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.

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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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