By Ustadh Ubaydullah Evans
ALIF. LĀM. MĪM. The first verse of Sūrat al-Baqarah and perhaps one of the most well known of the Qur’ān is simply three seemingly unrelated letters, known as ḥurūf al-muqaṭṭa’āt. The vast majority of classical Muslim authorities consider these disjoined letter combinations, which begin twenty-nine separate chapters of the Qur’ān, a mystery. Although there has been much speculation about these letters in the books of tafsir (exegesis), nothing definitive is offered in the Qur’ān nor attributed to the Prophet (upon him be peace) to explain precisely what these letters mean. There is a subtle irony here. The Qur’ān contains verses such as:
“We have sent it down as an Arabic Qur’ān so you may understand.” Qur’ān 12:2
“And we have revealed the Book as an explanation of everything.” Qur’ān 16:89
“Those to whom we have given the book (the Qur’ān) study it as it should be studied: they are the ones that believe therein: those who reject faith therein the loss is their own.” Quran 2:121
Yet it starts its address in a register not easily grasped by rational knowledge, explanation or study. Religious authorities as widely varied in their positions as the rationalist Az-Zamakhsharī and the traditionalist Ibn Taymiyyah agree that the opening verse of Sūrat al-Baqarah and others like it throughout the Qur’ān highlight its other-worldly, inimitable, awe-inspiring character. In other words, the Qur’ān does not only intend to be a book of information; but also a book of inspiration. Our scripture is just as much about feeling something as it is about learning something:
“Allah has revealed (from time to time), the most beautiful Message in the form of a Book, consistent with itself, (yet) repeating (its teaching in various aspects): the skins of those who fear their Lord tremble thereat; then their skins and hearts soften to the remembrance of Allah…” Qur’ān 39:23
As a new Muslim I initially appreciated the soberness of our devotional spaces. In fact, disaffection with the ecstatic spirituality of the Pentecostal tradition has always been a common theme in the conversion stories of African American Muslims. From its earliest days, the appeal of Islam among Black Americans was based on pride, discipline, and morally correct behavior. The shared esteem for kinetic orality notwithstanding, Sunday service within the temples of the Nation of Islam (NOI) was quite different from its Black Christian equivalent. Gone were the congregational singing, dancing, glossolalia, trances (“catching the Holy Ghost”), etc. All of this was regarded with disdain. Indeed, these practices carried with them the stigma of slave religion, which, presumably in the minds of members of the NOI was much ado about nothing. We could whoop and holler, sing and dance, speak in tongues and catch the Holy Ghost, but do nothing to confront white supremacy—the real enemy to spiritual/self-actualization.
Moving away from that religious past, alternative modes of spirituality which placed a premium on dignity, comportment, and quiet reverence became a hallmark of the NOI. Interestingly enough, in spite of the fact that the majority of African American Muslims currently identify with some exponent of Sunni Islam, the spiritual temperament of the NOI remains with us. This isn’t necessarily bad, but like so many other things we’ve inherited from our forbearers, it demands to be examined. The famous 15th century Moroccan scholar, Ahmad Zarrūq, wisely noted that in the quest for balance, “An extreme will only lead to its opposite.” In our case, as Black American Muslims, a religious past that placed singular emphasis on rapturous experience, i.e. catching the spirit, may be followed by an overly-cerebral, dispassionate, malaise-inducing religious experience if we are not careful. Wallahu `Aalam.
In any event, when the Qur’ān is studied but not enjoyed, argued about but not wept over, interpreted but not wondrously pondered, we do it and ourselves a great disservice. When standing in Tarāwīh gets the wheels turning on all of our Arabic grammar and knowledge of rhetoric but fails to captivate the heart, we are missing an essential aspect of the Qur’ān. The opening verse of the first Juz’ of the Qur’ān proclaims boldly: This is the Word of God, the self-disclosure of God and some of it has nothing to do with conveying information. Practical guidance is a consideration of God but equally so are beauty, style, and inimitability. ALIF. LĀM. MĪM opens the door to the Qur’ān. Enter and open your heart to the world of revelation. It’s more than listening comprehension.
Ustadh Ubaydullah Evans is the first Scholar-in-Residence and Executive Director of the American Learning Institute for Muslims (ALIM). He has studied at Chicagoland’s Institute of Islamic Education (IIE), in Tarim, Yemen, and is a graduate of the Shari’a program at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt.