‘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
- 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
Diversity and Community in Contemporary Society
Michael G. Peletz
Each student will need a copy of:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Ask students the following questions:
Do you know of any other religions that have holy
texts that are composed in languages considered to
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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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
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?
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?
- 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
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?