It's a common question for people to ask--how I found Islam, or why I converted. And usually I don't have time to answer in 3 parts, so I instead share my short answer, which is basically this: "The Qur'an."
Yeah, I know, it's not even a complete sentence. But all the da'wah given to me (prior to Islam) was not even nearly as effective as the time I spent reading the Qur'an on my own. It was convincing to me that Islam was the truth--cleared any questions of doubt about the authenticity of the Qur'an or of the Bible, and inspired in me a hope and faith that simple reading had never done for me before.
And because I grew up as a Christian, I already believed in God and Messengers and Scriptures--all I had to do was progress from belief in Jesus as the son of God to belief in him as a Messenger (4:171) and to accept the Qur'an (2:2) and believe that Muhammad was a messenger (36:3.) And just reading the Qur'an helped me get there.
So since embracing Islam, I have felt like I had a special relationship with the Qur'an. To start with, I had read the whole thing. Now that doesn't seem like a very big deal to me now, since I know people who read it every week, or every month, or at least ever year--but having read it once was significant to me. However, progressing up that ladder presented a challenge for me from the very beginning. You see, I read not the actual Qur'an but I read an english translation. Not quite the same thing.
And of course, after converting my relationship with the Qur'an had to take on a number of dimensions. To start with, I had to learn (i.e., memorize) at least some for my prayers. And for months, I recited "Qul huwa Allahu Ahad..." twice in every salaat, because after Al-Fatihah, it was the only surah that I knew. And even memorizing that little bit was difficult. Memorizing these surahs for me basically meant listening to them repeated throughout the day (maybe even a hundred times or more) while looking at a transliteration and following along. In the end, it meant trying to reproduce the sounds I heard on a recording.
So by then I had two dimensions--first, I had read a complete translation in English, and secondly, I had learned to reproduce sounds using the aid of transliteration to memorize very small sections of the Qur'an. Using this same method, I was able to learn two more short chapters that year (Al-Falaq and An-Naas.)
For the most part, memorization took place without comprehension. But then I was able to add a third dimension to my relationship with the Qur'an, and that was to learn the meanings of the chapters I was reciting, word by word. Being able to understand the meanings (especially of Al-Fatihah) helped me immensely to concentrate more during the prayer.
Unfortunately, eventually I forgot the specific meanings of some verses and didn't end up memorizing anything new for a while. But I did take a beginner's class in Arabic for sisters at the masjid. Yep, we used that "Alif Baa" book everyone seems to be using, and we did 1-2 letters a week, or so. I say "or so" because sometimes we wouldn't do any letters at all. But we learned how to write the letters and how to recognize them (skills that seemingly go hand-in-hand), and how to construct words, and a little bit about how to pronounce the letters as well--though practice makes perfect on that count.
Having constructed my own flashcards to learn these letters quickly on my own, after getting 3/4 through the class I rushed to the end so I could register for the Bayyinah class that was coming to town. And I am so glad I did that--because even though by the time the class started I was a tremendously slow reader (slower than instructor Nouman Ali Khan suggested would be good enough for this class), I was still able to benefit, innumerably. And since that particular class has not returned to Raleigh, I can't imagine what wealth of knowledge I might have missed entirely had I never enrolled. (Although, I should add that several of my friends almost had to drag me to this class, as due to other commitments I had actually missed the first 3 days--a mistake I don't plan to let happen again, for any such class.)
So at this point I hadn't really learned any more Qur'an but I was able to read--albeit slowly. Taking the class with Br. Nouman helped me to recognize words, types of words, and meanings of words while reading and while listening. It helped me concentrate more during my salaat (especially during Salaat ut-Taraweeh the following Ramadan) and it did actually improve my ability to read. I attempted then to memorize a few more chapters of the Qur'an (from the 30th juz)--and I succeeded. But now instead of following a transliteration, I would actually read the Arabic while listening to a recording.
As helpful as Br. Nouman's class was, because I didn't follow through in the end (i.e., attend all the seminars--a challenge while working two jobs and going to school full-time) I wouldn't say it added a new dimension to my relationship with the Qur'an, although it did increase my love for the Qur'an and multiplied my desire to study it more.
This year, however, I was able to add a new dimension, and that was through taking the Bayyinah 101 Tajweed class with Br. Wisam Sharieff. Allah has made it possible for me to continue the follow-ups so that the class has truly been able to benefit me. Alhamdulillah. Studying tajweed helped me in a few ways--the first of which was correcting my pronunciation of a few letters. I had been practicing these letters for years now but in some cases simply did not understand the distinction between some letters. But in very short time I was able to pronounce them from the correct places, with the proper sounds. The next way the class helped me was by improving my reading. Mostly, just reading more helped--but with a new surah each week (from the 30th juz), time to practice and review it slowly at my own pace, along with the rules of tajweed, by Ramadan I was able to read new sections of the Qur'an without the painstaking construction process which in the past had been such a hindrance to me in reading and reciting and even memorizing the Qur'an. So since taking the class (and especially in Ramadan) I've been able to about double the amount of Qur'an that I had memorized--but with substantially less effort. It became much easier to read, to recite and to memorize. And the more I read, the easier it becomes to recognize words and attach meanings to them. But I really can't describe the feeling of being able to recite, on my own, something from the Qur'an--and that is the next dimension for me, reciting.
So I was able to (1) Read the translation to grasp at meaning, (2) Memorize by hearing without comprehension, (3) Read the Arabic without comprehension, and (4) Recite the Arabic without comprehension.
And now I have two things to work on--comprehension, and memorization--essentially combining all four of those dimensions. In fact, those are the same things I had to work on at the beginning, but now both have become easier. I feel like I have the tools in place, tools that some other people had at their disposal from an early age--and I want to write about that next. But at this point in my life, I feel like my relationship with the Qur'an has taken shape and now it only needs to grow.