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.
According to a new study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, researchers from Harvard and Northwestern studied the brains of 18- to 25-year-olds, half of whom smoked pot recreationally and half of whom didn’t. What they found was rather shocking: Even those who only smoked few times a week had significant brain abnormalities in the areas that control emotion and motivation.
“There is this general perspective out there that using marijuana recreationally is not a problem — that it is a safe drug,” said Anne Blood, a co-author of the study. “We are seeing that this is not the case.”
The science: Similar studies have found a correlation between heavy pot use and brain abnormalities, but this is the first study that has found the same link with recreational users. The 20 people in the “marijuana group” of the study smoked four times a week on average; seven only smoked once a week. Those in the control group did not smoke at all.
“We looked specifically at people who have no adverse impacts from marijuana — no problems with work, school, the law, relationships, no addiction issues,” said Hans Breiter, another co-author of the study.
Using three different neuroimaging techniques, researchers then looked at the nucleus accumbens and the amygdala of the participants. These areas are responsible for gauging the benefit or loss of doing certain things, and providing feelings of reward for pleasurable activities such as food, sex and social interactions.
“This is a part of the brain that you absolutely never ever want to touch,” said Breiter. “I don’t want to say that these are magical parts of the brain — they are all important. But these are fundamental in terms of what people find pleasurable in the world and assessing that against the bad things.”
Shockingly, every single person in the marijuana group, including those who only smoked once a week, had noticeable abnormalities, with the nucleus accumbens and the amygdala showing changes in density, volume and shape. Those who smoked more had more significant variations.
What will happen next? The study’s co-authors admit that their sample size was small. Their plan now is to conduct a bigger study that not only looks at the brain abnormalities, but also relates them to functional outcomes. That would be a major and important step in this science because, as of now, the research indicates that marijuana use may cause alterations to the brain, but it’s unclear what that might actually mean for users and their brains.
But for now, they are standing behind their findings.
“People think a little marijuana shouldn’t cause a problem if someone is doing OK with work or school,” said Breiter. “Our data directly says this is not so.”