Estimated reading time: 8 minutes, 39 seconds
tl;dr I started reading Quran with my child and she asked me to explain the meanings, and I discovered that I’m actually not bad at this, but I never knew I could do it!
I’m writing this post, and I’m really documenting this realization for myself. Unsure if it is something of benefit to others. It might be a point of pride (I do feel proud) or it might be considered heretical, or for non-Muslims, possibly irrelevant, but I think the general realization here is this: you may not know how much you know, until your child asks you to explain something to them. And you’re put on the spot, and you feel compelled to answer them, and so you do it, and then you discover that, wow, you really CAN do it. And then you wonder if it’s a fluke, but it happens again, and you realize it was not a fluke. If a student in my class asks me something and I don’t know the answer, I absolutely will say “I don’t know, let’s discover together” or “I’ll get back to you”. I’d do that with my child, too, I think, if I didn’t know. But I realized that I’ve been, sort of, indoctrinated into thinking I don’t know, when I actually do know.
Who can read and interpret the Quran?
Let me explain. Growing up, when I would learn Quran at school (to learn to recite it by heart), I’d go back home and my mom would help me revise the verses I’d learned, and my dad would sit with me, holding a book of tafseer (interpretation of the Quran) to help explain what was in the verses I had just read. Before I could read well, my mom said she would always have to read with me to make sure I read correctly. I was really young and I don’t honestly remember what my dad used to say in the interpretations, but it was a nice process, you know? My mom had a part, my dad had a part, and they didn’t stop at the recitation and wanted me to understand. As I got older, I would learn to read and recite on my own without their help, and I’d read books about interpretation of the Quran and other books around those kinds of topics, and I’d build my own knowledge, you know? I’d watch stuff on TV (I also was myself part of several shows for young people on TV), listen to podcasts, occasionally get annoyed by the ways some things were interpreted – and all through my life, I was taught that not everyone could understand the Quran exactly, some scholar should explain it to you, and there were different interpretations and angry English version of Quran was considered “interpretation” not “translation” (and if you see them you’ll notice how different word choices indeed transform the possible meaning) while at the same time, that our relationship with God (Allah) is both direct (we talk to Allah directly, not through a messenger or anyone) and personal (what we decide to do in our lives, Allah knows our intention and we follow our heart, but not our whim, in how we worship Allah). I also always had these moments when reading the Quran when a verse would catch my attention or capture my heart and give me a moment of clarity in a moment of darkness, where I felt like Allah was talking straight to me to let me know that everything will be OK, that there are ways out, that something good would come soon. A lot of other times, reading the Quran is just a routine and I don’t always focus on what I’m reading. Reading it over and over from cover to cover on a regular basis and knowing some of it by heart means that sometimes you just read it quickly. There’s value in reading Quran in any form, as a kind of worship. Reading without understanding, reading with your eyes, or reciting without looking, or reading to interpret. All of it has value. I also enjoy reading it in English sometimes and exploring different interpretations. This is sometimes how I read the meaning (by looking at different translations). I also used to have different copies of the Quran that had notes on the margins to explain meanings of difficult words, and sometimes also “reasons this verse came about” so you get the backstory. Those were useful, too, though I’ve stopped using them. My Quran app doesn’t do it and I haven’t sought another one just yet 🙂
A feminist turn (but not really a turn)
As an adult, while doing my PhD in Education, and wanting to explore whether critical thinking (my PhD topic) was general or domain-specific, I decided to take a course
I chose a course in Women and the Quran (cross listed as Islamic studies and Gender studies) locally. I had never studied either, and I wanted to know if the criticality I had developed studying computer science and education would transfer (it mostly didn’t; only a little bit, and mostly actually because I’d been reading up on both Islam and gender for quite some time, so I had the content knowledge to engage – but I did not know what criticality looked like in those disciplines, and I learned).
In any case, one of the key things (and it was not news to me, but the first time I could engage with it) was that a lot of Islam and Quran has been interpreted over the years by men. Of course. Like all of knowledge and definitely all religious knowledge, right? And so, in this course, I learned about feminist interpretations in more depth, learned to conduct my own explorations and come up with my own interpretations. One such interpretation was… as a child, I asked my mom why all the prophets and messengers were men, and at the time, she was really impressed with my question. But I was less than impressed with her answer. She said “because way back then, women didn’t go out much, so they couldn’t pass on the message”. In this course I took, I explored the possibility that maybe there WERE female prophets whom God spoke to. They may not have had as big of a message or as obvious of a message, but they were still clearly extremely unique women and extremely close to Allah. For example, Maryam (Mary mother of Jesus), who is mentioned so often in the Quran – had conversations with Allah and with angels. Moses’ mother put her child in the river based on inspiration from Allah. This does not seem like a normal action of a normal mother unless there was divine intervention. And so I did research to suggest they may have been prophets, just not recognized as such by the men interpreting the Quran.
For my own child, when she was first learning Quran, I would do with her what I used to do with any book – act out the meaning of verses. They were small verses with easy interpretations, so that was both fun and straightforward. Now she is 10. This year during Ramadan, she asked that sometimes when I do some extra prayers, I read aloud and she sits beside me. In these extra prayers, unlike the required ones, we can hold the Quran and read from it directly, rather than recite by heart. So one of the times we did this, after I finished, she told me, now can you explain to me what we just read. I was kind of taken aback. I was just reading what was there, and I didn’t really… you know… focus on the meaning (shame on me, whatever). So I told her I’d give it a try. And you know what, I managed! Most of it was Arabic that was understandable to me (FYI the Arabic used in the Quran is very different from any other Arabic – it’s a little different from Modern Standard Arabic that we write, using old terminology and more complex terms – and it is entirely different from the colloquial Egyptian we speak, so my daughter truly doesn’t understand most of it). I had enough knowledge in my 40+ years, had listened to and read other interpretations, and reflected on my own and had conversations, that I managed to explain to her most of what was there. Occasionally I would skip over a part, and occasionally we would look up the meaning of a word. Sometimes, one verse would spark interesting conversations or questions or connections. We tried this again a couple of times. It became a moment to connect with my child and to also connect with my soul, you know?
But I didn’t know I could do that, until my daughter asked me to. This is not the first time I discover my ability to do something simply because my child asked me to do it, because whenever she asks, I want to do the thing, even if I didn’t imagine I could do it before. That’s such an intrinsic motivator, but also, every time this happens, I realize there is some constructed norm that was stopping me, but it was like an invisible barrier that I couldn’t see was actually really unwarranted, that I let this barrier control me, when it should not have done that. I found myself making connections between parts of the Quran talking about different prophets and telling her longer parts of the stories not mentioned in the verses. I found myself making connections between the importance of “making and keeping promises” in the Quran and certain behavioral issues she and I are working on :))
One funny moment came yesterday when we reached a part in the Quran that talks about extramarital sex. And she and I talk about these things in general, though I don’t think she knew it existed in the Quran. And I found her asking also about sexuality in broader ways. And honestly, when I started doing this whole exercise of discussing the Quran with her, I truly was NOT expecting to end up talking about THAT.
Anyway I’ll leave it here!