NOT GOING LONG, BUT GOING DEEP: Overview on the Heifer this Ramadhan


I have just finished listening to an uploaded lecture by the esteemed Nouman Ali Khan from 2016 as a preparation for Ramadhan this year and found that many points that hit home so hard. He started with the significance of Al-Baqarah and the message that the religion of Islam is congruent with the religion of Ibrahim a.s. and that the Prophet pbuh had come to complete his message. Within the rest of the lecture, he gave some rather hard-hitting facts: the most powerful one for me is that the purpose of Ramadhan is to reconnect with the Book of Allah. In Taraweeh, when the sahabah listened to the Surah when standing in prayer, it was like listening to a lecture by Allah. Now, in my own experience at least, for many of us we don’t know what is being recited in Taraweeh and just look forward to the ruku’ and counting which rakaat we are currently in, often to calculate how long before we take a break and have some of the proffered food at the masjid! This does not seem to be the intended consequence and impact when Umar r.a. introduced the congregational Taraweeh prayer. Ustaz Nouman then ended with the suggestion that for that particular Ramadhan, he would like to just cover Surah Al-Baqarah over the whole of Ramadhan in Taraweeh and focus on explaining what was recited.

Yes, this deviates from my previous intent of explaining the Ring Theory of Dr Bruce Farrin and contributions on others on the Nazm or Coherence of the Quran. Having read more about it, I found that I could not do it justice without further research, analysis and reflection. Therefore take up the aforementioned advice of Ustaz Nouman I shall, and the Heifer is my focus. I do hope to bring a holistic perspective to the Surah, using various sources available through my act of collecting them.

Surah Al-Baqarah is the second Surah in the Quran and its longest with 286 ayat. Now, since the previous sentence mentioned that word ‘Surah’ twice, let us first define the word. The best explanation I have found thus far is in another Ustaz Nouman video (starts at 12:04): the work ‘Surah’, comes from the word ‘Sawra’, denoting a full sharp view like the one you get from standing on a really high place, a long-reaching view. Additionally, the word ‘sur’ denotes high walls that were often found surrounding ancient cities, much like how you’d see from the top of one in the game Assassin’s Creed! Continuing the idea, ‘tasawwara’ means to climb up or scaling up. And the ‘sawra’ often enclosed a whole landscape of an entire city within it with all of its disparate and unique components. Yet when perceived within that long-reaching holistic view, the ‘surah’ shows that it all comes together to form a beautiful scene; those seemingly disparate components in the city are not discrete but organically interconnected. Ustaz Nouman also spoke about his encounter with Dr. Akram Nadwi, the protagonist in Carla Power’s Amazing “If Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran” as well as the author of “Al-Muhaddithat: The Women Scholars in Islam”, at the latter’s apartment where Dr. Nadwi likens a surah to standing at the edge of a cliff and looking onto the whole rich landscape comprising trees, rivers, waterfalls, birds in the sky, clouds and the richness of the whole scene. How inspiring!

Now the title of the Surah, ‘Al-Baqarah’ (meaning cow or heifer), is derived from the story narrated in ayat 67-73 where Prophet Musa a.s.’s interaction with the Jews on the sacrifice of a cow and the drama that followed. Yusuf Ali states in his commentary on this ‘Parable of the Heifer’ that it “illustrates the insufficiency of carping obedience” while Muhammad Asad says that it shows those Jew’s “obstinate desire to obtain closer and closer definitions of the simple commandment revealed to them through Moses had made it almost impossible for them to fulfil it.” In short, Musa a.s. had conveyed Allah’s commandment for the descendants of Israelites to sacrifice a cow, and through persistent questioning, they had made it harder on themselves as the characteristics of the cow became more particular and made it difficult to find such a cow; had they sacrificed any cow at the beginning, it would not have come to this point.

Historically, most of the Surah was revealed over the first one and a half years in Madinah after the Hijrah (622) and before the Battle of Badr (624). There was stability for the invited Muslims and their helpers (Ansar) in Madinah after the persecution that the former experienced in Makkah. They became an autonomous community regulated by Quranic revelations and had entered into pacts or covenants with the Jewish tribes to ensure relative peace. However, those tribes became increasingly antagonistic, and the Quraysh became more hostile with the prospect of war looming. It was under these circumstances that the Surah was revealed. (taken from ‘Divine Speech’ by Nouman Ali Khan and Sharif Randhawa)

Other general traits of this Surah include the fact that this is the longest Surah in the Quran and has the longest Ayat in the Quran (Ayat 282 which talks about debt and contracts, arguably describing a lawyer’s [scribe] work). It also contains Ayatul Kursi (The Ayat of the Throne), one of the most oft-recited ayat in the Quran and had been called the greatest Ayat in the Quran, and according to many hadeeth, it also acts a solid protection to those who recite it. Following this ayat is “There is no compulsion in Islam…”, an oft-quoted ayat by the more liberal Muslims justifying their various viewpoints (this really needs to be studied in context, especially what came before and what comes after). In the middle of the Surah (ayat 143 of 286), “And thus have We willed you to be a community of the middle way…”, one of the structural coherence of the verse. Ibn Kathir had remarked that the most fearful ayat in the Quran in ayat 279, but I will also quote 278 for context: “(278) O you who have attained faith! Remain conscious of God, and give up all outstanding gains from usury, if you are [truly] believers; (279) for if you do it not, know that you are at war with God and His Apostle. But if you repent, then you shall be entitled to [the return of] your principal; you will do no wrong, and neither will you be wronged.” The Surah ends with two ayat that were revealed during the Isra and Miraj, which includes one part that is of great solace to those who are burdened: “(286) God does not burden any human being with more than he is well able to bear…”. Lastly, in ayat 152, Allah says: “So remember Me, and I shall remember you; and be grateful unto Me, and deny Me not”. [Quran translations are taken from Muhammad Asad’s ‘The Message of the Quran’]

It is hoped that this post would serve as a little taster of what Surah Al-Baqarah offers, and piques your interest to know it better. May we know more of the Quran by the time Ramadhan ends than what we knew before, Ameen!



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.