Academic Exchange Quarterly     Summer   2004    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume 8, Issue 2

To cite, use print source rather than  this on-line version which  may not  reflect print copy format requirements or   text lay-out and pagination.




Introducing Islam Through Qur’anic Recitation


                                                Marilyn Gottschall, Whittier College


Marilyn Gottschall received her Ph.D. from the University of Southern California in 1998.  She is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Whittier College, Whittier, CA.



Effective introductions to world religions in undergraduate survey courses challenge even the most gifted of teachers.  The process is often complicated by student stereotypes and negative preconceptions.  This article argues for pedagogies that combine affective and cognitive learning as a way of expanding student access to unfamiliar traditions.   Specifically it reviews the results of classroom experience where students encounter Islam through oral recitations of the Qur’an in Arabic.


General Education and Islam:  The Introductory Course

World religions provide us with myriad and diverse worlds, many of which are profoundly different from our own.  Religious practitioners apprehend, think, sense, feel and intuit in ways that can confound and inspire us.  Religious diversity, therefore, can open multiple doorways for encountering and exploring otherness.  There are,however,  a set of challenges inherent to teaching general education survey courses in world religion.  How does one introduce complex religious systems, practices, and histories in a brief period of time without inundating students with information?  How best does one cover essential material at the same time as one encourages student curiosities, engagement, and openness to religious otherness? 


These challenges are especially acute when teaching Islam.  Students tend to approach Islam with either a reserved curiosity or a predetermined antipathy.  They draw most of their knowledge of Islam from the popular media, and since September 11, the Iraqi war, and the on-going Israeli/Palestinian conflict, stereotypes and misinformation contribute to a 21st century exoticism: the Muslim as terrorist and religious fanatic.  Teaching about Islam thus provides a particular pedagogical challenge to the Religious Studies professor.  Given the likelihood that we will encounter negative student attitudes toward Islam, traditional means of approaching the religion, i.e. textual and historical treatments, are often not very satisfying. An historical treatment of Islam inevitably draws upon an orientalist repertoire of Bedouin warriors, camel caravans, and desert dwellers; the Five Pillars and articles of faith seem rigid and archaic.  Students who encounter the Qur’an in the original are likely to be confused by its non-narrative, non-linear style, puzzled by the metaphors and cultural allusions, and/or put off by its the content (the perils of judgment day, the revision of familiar biblical tales, and harsh behavioral codes). In short, it is a challenge in a survey course to introduce Islam in such a way that students can see beyond their own stereotypes.


My interest in approaching Islam in a new way,  coupled with my desire to see students engaged and curious about religions other than their own, led me to consider expanding my pedagogical practices.  Religious Studies has a long (Protestant Christian) history of textual analysis as the primary means by which we pursue religious meaning.  Unfortunately, that emphasis has allowed us to neglect religion as a performed medium, one that requires bodies, movement, and activity.  Recent scholarship, however, has begun to take the body and its practices more seriously.[1]  As I began to expand the study of religious meaning to include both the body of the text AND the body of the believer, I became increasingly open to employing embodied religious practices as learning tools.


For the past several years, I have taught a survey course entitled “Sound and the Religious Experience.”  This course is based on the notion that a sound system can provide a point of access into the internal logic of a given religion.  Theoretically, it draws on Parker Palmer’s idea that by “diving deep into particularity,” students gain the necessary data to reconstruct the whole (122/123).   The class includes a major unit on Islam for which I use Michael Sells’ text and CD,  Approaching the Qur’an:  The Early Revelations  as a guide to Islam’s sacred text as a sounded and performed medium.   The culminating event of the unit is a day of student recitations in Arabic. This pedagogical strategy provides an alternative way of encountering Islam, the goal of which is to immerse students in a learning process that engages their aesthetic, kinesthetic, and cognitive responses.  This article documents the learning processes that my students and I have experienced over a two-year period. It also suggests theoretical and practical guidelines for a teaching unit that introduces Islam through the performance of suras (Qur’anic chapters) in Arabic.


Embodied Learning:  Sound and Performance as Religious Studies Pedagogy


Disciplines other than our own—anthropology, ethnomusicology, performance studies—have long known that music is at the heart of both religion and culture.  While music is certainly not a universal language, it is a universal phenomenon.  Every culture and every religion employs sound to structure its central celebrations and rituals, and to express its deepest emotional, cultural, and existential values.  Musical systems reflect and construct basic worldviews, including religious worldviews.  Sound systems have the  pedagogical value of being complex and polysemic entities.   Sacred sound performances are often intended to be multivalent experiences; ethnomusicologist Carol Babiracki notes that in some cultures they are “understood simultaneously as music, entertainment, theater, transformative ritual, sacred metaphor, spiritual messenger, and transcendent vehicle” (Babiracki 8). Thus, approaching religion through sacred sound enables students to grasp not only key theological and doctrinal concepts, but the multiple ways in which religious practice works in the every day lives of its adherents; they provide important windows into religious belief and practice. [2]


Nowhere is this more the case than with Islam, where the Qur’an is not only the word of God, but an aural treasure whose aesthetic and moral qualities permeate much of Muslim everyday life.  The vocalization of the Qur’an is the quintessential devotional experience, the  most profound of sacred experiences, and one that provides a vehicle for coming near to God.   Qur’anic recitation is governed by complex rules which over time have become part of the Qur’anic sciences. In Muslim cultures, the Qur’an is recited not only for explicitly religious purposes, but for a wide array of domestic ceremonies and public occasions, i.e., weddings, funerals, circumcisions, and religious and cultural festivals.  It is heard on radio and television, and at sporting events.  The ubiquity of the sound of the Qur’an in the everyday lives of Muslims helps to illustrate not only the importance and centrality of its concepts, but also the deep physiological and social bonds that it creates.


By introducing sound into the study of religion, we also introduce the extra-cognitive, i.e., the body’s kinesthetic and aesthetic modes of learning, thus ushering plural modes of consciousness and plural modes of knowing into our scholarly and pedagogical work.  As Regula Qureshi observes, this is particularly relevant to Islam because its sonoral domain is a central location for “the fusing of emotion with cognition, and of the individual with shared experience” (266).  Embodied learning, including aural learning, produces its own distinctive epistemology.  It results in forms of knowledge that are quite different from the scientific or cognitive.   Theodore Jennings notes that embodied knowledge is corporeal and “praxological”; it emerges from doing and acting, and is “capable of altering “that which is to be known” (332).  When undergraduates study embodied practices by engaging in embodied practices, they are informed by multiple sets of data.  Their knowing emerges through their doing, and the knowledge gained necessarily alters their interpretation of the object of their study.  Embodied practices can provide a valuable point of entry in the undergraduate classroom


Introducing Islam


Three years ago,  Michael Sells’ book was recommended to me.  I was looking for some new ideas for teaching Islam, and I had become increasingly fascinated by the aesthetic and spiritual importance of the vocal performance of the Qur’an.  As I was considering whether to use Approaching the Qur’an  in my course and how I might make use of the Arabic recitations on the CD, I was reminded that much of the Muslim world does not speak Arabic. [3]  Many Muslims memorize the Qur’an as a devotional and educational practice without achieving the ability to read, write, or study Arabic.  I began to wonder what the results might be if my students memorized a sura?   What sort of experience might they have?  What might such an experience teach them about Islam?


I decided to use the book and, operating more on intuition than confidence, I offered my students a choice of assignments: they could either write a paper analyzing the content, sound figures, and recitational techniques in a given sura, or they could memorize a sura in Arabic.  (Sells’ book focuses primarily on the early, lyrical, theological suras which tend to be quite short.)  Most students opted for what they believed would be the easier assignment (just how hard could memorizing nine lines be?), and their decision initiated a pedagogical process from which I continue to learn .   The following comments reflect my experience to date with this approach.  For the purposes of cohesiveness, I have collapsed several classes and speak of the experience as a whole.


Following the initial assignment selection, I set a three-week deadline for an in-class, public recitation.  The memorization process which on its surface is a straightforward exercise in sound mimicry soon draws students into the theological and devotional intricacies of orthodox Islam. Students very quickly realize that the memorization of this small, inscrutable sound passage is going to take a great deal of work. Because they do not understand what they are memorizing, they find themselves navigating back and forth between Sells’ book and CD in an attempt to make sense of it all.  They compare the translations with the transliterations, and many become extremely curious about why these particular words and sounds are so powerful. They actively search for the sura’s theological meaning, and they struggle to understand the connections between the sounds and symbols.  The memorization itself takes most students many hours with scores of repetitions…in the car, in the dorms, during study time.   As the deadline for recitation draws near and anxiety heightens, most students surround themselves with the sound of the sura so that the pronunciations, meters, pauses, and inflections become second nature.


Meanwhile, in class we discuss the interpretive chapters in Sells’ book.  We talk about the place of Qur’anic sound in everyday life, about its centrality to devotional practices, about the tremendous skills, education, and status that a reciter possesses, and about the gendered aspects of recitation, both social and linguistic.  We explore key theological concepts many of which reverberate throughout the Qur’an in its sound figures, both aural and literal.   I invite guests to campus, one year a Qur’anic reciter for a lecture and demonstration of the rules of recitation; one year a Muslim practitioner to help students with pronunciations and inflections, to speak about her personal response to the selected sura(s), and about her affection for the Qur’an in general. 


Simultaneously students keep journals which document their learning process and their affective responses to the sura.  They respond to prompts inquiring about their first impressions of the sounds on the CD and their response to Arabic, on the theological ideas in their sura, and the ways in which those concepts are embedded in its sound.  They assess their learning process (how they memorize, how they connect sound and meaning), and finally they discuss their changing feelings about this religion.


The journals have been particularly helpful to me in assessing the value of this assignment and its ability to meet my course objectives.  They tell me a great deal about what and how students learn.  Cognitively, students learn the basics of Islam, the pillars, the principles, and a bit of history.  They also learn about the complex rules of Qur’anic recitation, and about the place of the Qur’an in everyday life.  They learn basic theological concepts as they are expressed in sound figures.  Affectively, however, their growth is far more significant. Student response to this assignment is overwhelmingly positive.  Students affective and aesthetic responses to the sonoral qualities of the Qur’an create an openness to Muslim culture and theology that I have not seen result from other pedagogical approaches.  Students come away from this exercise with a new apprehension, perhaps not completely understood, of the emotional impact of Muslim sacred sound.  Students repeatedly refer to the experience of listening to the Qur’an as “soothing, peaceful, powerful.”  They report a sense of reverence,  respect, and appreciation for the sound of recitation, a respect that outpaces their actual knowledge.  For example, one student said, “As a Christian it seems a little strange for me to enjoy the sounds of a faith so anti-Christian; I hope it isn’t offensive (to my religion) .”


They have a sense of the way in which recitation as a religious medium carries, enacts, and embodies belief, and most, I believe, develop some awareness that Muslim epistemologies are complex in ways they do not fully understand.  Their aesthetic appreciation leads them in turn to be less resistant to Muslim culture. One student said that it made “Western (Christian) beliefs seem less relevant…which is both unsettling and inspiring.”   Another said,  “I have come to realize that I don’t have to agree with all religions to tolerate them and also to learn about them.  I won’t be afraid to learn more about them, and I could grow to have friends who practice other religions.”


On the matter of embodied learning, one student said that  “it is one thing to read about other cultures and see their performances, but it’s another to actually take part in it…I came away with a bit of understanding and strong respect for it.”  Another commented that “when you have a positive experience with something that is unfamiliar, you don’t hesitate as much to learn about that culture or religion.”  Pedagogically, students reported that “starting with music rather than history and beliefs made religion easier to encounter,”  that “studying musical and religious aspects heightened my interest,”  and that “first hand experience makes it all come together.”




There are certainly legitimate reasons to be cautious about using this approach.  Religious objections can be made by both Muslim and Christian critics.  For Muslims, appropriating the holy Qur’an for secular purposes, and under secular conditions, could be seen as an affront.  For evangelical and fundamentalist Christians, memorizing the sacred text of another religion might be seen to violate their own religious commitments (hence the need to make the assignment voluntary). [4]  Scholarly purists might very well object to the experiential and subjective nature of the assignment.  Methodologically, the assignment could be suspect because we are not participating in religious practice, but rather we are mimicking the performance of an aspect of religious otherness.


Despite these potential criticisms, I have become convinced by student response and through my own observation that this exercise provides an engaging and accessible entry point to the study of Islam. By giving students an opportunity to step into an experience of an Islamic devotional practice, even for a secular purpose, students begin to apprehend that religions are lived and practiced entities.   Just as scholars are increasingly looking to the expression and meaning of devotional practices, so too should we explore the particularity of religious practices in our pedagogies.  Babiracki suggests that an ideal course is one that places students—experientially--at the intersection of religion and culture.  While she refers to ethnography as an experiential medium, I suggest that performative devotional practices are also valid pedagogical ways of placing students at that intersection between culture and religion.


By embodying religious behavior, even in a limited way and with secular intentions, significant corporeal insights can be gained into the practices and ethos of a religious system being studied, i.e., feelings of calmness and peace, aesthetic appreciation for the sounds, affective glimpses into the spirituality of Islam.  Attending to the body’s aural, aesthetic, and emotional expressions produces a rich supply of data, information which can then be processed cognitively in conjunction with knowledge “about” the tradition.   Aesthetic, affective, corporeal, and intellectual responses  combine to create a powerful learning experience.  And for the undergraduate Religious Studies classroom, particularly the survey class in world religions or comparative religions--where our goals are specific and limited--expanding our learning modes is beneficial.  It might even be argued that for such courses extra-cognitive and non-cognitive approaches to learning are often more effective, with longer lasting results, than traditional pedagogical practices.



[1]  See such works as  Thomas Csordas.  “Embodiment as a Paradigm for Anthropology,”  Ethos.  18. 5-47;   “Somatic Modes of Attention,”  Cultural Anthropology. 8,2. 135-156; Lawrence Sullivan.  “Body Works:  Knowledge of the Body in the Study of Religion”  History of Religions.  30,1 (1990): 86-99;

[2]  I am indebted to the AAR’s Spotlight on Teaching special issue on “Religion and Music,”  (Spring 2001) edited by Tazim Kassam.  The essays there have encouraged my teaching and thinking in this area.

[3] My gratitude to Glenn Yocum for this insight, and for his continued mentoring.

[4]  Sells’ book recently (2002) prompted protests and  a lawsuit at the University of North Carolina when it was assigned as summer reading for incoming freshmen.  Representative of several religions claimed that through the pre-selection of specific suras, the text uncritically presented Islam in a favorable light.



Works Cited


Babiracki, Carol M.  “Religion, Musically Speaking.”  Spotlight on Teaching, Religious Studies News 16, 2. (Spring 2001):5,8.


Jennings, Theodore W. Jr.  “On Ritual Knowledge.”  Readings in Ritual Studies.  Ed. Ronald Grimes. Upper Saddle River:  Prentice Hall, 1996: 423-434.


Kassam, Tazim, ed.  “Music and Religion.”  Special issue of Spotlight on Teaching, Religious Studies News 16.2 (Spring 2001).


Palmer, Parker.  The Courage to Teach.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998.


Qureshi, Regula Burchhardt. “Sounding the Word:  Music in the Life of Islam.”  Enchanting Powers:  Music in the World’s Religions.   Ed.  Lawrence Sullivan. Cambridge:  Harvard University Press, 1997: 263-298.


Sells, Michael.  Approaching the Qur’an: The Early Revelations.  Ashland: White Cloud Press, 1999.