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9 Year Old gets me into a Harvard class

When your nine-year-old self gets you into a class on Sound, Gender, and the Study of Religion:

When I was nine, my mother's ex-husband, who is a Muslim shaikh and imam, and who is also blind, believed in my sensitivity to music and used to call me for my "othun musiqiya" (أذن موسيقية) to recite to me Qur'anic verses in different tones and rhythms so I would tell him the emotions each carried. He would repeat the same verse with different emotions from courage, anger, sadness, and more, and I would tell him how it made me feel. As a visually impaired - blind - person, his sensitivity to sound captured me, particularly when I would try to sneak into my mother's room to get something, thinking he wouldn't "see me" and he would ask: "who's there?" It was also clear when he taught me to play the Piano that sound is in voice, instruments, and all around and that we can perhaps only appreciate sound in the absence of the visuals.

In the class's first readings, I read: "Listening is held to be the most passive of the senses, and musical expression to be derivative rather than determinative of culture..." (Chernoff 2002)


Later, I wrote an article, for Sand Magazine, inspired by him and the experience I had in this course. Following are the highlighted excerpts from the article:

"I am not a musician, nor am I a professional reciter, but I have an ear and heart for sound. When I was nine years old, my stepfather, an imam who had lost his sense of sight at the age of two, used to recite to me Qur'anic verses in different tones and melodies. He did that so I would tell him the emotion each tone stirred. I assisted him in this process, as he prepared for Ramadan’s taraweeh prayers. It comprised of the repetition of certain verses using a variety of melodies from his side, and the selection of the evoked emotion from mine. As a child, this allowed me to understand, or at least to reflect, on sound as an agent to the arousal of emotions, and thus of action. As a blind man, his sensitivity to sound captured me. I grew and listened to more reciters, and I became interested in understanding the relationship between the content of a verse and the melody an imam chooses for it. Hence asking, why would an imam choose to stimulate fear in a verse about the day of resurrection rather than stimulating awe, or to evoke warning and threat instead of sympathy, mercy, or forgiveness, in a verse about the ethics of war? And how, if any, would our relationship with the text and understanding of the Qur’an change, if we had only evoked different emotions?

Putting aside (but still not too far) the contextual and sociopolitical language that many had relied on to understand the Qur’anic text, I wanted to appreciate its sounds and rhythms as if I were a non-Arabic speaker. I wanted it to affect me as if I were a child who does not have the tools for understanding complexities of language. I wanted to appreciate the fact that I could listen to a single verse in tens of different melodies, and it would thus affect me in tens of different ways. I wanted to grow in the silent pauses between verses, because in that silence is a resounding experience. I wanted to reach the voice in words, the sound structures, and the meanings and emotions that stem from the relationship between them. This in precise, is articulated in The Qur’anic Presentation of the Joseph Story. In that, Johns explains a fluid and unrestricted relationship with the text that goes beyond the exterior text to the interiority of the mind, as he explains: “An appreciation of the character of dialogue and direct speech in the Qur’an, then, needs to go beyond an understanding of the words as they appear on the printed page. The challenge is to hear them in the mind’s ear, to listen to the various ways in which they could have been uttered. Above all else, it is necessary to listen.”"

You can read the rest of the article here:

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