Qur'an Studies - Lesson 2
LESSON 2: THE CONSTRUCTION OF THE QUR’AN
To consult the Book of Allah get its meanings we need to know about its construction. By construction we mean two things: its formal buildup from letters, verses and chapters the relations between the verses like which explains or replaces which and under what circumstances and to what extent. Lastly how to locate subjects and verses in the Qur’an is a skill serious students must gain.
THE FIRST ISSUE: The Qur’an aws written in a primitive form of the Arabic alphabet which only literate Arabs could read. Not only it did not contain any real wovels except alif (a) and two semi-wovels (y) and (w) but even many wovel characters were so similar that they could be confused. To understand how this could happen we can take the English capital letter for ‘I’ and small letter ‘l’. Aren’t they too close? Arabic had several like them. For example Kaf (q) and Fa (f) are formed the same way- a small loop followed by a tail. The letters ‘Ain’ and ‘Ghain’ also written as a loop when in the middle position in a word and not too different from Kaf and Fa. ‘Ba’, ‘Ta’, ‘Tha’ constituted another group as ‘Jim’, ‘Ha’ and ‘Kha’ did, which again were confusable. So as soon as Islam spread among non-Arabs and the danger of mis-pronunciation arose Arab Qur’anists introduced small signs like single and double dots above or under confusable letters as well as short horizontal and vertical lines and other tiny signs to indicate which vowels would come between consonants. These signs are called ‘diacritical marks’. From these letters words were constructed which in their turn built up the ‘aayaat’ (singular ’ayah’) or verses which were then numbered. The verses built up ‘surahs’ (plural ‘suwar’) whose length varied greatly. For example while the second sura ‘al Baqara’ has 286 verses, many of them long, make up one twelfth of the whole Qu’ran 112th sura ‘al Ikhlas’ has only for very short verses. But miraculously enough each sura gives an impression of equal worth irrespective of its size! In other words reciting the Ikhlas gives the same feeling of completeness and satiety as the Baqara.
During the Prophet’s term of reception of the Qur’an (23 years) literate companions used to write down the Revelations which the Prophet sws uttered in his prophetic trance. Because when and where the next instalment of Revelation was coming nobody had any clue such scribes wrote down their texts on any surface that came to hand, like leather, flat white stones, camel’s shoulder bones, parchment and dry palm leaves. Additionally all other recipients MEMORIZED them. Because the Prophet sws read to them parts of the Qur’an regularly, especially during the salats the companions learned and memorized the ayahs as well as the suras they made up in toto which enabled them to retain the Qur’an in the order we have it today. As well known, memorization of a length of text is possible only when the words follow each other the same way. Any capricious alteration of word sequence destroys the chance of memorization. Which means, taking the very short sura al Fatiha (No.1) the seven verses need be sequenced only one way in order to make memorization possible, like the ‘Alhamdulillahi rabbil alameen being always the second and ‘ghairil maghdubi alaihim wa laddaaleen’ the seventh and the last. So we may be sure that even the longest sura al Baqara has been the same text since the Prophet sws recited it in its entirety from which the sahaba memorized. Any disturbance of the verse order during repeat recitals would otherwise blow up the whole memorization attempt. But the compilation of the entire Qur’an in a single volume had to wait Abu Bakr’s RA orders (about a year after the Prophet’s sws death). The occasion was that in the battles of Apostasy (i.e., some outlying tribes’ using the opportunity of the Prophet’s sws death to either decline paying zakat or alternatively following local false prophets like Musailima) many of the memorizers of the Qur’an among the Muslim troops who fought against the apostates had fallen and it was high time the ruler, Abu Bakr RA, took action to collect and compile the whole Qur’an into a master volume before more memorizers died. The suggestion had come from Umar RA, that especially blessed high companion of the Messenger of Allah, who, despite his few failings as a mortal, had proven himself as perhaps the most inspired companion of the Prophet sws as regards anticipating Divine Revelations on several occasions. He and Abu Bakr RA then chose Zayd b. Thabit RA, a young companion, a memorizer himself and one of the senior secretaries of the Messenger of Allah sws having written a lot of Revelations coming to the Prophet sws. All sahaba were asked to turn up with every piece of written evidence on the Revealed verses and scrolls, parchments, palm leaves, shoulder bones etc began to be turned in to the committee headed by Zaid RA. Taking the universally memorized whole text as a basis the evidence was weighed, arranged and any orthographic, spelling etc. errors and divergencies debated and resolved. For, as already explained, the primitive alphabet made it possible to misread some words and misconstrue some verses on the part of the less intelligent sahaba or those among them who had less opportunity to learn from the Prophet’s sws own recitation and renderings. But having on board Zaid RA himself as well as great authorities like Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, Ali, Abdullah b. Mas’ud etc (RA all) MISTAKES WERE IMPOSSIBLE TO MAKE. After the task was completed the master text was consigned to the safekeeping of Hafsa b. Umar b. Khattab, wife of the Prophet sws and mother of Muslims. Still not only plenty of memorizers survived into both Umar’s RA and his successor Uthman’s khilafat (caliphate) but they kept training thousands of new memorizers. So further action seemed unnecessary. It had to wait the khilafat of Uthman for the next step. During his khilafat the Arab conquerors and rulers of the conquered provinces began to be increasingly replaced by non-Arab converts and second and third generation non-Arab Muslims whose command of Arabic could not be as good. As a result wrong recitals and misconstruings of the meanings became a serious danger. Accordingly, Uthman reconvened the Qur’anic redaction committee replacing the deceased members with new ones and they sent for the master text kept by Hafsa RA. They compiled many copies of it and send one to each provincial governor one to be used the authoritative text with the orders to weed out and destroy all errant alternatives. Given the extreme awe in which the Qur’an was held by all Muslims the establishing of the authoritative text proved easy and almost automatic, any deviants failing to hold out long.
THE ISSUE OF DISPUTED AND ABROGATED VERSES
The Revelation from Allah did not come like a stone falling from heaven out of the blue but as a ‘natural’ response from the Heaven to the needs on earth. Whatever problems or questions pressed the Prophet sws or Muslims or whatever challenges they met from the opposition eventually ‘provoked’ a rescuing response from the Heaven. This is one singular feature of the Qur’an both its original pagan audience and Judeo-Christian opponents persistently misconstrued. The question was in fact put the the Prophet sws himself and true to the method Allah answered on his behalf: “Said the unbelievers ‘Had not the Qur’an to be sent down all in one piece?’. We have sent it down as we did in order that We consolidate thy heart (in view of situations developing around thee). We have recited it out to thee instalment by instalment” (25: 32). It is especially very unjust and unwise of Jews and Christians to ask such a question in view of the fact that both the Old and New Testaments record the same situation-based responses to their prophets from Heaven. Isaiahs and Jeremiahs did not preach from ready made wholes of Revelations but in market places and in the throne rooms of their kings as the situations demanded, variously warning, threatening and prophesying in the face of an audience and on behalf of the ‘Lord of the Hosts’. The whole career of Jesus AS as told in the Gospels reflects the same mode of revelation. He just responded to his audiences needs, questions and challenges in the name of Heaven with the inspirations from his ‘Father’ to whom he so often so ardently prayed. ONLY such form of Revelation can enable the succeeding generations of believers to correctly assess and interpret each piece of Revelation as only Muslims did. We see this power in action in the matter of what seems to be more than one judgment on the same issues in the Qur’an. For example, the early surahs commended night vigils in prayer with no reference to our present law of praying five times a day with no obligation for rising and standing up at small hours of the morning. The Almigty and Sublime said: “O ye who lieth in covers! Arise and pray night prayers- half of it or a bit more or a bit less (73: 2-3). Further down we hear “We know that thou and those with you stand to prayer two thirds of the night or half or the third of it and also that a group with you are doing likewise…. Allah knows that you may not be able to keep up…some of you may be ill, some in need of walking the earth daytime looking for a livelihood… read what comes easy to you from the Qur’an (without obligation or anything). Allah knows that among you some will be unwell, some walk the earth pursuing a livelihood and some fighting in Allah’s way…” (73: 20). There is an additional point here. The last sentence was added to this verse in Medina which recognized the fact that in that new safer and more successful environment people needed and had to do more daytime activities which made night vigils in prayer too difficult for many while on the other hand the five times a day prayers were legislated for already. As a result night vigils became ‘nafl’ (voluntary and not obligatory). In the Meccan period it was the very early days of Islam and the few adherents had a mostly clandestine existence hardly in a position to gather openly under the upset and angry gaze of the general public and pray any number of times in congregation. The only occasion for prayer was to be after midnight when all fell asleep and the believer pour out his heart and eyes to the Lord in utter secrecy and privacy. It had to wait a decade when regular, more or less public and congregational prayers to become feasible. So Revelations came to insitute and install them, e.g. “When you attain the safety perform your salat prayers- for believers salat has been made an obligation whose times are defined” (4: 103). Although there are some allusions in the Qur’an both to salat times and its rituals the full description was left to the Messenger of Allah sws who for his part was taught them by Gabriel. Among other things the allusions in the Qur’an relate to times of prayer e.g. “Be regular with your salats and (do not particularly forget the middle prayer (asr)” (2: 238- it was easiest to forget the asr prayer coming so much in the middle of day activities when a break was least desired). We see in all above first the gradual introduction of salat and also an example of abrogation: The night prayers of the Meccan period were abrogated by the introduction of the regular prayers throughout the more sociable hours of the day.
Another example of abrogation is the abrogation of the verse 2:180 by 4: 11, viz.,
It is enjoined on you to make your will known (as regards your assets’ inheritance) when you face death, in favour of your parents and other relations, according to established and reputable (ma’ruf) standards (since olden times i.e. since before Islam- 2:180). This was abrogated by “Allah enjoins you regarding your children: Two shares for male and one for female…” (4: 11) going on to prescribe other shares to go to different numbers and categories of inheritors.
There are a few more cases of abrogation which the student may care to consult fiqh books. The points tried to be made here are two:
First, both the Prophet sws and his audience (and more importantly the believers among them) were new to Divine Revelation and this Revelation HAD TO BE SITUATIONAL IN ORDER TO BE INSTANT AND EFFECTIVE IN SOLVING THE PROBLEMS MET. What is more a knowledge of this situational context would enable the future generations to understand and interpret the Qur’an correctly. A stray statement with no known connection to an event or situation cannot be fully understood and appreciated. Because other scriptures are less known for relating to real events and situations they are more open to arbitrary interpretation and disputes caused by it.
Second, abrogation of rules and laws and their replacement or otherwise by a new laws and rules are part and parcel of social life and evolution. Neither persons’ nor societies’ condition and circumstances can remain fixed and frozen. That is not Allah’s way of running our lives. We are in constant flux and change because we are impermanent, transitory beings in constant evolution towards a Divinely ordained goal. Only Allah is Permanent and Immutable. We can liken our changing needs to a child’s. When newborn, the feeding prescription for it is only mother’s milk. Later comes milk-based soft foods like custards and fruit juices. After six months it can eat other soft and crumbly foods like biscuits… If the baby gets soft stools then it goes back to milk only diet- fruits are especially out. The same with later life, not only as regards nutrition but every activity. The same with social life. At one time governments may encourage use of petrol for transport because it happens to be the source of energy. Electric-driven trams are gradually replaced by diesel busses. Then number of vehicles increases so much and petrol prices climb so high that for both environmental and economic reasons buses and cars are discouraged by high charges on them while electric-driven vehicles are encouraged and in some cases even imposed. Although human and secular-looking all changes are from Allah when we look at them in an ultimate sense. Divine Revelation which is the Ultimate in being the most Direct from God should be no less wisely flexible. We have the authority for such flexibility from Allah Himself Who said: “Whichever Revealed verse We abrogate or make forgotten We bring one better than it or an equivalent. Don’t thou knowest that Allah hath power over everything” (2: 106). Examples of abrogation we have already seen above. What about ‘a Revealed verse’ Allah caused to be forgotten? Forgotten perhaps also in the sense of being incorporated into the Qur’an. One example may be the hadith in which our master Umar RA is reported to have said “ People say ‘the stoning to death of the adulterer is not in the Qur’an’. But there used to be and we used to recite ‘married adulterer and adulteress, stone them to death’. And Umar RA and those after him stuck to the penal practice. But don’t we need an explanation or should not we see some wisdom in the forgetting of this verse’s inclusion in the final text of the Qur’an (if the Umar hadith was genuine to start with, because no scholar claims that all hadiths are as reliable as the verses of the Qur’an but some doubt and at times outright forgery is the case- please wait for our Hadith course). In the abrogation verse 2: 106 above we have Allah’s own admission that He may cause us to forget some verses and His statement that He may replace such omissions with better alternatives. Which may mean in the case in question that stoning to death (rajm) is not meant either for strict or permanent application. As for the lack of stricture in its application we have the Prophet’s own practice of trying to dissuade some confessors to adultery to keep it secret, repent and hope for Allah’s forgiveness (which hope being based on the Prophet’s advice must certainly be realized) or withdraw the confession (which means even lying about one’s private sins to prevent retribution is legitimate: but note the quality of private, between you and Allah Who kindly did not expose you). He obviously greatly disliked for lapsing men and women to be punished in so barbarous way. It is on record that in the one case when a woman insisted on being stoned against the Prophet’s advice and in another when a male thief was inflicted the amputation penalty the Prophet was greatly shaken and in the latter case criticized those who did not turn a blind eye to the thief’s act and settle the matter as if it was only a mistake. Very reluctantly he went along with the punishments and in the case of the woman he proclaimed her as so pure a soul at death that hosts of angels had joined her funeral prayers. He was obviously bending to the savage mentality of the times with a turned stomach. That should be enough for us to avoid such harsh punishments when the whole humanity is flowing towards more compassion and leniency in general which compassion and leniency can only be inspired by the Messenger of Allah’s about whom He Almighty said “WE HAVE NOT SENT THEE BUT AS AN EXAMPLE OF LOVING-MERCY FOR ALL CREATION” (21: 107). This famous and glorious verse is generally not appreciated enough. The usual interpretation is that the Prophet sws was sent to us because Allah wanted to show mercy to us. Or more sufistically the Prophet sws himself was the mercy sent. Both are true of course. But an even deeper and by far MORE PRACTICAL AND USEFUL interpretation may be added: It is that Allah swt sent His messenger sws to inculcate IN OUR HEARTS MERCY TOWARDS EACH OTHER. Because this best part of the interpretation is the least understood and implemented Muslims in general have been anything but merciful towards each other since the second half of the Rightly-guided Khalifas (khulafa al rashideen) era. It appears that most Muslims felt free to inflict pain on their Muslim fellows and especially rivals in worldly matters without mercy and then expect the mercy of Allah for themselves so that they are not punished for their cruelties in the world to come. This can’t be because Allah does not forgive the infringements of human rights unless the victims themselves do so. Again both the Prophet sws and our master Ali RA are on record for attempting to prevent the hand-chopping of a thief on compassionate grounds but WITHOUT SUCCESS- for neither the thief nor the victims were used to regard human lapses compassionately. They really were barbaric times and a lot of time was needed for the ethos to disperse and be replaced by more humane understanding. People were simply too habituated to death and mutilation from many causes (most children did not survive to puberty due to death from simplest illnesses about which parents knew no useful cure), arguments ended in violence and robbing and killing the stranger was regarded almost normal thanks to the tribal ethos. We see a lot of the same in today’s Muslim countries and even in their supposedly well-educated platforms, like a parliament when there is one. We see the same in our films which often are mixtures of thick tragedy and extreme meanness of character and hellish violence embedded in black-and-white shallow and simplistic plots smacking of psychological naivety and infantilism. Themes of treachery and terrible revenge are so persistent and popular in Muslim films that we are left no alternative but the admitting the fact that our ethos and real values (as against religiously professed or alleged) hardly changed since the Days of Ignorance. That may be why some of us still lust after barbarous punishments and dread their phasing out. They forget that even plain, deliberate murder is subject to forgiveness by the next-of-kin of the victim who may not only waive their right to retaliation and accept blood-money instead but may also waive that- all this is in the Qur’an. Therefore the Western abolition of harsh punishments for anything IS in the spirit of better Islam (and indirectly at least creditable to the Prophet sws) while some Muslims’ addiction to severity isn’t. All the same, these addicts also need understanding. The present spiritual backwardness of the larger part of Muslim populaces sadly projects and attracts harshness and relaxation may only provoke more licence for savagery. Apparently the issue is one of better and more universal education among the masses and pending that some barbarity is inevitable.
The last but not the least to be said about the matter of abrogating (naseekh) and abrogated (mansookh) verses is that, the operation being based on changing of the circumstances, we have the permission to change our response to changed circumstances whatever the matter. For example, in the Meccan period of Islam Allah advised patience with Islam’s persecutors because had Muslims resorted to violence the unbelieving majority’s violent response could crush them. But once in Medina and greatly improved safety the permission to fight back came: “For those who have been fought against (Muslims for so long) permission is now given to fight back, because they have been oppressed. Allah is able to help them to victory (22: 39). This verse came after the companions came to the Prophet for permission to fight back in the face of oppression against them continuing. For a long while he had held them back from returning violence with violence. He was in fact waiting for Allah and saying “we are not yet given permission to fight back”. But does not this change mean that if and when Muslims find themselves at impossible disadvantage against their enemies they have to revert back to the Meccan era policies of patience and non-violence? It sure does. In fact this abrogation business can be regarded as a special form of the general rule of Islam that mortal emergencies cause a haram to be regarded as halal until the danger is past? If one’s life, property and honor is in danger of being forfeited he or she can do anything to save himself or herself. For example, if facing starvation pork and wine may be taken, if persecuted for being a Muslim the faith may be hidden or if found out, then falsely recanted. Which bring us to the more than foolish attitude of certain Muslim groups insistence on resorting to violence, especially indiscriminate violence and even suicidal attacks against their enemies with no regard for either the outcome or the rights of fellow uninvolved Muslims who may be similarly targeted by the enemy. This falsely glorious and heroic mad practice cannot be traced to the Prophet sws who was very responsible and realistic in his war strategies but to the infamous Kharijite fanatics who would not even allow an ALI to oppose them and survive (Radiallahu anhu wa karram Allahu wajhahu- Allah is pleased with him and made his face shine with grace in both worlds) let alone lesser Muslims, let alone non-Muslims! This entirely non-prophetic desperate spirit of sheer violence can only be inspired by that epitome of supreme desperation Iblis who is an expert to assume any guise, including Islamic piety and heroism. What do you want, Iblis HAD ACCUSED ALLAH OF IMPIETY (‘bima aghwaytani’- because Thou hast confounded me) ON ACCOUNT OF PASSING HIM OVER FOR PROMOTION AND INSTEAD PROMOTING ADAM to whom then all angels paid obeisance. When challenged by the Almighty he refused to back down and instead vowed to fight against Allah which fight he had no chance of winning. Against this angry desperation with Allah’s measures we find His Messenger sws judiciously climbing down against the Quraish at Hudabia and lifting the siege of Taif when Muslim casualties mounted. In both cases his wise and realistic strategies paid off handsomely- Mecca was conquered without a fight and Taif surrendered on its own will. All in all, adapting our behavior and policies to pressing circumstances IS part of the Shariah and there is no limit to such flexibility except the outright and willing abandonment of iman and Islam. And no doubt Allah will not press His believers so hard but will send help to certain rescue no matter what the odds.
THE EXEGESIS AND THE TRUE EXPLANATION OF THE QUR’AN (TAFSEER AND TA’WEEL)
However intelligent and generally knowledgeable a reader may be a text with a subject outside his speciality will present him with many difficulties of understanding and interpretation. This is more the case with Holy Scriptures which not only refer to many arcane or mysterious matters outside common experience but also narrate events and prescribe rules whose context we often don’t know. In fact a text need not be a Holy Scripture to present such difficulties. Suppose that we find and happen to read out of curiosity a very old latter written by one friend to another in which the writer refers to many events and issues about which only him and his respondent were familiar with, like ‘the hut outside the town’ or ‘the rivalry between the headman of the village and that of another’. Also some words and phrases may be used in this letter with which mean little to us. We accordingly can be able to form some idea what the letter is referring to but for a full understanding we need to carry out research. We may visit the village in question, talk to those who survived from those days etc. In the case of the Qur’an this was what was exactly done by the commentators on the Qur’an whose extant works date from the second century of Islam at the earliest. This does not mean that no commentaries were not produced earlier. They were but have been lost to us- but certainly not to the authors of the extant early commentaries, like Imam Tabari.
Although any written works did not come down to us from them, several sahaba of the Prophet sws are well-known exegetes from whom the next generation of Muslims learned about exegesis. Among them Ali b. Abi Talib, Abdullah b. Abbas, Abdullah b. Mas’ud and Ubayy b. Ka’b (R. anhum) mentioned. In the next generation and the next (taba’een and taba’e taba’een) we find the likes of Mujahid, Sa’ed b. Jubair, Ikrimah, Ta’woos, Ata b. Rabah etc. Hasan Basri and Qatada are also important as are Zaid b. Aslam, Alqama and Urwa b. Zubair. And many more over the generations until we come to the universally acclaimed and followed exegetes (mufassireen) like Tabari, Ibn Katheer, al Qurtubi, Baidhawi, Jalalain (two Jalaluddins master and pupil who is the more famous and whose fuller name is Imam Jalaluddin as Suyuti). Still later exegetes are the likes of the celebrated Ottoman sheikh ul Islam Abussuud effendi (16 C.) and Muhammad Alusi (13 C).
If we take one of the earliest of the great tafseers we do well with the ibn Jarir Tabari’s. In it the imam quotes extensively from both sahaba like Ibn Abbas RA and taba’en like Mujahid (21- 103 AH) and Sa’id b. Jubayr (d.94 AH) and Ikrima (d.?) who were pupils of Ibn Abbas RA and from taba’e taba’en like Ta’wus (d.105 AH), Ibn Sirin (d.105 AH) and Qatada (d.118 AH). Later imams then quoted from Tabari and the famous tafseer of Ibn Kathir (d.747 AH) consisted of almost a summary of Tabari’s.
BASES OF TAFSEER have been:
(1) One part of the Qur’an explaining another. Example: “Guide us on to the Right Path, the Path of those ‘Thou hast favored’(1: 6-7) makes us wonder who are those blessed servants. Well, “They are with those whom Allah favored, the prophets (nabiyyina), the truthful (siddiqina), the witnesses (of the truth, martyrs, ‘shuhada’) and the good (salihin) (4: 69)”.
(2) Hadith (including word of sahaba) explaining the Qur’an. Example 1: The verse “No soul knows what is in store for them (the extra pious) as reward for what they have been doing” (32: 17). According to Bukhari reporting from Abu Huaraia RA the Prophet explained “Allah said: I have prepared for My good servants such things as no eye has ever seen, no ear has ever heard of and no human heart could ever think possible, all that on top of what you have already been told about”
Example 2: Allah said “(O Prophet sws, And at night pray the tahajjud (pre-dawn devotion) and you may hope Allah to raise you to the a Praiseworhty Station (Maqaman Mahmudan)” (17: 79). What is this Station? We find the answer in the Bukhari’s Hadith collection: Reported from Ibn Umar RA “On the Day of Judgment people shall fall on their knees and every nation (ummah) will pursue their prophet saying ‘so and so, please intercede for us’, till the right of intercession is given to the Prophet sws and that is the day when Allah will raise him to the Praiseworthy Station”. Additionally some tabe’en words are accepted as authoritative, especially when quoting from sahaba (more about such in our Course on Hadith).
(3) Arabic Language: No doubt a good knowledge of and further research on the Arabic language could and did shed more light on the meanings of the Qur’an and accordingly all good commentators, most of them good Arabic linguists in their own right and also quoting from other renowned Arabists have clarified many obscure points by analysing some rare Arabic words and expressions occurring in the Qur’an to clarify certain points. For example the word ‘shaghafa’ in the verse No.30 “Qad shaghafaha hubben” in Surat al Yusuf is one such rare word and means the inner membrane of the heart and used in the verb sense meant ‘her heart’s inner membrane was torn’ referring to the wife of the Egyptian wazir falling in love with her man-servant Yusuf AS. Great Arab poets like Imr al Qais were especially appreciated as authorities on the rare and subtle usages of Arabic and quotations from their poems were taken as proof for obscure meanings. For example we find Imam Tabari drawing on them profusely.
(4) Common sense and good understanding and stability of character: All great and acknowledged exegetes (mufassirs) of the Qur’an we named were so qualified. But there have been less good exegetes who have been blamed for anything from poor standards and poor judgment to lying. A lot of unreliable commentary come from the use of what is called ‘Israiliyat’ (Judaica) which cover Judeo-Christian sources from the Bible itself to other religious and historical works (e.g. Talmud) and verbal lore. Unless separately supported by the Qur’an and Hadith such reports need be taken cautiously if at all. Among the tabe’en the jewish convert Ka’b al Ahbar naturally drew on his jewish lore to interpret the Qur’an and add detail to the stories in it some of which have been judged unacceptable.
Now the TA’WIL of the Qur’an. This is sometimes equated with ‘tafseer’ but the Qur’an itself does not seem to support such an identity. Allah Almighty said “Those in whose hearts is a crookedness pursue the metaphorical (in the Qur’an) seeking ‘fitna’ (opportunity for corrupting others) and seeking its TA’WIL. But only Allah knows its TA’WIL. Those who have depth of knowledge say ‘We believe as it is, all is from our Lord (3: 7). Which means however intelligent and inspired, saintly and gifted we are none of us can fully penetrate what is hidden in the words of Allah. Shall we ever be able to know the Ta’wil? Our Lord answered for us “We have brought to them a Book in which is guidance and mercy for a people with faith. They are not waiting for anything but for its TA’WIL. But when its TA’WIL comes (it will be too late then) those who neglected it shall say “Oh, it has been that the messengers of our Lord had indeed brought us the Truth. Are there now any intercessors to intercede for us or can we go back to do things better than we had been doing?” (7: 52-53). Which means the ta’wil (true explanation or deciphering the metaphors of the Qur’an dawns on us after death and not before.
But what about some apparently wonderful sufi insights which for all intents and purposes look like excellent, profoundly illuminating ta’wils? In fact we do not have to come down to Sufis even for such insights. In the interpretation of the verses46-47 of surat al A’raf “Between the two parties (the saved in paradise and the damned in hell) is a veil and there are men on the Heights (A’raf) who, )although knowing everybody from their faces, have not yet themselves entered the paradise but are hopeful. These say to the residents of the paradise ‘peace be on you’. When they are turned their gaze towards the inmates of hell they say ‘our Lord, do not put us with the guilty folk” our master Ali RA is reported to have commented “I am one of those on the Heights” which is taken to mean that his station as a saint was such that he could tell the people of paradise from the people of hell. Which should be accepted as truthful statement since the Messenger of Allah sws said “Beware of the gaze of the (true and accomplished) believer, for he looks with the Light of Allah”. This hadith was quoted by our master Uthman RA who had warned a visitor about his committing an ‘eye-adultery’ on his way to Uthman RA (i.e, looked at a woman lustfully). “How did you know o prince of the faithful?” asked the visitor. “Didn’t you know that the Prophet sws said …. quoting the above hadith. Which means exceptionally good believers may be able to do some valid ta’wil and again that may be explained in the light of the Prophet’s sws advice that “die before you die”, i.e., be like a dead man by abandoning sinful inclinations of your flesh. If one becomes like a dead man as far as sinful inclinations are concerned one may gain insight into the secrets of the Qur’an. It may be like shutting yourself in a house so well that it is as dark as darkest night although it is daytime and night has not fallen yet. This then should be the explanation of some wonderful sufi insights in the Qur’an.
Having said all these one last issue remains. Some fake spiritualists have dared to make false ta’wils using numerological (abjad) or other false analytical methods to draw scandalous and blasphemous conclusions from the Qur’an. Among such impious groups are ‘Batinis’ (false esotericists) and ‘Khurufis’ (doing divination by letters making up words). They have had both delusional and fraudulent motives.
ORTOGRAPHY AND RECITATION OF THE QUR’AN
As already mentioned the original putting to writing of the Revelations were made by using a very primitive alphabet. In the face of the increasing difficulties in pronouncing the Qur’an on the part of non-Arab converts both the quality of the letters and reading facilitators were added. Confusable letters like qaf and fa, ba and ta etc were separated by adding dots. Short vowels which were never written by early Arabs were sunsequently represented by vertical strokes above or below consonants etc. These are called ‘haraka’ or diacritical marks. An additional refinement was necessary to enable the non-Arabs to pronounce the Qur’an as good as educated Arabs. This was solved by founding the science of tajweed. Each letter’s correct pronounciation was defined by describing its places of origin (makhraj) in the speech organs like the tongue, the gums, teeth and throat. Mergings and liaisons between adjacent letters, the length of each vowel in various positions etc were defined. All such practical matters need to be taken up in practical sessions.