Exactly What is The Quran?
The Quran is the literal, spoken Word of Allah revealed to the last Prophet Muhammad through Gabriel, the Angel of Revelation, transmitted to us by numerous channels, both verbally and in written form. Inimitable and unique, it is divinely protected from corruption. God says:
'Indeed, it is We who sent down the message [i.e., The Qur'an] and indeed, We will be its guardian.' (Quran 15:9)
The Basics: The first thing for a beginner to understand about the Quran is its form. The Arabic word, 'Quran,' literally means both 'recitation' and 'reading'. Similarly, the Quran was both recited orally and written down in book form. The true power of the Quran remains in the oral recitation, as it is meant to be read aloud and melodiously, but still the verses were written down on available materials as an aid to memorizing and guarding it, and these were collected and arranged in book form both privately and, at a later stage, institutionally. The Quran was not meant to tell a chronological story, and thus, the Quran should not be viewed as a sequential narrative like the book of Genesis.
The Quran often repeats certain verses and themes, shifting topics between them, and often relates narratives in summarized form. We can see two reasons for this. First, it serves a linguistic purpose and is one of the powerful rhetorical techniques of classical Arabic. Second, all themes of the Quran, no matter how varied, are wrapped around one common thread running through the entire book: there is no true god but Allah, and Muhammad is His messenger. The Quran, unlike the Bible, is not concerned with genealogies, chronological events, or minute historical details, many of which don't suit an oral discourse. The purpose is to use events, from past and present, to illustrate this central message. So when the Quran is discussing the healing properties of honey or the life of Jesus, neither topic is an end in itself, but each is related in one way or another to the central message – the Oneness of God and unity of the prophetic message.
Another important point to keep in mind is that the Quran was not revealed in one sitting, but rather it was revealed in parts over a span of 23 years. Many passages were in response to specific events. Often, Quranic revelation would come from the angel Gabriel (peace be upon him) to Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) as a response to questions raised by unbelievers. The Quran addresses these unbelievers, the People of the Scripture (a term used by the Quran for Jews and Christians), humanity at large, believers, and, finally, the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) himself - commanding him what to do in a certain situation or solacing him in the face of ridicule and rejection. Knowing the historical and social context of revelation clarifies the meanings contained in the text itself.
How is The Quran Organized?
The Quran is composed of 114 parts or chapters of unequal length. Each chapter is called a surah in Arabic and each sentence or phrase of the Quran is called an aayah, literally 'a sign.' Like the Bible, the Quran is divided into discrete units, referred to as 'verses' in English. These verses are not standard in length and where each begins and ends was not decided by human beings, but dictated by God. Each one is a discrete act of locution of closed signification, or 'sign', denoted by the word aayah in Arabic. All surahs, except one, begin with Bimillah hir-Rahman nir-Rahim, 'I begin with the Name of Allah, the Most-Merciful, the Compassionate.' Each Surah has a name that usually relates to a central theme within it. For example, the longest surah, Surah al-Baqara, or "The Cow", is named after the story of Moses (peace be upon him)commanding the Jews to offer a sacrifice of a cow, which begins by God saying:
"And remember Moses said to his people: 'Allah commands that you sacrifice a cow.'" (Quran 2:67)
Since the various chapters are of various lengths, the Quran was divided by scholars of the first century after the death of the Prophet into thirty roughly equal parts, each part is called a juz' in Arabic. This division of the Quran was done in order for people to memorize or read it in a more organized fashion, and it has no influence on the original structure, as they are mere marks on the sides of the pages denoting the part. In the month of fasting, Ramadan, one juz' is usually recited every night, and the entire Quran is completed by the end of the month.
Style of the Quran:
What topics does the Quran discuss? It covers various subjects. Most importantly, it talks about the Oneness of Allah and how to live a life pleasing to Him. Other topics include religious doctrine, creation, criminal and civil law, Judaism, Christianity and polytheism, social values, morality, history, stories of past prophets, and science. The most important features of Quran's style in discussing these themes are:
(1) The use of parables to stir curiosity of the reader and explain deep truths.
(2) More than two hundred passages begin with the Arabic word Qul - 'Say' - addressing Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) to say what follows in reply to a question, to explain a matter of faith, or to announce a legal ruling. For example:
"Say: 'O People of the Scripture! Do you disapprove of us for no other reason than that we believe in Allah, and the revelation that has come to us and that which came before (us), and because most of you are rebellious and disobedient?'" (Quran 2:59)
(3) In some passages of the Quran, Allah takes oaths by His marvelous creation, both to strengthen an argument or to dispel doubts in the mind of the listener:
"By the sun and its brightness,
By the moon when it follows it,
By the day when it displays it,
By the night when it covers it,
By the sky and He who constructed it,
By the earth and He who spread it,
By the soul and He who proportioned it..." (Quran 91:1-7)
Sometimes Allah takes an oath by Himself:
"But no, by your Lord, they will not (truly) believe until they make you, (O Muhammad), judge concerning that over which they dispute among themselves, and then find within themselves no discomfort from what you have judged and submit in (full, willing) submission." (Quran 4:65)
(4) Lastly, the Quran has what is called 'the disjointed letters,' composed of letters of the Arabic alphabet which, if taken together, do not have a known meaning in the Arabic lexicon. This was one of the ways that Allah challenged the Arabs, who were the most eloquent of people in speech, to bring forth something to the Quran, which consisted of the likes of these disjointed letters. They appear at the beginning of twenty nine surahs. For example, the first aayah of Surat ul-Baqara appears in different translations as:
Yusuf Ali: A.L.M.
Pickthal: Alif. Lam. Mim.
Muhsin Khan: Alif-Lam-Mim.
Translations of Quran
A beginner should know a few points about Quran translations
First, there is a distinction between the Quran and its translation. In Christian view, the Bible is the Bible, no matter what language it may be in.But a translation of the Quran is not the word of Allah, for the Quran is the exact Arabic words spoken by God, revealed to Prophet Muhammad through Gabriel. The word of God is only the Arabic Quran as Allah says:
"Indeed, I revealed it as an Arabic Quran." (Quran 12:2)
A translation is simply an explanation of the meanings of the Quran. The translated text loses the inimitable quality of the original so be aware of the degree to which a translation reflects the original message at every level of meaning, and that it will probably not match it. For this reason, all which is regarded as recitation of the Quran is to be done in Arabic, such as the recitation of the Quran in Salah.
Second, there is no perfect translation of the Quran and being human works, each almost always has errors. Some translations are better in their linguistic quality, while others are noted for their exactness in portraying the meaning. Many inaccurate, and sometimes misleading, translations that are generally not accepted as reliable renditions of the Quran by mainstream Muslims are sold in the market.
Third, while a review of all the English translations is out of the scope of this article, some translations are recommended over others. The most widely read English translation is by Abdullah Yusuf 'Ali, followed by that of Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall, the first translation by an English Muslim. Yusuf 'Ali's translation is generally acceptable, but his footnote commentary, useful at times, can be odd and unacceptable. Pickthall, on the other hand, has no footnotes or commentary and that makes it difficult for a beginner. The language of both tends to be archaic and difficult to understand for some people. Another widespread translation is done by Dr. Hilali and Muhsin Khan called 'Interpretation of the Meaning of The Noble Quran.' Although it is the most accurate, the many transliterated Arabic terms and endless parentheses makes it hard to follow and confusing for a beginner. A newer version with more flowing text has been published by Saheeh International, and this is probably the best translation yet, as it combines both exactness in translation and readability.
Exegesis (Tafseer in Arabic)
Although the meanings of the Quran are easy and clear to understand, one must be careful to make assertions about the religion without relying on an authentic commentary. Not only did Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) bring the Quran, he also explained it to his companions, and these sayings have been collected and preserved till this day. Allah, the Exalted, says:
"And We have sent down to you (O Muhammad) the message that you may explain clearly to men what is sent for them." (Quran 16:44)
In order to understand some of the deeper meanings of the Quran, one should rely upon commentaries which mention these statements of the Prophet as well as his companions, and not upon what they understand from the text, as their understanding of it is limited to their prior knowledge.
A specific methodology exists for exegesis of the Quran in order to extract the proper meaning. The Quranic sciences, as they are called, are an extremely specialized field of Islamic scholarship which requires mastery in multiple disciplines, like exegesis, recitations, script, inimitability, circumstances behind revelation, abrogation, Quranic grammar, unusual terms, jurisprudential rulings, and Arabic language and literature. A person new to the exploration of Quran should approach it with humility.
According to scholars of tafseer, the proper method of explaining the verses of Quran are:
(i) Tafseer of the Quran by Quran.
(ii) Tafseer of the Quran by the Sunnah of the Prophet.
(iii) Tafseer of the Quran by the statements of the Companions.
(iv) Tafseer of the Quran by Arabic language.
(v) Tafseer of the Quran by scholarly opinion if it does not contradict the above four sources.
a word of advise to the beginner: keep notes, write down what questions arise during your reading, and turn to those who have proper knowledge about the religion and accept their explanation if it is based on evidence.
Every Muslim should make a habit to read the Quran on a regular basis, as the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said:
"Recite the Quran, for it will come as an advocate for its companion on the Day of Resurrection." (Saheeh Muslim)
For a new Muslim, it is especially important to read a good Quran translation to keep him firm in faith, to grow spiritually, and to receive guidance from the Quran. The concern should not be to finish the complete translation as quickly as possible, but rather to understand and ponder over its meaning. Read as much as you are able, even if it be a little, but do it regularly.
How Should I Approach The Quran?
(1) Read Quran with Proper Intention
In order to be guided by the Quran and to receive reward, a Muslim must read it solely for the sake of Allah's pleasure – to be guided by the Quran. First, it should not be to win praise of people. Second, it should be a sincere reading to find and follow the truth,
(2) Choose Good Time and Place, Read Attentively, and Ponder
The Quran must be read with a clear mind and in a proper setting. Choose the best time to read the Quran. One which is conducive to contemplation. Allah says in the Quran:
"Indeed, in this [Quran] is a reminder for those who have a heart or give ear while they are heedful." (Quran 50:37)
First, a person must have a receptacle ready to receive the message – the 'heart.' If this receptacle is not open to the message, it will not 'receive' anything even if the lips move. Second, 'give ear' is one who listens intently, trying to comprehend what is being said. Third, 'heedful' means that his heart is present and in tune with what is being said. If all conditions are present, the person will benefit from the Quran and it will guide him. It must be kept in mind that pondering in itself is not the goal; it is a means to apply the teachings of the Quran in one's life.
(3) Let the Quran Decide True and False
Allow the Quran to guide you. Let it show you the straight path. Approach it with an open mind. If a person has their mind already made up, they will look to the Quran to find support for their views, and the Quran will never guide them, for it never had the opportunity. A new Muslim needs to change their views and attitudes according to the Quran, not to interpret it to suit one's preconceived notions. Approach with humility, consciously setting aside what you have been inculcated with from your culture and traditions, taking on the new text as something fresh and new. Allow it to lead you, rather than try and mould it to your previously learned patterns of belief.
(4) Realize Everything in Quran is True
"And whose word can be truer than Allah's." (Quran 4:87)
Whatever the subject, Allah says the truth. Whether it is related to the Unseen World, life after death, history, natural law, sociology, or anything else, it all comes from our Lord. Sometimes a person may read something and feel that it is contrary to what occurs around him. In such a case, the beginner should realize that they either misunderstood what the Quran is saying, requiring them to seek a better understanding, or that their perception of what they are reading is skewed by their upbringing. It is essential for a new believer not to doubt a verse due to their lack of comprehension, and be confident of their religion and its truth. Grow with the Quran, seek the explanation from genuine Islamic scholars, the men and women of learning, and consult recognized commentaries (tafseer) such as that of ibn Katheer..
(5) The Quran Addresses You
Realize the Quran has been revealed for you. Allah is talking to you directly. The Quran was not just revealed for Prophet Muhammad and his companions, but rather for every person till Judgment Day. It is the word of the Ever-Living God, eternally valid, and addresses people of all times. When Allah issues a command, it is addressed to you. It is your personal guide, a healing for the diseases of your soul. Every single passage has a message for you. Every attribute of Allah asks you to build a corresponding relationship. Every description of life after death asks you to prepare for it. Every description of Paradise encourages you to aspire for it, every description of Hell impels you to seek protection from it. Every character is a model to either emulate or avoid. Every dialogue involves you. Every legal injunction, even if inapplicable to your situation, has some message for you. This realization will keep your heart awake. The famous companion, Abdullah bin Masood, said:
"When it says, 'O you who believe...,' you must listen closely, as it is either ordering you to what is good for you or prohibiting you what is bad for you."
(6) Release the Text from Constraints of Time and Space
The Quran is a living text with relevance to modern life. Without doubt many verses in the Quran have a historical context; they refer to certain people or a specific incident. The historical context is important to understand some verses correctly. But the examples and moral lessons are relevant to our lives and provide guidance for our own time and context. The realization will make the person realize that even though the Quran is talking about an ancient nation, its moral lessons apply to current events.