Linguistic Stylization and Learning the Quran

Irteqa Khan

One of many stylized front covers of an Uthmani or Majeedi Quran. Lettering in the center is Arabic calligraphy that says “Al- Quran Al- Kareem” or “The Noble Quran.” Image: Nooresunnat, “Al-Quran – The Message of Allah Almighty – Recitation, Lectures and Books.”

It is evident that the world we inhabit today has swiftly become acquainted with Islam’s most central text, the Holy Quran, due to issues involving its translation, interpretation, and context. However, for Muslims the reality is that the Quran is the spiritual word of God revealed to Muhammad ﷺ  fourteen hundred years ago in the Arabian Peninsula. It is a comprehensive and detailed guideline for daily living and matters such as dressing, etiquette, sleeping, eating and relationships as much as it is religious instruction for praying, fasting, ablution, charity, and pilgrimage.

As a Muslim and having read it, what I find interesting about the Quran is what a testament it is to both the universality and linguistic specificity of the reading process. Muslims all over the world spend many years of their lives learning how to read and recite it, understand it, and memorize it. If a person has read the Quran once, it is a feat deserving of celebration; if a person has learned its full meaning it is believed that they are secure in life; and if a person has completely memorized it, they have a special designation as “hafiz” or “guardian” and are highly esteemed.

According to Islamic tradition, the Quran was revealed to Muhammad ﷺ by the angel Gabriel [RA] over the course of 23 years and completely by word of mouth. Muhammad ﷺ would recite and memorize the revelations and then deliver them to scribes, who wrote them down despite the disjointed order and structure of the verses. As the years progressed, the scribes began to compile the Quranic verses into a single coherent manuscript and by the time Muhammad ﷺ had died, had procured the very first manuscript copy of the Quran. It was inherited by Muhammad’s ﷺ successors who transferred it into codex format and canonized it, thus establishing the Quran that Muslims read today (called the Uthmanic Codex). Divided into 114 chapters or “surahs” and roughly 6000 verses or “ayahs”, the Quran is written completely in Arabic and maintains its purity in this language alone. The versions of the Quran that are written in other languages are most often translations, or accompanying translations next to the original Arabic on the same page.

A page from a Noorani Qaida, or a beginner’s book of Arabic alphabets with Urdu translations and explanations. Image: International Online Quran Academy, “Noorani Qaida Online.”

While learning how to read and recite the Quran when I was younger, I began to understand the distinction between its universality and linguistic specificity based on the versions of it that I was exposed to. I understood that the text remained exactly the same, pure in meaning and written in Arabic, but the way in which the typeface was stylized was completely different depending on the country and language in which it was printed, therefore considerably impacting the way in which a person learned how to read and recite the Quran. At the local mosque, where I attended Islamic school and read my very first Quran, pure Arabic Qurans lined the bookshelves and were read fluently and recited by students in uniform and flawless “tajwid.”

Coming from a South Asian background where Urdu accents often transformed the pronunciation of the verses, I had never heard such beautifully pronounced Arabic. With this, my parents wanted my siblings and me to fully grasp not only the reading and recitation of the Quran, but also its meaning. We were subsequently enrolled in online Quran reading classes based out of Pakistan and India for the next three years. In the online reading school, all of the teachers were “hafiz” and Islamic scholars who had been teaching for most of their lives. Through software like Skype and TeamViewer, they would display to us scanned pages of a Noorani Qaida (an Urdu book of Arabic alphabets) to give us a foundation for learning how to read and form sentences. When moving on to learning the actual Quran, however, I found that the typeface was precisely the same.

A page from the Quran illustrating the Uthmani typeface. From the third chapter of the Quran, “Al-Imran” or “The Family of Imran.” Image: Online-Islamic-Store, “Holy Qur’an in Arabic, Al Quran al Karim Full Size 7.5 x 10.5” Hardcover (Uthmani Script Mushaf) 15 Line Arab Word Style.” The Quran, Al-Imran.

In this context, the typeface of the Arabic that I learned from my online instructors was characteristic of an Indo-Pak or Persian-based language where readers are not fluent in Arabic and require specific linguistic cues when learning how to read and recite; this is versus the pure Arabic typeface produced in countries like Saudi Arabia where the Arabic language is dominantly spoken and read. The traditional Arabic Qurans from which most Muslims read are printed in Uthmani typeface in printing plants based out of Saudi Arabia like the famous King Fahd Complex for the Printing of the Holy Quran in Medina.

Likewise, the Arabic Qurans from which non-Arab readers (in this case South Asia) learn are based on a Persian Majeedi typeface akin to Urdu, often in printing plants like Taj Company Ltd. based out of cities like Lahore or New Delhi. In addition to language, a person’s positioning as either an advanced or beginner reader also influences the Quranic typeface they choose to learn from.

A page from the Quran illustrating the Majeedi typeface. From the 41st chapter of the Quran, “Al-Fussilat” or “Explained in Detail.” Image: Gateway to Quran, “Color Coded Quran Para 26.” The Quran, Al-Fussilat.

A Majeedi Quran is characterized by large writing, bold lettering, and is very uniquely color coded. Due to these qualities and the fact that this type of Quran is printed with the interests of non-Arabic speakers at the forefront, beginners choose to start their learning journey with it. Both Uthmani and Majeedi Qurans contain an index listing the page numbers of certain Quranic chapters, a chart outlining diacritics (for pronunciation), and prayers for both beginning and completing reading. In the margins of a Majeedi Quran however, there are often Urdu notes explaining pronunciation and the meaning of every Arabic verse.

The verses are also bold and colorful so the reader is able to differentiate vowels, consonants, and sounds while maintaining their pace of reading. Since diacritics or phonetic guides (“tashkeel” or “harakat” in Arabic) (Fadi, “Arabic Vowel Marks”) play a crucial role in dictating how to pronounce certain words, the Uthmani typeface makes minimal use of them, assuming the reader is fluent in Arabic and therefore conscious of pronunciation. By contrast, the Majeedi typeface assumes that the reader is unfamiliar with the mechanics of Arabic diacritics and infuses each and every word with detailed marks and signs.

That being said, the universality of the Quran’s message is never taken for granted by Muslims despite the various culturally adjusted typefaces that it is reproduced in. The very point of print plants creating these distinct typefaces is for all learners to overcome the challenge of understanding and reading a completely new language. This ultimately makes reading, reciting, and understanding the Quran’s central message a profound and painstaking endeavor. The Uthmani and Majeedi typefaces, for me, are a form of art tailored for diverse readers of the Quran to begin their foray into a world of beauty, simplicity, and universality.

Works Referred

Fadi, S. “Lesson 4: Arabic Vowel Marks (Tashkeel or Harakat).” Arabion, URL: http://www.arabion.net/lesson4.html

Furqaan Bookstore. “Quran in Majeedi Script Regular Size – 12 Lines.” Furqaan Bookstore: Home of the Qur’an and other Islamic Media, URL: http://furqaanbookstore.com/quran-in-majeedi-script-regular-size-12-lines.html. Accessed March 26, 2017.

Luc Devroye. “Type Design in Saudi Arabia.” Type Design Information Page, URL: http://luc.devroye.org/saudi.html. Accessed March 25, 2017.

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3 Responses to Linguistic Stylization and Learning the Quran

  1. Faheem says:

    Interesting facts , some of which I was not aware of. Very good article explaining Arabic script and it’s impact on AJAM while learning. Need to correct one thing as we dont give any rough numbers…. it should always be exact. .

  2. Faiza Fahad says:

    Very well-written

  3. Fatima says:

    Very unique topic and written articulately. I thoroughly enjoyed the literary analysis.

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