THE ARCHITECTURE OF THE HEIFER: Seeking A Coherent Structure of Surah Al-Baqarah This Ramadhan

شَهْرُ رَمَضَانَ الَّذِي أُنزِلَ فِيهِ الْقُرْآنُ هُدًى لِّلنَّاسِ وَبَيِّنَاتٍ مِّنَ الْهُدَىٰ وَالْفُرْقَانِ ۚ فَمَن شَهِدَ مِنكُمُ الشَّهْرَ فَلْيَصُمْهُ ۖ وَمَن كَانَ مَرِيضًا أَوْ عَلَىٰ سَفَرٍ فَعِدَّةٌ مِّنْ أَيَّامٍ أُخَرَ ۗ يُرِيدُ اللَّهُ بِكُمُ الْيُسْرَ وَلَا يُرِيدُ بِكُمُ الْعُسْرَ وَلِتُكْمِلُوا الْعِدَّةَ وَلِتُكَبِّرُوا اللَّهَ عَلَىٰ مَا هَدَاكُمْ وَلَعَلَّكُمْ تَشْكُرُونَ – 2:185

The month of Ramadhan [is that] in which was revealed the Qur’an, a guidance for the people and clear proofs of guidance and criterion. So whoever sights [the new moon of] the month, let him fast it; and whoever is ill or on a journey – then an equal number of other days. Allah intends for you ease and does not intend for you hardship and [wants] for you to complete the period and to glorify Allah for that [to] which He has guided you; and perhaps you will be grateful [Sahih International]

The relationship between Ramadhan and the Quran is well-illustrated in the 185th ayat of Surah Al-Baqarah above; in fact, that relationship was mentioned even prior to Ramdhan’s connection to fasting in the same ayat. What better month could there be to delve deeper into the Quran, and what finer Surah would it be other than the longest and most comprehensive of all Surah in the Quran? The focus for this post, however, is to explore a coherent structure of this second surah in order to grasp it as a whole. Although many books have been written on the thematic aspects of the surah, where most exegetes summarise its contents at the beginning, far fewer have tried to approach it from a framework or structural perspective that would elicit a better conceptual understanding of the surah.

It may be wise to first briefly explore this surah’s relationship to the previous one, namely Ummul Kitab, and perhaps the next one, for purposes of establishing context. Neal Robinson in his “Discovering the Quran” refers to the phenomenon of the interconnection between the end of one Surah with the beginning of another as ‘dovetailing’, and this can be seen between Surah Al-Fatihah and Surah Al-Baqarah. The former ends with a prayer for guidance ([1:6-7] ‘Guide us to the Straight Path’) and the latter proclaims at the beginning “This is the Scripture concerning which there is no doubt, a guidance for the God-conscious” (2:2). Others have observed that the guidance prayed for is for “those on whom You have bestowed Your Grace. Not of those who have incurred Your wrath, nor of those who have gone astray” (1:7). Surah Al-Baqarah has a signficant focus on ‘those who have incurred Your wrath (the Jews)’, while the subsequent Surah Al-Imran on ‘those who have gone astray (the Christians)’, further cementing their linear interconnectedness. Other researchers have attempted to show the interconnections between beginnings and endings of all 114 surahs, and yet others like Islahi, Cuypers and Farrin discovered that most if not all surahs have their pairs.

In order to understand Surah Al-Baqarah itself, however, we turn to Raymond Farrin’s Ring Compisition in his ‘Structure and Quranic Interpretation‘. Following a long tradition of ‘Partisans of Coherence’ dating back to Basran writer al-Jahiz which started with a more ‘linear-atomistic’ approach, to a more holistic-chapters approach of Farahi and Amin Islahi, and then firstly Michael Cuypers and now Farrin’s approach which is primarily of a concentric rings of individual surahs and groups of surahs. He posits that Surah Al-Baqarah may be organised into seven sections in the following manner:

A (1-39): Believers vs disbelievers; Prophet challenges disbelievers to produce a surah; God gives life and resurrects

          B (40-112): Moses delivers law to Children of Israel; Children of Israel reluctant to sacrifice cow

                    C (113-141): Abraham was tested; Ka’ba built by Abraham and Ishmael; prayer that descendants submit to God

                              D (142-152): Ka’ba is the new prayer direction; this is a test of faith; compete in doing good deeds

                    C’ (153-177): Muslims will be tested; instructions about pilgrimage to Mecca; warning not to worship ancestors’ multiple gods

          B’ (178-242): Prophet delivers law to Muslims; Muslims exhorted to enter Islam wholeheartedly

A’ (243-286):Believers encouraged in struggle vs disbelievers; Abraham challenges king to affect rising of sun; God gives life and resurrects

Take your time reading the above, and analyse the symmetrical concentrism of the 7 groups of ayat. I was completely blown away when I first read about this, and it still takes my breath away every time. The Quran which was revealed over a period of 23 years, rearranged by the Prophet every time a new revelation arrived (and therefore seemingly ‘mixed up’ by the time the whole Quran was revealed), still presents to us a level of coherence that can be easily understood by the lay person – this is truly a miracle for all mankind. A good visualisation of the above can also be seen in this video.

Even within the 7 groups are various ring compositions. As an illustration we shall look at Ayat 2-5 as explained in Nouman Ali Khan and Sharif Randhawa’s recently-released “Divine Speech: Exploring the Quran as Literature“:

A. (2): (guidance) “This is the scripture concerning which there is no doubt – a guidance for the God-conscious (al-muttaqin)

         B. (3) (faith) those who believe in the unseen

                   C. (3): (action) and establish the prayer

                   C’. (3): (action) and spend of what We have provided for them

          B’: (4): (faith) those who believe in what was sent down to you and what was sent down before you, and in the afterlife they are certain

A’. (5): (guidance) It is they who are on guidance from their Lord and they who are the successful (al-muflihun)

And we have barely even scratched the surface. Not unlike viewing a fractal design, such coherence can be found at the macro level of the whole Quran (Farahi organised all surahs in 9 groups while Islahi and Farrin 7 groups) to a micro level (within Ayat Kursi [2:255] itself is a clearly perceptible Ring Composition). Additionally, Khan-Randhawa in their book also explored many literary aspects of the Quran from micro literary features such as word choice, word order, grammatical shifts, style and grammar subtleties, figuratve language and imagery, as well as macro literary features such as storytelling, coherence and structure, symmetry and order.

It is hoped that this post acts as a taster of the knowledge that is available out there, and for Muslims to approach the Quran with an understanding of not only the meaning of the words, but also the holistic context and structure of what they read and recite. May we be of those who have a closer relationshipwith the Quran, ameen.

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NOT GOING LONG, BUT GOING DEEP: Overview on the Heifer this Ramadhan

Bismillahirrahmanirrahim

I have just finished listening to an uploaded lecture by the esteemed Nouman Ali Khan from 2016 as a preparation for Ramadhan this year and found that many points that hit home so hard. He started with the significance of Al-Baqarah and the message that the religion of Islam is congruent with the religion of Ibrahim a.s. and that the Prophet pbuh had come to complete his message. Within the rest of the lecture, he gave some rather hard-hitting facts: the most powerful one for me is that the purpose of Ramadhan is to reconnect with the Book of Allah. In Taraweeh, when the sahabah listened to the Surah when standing in prayer, it was like listening to a lecture by Allah. Now, in my own experience at least, for many of us we don’t know what is being recited in Taraweeh and just look forward to the ruku’ and counting which rakaat we are currently in, often to calculate how long before we take a break and have some of the proffered food at the masjid! This does not seem to be the intended consequence and impact when Umar r.a. introduced the congregational Taraweeh prayer. Ustaz Nouman then ended with the suggestion that for that particular Ramadhan, he would like to just cover Surah Al-Baqarah over the whole of Ramadhan in Taraweeh and focus on explaining what was recited.

Yes, this deviates from my previous intent of explaining the Ring Theory of Dr Bruce Farrin and contributions on others on the Nazm or Coherence of the Quran. Having read more about it, I found that I could not do it justice without further research, analysis and reflection. Therefore take up the aforementioned advice of Ustaz Nouman I shall, and the Heifer is my focus. I do hope to bring a holistic perspective to the Surah, using various sources available through my act of collecting them.

Surah Al-Baqarah is the second Surah in the Quran and its longest with 286 ayat. Now, since the previous sentence mentioned that word ‘Surah’ twice, let us first define the word. The best explanation I have found thus far is in another Ustaz Nouman video (starts at 12:04): the work ‘Surah’, comes from the word ‘Sawra’, denoting a full sharp view like the one you get from standing on a really high place, a long-reaching view. Additionally, the word ‘sur’ denotes high walls that were often found surrounding ancient cities, much like how you’d see from the top of one in the game Assassin’s Creed! Continuing the idea, ‘tasawwara’ means to climb up or scaling up. And the ‘sawra’ often enclosed a whole landscape of an entire city within it with all of its disparate and unique components. Yet when perceived within that long-reaching holistic view, the ‘surah’ shows that it all comes together to form a beautiful scene; those seemingly disparate components in the city are not discrete but organically interconnected. Ustaz Nouman also spoke about his encounter with Dr. Akram Nadwi, the protagonist in Carla Power’s Amazing “If Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran” as well as the author of “Al-Muhaddithat: The Women Scholars in Islam”, at the latter’s apartment where Dr. Nadwi likens a surah to standing at the edge of a cliff and looking onto the whole rich landscape comprising trees, rivers, waterfalls, birds in the sky, clouds and the richness of the whole scene. How inspiring!

Now the title of the Surah, ‘Al-Baqarah’ (meaning cow or heifer), is derived from the story narrated in ayat 67-73 where Prophet Musa a.s.’s interaction with the Jews on the sacrifice of a cow and the drama that followed. Yusuf Ali states in his commentary on this ‘Parable of the Heifer’ that it “illustrates the insufficiency of carping obedience” while Muhammad Asad says that it shows those Jew’s “obstinate desire to obtain closer and closer definitions of the simple commandment revealed to them through Moses had made it almost impossible for them to fulfil it.” In short, Musa a.s. had conveyed Allah’s commandment for the descendants of Israelites to sacrifice a cow, and through persistent questioning, they had made it harder on themselves as the characteristics of the cow became more particular and made it difficult to find such a cow; had they sacrificed any cow at the beginning, it would not have come to this point.

Historically, most of the Surah was revealed over the first one and a half years in Madinah after the Hijrah (622) and before the Battle of Badr (624). There was stability for the invited Muslims and their helpers (Ansar) in Madinah after the persecution that the former experienced in Makkah. They became an autonomous community regulated by Quranic revelations and had entered into pacts or covenants with the Jewish tribes to ensure relative peace. However, those tribes became increasingly antagonistic, and the Quraysh became more hostile with the prospect of war looming. It was under these circumstances that the Surah was revealed. (taken from ‘Divine Speech’ by Nouman Ali Khan and Sharif Randhawa)

Other general traits of this Surah include the fact that this is the longest Surah in the Quran and has the longest Ayat in the Quran (Ayat 282 which talks about debt and contracts, arguably describing a lawyer’s [scribe] work). It also contains Ayatul Kursi (The Ayat of the Throne), one of the most oft-recited ayat in the Quran and had been called the greatest Ayat in the Quran, and according to many hadeeth, it also acts a solid protection to those who recite it. Following this ayat is “There is no compulsion in Islam…”, an oft-quoted ayat by the more liberal Muslims justifying their various viewpoints (this really needs to be studied in context, especially what came before and what comes after). In the middle of the Surah (ayat 143 of 286), “And thus have We willed you to be a community of the middle way…”, one of the structural coherence of the verse. Ibn Kathir had remarked that the most fearful ayat in the Quran in ayat 279, but I will also quote 278 for context: “(278) O you who have attained faith! Remain conscious of God, and give up all outstanding gains from usury, if you are [truly] believers; (279) for if you do it not, know that you are at war with God and His Apostle. But if you repent, then you shall be entitled to [the return of] your principal; you will do no wrong, and neither will you be wronged.” The Surah ends with two ayat that were revealed during the Isra and Miraj, which includes one part that is of great solace to those who are burdened: “(286) God does not burden any human being with more than he is well able to bear…”. Lastly, in ayat 152, Allah says: “So remember Me, and I shall remember you; and be grateful unto Me, and deny Me not”. [Quran translations are taken from Muhammad Asad’s ‘The Message of the Quran’]

It is hoped that this post would serve as a little taster of what Surah Al-Baqarah offers, and piques your interest to know it better. May we know more of the Quran by the time Ramadhan ends than what we knew before, Ameen!