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┬árecord. 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┬áthat “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.