And just like that, by the Grace of The Truth, Ismail and I finished our recitation from memory of the entire Qur’an last night. 29 nights. 6,236 verses. All within this blessed month.
This is my 10th year leading the nightly supererogatory (Taraweeh) prayers in Ramadan. If you ask anyone who has memorized the Qur’an, they will have a story to tell you of how they got there and this is the first time I’ve written any part of this journey down to share.
I started memorizing the Qur’an when I was in 5th grade. Whereas other folks in my community took a few years off from school to complete this task full-time or go overseas to comprehensively engage in religious study, I figured (with the support and encouragement of my family) I could balance this with school. My teacher Bilal Lakhani (May The Eternal One preserve him and his family), the one who taught me how to read read Qur’aanic Arabic when I was young, built out a small program for me and two other students in which we met up with him everyday after school during the week for about 2 hours and 3 hours a day each on weekends.
It became a routine practice of learning new verses, revising old ones and spending hours working towards a goal that I could not really fully explain to most of my peers.
As the latter years of high school came around and APs, college apps, and exams stepped up, there were periods (a few months at a time) where I stopped going to Qur’an class. I struggled to allocate time towards a priority that was not shared by others around me. It became difficult to see the value in completing this task when it did not seem to hold any material or financial weight in the eyes of the world around me the way a college acceptance letter, a diploma, or a scholarship did.
During my senior year of high school, I stopped going to class for about 9 months. It was a combination of academic and social priorities as well as a gradual loss of motivation to continue doing something that was losing significance. The question internally became, ‘what am I going to do with thousands of verses in my head? What is that going to yield me?’ I had about 10 out of 30 chapters left to commit to memory and was slowly forgetting a majority of the chapters I had already memorized. If I quit now, I would not necessarily lose out on whatever else I felt life had going for me.
Granted, there still was a guilt within me that I had put years of effort into something and I was now just letting it escape me with little resistance. There were plenty of ‘horror’ stories I heard from family friends of people they knew who had memorized almost the entire Qur’an, but were just unable to finish. Something just prevented them from getting to the end.
During the 9 month gap, I remember once sitting in a parking lot waiting for a friend to come. As would happen occasionally, I started thinking again about my Qur’anic studies. I pulled out the Qur’an from my glove compartment just to assure myself that I was not as distant from the verses in the book as I thought I was. As I began reading through chapters I already memorized, I started to tear up. I distinctly remember feeling how foreign the words felt to me. I could feel years of effort having been completely wasted. I could feel the increasing pressure to officially quit as senior year was wrapping up and college was about to begin in the fall. The toughest part remained that I was unsure how to explain any of this internal struggle to the folks around me.
The concept of a gap year started getting floated around. The idea felt extremely radical — defer your college enrollment period and take an entire year off to dedicate yourself to this cause. The challenge was guaranteeing that the entire Qur’an could be fully memorized and revised within this one year because once college started, trying to keep this up part-time would be impossible.
In June 2012 after graduating high school, I reached out to my Qur’an teacher after months of not having spoken to him. I acknowledged that I messed up, that I neglected all that he had invested in me as a student for the past 7 years, and ultimately requested him if he would take me back under his wing over the course of my gap year.
My heart sank at his response and I still hold onto the screenshot of the full text he wrote back. ‘I’ve given up on you…I’ve never had a student leave me like that and I’m surprised you think you could just come back…I don’t know what you expect to gain coming back…you’re not the same student that I once respected.’
He had every right to turn me away, but out of his love and mercy, he ultimately gave me another chance. I remember the first day I came back to class, he pulled me aside and we had a long conversation about everything that happened over the past 7 years. I cried, just feeling overwhelmed at the task ahead but also grateful that he was willing to make a game plan to ensure this would all work.
The gap year was indeed a grind. 8–9 hours dedicated each day to learning new verses, re-memorizing old verses, and repairing old chapters that I once had the ability to recite fluently without any hesitation. There were multiple days where I found myself in tears, still struggling to figure out how to get back to where I once was. I was fortunate to be able to join another local school as well where I gained additional support from other teachers and friends in my efforts to commit this book to memory.
During this gap year, the morning and afternoons were dedicated to my Qur’aanic studies and the evenings were dedicated to tutoring middle and high school students. I knew if I was neither working nor in college that I had to figure out some other way to start saving up money.
I remember feeling disheartened at times seeing friends and others begin their college experiences while I chose to put everything on hold to pursue a goal that again, was not one that most of my circles could understand or relate to. As I reflect back though, I think this was critical to my self-growth. To take this drastic step in breaking away from the typical path of immediately pursuing further education after high school meant getting just a taste of what it meant to set my own goals and develop a trajectory that was not tied to traditional standards of growth and success.
After 8 years of having started, I was blessed to have finished memorizing the Qur’an on January 29, 2013. I intentionally pushed myself in the weeks leading up to this date to ensure I could finish on my parent’s wedding anniversary so that that day could be extra special for them, as they deserved it to be.
My teacher and I embraced each other after I finished reciting the final few verses. He patted my back as he always does and although he’s not one to show much emotion, I felt his joy. He said, “I pray that all my students are as hardworking as you are.” It was a particularly powerful moment for him as I was his first student in his 13 years of teaching that completed this feat.
I spent the next several weeks continuing to revise the verses even more, now being able to recite almost a fourth of the Qur’an on a daily basis from memory. Ithen had the opportunity to live with family in Europe and work abroad for a couple months before coming back to the U.S. to lead the nightly Ramadan taraweeh prayers for the first time as a full hafidh (one who has completed the memorization of the Qur’an).
In the years following this accomplishment and throughout college, I have pushed myself to deepen my comprehension of classical Arabic grammar and vocabulary by, among other things, going to Zaytuna College for a summer Qur’aanic Arabic intensive, taking an 8-week Studio Arabiya class, enrolling in Modern Standard Arabic classes at NYU and studying classical texts under Suhaib Webb.
Fast forward several years to 2019 and I have seen firsthand the social and spiritual impact this accomplishment has had on myself and the people around me, including:
-Serving as an educator within my own faith community in deciphering the wisdoms laced within these verses that can serve as the basis for purifying our hearts internally and building out robust, equitable and inclusive communities externally
-Delivering sermons where I can build out language and a frame of thinking that connects narratives in the Scripture to the social justice work of today and my day-to-day work in the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program in which we tackle cases of discrimination in the criminal justice system, housing and education
-Speaking at events, at schools and on panels about the core tenants of Islam and taking a deep dive into verses of justice, forgiveness and gender equity within this faith tradition that are often neglected and undermined because they would disrupt the standard narrative that Islam is an ‘inherently violent’ and ‘oppressive’ religion
-Spending weekends teaching friends and peers how to read Qur’aanic Arabic
And of course, leading hundreds of people both in prayer during this blessed month and also in reflection as I strove to share a few insights each night on the verses being recited.
If you told me that all of this would be part of the end product of years of engagement with the Qur’an, I would have never believed you. My journey (which is still ongoing) with this Scripture has not only been humbling, but also eye-opening. When you are able to attain a level of true sincerity towards any goal, the benefits you can reap from that accomplishment are potentially endless. Once the basis for what you do exists outside of the expectations other people have of you, you are no longer tied to the defined impact they believe you will have. You set your own course and build your own path and grow in ways others cannot fathom.
I thank the All-Knowing for having so carefully crafted my path so I could feel both the pain of failure and the humility and joy of success. I thank my mother, father and sister, my teacher and the friends and family over the years who sought to be there as a source of support and love throughout this entire process. The quest for further growth continues.
That is all.
Eid Mubarak kiddos