The Qur'an is definitely not a linear text. It defies expectations of being a simple story and raises questions about why it is structured as it is
Expectations tend to condition our reactions. Think of the hype in cinema adverts: they string together some of the best bits of a film and we expect fireworks throughout. But the edited highlights bear little relation to the whole, which can turn out to be a damp squib. The result is not just disappointment but a sense of being cheated of our justified expectations. So, as I start these blogs, I begin with some words of caution by way of conditioning your expectations.
Clearly Muslims and non-Muslims approach the Qur'an with different expectations. The distinction is significant. The definition of a Muslim is a person who believes the Qur'an to be the direct word of God as communicated to the prophet Muhammad. Therefore, Muslims approach the Qur'an with an implicit acceptance of its style and nature. It would be inconceivable to start with the question: "Why isn't God telling me a normal story with a beginning, a middle and an end?" This is not to suggest Muslims do not question, it is merely to point out that our questions start from a different point; and they are concerned with the meaning and understanding we should take from the nature and style of our holy book.
Non-Muslims tend to approach the Qur'an with the Torah and the Bible in mind - and then get very perplexed because the Qur'an is not like that at all. The Torah and the Old Testament begin with God's creation of the universe and all it contains and then proceed with a straightforward history of the people of Israel and their prophets. The gospels give a chronological account of the life of Jesus as the central narrative thread through which his teachings are presented, then turn to the development of early Christianity. The Qur'an provides neither a chronology of God's revelations to humanity nor a linear narrative of the life and times of the prophet Muhammad. Non-Muslims have said its style is not just confusing but incomprehensible.
The Qur'an is definitely not a linear text. For example, the first verses revealed to the prophet Muhammad are not at the beginning but at the start of the 96th chapter of the Qur'an (96:1-5). The last revelation comes in the third verse of the fifth (5:3) of the Qur'an's 114 chapters, known as surahs. Moreover, the Qur'an does not deal with its subjects in one place but in several places, dropping them suddenly and then picking up later in the text. It says one thing on one subject in one place, and something quite different on the same subject elsewhere.
What we can all agree on is that the structure and style of the Qur'an is complex. It defies expectations of being a simple story and therefore raises questions about how and why it is structured as it is and what we should understand from this arrangement.
Sound plays a very important part in the structure of the Qur'an. Before it was a written text, the Qur'an existed as sound; this is why it is often compared to an epic poem. But I like to think of it in terms of a musical symphony. Just like the notes in a symphony may be repeated, so the verses in the Qur'an are frequently repeated. Just as misplaced notes may play havoc with the whole symphony so a misreading of the Qur'an leads the whole text to be out of sync. This is why Muslims pay so much attention to the correct reading of the Qur'an. You can hear how different sections should sound on the Qur'an Explorer website.
We know that the prophet Muhammad, like most of his community in Mecca, was illiterate. His response to the first word of revelation, "iqra" ("read"), was: "I cannot." But an illiterate community is skilled in oral tradition, the ability to commit words to memory. Muhammad repeated each revelation to his growing circle of followers who committed the words to memory. He recited the growing body of the Qur'an in prayers, which is how the characteristic form of Muslim prayer developed. There were also a number of scribes who wrote down the revealed verses and worked with Muhammad to arrange these written texts in the proper order.
The Qur'an uses a heightened form of Arabic that is unlike any other Arabic text in its language and use of language. This means even native Arabic speakers have to struggle with its words and their meaning. The language of the Qur'an stretched the oral traditions of society, but also utilised its conventions in its strong sound and metrical forms which enabled the growing community of believers to assimilate and memorise the words. Even to this day millions of Muslims continue to commit the entire Qur'an to memory. Listening to Qur'an recitation is a popular art form, one in which the entire audience would be aware of any mistake that disturbs the sound structure as much as it would the meaning of what is being recited.
The years after the death of the prophet Muhammad saw a rapid expansion of the Muslim community far beyond the confines of Arabia. Where Muslims went they took the Qur'an with them, both in oral and written form. But it became clear that textual variations were beginning to appear in different parts of what was becoming the Muslim world. Othman, a companion of Muhammad and his third successor as leader of the Muslim community established a committee charged with assembling an authoritative text of the Qur'an, to be written down exactly as the prophet had recited it. This committee included people who had learned the recitation of Qur'an from the prophet as well as the scribes who had compiled written texts under his guidance, and they consulted with many more of those still living who had heard the prophet and committed the Qur'an to memory. The product of the committee's work is the text of the Qur'an known to all Muslims today.
The prophet received his first revelations when he was in Mecca, where he stayed for another 13 years. The surahs revealed during this period are known as Meccan surahs. When life in Mecca became unbearable, the prophet migrated to Medina, where he stayed till his death, some 10 years later. The surahs revealed in Medina are known, naturally, as Medinan surahs. There are 85 Meccan and 29 Medinan surahs (see table).However, the non-linear structure of the Qur'an is such that many surahs contain passages from both periods. The longer Medinan surahs are found at the beginning of the Qur'an. A surah is said to be Meccan if its early verses were revealed in Mecca even if it contains many verses revealed in Medina, and vice versa.
Meccan surahs tend to be shorter. They are concerned with inner substance of faith, worship and spiritual pursuits; and deal with such subjects as attributes of God, the nature of monotheism, accountability and judgment in the hereafter, issues of justice, human virtues and the importance of good conduct.
During his time in Medina, the prophet was busy establishing a community with the necessary social order and the basic instruments of governance. So Medinan surahs tend to deal with issues of communal law (marriage, divorce and inheritance), relationship between different communities (particularly Jews and Christian) and dealing with adversaries.
So the distinction between the Meccan and Medinan surahs is a journey from "why", the ultimate nature of faith and worship, to the "how", the translation of faith into a form of living as a practice of religion. The arrangement of the Qur'an with the Medinan surahs coming first, puts this journey the other way round, moving from how to why.
While I learn a great deal from the historical and contextual approach, for me, it does not necessarily clarify the issues of nature and style. I find it much more informative to go back to what the Qur'an says of itself.
The Qur'an says it is a guidance, a teaching. Its structure then unfolds as a series of lessons. This makes sense on a number of levels. Episodic lessons are much easier to assimilate, especially for its initial audience in a largely illiterate community, who would be helped by the sound and metrical properties of the language in which the Qur'an is expressed. But over time the lessons became more complex, with additional ideas being introduced and inserted in already-known passages. And this puts me in mind of what happens during the course of one's school career.
Whatever the subject, first you learn the basics but then in later years you return to particular topics and acquire new information and insight. Education is the process of gaining a deeper, more profound understanding. To me, that is what we are invited to find in the structure and arrangement of the Qur'an.
But the Qur'an is not addressed merely to the people of Mecca and Medina during the lifetime of Muhammad. In fact, it speaks to all humanity, and in particular to "people who think", even though many of its verses are directed specifically to "those who believe". But it admonishes those who believe blindly; and asks its readers, again and again, to observe, reflect, question. It devotes considerable space to delineating the attributes of God; but stresses throughout that knowledge and reason are as important and valid as faith itself in understanding God.
The Qur'an teaches through the use of a diversity of material. Apart from the prophet
Muhammad and his community, it refers to stories from the lives of previous prophets, such as Musa (Moses), Ibrahim (Abraham) Nuh (Noah) and Lot as well as Isa (Jesus), familiar from the Torah and the Bible. It frequently refers to history and the rise and fall of empires. It refers to the creation of the universe and uses examples from the natural world. It employs parables, metaphors and allegories to explain both moral principles and things beyond direct human experience. And it concerns itself with the practicalities of how a society should reform and organise itself internally and in its relations with other people to advance in ethical behaviour and righteousness. But it does not treat these themes as one-off lessons. The Qur'an returns to these themes a number of times, on each occasion adding some new information or insight or offering a slightly different perspective to provide new food for thought and deeper understanding.
I find the complexity of structure and style of the Qur'an insistently points to necessary relationships, to the need to think of things not in separate compartments but as involved and integrated with each other. In contemporary terms, I think, the Qur'an invites us to take a multidimensional rather than a one-dimensional approach to all aspects of life. But equally, I never cease to be amazed at how easily and readily Muslims reduce this complexity to a simplistic list of dos and don'ts.
The Qur'an does not ask me to accept anything passively; rather it invites me to engage actively in a process of questioning and reasoning. It is the only way, I think, of understanding and interpreting the meaning and guidance the Qur'an has for our time, here and now.
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