The joint activities of memorising and reciting the Arabic Qur’an are deeply embedded within Islamic tradition, culture and educational practice. Despite this, for many western non-Muslims, particularly those engaged in educational activity themselves, to learn that memorisation of the Arabic text of the Qur’an does not always—or, indeed, often—go hand-in-hand with understanding the meaning of the words can come as both a surprise and a shock. It is not uncommon to hear a response from such people to the effect that to memorise texts without understanding their meaning is pointless. There is also sometimes the implication that such practice in anachronistic: ‘behind the times’, as it were, and thus not worthy of serious consideration. This article is framed as a ‘general’ riposte to such a dismissive response in that its motivation lies not in straightforward apologetics (that is, defending the practice of memorisation without qualification and at all costs), but, rather, in bringing together a number of key elements (or factors) that cumulatively carry sufficient weight to challenge such a raw response, or at least to give pause for thought and promote a more informed consideration. Following a brief introduction that locates Qur’an memorisation and recitation within Islamic faith and practice, five facets will be explored: first, the growing recognition that there is not just one legitimate form of literacy but, rather, a plurality of literacies; second, the ambiguity within the concept of ‘meaning’ itself; third, an acknowledgement that memorisation has not only held an esteemed place in western history, but remains valued in some aspects of contemporary life and culture; fourth, a recognition of the emotional power of high-quality recitation, irrespective of a literal comprehension of the words being recited; and, finally, the growing body of research evidence that suggests that the involvement of Muslim children and young people in Qur’anic memorisation and recitation might very well equip them with valuable social and educational capital. The article will end with a brief personal account showing the complex position that a contemporary British Muslim ‘insider’—as individual, teacher and parent—has adopted towards his own and others’ practice of memorising the Qur’an. This account has been included to show that, within the Muslim community itself, different opinions are held about the weight and meaning to be placed on memorisation in general and on Qur’anic memorisation and recitation in particular.
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