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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