‘Finishing the Koran’ and Rites of Passage: Local Perspectives on Islamic Religious Observance

How does a local religious custom in Indonesia reinforce values and practices that are important to Muslims worldwide?

What are some ways that language and the Qur’an (Koran) contribute to a shared sense of unity and diversity between and among Muslim communities?

Students will read a first-person account of an Indonesian custom that celebrates a boy’s completion of learning to recite the Qur’an, in Arabic, the common language of Muslims. Working in teams, students will rephrase and analyze selected quotations from the Qur’an to understand the significance of the text in Islam. Students will also respond to guided questions and discussion questions as they read selections from “Finishing the Koran.”

Students will be able to:

  • Discuss an Indonesian coming of age tradition as a means of reinforcing values and practices in Islam and other religions.
  • Understand the power of language and text in transmitting, reinforcing, and unifying communities that share a common language.
  • Understand how local custom and Muslim ritual co-exist and reinforce one another.
  • Understand the importance of the Qur’an and Arabic for the Muslim umma (worldwide community).

Two to three class periods

Introduction to Southeast Asia: History, Geography, and Livelihood
Barbara Watson Andaya

Religious Practices and Cultural Expression
Michael Laffan

Diversity and Community in Contemporary Society
Michael G. Peletz

Each student will need a copy of:

  1. Context: For teacher background reading, see the accompanying essay “Religious Practices and Cultural Expressions” written by Michael Laffan. The essay by Laurie Sears and the Context Reading by Kenneth M. George in the lesson on contemporary artist and calligrapher A. D. Pirous also contain useful information on calligraphy.
  2. Share with students the following background information on the document: “Finishing the Koran”: This excerpt is translated from an episode in the autobiography of Muhammad Radjab (1913-1970), a Muslim writer from West Sumatra. He was born into a family that included a number of Islamic scholars, but Muhammad himself was later educated in a “secular,” modern teachers’ college as well as in religious schools. The episode related in the text for this unit describes his remembrances of when, at age twelve, he completed
    his studies of reading and writing the Qur’an in Arabic script. Reaching this stage in a Muslim’s relationship to scripture is held to be a significant rite of passage in many Muslim societies—although the typical age for this and the celebrations that publicly mark this accomplishment are largely determined by local cultural practices. The details of feasting and ceremony elaborated in this passage provide vivid descriptions of aspects of the localization of this particular Islamic practice.
  3. Assign students to read, or read aloud to them, the first four paragraphs of “Finishing the Koran.” In these paragraphs the author describes the arduous task he faced in learning how to chant the Qur’an in Arabic, a language he did not know.
  4. Ask students the following questions:

    Do you know of any other religions that have holy texts that are composed in languages considered to be sacred?

    Why do you think Muslims consider it essential to recite the Qur’an in Arabic?

    To understand more fully the last question, distribute to each student the following quotations about the Qur’an. Assign pairs or teams to work on one of the quotations. Each quotation should be read and paraphrased for clarity. Then the pair/team should respond to the question of why Muslims consider it essential to recite the Qur’an in Arabic, based on the quotation they are analyzing.
  5. Have pairs/teams share their responses from the quotations with the class as a whole. Summarize the discussion; help students to understand that the Qur’an was from its inception a recited text, believed to be the word of God transmitted through Muhammad to humankind. The Fatihah, the first verse of the Qur’an, is recited at each of the five daily prayers, in addition to which worshippers may choose to recite other verses (ayas) that they have memorized. The holiest month of the year, Ramadan, during which Muslims
    fast, commemorates Muhammad’s reception of the first verses of the Qur’an.
  6. Ask students to return to the narrator of “Finishing the Koran.” Pose the following questions:

    What role will Arabic play in the narrator’s daily life as a Muslim?

    While it is not required that every Muslim recite the entire Qur’an in Arabic, how do you think the narrator’s mastery of it will enhance his worship and identity as a Muslim?
  7. Now ask students to read the rest of “Finishing the Koran.” Assign the Guided Reading Questions; ask students to respond in writing and to come to class prepared to discuss them.
  8. In a whole group reflection, return to the Essential Questions and discuss:

    How does a local religious custom in Indonesia reinforce values and practices that are important to Muslims worldwide?

    From the narrator’s point of view, what tension exists between local tradition and culture (language and clothing, for example) and being a Muslim?

    How has a local custom (the Qur’anic recitation celebration) reinforced Muslim identity?

    What about this custom do you think reinforces Indonesian lifestyles, for example, cooking?

    How does an Indonesian’s Muslim identity tie him or her to Muslim worshippers elsewhere in the world?

    How does the Arabic language, and, in this case, Arabic dress, serve this purpose?
  9. As you have probably noticed, there are different spellings for foreign words in this lesson and in the excerpt from the book in which the translation of “Village Childhood” was published, such as Koran/Qur’an; Mecca/Mekkah; Muhamad/Muhammad. The way that
    foreign words are written in ( or transliterated into) English is called “romanization.”

    Why do you think these differences appear in different publications?

    Why is it difficult to find just one way to write a foreign word in English, especially when the
    alphabet in which it was originally written is completely different from the English alphabet, or the pronunciation is very different from English?

    Can you think of some common differences in the romanization of other foreign words and names—for example, from Chinese or Russian—into English?

Students will be assessed on their ability to rephrase and analyze quotations from the Qur’an, ability to work in cooperative groups, written guided question responses, and responses during the whole class reflection.

Selective assignment of quotations and heterogeneous groupings in teamwork may support diverse students. The final reading segment and accompanying guided questions may be broken up among the students and reported back as a jigsaw for students with limited proficiency
in literacy/language skills.

  • Play a sample of a Qur’anic recitation so that students can understand what the narrator means by “recited.” These are easily available on disc, particularly on the CD published together with Michael Sells’ Approaching the Qur’an: The Early Revelations (Ashland, OR: White Cloud Press, 1999). Point out that the recitation of the Qur’an is in Arabic everywhere throughout the Muslim world.
  • Distribute images of Islamic calligraphy from different parts of the world. These can also be found on the Web. Point out that they are most often renderings of verses of the Qur’an. Possible websites to use include www.lacma.org/Islamic _ Art/Intro.htm and
    www.shangrilahawaii.org (click on 'Collections').
  • Ask students how Arabic might function to unify the Muslim umma (community) worldwide even though in their native countries Muslims speak a wide variety of other languages?