BEGINNERS GUIDE TO THE QUR’AN
The Qur’an is the literal, spoken Word of Allah revealed to the last Prophet Muhammad(S) through Gabriel(Jibreel), transmitted to us by numerous channels, both verbally and in written form. Inimitable and unique, it is divinely protected from corruption. Allah says: ‘Indeed, it is We who sent down the message [i.e., the Qur'an] and indeed, We will be its guardian.’ Qur’an Surah Hijr 15:9
The first thing for a beginner to understand about the Qur’an is its form. The Arabic word, ‘Qur’an,’ literally means both ‘recitation’ and ‘reading’. Similarly, the Qur’an was both recited orally and written down in book form. The true power of the Qur’an remains in the oral recitation, as it is meant to be read aloud and melodiously, but still the aayaath were written down on available materials as an aid to memorizing and guarding it, and these were collected and arranged in book form both privately and, at a later stage, institutionally. The Qur’an was not meant to tell a chronological story, and thus, the Qur’an should not be viewed as a sequential narrative .
The Qur’an often repeats certain aayaath and themes, shifting topics between them, and often relates narratives in summarized form. We can see two reasons for this. First, it serves a linguistic purpose and is one of the powerful rhetorical techniques of classical Arabic. Second, all themes of the Qur’an, no matter how varied, are wrapped around one common thread running through the entire book: there is no true god worthy of worship but Allah, and Muhammad(S) is His messenger. The Qur’an, unlike the Bible, is not concerned with genealogies, chronological events, or minute historical details, many of which don’t suit an oral discourse. The purpose is to use events, from past and present, to illustrate this central message. So when the Qur’an is discussing the healing properties of honey or the life of Jesus, neither topic is an end in itself, but each is related in one way or another to the central message – the Oneness of God and unity of the prophetic message.
Another important point to keep in mind is that the Qur’an was not revealed on Prophet Muhammad(S) in one sitting, but rather it was revealed in parts over a span of 23 years. Many passages were in response to specific events. Often, Qur’anic revelation would come from the Allah to Prophet Muhammad(S) as a response to questions raised by unbelievers. The Qur’an addresses these unbelievers, the People of the Scripture (a term used by the Qur’an for Jews and Christians), humanity at large, believers, and, finally, the Prophet himself - commanding him what to do in a certain situation or solacing him in the face of ridicule and rejection. Knowing the historical and social context of revelation clarifies the meanings contained in the text itself.
The Qur’an is composed of 114 parts or surah of unequal length. Each part is called a surah in Arabic and each sentence or phrase of the Qur’an is called an aayah or ayath, literally ‘a sign.’ The Qur’an is divided into discrete units, referred to as ‘aayaath’ in English. These aayaath are not standard in length and where each begins and ends was not decided by human beings, but Allah. Each one is a discrete act of locution of closed signification, or ‘sign’, denoted by the word aayah in Arabic. All surahs, except one, begin with Bimillah hir-Rahman nir-Rahim, ‘I begin with the Name of Allah, the Entirely Merciful, Especially Merciful.’ Each Surah has a name that usually relates to a central theme within it. For example, the longest surah, Surah al-Baqara, or “The Cow”, is named after the story of Moses commanding the Jews to offer a sacrifice of a cow, which begins by Allah saying: “And remember Moses said to his people: ‘Allah commands that you sacrifice a cow.’” Qur’an Surah Baqrah 2:67
Since the various Surah are of various lengths, the Qur’an was divided by scholars of the first century after the death of the Prophet into thirty roughly equal parts, each part is called a juz’ in Arabic. This division of the Qur’an was done in order for people to memorize or read it in a more organized fashion, and it has no influence on the original structure, as they are mere marks on the sides of the pages denoting the part. In the month of fasting, Ramadan, one juz’ is usually recited every night, and the entire Qur’an is completed by the end of the month.
What topics does the Qur’an discuss? It covers various subjects. Most importantly, it talks about the Oneness of Allah and how to live a life pleasing to Him. Other topics include religious doctrine, creation, criminal and civil law, Judaism, Christianity and polytheism, social values, morality, history, stories of past prophets, and science. The most important features of Qur’an’s style in discussing these themes are:
(1) The use of parables to stir curiosity of the reader and explain deep truths.
(2) More than two hundred passages begin with the Arabic word Qul - ‘Say’ - addressing Prophet Muhammad(S) to say what follows in reply to a question, to explain a matter of faith, or to announce a legal ruling. For example:
“Say: ‘O People of the Scripture! Do you disapprove of us for no other reason than that we believe in Allah, and the revelation that has come to us and that which came before (us), and because most of you are rebellious and disobedient?’” Qur’an Surah Baqrah 2:59
(3) In some passages of the Qur’an, Allah takes oaths by His marvelous creation, both to strengthen an argument or to dispel doubts in the mind of the listener:
“By the sun and its brightness,
By the moon when it follows it,
By the day when it displays it,
By the night when it covers it,
By the sky and He who constructed it,
By the earth and He who spread it,
By the soul and He who proportioned it…” (Qur’an Surah Shams 91:1-7)
Sometimes Allah takes an oath by Himself:
“But no, by your Lord, they will not (truly) believe until they make you, (O Muhammad), judge concerning that over which they dispute among themselves, and then find within themselves no discomfort from what you have judged and submit in (full, willing) submission.” Qur’an Surah Nisa 4:65
(4) Lastly, the Qur’an has what is called ‘the disjointed letters,’ composed of letters of the Arabic alphabet, only Allah knows its meaning. This was one of the ways that Allah challenged the Arabs, who were the most eloquent of people in speech, to bring forth something to the Qur’an, which consisted of the likes of these disjointed letters. They appear at the beginning of twenty nine surahs. For example, the first aayah of Surat ul-Baqarah
A beginner should know a few points about Qur’an translations. First, there is a distinction between the Qur’an and its translation. In Christian view, the Bible is Bible, no matter what language it may be in. But a translation of the Qur’an is not the word of Allah, for the Qur’an is the exact Arabic words revealed by Allah, revealed to Prophet Muhammad through Gabriel. The word of God is only the ArabicQur’an as Allah says: “Indeed, I revealed it as an Arabic Qur’an.” Qur’an Surah Yousuf 12:2
A translation is simply an explanation of the meanings of the Qur’an. The translated text loses the inimitable quality of the original so be aware of the degree to which a translation reflects the original message at every level of meaning, and that it will probably not match it. For this reason, all which is regarded as recitation of the Qur’an is to be done in Arabic, such as the recitation of the Qur’an in Salah.
Second, there is no perfect translation of the Qur’an and being human works, each almost always has errors. Some translations are better in their linguistic quality, while others are noted for their exactness in portraying the meaning. Many inaccurate, and sometimes misleading, translations that are generally not accepted as reliable renditions of the Qur’an by mainstream Muslims are sold in the market.
Third, while a review of all the English translations is out of the scope of this lesson, some translations are recommended over others. The most widely read English translation is Saheeh International by three American women reverts,Abdullah Yusuf ‘Ali, followed by that of Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall, the first translation by an English Muslim. Yusuf ‘Ali’s translation is generally acceptable, but his footnote commentary, useful at times, can be odd and unacceptable. Pickthall, on the other hand, has no footnotes or commentary and that makes it difficult for a beginner. The language of both tends to be archaic and difficult to understand for some people. Another widespread translation is done by Dr. Hilali and Muhsin Khan called ‘Interpretation of the Meaning of The Noble Qur’an.’ Although it is the most accurate, the many transliterated Arabic terms and endless parentheses makes it hard to follow and confusing for a beginner. A newer version with more flowing text has been published by Saheeh International, and this is probably the best translation yet, as it combines both exactness in translation and readability.
Although the meanings of the Qur’an are easy and clear to understand, one must be careful to make assertions about the religion without relying on an authentic commentary. Not only did Prophet Muhammad(S) bring the Qur’an, he also explained it to his companions, and these sayings have been collected and preserved till this day in the form of Ahadith. Allah, the Exalted, says:“And We have sent down to you (O Muhammad) the message that you may explain clearly to men what is sent for them.” (Qur’an 16:44)
In order to understand some of the deeper meanings of the Qur’an, one should rely upon commentaries which mention these statements of the Prophet as well as his companions, and not upon what they understand from the text, as their understanding of it is limited to their prior knowledge.
A specific methodology exists for exegesis of the Qur’an in order to extract the proper meaning. The Qur’anic sciences, as they are called, are an extremely specialized field of Islamic scholarship which requires mastery in multiple disciplines, like exegesis, recitations, script, inimitability, circumstances behind revelation, abrogation, Qur’anic grammar, unusual terms, jurisprudential rulings, and Arabic language and literature. A person new to the exploration of Qur’an should approach it with humility.
According to scholars of tafseer, the proper method of explaining the aayaath of Qur’an are:
(i) Tafseer of the Qur’an by Qur’an.
(ii) Tafseer of the Qur’an by the Sunnah of the Prophet.
(iii) Tafseer of the Qur’an by the statements of the Companions.
(iv) Tafseer of the Qur’an by Arabic language and its meaning taken by Sahaba.
(v) Tafseer of the Qur’an by scholarly opinion if it does not contradict the above four sources.
A final word of advice to the beginner: keep notes, write down what questions arise during your reading, and finally turn to those who have proper knowledge about the religion and accept their explanation if it is based on evidence.
In order to be guided by the Qur’an and to receive reward, a Muslim must read it solely for the sake of Allah’s pleasure – to be guided by the Qur’an. First, it should not be to win praise of people. Second, it should be a sincere reading to find and follow the truth.
The Qur’an must be read with a clear mind and in a proper setting. Choose the best time to read the Qur’an. One which is conducive to contemplation. Allah says in the Qur’an: “Indeed, in this [Qur’an] is a reminder for those who have a heart or give ear while they are heedful.” (Qur’an 50:37)
First, a person must have a receptacle ready to receive the message – the ‘heart.’ If this receptacle is not open to the message, it will not ‘receive’ anything even if the lips move. Second, ‘give ear’ is one who listens intently, trying to comprehend what is being said. Third, ‘heedful’ means that his heart is present and in tune with what is being said. If all conditions are present, the person will benefit from the Qur’an and it will guide him. It must be kept in mind that pondering in itself is not the goal; it is a means to apply the teachings of the Qur’an in one’s life.
Allow the Qur’an to guide you. Let it show you the straight path. Approach it with an open mind. If a person has their mind already made up, they will look to the Qur’an to find support for their views, and the Qur’an will never guide them, for it never had the opportunity. A new Muslim needs to change their views and attitudes according to the Qur’an, not to interpret it to suit one’s preconceived notions. Approach with humility, consciously setting aside what you have been inculcated with from your culture and traditions, taking on the new text as something fresh and new. Allow it to lead you, rather than try and mould it to your previously learned patterns of belief.
“And whose word can be truer than Allah’s.” (Qur’an 4:87)
Whatever the subject, Allah says the truth. Whether it is related to the Unseen World, life after death, history, natural law, sociology, or anything else, it all comes from our Lord. Sometimes a person may read something and feel that it is contrary to what occurs around him. In such a case, the beginner should realize that they either misunderstood what the Qur’an is saying, requiring them to seek a better understanding, or that their perception of what they are reading is skewed by their upbringing. It is essential for a new believer not to doubt a verse due to their lack of comprehension, and be confident of their religion and its truth. Grow with the Qur’an, seek the explanation from genuine Islamic scholars, the men and women of learning, and consult recognized commentaries (tafseer) such as that of Tafseer ibn Katheer or Tafseer saadi.
Realize the Qur’an has been revealed for you. Allah is talking to you directly. The Qur’an was not just revealed for Prophet Muhammad(S) and his companions, but rather for every person till Judgment Day. It is the word of the Ever-Living God, eternally valid, and addresses people of all times. When Allah issues a command, it is addressed to you. It is your personal guide, a healing for the diseases of your soul. Every single passage has a message for you. Every attribute of Allah asks you to build a corresponding relationship. Every description of life after death asks you to prepare for it. Every description of Paradise encourages you to aspire for it, every description of Hell impels you to seek protection from it. Every character is a model to either emulate or avoid. Every dialogue involves you. Every legal injunction, even if inapplicable to your situation, has some message for you. This realization will keep your heart awake. The famous companion, Abdullah bin Masood(R), said: “When it says, ‘O you who believe…,’ you must listen closely, as it is either ordering you to what is good for you or prohibiting you what is bad for you.”
The Qur’an is a living text with relevance to modern life. Without doubt many aayaath in the Qur’an have a historical context; they refer to certain people or a specific incident. The historical context is important to understand some aayaath correctly. But the examples and moral lessons are relevant to our lives and provide guidance for our own time and context. The realization will make the person realize that even though the Qur’an is talking about an ancient nation, its moral lessons apply to current events.