How Can I Enjoy Listening to the Qur’an in Taraweeh When I Don’t Understand What is Being Recited?

The Qur’an Series: Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV | Part V | Part VI Part VII | Part VIII | Part IX

Originally posted in August 2012

During Ramadan, many of us attend taraweeh (night prayers) at the masjid. Some of us stay until the Imam leads us in witr (a final supplementary prayer). For many of us, this can amount to over two hours of prayer time and for many of us, we understand almost nothing.

Sometimes, during the recitation of the Qur’an we hear the people around us crying profusely and we wish we could understand what could be so powerful that those around us are reduced to such tears. We can sometimes make out a specific word, but within a moment, we are back to indistinguishable meanings and simply wishing we knew what was going on.

I used to have no idea what was going on in the prayer. I remember standing for lengthy time periods behind the Imam, trying to make my mind focus but finding it constantly drift off; it’s very, very hard to concentrate when the mind has nothing to contextualize. I eventually would settle on trying to think of anything for which I could possibly be grateful. But taraweeh prayers are long; without understanding, my heart would simply get bored and my limbs would always fidget. Thoughts of my day, my concerns, my hopes and my food cravings after a day of fasting would all filter through my conscious while I shifted around. It’s hard to keep still for that long when one is mentally checked out and physically disengaged.

However, Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala  (exalted is He) guided me to an action which changed my life and revolutionized my prayer and du`a (supplication) experience ever since. It’s simple, but it takes long-term dedication. The results, for me, were powerful and transformational. The common-sense solution that worked miracles in my life by Allah’s blessings: reading a translation.

Every single day, for a number of years, I would sit and read five pages of the Qur’an in the English translation. I would do this while both reciting and listening to the Arabic recitation, allowing my ears to become accustomed to the Arabic words associated with the English.

After a few months of this practice, the first Ramadan came. In my hometown masjid, the Imam would lead twenty rakahs (units of prayer). So I would pray eight rakahs and then sit in the back and read the translation of the verses for the next twelve. I continued this throughout Ramadan and was extremely consistent with this practice for the next year. Soon, my awareness of Arabic words increased; I realized that the Qur’an uses many of the same words over and over and I was able to recognize them. I was also becoming more familiar with the surahs (chapters); I had an introductory understanding of what themes were being discussed in certain portions of the Qur’an due to keywords and a general awareness of what the surah entailed.

By the second Ramadan, I was praying with purpose. While I still had no idea what every word meant, I had begun to comprehend general meanings of many of the chapters and I was able to grasp the overarching messages of some of the verses. I kept up my practice of praying eight and reading the translation. I even had a few emotional moments. I started looking forward to certain verses that were my favorites. I was finally beginning to understand and I was actually enjoying it; the sweetness of the Qur’an had penetrated my heart and taken hold of my body. Praying taraweeh in Ramadan became a means of nourishment for my soul and tranquility for my limbs.

I also began memorizing the Qur’an and the more I memorized, the more my vocabulary expanded. After four years of reading the translation consistently and memorizing the Qur`an, I was enthralled with the idea of praying for hours behind the Imam. I could not wait for Ramadan; all year I waited for the last ten nights specifically, when the Imam would recite the Qur’an for an even longer period of time. My character, my life’s purpose, my Ramadan experience completely changed because I finally grasped a general understanding of the Qur’an.

Six years after I began reading the translation consistently and memorizing portions of the Qur’an, I moved to Egypt to learn Arabic. When I started, I took a practice test and was placed in an intermediary level. However, when I met my teacher for the first time, barely able to communicate a few sentences, she was shocked. “Your vocabulary is so expansive,” she told me, “but you clearly are a beginner!” Needless to say, I was re-placed as a beginner. Throughout our lessons, my Arabic teacher would express her surprise at my ability to understand certain words in depth simply because they appeared in the Qur’an, while others I struggled with at great lengths. Eventually, she told me that my Qur’anic preparation was what helped me actually grasp the language and is what had originally placed me at a level far higher than I really was.

Focusing on learning Arabic in Egypt, even at a basic level, allowed me to come to appreciate the incredible linguistic miracles of the Qur’an. The grammar, the syntax, the rhetoric, use of specific words—an appreciation for the deeper linguistic mechanisms did not happen simply because I had read the translation for an extended period of time. However, by Allah’s blessings, my self-training had laid the groundwork and with it, I was able to appreciate the Qur`an, prayer, and du`a’ at levels far beyond what I had even imagined before making the commitment to seek understanding.

The lesson in this personal experience is that taking time to learn Arabic as a language, studying the grammar, syntax and rhetoric are very important, but not absolutely necessary for a meaningful relationship with understanding the messages of the Qur’an.  Studying Arabic can help create a more cumulative appreciation of the mind-blowing power of the Qur’an, but none of us needs to grasp onto a future hope or past failed attempts of being fluent in Arabic in order to emotionally and intellectually become attached to the Qur’an. Such a relationship can begin simply by dedicating oneself to understanding the general translation of the words of the Qur’an in our native languages, and that can take place at any place and time. It is one that requires commitment and time, but if a person is serious and dedicated, God willing, they will eventually see the benefits of their toil and they will begin to understand and fulfill their purpose with greater perfection and zeal.

Here is a suggested plan of action that should be fit to a person’s individual situation. This is what worked for me, and it will differ from one individual to another. If a person begins this Ramadan, taking advantage of the blessings of this month, with their own plan of action, insha’Allah (God willing) by next Ramadan, they will notice a marked difference in their taraweeh and Qur’anic experience. This is the month to make a commitment to act; this is the month of success.

  1. Read the Qur`an in translation every single day. Choose a chunk to read in translation daily (ie: five pages) and couple it with reading it in Arabic and/or listening to it in Arabic.
  2. During Ramadan specifically, choose to pray a certain number of rakahs for taraweeh, but also make it a point to sit down and follow the recitation with the English translation. What is of more benefit? Praying for hours without understanding and hoping to get rewards (insha’Allah) or sitting, reading and understanding, finding oneself captivated by the incredible power of the Qur’an and actually feeling oneself coming closer to Allah (swt) and changing one’s life to maintain that relationship with Him? Long term, in this life and the next, insha’Allah there are rewards for both. But for the one who strives, there is much more reward for a person who actually lives the Qur’an instead of standing for a period of time, completely tuned out because of a lack of understanding.
  3. For Ramadan especially, try to read the translation of the surah that will be covered in that night’s prayer. That way, even if one is not able understand what is recited specifically, one will know the general meaning of the verses and one’s mind can focus on those general lessons and messages.
  4. Hone in on key words and use them to focus on salah (prayer). For example, when familiar with the different words which indicate “Paradise,” imagine Paradise. Imagine standing in Paradise, with its breathtaking beauty…and suddenly finding someone covering your vision with their hands! When you turn around, imagine who you would want to see most in that moment. Your mom? Your dad? Your grandparent? Your sibling? Your spouse? Your child? Your best friend? Imagine. You haven’t seen this person in possibly decades, centuries—you’ve gone through life without them or death came to you first and you had been in the grave for some time. Then you made it through the Day of Judgment. You finally have entered Paradise—you passed the test! And suddenly, you are with the person who you loved and missed the most. How would you feel in that moment? Allow your heart to FEEL the verses talking about Paradise as they apply to you. Use keywords to help your mind and heart interact with the Qur’an’s message to you.
  5. Listen to the Qur’an and its translation constantly; while stuck in frustrating traffic, while cooking and cleaning, while walking from one end of campus to another; allow the recitation of the Qur’an to penetrate the soul and the translation of the Qur’an to crack the hardened heart. The more one listens to the Arabic recitation and translation, the more familiar one will become with understanding the Qur’an.
  6. Study the meanings of Qur’anic words specifically over time. Here is a suggested resource to begin:
  7. Throughout the year, work on tajweed  (correct recitation of the Qur`an in Arabic) and memorization. Over time, this will significantly aid in a special working relationship with the Qur’an, God willing.

Many of us complain about our inability to understand what is being recited of the Qur’an and to maintain focus or enjoyment in prayer due to this reason. I know the feelings of boredom, frustration and helplessness. I know what it means to blame our lack of “experiencing” the “Ramadan feeling” on our lack of understanding of what is being recited.

However, we have the capability to revolutionize this experience, with Allah’s Help. We can become of those who truly understand, whose hearts are captivated and whose limbs are calmly in awe, whose minds are blown away at what we are listening to of the Qur’an. The methods are there and the tools are available. The real question is: Are we willing to make the time and dedicate the effort?

Many of us have tried different methods to wake our hearts up in Ramadan and help them focus on the prayer when we do not understand what is being said. What tips do you have which have worked in your life? Please share them so we all benefit insha’Allah.

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  1. anon says:

    I’ve been trying the same thing for the last 6 years and alhamdulillah the results are as you describe them to be; another thing I did whilst reading taraweeh is keep the mushaf with me in salah and follow the translation as the imaam recites arabic in salah as well as sit down for the 12 and focus on translation alone

  2. anonymous says:

    this is a very good article, jazakillah khair for sharing, although its important to pray all 20 rakaats of taraweeh :)

    and to the person above ^^ its not correct to hold the qur’an while praying salat

    and Allah knows best

    • YourBroInIslam says:

      It is fine to just pray 8 Inshallah, the Prophet (PBUH) never prayed more than 8 rakahs of taraweeh. The focus in qiyaam is on duration of standing up and reciting rather than the number of the rakahs. Also, IIt is permissible to hold the quran while praying nawafil prayers, not the obligatory 5 prayers. Since taraweeh are optional/additional prayers (nawafil) Inshallah it is fine to hold a copy of the quran and read from it during the prayer. Allah knows best.

  3. Ishrath says:

    Jazakallahkhair brother!

    May Allah reward you for sharing this information.

  4. Anon says:

    To anonymous re: holding the Qu’ran while praying…it IS permissible to hold the Qur’an while praying – see authentic hadiths reagrding Aisha (RA) on praying behind her Imam (Zhuqwan) while he held the Qur’an and read from it. W’Allah alam but please do not say something that is not true.

  5. Mara says:

    Alhumdulillah i did the same. I would follow english with the arabic playing in the background and was amazed how Allah allowed words to gradually seep in. Its a blessing.

  6. Ibn Eden says:

    truly inspiring and hope that Allah give me strength to follow such devine practice..jazakallah khair..finding this article isn’t coincidence!

    • Nassir says:

      ..and indeed finding this article is not by coincidence.. it what Allah provides for which is good..

      jazakAllah khairan for sharing these info

  7. Hanna says:

    Imam Suhaib, is it permissible to follow along the english translation while praying taraweeh?

  8. Arbaaz says:

    Salam. Just wanted to clear this whole thing about holding a mushhaf/Qur’an while praying. Depending on the madhab you follow, it will differ. In this case, it is important to understand the rulings each Imam of jurisprudence has given out. For Hanafis, it is completely impermissible to hold the Qur’an during any prayer. Shafii (I’m not too familiar with this). In any case, it is important to note that depending on the madhab one follows, the rules will differ. So no one person here is incorrect. Salam! :)

  9. Hira Javaid says:

    Salam. I hold a translation Quran with me when I pray taraweeh and follow along in English. I am not a scholar but I don’t think wanting to understand what the Imam is reciting would be impermissible. Islam is an easy religion, we shouldn’t make it hard for us, ask Allah for guidance and do as you feel comfortable in with situations that aren’t perfectly clear. Wa alikum assalam.

  10. Shurufa says:

    You are an inspiration sister. Masha Allah.. May Allah make you better than what i think of you, May He increase you and your family in goodness, and me included, in sha Allah. :)
    Allahumma Aameen.

  11. Gail says:

    You write, “Listen to the Qur’an and its translation constantly…” Might you recommend an audio resource?
    Thank you!

  12. Paul Bartlett says:

    An interesting article. It is good that the site administrators reposted it. However, as I see it, there are some issues with the suggestions of this sister.

    In the mosque where I made shahada many years ago, her suggestion would probably not have been realizable: 1) During taraweeh prayers, the place was so crowded that there may literally not have been any place to sit aside to read the Qur’an’s meanings in English (or Spanish, French, or whatever in N. America); 2) In that mosque, even if I had tried, I would probably have been literally prevented from doing so. (As nearly as I could tell, there were a lot of narrowminded people there who would not have tolerated such “aberrant” behavior.)

    I was already of middle age when I made shahada years ago and am now a “senior citizen,” i.e., an older person. Like an estimated 50-75% (!) of all converts to Islam in N. America, I have pretty much fallen away. Although I still have some vague contact online with the Islamic community (why else would I be here?), I will not lie and pretend that I follow Islamic precepts any more. Again, the “dropout rate” of converts in N. America is pretty ferocious, but who cares?

    To be blunt, the language problem was an insurmountable obstacle for me. Try as I might, I just could not get over it. I just could not hold in mind English meanings while I was babbling in (probably badly mispronounced) Arabic what were supposedly prayers. I might as well have memorized the Paris telephone directory in Hindi for all I understood. I was just a trained parrot mindlessly enunciating meaningless syllables. And at my age, I doubt that things are going to change. (I have no figures, but I speculate that most converts to Islam in N. America are youngish and may be able to deal with these issues, but I was not and am not. However, nobody seems to care about us older folks. Try to find somebody my age in a lot of mosques who is able and willing to speak good English over a cup of coffee.)

    A few times I went to taraweeh prayers years ago, but it seemed to be such an exercise in futility that after a while I never went back.

      • Paul Bartlett says:

        Salaam. JAK. Thank you for responding. As it turns out, I have glanced at that series on this website, and I think it is good. However, unfortunately, it does not seem to be completely relevant to the situation of an older person who has physical, sometimes painful (but try to find a chair without someone griping), limitations trying to stand in the lines of the taraweeh prayer totally baffled and disconcerted by the literally incomprehensible chanting of the imam. What is the use? I should just stay home and read a translation. (And, as I mentioned above, some of us older people are literally incapable of getting over the language barrier, but again thank you for responding.)

        • shila razlan says:

          salam brother Paul,
          I am a born Muslim, and relatively younger but I think I understand your turmoil since I dont speak Arabic too. Every Ramadhan I felt the same, and I would find myself making a new resolution and yet ended up where I was – emotionally detached during taraweh. I too at first thought it was the language issue but I think it is beyond that. Allah knows best.
          I pray that Allah won’t forsake you, myself and all Muslims especially the senior citizen reverts who are struggling to understand the deen. Let us pray for His mercy and guidance to let us all be close to Him in whatever way He seems fit our situation. Oh Allah, nothing is difficult if You wish to make it easy for us, and if You wish You would make it easy for us, please guide us, Allahumma amiin.

    • Maryam Amirebrahimi says:

      May God bless you. It sounds like you’ve definitely had difficult experiences, especially as an elder gentleman.

      May God fill your life with ease and blessings and surround you with angels and people who will be good companions for you wherever you are.


      • Paul Bartlett says:

        Salaam. Thank you for replying. Apparently I forgot to check the box to receive notifications of replies, so I only now saw it. :(

        Again, I do not have figures, but from observation, I would say that it is not common for people much over forty, say (and I was already forty-six), to profess themselves Muslims for the first time. I would go to the mosque for the prayers in the evening and afterward linger, but I almost never overheard older men (extremely rigid separation of the sexes there, so I don’t know about women) speaking English. (Not many younger men, either, to be honest, except for a few teenagers.)

        From what I could see, that mosque (and at the time it was the only one close enough that I could get to with any frequency) was so heavily “ethnic” (several different groups) that even younger converts did not fit in well. As one already with some years, I was ignored, and the last few times I went anywhere, even in recent years, I have overheard even fewer (i.e., almost no) older men speaking English, so I am not optimistic. (Because I never married, have no children, and live alone, it might be hard for me to fit in, having less in common, even if there were other older men able and willing to speak my language.)

        • bebe says:

          Mr Paul Bartley, I am probably to late to comment here but I actually came across this post as I am having a slightly similar issue. It must be very difficult for you especially for your condition/age. However, do not despair, the same Almighty that favored you by guiding you to the right path, the truth, and success, ISLAM, is the same Almighty that can help you because He sees what you are going through, in fact all the difficulties you are encountering would not have happened without His permission, this is called a test. I mean for you it is very easy since you are a little bit older,you only have to ask Allah swt with sincerity to guide and help you. And from that, you just keep trying and see the results. The problem in our community (Muslims)is that we do not know how to approach people, not that certain people are like this because they want to but because this the way they have become with time and all that other people say about Muslims in general tend to teach them to be too much reserved or between themselves. This is generally also between muslims and muslims, I have had scenarios whereas I offer salam to a muslim and they do not even acknowledge it while as a muslim we clearly know that greetings are compulsory. So you see in this position, what you can best do is the above and follow the sunnah of the prophet pbuh. Instead of telling everyone here (no disrespect) how those people are in the Mosque or how some other people do not fit in well, you should pray to Allah swt to guide them instead, that is better for as only Allah knows why things happen. InshaAllah, you will be fine, if you were never married or never had any child, that is God willing as everything else is, how can you tell for sure that if you had a wife and children , they could help you? you never know, there are many cases where wives /children unfortunately don’t have that sense, only YA RAHMAN can help so my brother, inshaAllah you will be fine, continue to thank the Almighty for what you have and we shall all pray to the Almighty that He helps, guide and make your affairs easy. Amin
          P.S: sorry if any of the content above upset you, not my intention at all.
          Thank you also for the sister for this beautiful post, may Allah swt reward you, Amin

          JakahAllah Khair

  13. Hamid says:

    Salam, thanks for the article. I’m trying to increase my faith and basically become a better muslim so this article is putting me on the right track. Its quite a struggle.

    I have the EXACT problem described by the author — I just can’t seem to get in to Taraweh because I have no clue what is being said. There is definitely a feeling of “missing out”, especially when dua time comes.

    My question, as someone without a ton of Quranic knowledge, if I’m showing up some random day of Ramadan, how do I even know how to get to the spot in the Quran where the imam last left off? If I want to follow along in English, what is the best way to keep exactly with where he is? Even if one started at the right chapter when the Imam starts reciting, I imagine it would be pretty easy to lose your place if you’re new to the whole following along thing.

    Logistically I’m just trying to figure out the best way about this.

    Thanks ahead.

    • Maryam Amirebrahimi says:

      wa alaykum as salam warahmatullahi wa barakatuh,

      These are great questions! Here are my recommendations but I’m sure others figure it out in better ways as well!

      1- If you’re showing up on a random day, try to get in a little earlier and ask someone where they’ll be reading from that day. Usually you can get a feel for which chapter they’ll be in when they start and find it in the Qur’an and get a feel for where you’ll be reading from inshaAllah.

      2- I would recommend following along in English, esp if you’re not quite familiar with the chapter in Arabic, while sitting in the prayer hall or somewhere where you can listen and follow along [if possible. As brother Paul mentioned above not every masjid will accomodate for this]. If you don’t know the Arabic or can’t read it, it will be difficult to follow him verse for verse. But it should help you generally stay in the same chapter as he’s reciting. Also, you can check in time to time with someone there to see how you’ve kept up and where they are in comparison to what you’re reading.

      This is a process and like anything new, it’ll take a bit to get adjusted to the Arabic vs. the English, listening to it while reading the translation [esp if it’s not something a person is super used to and can kind of know where they are by a catch verse or something].

      It may feel frustrating at first and confusing, but just like anything else, with practice it’ll become familiar and easier, God willing :)

      I’m very excited for your journey and even more excited that you’re making the commitment! I know it’s a struggle. Working on increasing our faith is always a struggle but don’t worry! You’re not alone! Millions of us are going through the same processes you are, we’re all just in different parts of the journey with the same goal.

      May God give you success!


  14. Bryan says:

    Ramadan Karim!

    Thank you for sharing your story. I volunteer teaching basic Hebrew reading skills for prayer and Torah study to adult learners at my synagogue. I will share this with my students.

    I wish you continued success with your studies.

    • Maryam Amirebrahimi says:

      Thank you so much for stopping by and sharing Bryan! Really awesome how you volunteer to help adults better connect with prayer and the Torah!

      Ramadan Karim to you too and I wish you continued success as well!


  15. Leana says:

    Asalamu Alaikum Sister Maryam, Ive been readina few of your other articles and Ma Sha Allah theyve really helped.

    Just one question, when you said to read the translation would you read all 5 pages in arabic and then read 5 pages of english translation or did you do it verse by verse, so one verse arabic & one verse english?
    & you said you did it while both reciting & listeninig to the arabic?

    Im just a bit confused lol, could you please explain the process in abit more depth for me please

    Jazakallahu Khayr sis

    • Maryam Amirebrahimi says:

      wa alaykum as salam warahmatullahi wa barakatuh sr. Leana!

      I would use an Arabic-English Qur’an. So half the page was the actual Arabic Qur’an and the other half was the translation of the verses, verse by verse. I would read 5 of those pages daily.

      For listening, basically I would listen to the verses and then pause the recitation so that I could read the translation.

      InshaAllah this helps! May God bless you in your studies of the Qur’an and in your efforts to come close to Him!


  16. Nura says:

    Amazing article! I have shared it… May Allah reward you for it ^.^

  17. Muslim says:

    I suggest there are courses on learning 80% quran by understandquranacedamy and islamic online university. These are short courses but result is Alhamdlillhi amazing.

  18. mohammed says:

    Assalam’alaikum WaRhemathullahi WaBarakatahu,

    jazak Allah for this article. May Allah (swt) reward you for your efforts.This information is very motivating and encouraging for many people who have a desire to learn and understand Quran. May Allah(swt) make it easy for us. Ameen.

  19. Fenna says:

    Assalaamu Aleikum warahmatullah wabarakatuh,
    Jazak Allah Khair for the article, I am one of those who found it very hard to remember too but alhamdullillah, I found a good way. Please excuse me if this sounds like advertising, but I’ve learned it through, in a relatively quick way and with lot’s of repetition. On my own, I often forgot the English meaning right after studying it, so I just recited empty words. But now alhamdullillah I really feel the blessings of praying. Because they start teaching with basic salat, then dua, so on and so on.

  20. AZIZ says:

    Peace be upon you all please every one tell me that which arabic should I learn every body talk about learnung arabic but I don’t know that about which arabic they are talking about (modern stanard arabic) or ( quranic arabic? If Iarn modern stanard arabic can I understand quran bit or more ?

  21. Fatimah says:

    Jazaaki Allahu khairan sister for your advices.
    Almost two years ago I started a self-studying word by word translation of the Quran, focusing on root letters. once I am familiar with the words then when I recite or listen I can recognize some words and automatically I remember the meaning of the whole ayat, Alhamdulillah. As you well said it is a long process but the most worthy and most precious time spent, in shaa Allah. Making dua asking for help, it is a must, do not think you can do it by your own efforts.
    This is the website that I follow for studying word by word and the tafsir (tafsir 2010 by sister Taimiyyah Zubair has the complete Quran)

    They have also the app (Quran for All) but this particular tafsir is not complete. there is only til juz 20

    wa asalamu alaikum wa rahmatullah wa barakatuh

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