Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Jottings : Slice of life - 31

Jottings : Slice of life - 31
Every year during the month of Ramadan, boys and girls between the age of 10 and 20 from nearly seventy odd countries congregate in the beautiful city of Cairo in Egypt. The purpose is to participate in Quran recital competition held by the ministry of religious affairs. The day of Ramadan is chosen for this event because it was on this holy day, nearly thirteen centuries ago, that the Quran was revealed. The competition in Cairo brings together diverse threads of Moderate muslims under one roof - for whom the Quran is not merely a religion or just a codified book of injunctions, but is a way of life that embraces everything from birth to death and beyond, and this particular competition in Cairo is perhaps the most prestigious and historic of many such events conducted across the globe. For a Muslim, Lacking physical manifestation or representation of God, the word becomes very important. They not only sincerely believe but are firmly convinced that each phrase of the Quran is a direct revelation from the source of Godhead with no modification. Prophet Mohammad himself was only an apostle through whom God spoke, just as Moses was Yahweh’s, or Krishna was supreme Brahman’s. For those of us who do not know, or have not cared to know or read the Quran, it is difficult to understand the beauty of its text. Speaking for myself, There is no doubt in my mind that it is one of the fascinating religious texts. Many years ago, a young Muslim girl ( student of mine) presented to me a hand bound edition of the Quran for my reading. Her father descended from a family which traced itself back to nawabs. His passion was printing custom copies of Quran for private distribution. It still lies as a prized possession in my bookshelf. On one side is the text in its brilliant, efflorescent calligraphic Arabic, and on the other side is an English translation. The book is bound in Bluish green and hand embroidered in Golden thread with floral decorations. She had wrapped it in pure green muslin cloth tastefully knotted. She was a fair and good looking girl, and when she handed the book, she covered her head in traditional Muslim manner, and with all reverence deposited the book into my stretched arms. I have read the book multiple times with increasing interest. But nothing comes close to hearing it recited or read. Just as one stands transfixed while hearing Handel’s “Messiah”, or the vedas being chanted by trained Brahmans, the Quran has this ability to transport a listener into dizzy heights of ecstasy. For its sheer intonational beauty, cadence, depth, language and improvisation, very few texts comes close to it. Just as the rendition of Rig veda needs special training and discipline, or the stirring Christian psalms and Hymnal songs needs its musical notations, there is an elaborate musical style and formal rules for reciting the Holy Quran. After all , it is the word of God, and God’s words have to be musical and nothing else. Historically, when Prophet Mohammad heard archangel Gabriel lyrically whisper this spiritual message into his ear for over twenty three years, he did not feel the need write it down because there was no necessity. For him the message was crystal clear and needed no further elucidation or codification. When he taught this esoteric message to his disciples, again, he needed only an oral tradition and nothing else. Only after Mohammad passed away in 632 AD did his disciples decide to write down his teachings. The book in its pure form is over 75000 words, broken into more than 150 Suras or chapters, and contains a whopping 18000 unique words which need to to spoken with particular intensity, diction and pronunciation and feeling. Its a self referential text, in the sense, there are deep layers of meaning that peel out as one delves into its intricacies. Like the Vedas, there is a very special method of reading and intonation. Tajweed - as they call it - is that elaborate framework constituting guidelines on pronunciation, breath control, emotional assimilation and above all how to completely immerse and improvise spontaneously on the text itself. It takes years of formal training and practice to master and refine these rules. In fact, it should start early in childhood under an accomplished teacher. For devout muslims much like the Jews and their Talmud- Quran is their life, and daily life in all its aspects finds a place in the Quran - there is no visible separation between the two, and they deeply believe by reciting the Quran in its purest manner the gap between the material existence and spiritual essence disappears, and one comes face to face with God. On a quiet evening, if you are nearby a mosque, try listen silently to muezzin calling out its adherents to prayer and then listen to them read the Quran. An ineffable presence of purity will envelope you. No sensitive man, however hard hearted or atheistical can escape its inimitable charm .
Greg Barker, the American Documentary film maker, shot a beautiful film on the 2011 Cairo competition titled “Koran by heart” ( Available on youtube). It traces the path of three children from three different countries as wind their way to participate in the event. A young boy from Tajikistan, who doesn't understand or speak Arabic yet can recite the Quran upside down; a girl ( which is a rarity)from Maldives, who again cannot speak the language well enough and is more interested in science and maths than Quran, and the third is a boy from Senegal whose only education is the Quran and nothing else. All these areas are today hot beds of Muslim fundamentalism, but nevertheless home to some of the most devout moderate muslims in the world. In a ninety minute documentary, Barker presents the solemnity, beauty and high spiritual atmosphere of the event in Cairo and the rigor of its young participants along with their families; and in the same vein, also points out the troubles, divisions and doubts that prevail in practicing their true faith and the future of these young kids as they set foot into a more egalitarian world. It is a sensitive documentary for troubled times; definitely worth watching.
Every organized religion, whether it be Christian, Hindu, Jewish or Islam bases it authority on a text or texts. The question is whether knowing the words and sentences in the text by heart can be considered as a measure of spiritual growth and maturity, or would an understanding of the reality represented by such texts be of greater importance to oneself and other around. This is a debatable point,and you will find equal number of defendants on either side. The mystical side of religion: Hasidism, Christian mysticism of desert fathers, Advaita, Sufism or Zen buddhism - all of them reject the word and look to the moon pointed by the finger, and the formal adherents of faith swear by the letter of their books than spirit of it. In the cleft of this difference, lies the origin of all religious conflicts. We love our children, in fact we are proud, if they can recite their respective religious texts. They become show pieces in family gatherings. But the question is: Do we encourage or foster learning what those texts mean in its original essence. Barker’s documentary raises that question quite subtly and well. And this question is not pertinent only to muslims or the Holy Quran. it is equally applicable to all formally practiced religions around the globe.
God bless…
yours in mortality ,
Bala

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