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.