During Ramadan, many of us attend taraweeh(night prayers) at the masjid. Some of us stay until the Imam leads us in witr (a final supplementary prayer). For many of us, this can amount to over two hours of prayer time and for many of us, we understand almost nothing.
Sometimes, during the recitation of the Qur’an we hear the people around us crying profusely and we wish we could understand what could be so powerful that those around us are reduced to such tears. We can sometimes make out a specific word, but within a moment, we are back to indistinguishable meanings and simply wishing we knew what was going on.
I used to have no idea what was going on in the prayer. I remember standing for lengthy time periods behind the Imam, trying to make my mind focus but finding it constantly drift off; it’s very, very hard to concentrate when the mind has nothing to contextualize. I eventually would settle on trying to think of anything for which I could possibly be grateful. But taraweehprayers are long; without understanding, my heart would simply get bored and my limbs would always fidget. Thoughts of my day, my concerns, my hopes and my food cravings after a day of fasting would all filter through my conscious while I shifted around. It’s hard to keep still for that long when one is mentally checked out and physically disengaged.
However, Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala (exalted is He) guided me to an action which changed my life and revolutionized my prayer and du`a (supplication) experience ever since. It’s simple, but it takes long-term dedication. The results, for me, were powerful and transformational. The common-sense solution that worked miracles in my life by Allah’s blessings: reading a translation.
Every single day, for a number of years, I would sit and read five pages of the Qur’an in the English translation. I would do this while both reciting and listening to the Arabic recitation, allowing my ears to become accustomed to the Arabic words associated with the English.
After a few months of this practice, the first Ramadan came. In my hometown masjid, the Imam would lead twenty rakahs(units of prayer). So I would pray eight rakahs and then sit in the back and read the translation of the verses for the next twelve. I continued this throughout Ramadan and was extremely consistent with this practice for the next year. Soon, my awareness of Arabic words increased; I realized that the Qur’an uses many of the same words over and over and I was able to recognize them. I was also becoming more familiar with the surahs (chapters); I had an introductory understanding of what themes were being discussed in certain portions of the Qur’an due to keywords and a general awareness of what thesurah entailed.
By the second Ramadan, I was praying with purpose. While I still had no idea what every word meant, I had begun to comprehend general meanings of many of the chapters and I was able to grasp the overarching messages of some of the verses. I kept up my practice of praying eight and reading the translation. I even had a few emotional moments. I started looking forward to certain verses that were my favorites. I was finally beginning to understand and I was actually enjoying it; the sweetness of the Qur’an had penetrated my heart and taken hold of my body. Praying taraweeh in Ramadan became a means of nourishment for my soul and tranquility for my limbs.
I also began memorizing the Qur’an and the more I memorized, the more my vocabulary expanded. After four years of reading the translation consistently and memorizing the Qur`an, I was enthralled with the idea of praying for hours behind the Imam. I could not wait for Ramadan; all year I waited for the last ten nights specifically, when the Imam would recite the Qur’an for an even longer period of time. My character, my life’s purpose, my Ramadan experience completely changed because I finally grasped a general understanding of the Qur’an.
Six years after I began reading the translation consistently and memorizing portions of the Qur’an, I moved to Egypt to learn Arabic. When I started, I took a practice test and was placed in an intermediary level. However, when I met my teacher for the first time, barely able to communicate a few sentences, she was shocked. “Your vocabulary is so expansive,” she told me, “but you clearly are a beginner!” Needless to say, I was re-placed as a beginner. Throughout our lessons, my Arabic teacher would express her surprise at my ability to understand certain words in depth simply because they appeared in the Qur’an, while others I struggled with at great lengths. Eventually, she told me that my Qur’anic preparation was what helped me actually grasp the language and is what had originally placed me at a level far higher than I really was.