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December 13, 2020

Guidelines for Understanding the Qur’aan

Some Guidelines for Understanding the Qur’aan

1. Some Pointers about the Qur’aanic Style

a. Pronouns Used by Allaah SWT for Himself

Allaah SWT has used both singular and plural pronouns for Himself in the Qur’aan. Sometimes, He uses ‘I’, ‘Me’ and ‘My’; while sometimes it is ‘We’ and ‘Us’. Why are both forms used? Similarly, why only ‘He’, ‘His’ and ‘Him’ are used to refer to Allaah SWT, but not ‘She’ or ‘Her’?

First of all, we must remember that Allaah SWT is infinite. He is one and unique. Hence, the concepts of singular or plural and masculine or feminine are irrelevant for Him because He is neither subject to number nor gender. In other words, because He in only one and unique, there is no plural for him. Similarly, there is no gender for Him. The concepts of singular or plural and masculine or feminine are only applicable to His finite creations. Now our finite human languages have only words for the finite things we know, but not the appropriate terminology for our Infinite, One and Unique Creator.

The pronouns used in human languages are designed to indicate gender of the subject of the pronoun as well as its number (singular or plural). However, Allaah being infinite, number and gender are irrelevant for and inapplicable to Him. For the same reason, the pronouns’ number and gender also become irrelevant and meaningless for Allaah SWT. Hence, it really does not matter what pronoun is used. Having said that, we must also remember that we cannot take liberty to use the pronouns we want for Allaah SWT. It is only up to Allaah SWT Himself to select the pronouns to use for Himself from our finite languages. Based on the usage in the Qur’aan, we discover that the following are Allaah’s preferences:

  • When talking about His mercy, kindness and personal relationships and closeness to people, Allaah SWT opts for ‘I’, ‘Me’ and ‘My’.
  • When talking about His power, authority, sovereignty and magnanimity over the affairs of the universe and over those who rebel from His ways, Allaah prefers to use the royal ‘We’ and ‘Us’.
  • When referring to Himself in third person, He prefers to use ‘He’, ‘Him’ and ‘His’.

b. Attribution of the Results of the Natural Laws

At some places in the Qur’aan, Allaah SWT says that He seals the hearts and minds of the people from attaining the guidance. What does that imply and how does this statement impact the accountability of the person whose heart is sealed?

Allaah SWT is the creator of Nature and the Laws of Nature. He designed those laws the way he wanted the world to operate. As every law of nature is operating exactly as Allaah wanted it to operate and the only reason it is operating that way is because He let it operate that way, Allaah usually attributes the results of their operation to Himself. Instead of saying such and such happened because of the natural results of the laws I had implemented, He just says, “I did such and such”. For example:

  • We all know how the rain falls: water evaporates, rises, forms clouds, condenses and falls down. But it happens so because Allaah SWT created water with these properties and created the laws of nature that make it happen. Hence, in the Qur’aan, Allaah always attributes the rainfall phenomenon to Himself saying, “He sends down rain.”
  • We know how plants and trees grow from seeds when they sprout with the help of the right amount of moisture and temperature, but the Qur’aan says, “It is Allaah Who sprouts a grain-seed and splits a fruit-stone” (Al-An’aam 6:95).
  • We get milk from cattle to drink, but Allaah says, “We give you drink from what is in their bellies … pure milk, palatable to drinkers” (An-Nahl 16:66).

Allaah has granted human-beings freedom to choose their response to a stimulus. A person can choose to adopt good or bad behaviour at every step of the way in life. He has also made human nature such that whatever path one chooses to follow, that path becomes easy for him. A person’s aptitude grows and intensifies in whatever direction he wants to take it. If a person keeps on doing good things and making the right choices, his personality develops in that direction and good behaviour becomes easier for him. On the other hand, if a person insists on doing wrong, he gets more deeply entrenched in his wrong attitude. Whatever path a person chooses to stay on, that path becomes his natural way. That is how we form habits and become conditioned to certain patterns of behaviour. Also, that is why the more time and effort we spend on a certain hobby, project or activity, the more interesting and enjoyable it becomes for us.

Now, if a person closes his mind because of his own biases, prejudices, jealousies, and other negative emotions, he cannot understand a different point of view regardless of how true and reasonable that point is. On top of that, if the person starts defending his own stance and arguing and fighting for it, he becomes more and more fixated on his position. In his insistence on his opinion and in his efforts to justify it, a point comes when he does not accept the other point of view even if it is clearly evident and proven without doubt. That is a stage when you can say that the heart and mind of the person is sealed.

Although it is a person’s own negative and closed-minded attitude towards Truth that causes this condition, Allaah attributes it to Himself just as He does with the outcomes of other laws of nature. The benefit of using this style of description is to show the Majesty of Allaah as the Creator of the nature that we are all bound by. Also, it is to underscore the deprivation they should feel for losing touch with reality. It is to show that insisting on the wrong is not something they should be proud of. It is a curse of Allaah that they have imposed upon themselves.

This clarification helps in providing the answer for the question: Why are people punished? People are punished for making the wrong choices i.e., instead of forming opinions or making decisions on the basis of principles, they base them on motives such as: biases, self-interest, jealousy, etc.; insisting on the wrong; not thinking openly; not looking at all sides of the issue; justifying their mistakes; digging their heels in; and, making all those mistakes that harden them in their wrong positions.

c. Oaths in the Qur’aan

Human beings take oaths to add credibility to the statements they make. Oaths fill the gaps left by a deficiency or lack of evidence. Usually the entities used for taking oaths are those that are considered sacred and exalted or those that are held very dear.

The Qur’aan also uses oaths in its text. Many Soorahs start with some kind of oaths and some of them come within the text itself. We cannot, however, interpret the oaths of the Qur’aan from the same perspective as we do in the case of human oaths. Firstly, nothing is exalted or sacred to Allaah SWT. He is the Most Exalted and the Most Holy. Secondly, His word is ultimate. It does not require any support. However, people may not be able to grasp the meaning or the reality of Allaah’s words. They may need props to help them understand the message from the Words of Allaah. That is the sole purpose of the oaths in the Qur’aan.

The entities or items used in the Qur’aanic oaths are not necessarily selected because they have some special significance in their own nature. Mostly, they are ordinary things found around us on the earth or in the universe, such as sun, moon, stars, earth, sky, night, day, dawn, brightness of the day, darkness of the night, time, angels, winds, the human conscience, etc. They are items or entities for people to reflect upon to understand the rationale for the point being made, and are selected only because they afford the best points of reflection for that purpose. So, the use of any items for an oath in the Qur’aan signifies that there is some logical relationship between the item in the oath and the statement that follows the oath or the theme being clarified. If we reflect and contemplate on the item used for the oath, it will provide us with the rational evidence or support for the guidance being imparted by the statement that follows the oath or the theme of the verses or of the soorah containing the oath.

This role of oaths in the Qur’aan is quite evident to the people who reflect on the Qur’aan, but it has also been explicitly mentioned in the Qur’aan itself. In Soorah Al-Fajr, after a series of oaths (the dawn, ten nights, odd and even, and the night when it is about to depart), Allaah SWT says: “Is there not a strong evidence in them for the wise?” A clear example demonstrating “If you reflect and contemplate on the item used for the oath, it will provide you with the rational evidence for the statement that follows it” is provided by Soorah Yaa-seen. It says, “By the Qur’aan full of wisdom, you indeed are from the messengers.” It implies that if people reflect on the wisdom, beauty and sublimity of the Qur’aan, they will realize that it cannot be a human product and must have been revealed by Allaah, providing evidence that Muĥammad (ŜA‘WS) is the Messenger of Allaah. Another clear example is Al-Inshiqaaq 84:16-19 where Allaah SWT has used alternation of day and night and phases of moon to illustrate our gradual journey to our end.

If we understand this point of oaths, then it should also become clear to us that wherever a series of oaths is used, every item in the series must be consistent in providing the support for the same message or theme. Different oaths in the series cannot be giving different messages or dealing with different issues. In some cases, oaths are taken by using attributes of the items of oath instead of explicitly using the names of the entities of oath; such as النّٰزِعٰتِ (Those that pull out), الۡمُرۡسَلٰت (Those that are let loose) each of the items or entities of oaths must be interpreted or specified by using the same principle that all oaths in the series are consistently providing the support or evidence for the singular intended message or theme.

In a few places Allaah SWT has taken an oath by Himself. The purpose in such cases is to present witness from His own Absolute Knowledge and His own Infinite Authority for the matter being discussed. Sometimes the Prophet has taken an oath by Allaah for the same purpose.

d. The Major Categories of the Verses of the Qur’aan

The guidance provided to people by the Qur’aan can be divided into four major categories.

  1. Teaching and reminding people that they are a creation of Allaah put temporarily on the earth as a test and that they will be held accountable on the Day of Judgment and will live thereafter in comfort or pain forever; and explaining to them the manner in which they should live in this temporary world so that they can excel personally and they can have a beautiful human society to live in and, ultimately, they can succeed in the eternal life Hereafter. Such knowledge is the essence and substance of the Qur’aan and the main purpose and reason for its revelation. The Qur’aan imparts this knowledge succinctly, precisely and categorically. For that reason, the verses that convey this knowledge are called Muĥkamaat (precise, definite teachings)

    The right-minded people spend their time and energies learning this knowledge, reflecting upon it and fulfilling its obligations in their private lives and implementing it in their society. The Muĥkamaat verses must be understood and practised exactly as they were practised, explained, cited or directed by the Prophet. Their meaning or implications do not change with the passage of time or the changes in circumstances.

  2. Informing people about the things they have no way of finding out except through revelation. These are things such as the infiniteness of Allaah, Allaah’s infinite ways to make things happen by commanding ‘Be’; the existence and nature of angels and jinns; the fire and punishment of Hell; the comforts and bounties of Paradise; the existence and animosity of Shaytaan (devil) and his efforts to mislead people; the miracles Allaah showed through messengers; etc. Because they are described in a human language that does not have precise words and concepts to describe these realities, their description approximates the reality as much as possible given the limits of human language and understanding. Hence, they are called Mutashaabihaat (approximate descriptions of the transcendent realities).

    Except to believe in the way these things are described in the Qur’aan, no human being has either the capacity or the need to know the exact nature of these unseen realities. Hence, no one should try to determine the precise nature and description of Mutashaabihaat in human terms beyond what is mentioned about them in the Qur’aan.

    For a more detailed discussion on the above two types of verses, refer to the appendix titled “Two Major Categories of the Verses of the Qur’aan”.

  3. Citing signs of nature so that people can reflect upon those signs and rationally arrive at the conclusions that lead them into believing the realities the Islamic faith requires of them to believe. The Qur’aan cites these signs not to teach people about the science of the things mentioned as the signs, but to present them as points of reflection for understanding its message. Therefore, the Qur’aan describes those signs with words that people from every age and level of intellect can relate to in their own way and understand at their own level of sophistication and knowledge, without losing the benefits for which the signs have been cited. A Bedouin in the desert having no scientific knowledge can benefit from them and draw the same conclusions as a celebrated research scientist of the 21st century. In fact, with advancement of scientific knowledge, people are able to better understand the meaning of the verses of the Qur’aan that cite signs from natural phenomena. And never can these signs be ever challenged on the basis of established scientific facts, which is the miracle of the words of the Qur’aan.

  4. Citing historical anecdotes to help people understand the point being made by the Qur’aan in the light of the similar situations that occurred in the past. This has been described in more detail in “Knowing the Qur’aan” section.

e. The Qur’aan explains itself

In the section “Knowing the Qur’aan”, we mentioned that one of the outstanding features of the Qur’aan is that it uses as few words as possible to make a statement, give an order or narrate an incident. A lot is left unsaid that can be determined by other means within the Qur’aan. This brevity is one of the most outstanding beauties and miracles of the Qur’aan.

It was also mentioned how wisely and effectively the Qur’aan repeats many of its themes, messages and teachings throughout its text to inculcate the message in the minds of a variety of people of different levels of intellect and to highlight different points from the same anecdote.

Naturally, a term, concept or an idea would not be fully explained at every place it is mentioned. At least at one place, it would be explained fully. At some places, it may just be hinted at; and at others, it may be described partially only to the extent required for the point under discussion at that moment. Explaining every point everywhere would be a very defective style of communication because it would make the text unnecessarily voluminous, distract the attention from the main point under discussion, confuse the readers and annoy them with repetition. Thus, when studying the Qur’aan, we must always remember that a word or idea or concept used in the verse under consideration may have been only alluded to briefly or partially because the context did not require the rest of the details and that it probably has been fully and completely described at some other place (or places) in the Qur’aan. Hence, the meaning of any Qur’aanic term, phrase or verse must be determined in conjunction with all its occurrences in the Qur’aan and the contexts where they appear. That is why the first and foremost principle of the exegesis (Tafseer) or explanation of the Qur’aan is that the Qur’aan explains itself and determines the meanings of its own contents. It is also the reason that anyone who does not have the knowledge of the whole Qur’aan should not try to determine the meanings of its words, phrases or verses on one’s own without referring to Tafseer written by knowledgeable writers who honour this principle.    

A very simple example is that of the term ‘faith’ or ‘Eemaan’. The Qur’aan frequently describes that salvation and success of people depends on faith and good deeds. But not everywhere is the full list of articles of faith given. Mostly just the word ‘faith’ is used to represent the complete concept of Islamic faith that includes all its articles. However, in An-Nisaa 4:136, Islamic faith has been fully described as containing belief in Allaah, His angels, His messengers, His books and the Hereafter. At some places, that basic Islamic faith is described by two of its articles because other articles are corollaries of these two articles. Belief in Allaah and Hereafter automatically implies the belief in messengers, books and angels, because books and messengers are what tell us about Allaah and Hereafter and guide us in what to do to be successful in accountability to Allaah in the Hereafter; while angels are the means Allaah has used to convey the guidance and they will be the workers in the affairs of the Hereafter. At some other occasions, only belief in Allaah and His Messenger is mentioned because of the need for emphasis on those aspects. The point is that regardless of how many words or articles are used to describe ‘faith’ at a certain point in the Qur’aan (for varying needs of highlighting or emphasis), wherever the term faith is mentioned, full Islamic faith will be implied.

Another familiar example is the last part of Soorah Al-Faatiĥah. The straight path has been qualified to be the path of people who are bestowed Allaah’s favours. In Soorah An-Nisaa 4:69, the Qur’aan explained that the people who are bestowed Allaah’s favours are the prophets, their most sincere and truly dedicated followers, those who give their lives in witnessing the truth of Islam and pious people. Ignoring the definition given by the Qur’aan itself, someone could have concluded that if a nation is prosperous, strong and glorious in this world, perhaps they are the people who have been bestowed Allaah’s favours whose path we should all follow. While the reality is that the bounties and favours Allaah SWT is talking about are: faith and piety and dedication to Islam, not the prosperity and power. About prosperity and power without faith and Islamic practices, Allaah SWT says:

The hustle-bustle of the Kuffaar throughout the land should not deceive you. It is but a brief enjoyment! Then, their abode will be Hell, an awful resort. (Aali-‘Imran 3:196-197)

A good translation or commentary would already have ensured that it did not translate or explain a word or verse in isolation but did so in the light of all uses of that word or coverage of that subject matter throughout the Qur’aan, duly taking the context of each occurrence into account. But the readers should also be vigilant that they abide by this principle in deriving their understanding.

f. Special Qur’aanic Concepts

There are certain words that the Qur’aan has used as special terms. Those special terms were given new meanings by the Qur’aan. Those meanings were clearly communicated, demonstrated and established by the Messenger ŜA‘WS himself. Since that time, they have always been generally accepted, without any break from generation to generation, by almost the whole Ummah. Their authenticity is as certain as the Qur’aan’s because both the Qur’aan and those established concepts have been collectively communicated with perpetuity through the same channel, with the same care and caution. These concepts include Tawheed, Salaah, Sawm, Zakaah, Taqwa, Tawakkul, Jihaad, etc. Although there are differences of opinion in some matters of detail, there has always been a consensus among the Ummah about the meaning of these concepts and their substance. These concepts must be understood in accordance with the established meanings that have been preserved by the Ummah throughout its history. Rejecting such perpetually established concepts will preclude proper understanding of the verses containing these terms.

In one’s attempt to understand such concepts and other teachings of the Qur’aan, people need to remember that Allaah SWT did not only reveal the Qur’aan, but sent a messenger with it as well. The job of the messenger was not only to teach the words but also to explain their meaning and implications and to demonstrate practically how they are to be put into action. Thus, if the meaning of a word, phrase or verse or command of the Qur’aan was determined by the actions or the words of the Prophet, that is the meaning of the said segment of the Qur’aan. Him being the direct recipient of the revelation, Allaah’s messenger and directly instructed and taught by Allaah, his word is the final authority for all the believers to follow. These practices of the Prophet were transmitted to us by two means: the continuous practical demonstration and transmission through actions of the believers from generation to generation and authentic reporting of those actions and behaviours through narrators of Hadeeth.

2. Essential Textual Considerations in Understanding the Qur’aan

a. The Context is Crucial

Like any literary work, the context is a crucial determinant of the meaning of the words of the Qur’aan. Whether it is the context of a word within a sentence, the sentence within a paragraph or a paragraph within a chapter, every context has a significant bearing on the meaning of a word. For example, common words such as monitor, mouse, drive, key, cell, etc. will mean totally different things in different contexts. Most people will be easily able to think of different meanings of these words in different contexts. But also consider an uncommon example. See how the context determines the meaning of the word ‘duck’ in the following sentence:

While looking at the different cloth samples, he really liked one of them and exclaimed, ‘I like this duck’ and ordered 100 meters for his sewing shop.

As you can see, the word ‘duck’ in the phrase ‘I like this duck’, when removed from its context, will convey a totally different meaning.

This crude example has been used just to demonstrate the point that context can have a major impact on the meaning of a word or sentence; hence, it must be considered for deriving the meaning. When it comes to the Qur’aan, however, many people take its verses out of context and derive meanings from them that are not warranted when considered within the context. They think that because every word of the Qur’aan is true and valid, we should be able to apply it in every situation without considering its context. This is not the right approach. Considering the significance of the context and the widespread disregard for it, this point will be explained in greater detail.

As described in the “knowing the Qur’aan” section, the Qur’aan was compiled in an order different from the order of the revelation on the instructions of its author, Allaah SWT. With every revelation, the Prophet was instructed as to the exact order and location of the newly revealed verses or soorah. The Prophet would dictate to the scribes in that order and recite it in the daily Salaah in that order. Thus, the Qur’aan is not a collection of unrelated miscellaneous verses that have been randomly assembled. Otherwise, it would have been compiled in the order of revelation. The specific order to the verses that Allaah Himself gave cannot be without purpose, wisdom and profound reason.

Keeping in view that Allaah SWT himself directed the compilation of verses in a certain order in a soorah and soorahs in a certain order in the Qur’aan, Allaah SWT has Himself provided every verse and every soorah its appropriate context. Thus, the context becomes even more important for the Qur’aan in determining the meaning of a verse or a group of verses than for a segment of any human literature. In fact, it is one of the most important factors in determining the intent and the meaning of any segment of the Qur’aan for yet another reason: context is the main tool used for the miraculous brevity of the Qur’aan that amazed and mesmerized the Arabs with its literary excellence. The Qur’aan uses context of the words, phrases and sentences in a very sophisticated manner to deliver a lot of meaning with minimal wording by putting significant reliance on context to convey the message properly. Thus, to understand the Qur’aan properly, its phrases and sentences should never be taken in isolation of its context. When deriving the meaning of a word, phrase or verse of the Qur’aan, the intended meaning must be put in context and reviewed to ensure that it fits properly with the verses before and the verses after to give a coherent message and that it appropriately relates to the subject matter being discussed at that point in the Qur’aan. It is absolutely unacceptable to take any verse out of context and make it mean whatever one likes. A meaning derived without considering the context might be invalid.

Those who study the Qur’aan keeping the order and context in mind soon realize the fact that the order of the Qur’aan is in fact an order of miraculous coherence and flow. Every verse of the Qur’aan fits like a gem in its place. Every verse of a soorah is in profound relationship to the verse before and after it. In the same manner, every section and every soorah has a strong relationship in meaning and theme to the section and the soorah before it and after it. In turn, the soorahs are divided into seven groups, whereby each group has its own main theme; each of them starts with one or more Makkan soorah(s) (the soorahs revealed during 13 years of the Islamic movement in Makkah); and ends with one or more Madeenan soorah(s) (the soorahs revealed during the 10 years of the Prophetic mission in Madeenah); and each group has an evolutionary relationship to the groups preceding and succeeding it. Within groups, each soorah complements the central idea of its preceding/succeeding soorah and presents it from a different angle.

b. The Seven Groups of the Soorahs of the Qur’aan

Reflection on the seven groups of soorahs indicates that they have some common attributes as well as a distinctive attribute. Thus, each group talks about Tawĥeed (1), Risaalah (2) and Aakhirah (3) and contains some commands of Allaah SWT. Each group also covers the life cycle of the Islamic movement; however, each covers it from a different perspective, highlighting the process of achieving or tackling one particular aspect of the Islamic mission. As a whole, the seven groups have been arranged such that each group has an evolutionary relationship with its preceding and/or succeeding group. In addition to these common features, each group has its own central theme that is particularly emphasized in all soorahs of that group.

1  The Oneness and Uniqueness of Allaah – the fundamental Islamic belief that Allaah is the sole Creator, God, Master and Lord of the universe and everything in it; that He is Infinite and Unique in all His attributes; that there is absolutely no other entity equal, similar or opposite to Him in any respect whatsoever or sharing any of His attributes with Him; that He has absolutely no offspring of any kind; that He must be obeyed slavishly in every sphere or aspect of one’s life throughout one’s life; and that only He is worthy of and should be worshipped, offered devotions, given obeisance, supplicated to and obeyed unconditionally.
2  The messengerhood – the belief that Allaah SWT has sent messengers for the guidance of people.
3  The Hereafter – the belief that all human beings will be raised on the Day of Resurrection to live eternally.

Like the context of the verses and sections within a soorah, context of the soorah within its group is also important. Reflecting on the soorah within the context of its group significantly helps in developing a proper understanding of its message and focus, which otherwise may not become easily apparent.

The description of relationships, coherence and flow of the verses, sections, soorahs and groups belongs in the detailed commentary and exegesis (Tafseer) of the Qur’aan and has been provided in the contents of this website, based on  the work of two eminent scholars of the Indo-Pak subcontinent, Amin Ahsan Islahi and his teacher Hameeduddeen Faraahi, and my own reflection and tadabbur on the contents of the Qur’aan. However, to give you a glimpse of the wisdom in the arrangement of the text of the Qur’aan, a brief overview of the seven groups and relationships of soorahs within the first group will be presented in the next few paragraphs.

While reflecting on the relationships described below and on the other points already mentioned about this topic, the reader should think about how a series of revelations occurring over a 23-year period organized in a totally different order than the order of their revelation ended up to be an extremely meaningful and coherent whole, without any editing of the text whatsoever. It is humanly impossible for a person to develop a thought and publish it in one way, and re-arrange all the published pieces in another way, still making perfect sense and becoming a coherent whole, without any editing of any of those pieces. It becomes especially amazing when it comes from an illiterate man who continued to go through a variety of the toughest circumstances a human can ever go through. This is another aspect of the Qur’aan that presents evidence that it is the Word of and revelation from Allaah SWT.

An overview of the arrangements of the Soorahs (chapters):

The First Group

The first of the seven groups of the soorahs of the Qur’aan consists of five soorahs: one Makkan soorah, Al-Faatiĥah, and four Madeenan soorahs – Al-Baqarah, Aali-‘Imraan, An-Nisaa and Al-Maaidah.

The central theme of this group of the soorahs is highlighting the attributes and qualities of the believers and their society; granting Muslims the charter and charging them with the responsibility for the establishment and maintenance of a proper Islamic society; pronouncing the values, principles and rules to be adopted for the establishment and operation of that Islamic society; and providing guidance and instructions for achieving these goals so that they succeed in pleasing Allaah and present witness of the beauty of the Islamic society to the world. In regard to dealing with non-Muslims, although the messages given are universal, the focus of the message has been mainly on those who called themselves the Jews and the Christians, who were previously charged with the responsibility of establishing and maintaining the desired Islamic society but had failed to do so. This group of soorahs also highlights the pitfalls that must be avoided and hypocritical attitudes that must be shunned in the process of fulfilling this great responsibility. Each of those pitfalls and attitudes have been illustrated through the anecdotal examples from the Jewish and the Christian history.

For subsequent generations of Muslims like us, this group identifies the evolutionary process of re-establishing the Islamic system of peace, justice and excellence when a Muslim majority society decides to implement the Islamic system to administer their collective affairs. It guides Muslims in determining their priorities while implementing various parts and modules of the Islamic system starting with Al-Baqarah and completing the implementation with Al-Maaidah. It starts with a preamble (Al-Faatiĥah) that gives a very concise overview of the goal and the path, the kind of people who serve as role models in walking the path, and the kind of people who deviated and thus should not be followed. Then, it takes the believers through four main facets of the process of Islamization starting with Soorah Al-Baqarah, until the complete establishment of the Deen of Islam is attained in Soorah Al-Maaidah, while also identifying in all four soorahs the hypocritical and un-Islamic tendencies that will cause failure in reaching the destination.

An overview of the interrelationships of the five soorahs of this group is as follows:

Al-Faatiĥah is a preface to the Qur’aan that gives a summary and overview of its message. While doing so, it highlights the mindset and the thought process that leads a person to recognize Allaah as his merciful Lord, to understand the reality of one’s accountability to Him and to make a pledge of obedience to Him. This thought process culminates into a desire for guidance, which the believer seeks through a supplication (du‘aa) to Allaah SWT asking Him to show the straight path that will lead the believer to success in pleasing Him. This mention of supplication in the preface implies that the whole Qur’aan is being presented for the guidance to the straight path, in acceptance of this supplication. The du‘aa ends with a desire to avoid ending up like those who, after being guided, either incurred the wrath of Allaah SWT or lost the right path (were misguided). The next two soorahs deal with both groups in detail. The very next soorah, Al-Baqarah (Ch. 2), gives examples of the Jewish behaviour that angered Allaah SWT, while the following soorah, Aali-‘Imran (Ch. 3) describes truth about Jesus to identify the Christian misguidance.

In addition to giving the rules and regulations for the Muslims and giving the example of the Jewish covenant and their transgressions, the theme of the second soorah, Al-Baqarah, is focused on the matters of faith, e.g. clarification of the concepts and the nature of commitment required of the believers. The message is illustrated through the covenant of God with Adam and Abraham (Ibraheem) for the direct benefit of the Jews. It is supported with rationale based on the human position vis-à-vis the universe and with reasoning based on the cosmic phenomena to universally appeal to all of the audience, including the Jews, Christians and pagans.

In Aali-‘Imran, the third soorah, the emphasis is on obedience and the practice of faith (Islam), and the reasoning is based on the religious concepts already accepted by the Jews and Christians including the attributes of God. The covenant of God with other prophets is also referred to in reinforcement of the message.

As can be seen from this very brief overview of the contents of this pair of soorahs, they are complementary to each other, but at the same time have their own distinct qualities. Even their sequence, Al-Baqarah preceding Aali-‘Imran, is important as it gives very logical order to their contents because:

  • Reasoning on the basis of the cosmic phenomena and common-sense approach to the human position in the universe should be used before the reasoning based on the beliefs of the audience and the attributes of God accepted by them;
  • Jews are precursors of Christians;
  • Allaah’s Covenant with Adam and Abraham preceded that with other prophets;
  • Eemaan (Faith) is the basis of Islam (submission and obedience in practice).

The fourth soorah of the group, An-Nisaa (Ch. 4), emphasizes the equality of mankind and the rights of the underprivileged, and concentrates on building a healthy, just, united and coherent community. The last soorah of the group, Al-Maaidah (Ch. 5), gives the final commandments to complete and perfect the Islamic way of life. It also culminates the establishment of the covenant between Allaah SWT and the Muslims - a covenant of implementing full and pure Sharee‘ah (Islamic law and regulations) in its entirety in the kingdom of God with steadfastness and perseverance. All the things that must be done to fulfill the covenant have been explained. Both of these soorahs (4 and 5) are a pair and focus on giving detailed commandments on the basis of which the society of God is to be established. Both of them also contain examples and consequences of breaking of the covenant by the Jews and the Christians.

This kind of interrelationship exists throughout the various segments of the Qur’aan.

The Second Group

The second group consists of four soorahs: Al-An‘aam and Al-A‘raaf revealed in Makkah and Al-Anfaal and At-Tawbah in Madeenah. The central theme of this group is to describe the way of giving Da’wah to a non-Islamic society and the manner of dealing with its disbelieving opponents. This guidance has been provided by focussing on the four distinct phases of the struggle between the Prophet’s Islamic movement and the Quraish of Makkah. Thus, these four soorahs progressively provide the details of those four phases, among many other profound teachings, and thereby, coach the contemporary Islamic movement in dealing with the non-Muslim communities.

The Third, Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Groups

In addition to explaining and inculcating the three fundamentals of Islam (Tawheed, Risaalah and Aakhirah), the soorahs in these four groups also answer the questions of the disbelievers and respond to their objections and doubts. The style and the tone of the answers, however, evolves in each group keeping its pace with the rapidly changing circumstances of the movements and the ever-increasing intensity of the struggle (evolving in intensity and force from group 6 to 5 to 4 to 3). These groups indicate the evolutionary process of building the foundations of the Islamic society, the increasing intensity of the opposition, the kinds of questions and objections raised and the way to deal with opposition and their attacks. They refer frequently to the history of previous messengers and their movements  to make these points.

The Third Group

The core theme of this group is to inculcate in the audience a clear understanding of the Sunnah of Allaah about His messengers, their steadfast followers and their unrepentant opponents. This has been explained by repeated examples from the messengers of the past and their people. The purpose is to give a clear and stern warning to the opponents of the Prophet so that they can clearly see their destiny, and to encourage the believers to persevere through the very trying times because ultimate success is theirs, both in this world and the Hereafter.

The Fourth Group

Like all the other groups, this group mentions all phases of the Islamic movement, in one way or the other: call, rational explanation, historical evidence, warning, Hijrah, Jihaad and dominance. Similarly, all three fundamentals of faith: Tawĥeed, Risaalah and Aakhirah, are also discussed. But the predominant theme of this group is defending and upholding the honour and status of the Messenger as well as dealing with questions, objections and accusations levelled against him or the Qur’aan. The first soorah, Al-Furqaan, devotes its major portion on responding to the accusations against the Prophet of fabricating the Qur’aan. The last soorah, Al-Aĥzaab, highlights the kind of sentiments that the true Muslims have for the Prophet, and warns the hypocrites for their hurtful personal attacks against the Prophet.

The Fifth Group

The fifth group focuses on the clarification and inculcation of the proper concept of Tawheed, i.e. Oneness and uniqueness of Allaah, the absoluteness and infiniteness of His power and authority, and His rights upon His slaves; just as prophethood was the focal point in the fourth group. In addition to Tawheed, the Makkan soorahs in this group continue to reinforce strongly the concepts about the Hereafter, building upon the foundations of that belief laid in the soorahs of the sixth and seventh groups, which were revealed earlier. In the Madeenan soorahs, the matters of the Hereafter have been mentioned subsidiarily to the main subject matter of establishing Tawheed in the everyday life of individuals and society, and the resultant society of excellence by the power of the state.

The Sixth Group

The central theme of this group of soorahs is to describe, expound and inculcate the details of the Resurrection, Judgment and Hereafter such that people can easily imagine and visualize those realities all the time during their day-to-day life, becoming passionately eager to attain success and keenly averse to failure in that eternal life. They impress upon the readers to make their actions sincerely and purely for Allaah SWT, purifying them from any other motives, influences, considerations and expediencies. People can have this type of committed faith only when their concepts about the reality of the Hereafter are clear and those concepts stay in their conscious mind. As all of these fundamentals have been fully inculcated by the Makkan soorahs, the Madeenan soorahs of this group focus on highlighting hypocritical behaviours that negate one’s belief in the Hereafter.

The Seventh Group

The soorahs of this group are basically wake-up calls in general for any society that has forsaken Allaah  and forgotten the Hereafter, but in particular for Makkans and the Arab society. These are soorahs composed of the small sentences but their style was so powerful that they shook up the Arab society altogether. They had such an intense impact in the society that everyone was affected - either becoming totally dedicated to the message or an avowed enemy. They started the movement that finally concluded in the victory of the truth. This group teaches how to prepare the ground for laying foundations for a healthy Islamic society. The soorahs of this group are the ones that dug deep into the human psyche to lay firm foundations of the faith on which the edifice of Islam was built.

The emphasized theme in this group of soorahs is the belief in the Day of Resurrection and the life Hereafter (Aakhirah). Soorah after soorah was revealed to inculcate the belief in Aakhirah – each soorah explaining it in a different style, from a different angle, emphasizing a different aspect and using a different rationale, logic or approach. The ancillary theme of this group is to warn the disbelievers of the punishment from Allaah in this world and in the Hereafter for their disbelief. Also, some of the early soorahs of this group focus on comforting the Prophet and consoling him.

Seven Groups as a Whole

It should be evident by now that the focal points of each group have been arranged in descending (reverse) order of the actual evolutionary phases of the Islamic movement, the wisdom of such an arrangement has already been explained, especially with the example of a construction project. On the other hand, within each group, the contents of the soorahs mostly maintain the evolutionary order of the movement. The theme or the focal point of the group develops naturally from the start of the group to its end, and the Madeenan soorah at the end gives the culminating point of the movement – its ultimate triumph.

Despite each group having a focal point of emphasis, in each of the seven groups, the Islamic movement as a whole and all its stages are alluded to, the fundamentals of Islam are reminded of, success of the Muslims and their salvation mentioned and the consequences of the actions of the disbelievers reiterated. The difference in emphasis is usually a difference in the extent of coverage of a theme and in its elaboration. Otherwise, each group covers all the essentials of Deen to some extent.

Also, within each group, the soorahs are organized in pairs. A point mentioned briefly in one soorah is usually explained in detail in its preceding/succeeding soorah. A message hinted at in one soorah is expounded clearly in the other.

Also, within each group, the soorahs are organized in pairs. Each Soorah is paired with preceding/following Soorah complementing each other’s central idea and theme and/or presenting it from a different angle. A point mentioned briefly in one soorah is usually explained in detail in its preceding/succeeding soorah. A message hinted at in one soorah is expounded clearly in the other. An obvious example of soorahs being twins is that of Al-Falaq and An-Naas, or Adh-Dhuhaa and Alam-Nashrah. We have pointed out the soorah pairs and their interrelationship in the soorah introductions preceding each soorah. The significance of soorah pairs is indicated by Ahadeeth and sunnah as well. The Prophet ŜA‘WS mentioned that Al-Baqarah and Aali-‘Imran will intercede for the people of the Qur’aan. Also, he used to recite some of the Soorahs with their twins in Ŝalaah such as: Al-Qiyaamah and Ad-Dahr, Aŝ-Ŝaff and Al-Jumu‘ah, Al-A’laa and Al-Ghaashiah.

c. Demarcation of the Qur’aanic Text

Previously, it has been mentioned that the basic unit of the text of the Qur’aan is an Aayah (verse) and that Aayaat (verses) make up Soorahs (chapters) which are organized through Divine instructions into its present order. However, when a copy of the Qur’aan is opened, many additional demarcations that have not been talked about are found therein.

Because the recitation of the Qur’aan is a highly-recommended act of worship and source of blessings, certain other demarcations have been developed over time to help the general public to recite a pre-designated portion of the Qur’aan. For the ambitious people who want to finish the recitation in a week’s time, the Qur’aan has been divided into seven equal portions, each of which is called a Manzil (goal). To finish the Qur’aan in one month, it has been divided into 30 equal parts, each called a Juz’ or Paarah (both meaning a ‘part’). Some Arab countries use a division of the text into 60 portions, each called a Ĥizb. Both Paarahs and Ĥizbs are further subdivided into halves and quarters. The purpose of all these divisions and subdivisions is to help ordinary Muslims apportion the Qur’aan into portions they can recite easily and regularly so as to finish the whole Qur’aan in a desired number of days. Additionally, in the Indo-Pak sub-continent, each Juz’ or Paarah is divided into convenient portions each of which has been earmarked by a mark called a Rukoo’ to indicate a portion or section apportioned for recitation in one Raka‘t (unit) of Salaah (formal worship).

It must, however, be remembered that all of the demarcations and distributions are based on the quantity of the letters and words, rather than the subject matter. None of them are original from Allaah or His Messenger and they hardly consider the impact of the break on the flow of thought contained in the text. When a desired length of the text is reached, it is divided at that point at the end of that verse without necessarily considering the completion or continuation of a discourse or an issue under discussion. Often, they mark a division where an idea, issue or discourse is still in progress. The length of the Rukoo’ is sometimes adjusted to complete the subject under discussion but not always.

Many people who want to study the Qur’aan for understanding and reflection, tend to regard these demarcations as sacred and break their study at any of those points. Stopping at those points may leave the point under discussion hanging or disrupt the train of thought. The next portion may start from the middle of a point causing confusion and appearing awkward. Although these demarcations are helpful in managing the quantity for regular recitation without understanding or reflection, in memorizing the Qur’aan and in refreshing of the memorization, they should be ignored when reading the Qur’aan for understanding and reflection. Breaking at these points may jeopardize proper understanding of the message. Similarly, restarting a study midstream of an idea may also hinder the grasp of the idea in a proper manner. Hence, a serious student of the Qur’aan should study on the basis of the subject matter being discussed and not on the quantitative marks painstakingly placed by our well-meaning predecessors.

d. The Phases of the Islamic Movement and the Circumstances of the Revelation

The Qur’aan is not a theoretical set of precepts that were just presented in a vacuum or in an abstract world. Allaah SWT sent a messenger and charged him with the responsibility of establishing a society that puts the teaching of the Qur’aan in practice exactly as intended and with the task of launching and completing the Islamic mission or movement to establish such a society. Therefore, to understand the Qur’aan, it is essential to know of the mission for which Prophet Muhammad (ŜAʻWS) was sent, which was the same as for all the previous messengers:

  • To invite people to believe in and worship the One and Only Creator, Allaah (SWT);
  • To coach those who accept the message of Islam in becoming the best a human being can be, to purify their thoughts and behaviour and to excel in all of their morals, dealings, interactions and conduct;
  • To establish the ideal peaceful and just Islamic society – a society that was characterized by kindness, generosity, compassion, caring, sharing, complete fairness and dignity for all human beings and that was lead and constituted by the people who were trained as per the second point to excel in their conduct and behaviour.

To fulfil his mission, like other messengers, the Prophet launched an Islamic movement. The purpose of the revelation of the Qur’aan was to provide timely help and guidance to the Prophet and to his movement in achieving its mission. In other words, the objectives of the revelations of the Qur’aan were:

  • To identify the straight path that will help people succeed in this life and the Hereafter;
  • To help people develop a superb personality by excelling in their morals, ethics, dealings and spirituality;
  • To guide people in establishing justice and peace in this world by implementing Islamic systems of life including its concepts of human equality, human dignity and protection of fundamental human rights in a society characterized by caring, sharing, kindness, generosity and magnanimity; and
  • To invite and encourage people to follow the straight path, to excel personally and to join the mission for establishing the society of justice and peace.

The Qur’aan is entirely comprised of the timely and relevant revelations that guided the Prophet’s Islamic movement every step of the way. As each revelation of the Qur’aan was received, the Prophet put it into practice exactly as directed. Hence, the Seerah (the biography) of the Prophet and the Qur’aan have a very intricate relationship. The reader must recognize that relationship and understand its significance. It will help in visualizing the circumstances in which the verses were revealed and  in comprehending their impact and wisdom. The ability to relate the various parts of the Qur’aan with the pertinent phase and stage of the Prophet’s mission really enables a person to get the complete picture and understanding of the message.

The Prophet’s Islamic movement, like any other movement, went through a continuum of ever-changing circumstances from its inception to its full fruition. Although the movement was a continuum, it can be divided into some progressive phases it went through or the milestones it reached. If we delineate these phases from the perspective of the process of the Islamic revolution, the movement can be divided into four phases:

  1. The first phase consisted of explaining the validity of the Islamic message and absurdity of the opposition’s stance from every possible rational and logical angle, using the signs observable in the natural phenomena during people’s daily life.
  2. During the second phase, in addition to inviting people to Islam through the rational arguments, the opponents were emphatically warned of their ultimate failure and destruction if they continued to oppose the Islamic movement. The wickedness and the consequences of their rejection were explained through logic and the warnings were given through and supported by the examples of previously destroyed nations.
  3. The third phase began with founding of the Islamic polity. This prompted the anti-Islamic forces to impose wars on it, thus starting an armed struggle between the two sides for which the Muslims needed education and encouragement to enable them to defend their faith and their community. In parallel with the defense of the community, reformation of the customs, traditions, practices, rules, values and principles geared towards reaching the Islamic standards of excellence was gradually carried out.
  4. In the final phase, the movement shifted from defense to offense, gained victory, established the supremacy of Islam, completed the implementation of the system of justice and excellence, consolidated the revolution and eradicated the internal subversive elements.

It must be kept in mind that the activities of earlier phases continued, as needed and without interruption, in the subsequent phases of the movement.

If we segment the movement on the basis of the circumstances encountered and actions taken, then a very basic but highly significant segmentation is the division of the movement into the Makkan and Madeenan segments: the Makkan segment being the period whereby the dominant social and societal forces, governing systems and control processes were anti-movement, and the members of the movement were an oppressed and persecuted minority; while the Madeenan segment represents the period whereby an Islamic polity came into existence to run and govern the society according to its values and principles until Islam was fully established as the governing system of the state and the society. Both the Makkan and the Madeenan eras can further be divided into the following broad stages that the movement had to pass through:

The Makkan Era:

A. From the Prophet’s appointment as the last Messenger to a period of about three years of low-key, quiet preaching during which good-natured people were individually approached and given the message of Islam. The converts would reach out to the people with whom they had good understanding and put them in touch with the Prophet.

B. About two years of open preaching during which any convert to Islam who was considered weak or poor, lacking the backing of a strong protector, was beaten up and brutally persecuted by the powerful people of Makkah. The Muslims were taught to forbear all hardships patiently and steadfastly, without responding to the aggression in any way, shape or form.

C. A period of about five years during which every Muslim was a subject of severe persecution. Some Muslims took refuge in Abyssinia. The Prophet and his supporters were socially and economically boycotted and his followers were tortured physically and psychologically. Muslim were commanded to focus on personal excellence, remain steadfast and respond to the aggression and attacks with forbearance and excellence.

D. The last period of about three years during which the persecution was at its peak. There was no safe place anywhere for a Muslim. In an effort to find a home for Islam, the Prophet went to Ŧaaif but was brutally rebuffed and mistreated there. During that period, the Makkans were plotting to kill the Prophet (ŜAʻWS). Muslim were allowed to seek just revenge to the wrongs done to them, but were encouraged to forgive as a better alternative to seeking justice.

The Madeenan Era:

A. Laying both the physical and moral foundations of a country as the home of the Islamic movement of justice and excellence. The physical foundations were laid immediately at the arrival of the Prophet in Madeenah. The moral foundations were laid in the soorahs revealed just before the migration.

Building the Islamic society: by consolidating the movement’s human resources through Hijrah, expanding the area of influence through agreements and treaties, subjecting the population of the area under the government’s influence to law and order and inculcating the Islamic principles and values in them, reforming the societal systems and practices to bring them up to the Islamic standards; and at the same time, defending the existence of the country from the onslaught of external enemies, the non-Muslims, while identifying the hypocritical behavior and urging Muslims to avoid it, ignoring the infractions of the internal enemies, the hypocrites. This stage started with the revelation of Soorah Al-Baqarah and continued until the revelation of Soorah Al-Aĥzaab.

Consolidating power through rapid victories and treaties of allegiance and removing the obstacles to allow mass voluntary conversions; consolidating control and authority of the government over the peninsula; enacting, enforcing and entrenching the Islamic systems and statutes; while continuing to tolerate the machinations of the hypocrites, putting them on notice to reform and repent, and giving them stern warnings of the consequences, if they do not.

Chasing the external enemies to eliminate them, dealing with the internal enemies (the hypocrites) finally, ensuring that the justice and excellence of Islam is completely implemented, and violators are duly punished without leniency. Soorah At-Tawbah guides through this stage.

In addition to the important principles of understanding the message of the Qur’aan mentioned above, the reader may also benefit from some high-level understanding of the conditions during which a soorah was revealed and to which phase of the Islamic movement it belongs. This may help the reader reflect on the teachings of the Qur’aan in proper perspective and avoid any misunderstandings or misinterpretations. Therefore, we have provided in the introduction to each soorah some indication of the circumstances in which it was revealed.

e. Transitional and Final Commands

As has been indicated earlier, the Qur’aan was revealed not only for providing the final guidance for humankind from Allaah SWT, but also for helping the society change to a desired state from their current state and to guide a movement to accomplish that task. Changing a society completely from a deeply ingrained way of life to a totally different way of life is not a task that can happen overnight just because guidance has been revealed. It takes much painstakingly hard work to gradually transform from the current to the desired state. To help in this transformation and ease the transition so that the change is not too big and too sudden to be practical for human beings, Allaah SWT gave some interim transitional commands that were replaced with permanent commands as soon as the society was ready to take the next steps. The most well-known example of such transition was that for the consumption of alcohol.

Also, at the beginning, a movement needs very extraordinary people who possess special strength, commitment, dedication, endurance and courage. Initially, very stringent steps are needed to break away from the pressures of the society, current lifestyle, and the status quo, and a really great devotion to establish new relationships, paradigms and life patterns. Hence, initially, the demands upon early Muslims to engage in special nightly worship was quite heavy. Later on, when an excellent team of dedicated Sahaabah had come into existence with close, devout relationship with Allaah SWT, and the newcomers to the movement could be safely absorbed into an established mode of life, the requirements were relaxed.

The Qur’aan, being the complete and preserved record of the revelations from Allaah SWT, contains the transitional commands as well as the final commands. A person who studies the Qur’aan to understand the desired state in which Allaah SWT wants to see individuals and society, must know the difference between the transition and the final desired state. Not knowing what is merely an interim state and what is the desired state may cause a person to be confused or to draw wrong conclusions.

For a more detailed discussion on the two types of commands and the related concepts, refer to the appendix titled “Evolutionary Change through Successive Commands”.

3. The Qur’aanic Guidance — one Complete Package

Whether the reader is Muslim or not, to understand the Qur’aan properly, its guidance must be treated as one package. The Qur’aan gives humanity a system of life. Systems are made of integrated components and parts, each of which has a role to play in the functioning of the system. One cannot take a component or a module in isolation and understand the system on the basis of that part of the system. The system must be understood as a whole, along with the interrelationships and roles of the parts.

Particularly, the Muslims who want to benefit from its guidance must accept and adopt the whole system, not some of it. The Qur’aanic system, like any other system, works properly and delivers its benefits only when used and implemented as a complete system, not in bits and pieces. That is why the Qur’aan warns Muslims, through the example of Israelite behaviour, against accepting only a part of it and rejecting or ignoring other parts:

Do you then believe in a part of the Book and disbelieve in the other? What then is the recompense of those of you who do so, except disgrace during the life of this world, and on the Day of Resurrection, they will be driven off to the harshest punishment. (Al- Baqarah 2:85)

For example, Allaah requires that Muslims strive for personal excellence as well as for organizing the Ummah into an Islamic entity that establishes justice, peace and excellence in every area under their influence and control. He has obligated us to establish five pillars as the support structure for both of these objectives. If someone performs the pillars as rituals instead of the means for the two (personal and collective) objectives; or stresses only on one of the objectives and ignores the other; or if objectives are stressed without the establishment of pillars; any of these situations is adopting only part of the guidance and ignoring the rest.

As the whole Qur’aan is a complete package of guidance, it implies that not only should the people accept the whole guidance contained in all parts of the Qur’aan, but also they must not interpret a part of the Qur’aan or deduce guidance from it in isolation. The interpretation of a part must be consistent with the rest of the body of knowledge and must fit properly within the whole package of guidance.

For example, the Qur’aan proposes that Allaah SWT has given people freedom to make certain choices and decisions and that they will be held accountable and rewarded or punished according to the choices they make. An interpretation of a verse in negation of this central theme will not be accurate.

Another aspect of the same principle can be exemplified through Allaah’s attributes. The Qur’aan mentions very many different attributes of Allaah according to which He deals with human beings. Emphasizing one attribute while ignoring His other attributes will lead to misguidance in terms of human relationships with Allaah. For example, He is very forgiving and extremely merciful to those who repent and continuously try to do better, while He is severe in punishing those who rebel, ignore or defy His authority. Because human beings are not perfect and they do good as well as make mistakes, one must have both the hope of His forgiveness and the fear of His punishment. A person cannot dwell on one attributes and disregard the other, either by not fearing His punishment on the expectation of being forgiven without sincerely repenting and constantly trying to do better; or, by fearing His punishment so much that it makes the person lose hope of forgiveness and give up trying to do better. The true faith is between hope and fear.

Posted in Qur'aan on December 13, 2020 by Ayub Hamid

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