IN SEARCH OF COHERENCE: Attempts at Understanding the Quran Holistically

This post originally appeared on my Facebook Notes. It has been slightly modified for this blog.

Having had conversations with so many Muslims about Islam and then asking for Waze-like directions, they often recommend one to read this or that book. Nothing quite wrong with that; I consider the tomes of Charles le Gai Eaton, Muhammad Asad and Khalid Baig, among others, to be inspirational and informative. However, some of these voracious readers of Islamic books more often than not, for whatever reason, neglect the mention of THE Book, from whence all about Islam is derived, the very foundation of the Way of Life. But I may understand why, as that was how I was before.

Not many people treat the Quran as a book. It is often referred to in times of calamities, when one seeks solace or during religious ‘ritualistic’ practices often ingrained in Islamic cultures. It is often placed on high shelves, a thing that Muslims MUST have, but not often used or actioned upon. Maybe, in looking at it as a book, one may be able to glean much more from it.

The Quran is not like any other book that one would be used to. There is no official Preface or Introduction, there is no outwardly discernible order of the Surahs, and no real conclusion or summary. To make matters more difficult, various Ayat of the Surah were revealed at different times, and their arrangement may even seem haphazard, or even almost random. The intonation of the Surahs, according to the rules of tajweed, can sometimes seem staccato.

My search for meaning in the Quran started with the old Yusuf Ali translations (the new ones published by IBT, regrettably, do not contain an introductory poem summarising the surah at the beginning, unlike the earlier editions). One gets a better appreciation with the translation than without, although if one were to ask me “What was that Surah about?”, I would flounder. Yes, Al-Fatihah was the Opening Chapter of the Quran, it went by many names, including “The Seven Oft-Repeated Verses”, it is a necessity to recite it in Solat, it can even be a cure for sickness (based on hadeeth), etc, etc. Those were merely observations of the surah and its use, but not its essence.

It was more difficult to me when I wanted to understand its concept, its underlying framework, and what lessons one could derive from the, well, oft-repeated verse. A year attempting to study Arabic at UIA (weekly night classes) and some excellent teaching by a Yemeni teacher (though lessons were stopped after a couple of months) did not allow for a discernably better elucidation. I also started collecting many other English translations of the Quran, including Maududi, Syed Qutb, Muhammad Asad, Pickthall, Muhsin Khan and Ibn Katheer (Abridged 10-volume Darussalam set). While Syed Qutb, the poet that he was, eloquently explained the overall gist, and Asad delved much more deeply into language (with Bedouin and Arabic poetry as basis of some translations), this classically-trained architect mind demanded a more coherent framework. M. Azmi’s “The History of the Quranic Text” did yield some understanding of its journey to become an agreed standard version at the time of the third Caliph Uthman Al-Affan radhiallahuanhu (and shedding some light on the Ibn Mas’ud version) as well as the naming of the various Surah, my hunger was still unsated.

Earlier this year, during some casual browsing at my favourite tome-stores in KL, I chanced upon three English translations that I have not come across before. Interestingly all three were on the first two Surah of Al-Fatiha and Al-Baqarah: the first was Irfan Ahmad Khan’s “Reflections on the Quran”, followed by Mahmoud M. Ayoub’s “The Quran and Its Interpreters: Volume 1” and finally Amin Ahsan Islahi’s “Pondering Over the Quran”. Khan’s book was published by The Islamic Foundation, UK and he does a commendable job of grouping parts of the surah into themes. While this is not new, there seems to be a fair amount of clarity in his choices, which I found more compelling than Muhammad Al-Ghazali’s “A Thematic Commentary of the Quran”. Ayoub’s book was rather interesting as it looked at many interpreters, including the Sufi and other sources, even Syiah (rarely one gets a glimpse into their exegetical works in comparison to Sunni sources). The one that really opened my eyes, however, was Islahi’s “Tadabbur”.

Islahi’s book was originally in Urdu, and was translated into English by Mohammad Saleem Kayani in 2006. Islahi’s methodology was borrowed from his teacher, Hamiduddin Farahi, and revolved around the concept of nazm or “coherence”. Unlike other scholars like al-Khattabi, al-Baqillani, al-Jurjani and az-Zamakhshari, who had earlier also utilised the concept of nazm mainly through the relationship of words and meaning, or Razi who argues it brings to light many subtleties (lata’if) of the Quran, the Farahi-Islahi scheme of nazm forms a quintessetial foundation to the message and meaning of the Book. They put forward the idea that every surah has a central theme (‘amud) which unifies the surah, and that there is a logical unity and coherence to all the surah according to they way they are arranged in the Quran. In addition, Islahi posits that there are seven distinct groups of surahs in the Quran with each group having their own distinct ‘amud (as opposed to Farahi’s nine), and in each group the Makkan blocks of surahs always precede the Madinan blocks. And here, for the first time in my life, there was a conceptual framework on the structure and coherence of the Quran right before me.

Being the Gestalt geek, I also wanted to know whether there is any verification of Islahi’s work. It was at Kino Singapore that I came across Muntasir Mir’s “Coherence in the Quran: A Study of Islahi’s Concept of Nazm in Tadabbur-i Quran”. To me, this was like finding the Oscar-winning documentary called “The Heart of Darkness: A Filmaker’s Apocalypse” which detailed Francis Ford Coppola’s journey and challenges in making one of my all-time favourite movies, “Apocalypse Now”. Here was a critical analysis of Islahi’s work, and even compared the concept of nazm against other exegitical methodologies such as asbab al-nuzul or “Reasons for Revelations” and even ponted out the potential weaknesses of Islahi’s method. In the end, Mir still gave Islahi’s work a clear nod as it weathered the many tests he had subjected it to.

It is my fervent hope that this journey down the road of Quranic comprehension and assimilation may be of use to other fellow travellers. Combining Islahi with the efforts of Nouman Ali Khan in Bayyinah TV and Suhaib Webb’s exposition of Al-Baqarah on Reflections, TV Al-Hijrah, as well as other sources that we may find along the way, I hope to unravel the meaning of the Quran as a guide for this little life of mine. In the end, we hope to fulfil what is demanded of us, as stated in Surah Al-Dhariyat (51:56) “I have only created Jinns and men, so that they would worship Me”. And what better way of worship, or at least alongside the fardh or compulsory tenets, than understanding, assimilating and actionising the Quran. One is also reminded of Abdullah ibn Umar, son of Umar Al-Khattab radhiallahuanhu who took 12 years to memorise Surah Al-Baqarah as he could not proceed to memorise the next ayat until he had understood and practised what was asked of the previous ayat. Subhanallah!

Then again, I have always said that when one consumes, it is often meaningless if one does not produce something out of that consumption. So begins my own journey with the Quran. Again.

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One thought on “IN SEARCH OF COHERENCE: Attempts at Understanding the Quran Holistically

  1. Pingback: Treading the Path of the Heifer’s Gaze, this Ramadhan | Sword of Gnosis

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