Approaching the Quran

Approaching the Quran

The following is based off of a talk I gave at UTSC on March 8th 2018. The talk was entitled, “Approaching the Quran”.

Every verse of the Quran can serve as an index to centuries of discussion amongst exegetes. All these discussions occur between various scholars each adopting potentially different approaches to understanding the Quran. The purpose of this post is to highlight a few of these approaches in a practical manner by discussing a fragment of verse 89 of sūrat al-Naḥl. The verse is as follows,

…وَ نَزَّلْنا عَلَيْكَ الْكِتابَ تِبْياناً لِكُلِّ شَيْ‏ءٍ…

…We have sent down the Book to you as a clarification/explanation of all things1

There have classically been two major understandings of this fragment, although there are many more understandings than that. The first understanding asserts that the Quran is comprehensive of all knowledge and sciences. That is, the Quran contains information relevant to subjects such as philosophy, the natural sciences etc. in addition to its content related to the guidance of humans towards God. The second view is of a more minimalist nature and asserts that the Quran necessarily contains what is relevant for humans to be guided to God and therefore does not necessarily contain information or references pertaining to unrelated subjects.

In what follows, I will cover each view sequentially, detailing proponents of each view, discussing the approaches taken by different scholars to reach each view and furthermore discussing areas where these views are applied. At the end I will mention some other possible thoughts on this verse. Continue reading “Approaching the Quran”

  1. Al-Naḥl 16:89, some translators translate the word tibyān/تبيان as clarification while others translate it as explanation

“Al-Raḥmān” in the Quran

“Al-Raḥmān” in the Quran

الرحمن على العرش استوى

The All-beneficent, settled on the Throne1

I was recently writing an article about the word “al-raḥmān”, particularly focusing on its philological background amongst other discussions. While doing so, I came across a verse that was the source of some interesting philological discussions. The verse is as follows,

وَ إِذَا قِيلَ لَهُمُ اسْجُدُواْ لِلرَّحْمَانِ قَالُواْ وَ مَا الرَّحْمَانُ أَ نَسْجُدُ لِمَا تَأْمُرُنَا وَ زَادَهُمْ نُفُورًا

When they are told: “Prostrate yourselves before the All-beneficent,” they say, “What is ‘the All-beneficent (al-raḥmān)?’ Shall we prostrate ourselves before whatever you bid us?” And it increases their aversion2.

In what follows, I would like to briefly discuss the following verse in terms of its role within the broader philological discussion on the word “al-raḥmān”. In order to do so, I will briefly summarize the general philological discussion about the word “al-raḥmān” so as to contextualize the role of this particular verse.

Origins and Philological Background

In short, there are two main views about the origins of the word “al-raḥmān”. Some scholars argue that the word was originally an Arabic word. Such scholars typically resort to quoting pre-prophetic usages of the word to establish a precedent for the word within the Arabic language.

The second view is that the word was taken from another language, that is, it is a loanword. This view has two groups of proponents. One group is that of the orientalists who largely resort to usages of similar words within other Semitic languages to establish that this word is a loanword3. The other group is that of the classical Muslim exegetes, many of whom resort to this particular verse amongst other proofs to establish the plausibility that this word was a loanword. They particularly use this verse as evidence that the Arabs were not familiar with this word, as indicated by the question, “What is ‘the All-beneficient (al-raḥmān)?’”

Regardless of whether or not the word is indeed a loanword, my goal here is simply to outline some other interpretations and understandings of this verse. This is in order to highlight that often times it is not an easy task to use a verse of the Quran within arguments because of the multiplicity of plausible interpretations that can be offered for Quranic verses.

For this purpose, I have quoted the relevant exegesis about this verse from The Study Quran and offered some criticism. Furthermore, I have also mentioned another interpretation of this verse. Continue reading ““Al-Raḥmān” in the Quran”

  1.  Ṭaha 20: 5
  2. Al-Furqān 25:60
  3. For a discussion concerning such usages see Arthur Jeffery, The Foreign Vocabulary of the Qur’ān pg. 140

Grammatically Understanding Surat al-Tawhid

Grammatically Understanding Surat al-Tawhid

Photo credits: Faleh Zahrawi

In the previous term, I had the opportunity to spend some time on focused exegetical discussions on sūrat al-Tawḥīd with some colleagues. We covered many different aspects of sūrat al-Tawḥīd, but one aspect that I found to be the most interesting was the grammatical discussion surrounding the first verse.

The following is an attempt to grammatically understand the first verse of this chapter. I have relied heavily on a lot of grammatical jargon and have tried to explain it as best as I can so as to facilitate readers not well versed in Arabic grammar.

The first verse of sūrat al-Tawḥīd is as follows,

ٌقُلْ هُوَ اللهَ أَحَد

(Tentative Translation) Say,” He is Allah, the One… 1

Defining the Text

Before, attempting to understand the verse grammatically, the actual verse and any other potential variant readings must be defined. Works documenting the 7, 10 or 14 readings of the Qurān indicate that most scholars of the readings of the Qurān were in agreement over the popular recitation of the verse that is present in the Qurān today, that is, “قل هو الله أحد”.

Further evidence of the fact that the text of the verse has been correctly preserved is that some books of history have recorded that this verse was minted in the same form on Syrian coins between the years 42 A.H. and 49 A.H. during the caliphate of Marwān bin al-Ḥakm2.

Zamakhsharī and Variant Readings

In light of this, it is interesting to note that Zamakhsharī (d. 538 A.H.) mentions some differences in reports of the recitations of this verse3.

  1. It has been reported that Ibn Mas’ūd and Ubay bin Ka’b read the verse without the word “قل”, thus reading it as “هُوَ اللهُ أَحَد”
  2. A’mash read the word “أَحَد” as “وَاحِد”. Thus the verse would be, “قُلْ هُوَ اللهُ وَاحِد”
  3. It has been reported that the Prophet read the verse without the words, “قُلْ هُو”. Thus the verse would simply be, “اللهُ أَحَد”. This has apparently been recorded in a narration that says, “To read ‘اللهُ أَحَد’, is equitable to reading the whole Qurān”.

Continue reading “Grammatically Understanding Surat al-Tawhid”

  1. Al-Tawḥīd 112:1
  2. Details about this can often be found in entries about Marwān, refer to Ibn al-Athīr, Asad al-Ghābbah fī Ma’rifat al-Ṣaḥābah, v. 4 pg. 348
  3. Zamakhsharī, al-Kashshāf ‘an Ḥaqāiq Ghawāmiḍ al-Tanzīl v. 4 pg. 817 – 818

Tafsīr al-A’immah: A Glance Through al-Dharī’ah

Tafsīr al-A’immah: A Glance Through al-Dharī’ah
Pictured above: ‘Allāmah Buzurg Tehranī

The following is an excerpt from “al-Dharī’ah Ilā Taṣānīf al-Shia” by the famous bibliographer ‘Allāmah Buzurg Tihranī describing an exegesis entitled “Tafsīr al-A’immah lī Hidāyat al-Ummah” by al-Shaykh ‘Abdallah bin Muhammad Riḍa al-Nuṣayrī.


(The exegesis is) By the master, the exegete and scholar of hadith, Muhammad Riḍa bin ‘Abd al-Husain al-Nuṣayrī al-Ṭūsī, who lived in Isfahān and was the writer of “Kashf al-Āyāt (Discovering the Verses)” which he finished writing in the year 1067/1657(A.H./A.D.) as will be mentioned in another volume.

The above mentioned exegesis of his was very large. It is said that it was thirty volumes long, I saw two volumes of it. One of the volumes was the first, it was a large and thick volume in which the author began with an introduction of the exegesis in about 20 chapters related to the Qurān. He then began with the exegesis of sūrah al-Fātiḥah, and then subsequently the exegesis of some verses from sūrah al-Baqarah until the end of the fourth verse.

The first volume started with the following words:

أين رتبة الانسان الذي بدئ خلقه من طين و أعلى مقام محامد رب العالمين و أنّى قدرة المخلوق من سلالة من ماء مهين و العروج على ذروة وصف من هو فوق وصف الواصفين: كيف نحمده و نحن من الجاهلين

On the back of the volume there is an ownership statement, in the handwriting of the son of the writer himself, denoting that the book was owned by him. He has written that that he came to own the book through inheritance, however he has not mentioned the date upon which he inherited the book. The owner’s name in his signature is as such, “ ‘Abdallah bin Muḥammad Riḍa al-Nuṣayrī al-Tūsī”.

This volume was subsequently owned by al-Sayyid Shubbar bin Muḥammad Tanwān al-Ḥawīzī al-Najafī 1 from the year 1160/1747 until 1182/1769 as is evident from some of his writings in the book during the two mentioned dates. It was finally transferred to al-‘Allāmah al-Shaykh Asadallah al-Dizfūlī al-Kāẓimī, the author of, “al-Maqābīs” who endowed the volume and wrote a statement of endowment on the volume in his writing. I saw the volume in Kāẓimīyah in the library of the deceased al-Shaykh Muḥammad Amīn who was from amongst the family of the previously mentioned al-Shaykh Asadallah. Continue reading “Tafsīr al-A’immah: A Glance Through al-Dharī’ah”

  1. ‘Ayān al-Shia v. 7 pg. 330

Āyatullah Jawadī on The Disjointed Letters

Āyatullah Jawadī on The Disjointed Letters

ن و القلم و ما يسطرون

Nun. By the Pen and what they write1

The following is an abridged translation of Āyatullah Jawadī Āmulī’s discussion concerning the hurūf al-muqatt’āt, the disjointed letters which are found at the beginning of some chapters of the Qurān.

Shaikh Jawadī begins his discussion by recounting some features related to the presence of these letters which are as follows:

  1. These letters are specific to the Qurān in so far as nothing similar to them is found in other divine books such as the Torah or Bible.
  2. The hurūf al-muqatt’āt are not specific to Meccan or Medinan chapters of the Qurān. There are 27 Meccan chapters and 2 Medinan chapters, a total of 29, that contain the hurūf al-muqatt’āt.
  3. The hurūf al-muqatt’āt at the beginning of chapters range from being 1-5 letters long such as;
    1. ق, ص, ن
    2. طس, یس
    3. الم, الر, طسم
    4. المص, المر
    5. كهيعص, حم عسق
  4. Some of the hurūf al-muqatt’āt have been counted as part of a verse, others as a complete verse and others as two verses.
  5. Some of the hurūf al-muqatt’āt have been repeated many times such as ص, which has been mentioned independently in sūrah Sād and in sura al-‘araf as part of المص. Other have only been mentioned once such as ن. Interestingly, حم has been mentioned 7 times and the chapters in which حم has been mentioned are collectively referred to as the “Hawāmīm al-sab’ah” (حواميم السبعة).
  6. There are 14 hurūf al-muqatt’āt (not counting repetitions) which are as follows; ي ,ه ,ن ,م ,ل ,ك ,ق ,ع ,ط ,ص ,س ,ر ,ح ,ا
  7. Some exegetes have mentioned the view that by organising the hurūf al-muqatt’āt in different ways, statements such as “صراط علي حق نمسكه” (The path of ‘Alī is the truth and we hold steadfast to it) or “علي حق نمسك صراطه” (‘Alī is the truth, we hold steadfast onto his path) can be formed2. Although this is an interesting point, there is no reliable proof for it. Ālūsī, after mentioning what the Shiites have formed using the hurūf al-muqatt’āt proposes other formations in favour of the ahl al-sunnah such as “صحّ طريقك مع السنة” (Your path is correct if in accordance with the sunnah(tradition))3.
    1. The lesson learned from this example that pertains to this or any discussion is that views and opinions which are offered should not be flawed; that is, they should be supported by either rational evidence or reliable textual evidence (from the Qurān or ahadith corpus).

Sheikh Jawadī then goes onto recount 20 different opinions concerning the interpretation of the hurūf al-muqatt’āt according to different exegetes. Continue reading “Āyatullah Jawadī on The Disjointed Letters”

  1. al-Qalam 68:1-2
  2. Bahrānī, al-Burhān fī Tafsīr al-Qurān v. 1 pg. 167
  3. Ālūsī, Rūh al-M’ānī v. 1 pg. 172

Comparing Exegetical Traditions: al-Wāqīat, Verse 79

Comparing Exegetical Traditions: al-Wāqīat, Verse 79
لا يمسه الا المطهرون

No one touches it except the pure ones 1

Something which I have wanted to make mention of for a while now is the wealth of methodologies and approaches extant within the exegetical corpus.

I think that rather than approach such exegetical methodologies in a descriptive manner, it would be prudent to present examples of such approaches while, at the same time, being aware that one example may not be accurately representative of an exegete’s methodology. My purpose for highlighting such differences is to introduce different scholarly views and also to encourage questions and thoughts.

As such, in the following post, I hope to briefly cover different exegeses of verse 79 of Surah al-Wāqīat.

لَّا يَمَسُّهُ إِلَّا الْمُطَهَّرُون‏

No one touches it except the pure ones [1. al-Wāqīat 56:79]

Many jurists have interpreted this verse to be indicative of the impermissibility of touching the Qurān while being ritually impure2. Of course, narrations are also present that support this interpretation3.

This seems to be a valid understanding, supported by narrations. However, there are also other interpretations such as that which Sadr al-Dīn presents in one of his works entitled, “Risalay Seh Asal”. Continue reading “Comparing Exegetical Traditions: al-Wāqīat, Verse 79”

  1. al-Wāqīat 56:79
  2. This view is presented in works such as, Tūsī, al-Khilāf v.1 pg. 99; Hillī, Mukhtalif al-Shī’a fi Ahkām al-Sharī’a v. 1 pg. 292
  3. Tūsī, al-Istibsār fī mā ikhtalafa min al-akhbār v.1 pg. 114