1. Spiritual detoxification
Indeed, it is a noble Qur’an, in a Book well-protected; none touch it except the purified.20
Many exegetes consider this an allusion to the sinless angels who have access to al-Lawḥ al-Maḥfūẓ
, a primordial tablet in the heavens where the Qur’an was first inscribed. The majority of jurists, even those who accept this interpretation, still cite this verse regarding the obligation of being in a state of full ritual purity (ṭahārah
) before touching our copies of the Qur’an.21
Nonetheless, scholars like Imam al-Farrāʾ (rA) suggested another brilliant layer of meaning here, namely that the blessings and sweetness of the Qur’an can only be reached by the believers who are purified from faithlessness.22
Similarly, Ibn al-Qayyim reports Ibn Taymiyyah as saying, “If the angels—who are created beings—are prevented from entering a house by dogs and images, then how could knowing Allah, loving Him, the sweetness of remembering Him, and the comfort of being near to Him, enter a heart that is filled with the dogs of desires and images [of worldly pursuits]?”23
In another verse, Allah (the Mighty and Majestic) says,
I will turn away from My signs those who act unjustly with arrogance in the land. And even if they were to see every sign, they still would not believe in them. If they see the Right Path, they will not take it. But if they see a crooked path, they will follow it. This is because they denied Our signs and were heedless of them.24
The signs (āyāt)
of Allah are not just observed and experienced, but also recited. Hence, we find Sufyān ibn ʿUyaynah (rA) explaining that a part of “turning them away from My signs” includes “removing from them the ability to understand the Qur’an.”25
In that vein, Ibn Qudāmah (rA) also said,
The reciter must clear himself of the deterrents of understanding, such as being insistent upon a sin, or harboring arrogance, or surrendering to his biases—for these all cause the heart to darken and corrode. The heart is like a mirror, desires are like corrosion, and Qur’anic concepts are like images that are reflected in the mirror. Spiritual training, through cleansing it of [contrary] desires, is analogous to polishing that mirror.26
Sins infect the heart just as diseases infect the body, and the diseased heart cannot benefit from the nourishment that its survival and well-being depend on. Hence, if we want to understand Allah’s messages, and benefit from them beyond intellectual discussions, we must be committed to purifying our hearts, which are the receptacles of the Qur’an. This is achieved by renewing our repentance on a regular basis, seeking His forgiveness for our past crimes, discontinuing the sins currently polluting our interior, and refreshing our resolve to compensate in the days ahead. Finally, we should incorporate in that detox humble pleas to Allah that express our desperation and earnestness to requalify for being guided by His word, and our acknowledgment of its power to inspire and transform a person in remarkable ways. Our Prophet ﷺ encouraged us all to learn a sacred prayer in this respect, the end of which states,
O Allah... make the Qur’an the spring of my heart, the illumination of my chest, the assuaging of my grief, and the departure of my anxiety (Allāhumma... ij‘al al-Qurʾāna rabī‘a qalbī, wa-nūra ṣadrī, wa-jalā’a ḥuznī, wa dhahāba hammī).27
2. A serious approach to the sacred
In several Qur’anic passages, Allah recounts His commands to past nations and prophets to “take hold of the Scripture with strength,”28
meaning with the utmost seriousness. In a Meccan verse, prior to the permission of physical jihad, Allah commands His Prophet not to obey the unbelievers and to perform jihad with the Quran, “and strive against them with it a great striving.”29
The necessity of treating the sacred as such includes not handling it superficially, as one may handle the words of transient created beings.
Hold fast to the Scripture!
A part of this requires treating our sessions with the Qur’an, especially those designated for tadabbur
, as semi-formal occasions by insulating them against every avoidable distraction. In our technological era that is engineered to distract in unprecedented ways, it has become necessary for a Muslim to erect formidable walls in their life around what they value, and constantly reinforce those walls against the catapults of device-intrusion. Al-Suyūṭī (rA) said, “It is disliked to interrupt the recitation in order to speak to someone. Al-Ḥalīmī said, ‘That is because the words of Allah should not be overcome by the words of others.’ Al-Bayhaqī supported this position with the following narration in al-Ṣaḥīḥ
: ‘When Ibn ʿUmar used to recite the Qur’an, he would not speak at all until he had concluded.’”30
This undivided attention is among the pearls of wisdom for why reciting the Qur’an in the night prayers has a superior virtue; it is more distant from diversion and permits a greater chance for the tongue and heart to coincide in focus.31
As Allah (st) says, “Arise [to pray] at night... Indeed, the night hours are more conducive [to worship].”32
For those who feel that they do not memorize enough Qur’an to apply this, know that the Companions of the Prophet ﷺ were first instructed to perform the night prayers at a time when very little Qur’an had been revealed. This reinforces that repeating a few verses may actually provide far more benefit, by allowing for greater tadabbur
than reading a greater number of verses a single time. Al-Ḥasan b. ʿAlī (ra) said, “Those who were before you saw the Qur’an as messages from their Lord so they used to reflect on them at night and follow them during the day.”33
Finally, for those who cannot yet understand the few verses they have memorized, major scholars have deemed it permissible to hold a muṣḥaf
in hand as you recite.34
Contemporary scholars have also extended this concession to translations as well, meaning they permitted that a reciter hold a translation and glance at it (not pronounce it) as they recite or hear the Arabic.
Whether we recite in prayer or outside of it, this concept should always be front and center for us moving forward; it is inappropriate to recite Allah’s sacred words while fielding mobile notifications, while meandering with our eyes at every intriguing sight, or while being immersed in laughter and play. Scholars suggest that a reciter also be keen, when pursuing tadabbur
, to avoid times when they are physically or mentally fatigued. In his commentary on the hadith of the Prophet ﷺ asking some of his Companions to recite the Qur’an for him and saying, “I like to hear it from others,”35
Imam Ibn Baṭṭāl (rA) extends the wisdom of doing that to other relevant situations we face upon reciting the Qur’an. He said that this may be to maximize the quality of tadabbur
, since the reciter may at times be too consumed (due to fatigue, foggy memory, or otherwise) with the rendition of the verses to juggle that along with the superior task of reflecting on them.36
Etiquette of recitation
Be keen to observe the proper etiquettes for reciting Qur’an that have been reported by our pious predecessors. These ceremonial-like practices include sitting reverently in a humble posture,37
being undisturbed by hunger or the call of nature, facing the qiblah
(direction of prayer),38
and physical purity,40
and refreshing one’s oral hygiene.41
Ibn Mājah narrates that ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib (rA) would say, “Your mouths are the passageways of the Qur’an, so refresh them with the siwāk
Brief yourself on the meanings
Familiarize yourself with the meanings of the verses you will now recite. Allah (st) condemned in the Qur’an those who neglected the meanings of their Scripture, settled for its recitation, and took their faith from speculation as a result, saying, “And among them are unlettered ones who do not know the Scripture except [indulgence in] wishful thinking, but they are only assuming.”43
involves deep reflection, and since reflection is a matter of deepening our understanding, developing a baseline understanding is necessary. This is easily done by consulting a reliable book of tafsīr
(exegesis). Imam al-Ṭabarī (rA), a celebrated pioneer in tafsīr
literature, used to say, “I marvel at how someone who does not know the tafsīr
could enjoy the Qur’an.”44
He is reminding us that the tranquility found in the Qur’anic melody cannot compare with its truest treasure, which lies in savoring the meanings these verses carry. For beginners, a trustworthy Sunni translation should suffice in that regard.
It should be noted that familiarizing oneself with the meanings in this manner will not suffice to qualify a person to delve into Qur’anic interpretation (tafsīr
) or the extraction of legal rulings (fiqh
) independently. But just as it would be impermissible for nonexperts to meddle in these sophisticated disciplines without adequate training, it would also be impermissible for the average Muslim to neglect tadabbur
under the premise that they are not specialized in Qur’anic studies. A nonexpert is still capable of reflection, self-reckoning, and spiritual awakening through the Qur’an, and we must shun every whisper that suggests otherwise. Ibn Ḥubayrah (rA) said, “Among the deceptive schemes of Satan is his chasing the servants of God away from tadabbur
of the Qur’an, due to his conviction that guidance occurs during tadabbur
. So he says, ‘This [practice of reflection] is risky,’ until the person himself says, ‘I will not speak on the Qur’an out of pious caution.’”45
As for the recitation itself, the Qur’an and Sunnah instruct us to recite at a measured pace (tartīl
) that allows for the pronunciation of each letter, to beautify our voices into a melodious chant (taghannī
), and to articulate the Qur’an accurately (tajwīd
). These all contribute to the tadabbur
project we are exploring in this paper, but it must be said that these components of proper recitation are (at a basic level) obligations on every Muslim to learn. It was understood among the earliest Muslims that there was a learning curve here, even for someone proficient in Arabic. That is why the Prophet ﷺ said, “The person who grapples with the Qur’an, and finds it difficult, is entitled to a double reward.”46
Reciting Qur’an is therefore a particular skill, not identical to fluency, and so we must all be invested in joining classes and pursuing teachers to educate ourselves on this.
Ibn al-Jazarī (rA), a leading authority in Qur’anic sciences and qirāʾāt
, summarizes that while some scholars believed that reciting more is superior, due to the famous “ten good deeds per letter”47
hadith and other texts, the correct position is that of the vast majority of the earlier and later generations: “reciting less but with tartīl
is superior, because the objective is to comprehend the Qur’an and act upon it, while reciting and memorizing it are a means to realize that [objective of] comprehension.”48
Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī (rA), after asserting that tartīl
is an independently praiseworthy act even in the absence of comprehension, said, “The non-Arabic speaker who cannot understand the Qur’an should still recite in a calm and measured way, because that is more reverent and respectful, and has a greater impact on the heart compared to [reciting in] jabber and haste.”49
In other words, this is all an intrinsic part of our reverent approach to the sacred, en route to tadabbur
With regard to reciting the Qur’an in an audible (as the default) and melodious way, the Prophet ﷺ emphasized this by saying, “The person who does not recite the Qur’an melodiously is not of us.”50
Interestingly, scholars have cautioned against letting oneself become so captivated by reciters with extraordinary voices that this deters you from tadabbur
on the Qur’an itself. Melodious tartīl
is for facilitating tadabbur
, not for diverting people’s attention away from it, which sadly is not uncommon. This pitfall, though, should never eclipse the importance of listening to the Qur’an on a regular basis. Al-Layth ibn Saʿd (rA) would say that “Allah’s mercy does not hasten to anyone as fast as it does to the listener of the Qur’an.”51
He would then cite as proof for this the noble verse, “So when the Qur’an is recited, then listen to it and be silent that you may receive mercy.”52
3. The right mindset
What should I be thinking about as I recite the Qur’an? What should I be looking for as I journey through the Divine message? The following will be a roadmap for our tadabbur sessions, to help us retrieve new gems with each dive.
1. Realize what it means to be uttering God’s words.
Have you ever thought about how it could be possible that a powerless, dependent, fleeting creature like the human being could be allowed to restate the words of the All-Powerful, Independent, Eternal Creator? The fact that Allah permitted this should be seen as a bounty from Him that we could never earn. Hence, Allah said, “And We have certainly made the Qur’an easy to remember. So is there anyone who will be mindful?”53
About this verse, Ibn ʿAbbās (rA) said, “Had Allah not facilitated it on the tongues of the children of Adam, none from the creation would have been able to speak the words of Allah, the Mighty and Majestic.”54
Appreciating the fact that Allah Himself allowed you to connect with, and express, His inimitable speech is instrumental to tadabbur
. When Mālik ibn Dīnār (rA) would have his students recite to him, he would remark after they concluded, “Listen to what the Most Truthful is saying from above His throne.”55
Let the weight of that reality be your starting thought.
2. Check behind each word. It is interesting to note that tadabbur comes from the word dubur, which denotes the back of something. Allah, the Creator of our tongues and their eloquence, deliberately chose this word in particular to describe our ideal reading of His book. So as you recite, seek to explore what lies behind each word, and spend lengthy periods probing this. A wise person once said that the messages of the Qur’an are like our conversations with friends; the secrets are only exchanged with those most loyal after trust has been built. Nearly every practitioner of tadabbur can attest to this: the transformative experiences inspired by this Book are reserved for those dedicated to it, not necessarily those with more information about it.
What surprises many people about the unique power of tadabbur is that it evokes epiphanies that seem so obvious after the fact. This is because tadabbur is not about unlocking some encrypted truth in the Qur’an, but rather becoming eligible for it. Remember that Allah called this Scripture “ʿazīz,” which has several implications, including it being a “proud” book, a book that refuses to disclose its secrets to those who allot it the leftovers of their time and attention.
3. Observe from a bird’s-eye view. The Qur’an has many overarching themes and objectives that we should keep in mind whenever we reflect, such as the perfection of Allah’s qualities and actions, the blessing of knowing His perfect laws, the archetypes of good and evil behavior, and the descriptions of Paradise and Hellfire. These are some of the most recurrent themes of the Qur’an, all of which the reader needs to be mindful of.
The reasons behind a sūrah
’s revelation are another helpful component of grasping its overall context. Identifying whether a sūrah
is Meccan (revealed before the migration) or Medinan (revealed after the migration) is pivotal to optimizing tadabbur
s, for instance, descended in an atmosphere of idolatry, persecution, and turmoil; hence, they infuse the reader with the purity of creed, optimism, and perseverance. Madinan sūrah
s descended amidst the birth of a state and a model community; hence, they set the infrastructure for stability, brotherhood, and mitigating the ills of prosperity. The Qur’anic narrative often flows in a way that assumes its reader is apprised of the background story, which allows one to see past its literal meanings, without necessarily ignoring them. For instance, Ibn ʿAbbās (rA) recognized that Sūrat al-Naṣr
foretold the forthcoming death of the Prophet ﷺ, though there is no direct reference to that in it. He inferred this from its tone and when it was revealed.
Another high-level perspective that is sure to help tadabbur involves investigating the themes or central concepts of a particular sūrah. This grants you a deeper sense of context, which allows for connecting the dots. Sūrat al-Kahf, for instance, offers all four of its stories as an immunization against life’s various trials. The boys in the cave symbolize the trial of religious persecution; the owner of the two gardens symbolizes the trial of wealth; the voyage of Mūsá (as) and al-Khiḍr symbolizes the trial of knowledge; the mission of Dhū al-Qarnayn symbolizes the trial of power. And as a whole, this sūrah was identified by the Prophet ﷺ as a means of protection from the greatest trial in human history: al-Masīḥ al-Dajjāl (the False Messiah).
Realize that the word sūrah
comes from sūr
(fence or gate), which should call our attention to the fact that each sūrah
is a distinct bundle of verses fused together. Getting into the habit of inquiring why
these specific verses (sūrah
) have been separated from others will open worlds of meanings for you, by Allah’s permission. For instance, consider that Sūrat al-Raḥmān
begins with Allah’s name al-Raḥmān
(the Most Merciful) and then ends with, “Blessed is the name of your Lord.”57
Noticing this will allow a person to return to reading everything between those two poles (even the mention of the Hellfire in this sūrah
) in light of this newly discovered theme: Allah’s mercy.
4. Draw parallels.
Every quality in people, and every incident in history, that the Qur’an tells us about has counterparts in our lives and times. The function of tadabbur
is to extract them. For instance, ask yourself why Allah (st) chose to illustrate that even His prophets were human beings who faced uphill climbs and struggles with emotion? Consider how the Qur’an first captures the fear of Mūsā (as) when he reaches the blessed valley and the staff becomes a snake; he flees and does not turn back until Allah tells him, “O Moses, fear not. Indeed, in My presence, the messengers do not fear.”58
Later, he stands before Pharaoh and fear creeps back into his heart, but this time he stands his ground.59
Later, the whole nation of Israelites is struck with fear when caught between the sea and the approaching army, but this time the fear of Mūsā is nowhere to be found. Instead, he says, “No! My Lord is certainly with me, [and] He will direct me.”60
Just as we must relate to the prophets in our tadabbur
, we should also be contrasting ourselves with them. For instance, when Wuhayb ibn al-Ward would recite this verse, “And [mention] when Ibrāhīm was erecting the foundations of the House, along with Ismā‘īl, saying, ‘Our Lord! Accept from us’” he would weep and say, “This is the friend of Allah, building the [greatest] House of Allah, and yet he begs that it be accepted of him.”61
His reflection delivered him to the realization that we all too often have a premature sense of security about our meager deeds being worthy of acceptance. Similarly, when Ḥafṣ ibn Sulaymān once heard, “Have We not expanded for you [O Muhammad] your chest? And removed from you your sins that burdened your back? And We raised high for you your repute?,”62
he wept like a child and said, “O Ziyād, the Messenger of Allah’s sins63
weighed down his back,”64
meaning what should we expect of our own sins?
Noting parallels that contrast the righteous and the wicked was also practiced by our righteous predecessors in their tadabbur
. For instance, Allah (st) says, “Go [O Mūsá and Hārūn] to Pharaoh, for he has transgressed. And say to him a soft word, perhaps he may be reminded or fearful.”65
Yaḥyá b. Muʿādh (rA) wept upon hearing someone recite this, and said, “My God, this is Your gentleness with those who say ‘I am god,’ so how about us, who testify that You are the True God? This is Your gentleness with those who say ‘I am your lord, most high,’ so how about us, who say ‘Glorified is my Lord, Most High’ [in every prostration]?”66
Juxtaposing similar scenes from across the Qur’an, and comparing them with each other, is another form of drawing parallels. For instance, Ibrāhīm (as) is ready to slaughter his son without hesitation, while the Israelites are reluctant to slaughter a cow of their choice. Tadabbur around this parallel alone can restore in a reader what submission in Islam is all about: not the size of the command, but the Grandeur of the Commander. Every sacrifice is just details, and it is the surrender of the hearts (and consequently the limbs) that defines a servant of God.
5. Reflect on your personal needs.
The Qur’an speaks to its reader in different ways at different times. This is not due to the meanings of the Qur’an being arbitrary or subjective, but rather that through tadabbur
the most pertinent implications of a passage will manifest to satisfy a particular issue or need in our personal lives. For instance, consider the oft-repeated statement in Sūrat al-Fātiḥah
, “Owner of the Day of Resurrection.”67
This verse can serve to break one’s arrogance, chase away one’s cowardice, and heal one’s trauma. It is all the same verse but resonates within different people, or within a single person at different points in their life, in a way that is most therapeutic for their respective conditions. But the key here is introspection: being focused on one’s own flaws and needs, and then handing them over to the Qur’an to resolve them. Fight the desire to reflect for posting, collecting, and discussing. The early Muslims would often caution their students that when Allah gives someone a glimpse of sacred knowledge, He examines whether they will be more concerned about implementing it (riʿāyah)
than talking about it (riwāyah)