I admit it…I have performance anxiety. Everytime I have to bring it, I fear that I will fall short. I’m not saying I’m an old pro, but I’ve doing it for over 14 years. I learned on my own, self-conscious, stumbling, bumbling, not knowing if I had the right rhythm or flow. I still make mistakes and get real awkward. I’ve read books, watched videos, listened to tapes,and I’ve been guided step by step. Even with all those efforts whenever I have to recite some Qur’an in front of people I get really nervous. Even when I read a regular Arabic text, even if it is voweled, it is clear I’m not a good Qur’an reader. If I was, then somehow I’d read it smoothly, finding natural breaks and random words. Since my first Arabic class, in fact, I hated reading out loud. I’d stumble over words trying to guess the harakat (short vowels).
It took me a while to begin to even wrap my mouth around some Arabic words. When I first converted in Fall 1993, I prayed in English. After I memorized the steps and saying in each part of salat, I graduated to transliterations. I had notecards that I used to hold with color coded text. What helped me through the transliteration was this CD with Abdul Basit. The great thing about the CD was that after each ayah there was this guy with a deep voice reading the meaning. So, as I learned the short Surahs in Arabic, I also memorized the meanings. In Spring 1994 an Iraqi student taught me the alphabet and basic reading. I am forever grateful because she opened so many doors. But sometimes when I’d read along with a text, I’d question my ears. I though I heard an “m,” but the final letter was a “noon.” What used to get me was Ikhlas, I kept hearing “wa lam yakul lahu” but I read “wa lam yakun lahu.” I knew there was some special magic skill of recitation. But I didn’t know that they called it tajweed. I recited my fatihah and my short surahs like Abdul Basit. Well, not quite. My voice is terrible and besides that I kept self correcting from what I heard and what I read.
I still think about my three surahs. I used to work those three surahs. In fact, many imams at that time used to work them too. The thing that used to get me was that immigrant religious leaders know those long surahs. But at that time, many of the indigenous Muslims had a very different knowledge base. They were charismatic, addressed social justice issues, and mostly African American. Many of these imams were well read and their khutbahs covered a wide range of subjects, literary and historical references. Many of these imams blended cultural references that I was familiar with along with Islamic references that I was just beginning to learn. It was clear that they did their homework, dedicated a lot of time to developing khutbahs or dars that were relevant to their communities. And their talks appealed to many second generation immigrants who were born or grew up in America.
In my own newbie stage, I was just becoming aware of the tensions between indigenous American born Muslims and immigrants. There were arguments about who would lead prayer. I heard complaints about African American brothers never able to lead prayer. Enthusiastic Muslims wanted to receive some barakah for leading prayer. Oh but this brother from Syria has tajweed, this other brother from Pakistan memorized more Qur’an. The converts had Abdul Basit, just like me. Sure, I wanted to memorize more Qur’an and how to recite, but I also wanted to understand the Qur’an. That’s when my farfetched dream of learning Arabic began. During that time, programs like Institute for Arabic and Islamic sciences seemed to be just kicking off and there wasn’t a Zaytuna. It was rare to hear of male converts, let alone women, travelling to learn Qur’an, Arabic, Fiqh, etc. I’m not saying that there weren’t Arabic and tajweed classes, halaqas, and attempts at MCA. I remember stepping into my first Arabic class at MCA. It was actually Hamza Yusuf teaching Arabs the intricacies of grammar. It was so advanced and discouraging, I didn’t go back. I went back to my Abdul Basit CDs and for years that was the way that I learned Quran.
It wasn’t until 1996 when I joined a halaqa in Boston that I actually had to read Qur’an in front of someone. That’s when I learned that I was a terrible reader. But the women in the group were patient. And they pushed me, while correcting me. All of the women had grown up in the States. They all had some Islamic education, even if it was only Islamic Sunday school. But that was years of edification. When I was on the East coast, I had few friends. So, I had a lot of spare time to begin to expand beyond the 5 surahs I knew at the time. And my co-halaqists assigned me Surat al-Abasa. I remember thinking that it was impossible for my mind to reproduce something like that. But peer pressure does amazing things. So, I’d spend hours, me and Abdul Basit, and my Qur’an preparing for the D-Day when I’d have to demonstrate that I got another ayah under my belt. Over the years, I’ve discovered my amazing ability to memorize things and promptly forget other similar things. My hiatus didn’t help. But over the years, when I set my mind to memorize something, I’ve drawn on the same technique.
That sort of changed when I took a tajweed class at Middlebury in 2005. Once a week, I’d have to face my worst fears. That’s when I knew I had some serious performance anxiety. My heart would beat harder. My palms would sweat. I’d stutter. I wanted to get it right. There were times I questioned why did I want to do so well. Finally, I learned why I heard my old friend Abdul Basit say one thing and read another. I memorized new Surahs without my old friend Abdul Basit. The most trying part of the class was that I had to read in front of the school. I picked the most simple surah. I had this knee jerk reaction to reciting in front of people. I didn’t elaborate, I didn’t add any of the notes to embellish my recitation. It was dry, dead-pan. The deadpan style that I recited in contrasted with the chaos that was going on in my body. I read as my heart raced, I felt like I could barely breath, and of course my palms sweated. I was relieved to finish and from that time I avoided reading in public.
As I’m trying to piece together a program for Arabic study, I realize that a huge part of my learning process is reading Qur’an. Since I started studying Arabic so many native Arabic speakers have said that reading the Qur’an is so helpful. I have other motivations. It is sort of like your pride is wounded as a not so new Muslim. I mean, when a six year old knows more Qur’an than me (and I’ve been Muslim more than twice his age), I know I suck. I’ve had people ask me how much Qur’an I know. Shoot, not even a juz (30th part). I’m working on that. I’m just hoping I don’t get the surahs mixed up. Make du’a for me, I’m always afraid that I’ll butcher Allah’s book as I stumble through the learning process.