(Originally written last year for IslamicInsights.com)
In the month of Ramadan, Muslims the world over devote more time to reciting Qur'an. The Prophet (peace be upon him and his progeny) said, "Everything has a springtime, and the springtime of the Qur'an is the month of Ramadan," and "Whoever recites a verse from the Qur'an (in the month of Ramadan) will receive a similar reward as the one who recites the entire Qur'an in other months." Perhaps in zealousness for reward, or from misunderstanding of the saying about reciting the Qur'an, often during this month and even at all times, many Muslims have sadly adopted a practice of hastened recitation without understanding.
One example is the form of Taraweeh prayers in many Sunni communities today – the community is so focused on achieving a certain quantity of recitation in their prayers, one-thirtieth each evening, that they may be tempted to rush through the recitation without any reflection or understanding. The origins of dividing the Qur'an into 30 parts and reciting one part each night in the month of Ramadan is in some writings attributed to Uthman for the purpose of use in the taraweeh prayers. The goal of reciting the whole Qur'an in the month of Ramadan is admirable, but not at the expense of quality over quantity.
The purposes of Qur'an might be described as to remove rust from our hearts, to guide us, to purify us, and to educate us. While there is reward in reciting the Qur'an even without understanding, the true benefit of such a recitation is extremely limited and completely leaves aside the benefits of the Holy Book as a reformer and guider for one's soul.
"A book We have sent down to you, blessed, that men possessed of mind may ponder its signs and so remember." (38:29)
"What, do they not ponder the Qur'an? Or is it that there are locks upon their hearts?" (47:24)
Qur'an recitation should really be slow, contemplative, and reflective. A person hearing, reading, or reciting the Qur'an should be engaged with the text: they should have an emotional response and a rational response to its words, not just a response to the voice of the reciter. The Fourth Imam (peace be upon him), "The Qur'anic verses are treasures of knowledge, and whenever a treasure is opened, you have to see what lies therein. Ponder over the verses of the Qur'an, and learn from them, for they are the best of lessons."
The aim of the many deeds we perform in the month of Ramadan is not reward as much as it is reform or purification. In the springtime of the Qur'an, it should be flowering in our hearts, in order to bear fruit. This cannot be accomplished if the meanings of the words never enter our hearts and minds in the first place, nor if the meanings are not allowed to linger with us, occupying our attention beyond a few passing moments. Understanding the Qur'an can be achieved by reading through translation if needed, reading slowly, and in as small a quantity as necessary to allow the time for processing, responding, and applying what one has read. One verse of Qur'an in translation that is understood and taken to heart and used to reform a person may be of more value than a lifetime of chanting the sacred Arabic text but knowing it only as sound.
Most mosque functions rightly begin with recitation of Qur'an, but sadly, we often find that for many of the reciters and listeners, it is only a beautiful noise and an honored ritual. It is a shell of Qur'an that falls like dried leaves rather than taking root in the hearts. Perhaps if there are people in the audience who do not understand the Qur'anic Arabic, a recitation of Qur'an should never be concluded without a translation, so that understanding might bless the hearts of the congregants. Indeed, perhaps the aforementioned saying of the Prophet – "Whoever recites a verse from the Qur'an (in the month of Ramadan) will receive a similar reward as the one who recites the entire Qur'an in other months." – was really meant to make us focus on each verse more slowly and more contemplatively in this month, not to recite more for more's sake. If that means that fewer verses are recited as a result, then so be it. If that means that the whole Qur'an is not read in the month of Ramadan, but only a portion, there is no sin in that. Is it not better for a community of believers to come together and reflect on the Qur'an than to merely parrot it?
I'm not an expert when it comes to Qur'an reciters, but here is my favorite Surah Yaseen recitation - with transliteration and translation.