Book: An exercise in Understanding the Qur’an


Book: An exercise in Understanding the Qur’an
Author: Irfan Ahmad Khan
Publisher: Association for Qur’anic Understanding, USA
Pages: 216
Price: Not mentioned
ISBN: 978-1567447736

Here is a book that does not inspire awe by its scholarly erudition. Instead of asking the reader to follow the footprints of the author, this is what most tafsirs try the reader to convince, this book becomes unique in the sense that it discourages the reader to be spoon-fed. On the contrary, it warns against following the approach of an existing tafsir:
“… And remember: God will not appreciate if other people’s understanding of the Divine Text is, all the time, standing between you and the Divine Speech (Kalam Allah) which God wants you to listen with your own ears and understand with your own aql” (p. 3). [aql=brain]

This does not mean that he dismisses the vast heritage of tafsirs penned by eminent scholars. He simply reminds that one must arrive at one’s own conclusions though fully informed by earlier tafsirs. In the Salah, there is a communication in which the devotee is the speaker and Allah the listener with no one in between to interpret (and intervene); so must be in the recitation of Qur’an in which God is the speaker and devotee the learner. Why should there be an intermediary, he argues.

Then what is the justification for this book? It enables the initiator, step-by-step, how to approach the Divine Text. He takes the beginner from scratch. He starts guiding him from the smallest “meaningful” unit of the Qur’an, i.e., ayah. What to look for in an ayah and what constitutes the “ayah-consciousness?” Once the reader develops this, he is advised to understand the structure of each Surah which is not just a bundle of scattered ideas. Every Surah has its own unique style of elaborating its central theme. (p. 4). Through repeated reading, the reader would discern, how various themes of the Surah are united through… invisible thread (p. 5). Understanding a Surah involves developing an insight into the Surah as a whole and only those who fully comprehend the thematic structure of a Surah, understand the Surah. (p. 5).

Does Khan leave the reader in dark and keep him groping for meaning? Very often people suggest the best way of teaching how to swim is to push the person into the pond and watch him how does he manage the crisis. No, Khan on the contrary, takes 30 Suwar (plural of Surah) and one-by-one shows the structure, the theme and the uniting thread in the last (85-114) Surahs. He divides each Surah into three distinct parts and then enables the learner to arrive at his own comprehension. In literary criticism such practice was called deconstruction. This is what the book does. It deconstructs the last 30 surahs to enable the learner to practice the art. Once the learner develops self-confidence, he does not need a guide or a trainer. This is what each swimmer does when he discards the swim-suit.

An uninitiated reader wonders why there are so much swearing (qasam) in various suwar. In some it is in the beginning and then there is frequent repetition. In a few cases the swearing comes in the middle of the surah. Reader keeps wondering why this linguistic strategy is so frequently followed. Other commentators have merely translated and explained this in a few footnotes. Khan devotes chapter 2 to this very device – qasam in the Qur’an in the light of the 30 surahs. He first enlightens “The swearing in the Qur’an prepares the minds of the readers for a better understanding of the point the Qur’an underlines.” (p. 21).

The significance of qasam is explained by analysing the suwar and how qasam enables the reader to develop the insight. As a poor analogy, I would venture to suggest that like a traffic signal which forewarns a driver; the qasam prepares the reader to be cautious and alert while reading the next ayah.

In chapter 3, Khan throws light on certain terms and concepts and enables the reader to develop a subtle distinction between various ‘similar’ expressions, e.g. fasad and fitnah or yatim and miskin, insan and nas.

Quite often the faithfuls and mostly non-believers have wondered why did the Qur’an not retain the sequence of suwar (surahs) – the chronological order of revelation, i.e. why the sequence has been changed? Western translators, in fact, tried to revert to the chronological order in which the suwar were revealed. Khan answers the query quite convincingly:
“Only when some humans have responded positively to the Qur’anic call and thereby a believing community has come into existence, it would be a right time for sending down (tanzil) of the surahs like al-Baqarah, Aal Imran, an-Nisa and al-Maidah. … this consideration was actually part of the Divine Policy concerning the chronology of revelation to the Prophet. Historically, Surah al-Anam, and Surah al-A’raf as well as other Makkan suwar were revealed to the Prophet before al-Baqarah, Aal Imran, an-Nisa, al-Maidah, and other Madani suwar. However, now when a Qur’anic community is already in existence, the Divine wisdom demands that this community of the believers should be educated through the above four courses of study, before it comes to the human world to do its assignment under the guidance of al-An’am and al-A’raf.” (p. 17).

From page 53 to 200, the 30 suwar (85-114) have been covered. Each ayah in Arabic text is explained through an English translation. Each Surah begins with an “Outline Structure” followed by “An understanding and Interpretation”. The last 12 pages present an “Overall Look”: system underlying the Qur’anic Surahs 85-114. This explains the question why did Khan prefer these suwar.

Irfan Ahmad Khan, born in India in 1931, is a science graduate of AMU and studied Qur’an and classical Arabic at Rampur. After his MA in philosophy (1958), he taught Western Philosophy, Indian religions and Muslim theology (1958-1973). In early sixties he edited Islamic Thought. In 1974 he moved to USA for PhD at Illonois University, Chicago. A founding trustee of the Parliament of World’s Religions and International Committee for the Peace Council and the Founding President for World Council of Muslims of Interfaith Relations and Interfaith Engagement Project, he is at present the Director of the Association for Qur’anic Understanding.

With such illustrious career and exposure to Islamic studies he is a competent authority to author a book which none should miss to read. I must recommend the book to everyone who wants to have first hand understanding of the Qur’an without any intermediary. May Allah bless Khan for such illustrious a pursuit. Amen.