centuries, rivers change courses, civilizations rise and fall, and languages become extinct and new ones develop. Consider the expression "faeder ure on heofonum" from Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6 from a Bible of 900 C.E. We are told it means: "Our father in heaven." It also means that any writing from that time cannot be read by an English speaker today. But any Arabic speaker can open the Qur’an today and understand its message. As did all the people in the intervening centuries!
Prominent scholar Dr. Hamidullah tells of an effort in Germany by the Christian scholars to gather all the Greek manuscripts of Bible as the original Bible in Aramaic is extinct. They gathered all manuscripts in the world and after examining them reported: "Some two hundred thousand contradictory narrations have been found… of these one-eighth are of an important nature." When the report was published, some people established an Institute for Qur’anic Research in Munich with the goal of examining Qur’an the same way. A gigantic research project was started that continued for three generations. By 1933, 43000 photocopies of Qur’anic manuscripts had been collected. A report published shortly before World War II showed the results of the examination of these manuscripts. While some minor mistakes of calligraphy were found, not a single discrepancy in the text had been discovered!
Of course the love, devotion and care that Muslim showed toward the Qur’an, and that became the immediate cause of its miraculous preservation, was inspired by the Prophet Muhammad, Salla-Allahu alayhi wa sallam. On one occasion he asked the companions in Suffa: Which of you would like to go out every morning to Buthan or Al- Aqiq (two markets near Medina) and bring two large she-camels without being guilty of sin or without severing the ties of kinship? Camels were the valuable commodity of the time, she-camels even more so. Its equivalent today may be a brand new automobile. As they showed their interest, Prophet Muhammad, Salla-Allahu alayhi wa sallam, explained: To teach or recite two verses of the Qur’an is better than getting two she-camels. And three verses are better than three she-camels. (Muslim).
And so, for centuries this ummah displayed an unprecedented love and devotion for the Book of Allah. It began the education of its children by teaching them how to read Qur’an. It began its day by reciting from the Qur’an. Qur’an was divided into seven parts, each called a manzil, so it could be read completely every week. It was divided into thirty parts, each called a juz, so it could be read completely every month. Qur’an is the most read and memorized book in the world!
Today, though, we see a change. Thanks to the twin scourges of a colonial education system and the television, today we find millions of Muslim children for whom learning to read the Qur’an is not part of their education. We find millions of Muslim homes where Qur’an is read only on special occasions. When someone dies, for example. This despite the fact that in most parts of the world today, unlike the Soviet Union of yesterday, reading the Qur’an is no longer a high risk proposition. How unfortunate is the person who should die of thirst while holding the refreshing glass of water in his hands! How unfortunate the person who should die of disease while holding the perfect medicine in his hands!
Of course we must read it, understand it, and put it into practice. But we must also remember that reading with full deference and proper etiquettes is a pre-requisite for understanding the Qur’an, just as understanding its message is a pre-requisite for practicing it. Our goal must be to live by the Qur’an. For only then we truly live. Otherwise we only pretend to live.