Q: Can you explain why "simultaneous, congregational recitation" of the Qur'an is regarded as bid'ah?
A: The practice of "congregational recitation" of the Qur'an apparently evolved over time and became customary in some parts of the world. This custom, however ancient and respected, is not an approved practice and does not have any legal status. Hence, it must give way when confronted with the force and power of the supreme law, as enshrined in the Glorious Qur'an and the Prophetic Sunnah. Allah (s.w.t) commands us in the Noble Qur'an:
"Wa 'izaa quri-'al Qur'anu fastami-'uu lahuu wa 'an-situu la-'allakum turhamuun."
"When the Qur'an is recited, stay quiet and listen to it so that you may be shown mercy."
[Surah al A'raf/The Heights/7:204].
This verse was revealed on account of an incident, which took place in early Islam. As the Prophet (s.a.a.w) used to lead the people in ritual prayer, some of them would stand in line and continue to conduct private conversation, while the Qur'an was being recited. Because of this, Verse 204 of Chapter 7 (quoted above) was revealed. The significance of the ayah is: "When the imam or the qari (Qur'anic reciter) is reciting the Qur'an, all should stay quiet and listen."
The legal criterion regarding Qur'anic judgement is this: "The general meaning of the text is the governing rule, not the specific instance of the revelation." Hence, in Q7:204, the universal meaning of the verse must be applied and adhered to, irrespective of the circumstances surrounding its revelation. Moreover, Allah's command in Q7:204 is expressed in the imperative, as evidenced by the Arabic letter 'waw' (signifying plural) in the following terms of this verse: "fas-tami-uu", "an-situu", and "turhamuun"; all of which refer to an unqualified plural. The significance here is that all should stay quiet except the one who is reciting, whether in ritual prayer or in liturgical services.
We are enjoined in the Our'an: "And it is not fitting for any believing man or any believing woman if Allah and his Prophet have judged a matter, that they should follow their own choice in it."
[Surah al Ahzab/The Clans/33:36].
And again the Qur'an commands: "So take what the Messenger gives you, and refrain from what he prohibits you."
[Surah al Hashr/Exile/59:7].
Thus, we are obligated to follow the injunctions of Allah (s.w.t) and the noble example of the Messenger (s.a.a.w), as stated in the Qur'an: "You have indeed in the Messenger of Allah an excellent exemplar. . ." [Surah al Ahzab/33:21].
Nothing has been transmitted to us that the Prophet (s.a.a.w) participated in, or allowed, congregational recitation of the Qur'an. If this were so, it would have been in direct contradiction to "Chapter 7, Verse 204" quoted above. In addition, Allah's Messenger (s.a.a.w) constantly warned the people in his khutbahs against "innovating in religion." Congregational recitation of the Qur'an is an innovation because it has no precedent in the authoritative texts.
Finally, the example of the Messenger (s.a.a.w) is in what he did and what he did not do. He did not practice congregational recitation of the Qur'an. The rule, the criterion, in everything -- except 'ibadat -- is permissibility. Recitation of the Qur'an is 'ibadat; thus, we cannot disregard the Messenger's Sunnah as it relates to this subject. For the Prophet (s.a.a.w) warns: "Every innovation is misguidance. . . and every misguidance is in the fire." [Muslim].
Posted September 24, 1998. This question and answer was printed in the June 1994 issue of the Voice of Islam newsletter. (This newsletter is published by the Islamic Society of the Washington Area).