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Is the Qur’ān a Shapeless Book?
Qur'anic Exegesis
Dr. Mustansir Mir

One of the long-standing objections levelled against the Qur’ān by its non-Muslim critics is that it appears to have no regular form or structure. It is said that its verses follow one another with little sense of interconnection and its sūrahs seem to have been arranged in a sequence based on the crude principle of diminishing length, the longest coming first and the shortest going to the end. Almost every sūrah, it is complained, is riddled with unsettling shifts of scene, address, and subject and one cannot with any amount of certainty predict what is going to come next. It is concluded that the Qur’ān is, at best, a remarkable compilation of unrelated passages, or a book of quotations. That though it is full of pearls, the pearls are lying in a promiscuous heap.

The actual words used by those who have raised this objection are much more stern and caustic. We will not quote them, partly because they may be found in any book written on the Qur’ān by any critic of Islam and partly because their pungency does not add to the gravity of the objection. We shall only note that new as well as old orientalists have made the point often and that for all the difference in their approaches to the Qur’ān, they are all agreed that the Qur’ān completely lacks anything of the kind of orderly arrangement. Some of them have actually tried to rearrange the Qur’ān either chronologically or according to some other self-devised principle.

The response of Muslim scholars to this objection has been, generally, concessive. They grant that the Qur’ān does not have the arrangement of a well-planned book, but then, they say, it was never meant to have one. The revelation of the Qur’ān, they point out, was completed in twenty-three years and during that period the Qur’ān dwelt on such a large number of diverse subjects that no act of compilation could have given it greater unity and coherence than that it now possesses. The Qur’ān, they say, dealt with the lives, activities, and problems of a whole nation for a long span of time and so any objection based on the concept of a research thesis is bound to be misplaced.

This reply, though it has almost always served to satisfy Muslims and at least silence non-Muslim critics, fails to take one very important fact into consideration, that of the arranging of the Qur’ān, by the Holy Prophet. At the same time that it was being revealed, the Qur’ān was being rearranged in a certain form, under direct divine guidance, by the Holy Prophet. The completion of the arrangement of the Qur’ān was conterminous in time with the completion of its revelation. In respect of order and sequence, therefore, the Qur’ān as it was compiled was different from the Qur’ān as it was revealed. In other words, the Qur’ān had two arrangements, one revelatory and the other compilatory. The question is, why was the revelatory arrangement abandoned in favour of a compilatory arrangement. Was the latter adopted without any special reason? If so, why was chronology not considered a sound enough basis for arranging the Qur’ān? And is one today at liberty to discover, if possible, the chronological arrangement of the Qur’ān and recite the Qur’ān according to that arrangement? Or, if chronology was not an acceptable guide, why was not some rule, that for example of dividing the Qur’ān into sūrahs of about equal length, employed. Nor does the principle of the progressive diminution of the size of sūrahs go very far because the diminution is not so progressive: We frequently find that long sūrahs are followed by shorter sūrahs which are again followed by long sūrahs and so on. The question continues to stare one in the face: Why a different arrangement ?

Imam Hameed Uddin Farahi (India, d: 1930) gives another answer to the objection. He maintains that the Qur’ān has a most superb structure. The verses and sūrahs of the Qur’ān, he says, are arranged in a magnificent and impeccable order and together form a whole which has remarkable integration and symmetry. And beautiful as that structure is, adds Imam Farahi, it is not merely of incidental value; it is essential to the meaning of the Qur’ān, nay, it is the only key there is to the meaning of the Qur’ān.

The seminal ideas of Imam Farahi have been expounded by his most eminent disciple, Maulana Amin Ahsan Islahi. Taking his cue from the principles his great teacher had enunciated, Maulana Islahi has written a commentary (in Urdu) on the Qur’ān in which he has shown how the Qur’ān is the systematic book Imam Farahi claimed it to be. Maulana Islahi modestly terms his work elaborative, but as anyone can see, it is highly original in any respects. In fact, he is not only the most authentic exponent of of Imam Farahi’s thought, he can be said to have new-modelled that thought. Below is given a brief statement of his views on the structure of the Qur’ān. These views have been summarized from the ‘Introduction’ to “Tadabbur-i-Qur’ān” (Reflection on the Qur’ān), which is the name of his commentary.

1. Each Qur’ānic sūrah has a dominant idea, called the axis of that sūrah, around which all the verses of that sūrah revolve. Thus no verse, or no group of verses, stands alone but has a direct relation with the axis of the sūrah and is part of the coherent scheme of the sūrah.

2. The sūrahs of the Qur’ān exist in pairs, the two sūrahs of any pair being complementary to each other and, together constituting a unit. There are a few exceptions, however. The first sūrah, Faatihah, does not have a complement, because it is a kind of a preface to the whole of the Qur’ān. All the other exceptions too are not exceptions in the real sense of the word since each one of them is an appendix to one or the other sūrah.

3. The 114 sūrahs of the Qur’ān fall into seven groups. The first group comes to an end at sūrah 5, the second at sūrah 9, the third at sūrah 24, the fourth at sūrah 33, the fifth at sūrah 49, the sixth at sūrah 66, and the seventh at sūrah 114. Each group contains one or more Meccan sūrahs followed by one or more Medinan sūrahs of the same cast. Like individual sūrahs or each pair of sūrahs, each group has a central theme which runs through all its sūrahs, knitting them into a distinct body. In each group the themes of the other groups also occur but as subsidiary themes.

4. Each group logically leads to the next, and thus all the groups become variations on the basic theme of the Qur’ān, which is, ‘Allah’s call to man to adopt the right path’.

While speaking of coherence in the structure of the Qur’ān, we must distinguish between connectedness and organic unity. A connection, howsoever weird and far-fetched, can be established between any two objects of the universe. But organic unity implies the presence of a harmonious interrelationship between the components of a  body or entity which produces a unified whole, a whole which is over and above the sum total or the components of and has worth and meaning in itself. The verses and sūrahs of the Qur’ān are not simply linked up with one another, they have their place, each one of them, in the total scheme of the Qur’ān and are related not only to one another but also to that total framework. The Qur’ān is an organism, of which its verses and sūrahs are organically coherent parts.

Another point to be taken note of is that, as hinted above, the methodicalness of the Qur’ān is not just an incidental matter in the study of the Qur’ān, it is integral to the meaning of the Qur’ān. In plain terms, since the Qur’ān has an organic structure, every verse or group of verses and every sūrah has a definitive context and interpretation of any portion of the Qur’ān must be based on a correct understanding of that context. The Qur’ān is also one of the most unfortunate books in the sense that too often its verses have been torn out of context to prove some particular juristical opinion or sectarian notion and too frequently its terms and phrases have been misconstrued by those who come to it seeking, in some odd verse, support for views they have already formed on other than Qur’ānic grounds. It is indeed a great irony that all heresies have been claimed by their propounders to have their basis in the Qur’ān. And if these heresies looked plausible to many, it was because the context of the verses constituting the so-called ‘basis in the Qur’ān’ was not properly understood. As Maulana Islahi has shown, contextualization gives to countless verses a construction different from the one usually placed on them; it throws new light not only on the doctrinal and creedal aspects of the Qur’ānic message but also on the methodological aspects of the message; it lends new significance not only to the moral and legal injunctions of the Qur’ān but also to the stories and parables narrated by the Qur’ān; and it affords a deep insight not only into the continually changing style and tone of the Qur’ān but also into the varied patterns of logic it employs.


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