There is a wide choice of English translations of the
Qur’ān to benefit from but, unfortunately, when it comes to the descriptive
interpretation, the option is extremely limited. On the other hand, English
readers, both Muslims and non-Muslims, are compelled to look to descriptive
exegeses to manage better understanding, as their meagre backgrounds do not help
them in extracting deeper meanings of the Divine Message out of mere
translations. It is, therefore, necessary to endeavour to make available to the
English readers the significant works on the Qur’ān written in other languages.
"Tadabbur-i-Qur’ān", a contemporary Urdu exegesis,
authored by Amīn Ah*san Is*lāh*ī, is, in the opinion of this writer, by far the
most outstanding commentary on the Qur’ān of this period. It presents the rare
combination of being, simultaneously, classical as well as modern. It is
classical in the sense that it does complete justice with the language of the
Book of Allah. The original text is not forced to digest meanings not compatible
with its description---something that has been a hallmark of some of the recent
attempts. It is modern, I believe, because what it explains is fully acceptable
to an honest present-day reader trained to approach academic issues rationally.
Indeed, it is rational only because it is an honest attempt to know and unfold
the Message of God the way it is---unswayed, to a remarkable extent, by foreign
influences which always threaten to corrupt all attempts to understand the Book
The two more widely read English commentaries on the
Qur’ān are "The Holy Qur’ān", translation and commentary by Abdullah Yousaf Ali
and "Towards Understanding the Qur’ān", the English version of "Tafhim-ul-Qur’ān"
by Sayyid Abul Ala Mawdūdī. The former was first published in 1934 and has been,
ever since, reprinted many times, reflecting its popularity as an authentic
guide for understanding the real meanings of the Book of Allah. "Tafhim-ul-Qur’ān",
on the contrary, has been by far the most widely read Urdu exegesis of the
Qur’ān, but its English version has come into the market only recently. Both
these endeavours are rendering useful service to the readers in unfolding the
true meanings of the Divine Message to the common English-reading public. Being
only human attempts to explain a text beyond the complete grasp of mortals
limited, after all, in ability to do complete justice with the Word of God,
there had to be shortcomings in these works. The factor of human limitation has
undoubtedly, played a role in case of "Tadabbur-i-Qur’ān" as well. In order to
facilitate better understanding of the Book of Allah, however, a comparison of
the two popular works available in English language with "Tadabbur" is being
attempted by this writer.
The proposed comparison is envisaged to be undertaken in a
series of articles in which some important questions that seek explanation while
reading the Qur’ān will be raised to find how each of the three works has
answered them and, thus, helped in improving the understanding of the Message of
A question that intrigues immediately almost everybody who
cares to open the Book, not just to unmindfully repeat its words but to
understand it, is regarding the rationale of placing a small sūrah---Faatihah
comprising only six small verses, ahead of the longest sūrah of the
Qur’ān---Baqarah consisitng not less than 286 verses, and thus apparently
distrubing a logical order of marshalling the sūrahs.
When we turn to Yusuf Ali's exegesis to seek an answer to
the question, we find the following explanation:
"By universal consent it is rightly placed at the
beginning of the Qur’ān, as summing up, in marvelously terse and comprehensive
words, man's relation to God in contemplation and prayer. In our spiritual
contemplation the first words should be those of praise. If the praise is from
our inmost being, it brings us into union with the God's Will...the prayer is
for our own spiritual education, consolation, and confirmation.
That is why the words in this sūrah are given to us in the
form in which we should utter them. When we reach enlightenment, they will flow
sportaneously from us."
The explanation is not entirely unconvincing. There still
remains, on deeper reflection, however, the question as to why someone not
necessarily convinced about the divinity of the Message as yet be educated in
the very beginning of the Divine Book. The interpretation becomes much more
questionable in view of the fact that the Qur’ān does in fact make use of many
later occasions to achieve the purpose of teaching prayers by using the command
qul (say) in the beginning. The departure from this practice shouldn't be
without reason. The reference to the element of spontaneous flow of spiritual
enlightenment finding expression in these opening words is much more convincing,
although less forcefully emphasised than the significance of the point actually
deserved. The reader is not informed that this important aspect of the prayers
can be construed by a careful examination of its distinctive style.
When we turn to Mawdūdī’s work to find an answer, it says:
"Al-Fatihaha is actually a prayer, which God teaches to
all who embark upon the study of His Book. Its position at the beginning
signifies that anyone who wants to benefit from the Book should first offer this
prayer to the Lord of the Universe.
Man naturally prays only for what his heart desires, and
only when he feels that the object of his desire is at the disposal of the One
to Whom his prayer is addressed. The placing of this sūrah at the head of the
Qur’ān is a sign that God urges man to read this Book with the aim of
discovering the right course in life, i.e. `the straight way' to study it with
the earnestness of a seeker after truth, and never to forget that the real
source of true knowledge is God Himself. The student of the Book should
therefore begin by making a humble petition to Him for true guidance.
Once this is grasped, it becomes self-evident that in
relation to the Qur’ān this opening sūrah, al-Fatihah, is not just an
introduction or foreword; the relationship is really one of prayer and response.
Al-Fatihah is a prayer from man, and the rest of the Qur’ān is God's response to
this prayer. Man prays to God that He may show him the straight way, and in
response to this prayer God offers the Qur’ān as the true guidance, the
`straight way', which man has sought and prayed for."
The above explanation does clearly point out some
important reasons why this prayer has attained precedence over all other sūrahs
of the Qur’ān. It also explains convincingly the relationship of this sūrah with
the rest of the Qur’ān. It does not, however, clarify why the Almighty has
chosen not to present this prayer, whose importance cannot be over-emphasised
not the least because of its very positioning in the Book, in the form
prayer-wordings have been mentioned elsewhere.
When we seek to find an answer to this problem in "Tadabbur",
we get the following explanation:
"The style of this sūrah is that of a prayer. Instead of
teaching the reader the way to pray, the words have been made to appear as if
they are flowing from within us, indicating in a subtle way that if human nature
has preserved its original purity despite challenges of corruption, it should
find its emotions of gratitude (to the Creator) urging to be expressed in this
manner. As this expression is suggested by the One Who created human nature as
well, no better way of expressing such feelings could be imagined. Anyone who
has managed to protect his true nature, would acknowledge these words to be his
very own. Only those who have allowed their pristine soul to be corrupted, would
find little affinity to the words of this prayer."
The first two sentences of this translation from "Tadabbur"
are clearly explaining the reason of departure from the more common style of
using the command qul (say) before the prayer. It can be appreciated from this
explanation that while the earlier two authors did make illuminating remarks to
offer explanations, Islahi's attempt is not just intellectually sound; it, more
importantly, seems to flow from the text itself, which is the most significant
merit of "Tadabbur-i-Qur’ān".