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Demystifying the Qur’an – A Simplified Glimpse into Understanding the Qur’an – Part I

What is the Qur’an and the Manner to Read It?

The Qur’an is the definitive sacred text for all Muslims. It was revealed by Allah SWT through the Angel Jibril AS to the Prophet Muhammad SAW in a series of revelations spanning 23 years.

It is not merely a collection of Arabic verses to be ritually memorised and recited. The Qur’an is the encyclopaedia and the map for our lives in this world, containing a wealth of knowledge, wisdom and guidance.

The Qur’an is the only surviving miracle amongst all miracles granted to the Prophets of Allah SWT. It is the final and comprehensive guidance to mankind, in the very words of our Creator. It contains messages to be read, comprehended and applied to all aspects of our lives – physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual.

The best way to understand the Qur’an is to read it in its original Arabic form. However, while some of us are able to recite in Arabic, many Muslims today are not familiar with the Arabic language. This brief guide is to help those who would like to study its meaning by references to the English translations.

Layout of the Qur’an – A Simple Guide

The layout of the Qur’an is unlike any other book on earth, and readers who are unfamiliar with its format might find it difficult to follow at first. Below is a simplified blueprint of the Qur’an and some helpful facts to help you navigate through its structure:

  • The Qur’an is divided into 114 surahs or chapters, which are in turn divided into 30 equal sections (each, a juz).
  • The Qur’an was revealed gradually over 23 years, each revelation being a response to a particular situation or circumstance. Most revelations were not transmitted chapter by chapter, but rather a few verses each time. Hence, most chapters are composed of different revelations which were revealed at different times.
  • The chapters of the Qur’an are not laid out in chronological order according to sequence of revelation. For example, the first revelation is contained in chapter 96 and one of the last verses of the revelation is found in chapter 5.
  • The Qur’an consists a series of messages, lessons, regulations and reminders which are grouped within its chapters. In the beginning, you may find that the topics seemingly shift from one to another abruptly, and this may be disorienting at first.
  • The Qur’an is not like a novel which has a storyline. Instead it contains a wealth of information, signs, prophecies, reminders, scientific facts, historical accounts, rules and injunctions. Unlike a novel, the Qur’an is sparing in details, and only elaborates where necessary.
  • The Qur’an is unlike a storybook where a plotline continues from the previous chapter, or a textbook where one has to master a chapter first before progressing to the next. The chapters, and indeed most verses of the Qur’an can be read independently of each other.
  • All copies of the Qur’an in the world are identical, sequentially, verse for verse, word for word and letter for letter. A Qur’an in Indonesia will be exactly the same as the one you will find in Saudi Arabia, the United States and India, without a single deviation to layout or content. However, the translations differ, as Arabic is a complex and unique language, rendering perfect translation into other languages impossible.
  • The Qur’an has been unchanged from the time it was first revealed, and Allah SWT has guaranteed that it will remain unchanged until the end of time. It contains no errors and is absolutely perfect from literary, historical, factual, scientific and even mathematical point of view.

Mecca v Madinah Verses

The format of the Qur’an as it exists today was transcribed after the death of the Prophet SAW. Prior to that, the revelations were recorded on various materials – leaf, paper, and even bone. The sequence of arrangement as exists in the Qur’an today was instructed by the Angel Jibril AS towards the end of the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad SAW, but it was only after his death that it was physically compiled by a team of learned Companions who had committed the Qur’an, including its hard copy sequence, to memory.

The wisdom of Allah in the current Qur’anic format cannot be summarized in this article. Briefly however, the first third deals with the detailed constitution between man and his surroundings, the second third goes into these ideas in greater detail and examples, while the last third summarises the entire message of Islam in short and succinct verses. Therefore, in its current layout, the first few chapters of the Qur’an are lengthy and complex, and someone trying to grasp its contents by reading it in this order is likely to find it challenging.

A simpler approach would be to divide the Qur’an into the Mecca and the Madinah verses:

  • The Qur’an was first revealed while the Prophet SAW was living in Mecca, and he remained in Mecca for the first thirteen years of the revelations. The revelations during this time are known as the Mecca verses.
  • The rest of the Qur’an was revealed after the Prophet’s SAW migration to Madinah, and these revelations continued for the next ten years until his death. The revelations during this time are known as the Madinah verses (although technically some of the last verses were revealed in Mecca after its conquest).
  • The Mecca and the Madinah verses are not laid out in sequential order within the Qur’an, and does not follow the sequence of revelation.
  • The Mecca verses cover roughly 2/3 of the Qur’an. They describe the essence of Islamic faith and the oneness of the Creator. Through these verses, the reader is introduced to Allah SWT and His Attributes, often with references and invitations for the reader to ponder and contemplate on the creation of Allah SWT i.e. the universe and all it contains.
  • The Mecca verses also introduce the reader to the other Islamic pillars of faith, much of them comprising the belief in the unseen, such as paradise and hellfire, the angels, the jinns, and the day of judgment.
  • A large portion of the Mecca verses also describe the mission of the previous Prophets in spreading the message of Allah and people of the past.
  • The messages within the Mecca verses are repetitive and cover the same stories, messages and points but from different angles. The repetition heightens the call to believe in the oneness of the Creator, and it sets out in clear terms the choices available to mankind in terms of faith and behaviour, and the consequences of such choices.
  • The Mecca verses do not set out detailed regulations and rules (halal or haram), but rather contain messages which can instill faith in the hearts of the readers.
  • Generally, the Mecca verses tend to be shorter in length and simpler in sentence structure compared to the Madinah verses.
  • The Madinah verses are contained in the balance 1/3 of the Qur’an. These verses deal with detailed rules, regulations and injunctions that a believing Muslim should implement in his life and in society.
  • The Madinah verses complete the message that Islam is not merely a set of worship and beliefs, but is also a complete way of life.

Where Should I Start?

It really depends on what your intention is.

If your intention is to learn how to recite the Qur’an properly, it is best to do so with the help of a tutor in order to ensure that your pronunciation (or tajweed) is correct. If this is the case, your tutor will likely start in the final chapter of the Qur’an, where the verses (mostly Mecca verses) are comparatively brief and easy to recite.

However, although reciting the Qur’an is meritorious and is a form of worship for which you will be rewarded, the true benefit of reading the Qur’an comes from comprehending and living its message. The best way is to do this to seek the correct knowledge from a learned teacher. This guide is intended for those who do not have the resources to do so.

Therefore, start by looking for a reliable translation of the Qur’an in the language you are comfortable with. There are several reputable English translations in the market, the most famous ones being Yusuf Ali, Mohsin Khan and Sahih International. All of these versions are popularly used and are available for free online at http://quran.com.

In their hardcopy format, the Yusuf Ali and Mohsin Khan versions contain extensive footnotes, which are helpful if the reader requires more context, while the Sahih International version takes a simpler approach of translating the verses literally without any commentary. Please remember that the translation also depends on the personal preference and discretion of the translator, hence there is no “standard” translation of the Qur’an and the translations will differ.

What is important is, do not give your own interpretation to Qur’anic verses. You have to ensure that you receive the correct knowledge and understanding of the Qur’an. Should you wish to have a deeper understanding, please seek authentic interpretation/explanation, as prepared by the early scholars such as Ibn Katheer. In case of doubt, please verify with a learned person or by reading a reliable tafseer. Do not rely on your own personal understanding, as it is prone to corruption and misinterpretation.

Preparation: Respect What You Read

Given that the Qur’an contains the direct words of God, the first thing you should do is to respect what you are about to read. The first step, as a matter of adab or manner, is to prepare yourself physically and spiritually.

Physical preparation involves being in a state of cleanliness and purity, for example, dressing in clean and modest clothes, and purifying yourself physically (if possible by taking ablution or wudu). Also, try to find a calm, neat and clean environment.

Spiritual preparation involves being in the state of mind that would help you obtain the divine benefit of the messages. The first prerequisite of personalizing Qur’an is absolute humility and humbleness to Allah SWT. The more you are poor to Allah SWT and aware of your ignorance and acknowledge your need for Allah SWT and His divine guidance, the more you will be granted, by the will of our Creator, the in-depth understanding of the Qur’an. Hence, approach the Qur’an with sincerity and honesty.

Set Your Intention

In all acts of worship, and in fact, in every single act that we do in life, we will be rewarded based on our intention. Hence it is a basic principle that we should set our intention first before embarking on any undertaking.

It is the same with the Qur’an. The benefit you will derive from it will be based on your intention. Before you read the Qur’an, remember that the Qur’an reads you first, reads what is in your heart, and responds accordingly.

Hence, what is your intention when you read the Qur’an?

To improve your recitation or memorisation?
Because it’s a routine?
To gain knowledge?
To find a solution to your problems?
To seek forgiveness?
To improve your relationship with God?
To achieve some peace and tranquility?

Whatever benefit you sincerely hope to derive from the Qur’an, is what Allah SWT will grant to you. Hence the reading of the Qur’an should be preceded by a conscious and sincere intention, and insha Allah SWT, you will find what you are looking for and get rewarded according to your intention.

Next: Reading the Qur’an in Revelatory Sequence: Mecca and Madinah Verses

(Previously published. Modified for Hadith of the Day in collaboration with the author)

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