How To Understand And Reflect Over The Qur’an

How To Understand And Reflect Over The Qur'an

The Qur’an has been revealed that it may be understood. There would be no sense in believing in it if we do not follow its meanings. Also, how can it serve as a source of guidance for us if we fail to comprehend its message. Mere recitation (i.e., recitation without understanding the meaning of the text) may be excusable in the case of persons who have not been fortunate enough to receive any education, and who are now past the age at which one can do so. Even a clumsy recitation on their part may be acceptable and may win them a reward from Allah (SWT). Similarly, a person who cannot read the Qur’an at all, nor can learn how to do so, may get a reward and blessings from Allah (SWT) if he just moves his fingers affectionately and reverently along the lines of the Holy Book believing it to be kalam Allah (the Word of Allah). However, the case of those persons will be quite different who may have devoted a considerable part of their lives to their own secular education – who may have acquired a knowledge of different arts and sciences and may have learnt foreign languages besides their own. If these educated persons were to read the Qur’an thoughtlessly and without understanding its meaning, then it is very much possible that, in the sight of Almighty Allah (SWT), they may be considered guilty of dishonoring and ridiculing the Holy Book. For these persons, it is possible that the punishment for ignoring the meaning and message of the Quran may exceed the reward for reciting its text. However, if they make a firm resolve to acquire a knowledge of the Qur’an and start earnest efforts in this direction, they may in the meantime continue to read the Qur’an in the way they can. Perhaps, under the circumstances, recitation, mere and simple, may be acceptable from them and may even bring them a reward from Allah (SWT).

As for the comprehension of the Qur’an, it is not a simple affair. It has numerous stages and grades accessible to different persons according to the levels of their thinking. The Holy Qur’an is like an unbounded sea from which a scholar can bring out pearls of knowledge and wisdom according to his natural ability, intellectual equipment, and mental makeup. His efforts to comprehend the Qur’an will be rewarded in proportion to the enthusiasm, time, and labor that he puts into its study and research. At the same time, it will be found that so far as its comprehension is concerned, no person, however intelligent and learned, shall ever feel that he has done justice to the Qur’an even though he may have spent his whole life pouring over its pages and meditating over its meanings. The Holy Prophet (SAW) himself has characterized the Qur’an as a treasure (of knowledge and wisdom) which shall never to exhausted.[1] It is such a source of guidance that man shall ever continue to feel the need of reverting to it and reflecting upon it.

“…for this let (all) those strive who want to strive.” (Qur’an 83:26)

Therefore, let men of courage and determination come forward to undertake the stupendous task of Qur’anic research, fired with the noble ambition of surpassing others in this field.

The Holy Qur’an urges us again and again to study it intelligently, bringing our thought to bear upon it, and exercising our reasoning faculty in following its arguments and comprehending its meanings. For this purpose, it uses such words as fahm, ‘aql, figh, and fikr[2]; but another important term, more widely used in the Qur’an in this context is tazakkur. For understanding the significance of this term we have to note that the Qur’an frequently calls itself zikr, zikra and tazkirah.[3] In reality, tazakkur pertains to the first stage in the comprehension of the Qur’an and indicates the real purpose and final goal which it should serve. It also alludes to the fact that the Qur’anic teachings are not extraneous to the human nature. It actually reflects the experiences of man’s inner self and is meant to awaken reminiscences of something already apprehended, rather than to import anything altogether new. The Holy Qur’an appeals to all thoughtful persons whom it addresses as ulul albab (men of understanding) and gaumun yaqilun (people who use their intellect) to think and ponder over the outer universe of matter as well as the inner universe of the spirit, as both are replete with the unmistakable signs of the Almighty Creator (SWT). Simultaneously, the Qur’an invites them to deliberate over its own signs,[4] , i.e., its Divinely revealed verses. In Surah Yunus it says:

“…thus do we explain the signs in detail for those who reflect.” (Qur’an 10:24)

and in Surah Nahl:

“..and we have sent down unto you the Zikr that you may explain clearly to men what is sent for them, and that they may give thought.” (Qur’an 16:44)

Again, in the same vein, we have in the second Surah, Al-Baqarah:

“Thus Allah makes clear His signs to you, in order that you may understand.” (Qur’an 2:242)

and similarly in the beginning of Surah Yusuf we have the following ayah:

“Verily, We have sent it down as an Arabic Qur’an in order that you may understand.” (Qur’an 12:2)

Pondering over the three categories of signs (i.e., the Qur’anic signs, the signs in the physical universe, and the signs in the spiritual world of the human heart) a man will be able to perceive a perfect concord between them; and, with the realization of this concord, he will grasp certain fundamental truths which are borne out by the internal testimony of his own nature. The truths cherished by his inner self will emerge from its depths and shine with all their brilliance on the screen of his consciousness. In other words, full and intense awareness of the Absolute Reality, which is the core of Iman, will then spring up to his conscious mind like the memory of a forgotten thing shooting up from the dark depths of the mind to its surface with the aid of a pertinent suggestion. For this very phenomenon, the Qur’an uses the term tazakkur.[5] Every person, whether mediocre or an intellectual, is in constant need of tazakkur which is necessary for recalling to the mind the truths that have been forgotten or for keeping in mind the truths that are likely to be forgotten. It is for this reason that Allah (SWT) has made the Qur’an so easy for the purposes of tazakkur – a fact which has been stated four times in the same Surah:

“We have made the Qur’an easy as a means of reminding (men of the truths forgotten by them). Is there any who will benefit from this reminding?’ (Qur’an 54:17, 22, 32, 40)

The Qur’an has thus declared in unequivocal terms that every person can get the benefit of tazakkur from it. It does not matter if a person’s intelligence is limited, and his knowledge of logic and philosophy is poor; and if he has no fine sense of language and literature. In spite of these drawbacks, he can have tazakkur from the Qur’an if he has a noble heart, a sound mind, and an untainted nature not perverted by any kind of crookedness. He should read the Qur’an and should go on understanding its simple meanings. This will be enough for the purposes of tazakkur.

The Qur’an has been rendered easy in different ways for those who try to understand it and derive tazakkur from it. In the first place, its central theme and basic subjects are nothing new or unfamiliar to the human nature. While reading the Qur’an a man often feels as if he were listening to the echoes of his inner self. Secondly, the mode of inference adopted is simple and natural, and difficult and abstruse subjects have been brought home to the reader by easy and simple parables. Thirdly, although the Qur’an is a masterpiece of literature and a paragon of eloquence, yet its language is generally simple and a man with a smattering of Arabic can easily understand the text except a few difficult portions. In spite of all this, for the attainment of tazakkur from the Qur’an, a basic knowledge of Arabic is a must. Looking into a translation along with reading the text will not be sufficient from this purpose. I most honestly feel that it is imperative for every Muslim to acquire as much knowledge of the Arabic language as may enable him to understand the simple meaning of the Qur’anic text as he reads it along, without having to raise his eyes again and again for consulting a translation.

I fail to understand what excuse will be put forward in the court of the Almighty (SWT) in their defense by those Muslims who are not only educated but have obtained graduate and post-graduate degrees and have mastered such difficult arts and sciences like Medicine and Engineering, for not learning so much Arabic that they could follow His Holy Book. Out of a sincere regard and genuine concern for these Muslims, let me assert that their negligence in the matter of learning Arabic is tantamount to not only ridiculing the Book of Allah (SWT) but also treating it with contempt. They should realize that by their irresponsible behavior in this regard they are rendering themselves liable to an awful chastisement and a dreadful penalty on the Day of Judgment.

In my humble opinion, to learn so much Arabic as may enable a person to follow the meaning of the Qur’an easily is a duty that every educated Muslim owes to the Holy Book, and not to fulfill this duty is a grave injustice to the Qur’an as well as to ourselves.

The second stage in the comprehension of the Qur’an is tadabbur fil-Qur’an, i.e., thinking over it deeply, making it a subject of intense study and diving into the depths of its knowledge and wisdom. The Qur’an requires such a deep study because it is huda lil-naas i.e., guidance for humankind. Not only does it guide the common people by presenting them correct view of God and the universe as well as sound moral principles, but it also contains perfect guidance for men of learning and understanding and has always served them as a beacon of light in every intellectual or spiritual crisis in their life.

That the Qur’an is something to be reflected and pondered over is a point which has been emphasized by the Qur’an itself:

“Here is a book which we have sent down to you, full of blessings, that they may meditate on its signs, and that men of understanding may receive admonition.” (Qur’an 38:29)

By way of stressing this point further, it says, in a mildly admonishing vein:

“So, do they not reflect on the Qur’an?…” (Qur’an 4:82)

“Do they not then deeply think over the Quran, or are their hearts locked up?” (Qur’an 47:24)

The Qur’an is quite easy for tazakkur but is, in the same degree, difficult for tadabbur.[6] Those who dive into this boundless ocean know that it is not possible to fathom its depth. We learn from authentic traditions that the Companions (RAA) of the Holy Prophet (SAW) used to ponder over the different Surahs of the Qur’an for years on end. It is reported about Abdullah Ibn Umar (RAA) that he spent eight years contemplating over Surah Al-Baqarah. Let it be noted that this was the case with the people who spoke the same language in which the Qur’an was revealed and who, being the contemporaries of the Holy Prophet (SAW), had seen it being revealed before their own eyes. There was no necessity for them to learn the Arabic language and its grammar or to undertake research for ascertaining the historical background of different ayaat or Surahs and the occasions on which they were revealed.

In spite of all these advantages, they pondered over each Surah for years together. This shows that diving into this sea of knowledge and wisdom is not a child’s play. On the other hand, it calls for strenuous labor and constant application. In the later ages, great scholars like Tabari (RA), Zamakhshari (RA) and Razi (RA) and many others of the same caliber dedicated their whole lives to the study of the Qur’an, but each of them at best could interpret a single aspect of this great Book and, honestly speaking, failed to do justice even to that aspect. Throughout the fourteen centuries, there has been no scholar who, having written the most voluminous commentary on the Qur’an, might have claimed that he had said the last word on it and had left no room for further deliberation.

Imam Ghazali (RA) in his Ihya-ul-Uloom has quoted the words of a divine which bring out the difference between the ordinary recitation of the Qur’an for tazakkur and its thoughtful study for tadabbur. He says: “There is a recitation which takes me a week to finish the Qur’an. There is another kind of recitation which takes me a month, and another which takes me a year to finish it. There is still another kind of recitation which I commenced thirty years ago but which has not yet enabled me to complete its reading.”

The qualifications for a deliberative study of the Qur’an are extremely hard to acquire. It is not possible for a man to attain these qualifications unless he devotes himself to it wholly and solely and makes the learning and teaching of the Qur’an the be-all and end-all of his life. For such a study, he requires a thorough knowledge of the Arabic language and its grammar and a refined literary taste to appreciate the beauty, force, and eloquence of expression. He must also acquire a good grounding in the language in which the Qur’an was revealed by a critical study of the works of the pre-Islamic poets and orators. Then there are the terms and modes of expression evolved by the Qur’an itself. A clear understanding of these (which will be possible only after a careful study of the Qur’an for a pretty long time) is also a necessary part of the mental equipment of a student of the Qur’an. Moreover, he should be able to appreciate the coordination and coherence in the Qur’an. He must grasp the deep significance of the present order of the Surahs in the Qur’an, which is different from the chronological order in which they were revealed. He must also comprehend the sequence of thought between one Surah and the other, as well as between the ayaat of the same Surah. This is an extremely arduous task which has defied the patience of even the most determined scholars. But this task, however arduous, has to be accomplished and unless it is accomplished, the question of comprehending the Qur’an will not arise. In fact, it is only when one is diving into the Qur’an for grasping the subtle sequence between its parts that one forms an idea of the unfathomable depths of this boundless sea, and brings out from it the finest pearls of knowledge and wisdom.

Besides the branches of learning referred to above, a good knowledge of Ahadith and old Scriptures is also necessary for the comprehension of the Qur’an. All this is with regard to the background of classical knowledge which should be possessed by a research scholar of the Qur’an.

Even this, however, is not all. He is not yet fully equipped to do justice to a deep and thoughtful study of the Qur’an, the type of study required for tadabbur. He has still to reckon with modern sciences. We know that experimental and theoretical sciences are not static. Their level of advancement has been different in different ages. A scholar who wants to undertake the momentous task of comprehending the Qur’an should have an understanding of modern sciences – physical, biological, and social. He should be particularly conversant with the basic hypotheses of different sciences and with the method of deduction and inference employed by each. He should also keep himself in touch with the latest trends and achievements in every important field of human inquiry. This knowledge of modern arts and sciences is essential for him, as it will widen his mental outlook and increase his intellectual capacity.

Thus equipped, he will embark upon his great enterprise. The Qur’an is a boundless ocean on which every sailor can sail only as far as his limited capacity can take him; and what useful discoveries he will make on his voyage will depend on the guidance he receives from the range of his knowledge and the breadth of his vision.

Particularly for the dissemination of the teaching of the Qur’an and the propagation of its message in the present day world (which is also a duty incumbent upon every Muslim), it is necessary that one should be fully equipped with modern knowledge, otherwise he will not be able to discharge this duty. Each generation inherits a large amount of knowledge from its predecessors and transmits it on to the succeeding generation with its own contribution added to it. Thus knowledge goes on accumulating as it passes from one generation to another. The present generation has received, by this process of transmission, a stupendous stock of knowledge consisting of logic and philosophy, religion and metaphysics, ethics and psychology and other social sciences. This huge amount of current knowledge has dominated and dazzled the mind of the people who had developed a naive belief in many wrong views. One requires a fairly good knowledge of modern sciences and should be conversant with not only the subject-matter of these sciences but also with their original sources and the system of principles underlying them. Only then he will be able to deal a crushing blow, in the manner of Ibn Taimiyyah (RA) and Imam Ghazali (RA), at the very root of the false notions prevailing in his time. In this respect, the present age has touched the highest watermark. Besides the remarkable progress in the field of social sciences, it has witnessed as unprecedented advancement of the physical sciences and technology which has stunned the humanity and has rendered it incapable of making critical appraisal of the misguiding views that have found currency in the modern world.

Under these circumstances, the imperative duty of comprehending and interpreting the Qur’an cannot be fulfilled unless some patient and persevering men address themselves to this momentous task with single-minded devotion, equipping themselves with both classical and modern knowledge adequate for the task. These dedicated and fully equipped scholars of the Qur’an would carry out a searching analysis of the modern knowledge and sift the sound from the fallacious in the light of the Qur’an. They would approach the intellect of the modern man, making a judicious use of modern terminology and sophisticated methods of logical reasoning. Thus they would be able to illumine the minds of their contemporaries with the light of Qur’anic guidance. In this way the duty of “explaining the Qur’an to the people” which was performed by the Holy Prophet (SAW himself in his life time would be performed by his Ummah in the present age.

Now the question arises: How can we produce such scholars? Obviously they cannot be produced until we have, all over the Muslim world, a network of universities which concentrate on Qur’anic Research, making it the hub and center of their intellectual activity. Round this central department, these universities should build up other departments like the department of theoretical sciences such as logic, metaphysics, ethics, psychology, and religion; the department of social sciences such as economics, political science, and law; and the department of physical sciences such as mathematics, chemistry, physics, geology and astronomy. Every student who joins such a university should take up Qur’anic Studies as a compulsory subject and should study one or more of the disciplines as elective subjects according to his own taste and aptitude. Thus he will be able to carry out research on the Qur’an in the sphere of his own study and present the light and guidance of the Qur’an effectively to the people.

Obviously, this is not an easy task. That is why it is not the responsibility of every person. It is to be done by only those persons who are born with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and whose minds are agitated by obstinate problems which can only be solved through prolonged thinking and reasoning. Such men are impelled to imbibe learning as a starving person is compelled to seek food and drink, and they march on, constantly uttering the prayer: “My Lord! Advance me in knowledge.” If they happen to receive proper guidance, they get a goodly share of knowledge and wisdom. Comprehension and interpretation of the Qur’an is, in reality, the privilege of these persons. However, every seeker of knowledge can participate in this noble task according to his ability and the time he can devote to the task. In order to provide an inducement to people for the study of the Qur’an the Holy Prophet (SAW) has said:

“The best among you are those who learn the Qur’an and teach it (to others).” (Narrated by Bukhari)

and, in the same context, we have a general instruction in the Qur’an:

“…why did not some people from every habitation leave their homes so that they could develop an understanding of religion… “(Qur’an 9:122)

This understanding of religion is the fruit of a deep and meditative study of Qur’an. It is this understanding which the Holy Prophet (SAW) wanted his Companions (RAA) to develop. He especially prayed for some of them that they might be granted a keen insight into religion. He also qualified his observation that “The best of you in Jahiliyyah are the best of you in Islam” with “provided they understand the religion.”

[The Obligations Muslims Owe to the Qur’an by Dr. Israr Ahmed, p.23-43]

[1] In a long tradition narrated by Sayyidena Ali (RAA), we have the following remark of the Holy Prophet (SAW) about the Qur’an: “The scholars shall never be satiated with the study of the Qur’an, nor will its appeal ever diminish on account of repeated readings, nor will its marvels be ever exhausted (i.e., its study will ever continue to yield fresh fruits of knowledge and wisdom).” Reported by Tirmidhi (RA) and Darimi (RA).
[2] The first three words are approximate synonyms meaning “understanding.” and the last one means “reflection”.
[3] These are words from the same root with slightly different meanings. Their English equivalents are “remembrance, “warning” and “admonition.
[4] The Qur’an calls its verses ayaat, i.e., signs (of Allah). These verses are considered signs of Allah (SWT) – as important as any other of His signs in the universe or in the heart of the human individual. It is because the Qur’anic verses are kalam Allah and also because, like other signs of Allah (SWT), they too, turn man’s mind to the Almighty.
[5] Literally the word means “to remember; to recall.” In the Qur’anic sense of the term it means “to recall forgotten Truths.”
[6] The word literally means “reflection” or “deliberation,” but it is used as a Qur’anic term with a special significance which has been explained in the discussion that follows.

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