Q. If I wish to make a study of Al Qur'an, where do you suggest I begin? I have Muhammad Asad's translation and have read Ibn Hishaq's "Life of Muhammad" translated by Alfred Guillame, which is a very powerful and direct book. But I want to study the Qur'an as a western academic should so that I can discuss it in this manner. For example:
1. I know there are Meccan and Medinan suras. Is there a difference in style, tone, content, subject, etc?
2. It seems that many ayat received from one particular time are inserted in suras from another time. What comments can we make on this?
3. Some of the most poetic, beautiful, and meaningful ayat (e.g. An-Nur 35) are inserted in the middle of many plain, instructional, and very expository ayat.
4. What are the most loved ayat (2:255, 24:35)? Where can one find a list of them and commentaries on each?
5. When Al Qur'an is recited each Ramadan, is there a set pattern followed in this, and if so what is it, and why?
6. Are there different versions of the Qur'an from earliest times? Do they differ and how? (e.g. is there a Qur'an that does not have the disputed ayat (128-129)?
7. Is there an Internet course or book that will help me with this?
A. Thanks for some truly interesting questions. As you no doubt know, there is a truly large corpus of reading material out there; unfortunately a lot of it is biased -- either for or against Islam, and therefore does not fulfill the need of the true seeker. Books in English that I recommend are:
Islam, Islamic Methodology in History, Major Themes of the Qur’an -- all by Fazlur Rahman. Indeed, any article by Fazlur Rahman is worth reading.
Islam at the Crossroads, Road to Mecca, This Law of Ours, The Message of the Qur'an -- all by Muhammad Asad.
The Qur'an and Its Interpreters, The Awesome News -- all by Mahmoud Ayoub.
The Qur'an and Woman -- Amina Wadud.
A History of Islamic Legal Theories -- Wael Hallaq.
Any works by S. D. Goitein.
The works that I have recommended are carefully chosen, on the basis that much of the material that is accepted by western academic circles contains untruths that are sometimes so cleverly disguised, or sometimes the result of genuine error, that they are only perceptible to the specialist. The works that I have recommended above are generally free from such taint. Regarding the Meccan and Medinan suras: Richard Bell committed the gross error of attempting to apply textual and Biblical criticism methods to an oral document such as the Qur’an is. He failed terribly, but influenced so many that there are many who feel they can date the Qur’anic suras with certainty, and go against Islamic tradition. While I cannot say that the Islamic traditional dating is beyond fault, I think it is generally acceptable. We know that while the Prophet was in Mecca, he was simply a preacher, and so his message is basically theological and conciliatory while invitational. In Medina, where he was a leader and found a welcoming community, the tone of the Qur’an could shift to legislation. After establishing himself as a victorious Prophet and Head of State, he could also give the news about war, the law of nations, etc. And when he returned to Mecca, thus completing his message, the chapters once more return to finality, the Day of Judgment, etc.
As to why verses from one sura are inserted into another, this is simply because the Qur’an was not given to the Prophet as a book, a written document, but rather as a revelation. Therefore, if one were to record the words of a person on a daily basis, one would find apparently disconnected sentences and themes. The naming of suras is problematic, for one assumes when it is said: "sura such and such was revealed in such and such a month," it signifies completeness. This is wrong. It means that a certain group of verses were revealed, and out of the verses, either the Prophet or the Companions took a dominant sentence or term, and applied it as the name of the group of verses. There is still discussion as to if the names were human-selected or given by Allah. I opt for the former, on the basis that a lot of Muslim tradition seeks to ascribe divine action to many things that are humanly brought about, failing to realize that such human actions do not in any way detract from the integrity of Islam. How does one know that the ayat from a particular time are inserted into a sura from another time? This calls for certain conclusions that are not free from argument. And a lot of such conclusions are based on preconceptions based on Biblical analysis. In the Hebrew Bible at least, and even in the New Testament, the books can exist independently of each other -- and indeed sometimes even contradict each other -- and with a Bible study background, one tends to view the Qur’anic suras according to the same paradigm. This is simply not applicable.
I will demonstrate using an example I often perform in class to show the apparent disjointedness of the Qur’an. Each of my students has questions that s/he has asked me. Sometimes I ask them to wait for a while. Now the other students do not necessarily know the question of his/her peer for the simple reason that I have not advertised it. Yet when they are all sitting together, I will deliver the answers. Since they are aware that I am responding to specific questions, each person understands what I am saying, and since it is a "live" situation, each one automatically knows that each address is individual and to be taken as in and of itself. I then ask them how it would look if one were to write these answers down. They would appear confused and disconnected, for our classroom exercise was primarily in an oral context. Likewise, since the Qur’an is a living reflection of what the Prophet faced, it is possible that the apparent disjointedness is only in adherence to truth, while speaking of one thing, an issue may have been raised that needed to be addressed, and the revelation came down, and was recorded. Then a return to the former theme was done. Only Allah knows best, for whatever theories we may advance, we simply cannot put them under the nimbus of certitude.
As for commentaries, unfortunately these are in Arabic for the most part. Muhammad Asad's "Message of the Qur’an" is the best compilation I have seen to date. Professor Ayoub's "The Qur’an and its Interpreters" -- a work that so far exists in two volumes, and still has a lot of work to be done before completion, is truly wonderful. As for the "beautiful" ayat, again these are themes. To say one ayah is more beautiful than another is often a matter of choice, certainly the verses on war are not meant to soothe. We can only say that such a presence indicates the thematic variation of the Qur’an, a document for deciphering the philosophy of life. The ayat are in and of themselves explicit -- and I make this statement being fully aware that there are a lot of exegesis/eisegesis that, while astounding, may just be human commentaries, filled with conjecture. The mere fact that you find an ayah particularly appealing should make YOU contemplate that ayah on its own. Allah speaks to each individual, that is part of the miracle of the Qur’an, for when you can read it as if it is personally addressed to you, only then will you find the wherewithal to put certain verses into historical perspective, etc.
As to which verses are better or more beautiful, these are traditions having no claim to established authenticity. The set pattern of Qur’an recitation during Ramadan is not a sunna. Sunnis do it based on reports that the Prophet allowed the people to pray with him for two or three nights. Umar introduced the congregational Tarawih prayer on the basis that the people who were praying in separate groups should be doing so as one group. But he never legislated it as a sunna, or obligatory practice. Muslims who insist on "completing the Qur'an during Ramadan may be doing a commendable act, but the purpose of the Qur’an is not in its recitation and completion, but in the contemplation and execution of its message. Therefore, the whole Tarawih business may be said to be a creation that came about after the Prophet's death.
Regarding there being differences between different versions of the Qur’an: this is a claim that is not substantiated by any proof. Did there ever exist in the early period a time when companions may have copied or recorded and erred? Certainly this seems possible, for Uthman's well-known edict seems to remedy this very possibility. Also, one of the problems in the early times was that people had notes on their copies, and it was feared that these notes would be read as part of the text. Some Western researchers have chanced on relics of this, and have jumped to conclusions that there were variant texts. Their hasty and premature conclusions have only shown their lack of knowledge on several issues in early Islamic Usul al Fiqh literature. It is for this reason that I have been somewhat selective -- as earlier stated -- in my recommendation of books. For Internet courses, etc., I am afraid that I cannot recommend any. Your search must be a personal one. The questions you ask indicate that you have the intellectual background to read and decipher on your own. You must not let the Qur’an be interpreted for you by people from another time and culture. To be sure, there may be some good in this, for we cannot devalue the scholarship of yore, but then you run the risk of so many Muslims -- living in the past. The Qur’an asks: "Do you not think?" So you too, my brother, must make your intellect and your heart your lines of measure when reading the Qur’an. Please know too that our website is here to assist, and we shall look forward to the honor of more inquires. May Allah grant you that which He has promised: “And when my servants ask you concerning Me, (know that) I am near to him, answering his supplications if he asks Me…”
Posted January 19, 2002