The following lines draw mostly from the experience of the Qur’an itself which, according to a well known principle of Islamic studies, is its own best interpreter and clarifier: this ‘interpretation of the Qur’an through the Qur’an’ (tafsir al-Qur’an bi’l-Qur’an) is based on a subtle inner architecture of the text, where ‘allusions fly like sparks’ from one chapter to another, casting light on implicit nuances of meaning. This is due in good measure to the nature of the Arabic language which, like Hebrew, springs inexhaustibly from the permutations on word-roots of three consonants. A refined science of words and meanings is thus established, always very near the consciousness of the speakers and always revealing subtle semantic correspondences, as we will do in the following pages. Favouring readability, we have preferred to omit specific bibliographic references, but the interested reader shall find at the end a useful list of works to consult.
The Qur’an is, in Islamic civilization, the utterance that brings everything together, a rhythmic pulse of language, much in its function like the heart in the body, a heart of music. Being a very particular kind of music, untraceable and lightning-like in its historical irruption, it is a kernel of such compressed harmony that the effects of its reverberation are felt historically and geographically in countless ways, and to the very ends of the sphere of influence of Islam. I will try to explain how this reverberation unfolds in the manner of the foundational module and proportion of a traditional building, and how our initial premise holds true on three symbolic fronts: acoustically, graphically, and humanly.
From our point of view, as we try to discern the binding central knot, or the crucial joint—both meanings of the Greek word harmonia—in Islamic faith and practice, it is already quite remarkable that the basic meaning of the Arabic word qur’anis ‘to bind’, ‘to gather’ or ‘collect’. Both possible etymologies of the word (q-r-’ and q-r-n) point to the same basic idea, and in this we have a perfect convergence with the basic meaning of the Greek logos, a ‘word’ or a ‘ratio’ that binds (legei). It is partly because of this correspondence that scholars of comparative theology speak of an illibration of the divine in Islam, that is, a ‘becoming book’, instead of the Christian doctrine of incarnation or ‘becoming flesh’. While, from the point of view of Christian theology, the synthesizing word of God became flesh and lives among us, a Muslim theologian would say that the word of God became a book and is read among us. The Qur’an is considered in Islam the illibration of God just as Jesus is in Christianity the incarnation of God. Each one of them is, in their respective symbolic universes and their ensuing cultures, the meeting point between heaven and earth, vertically, as they are also, horizontally, the meeting point between the faithful; they fasten heaven to earth and the community of believers in the way that a carpentry joint (harmonia) does.
The image from a manual craft is significant, because it establishes a symbolic link with all the teachings about the demiurgic or artisanal aspect of God, down from Plato’s Timaeus and into the Middle Ages, in numerous manifestations within the Abrahamic traditions. God as Creator was diversely conceived as the Carpenter, the Architect, the Potter, the Geometer, the Blacksmith, and generally as the one archetype of every known human craft.
Every work of craftsmanship is pervaded by a life (its ‘blood’) and held together by a substantial structure (its ‘bones’). In these two fundamental aspects we feel the heart that animates them, and we see the framework that constitutes them; and they are aspects, practically two definitions, yet again, of the word harmony. This imagery, then, draws our attention to the fact that harmony means both the reverberation of the vital centre which is the heart, and the substantial prolongation of a structural centre, such as the vertebral column in the body. Energy and structure; flow and order; continuum and discrete series; music and arithmetic; the movement of the heavens and geometry—every one of these pairs reveals the same creative contrast.
The Sound Before Everything
Like in the sister Abrahamic traditions of Judaism and Christianity, the Islamic account of the creation of the universe begins with an utterance, amr Allah, the command of God. Let us note two features of this almighty cosmogonic word, this Arabic imperative Kun!, ‘Be!’, which we know as the divine fiat: 1) it is not said just once ‘In the beginning,’ but rather eternally, now as ever beyond this fabric of time, ‘In the Principle’ (Heb. be-re’shit / Gr. en arche); and 2) it is an articulated utterance, meaning that it has elements, like letters of an alphabet, combined in linguistic ways, and hence that it is a kernel of primordial order.
There are two cosmic ‘levels’ of the Qur’an: one is the eternal archetype of the revelation, a heavenly blueprint called umm al-kitab, the ‘Mother of the Book’, and there is the manifest Qur’an we can listen to in the world. The Qur’an in heaven is at the same time the blueprint for creation: both the Book and the universe are composed of ayat, a term meaning ‘verset’, ‘sign’ (Heb. ’ot), or even, more simply and fundamentally, every object of cognition, anything that stands as an object in front of our mind’s eye as an object of perception (Heb. ’et). These transcendent ‘verses’ manifest as the ‘signs of God’ in the universe. According to Islamic cosmology, the world continues to exist because it is perpetually recreated by the eternal utterance, as if at every moment of time, even right now, the reality we perceive were pervaded by the articulation of the versets, and indeed manifesting them. This perpetual flow of the divine fiat, so aptly represented by the best examples of Qur’anic recitation, is an illustration of the most commonly used term for harmony in contemporary Arabic, insijam, which refers to the flow of water or tears (lacrimae rerum), placing the emphasis on the continuity of the concept of harmony, rather than on the joints that hold together the Great All. This is the same Pythagorean ‘music of the spheres’, the ‘immortal rhythm’ of Saint Augustine, to which man ascends by responding in kind, with his participation in the earthly forms of celestial music.
The Qur’anic recitations themselves, as we find them all over the Islamic world, from the Xi’an mosque to the Moroccan shores of the Atlantic, display in a superlative degree that ‘tense combination of opposites’ which we had outlined above and which characterise harmony and life itself. It was Heraclitus, a priest of Athene at Ephesus, and one of the most influential pre-Socratic philosophers, who characterised the union of opposites as ‘a retroflex harmony, such as that of the bow and the lyre.’ The sounds produced by a plucked string, like those produced by the vocal chords, are the direct manifestation of such harmony and conjunction, the result of a creative tension.
If harmony is thus made of complementary opposites, then the succession and interpenetration of silence and sound which characterizes Qur’anic recitation is surely one of the greatest manifestations of acoustic harmony: on the attentive listener, even on many who do not understand the Arabic, the ever fused and ever distinct cadences of guttural and honey-dense phonemes, the power of the archaic language, produce an unforgettable, unique impression. Verse after verse, recitation pauses take us back to the primordial. Silence. Then again, and again, vowels and consonants flow in whirls of sound, creating, re-creating. This is the divine dialectics of blinding lightning and blinding darkness, which in wave-like fashion crash against our shores. It is often said in Islamic literature that the Qur’an is an ocean; certainly one of the aspects of this ocean of words is the contrast between those crashing waves of Arabic speech, so particular, so regional, so Bedouin, and the silences of the retreating waves, so universal, so timeless and place-less. Among the many interpretations available, those which allow for a deeper appreciation of their art are the most unadorned, whose reciters eschew flourishes and intrusive accompaniment to deliver the raw power of the sacred sounds: we could mention here Mahmud Husari, Abdul Basit and Ali al-Hudhayfi, but it is not uncommon to find just the kind of recitation we have in mind in many an unsung village and little mosque, away from recording devices and publicity.
Now, Islamic life, everyday life in Muslim communities, does not carry the echo of these Qur’anic waves only in the explicit form of the recitation of the sacred book. This recitation is an integral part of the five obligatory daily prayers, but in addition to it and all other liturgical uses of the recitation, the Arabic of the Qur’an pervades daily conversation, partly through idioms and phrases turned into proverbs which come straight out of its pages, and in a similar way, and less obvious, through the grammar itself; even in our times, however non-religious the context, or even among Arabic-speaking communities of other faiths, the Arabic of the Qur’an is the touchstone of language learning and teaching. Famous works of Arabic literature, like the Arabian Nights, or in our days the novels of Naguib Mahfouz, all bear the imprint of the Qur’an almost on every page. More specifically, disciplines like prosody, rhetorics and versification derive directly, in every basic aspect, from centuries of Qur’anic study, which is no wonder, given that they are the closest to music of the literary skills.
Because the Qur’anic recitation is also musical and not merely a reading, the influence of the revealed model is also patent in the musical traditions of Islam. It is well known that in antiquity music was inconceivable as something separate from language; rather, what we call music was one of the aspects of a unity of language and music: artistic language was necessarily ‘musical’, just as ‘music’ was necessarily meaningful. In pre-Islamic Arabia this was verified in the sophisticated and highly respected art of poetry, just as in earlier times the Homeric Greek tradition had shown the same awareness. Nowadays this unity is alive in relation to the Qur’an, and so in contemporary Islamic cultures the principles of musical disciplines, like singing and instrumental performance, are taught in direct relation to Qur’anic modes of recitation and articulation, or at least indirectly through the musical repertoire associated with the veneration of the Prophet, who as we shall see later is intimately related to the Qur’an.
Drawing a full circle from the highest cosmological level to the most practical and audible manifestation, it is noteworthy that the art of singing/reading the Qur’an goes by the name of tartil, which means to recite rhythmically and spelling out distinctly and accurately (with tajwid). Thus the qari’ or ‘reciter’ reenacts upon every performance the divine musically ordered utterance of the creation. Every ritual recitation is strictly speaking a new diakosmesis, the ‘bringing into existence of a beautiful universal order or kosmos.’ Representing through his or her voice the divine rhythm and the divine alternance of silence and utterance, the reciter re-establishes the original harmony with every verse, making it audible to our human ears.
The Sublime Letters
Now, in the Qur’an we have, in addition to the acoustic cosmogony, the imagery of the written word with an exalted status that in Judaism and Christianity is only to be found in the exegetical literature, but not in the scriptures themselves. The Tanachor Jewish Bible, as the Gospels, refer to the creative word of God in several dimensions without explicitly using the imagery of the craft of the scribe, but in the Qur’an we find, for example, the following verse: ‘If all the trees on earth were pens and all the seas, with seven more seas besides, were ink (midad), still God’s words would not be exhausted’ (Q. 31:27). The images of the pen and the ink inspired countless commentaries through the centuries, including some of the most important mystical insights of both Shi‘a and Sunni schools. The symbolism of the ink acquired a particular relevance in Islamic cosmology: about two centuries after the death of Muhammad, when Islamic theosophy and theology had been enriched and cross-pollinated by the intense dialogue with the received wisdom of the ancient world, including the Greek metaphysical tradition, the term of choice to speak of ‘matter’, as in the substrate of existence, was madda, directly related to the word for ink.
As a remarkable complement to the acoustic perception of the Qur’an, we have in this image a visual and decidedly more concrete symbol of the cosmogonic process: the matter of the universe flows from the divine pen (al-qalam, also the name of one of the chapters of the Qur’an) like ink, and its flow is turned this and that way (inharafa) between the ridge-like edges (hiraf) of the canal-like pen strokes as the shapes of letters (huruf) ‘emerge’ and become distinct.
It will be hardly surprising that Islamic civilisation should have evolved into a calligraphic civilisation par excellence. High basalt steles, marble obelisks and bronze tables existed from old in other cultures, carved with hieroglyphs and ideograms and many enduring feats of monumental script, but the extent to which the Islamic arts relied on calligraphy had no equal and remains unparalleled. Not only were there special ornamental handwriting styles developed to carpet the walls and columns of sacred and kingly buildings, but national variations developed into rich manuscript traditions, giving rise additionally to the dazzling complementary discipline of illumination. Still today, it is exceedingly rare to visit any Muslim house or any abode, of whatever size or means, which does not have some sample of the art of Arabic calligraphy, be it in furniture, utensils, clothing and in general any kind of ornamentation.
Going back to the concept of kosmosonce again, this calligraphic prominence has undoubtedly contributed to the preservation, to a certain degree, of a traditional concept of ornament among Muslim peoples. In strict correspondence with its metaphysical model, the decorative script is not just a conveyor of the meaning of the divine word, and it is also not merely a pleasant form of beauty, but it is a concrete representation of the primeval ‘greater cosmos’. This applies equally, as has been often noted, to the marvels of geometrical design produced by Muslim craftsmen over the centuries; they echo, in their visual dimension, the resounding message of the Qur’an: unity, unity, la ilaha illa Llah. Once again the image of the ocean is apt, as waves upon waves of concentric motifs expand, images of resonance, filling the radial ‘space’ between the absolute centre and the relative manifestation of the periphery.
The accomplishment of the union of opposites mentioned earlier is here manifest in the contrast between the dark ink and the white paper, and between the liquid nature of the ink and its irrevocable fixation. In some works, the interplay between light and darkness is expressed by the gold of the illumination and the inspired use of colour. From the point of view of calligraphy, God writes with the ink of determination on the canvas of possibility, and His beautiful writing is the harmonious beauty of existence. Every individual calligrapher, evidently, reenacts this divine creation by mastering the basic ‘tension’ of his instruments and materials. What is less evident is that every reader too, through the eyes and the mind, is reenacting the act of divine reading: when we resolve the ‘tension’ between the black and white on paper, we ‘realise’ the meaning of the writing, just as in the Mind of God the universe is a ‘realisation’. God is not just the one and only Scribe, but also the one and only Reader. When our eyes scan a text, and when our hands trace the letters, we are once again ‘tying’ (religando) the knot between time and eternity, as it is tied through us.
‘His Nature Was the Qur’an’
The third symbolic aspect of the Qur’an as harmony in Islam is the human aspect, and it is partly based on the famous reply given by Aisha, one of the Prophet’s wives, when asked to describe him: she said ‘His Nature Was the Qur’an.’ This identity between Muhammad and the revealed book is realised, as per the duality mentioned in previous pages, in heaven and on earth, eternally and also within time, macrocosmically and microcosmically. The Qur’an is, as we had seen, the blueprint of the created universe, and accordingly, owing to the correspondence between ‘what is above’ and ‘what is below,’ it is the model and the original pattern or archetype of the human soul.
Like the Prophet himself, this correspondence has two dimensions, the transcendent, supra-individual one, and the personal one: in Islamic cosmology, especially in Sufi doctrines, the Prophet has a transcendent ‘face’ called the Muhammadan Light (nur muhammadi), which is the pattern of human nature in its original perfection (al-fitra). Just as we saw that there is a heavenly Qur’an, metaphysical source of the cosmos, just so there is a heavenly Muhammad who is the metaphysical source of the essential beauty and order (kosmos) of human beings. Every person of any belief, race, gender or character is essentially constituted by this luminous reality—this is the ‘Prophet’ beyond creed and circumstance, the Prophet of islamin its basic meaning of ‘submission in peace.’
As the historical complement of this exalted Light, there is Muhammad the person, who lived in Arabia and belonged to a tribe and had his share of human experiences. This is the Prophet of Islam, whose way of doing things (sunna) is for Muslims the pattern of human conduct. The daily deeds of the Prophet, his habits and his preferences down to minute details, have been imitated by Muslims throughout the world, often meticulously, for centuries. It would impossible to quantify, and certainly hard to exaggerate, the cumulative impact of this influence and its unifying power. One of the epithets of the Prophet, from the long list of such names which are usually sung on public gatherings, is dhikr Allah, the ‘remembrance of God’, and this is also a name of the Qur’an. It is as if through the veneration of the Prophet and the cultivation of his love, the community engaged in a collective act of remembrance comparable to the recitation of the revealed verses.
Muhammad is thus the factor of harmony on the human level in two ways: cosmically he is the transcendent model of our shared humanity, of the potential virtues in our heart of hearts; temporally he is the integrator of Islamic culture through the ages. He has an unspoken invisible presence in every human being, while at the same time he has a revered visible presence in the life of Islam, as the beloved and immediate role model of every individual Muslim. In these two functions he manifests the Qur’an: being the essential link between eternity and time, heaven and earth, and being the substantial, structural nexus that harmonises the consciousness, will and acts of every Muslim.
In a completely inconspicuous way, in the minutiae of Islamic etiquette, in a myriad details of daily life, echos of the Qur’anic music and gleams of the Qur’anic geometry resound and shine by the mediation of the Prophet. This is for instance at the basis of the institution of zakat, or Islamic tithes, the ritual charity, which runs through society like a river of generosity springing directly from Qur’anic injunctions and regulated by the example and instructions of the Prophet. Simple greetings, the ever recurring formulas, bismiLlah, insha’aLlah, al-hamdu li-Llah, and others which intertwine around every action, they all come from the Qur’an, and their usage was sanctioned and regulated once and forever by the sunna of the Prophet. When Muslims use them, and even more when behaving according to them, they are re-establishing every time a connection (harmonia) with the origin, horizontally and historically, and in fact, vertically, with the origin beyond every origin.
In our times of dissipation and dissolution, it is often hard to conceive the manifold, indeed incalculable repercussions brought about by the sustained attention and attachment to one vital axis. Islamic life, as mentioned at the beginning, revolves around the axis of the Qur’an, it is enlivened by it, sustained by it, and then by it reintegrated to the celestial origin and pattern. The matter of nurturing and cultivating harmony in such a traditional, and in our times mostly ideal civilisation, is not of primary concern because the essential drive to union (tawhid) embedded in society guarantees that human life will play along, like instruments, and flow along, like the heavenly bodies, with every aspect of nature. What we mean to explain is the doctrine expressed in the Gospel by the words of Jesus: ‘seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.’ In every traditional civilisation there is an axis, the heart-like and spine-like centre and headspring of every stream, and it is by concentrating our actions on it that harmony is brought about in the world: in Islam, as in every faith, harmony is not an object in itself, but what is ‘added’ upon our ‘seeking’ the one thing needful.
A living image in Islam of this centripetal movement that becomes a centrifugal force is of course the circumambulation of Kaaba in Mecca. If we could see from high above and from a worldwide perspective the effects of the pilgrimage, not only in its physical immediate manifestation, but also in its cultural and intellectual dimensions through time, we would see how the perennial cultivation of the centre, the journeying from all directions of the compass, becomes as it were the diffusion of an enlivening sap through the global body of the ummahor Muslim community. The blessings, insights and experiences, and often material treasures and trade opportunities, carried by the pilgrims upon their returns home are constantly renovating the spirit of fraternity, and more than that, the consciousness of a possible harmonious coexistence beyond nationality, race or social standing. In our times, a most touching testimony to this power of the pilgrimage was given by the American activist known as Malcolm X, who felt that for the first time in his life he could have a glimpse of human kind not being separated by racial divisions. After focusing on racial issues for so long, he felt and thought that their solution might come instead through the awareness of the One.
The relation between the cubic form of the Kaaba and the shape of a book has been observed over the centuries, and it is considered a confirmation of the central position of the Qur’an in Muslim life. In a way, the holy book is like that pivotal building of impenetrable blackness: life revolves around it, prayer turns towards it, and it bestows in return a harmony beyond our comprehension and a truly holistic sense of things. No matter how informed and experienced we may be, our views are narrow, and the measure and the limits of our attempts at unity are limited by those views. It is only when we entrust our intentions to the radiant heart of harmony that these can fulfil their true potential beyond our puny calculations.
Our third, human, aspect, of the Qur’nic presence in Islam, which is a now gentle, now urgent appeal to our true nature, highlights the need for the engagement of the will and an active participation. The heart of every revelation, what the Qur’an is in Islam, is not only a ‘witness’ of heaven, a lovely sound to play on a loudspeaker, a calligraphy used to decorate the wall, or a hero to be praised and admired. The sound has to be uttered by our mouth; our tongue and our vocal chords have to vibrate. The script has to be read, understood and assimilated. The Prophet has to be realised within us with all his virtues. Only then is harmony in Islam realised, only then are all beings truly ‘temples of tawhid’, hayakil al-tawhid, that is, sacred precincts of the universal drive to union. The music of the Qur’an beats then like the heart, and our spine transmits the sound vivifying the body, in what Muslim sages have called an ‘alchemy of happiness’.
If all the above sounds too exalted and abstract to have any correspondence to daily Muslim life, we are fortunate to have the most vivid proof at hand, for Ramadan is coming, and never like in Ramadan is the presence of the Qur’an realised in the ways described above. In the rigorous alternation of the fast between day and night, pervaded as it is by the ever-present recitation, we have as clear an illustration as possible of the tension of opposites resolved in harmony through the focus on the revealed book. Eating and fasting, fasting and eating, distension and tension, compression and expansion, coagula et solve, the sacred month grips the soul of the believers a little tighter every day until the final expansion of the Eid.
There is in the days of Ramadan a secret between God and every believer, and it is the alchemical mystery of the transformation of the fast, the vacare Deo, being “empty” to “receive” something from Heaven. But it is only when fasting goes beyond hunger and distress that the first glimmerings of this intimacy appear.
There is in the nights of Ramadan, beyond the feast and the revel, a mystery of “Quranification” of the soul. The holy month has symbolically thirty days, one for each thirtieth of the Qur’an, which is ingested like a course of medicine and in-corporated by the faithful, in its rhythm and cadences, in the gutturality of its archaic language, in the urgency of its silences. Night after night, the soul imbibes the cryptic harmony of the book. What happens there, between the revealed ‘book’ and the aspiring soul, is the real unifying rite of Islam, what re-establishes the cosmic order every time, like the humble, obscure, timeless love at the heart of every living faith.
Juan Acevedo has worked as a mountain guide in the Venezuelan Andes, and as a translator of works on Sufism, Orthodox Christianity, Kabbalah and Chinese Martial Arts. He has worked as a publisher of bilingual Arabic-English texts at the Islamic Texts Society (Cambridge) and for Tabah Research in Abu Dhabi. His recent PhD thesis tracks the foundational terms of alphanumeric cosmology from Ancient Greek to the language and the worldview of the Qur’an, the Sunna, and early Islamic alchemy and magic.
Shaʻban 1440 / April 2019
English translations of the Qur’an by Prof. Abdul Haleem, M.M. Pickthall, and the more recent edited by S.H. Nasr can be profitably collated; reading only one is insufficient. Traditional interpretations of individual verses can be consulted for free, in English and Arabic, at ALTAFSIR.COM among other similar online resources.
• M.A.S. Abdul Haleem, ‘The Qur’an in the Novels of Naguib Mahfouz,’ Journal of Qur’anic Studies.
• T. Burckhardt (transl.), Universal Man, by Abd al-Karim al-Jili.
• M. Chodkiewicz, An Ocean Without Shore: Ibn Arabi, the Book, and the Law.
• T. Georgiades, Musik und Rhythmus bei den Griechen.
• J. Hani, Les Métiers de Dieu.
• M. Lings, Splendours of Qur’an Calligraphy and Illumination.
• M. Lings, A Sufi Saint of the Twentieth Century.
• E. Lipinski, Semitic Languages: Outline of a Comparative Grammar.
• S.H. Nasr, Islamic Art and Spirituality.
• R. Shah-Kazemi, Imam ‘Ali: From Concise History to Timeless Mystery.
• A. Uzdavinys, Philosophy as a Rite of Rebirth.
Other useful resources:
- Qur’an audio recordings by many reciters can be easily found online, but it is not so easy to find recordings which are unadulterated by excessive acoustic effects. The Matheson Trust holds a carefully selected and growing collection.
- The British Library introductory page to its collection of Qur’anic manuscripts https://www.bl.uk/collection-guides/qurans
- Free Islamic Calligraphy with free quality printable designs https://freeislamiccalligraphy.com/
- An example of a living master calligrapher, with a photo gallery https://nuriaart.com/
Photograph: British Library