Tarawih: To Stand or to Understand


We underestimate how many words of the Arabic language especially from the Quran we in fact know. We know for example the names of many of the Prophets (such Muhammad, Isa, Musa and Adam), locations (Makkah and Medina) and more importantly, the many names of Allah (Al-Rabb, Al-Rahman, Al-Raheem). Therefore, we should read around these terms in more detail in order for their impact to grace us in a more powerful way.

tarawih understanding the words

It is that time of the year that we have been waiting for, not since last year, but our whole lives as each Ramadhan is special and unique. When it parts, a bitter-sweet emotion lingers in our souls, one of overwhelming joy at having completed the entire month, but also regret as we want it to stay. The feelings and ambience that envelop the hearts during this month are ones that lure us to look forward to the next one. Accompanied alongside these warm fuzzy sentiments, are the emotions of frustration and anger. The frustration of not being able to understand what the Imam recites in tarawih and the anger of the broken promise we made ourselves of learning Arabic to understand these eternal words by the coming Ramadhan. So the heart that we mended worshiping Allah during this blessed period is the same heart that is broken by the coming Ramadhan.

To compensate for the disability of not being able to communicate with our Lord in the prayer, we often choose an Imam that recites the Quran well to pray behind. Ringing friends and family to find out which Imam is good and perhaps going to a few masjids before we decide to settle for one. If we know that this will increase our humility (khushoo) in the salah, then this is something that is sought.

But if we are being honest with ourselves, perhaps we use the vehicle of the recitation only as a means to carry us through the night. Are our Lord’s words not enough for such a task? There is nothing wrong in choosing to pray behind an Imam who has a great voice in and of itself. But should we not make more effort at being moved by the words than the manner of how those words are being recited? Although, there is a miracle in the sound of the Quran, but are we not missing out on the greater miracle embedded in the meanings of that sound? In fact, it is the beautiful voice that should be a stepping stone that helps us focus, understand and ponder more. [1] So let us not make the means the aim.

It is only through the Mercy of Allah that he has granted us a reward for listening to the Quran even if we do not comprehend it. However, in a worldly perspective, we cannot truly say that we are listening to the Quran when we do not even understand it. For instance, if one listens to a train announcement at a platform in Paris (without knowing French) he is like one who hasn’t listened to the announcement to begin with.

So what should we do? It’s too late to attend an intensive Arabic Course and would we really benefit from one in such a short time? What practical steps can we undertake to focus more on the meanings of the Quran and not the human quality of the voice.

Focus on the words that you already know

Being on that Parisian platform, you may know of some words to look out for in order to know what is being said. You may not be able to understand all of it – but it will steer your thoughts in the right direction.

The Quran is entrenched in imagery and symbolism that surround certain words that reoccur often. So whilst it’s difficult to learn Qur’anic Arabic in preparation to understand the verses recited in tarawih quickly. It’s more practical to become familiar with terms that are repetitive so that when we do listen to them, we can conjure up descriptions in our mind when we hear them. For instance, when we hear words like Jannah (Paradise), Naar (Fire), Jahannam (Hell) and so on, we should think about what it means.

One may argue, how is it possible to imagine the unimaginable especially when Allah said: “I have prepared for My pious slaves things which have never been seen by an eye, or heard by an ear, or imagined by a human being.”[2] Although we cannot imagine what it looks like, it doesn’t mean that we cannot associate the descriptions of Paradise the Prophet (Sallahu ‘alayhi wa Salam) mentioned to us with the word Jannah. It is true that we “cannot visualize, or form an idea of something that lies entirely outside the realm of previously realized experiences”[3] as argued by Asad. But the Quran has a powerful way of explicating an abstract concept in concrete forms thereby allowing us to perceive them with our senses. Taking a simple example, Allah describes the rivers of Paradise as ‘tajree min tahtihal anhaar’ “gardens underneath which rivers flow”. So from this very short description of Paradise, we get a very vivid image that comes alive through the movement of the water gliding under the gardens which the believers are promised. So this one image “penetrates the depth of human psyche not just mentally but also visually and sensuously.”[4]

We underestimate how many words of the Arabic language especially from the Quran we in fact know. We know for example the names of many of the Prophets (such Muhammad, Isa, Musa and Adam), locations (Makkah and Medina) and more importantly, the many names of Allah (Al-Rabb, Al-Rahman, Al-Raheem). Therefore, we should read around these terms in more detail in order for their impact to grace us in a more powerful way.

In order to prepare for the part of the Quran that will be recited in tarawih, we can skim through some of the words that we know will appear that night. Memorise less than a dozen important ones that are equally spread around the section, anticipating them when recited.[5]
Reading a summary of each chapter

Returning back to that Parisian platform, you may now have acquired a timetable, consequently knowing when a train will be parting. This will give you a greater understanding of what is being said in the announcement. In the same manner, learn what will be mentioned as an overview of the Surah. This can be done in a number of ways.

Firstly, be familiar in bullet point form what the Juz’ (section) of the Quran is about. One excellent resource of this can be found here: MRDF’s A Summary of all 30 Parts of the Qur’an.[6] Another book to consult is ‘Themes of the Quran’ by Dr Ahmad Sakr[7] which gives a breakdown of each Surah in terms of themes and topics discussed.

Secondly, watch a summary of each Juz’ entitled: Glimpses of the Qurandelivered by Ustadh Abu Taubah (May Allah make his affairs easy for him) which will only take 25 minutes.[8]

Thirdly, be familiar with the stories within each Juz’. For instance, there are three main stories in the first juz’, the story of Adam (verses 30-39), Musa (40-103) and Ibrahim (v124-141) (‘Alayhimus Salam). Read about these stories before coming to tarawih and associate words or short phrases in Arabic knowing what they mean.

Fourthly, depending on how much Quran is being covered during tarawih, why not read the English translation. By coming to tarawih prepared, this will facilitate tadabbur (pondering) over the Quran in the salah better.[9]

Fifthly, just because someone knows Arabic and understands what is being recited, does not ensure that one is taking full of advantage. Each Surah of the Quran has its own personality. Each uses a specific vocabulary set, tone and this is why we find that the same story mentioned more than once in the Quran has subtle differences, partly because of the approach the Surah takes. By knowing the maqsad (aim) of the Surah, the listener will know why certain words, stories and rulings were mentioned in a particular Surah. Amongst those who have written about this are Tahir Ibn Ashur and Syed Qutb.[10]

As you can see, there are a number of means we can undertake to make our tarawih more fruitful. But a bigger question perhaps, is how to implement such a plan.

Firstly, Ramadhan is about making the bonds of brotherhood stronger. It is so important, that certain rules can be overlooked for the sake of unity. What greater form of brotherhood is there than the family. This is the foundation of society and the origin of unity. So why not have a short family circle everyday for 10 minutes before heading out to the masjid, about the section that will be recited?

Secondly, encourage the masjid or the Imam to give a short reminder based on the tarawih that night. How great it would be that the Imam gives the congregation pointers about certain words that will come and what verses to look out for.

The purpose of this paper was not to discourage the Muslims to pray behind an Imam with a beautiful recitation. But what is sought is to pray behind an Imam who you feel fears Allah coupled with understanding of what is being heard. Surely, rather than discuss how much the Imam sounds like a Mishari or a Shatri. Wouldn’t it be better to talk about the words of the Creator rather than humanly quality of the recitation? Perhaps the beauty of the recitation can carry our legs through the night, but surely we should allow the actual words being recited be the vehicle to carry our hearts.

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[1] Notice in the words of Ibn Jibreen on how good recitation can be a springboard to understanding the Quran better and not the recitation in and of itself (i.e. without understanding it). Shaykh Ibn Jibreen said: “A beautiful voice and good recitation have an impact on the heart and help to bring about presence of mind and physical stillness, and enable one to be affected by the words of Allah, may He be exalted, and to enjoy listening to them, which may be a means of understanding them, comprehending their meaning and appreciating their miraculous nature, eloquence and style. All of that is in turn leads acting upon them and accepting their guidance. So the one who looks for a reciter with a beautiful voice who recites the Qur’an well, has memorised it, whose recitation helps him to focus and is unhurried in his prayer is not to be criticized. One should look for such an imam to pray behind, even if the place is far away, and this imam is to be preferred over one who does not recite well, or makes many mistakes, or does not have a pleasant voice, or does not make his voice beautiful when reciting Qur’an, or who recites too quickly, or is not unhurried in his prayer, or does not sound focused in his recitation, even if his mosque is nearby.” Fataawa ash-Shaykh Ibn Jibreen, 24/28
[2] (Bukhari and Muslim)
[3] M. Asad, The Message of the Quran
[4] F.T. Sheikh, Nature imagery in al-Quran
[5] One such resource can be found here, unfortunately it is not complete: http://studentsofquran.com/grammer/root-words/
[6] The booklet can be downloaded here: http://www.islam21c.com/books/JuzbyJuzv5.pdf
[7] Dr. Ahmad H Sakr , Themes of the Qur’an, Published by Foundation for Islamic Knowledge, USA
[8] The Talks can be purchased here http://glimpsesofquran.org/ otherwise, they should be aired on Ramadhan TV.
[9] It is the authors recommendation from the perspective of being reader-friendly, to read through M.A.S. Abdel Haleem’s translation (The Quran, published by OUP). It is organised in the form of paragraphs which makes the coherence easier to follow and lacks parentheses.
[10] Other authors who have discussed the ‘Aims of Surahs’ are: Biqaai, Fayruzabadi, Al-Maraaghi, Farahi, Sabooni, Zuhayli (Tafsirul Munir) and others.

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