Qur’anic Reading as Embodied Practice

By Summar Shoaib

In Western traditions, whether religious or scholarly, reading and meaning are typically understood in solely cognitive terms, as a matter of extracting content from a text by way of the mind’s interpretive efforts. In traditional Islamic worlds, however, Qur’anic reading especially requires a number of bodily practices in order to come into the proper relationship with, and thus understand, the text. Indeed, the ideal form of reading in Islam is best understood as itself an embodied practice, rather than strictly a mental act. This applies to listening as well as reading, both of which are intimately involved in recitation.

For example, Qur’anic verses with the verb root “ق ر أ” (qaaf raa hamza) stipulate appropriate forms of emotion and comportment with regards to recitation: 7:204. So when the Qur’an is recited, then listen to it and pay attention that you may receive mercy; 84:21. And when the Qur’an is recited to them, they do not prostrate [to Allah]? To receive the text properly thus requires engaged ears that actively pay attention as well as prostration or submission to Allah.

Properly reciting the text is also explained in some detail: 16:98. So when you recite the Qu’ran, [first] seek refuge in Allah from Satan, the expelled [from His mercy]; 17:45. And when you recite the Qur’an, we put between you and those who do not believe in the Hereafter a concealed partition. The former resulted in the development of a Muslim practice in which the reciter explicitly states, “I seek refuge in Allah from Satan” before commencing any Qur’anic recitation. This statement, as well as any recitation, is meant to be said aloud, engaging a moving tongue. The latter verse suggests reflection on the status of those who do and do not believe in the Hereafter. Believers are those who have “submitted” to Allah and the Qur’an, while disbelievers, according to the Qur’an, refuse to submit, resulting in an inability to fully engage or interact with the text. As Wolfgang Iser has argued (The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response), it is the interaction between reader and text that results in meaning. On this view, disbelievers are unable to derive true meaning from the Qur’an precisely because they are unwilling to establish the proper relationship with it.

Put another way, meaning as a traditional Islamic concept is indicated through a change in the reader produced by means of bodily practices such as a moving tongue, prostration upon hearing Qur’anic verses, and even weeping. Such practices result in receptive ears, a clear mind, and an open heart. Importantly, from traditional Muslim perspectives, this sense of reading and meaning is not the product of a latter interpretive tradition, but is derived directly from the Qur’anic text itself, as the verses discussed above suggest.




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5 Responses to Qur’anic Reading as Embodied Practice

  1. Deane says:

    Undoubtedly there is an impossible distance between an ancient religious text and a modern, academic interpretation of it. And I think this would extend to any ancient religious text, not just the Qur’an. John Caputo, for example, discusses Anselm’s development of what is now termed “the ontological argument for the existence of God”. What interests Caputo, in reading Anselm’s argument, is not Anselm’s logic (nor his lack of logic, for that matter), but “the choreography … – that Anselm is conducting this argument on his knees, in a loving reverence and a faithful love of the God beyond God.” Caputo goes on to note that “things could not have changed more dramatically when this argument was rehearsed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Whether Anselm’s argument is defended or rebutted in modernity, the choreography is ignored, all the candles are blown out, and the animating religious spirit has been drained out of it. The prayers and tears of St. Anselm are replaced by dry-eyed, bare bones logic. The monastery chapel, the spare but gorgeous Gregorian chant, and monk’s prie-Dieu have all disappeared. The argument is labeled by Kant the ‘ontological’ argument …. But that is the last thing it is for Anselm” (On Religion, 41-42). Moshe Idel makes a similar argument in respect of Judaism in Old Worlds, New Mirrors: On Jewish mysticism and twentieth-century thought.

    So the mode of interaction between reader and text is fundamentally different in modernity, at least in this respect. This point challenges not only the modern reader, but the religiously “submissive” reader. Contrary to the religious insider’s claims, their reading does not provide a “full” reading of the text, and it is only “deeper” in respect of their restricted definitions of deepness. In any “open” or “writerly” text, which includes most ancient religious texts, a full reading cannot be reached by being submissive to one religious tradition. Sure, submission to a particular tradition may achieve “fullness” according to a restricted measure of fullness. But in light of the range of readings able to be made, such fullness is limited and confined. One could make the same objection for any modern reading claiming a full interpretation. A full interpretation cannot in fact be reached at all, as the openness of the text to different readerly postures provides the possibility for infinite readings, for an unending and unreachable fullness.

    It may be that modern readings of ancient religious texts lie completely outside what was ever previously envisaged for the use of the text. They may be illegitimate in terms of any previously contemplated “submissive” readings. But let’s open up the Qur’an for these illegitimate, bastard readings, too.

  2. Craig Martin says:

    Nice comment, Deane!

  3. Kenny Paul Smith says:

    This is an excellent response, an elegant post of its own in fact (and we’d love to post it or somethign like it as such if you’re interested)! Still, I wonder about the analogy between Christian and Islamic “modernities.” I think you are right-on regarding the different ways in which Anselm’s “ontological argument” has been understood since Enlightenment times, and how its devotional aspects were drained away, but I just don’t have the expertise to adjudicate how closely this approximates the historical development of Islamic cultures. What do you think?

    • Deane says:

      I was mainly considering the similarities of “pre-modernity” within Christian, Islamic, Jewish, etc reading cultures – which is where I saw the close similarity in contrast to the modern, academic study of the authoritative texts of these religious traditions. I agree that the modernities of each are quite different in themselves, but I admit I was not paying much thought to that; the author’s contrast was with “Western traditions”, and I was in part questioning whether his “fall guy” is simply “Western traditions” or more accurately modernist traditions. Of course, the more academic, modernist readings of the Qur’an are being done by Muslim and non-Muslim academics, too (e.g. Faziur Rahman Malik, Muhammad Arkoun, Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd) – and they undoubtedly have their distinctive shades of modernist critique.

      Feel free to promote the comment to a post, if you like.

  4. Kenny Paul Smith says:


    Ah, I see your point entirely, and it’s a darn good one. Summar’s piece leaves unexplored the possibility that what she identifies as a “Western” mode of reading is in fact a “modern” mode of reading. Very nice.

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