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The Four Ts: Swimming in the Ocean of the Quran

Updated: Jun 15

What are the four Ts?


The four "Ts" are the various approaches to engaging the Quran. Muslims the world over engage with the text in many ways. Four basic modes come to mind. And no this isn't a construct one can find elsewhere. I'm just using the "Four Ts" as a way to remember these terms. They all happen to begin with "T" due to their verbal form in Arabic, so the shared "t" means very little inherently. I'm just using this as a mnemonic device:

  1. Tadabbur

  2. Tafakkur

  3. Tarteel

  4. Tajweed

Tajweed and tarteel are more or less the same thing. Both concern the art of recitation in which a Muslim "sings" the text out loud in a ritualistic manner. To study/perform tajweed is to recite the Quran according to specific rules regarding how articulate every sound, how long to pronounce certain vowels, how to combine sounds, where to emphasize sound, where to start, stop and so forth (ghunnah, idgham, ikfaa, izhaar, iqlaab etc.). The word "tajweed" does not come from the Quran, but in essence it means "to make beautiful." And the art of tajweed is very beautiful. Many a nonMuslim have been moved by hearing it. The word "tarteel" comes from 73: 4 (ورتل القرآن ترتيلا) and means "to make measured" and some say it is a longer form of tajweed. But again, concerning rules, sound, grammar, preservation of the original revelation and "reading as ritual," the two are one and the same. Suffice it to say, one can practice tarteel or tajweed and not know a lick of Arabic but still derive benefit as Quranic Arabic is considered a sacred and therefore restorative. Indeed, the revelation came as a sonoral experience not a physical "book" that plopped into the Prophet Muhammad's lap in a single sitting. It was revealed moment by moment over a number of years. Only toward the end of the Prophet's life was it compiled as a single book. The specifics of how that happened are beyond the scope of this blog post but I'll try to link to other sources in due time that you may or may not be interested in adding to your TBR list.


Likewise, "tafakkur" and "tadubbur" are quite similar and refer to contemplation. In other words, this mode concerns approaching the Quran for comprehension, not necessarily for memorization or ritual (though these are not exclusive terms either). For the sake of my purpose here, I'm going to focus on "tadabbur." As a writer, I enjoy connecting literary concepts/devices with Quranic concepts/devices and within this context the word "tadabbur" utterly fascinate me.


Tadabbur comes from the verb “dabara” i.e. to turn one’s back and is found, for example, in the following verse, "Do they not reflect upon the Quran carefully?" (4: 82) So what is the connection between "turning one's back" and the word contemplation?


On the one hand, to contemplate is to turn one's back to the world. It is to turn inward and close yourself off from wordly distractions. On the other hand, to show your back or to look at someone's back is to look at them from another angle. To do tadabuur is to penetrate beyond the surface and do a serious deep dive. To look at the Quran as a whole. To see the internal logic. What I find interesting about this word is that not only is the Quran telling us to practice tadabbbur, it shows us that it, too, does tadabbur (through various "tools" such as intertexuality, parallelism and chiasmus). It is constantly turning in on itself, playing with it's own imagery (think of a person showing you it's front, then back, insides and outsides).


Anyone who has ever taken a poetry course or done an MFA will understand what I mean. In poetry we are asked to look for "the turn." The turn is the place where a poet plays with a text. They play with imagery, meaning and sound. The Quran does this all the time. Unfortunately, one does not have access to this magic unless they've studied Quranic Arabic, but wow, is it mind-blowingly cool. Anyhow, point is: the Quran does tadabbur, so should we (if we can). I personally find it the most fruitful way of approaching the sacred text. One can do tadabbur without tajweed. Together, however, they are delightfully impactful--the mixing of sacred semantics and alchemical song.


In conclusion, the three Ts (which are really two) are the different ways we may swim in the ocean of the Quran. Some do one. Some do the other. Some do both. For me, I love tadabbur. As a convert, I was first attracted to the religion intellectually. Eventually the seeds of faith found their way to my heart and reality became practice.







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