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.


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.

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.


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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