The Quran As Epic Enchanter – OpEd
By Eric Walberg
A prophet is a translator (mutarjim) of the workings of sacred imagination. The prophet Muhammad (pbuh*) conveyed the messages he channeled into ‘the recitation/ reading’, the Quran. Unlike the Bible, which claims (along with The communist manifesto) to be the most widely distributed book, the Quran is the most read, the most recited, the most memorized book. What accounts for the enduring popularity of the Quran?
It is about the same length as the New Testament. Being a good Muslim is all about memory. Becoming a hafiz (memorizer) is like a spiritual knighthood. Open to men and women, boys and girls, Sunni and Shia. In Pakistan alone, a million children have become Hafiz-e-Quran after an exam was introduced in 1982, with more than 78,000 (including 14,000 girls) new ones every year. This reverence for ‘the Book’ is as much a miracle as the Quran being channeled directly from God.
From a Google search, I found an eager Christian contemplating the unbelievable task of memorizing the New Testament, bemoaning that one in five Christians never even touches the Bible. A Wikipedia page for Tom Meyer, known as The Bible Memory Man, solemnly intones: On October 11–15, 2022, Meyer and six other Christians from all walks of life quoted the entire New Testament from memory, the first time in recorded history that such an endeavor has been accomplished. Meanwhile, there are millions of hafiiz, and who knows how many over the past 14 centuries, have accomplished much the same feat.
My efforts are modest, a few hundred verses. In my defense, I am learning how to recite with traditional Arabic maqamat, following reciters Afasi and Tunaji, which makes it more like memorizing dozens of songs. And I have no pretensions to becoming a hafiz. To me, it’s quality over quantity. The Quran must be sung.
Even the Taleban chanted their thanks to Allah, the surah Victory (al-nasr), when they inaugurated their emirate. And I suspect they don’t use tone deaf chanters. It takes communion with God to a higher level, a few seconds of paradise every day. For the Taleban, that is the only music allowed. That’s a shame as there is no prohibition of secular fun in Islam (apart from adultery, gambling and alcohol), but for even the most fanatical Muslim, a cappella is cool if you are praising God. In the Taleban’s defense, I quote Mandelstam, who famously quipped: the Soviet Union is the only place that takes poetry seriously.
Back to my question: Why so compelling?
After Allah, the most common word to describe Him, one of the 99 attributes, is mercy, which is also the root for ‘womb’ r-h-m, so while Allah may be aloof and a ‘he’, He is also loving and mother to us all. Ibn Arabi (d 1240) asked why is there something rather than nothing? His answer: mercy. God mercified the universe.
Do I see you smirk? Well, science has discovered that the cooperative principle is just as much a part of evolution as competition. Nature is full of positive sum interactions. Love governs nature. The universe is simultaneously a manifestation of divine mercy, and composed of the fruits of this mercy. Both form and content.
After mercy comes gh-f-r (forgiveness). God is stern, demanding, but also merciful, forgiving. There are many verses with these attributes, but the whole Quran is infused with them. The forest and the trees.
Northrop Frye used literary criticism to show how the Bible articulates spiritual vision as a unity. The Quran does this in spades. From the start, it makes racism taboo (haram). And among His wonders is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the diversity of your tongues and colors. (30:22) All people are chosen, i.e., humanity is one species, centred on God’s oneness and place in the lives of all humans. In an age where racism is still alive and well, now identified with the Jewish ‘homeland’, and where Christianity is too weak to confront this, it falls on the Muslim world, buttressed by the Quran, to stand up in the interests of common humanity.
More than just good theology, it’s a dramatic epic, right up there with Shahnameh, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Homer’s Odyssey. But it’s not just a linear plotline. It is episodic, like musical variations, improvisations. And that works for us. We are totally episodic in our thinking. Northrop Frye quips, it’s not true that things cease to exist when we stop looking at them,** but we unconsciously intuit this to allow mind to focus on the moment. We would go crazy otherwise. Out of sight out of mind. So episodic fits our thinking.
In recounting the prophet Salih and the destruction of Thamud for disbelief (shirk), the great apocalyptic scream (al-sayha) represents the monumental drama of prophecy and its rejection in a near-synesthetic gesture. Through repeated episodes, cycles of human failing, the divine scream echoes in the music of every verse through the transformative power of the apocalyptic imagination. Norman O Brown argues its episodic, fragmented mode of composition is a literary device capable of delivering ‘profound effects, as if the intensity of the prophetic message were shattering the vehicle of human language in which it was being communicated.’***
Quranic time’s grammar
The slower you read the Quran, the better. And the more times you read it, the better. You lose your sense of linear time when you recite, which is the best way to ‘read’ the Quran. You enter sacred time. The grammar is not so much cause-effect, but typology. History repeats itself (sort of), themes, types recur. Time is unplugged. Which is precisely musical experience, which also happens outside of time. When you listen or sing or play, you forget about linear time, ‘lost’ in the music. Music exploits time and its illusions of movement and sequence.
The reciting act becomes a technique for achieving ecstasy (wajd from w-j-d find). You escape the ephemeral self, a construction of space-time, and the true identity of the reader is found in the primordial moment of the covenant beyond time and space.**** Lawson argues that the history of humanity and consciousness were/are born at same time. The epic birth of humanity. There is no room here for narrative movement apart from the simultaneous movement and stillness of the apocalypse, the revelation.
Typology, with its rhetorical verve, is a more powerful tool than logical argumentation. It is the language of myth. Science is about what’s past, ex post, and uses retrospective time. Typology assumes a future, can transcend time itself. It unites past, present, future. It bespeaks the desire to awake from the nightmare of history. It is necessary more than ever today, as we witness the current nightmare of war and environmental collapse.
The grammar of typology is duality, a dialectic of opposites, symmetry and oneness. Norman O Brown states you can start reading the Quran anywhere and you are in the right place. Constants are a thread throughout the text, provide something of narrative stream.
The original covenant ‘has occurred’ in a remote and mysterious placeless and timeless somehow. God drew forth all future generations from the loins of Adam before creation. Am I not your lord? Yes. Bala! So no excuse for being unaware of the covenant (yawm al-mithaq), which Lawson argues is a metaphor for the birth of consciousness itself. Conscious life is God’s gift, which is revivified and relived at every moment of passing time with the same message: we are all united as we were then. We can speak of the Quranization of consciousness, soul formation.****
In the profane world (dunya), this glory is experienced intermittently. Some spiritual athletes (ascetics, saints) get access to it more steadily, but we can all find glimmers through our enchantment. Paradise is the promise of return to the primordial presence of glory and intimacy with God.
Typological figuration deploys, exploits and unites the vulgar illusions of past, present, future. Duality and opposition are the skeleton, typology the flesh. When this is in place, the apocalyptic or revelatory reality is truly born. Apocalypse enters history once again with the experience and preaching of Muhammad (pbuh), who is both symbol and exemplar of all previous prophetic types. We can conceive of a prophetic perfect tense, a timeless, eternal present, with typology the dramatic counterpart to the narrative stream.
Typology collapses time into the original moment outside time beyond place, the birth of consciousness, our covenant with God. The chaos of historical religions is transformed into the clash-harmony of periodic divine revelation. True prophets are all related. In the presence of God, all things are somehow happening at once.
Then and now
The first muslims identified with the ordeals of the children of Israel and followers of other prophets. The nightmare of history shows how illusory and ephemeral ‘time as history’ is. It is awareness, consciousness, understanding that are substantial and permanent (though atemporal and supraspatial). So Islam = enlightenment. The Quran lifts the veil covering the true nature of relationship between historical reality, spiritual reality and social reality.
Out of the ongoing slaughter in the Middle East, we now witness a beautiful convergence of opposites today, as the Saudi Sunnis and Iranian Shia made peace just as Ramadan commenced. And Turkey backed off its regime-change agenda for Syria. The Muslim world breathes a collective sigh of relief. A glimmer of that primordial glory. The collective West’s agenda of upheaval and death is exposed as evil. Money, war, soulless corporations, consumerism, pollution vs a growing unity in opposition to these evils.
The bull’s eye
Quranic space-time is apocalypse, revelation, where past, present and future all meet in one enchanted room, the space-time of the Quranic chant, sung into being and defined and built by recitation. Unlike the Bible, the Quran was composed primarily to be recited. It is full of intimate conversations with the reader. The Quran is not poetry per se. Poetry was seen in the middle ages as public entertainment, secular, about fun, the opposite of prophetic expression. Listening to the Quran is listening to God. What could be more compelling?
So it is beautiful, rhythmic, poetic. Like a great wheel or mandala, with chiasmic spokes of opposite dualities (good-bad, anger-mercy, …), the hole in the centre – the clincher – is paradise, giving the wheel meaning, intent, transformative power.
When the Quran is recited, peace (sakina) descends and enchants the space of chanting, renewing the covenant. With the additional dimension of a personal existential awakening and experience. Then, if all goes well, your consciousness ascends into the presence of God.
Enchant, change your own universe through true soul music. In reciting, reaffirm it for oneself. Grammar of performance and grammar of text merge. Audience and performance merge, the audience part of the act of revelation. Circularity and closure, a sense of being at home in sacred music. Chanting lets you enter sacred time, in scientific terms, eternal time, the block universe,+ where past, present and future are fused. Enter the enchanted room.
The Quran is modern and postmodern, going beyond linear space-time, anchored in myth, and mobilizing the imagination with the goal of transcendence. The Quran is alive. It gives wings to the soul at same time as it anchors it.
*Peace be upon Him
**Northrop Frey, The Great Code: The Bible as literature, 1982, pp 82-3.
***Norman O Brown, ‘The Apocalypse of Islam’, Social Text 8:155-71.
****Todd Lawson, The Quran: Epic and apocalypse, 2017, pp 45, 88.
+Dean Buonomano, Your brain is a time machine: The neuroscience and physics of time, 2017.