The Foundations of Conceptually Understanding the Quran


Before we start looking at the Ring Theory, as mentioned at the end of the previous article, it is imperative for us to understand the conceptual foundation of the Quran. Fundamental characteristics need elucidation prior to moving on to a conceptual understanding of this Book.
 
At this early juncture it seems necessary for me to emphasise that this article will be written for ease of reasoning (peppered with some unavoidable verbosity perhaps); therefore I will not intersperse it extensively with sources and origins of materials as for most of the part, the main source is M. M. Al-Azami’s “The History of the Quranic Text”. Only other sources would be named as it is referenced.
 
Most Muslims would be able to tell you the following: that the Quran is a collection of Allah’s words as revealed to the Prophet Muhammad pbuh over the period of his prophethood spanning 23 years. The angel Jibreel acted as an intermediary between Allah and Muhammad pbuh, save for a few verses which were revealed directly to the Prophet during Isra’ Mi’raj. More often than not, at the time of revelation, the Prophet had companions with him who memorised the verses and wrote them down for the record. The Prophet would also indicate the order of the Surahs as they were revealed, culminating with the order of the whole Quran when Jibreel oversaw his recitation twice in the year of his death.
 
The Quran started to appear in written form at the time of the Prophet pbuh, but only in fragments as scribes wrote them on various materials as it was revealed. Many would be familiar with the efforts of collecting the Quran as a whole volume firstly via the efforts of Abu Bakr ra at the insistence of Umar ra, appointing Zayd ibn Thabit ra as the main compiler, and culminating with the Mushaf Uthmaniyya during the caliphate of Uthman ra. Hafsa bint Umar ibn al-Khattab ra, one of the wives of the Prophet Muhammad pbuh also played a role in the compilation of the Quran, often safekeeping fragments as they were compiled to a whole, as committed by her father. Al-Azami acknowledged a few other Mushaf of the sahabah or companions, even dedicating a whole chapter of his book to the “So-Called Mushaf of Ibn Mas’ud”, concluding that there was not enough evidence to show that this Mushaf was any different from that of Uthman.
 
As mentioned earlier, the order of the Surahs was indicated by the Prophet pbuh as the ayat were revealed. There are reports of the existence of the Mushaf of Ali ra, which is arranged according to the order of revelation which would be a historical record of the development of Islam. This was further corroborated by Arthur Jeffery in his “Materials for the History of the Text of the Quran” which lists 15 Primary and 13 Secondary Codices. There are two existing standards for a chronological reclassification of the Surah, firstly Noldeke and Schwally that is widely accepted by non-Muslim scholars, and the standard Egyptian chronology, which, according to Neal Robinson in the excellent “Discovering the Quran: A Contemporary Approach to a Veiled Text”, there is very little to choose from between them.
 
In any case, the Mushaf Uthman is the standard accepted Quran of the Muslim World. As the Muslim civilisation developed further from its Arabian origins, the form of the Quran took on several additions. During the time of al-Hajjaj bin Yusuf ash-Thaqafi, the notorious governor of Iraq during the Umayyad Caliphate who ruled with an Iron Fist did contribute to the form of the Quran it exists today – the division of the Quran into seven manazil and 30 juz to aid its reading over a week or a month was ‘a practical outgrowth of his curiosity’. Over time, other reading aids appeared such as dots and diacritical marks (eg. fathah, kasrah and dhamma) especially in light of the Quran reaching non-Arabs.
 
If a chronological compilation of the Quran would be very useful in seeing the unfolding of Islam from a historical and civilisational perspective, actually understanding the context in which the ayat was revealed would add even more weight to the nuances of the message. This was the idea of “Asbab Al Nuzul”, or “Reasons of Revelation of the Noble Quran / Occasions and Circumstances of Revelation” (two English translations of the same Arabic title by two different publishers). The most notable (and among the earliest) of these efforts was by Imam Ali Ibn Ahmad Al-Wahidi Al-Naisaburi who published occasions of about 570 ayat out of the 6253 ayat in the Quran. The ‘Asbab’ however is meant to be more exegetical than historical, as the Quran is revealed for all mankind and not just the people of a certain time in history. While this phenomenological approach of study certainly enriches one’s appreciation of the Quran and its meaning, as according to Muntasir Mir in “Coherence in the Quran” outlined that Asbab an-Nuzul was referred to by ibn Taymiyyah and Zarkashi as an exegetical principle transmitted by the Prophet’s pbuh Companions which helps establish context, it does not in itself lend a complete framework to the conceptual understanding of the Quran.
 
The approach of viewing the Quran as a comprehensive whole has been happening for more than a thousand years. One of the earliest examples is al-Jahiz’s “The Composition of the Quran” in the ninth century CE. A century later, Abu Bakar al-Nisaiburi would ask “Why is this verse next to the other one?” and chided the Baghdad learned men of his time for not paying more attention to these questions. This brought a rise of “Partisans of Coherence” which includes major figures of exegesis such al al-Razi (d 1209), al-Qurtubi (d 1272), Nizam al-Din al-Nisaburi (d 1327) and al-Suyuti (d 1505). Even the Andalusian judge Abu Bakr ibn al-Arabi remarked that “The verses of the Quran are joined together in such a manner that they are like a single word, harmoniously associated, structurally even.” Lately, significant developments in looking at overall themes and general structure occurred in the twentieth century with Abd al-Hamid al-Farahi (d 1930) from India and Amin Ahsan Islahi (d 1997) from Pakistan, as well as Muhammad al-Tabataba’i (d 1981) from Iran and Sayyid Qutb (d 1966) from Egypt. Most recently current Quran scholars have deepened that knowledge such as Muntasir Mir, Muhammad Abdel Haleem, Neal Robinson, Michel Cuypers and Raymond Farrin. Cuypers has shown that symmetry in the Quran manifests in form of parallelism (AB/A’B’), chiasm (inverted parallelism – AB/B’A’) and concentrism. Nouman Ali Khan, a well-known Islamic speaker on the Quran, recently co-authored with Sharif Randhawa “Divine Speech: Exploring the Quran As Literature” which borrows heavily from Mir, Robinson and Farrin.
The efforts of Farahi, Islahi, Robinson and Farrin now becomes the focus of a Framework of the Conceptual Understanding of Quran; we shall start looking at the Ring Theory of Farrin which combines the aforementioned efforts into a structural coherence in the next post onwards. May Allah guide us to knowing His Book.
 
 
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The Remaining Months as a Quranic Ramadhan Prep

Yet another Ramadhan has passed, and yet another less than satisfactory ending. Eid ul Fitr on the first day of the month of Syawal in the Hijri Calendar is supposed to be a celebration of a ‘return to fitra’, a state of natural being in the order of the universe, the purposeful existence in the eyes of the Creator, a rebirth of sorts. Instead, a sense of restlessness took its place; vocational challenges, coupled with sub-optimal health and peppered with some navel gazing made up the ingredients of this deflatingly served dish.

Why was this so? Approximately seven sun-rotations ago, the mutawwif who guided my family’s conditionally compulsory Meccan pilgrimage had remarked that the whole Hajj experience was intended as a training ground for the times that came after. It made sense at the time, for the rigours and experience of Hajj is not quickly forgotten and would serve well months after leaving the Holy Land. I had inadvertently applied this logic to the month of Ramadhan as well; it seemed entirely reasonable that the ‘training ground’ rationale was equally applicable here. Having just experienced my forty-ninth cycle in my lifetime, I have come to the conclusion that it was just the opposite: the rest of the year was, in fact, preparation for the momentous month.

There were several reasons: firstly, the cyclical nature of the twelve months meant that we would repeatedly be, God willing, facing Ramadhan again and again. It is as if we are at a sports training facility practising for an annual event. Secondly, the cyclical nature also infers that there should be improvements in the future cycles. As is often the case, one often leaves the rigours of Ramadhan far behind in the other months, typically reverting to type, lending gravitas to the observable phenomenon of ‘Ramadhan Muslims’. This is due to the fact that the ‘training’ and ‘tournament’ is not planned to be cumulative but rather a turn of the hamster wheel. Thirdly, within Ramadhan is probably the most important night of all nights, the Night of a Thousand Nights, better known as ‘Lailatul Qadr’. This mysteriously placed night (where there are signs given, but only God knows for sure) contained within the last ten days of Ramadhan promises multifold rewards for those who seek and experience it. This phenomenon breaks down the “training-tournament” analogy, but implies an attitudinal concept instead: to achieve the full rewards in Ramadhan, it is not enough only to be a Competitor, but one also needs to be an active Seeker.

Taking this strand of thinking further, perhaps only the Restless Seeker stands a chance of fully experiencing the Nectars of Ramadhan. Many yearn for the ecstasy of having maximised one’s Ramadhan but piercing that veil would probably require an intertwined tapestry of ponderance and prayers, whose exposition is far beyond the capacity and capability of this writer. Perhaps a more achievable aim would be to explore one important strand of that lofty goal with a preparation of an oft-practised but maybe un-maximised action: that of Quranic Recitation.

One of the names for Ramadhan is Shahr ul Quran, the month of Quran. Not only was the first verse of the Quran (Surah al-Alaq, the 96th) revealed during this month, but also reciting the whole Quran is highly recommended and is common practice among Muslims. In this regard, I have insofar failed miserably at achieving this. Often when I finally get around to reading it, it is slowed down by looking at the meaning and trying to ascertain the message. Therein lies the heart of the problem; I could never seem to grasp the Quran as a whole, and therefore fail to contextualise what I am reading. For one trained as an architect who designs buildings and townships with complex relationships that need to function as a whole (and add to that a penchant for phenomenology), and now as a management consultant who constructs strategies for transformation programmes for companies and systems that need to run in tandem, the Quran is but a black box of seemingly incoherent parts. 

The search for a Gestalt-conception of the Quran has been a personal pre-occupation for many years. I have been searching through many English translations of the Quran, as well as books about the Book especially concerning thematics and conceptual frameworks. The former had taken me through from the de facto Yusuf Ali translation (I much prefer ‘ye olde’ version with a poem to introduce every surah), to the dogmatic Mawdudi, the poetic Sayyid Qutb, the new standard bearer Mohsin Khan and ending with the fascinating Muhammad Asad. For the latter, Muhammad al-Ghazali et al helped with thematics, M.M. Al-Azami with the history, Shetha Al-Dargazeli with the names of Surahs, and many others with specific interpretations of different Surahs, as well as Naisaburi’s exposition of why certain Surahs were revealed. Furthermore, the works of two of my favourite Sheikhs, Ustaz Nouman Ali Khan and Shaikh Yasir Qadhi (these two often through videos) were copiously referred. However, the real breakthrough happened in the last five years, starting with my discovery of Amin Ahsan Islahi ‘Tadabbur-i-Qur’an’ and Muntasir Mir’s study of his approach, further elaborated in Nouman Ali Khan and Sharif Randhawa’s ‘Divine Speech’. It was from that last book that I found earlier though recent works of Raymond Farrin (the discoverer of the Ring Theory in the Quran sometimes seen in videos) and Neal Robinson, both currently under study.

It is my hope to synthesise the knowledge from these and other sources into a holistic conceptual framework of the Quran, using Farrin’s Ring Theory as a point of trajectory. The primary objective remains as lending meaning to Quranic Recitation during the next Ramadhan, God willing. Gestalt and Visual Communication approaches will also be integrated, devices that make up much of my training and current way of thinking. Honestly, it is really for my own convenience and comprehension, but I hope it works for you too.

The next post will introduce some structural mechanics of the Quran, including how the Surahs may be grouped (we shall discuss approaches by different scholars), as well as the Ring Theory. Stay tuned.

Of Snakes and Ladders, and Dance

There was a time when kids used to spend their free time playing board games. Sometimes it was a whole family affair; at other times it was when friends came over on a lazy Sunday afternoon. It even used to be part of one’s repertoire of packed time-fillers when the family traveled. Games ranged from the four-cornered Ludo (didn’t everyone have their own favourite colours to start from?) to the strategic Battleship (particularly enjoyed the battery-operated version, complete with missile launch and explosion sounds) to the whodunits like Cluedo, and the empire-building Monopoly. I must say that the most complex board game I have ever played (once) was Poleconomy, a Monopoly-like game that swapped companies for properties and had a parallel political and capitalist actions. There was one particular game though which more often than not introduced kids to the whole concept of board games; it was none other than Snake and Ladders.

For many, Snakes and Ladders was probably the first board game they ever played, and one that most never say no too. Its simple mechanics would encourage anyone to start, and the gameplay gave a relatively equal chance for anyone to win. In addition, one could easily acquire it at the nearest mamak sundry or magazine shop. Many would have moved on to other more complex games, without knowing the rich background of this up and down game. I had earlier thought of the game as a good summary of one’s journey of faith without realising that the game itself was borne out of a spiritual context.

Reportedly Snakes and Ladders was born out of India, together with its dice-based siblings called  Gyan chauper and pachisi (present-day Ludo and Parcheesi). It was known as  Moksha Patam in ancient India and was associated with the Hindu and Jain philosophy which contrasts destiny and desire. The ladders represented positive virtues such as generosity, faith and humility, contrasted by those such as theft, anger and murder, symbolised by the snake. Salvation (Moksha) was achieved by doing good, whereas evil results in a rebirth to lower forms of life (and having to start at the lower rungs).

It may not be too far a stretch to bring this analogy to one’s spiritual progression in Islam. While the board game, normally in grids of 8×8, 9×9 or more often than not 10×10, is usually viewed in two dimensions, I had always imagined the game to be much more complex continuous three-dimensioned environment. This was due to the fact that if one were transported from square number 47 from the head of a snake to its tail at number 24 for a second time or after several ups and down, surely one was probably wiser and had a higher spiritual level than when one went through square number 24 for the first time.

The other aspect that would underline one’s attitude to life was how one moves from one square to another. Do you treat it like a sprint, front-loading all your good deeds but potentially burn out and change? Do you take a slow stroll, promising yourself that piety should be reserved for a later age once you have maxed-out your partying in the squares that you occupy right now? Do you take your time, studying the significance of the squares before you, and how it should impact your current and future squares? Or do you dance to and fro, treating all squares as your destined playground, moving to a beat resonant with all that is created, and therefore potentially also the rhythm of your Creator?

Another interesting analogy is also the dice. Without going into the whole fatalism and choice debate, and taking it into a more rudimentary level, how you throw is often a determinant in how the dice lands. Is the chance factor just the universe colluding (or itself having no other chance) to make what the Creator had pre-determined happen? Or does it even matter, for in the end we are accountable to how we react to the choices that are put before us, which may be understood as the real test. Did the Creator not say that whom He loves the most, would be the most tested?

Maybe it is because I am way into my fourth decade on this earth, and speedily approaching my fifth. I try to oscillate between the third and fourth way mentioned above – to study, and to dance. What is ecstasy without grounding, but a fleeting moment whose meaning dissipates with the wind? What is knowledge, if it does not permeate through one’s being, and where knowledge begins and being end is no longer defined, and in fact longer matters?

Is there any other way to live?

 

dance

Gateway to Consciousness: My (Continuous) Journey to Accessing the Arabic Language

I now know why I MUST study Arabic.

Today was the fourth lesson for my wife and I. Ustazah Faezah was very accommodating about me not completing my homework, saying that it was more important to practice verbally, at the very least. Against the backdrop of the other student, my soul mate of 19 years, I was supremely pathetic. Zawjati (my wife) had even done some of the homework on my behalf last week. I had tried numerous excuses to get the lesson postponed, as it was always a rush to revise and get my wajib (homework) done on time. I thought it could wait, but the conversation with our ustazah just after our fourth class totally changed my perception – no more excuses, just do it to the best of our abilities and do not relent – no retreat, no surrender!

My first flirtation with the Arabic language began in 1990 when I was studying architecture in Cambridge. I had to write a thesis for my final year, and after some soul-searching the topic of arrived at was “The Problem with Defining Islamic Architecture”. The previous two-plus years were entrenched in the history and theory of architecture from a primarily western perspective – I wanted to discover my own weltanschauung of architecture, and what better to focus on the more universal Islamic architecture rather than just traditional vernacular Malay architecture (where the latter was also somewhat influenced by the former). Having done some desktop research, I had felt that I should be visiting the actual buildings in the Middle East, whilst at least having some rudimentary grasp of the local language. I had therefore signed up for an Arabic course (probably at the Faculty of Linguistics, I forget which). It was unfortunate that after attending five or six lessons, I started missing the classes as I had to spend more time at the studio to compete lagging design projects. The silver lining was that I did finish my thesis, which in itself was a process of self-discovery, but never did complete one level of Arabic language nor did I go to visit the targeted buildings and regions.

After graduating from Cambridge during an economic downturn in 1991 (72 applications to work in the UK, only one offer subject to them getting projects), I decided to head home to Malaysia where jobs were aplenty. Whilst learning the ropes at Damansara Architect, I undertook to pursue Arabic again, this time by taking night classes at the International Islamic University in Petaling Jaya. Having enrolled in the only class that teaches in English, I tried to absorb as much as I could. Inadvertently, work started getting much busier and I started skipping every other class. I did actually sit for the final exam, but my lecturer as kind enough to not let me know my results, God bless his kind soul!

After that practicum year, I continued on to Part II of Architecture by enrolling in the post-graduate Dip (Arch) in Edinburgh. Those two years were a fairly reflective period in my life, a certain level of maturity setting in after working during the year out. While at Cambridge I was elected as the Vice President of the Cambridge Islamic Society during my second year, in Edinburgh I had a short stint as the President for the Malaysian Islamic Study Group. The yearning to study the Quran became greater, and I began attending numerous usrah (Islamic discussion gatherings) and conferences. I read voraciously to try to understand the Quran more, yet the roadblock was always appreciating the nuances of the Blessed Book through its linguistic medium.

Subsequently back home, the same problem gnawed at me. My motivation to learn Arabic was to really immerse myself in the Quran, to be a better Muslim. I collected and read Yusuf Ali, Pickthall, Thomas Irving, Muhsin Khan, Muhammad Al-Ghazali, all translations that gave one exposure, but rarely piercing the veil of enlightenment. The discovery of Muhammad Asad’s “The Message of the Quran”, written by the grandson of a rabbi who then embraced (in the full sense of the word) Islam and chose to live among the bedouins, experiencing their lives and immersing in the culture and traditions in which the Quran was revealed, brought me a little closer. Having been schooled in concepts and Gestalt theory, finding Ahmad Ahsan Islahi’s “Pondering on the Quran” was a revelation, and was further fulfilled by Nouman Ali Khan’s approach to the Quran. Still, it was not enough.

There was a further dalliance with Arabic when my family organised a weekly class at my Kak Long’s house, conducted by Ustazah Faezah some years ago; work pressures, like study  pressures put paid to that ambition after several months. So just over a month ago, my beloved contacted our ustazah again to arrange for weekend classes, but having to start over from the beginning in order to ensure our fundamentals were strong. No, this time it would be different.

Our ustazah’s little pep-talk after that fourth class would not have hit home as hard if I had not been actively studying Imperialism and Decolonisation. It was Raman Ragunathan, my fourth year thesis supervisor, who had put me on the path by introducing me to Edward Said’s “Culture and Imperialism” and Syed Hossein Al-Attas’ “The Myth of the Lazy Native”, which formed the basis of my study on Abdel Wahid El-Wakeel’s architectural journey from a western education to a traditionalist approach. The work at University Sains Malaysia on “Decolonising Our Universities”, led by Tan Sri Dzulkifli Abdul Razak coupled with my discovery of Pankaj Mishra’s “From the Ruins of the Empire” further fueled my desire to free myself, and hopefully others, from cultural and mental imperialism which besiege us way past our post-colonial ‘independence’.

Ustazah Faezah, our Yemeni teacher of Arabic Language, underlined the importance of learning Fusha (Classical) Arabic. She surprised us with the fact that many native Arabic speakers do not understand the Quran as they often speak only Colloquial (Ammiya) Arabic, in which there are significant variations in the different nation-states. The colloquialism of Arabic was an effective tool in the pre and post Imperialism Divide and Conquer strategy, not unlike how our previous Imperial governors divided the Malay, Chinese and Indians economically in Malaysia, whose effects we are still battling to this day. How can one embrace the Quran (a phenomenal uniting factor, a major threat to those with imperialistic ambitions, although more from an economic/political perspective these days) if one is linguistically distant from it, bereft of its fine nuances and context? How, when for any one word, there are approximately 90 variations in meaning, depending on context and intonation? How lost are those who superficially quote the Quran without considering its context, especially when seeking to justify their own agenda?

In this light, it is an absolute crime for a Muslim not to study the language of the Quran, if one were to really seek its meaning. So no more excuses, just do it to the best of our abilities and do not relent – no retreat, no surrender!

Ameen.

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Treading the Path of the Heifer’s Gaze, this Ramadhan

“Will they not then earnestly seek to understand the Quran, or are there locks upon their hearts?”

Surah Muhammad, 47:24

“It is ironic indeed that the Quran that places so much emphasis on pondering and serious study of its contents in order to gain any real benefit, is also perhaps the only book that is read without any serious thought or attention to its message or substance. Ordinarily, when studying a book, most people would first prepare themselves mentally. In the case of the Quran they usually close their minds the moment they open it up to read”

Introduction, “Pondering over the Quran”, Amin Ahsan Islahi

So yet another Ramadhan approaches, and I echo the thanks of many Muslims that we are alive to greet another of the blessed month. The zeal with which many greet this time of the Islamic calendar year is often great, but undoubtedly for many this does not quite last. Once work and family pressures pile, it is all to easy to slip back into the normal routine, albeit with different meal times.

I am not here to offer a formula to avoid the aforementioned. One only needs to peruse one’s Facebook and subscribed Youtube channels to access countless pieces of advice by the Masyaikhs and friends (usually reposts of the Masyaikhs) alike, much of which are of great use if followed. I can almost hear the countless covers of the Quran being opened (um, just dust it off first, ok?) and pages turned, so many eager to finally finish a full reading by month end. My personal efforts throughout my life have been rather mixed, more often than not significantly short of initial targets. Being a realist, then why not set lower targets, I thought to myself. Why not indeed.

A few days ago, I had updated my Facebook status, which reads “Salam all, hope you all have a wonderful and reflective month of Ramadhan – Rediscover your purpose. Realign your compass. Refresh your target of the ultimate destination. May your journey be blessed and fruitful. Ramadhan Mubarak”. Reflect, rediscover, realign, refresh – not too shabby as goals. Now how could I achieve all that while making it achievable? The answer that came to me is to look in the direction of Bovines. Really.

The link between the month of Ramadhan and the Quran is unmistakable. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was visited by the angel Jibreel on the 17th night of Ramadhan, upon which he received the first ever Revelation in the form of the first five verses of Surah Al-Alaq (The Clot 96:1-5). However, the Quran we have today was not arranged in chronological order;  the Prophet (peace be upon him) arranged the verses as they were revealed through divine guidance. The closest I have come to comprehending the order was covered by my earlier post here.

In that post, it was the approach of the main text that was discussed, Amin Ahsan Islahi’s “Tadabbur-e-Quran” (Pondering over the Quran), that in order to understand the nazm of ‘coherence’ of the Quran, the author had attempted to address the longest Surah in the Quran first and foremost, as it represents the most complex structure of all surahs. This is of course Surah Al-Baqarah (The Heifer, thus my bovine referral), the second surah in the Quran which contains 286 ayat. As today is the third day of Ramadhan, those of you who target to complete the full recitation of the Quran would most probably have completed this surah already, and have moved on to others. My target this year is to read and appreciate the overall meaning of this surah, inshaaAllah.

For those who are interested, I will be giving a talk entitled “Treading the Path of the Heifer’s Gaze: The first Five Ayat of Surah Al-Baqarah” in two week’s time at 3-4pm on 3rd July at UNIEC Inspire, Level 9, UNITAR Kelana Jaya Campus.

heifer

All I Want for Jumaah is…

Peace!

Today I went for my first Solat Jumaat (Friday Prayers) at Masjid Bulat (officially known as Masjid Tun Abdul Aziz) in Section 14, Petaling Jaya for quite a while. If you ask me to recall what it was about…. ummm, well, the khatib mentioned about characteristics that are desirable in a Muslim, sifat mahmudah, and ummm… yup, that’s the limit of my recall. I did not sleep, mind you, unlike many others around me. But I did not leave the mosque feeling enriched by the sermon.

Yet the khutbah (Friday Sermon) is such a wonderful opportunity to touch so many lives. Many, if not most male Muslims make an effort to attend, and for those who are concerned, one who enters the mosque early gets the most rewards as recorded by the Angels that stand at every door of the mosque until the Imam sits on the pulpit (Sahih Muslim, Book 4, Number 1864). According to Ibn Kathir’s Interpretation of Sural Al-Jumaah, one is prohibited from participating in buying and selling after the first Azan – you can often see in Makkah that all traders shut down prior or upon hearing the Azan. Yes, stop eating dude, the khutbah is starting already!

For the last couple of years, the mosques in Malaysia have started using Powerpoint slides during the khutbah. I have long been an advocate of this – I had thought that a visual presentation would surely be able to combat the sitting slumber that happens during the khatib’s speech. Moreover, many Friday mosques have air-conditioning which adds much comfort for the attendees who otherwise had to contend with the high humidity. Alas, in general, the Sandman’s actions seems even more prevalent and even potentially aided further by the cooler environment. Things do not seem to be improving. So for what it’s worth, I am putting down a wishlist for the weekly Friday khutbah, with the hope that it leads to a much higher level of spiritual efficacy. It is divided into two sections; a wishlist for the attendees, and a another for the khatib and mosque committee.

For Muslims going to Solat Jumaah at the Masjid:

  1. Friday is an Amazing Day, beyond TGIF (and even in TGIF God is mentioned – if only you were serious about thanking God when you said that). The eight hadeeth before the one mentioned above in Sahih Muslim, Abu Hurairah had reported Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him) as saying: “The best day on which the sun has risen is Friday; on it Adam was created, on it he was made to enter Paradise, on it he was expelled from it.” OK maybe the last point wasn’t so positive, but certainly a historic day. Celebrate Friday not just for the weekend that comes after, but for its spiritual significance.
  2. It’s Dress Up Friday, Dude – it is somewhat remarkable that people dress up to go on an occasion (a party, graduation, official event) but dress down on the Day of Celebration. I have nothing against going casual on the last working day of the week, but when you’re Muslim it shows your state of mind. Your dressing on the day is but a reflection of your God-consciousness, as many hadeeth encourages Muslims to wear their best clothes, put on perfume, and white clothing is encouraged. Personally, I like wearing jubah or thoub on Fridays as it helps me focus on its significance.
  3. Listen, Don’t Sleep – It’s hard. I know. It helps if you don’t have that Lamb Briyani before Solat Jumaah though. Maybe not today, but during many khutbah I have been able to extract learning gems. One that sticks to my mind is a khutbah at the former ISTAQ building at Jalan Damansara some moons ago, where the khatib used the analogy of luggage, immigration and travelling to ask the listeners to know what provisions they are bringing to the hereafter, and what the Angels would be looking for as one goes through the spiritual customs check. Your luggage would determine your destination. And oh, it was in English.
  4. Seek to Understand – every Jumaah, maybe target to know a little more of what is being said. For example, the khatib usually starts (and often repeats) with Surah Al-Ahzab 33:56 – you know the one – “Innallahu wamalaikatahi yusollu anannabi…”; “Allah and His Angels send blessings on the Prophet; Oh you who believe! Send your blessings on him and salute him, with all respect”. Now that you understand the meaning, the khutbah would be more interactive and you would give your salams to the Prophet (peace be upon him) right after hearing that verse. Everytime. Every Jumaah, you would learn to know a little bit more about what you read in Solat – and you would get into prayer, not just saying the words and acting the acts.
  5. Let the State of Solat Linger a Little Longer – Paucity allows for lasting reflection. Do not quickly get up after the second salaam, but just sit there. Enjoin in the du’a, inhale its meaning. Be still. Let the others get up and rush back to the office or restaurant. Breathe in, out, slowly. You had just finished a conversation with your Creator. If you were not moved, you did not really converse – you blabbed, and the result was accelerated evanescence. Poof, and the masjid is just a blur behind you. No. Make it count. Let it linger, and assimilate with your spiritual flesh. Just Be. With. Him.

Then there are things that the khatib and Mosque Administrations could do:

  1. Make the Masjid a Community Centre – many mosques in the West even have sports facilities – how else would you attract the youth the treat it like a destination? Activities there should not be limited to the religious events, but also ‘normal’ events that brings a community together. It should be kid-friendly (oh so many aren’t – however Masjid Besi in Putrajaya especially during last Ramadhan was a shining beacon in this respect). Also have or retain a proper place for women and facilitate making it easy frontmen to pray Jumaah like in Makkah – over here, during Jumaah the women’s section is more often than not commandeered for the men! Only then would offering Solat Jumaat seem more than a ritualistic exercise – give people more reason to be there, and love being there.
  2. Make World Issues Mosque Issues too – the poster below is a great effort by Masjid Bulat to conserve water, where so much wastage occurs during wudhu (ablutions). My father had suggested to some masjid before to even recycle the wudhu water to be used for watering the plants within the mosque compounds; sadly, the suggestion was not taken up – such wasted opportunity to demonstrate Muslims’ attitude to this Earth. In addition, the khutbah should also be directed to real-world problems that affect the community. As mentioned by my friend Reza Ali earlier on FB, why doesn’t the khatib emphasise the lowering of the gaze of men, rather than just asking women to cover their aurat. Economics, Green Living, Respect for All, Care of Animals, Being good to Fellow Man should all be topics for khutbah.
  3. Choose Polymath Imams – Islamic Scholars of yonder used to be multi-disciplinary men of learning who were as comfortable to converse about philosophy and sociology as they were hadeeth and Quranic interpretations. Encourage and sponsor bright students to study Theology and Islamic Sciences, whilst developing their more ‘secular’ knowledge so that they can make and give informed religious opinions. I would place Ustaz Hasrizal of saifulislam.com in such a category – and he has a wonderful writing and presentation style in both Malay and English
  4. Enhance Visual Storytelling – the Powerpoint slides that are shown should not be a mere teleprompter for the khatib and reading fodder for the makmum; the masjid should have graphic designers turn the text into visual storytelling experiences that enhance the message to be conveyed, as well as using storytelling techniques (pacing, storyline, significant and memorable punchline and takeaways so that the khutbah then transcends the masjid’s space and time). I believe it is worthwhile to invest in more screens that could be temporary for the Jumaah Prayers installed – think of the creativity of Mamak Restaurants.
  5. Engage the Community, Address Concerns – know and understand what the surrounding community requires, and address them. Work with them, regardless of race and creed, social standing, language etc. A mosque helps ALL. And talks about these issues and galvanise the community to address them in the khutbah. Now, that would be impactful, meaningful. And the mosque would really matter once again.
jimat air

Save Water

masjid bulat internal

Inside Masjid Bulat after Maghrib

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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