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Principles of Interpreting the Qur’ān
Amin Ahsan Islahi
(Tr. by:Jhangeer Hanif)


You have invited me to deliver a speech1 on the principles of interpreting the Holy Qur’ān. I will proceed with this topic by firstly summarizing briefly the different approaches that commentators belonging to various schools of thought adopted for the commentary of the Holy Qur’ān after the blessed era of the Holy Prophet (sws) and his Companions (rta). This will be followed by a brief critical analysis of these approaches – a discussion which will be culminated in an exposition of the principles that I find fit and appropriate for commentary of the Holy Qur’ān, sanctioned by both reason and practical adherence of the earliest commentators among the Companions of the Holy Prophet (sws). This format of speech, I thought, would be more beneficial for the audience as it will not only expose them to different approaches adopted by commentators of the Holy Qur’ān after the blessed era of the Holy Prophet (sws) and his Companions (rta) but also let them know what is required for a comparative and analytical study of these approaches – hence a helpful endeavour in arriving at an opinion about the merits and demerits of each of these approaches.

A study of all commentaries written during the course of history reveal that there are four major schools of thought, provided a holistic view is taken while analyzing differences in their approach towards commentary of the Holy Qur’ān. I intend to introduce you to all these four schools and their respective principles of interpreting the Qur’ān one by one.

Muhadithīn (Hadīth Experts) or Traditionalists

The most credible school of thought among commentators of the Holy Qur’ān is that of Hadīth experts or traditionalists. According to them, while writing a commentary of the Holy Qur’ān, commentators should rely on explanations found in the Hadīth narratives, sayings of the Companions (rta) and those of early commentators of the Holy Qur’ān. In their sincere effort to follow this approach of Qur’ānic commentary, they have provided under each verse of the Holy Qur’ān as many relevant traditions as they could find in the corpus of Hadīth narratives, sayings of the companions and the early commentators. Sometimes, these traditions would be inter-contradictory but they would be quoted as such without seeking any reconciliation between them or preferring one over the other. On this pattern, one famous commentary that was written – still available with us – is the commentary of the Imām Ibn Jarīr Tabarī2, Jāmi‘ al-Bayān. It is, in fact, a reservoir of all narratives about Qur’ānic commentary and the sayings of prominent early commentators of the Holy Qur’ān. Under each verse, you will find some of these narratives and sayings but you will not be in a position to distinguish what is correct and what not. All commentaries written after him reiterate more or less what he already wrote. Like a candle lights another candle, this commentary has kindled many other commentaries. You will find that most succeeding commentaries are merely an abridged version of this commentary. The celebrated commentary of Ibn Kathīr also emanates from this commentary.

The Approach of the Scholastics

When the Muslims expanded their empire and came into contact with non-Arab nations, they had an exposure to the academic disciplines and philosophies in vogue in those regions. As a result, their outlook underwent phenomenal changes, of which the outcome was what is termed as ‘ilm al-kalām (scholasticism). This new wave of scholasticism begot more than one school of thought, of which the representatives tried to popularize their views by committing to writing commentaries of the Holy Qur’ān. They wrote less commentaries of the Holy Qur’ān as they afforded arguments in favour of their views extracted from exotic disciplines and philosophies they came across. Of all the commentaries written on this pattern, two commentaries gained utmost fame and widespread recognition among the Muslims, namely, Kashshāf by Imām Zamakhsharī and Tafsīr Kabīr by Imām Rāzī. The former is an organ of the Mu‘tazilites and the latter is a mouthpiece of the Ash‘arites. The Tafsīr of Imām Ibn Jarīr among traditionalist commentaries has the same status as the Kashshāf of Imām Zamakhsharī and Tafsīr Kabīr of Imām Rāzī have among scholastic commentaries. After them, whoever went about writing a commentary on their pattern mainly retraced their footsteps only.

The Approach of the Muqallidūn (immitators)

By the muqallidūn, I am not referring to imitators of juristic schools and/or their juristic verdicts but those commentators who have merely imitated their predecessors while writing a commentary of the Holy Qur’ān. For instance, most of the commentaries written after Imām Ibn Jarīr, Imām Zamakhsharī and Imām Rāzī have merely retraced their steps in their respective realms by either reproducing their whole discourse or writing a sort of abridged version of their commentaries. In other words, only a few commentaries, if any, have been written after them on an independent basis. This situation reaches such an extent that it almost became a standard for commentators of succeeding generations to write a commentary in an imitation of some acknowledged commentator.

The Approach of the Mutajaddidūn (Modernists)

Mutajaddidūn means people who are influenced by modern western thoughts and views. Like our scholastics laid foundations of a new discourse under the influence of Greek philosophy and tried to mould the Holy Qur’ān as per their preconceived notions, and became so engrossed with their scholastic excursions that they ignored all other realities, modernists came under the sway of modern western ideology and grappled with the Holy Qur’ān to ruthlessly twist its message in order to bring it in line with the western ideology. In our nation, the pioneer of this movement was Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khān.3 After him, this trend has continued to swell than to decline like a snowball. God only knows when this is going to end and when the book of God will be secured from the onslaughts of self-centred and ignorant people.

Critique of all these three Approaches

Now, I will turn towards a criticism of all these approaches to highlight their inherent errors.

Let us take the approach of the experts of the narratives. There is no denying that it is the most blessed and safest approach of writing a commentary of the Holy Qur’ān. The appealing characteristic of such a commentary is to make use of the narratives of the Holy Prophet (sws), sayings of the Companions (rta) and those of the early commentators of the Holy Qur’ān. Every person knows that no one is more capable to understand the Holy Qur’ān as the Companions (rta) of the Holy Prophet (sws) – they have the prerogative to assert their understanding against all people of later generations. Who would dispute that their interpretation of the Holy Qur’ān is indeed more accurate and appropriate than the rest of the world? But the approach adopted by this school has certain inherent problems, which are so obvious that no one can deny them. For instance:

1. There are only a limited number of marfū‘4 narratives of the Holy Prophet (sws) regarding the commentary of the Holy Qur’ān. Likewise, there are only a few traditions ascribed authentically to the Companions (rta) of the Holy Prophet (sws) on this subject. Commentaries written under this approach are usually pregnant with sayings of later scholars/commentators. It is obvious that these sayings could not be treated as a decisive word, with which no one could disagree on the basis of sound arguments.

2. The traditionalists themselves maintain that no substantial care has been exercised while transmitting or collecting the narratives regarding commentary of the Holy Qur’ān. Not as much care that was exercised for the narratives containing edicts of the Holy Prophet (sws). Imām Ahmad Ibn Hanbal has unequivocally described the baselessness of these narratives. And everyone knows how important his verdict in this case is. In a nutshell, commentaries written on this pattern are loaded with such baseless narratives, and there are no objective criteria to sift out the authentic from the fabricated.

3. Even if we are successful in discerning the sound from the unsound through an academic investigation, we cannot exclusively rely on the sound narratives so discerned in a commentary of the Holy Qur’ān. I mean these cannot be given the status of final word in the interpretation of the Holy Qur’ān. The reason is that these narratives cannot be completely devoid of the element of doubt no matter how much investigation has been undertaken. To treat them as a decisive word in the interpretation of the Holy Qur’an is to cause an irrevocable damage to its certitude. This is something totally unacceptable to us. It is only in the light of other supporting arguments and corroborating evidence that these narratives will be used for the interpretation of the Holy Qur’ān. However, these cannot be exclusively relied upon in this regard.

4. In commentaries written under this approach, there are usually more than one saying reported under each verse – sometimes under each word of a verse – without any description of the arguments that the original commentator must have given. More often than not, these sayings contradict each other. It is obvious that this way of writing a commentary is not acceptable. The Holy Qur’ān is univocal in its message. It cannot assume contradictory stances on a given matter. Therefore, it is important to select only those sayings or narratives that fit aptly with the text in the light of the context and other available evidence. Otherwise, it cannot be more than wishful thinking to believe that the Holy Qur’ān is univocal in its message.

Let us now turn towards the scholastic commentaries of the Holy Qur’ān. The fundamental error in the approach of the scholastics is that their study of the Holy Qur’ān is conditioned by an impeccable assumption that their philosophical notions are absolutely right. Now the pinnacle of academic endeavour, according to them, is to show the Holy Qur’ān in perfect alignment with these notions. Consequently, wherever there is disparity between the Holy Qur’ān and their preconceived philosophical notions, they try their best to twist the message of the Holy Qur’ān to bring it into conformity with their notions instead of giving precedence to it. Likewise, they also make a careful selection from among sayings ascribed to the early scholars of Islam; whatever opinion goes against their views is simply ignored like it does not exist. Many examples of this sort can be found in the commentary of Imām Rāzī, peace be upon him. In an effort to show the unassailability of a particular viewpoint of the Ash‘arites, he does not hesitate to maintain that it could not be abandoned even when the Holy Qur’ān contradicts it because this viewpoint is based on absolutely conclusive rational arguments (burhān) whereas the message of the Holy Qur’ān is based on arguments transmitted through oral transmission (samā‘ī), which are devoid of certitude. With this precondition, the status of the Holy Qur’ān is relegated to a lesser position, almost trivial, than a book of divine guidance. The Holy Qur’ān does not lead but is led by scholastically perceived views. Isn’t this defiance in the very face of divine literature?

 In the approach of the imitators, there is a similar error as in the case of imitators of juristic schools of thought. Inasmuch as the predecessor jurists are not an absolute authority in their own right – the supreme authority is that of the Holy Qur’ān and Sunnah – the predecessor commentators do not enjoy any special status in the context of the commentary of the Holy Qur’ān. Nothing could be accepted as correct merely because some early predecessor commentator has maintained it unless it is attested by rational (‘aql) and textual (naql) evidences. Whatever is held or maintained in the commentaries of Ibn Jarīr or Imām Rāzī is subject to objective evaluation; no subjective argument could validate them beyond a shadow of doubt. They have to be tested in the laboratory using all tools of text interpretation before attesting their validity.

The same malady plagued the approach of modernists. The only difference is that the scholastics framed their views under the influence of the Greek philosophy while the modernists crafted their ideological niche under the sway of western thoughts. However, both of them tried to twist the message to align it with their preconceived notions in order to popularize their respective ideologies. Tantāwī of Egypt and Sir Sayyid of the sub-continent are two telling examples for earmarking the modernist movement that invaded the Muslim world. In some respects, this movement was even worse than scholasticism. In spite of many flaws in their approach, the scholastics still tried to interpret the text in compliance with the established principles of language and grammar; if nothing else, they would at least dare not to contravene the sunnah mutawātirah while interpreting the text of the Holy Qur’ān. Quite paradoxically, these modernists have so audaciously neglected all established principles of textual interpretation that it seems that they regard their audience to be ignorant and insensible. Obviously, it is not right to call their so-called commentaries as commentaries of the Holy Qur’ān; they are in fact a caricature of the Holy Qur’ān.

The Correct Interpretive Approach

Now I will present before you the approach of the commentary of the Holy Qur’ān that I deem correct. This approach is also sanctified by reason, as it is attested by textual evidences that have reached us. I have reason to believe that it is this very approach which our early scholars used to follow while writing a commentary of the Holy Qur’ān.

This approach emanates from and is based on some sources which may be divided into two categories:

First is the category of those sources which are absolutely certain and conclusive. They do not admit of a shadow of doubt about their validity. In writing a commentary of the Holy Qur’ān, these sources should be taken guidance from in every situation. A commentary written thus though cannot be expected to be error free because the element of human error cannot be eliminated altogether but it would be more appropriate, if not, in the end result, then at least in the perspective of sources employed to write it.

Second is the category of those sources that are inconclusive. They are helpful in the commentary of the Holy Qur’ān though they cannot be relied upon exclusively because of the element of inherent doubt in them. They have to be employed in the light of the Holy Qur’ān. This means that the text of the Holy Qur’ān will always take precedence should any disparity arise between them both. They have to conform to the Holy Qur’ān in order to attain a legitimate position to lend support in the interpretative process.

I. The Conclusive Sources

There are four absolutely certain and conclusive sources of the commentary of the Holy Qur’ān. Although I will delineate each of them separately, they will be employed consecutively in the commentary of the Holy Qur’ān. It is because of their consecutive use in the commentary that they furnish certitude and conclusiveness. To put in other words, to use them separately is to ruin the certitude of the Holy Qur’ān that they afford us.

1. Language of the Qur’ān

The first source is the language in which the Holy Qur’ān has been revealed. I do not intend to imply that Arabic which is generally written and spoken nowadays. It has little to do with the language of the Holy Qur’ān. The Arabic language in which the Holy Qur’ān has been revealed cannot be found in the journals that are now published in Egypt or Syria nor in the works penned by authors of these regions. For the language of the Holy Qur’ān, we will have to go to Imru’ al-Qays, Labīd, Zuhayr, ‘Amr Ibn Kalthūm, Harith Ibn Hilizzah and discourses of the Arab orators of the times of ignorance.

We will have to gain so much competence in this literature that we become capable of distinguishing the sound from the unsound, while understanding their idioms, appreciating their style of expression, assimilating their criteria of judgement for merits and demerits of a certain piece of literature, absorbing their style of brevity as well as explanation, developing a good knowledge base regarding their historical allusions and other indications. It is obvious that to achieve this capability is no child’s play. But they who want to understand the word of God cannot do otherwise than to acquire this capability in order to fathom the divine scripture. They ought not to confine themselves to making selections from the early translations and commentaries.

It is incumbent on them to interpret a word, an idiom and everything else in the text of the Holy Qur’ān according to the ma‘rūf usage. To interpret these in accordance with rare meanings (shādh) is an egregious mistake, which we must avoid at all cost. It is an undeniable fact about the Holy Qur’ān that it has been revealed in the ma‘rūf diction of the Arabic language. It is devoid of any rare usage of a word or an idiom. Those who did not keep this fact in consideration sometimes interpreted a certain part of the Holy Qur’ān in accordance with the rare usage of a word or idiom. Generally this error does not culminate in a grave outcome except for that the verse/s is not interpreted according to the ma‘rūf usage. But sometimes it does cause a huge loss. So many deviant factions have emerged and taken a strong foothold by virtue of interpreting the verse/s of the Holy Qur’ān according to the shādh usage. In this way, they were able to lend considerable support to their evil propaganda that they launched to destroy Muslims. Having a look at the history of these deviant factions, there remains no doubt as to the impropriety of interpreting thus the Holy Qur’ān.

In the realm of syntax (nahav) of the Holy Qur’ān, it is also safer that we employ this rich source of Arabic literature instead of imitating what grammarians have written in their works. The problem is that our grammarians have included many ma‘rūf usages into rare ones owing to the deficiency in their own research work. Given the irrefutable truth about the Holy Qur’ān that it has been revealed in ma‘rūf Arabic diction of the Arabs, it could not contain any rare or uncommon usage. My mentor Imām Hamīd al-Dīn Farāhī has shown, with his extended research, that many of the usages that the grammarians included in the list of rare ones are, in fact, ma‘rūf. This research endeavour is not merely an effort to help expand the list of ma‘rūf usages while reducing the size of rare usage; rather it impacts upon the interpretative process of the Holy Qur’ān – helpful in identifying the actual purport of the verse/s of the Holy Qur’ān. To relegate this kind of research work by saying that it is purely of an academic interest is not correct.

In the linguistic sciences, we will have to deal with the science of rhetoric especially because we the Muslims maintain that the Holy Qur’ān is a linguistic miracle and assert that it is simply unparalleled insofar its eloquence and rhetoric quality is considered. It is obvious that to appreciate this wondrous feature of the Holy Qur’ān, we will have to learn what this science of rhetoric is all about. Much to our dismay, there is no proper work to help us understand the subtle aspects of the rhetoric of the Holy Qur’ān. There are some books written on the science of rhetoric but they are more or less based on the knowledge imported from ancient Greece. These may be used to assess the level of rhetoric of the Greek literature. But these cannot be used to assess the rhetoric of the Holy Qur’ān. To use this knowledge base as criteria to evaluate the rhetoric of the Holy Qur’ān is like using a scale designed to weigh coal for the purpose of weighing gold. There is no doubt that our grammarians have tried their best to bring this knowledge base partake of the specific taste of the Arabic language so that it could be used to evaluate the quality of the rhetoric of a discourse in Arabic, but they failed to achieve milestones in this journey of theirs. The most they were able to do was to mould it into a form which accommodates Arabic poetry. Their success in this arena was also limited given the disparate nature of the Greek database and the reservoir of Arabic poetry. With the help of such books, what we can do is to appreciate some subtleties of the Arabic poetry. Nothing more. I mean it is not possible to discern the rhetoric subtleties of the Holy Qur’ān with the help of these books. Far from disclosing the beauty of the Qur’ānic rhetoric, it is rather feared that these books will misguide us, of which the extent may be  denial of the Holy Qur’ān as a book embellished with rhetoric and eloquence let alone a linguistic miracle.

The Holy Qur’ān has sprouted from the divine soil of wahī (revelation) and has seen its growth at the hands of the most eloquent and articulate personality of the Arabs – a book that flows more strongly than the currents of violent river and which struck the region of the Arabian Peninsula with more strength and speed than lightening, and changed the entire landscape, an all encompassing transformation of many powerful personalities of this region. To evaluate the qualitative characteristics of such a book with a deficient existing knowledge base is like trying to measure the vastness of the heavens with the scale of an architect.

At this moment, I am delighted to tell you that the book of my mentor Imām Hamīd al-Dīn Farāhī, Jamhurah al-Balāgah, on the rhetoric of the Holy Qur’ān has just been published. In this book, the author has pointed out deficiencies of the literature so far produced on the science of rhetoric, and has proved its uselessness to evaluate the subtleties of the Qur’ānic rhetoric. He has also delineated the correct principles which may be observed while assessing the rhetoric of the Holy Qur’ān. What now remains to be done is to peruse the Holy Qur’ān and Arabic literature in order to collect more examples which may further consolidate the principles described by Imam Farāhī so that students of the discipline of rhetoric may gain maximum benefit from his efforts. By the grace of the Almighty, a considerable size of Arabic literature has just been published, which may be helpful to those who undertake this kind of work.

2. Nazm of the Qur’ān

In interpreting the Holy Qur’ān, the second source which may be an immense source of help and can lead us to the correct purport is the nazm of the Holy Qur’ān. Nazm means that each sūrah of the Holy Qur’ān has a definite ‘umūd or a subject and all the verses of the sūrah, in a very wise arrangement and interrelationships, are weaved into a cohesive net around this subject. When this ‘umūd or subject is discovered through a persistent study of the sūrah, and the interconnection of the verses in the perspective of this subject becomes clear, the sūrah does not remain a collection of disparate verses but comes to be viewed as one cohesive unit. Thus, to understand the Holy Qur’ān, appreciation of the nazm of each sūrah is a prerequisite. As long as this nazm is not discovered, neither the actual worth of the sūrah and the wisdom lying therein can be appreciated nor proper interpretation of the verses in terms of their interconnection can be reached. This is an uphill task, however and perhaps because of this our commentators have paid little attention to this topic. They who felt an urge to do something in this context have spent marginal efforts only, which is why they could not produce any tangible results in this regard. In fact, the sort of relationship that they have shown between verses of a sūrah seems very superficial. This sort of connection can be figured between any two parts of a text, no matter how widely disparate these are. We do not imply this sort of relationship when we speak of the nazm of the Holy Qur’ān. On the contrary, that kind of nazm is implied which is found in a formidable discourse and lofty literature – a reflection of which may be seen in the commentary of the Holy Qur’ān by Imām Hamīd al-Dīn Farāhī.

Since commentators have paid little attention to this aspect of the Holy Qur’ān – in fact some of them have termed incoherence an inextricable feature of the Holy Qur’ān – many people now think that it is futile to look for nazm in the Holy Qur’ān. To try to discover this is “much ado about nothing”, they think. According to them, the Holy Qur’ān is a collection of disparate ethical instructions and discrete religious edicts. Keeping this thing in mind, we ought to recite the Holy Qur’ān, they maintain. It is obvious that such people, who happen to be in great number, cannot appreciate any effort aimed at discovering nazm in the Holy Qur’ān. The need of the hour is to first educate people about this feature of the Holy Qur’ān. Therefore, I will try to explain the concept of nazm in as lucid and cogent a manner as I can in order induce proper understanding of the matter.

1. In this regard, first of all this mistake should be eliminated that the concept of nazm is something novel. Many scholars professed that the Holy Qur’ān is embellished with nazm. In fact, some of them have written exclusive works on the nazm of the Holy Qur’ān. Imām Suyūtī writes:

افرد بالتاليف العلامة ابو جعفر بن الزبير شيخ ابو حيان في كتاب سماه: البرهان في مناسبة ترتيب سور القران و من اهل العصر الشيخ برهان الدين البقاعي في كتاب سماه: نظم الدرر في تناسب الاي والسور.  

 ‘Allamah Abū Ja‘far Sheikh Abū Hayān penned an exclusive work on the nazm of the Holy Qur’ān, of which the title is al-Burhān fī Munāsabah Tartīb-i Suwar al-Qur’ān (Arguments about the Interconnection in the Arrangement of the Sūrahs of the Holy Qur’ān) and from among our contemporaries, Sheikh Burhān al-Dīn al-Baqā‘ī has also written a book for this purpose titled Nazm al-Durar Fī Tanāsub al-Āay wa al-Suwar (Assortment of the Pearls in Arranging the Verses and Sūrahs).5

Imām Suyūtī has also mentioned a book that he himself wrote in which he not only spelled out the nazm of the Holy Qur’ān but also discussed its miraculous aspects. He acknowledged the importance of the nazm of the Holy Qur’ān in the following words:

علم المناسبة علم شريف قل اعتناء المفسرين به لدقته و ممن اكثر منه الامام فخر الدين فقال في تفسيره: اكثر لطائف القران مودعه في الترتيبات والروابط.

The science of interconnection is a noble science. Commentators have scarcely dealt with this for its abstruse nature. Imām Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī has given a lot of attention to this science. According to him, the subtleties of the Holy Qur’ān are buried in the arrangement and interconnection of verses of the Holy Qur’ān.6

No doubt, Imām Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī has paid special attention to the matter of nazm in the Holy Qur’ān. But his efforts have not proved much fruitful because the amount of time and energy required for unfolding the nazm of the Holy Qur’ān cannot be not spared by a busy author like him. How important this matter was to him is evident from his sporadic comments that he penned in his commentary. While interpreting the verse “وَلَوْ جَعَلْنَاهُ قُرْآنًا أَعْجَمِيًّا لَّقَالُوا” (٤١:٤٤), he writes:

نقلوا في سبب نزول هذه الاية ان الكفار لاجل التعنت قالوا لو نزل القران بلغة العجم فنزلت هذه الاية و عندي ان امثال هذه الكلمات فيها حيف عظيم على القران لانه يقتضي ورود ايات لا تعلق للبعض فيها باللبعض وانه يوجب اعظم انواع الطعن فكيف يتم مع التزام مثل هذا الطعن ادعاء كونه كتابا منتظما فضل عن ادعاء كونه معجزا؟ بل الحق عندي ان هذه السورة من اولها الى أخرها كلام واحد.

Some people say that this sūrah has been revealed in response to those people who mischievously used to say that if the Holy Qur’ān had been revealed in some non-Arabic language, it would have been better. To say such things is to do great injustice to the Holy Qur’ān, I daresay. The implication of their saying is that there is no interconnection between the verses of the Holy Qur’ān. To say a thing like this is to level a damaging remark about the holy book. Given this remark, I do not know how it is possible to maintain that the Holy Qur’ān is a well-arranged piece of literature let alone a miraculous divine work. My view is that this sūrah is a cohesive discourse from its beginning till its end7.

After this, he spells out the proper interpretation of the Holy Qur’ān in almost nineteen lines and then says:  

و كل من انصف و لم يتعسف علم انا اذا فسرنا هذه الاية على الوجه الذي ذكرنا صارت هذه السورة من اولها الى أخرها كلاما واحدا منتظما مسوقا نحو غرض واحد

Every just person, who is not used to deny truth, will admit that when this sūrah is interpreted like we have done, it seems a cohesive discourse, dealing with one subject matter and pointing towards one objective in its entirety8.

In this regard, an important personality is that of ‘Allamah Makhdūm Mahā’imī, peace be upon him. He has written a commentary, Tabsīr al-Rahmān wa Taysīr al-Mannān, commonly known as Tafsīr Mahā’imī. In this commentary, he has tried his best to determine the nazm of the Holy Qur’ān. There is however room to ask if he has been successful in his endeavors? If yes, how much? From among his school of thought is another scholar ‘Allamah Walī al-Dīn Malwī. About the nazm of the Holy Qur’ān, he says:

They are mistaken who believe that since the Holy Qur’ān has been revealed in accordance with the circumstances in a piecemeal fashion, it is futile to try to discern nazm of the Holy Qur’ān. There is no doubt about the gradual revelation of the Holy Qur’ān. But it is equally irrefutable that veritable wisdom underlies its present arrangement.

These assertions must be sufficient to prove that Imām Hamīd al-Dīn Farāhī and his disciples are not alone in professing this permanent property of nazm for the Holy Qur’ān; there are indeed other people as well who have felt it and given their testimony about it.

Another important fact is that the scholars who have denied nazm they too have felt its importance for a discourse. This is the reason that when they give preference to one interpretation over the other, they usually plead context. It is obvious that to use context as evidence presupposes meaningful interconnection of the parts of a whole. Of famous commentaries, Jāma‘ al-Bayān of Ibn Jarīr Tabarī and Kashshāf of Imām Zamakhsharī are two prominent examples in this regard. On many occasions, both of them give preference to that interpretation from among different interpretations which has close affinity with the nazm of the Holy Qur’ān. This is a telling example that although they were not able to fully unfold the nazm of the Holy Qur’ān, they took full advantage of the nazm where it was helpful in deciding about a given interpretation. This further implies that nazm was an inextricable property of the Qur’ānic discourse – as strong textual evidence as anything else. I have deliberately not touched upon the viewpoint of Imām Rāzī here because he has a totally different stance than that of these two revered scholars. He seems fully convinced of the necessity and overriding importance of the nazm of the Holy Qur’ān as is clear from his different statements. In fact, he has tried to interpret the Holy Qur’ān mostly in the light of the nazm though he has not been able to give concrete results as regards this specific property of the Holy Qur’ān.

Despite considering the necessity and importance of nazm, those who say that the Holy Qur’ān is devoid of it have presented a very weak argument in favor of it. I do not know how they could themselves feel convinced by this argument not to speak of others. They assert that the Holy Qur’ān has been revealed piecemeal in accordance with the circumstances. Given this undeniable fact, the Holy Qur’ān could not be like a coherent and organized discourse, they maintain. The fact that some of the lengthy sūrahs and many of the short sūrahs were revealed at once is enough to repudiate this argument. Why? This is because they could not say at least about these sūrahs that they were revealed piecemeal, of which the corollary, according to them, is a disintegrated discourse. On the basis of this fact, Imām Rāzī has raised the question, which has been quoted a little earlier.

To my mind, there is no reason why these people should deny the Holy Qur’ān this property of nazm. This denial perhaps stems from their concerns about the sanctity of the Holy Qur’ān. Perhaps they thought that they would have to disclose nazm at each step during the interpretation of the Holy Qur’ān if they acceded to this viewpoint; this means failure to do so might damage the sanctity of the Holy Qur’ān and might also cause irreparable loss to the entire Muslim ummah. This is how they must have been moved to deny it. Their motive is praiseworthy, no doubt. But they have given rise to many insoluble problems. In fact, the damage that they have caused to the ummah is much greater than the potential loss that otherwise might have been sustained. They should have been upfront in this regard. Where it was possible for them to describe the nazm they should have; and where it was not, they should have admitted their own deficieny instead of stigmatizing the Holy Scripture on account of their own deficiency.

3. People who have studied the anecdote of the collection and arrangement of the Holy Qur’ān cannot dispute the fact that though it has been revealed in a gradual manner, the Holy Prophet (sws) determined the arrangement of verses of the Holy Qur’ān. Whenever a revelation descended upon him, he would ordain where it had to be placed in the Holy Qur’ān by issuing instructions to the scribes to write these verses at a particular point in a particular sūrah. Following his instructions, they would write the verses at the ordained place. Hence there is a consensus among the entire ummah that the arrangement of the Holy Qur’ān has been done in accordance with how the Holy Propet (sws) ordained. The question is that if the Holy Qur’ān is a haphazard collection of verses why did the Holy Prophet (sws) ordain the particular position of verses of the Holy Qur’ān. In the absence of any deliberate post revelation arrangement, the best arrangement could only be the chronological arrangement. Every revelation that would descend down could have been placed next to the previous revelation without thinking. Therefore, the question is that why was a fresh arrangement made post revelation. There can be only one correct answer to this question: this fresh arrangement is based on a meaningful interconnection and correspondence of the verses of the Holy Qur’ān. The quotation that we have given above of ‘Allāmah Malwī also refers to this fact.

This viewpoint is also strengthened by the fact that the verse/s promulgating some reduction or amendment in a directive given previously were placed adjacent to the verse/s which were describing the original edict of the Almighty. For this, several examples can be traced in the Holy Qur’ān. And where this was not followed, it was not done at the expense of the nazm, rest assured.

4. The division of the Holy Qur’ān into sūrahs and the variation in the size of the sūrahs are also strong evidence that the Holy Qur’ān is adorned with nazm. Had it been devoid of any nazm why was this division made? Every sensible person can understand that there was no need to make distinction in the contents of the Holy Qur’ān in terms of sūrahs if there was no meaningful shift in their discourse, and there was no exclusive ‘umūd for each sūrah as a specific unit. In the absence of nazm, it would have been more convenient that the Holy Qur’ān could be divided into equal parts for the purpose of recital and memorization. When this was not done and contents of the Holy Qur’ān were rather divided into different sūrah of varied sizes, there could be no other reason than that these sūrahs were exclusive units in terms of their subject matter.

5. The present arrangement of the sūrahs, found invariably in all suhuf (copies of the Holy Qur’ān) without any disagreement, is yet another cogent argument for the nazm of the Holy Qur’ān. I mean why do all copies of the Holy Qur’ān without any variation contain sūrahs in the same arrangement. If their arrangement was not part of the divine scheme of the collection and arrangement of the Holy Qur’ān, there was no reason to preserve it so strictly as to pre-empt a single variation. These sūrahs could have been arranged in accordance with their size, if nothing else. But it was not done so. For instance, Sūrah Fātihah is placed before the Sūrah Baqarah when there was a world of difference in their respective sizes. Similarly, Sūrah Kawthar, which is the smallest sūrah of the Holy Qur’ān has been placed before many comparatively lengthy sūrahs of the Holy Qur’ān. It is also a fact that this arrangement is not in accordance with the time of revelation. Because given the chronological arrangement, Sūrah Iqra’ should have been placed first as per the famous report about the first revelation of the Holy Qur’ān. But everyone knows that it has been placed in the last juz’ of the Holy Qur’ān. This state of affairs compels us to look for some other reason for the present arrangement than the supposed chronological or size-wise arrangement. According to our study and analysis, this arrangement owes itself to the meaningful affinity of the sūrahs with each other. Here someone may object: since the present arrangement of the sūrahs was determined by the Companions (rta) after the demise of the Holy Prophet (sws), it is vain to look for some divine wisdom behind this arrangement. I have reason to dispense with this objection. Firstly, the present arrangement of the sūrahs was determined by the Holy Prophet (sws). Secondly, granting that it was determined by the Companions (rta), how is it entailed that this was done haphazardly without taking into account their affinity with each other? Everyone knows that when a controversy arose about the placement of the Sūrah Tawbah it was resolved only in the light of the nazm of the Holy Qur’ān; owing to the affinity of its subject matter with that of Sūrah Anfāl, it was placed right after this latter sūrah.

I have said this thing only in view of the opinion of those people who say that the arrangement of the sūrahs was determined by the Companions (rta) after the departure of the Holy Prophet (sws). As far as our opinion is concerned, we believe that this arrangement was determined by the Holy Prophet (sws) as per God’s instructions. Our viewpoint is proven by both the Holy Qur’ān and the Hadīth narratives.

The Almighty says in the Holy Qur’ān:

إِنَّ عَلَيْنَا جَمْعَهُ وَقُرْآنَهُ  فَإِذَا قَرَأْنَاهُ فَاتَّبِعْ قُرْآنَهُ ثُمَّ إِنَّ عَلَيْنَا بَيَانَهُ (٧٥: ١٧-١٩)

It is our responsibility to collect it and recite it to you. And when we have recited it to you, follow this recital. And then it is our responsibility to give further explanation, if needed. (75:17-19)

Ustādh Imām Hamīd al-Dīn Farāhī has written the following note while interpreting this verse:

There are three points that have been reinforced in these verses. The first is that the Holy Qur’ān would be recited to the Holy Prophet (sws) in his life time, after compiling it in a particular arrangement. Because if this were to be done after his demise, he could not be directed to follow the fresh recital.

The second is that the Holy Prophet (sws) was bound to recite the Holy Qur’ān to his followers after this fresh recital. And this is simply impossible by virtue of textual as well as rational arguments that he should refrain from propagating that which he received from the Almighty. The Holy Qur’ān says:

يَا أَيُّهَا الرَّسُولُ بَلِّغْ مَا أُنزِلَ إِلَيْكَ مِن رَّبِّكَ وَإِن لَّمْ تَفْعَلْ فَمَا بَلَّغْتَ رِسَالَتَهُ (٦٧:٥)

O Messenger! Disseminate that which has been revealed to you from your Lord, for if you did it not, you would not have conveyed His message. (5:67)

This verse necessitates that the Holy Prophet (sws) must have read out the Holy Qur’ān to his followers after this last fresh recital by the Almighty to the Holy Prophet (sws) – a recital which was recorded in the lawh-i mahfūz. It is imperative that this recital should be according to the original.

The third is that whatever directive that the Almighty wanted to particularize or generalize, he did accordingly after this last fresh recital.

The Holy Qur’ān underwent all these phases during the times of the Holy Prophet (sws), indeed. Everyone knows the fact that the Holy Prophet (sws) used to read out complete sūrahs to his people. And this could not be possible unless the Holy Qur’ān must have been recited to the Holy Prophet (sws) in a particular arrangement. Following this arrangement, his Companions learnt the Holy Qur’ān from him. According to many narratives, we know that the Holy Prophet (sws) used to give instructions about where to place a specific verse/s, which the scribes followed in letter and spirit. Any explanatory verse/s that were revealed thereafter was documented at some suitable place. On this pattern, when the whole of the Qur’ān was completed, Gabriel read it out altogether to the Holy Prophet (sws) for the last time.

After appreciating this fact about the Holy Qur’ān, many of the questions about the nazm of the Holy Qur’ān stand resolved9.

The research of Ustādh Imām given above, which he has construed from the text of the Holy Qur’ān itself, proves beyond a shadow of doubt that the present arrangement of the Holy Qur’ān was completed during the times of the Holy Prophet (sws) in accordance with the divine guidance. However, since the literacy rate during those times was substantially low and paper was also a scarce resource, the Holy Qur’ān, for a long period of time, was inscribed only onto palm leaves, bones, and tablets, as well as hearts of huffāz (people who memorize the Holy Qur’ān). What Abū Bakr (rta) did was that he arranged for the whole of the Holy Qur’ān to be written in one bound volume as per the format in which it was written during the times of the Holy Prophet (sws). And what ‘Uthmān (rta) did was to have several copies of this volume dispatched to different important regions across the Muslim empire.

6. Another convincing argument about the nazm of the Holy Qur’ān is a consensus about it that it is a quintessential discourse. Anything devoid of nazm cannot be called formidable. In other words, the essence of a discourse is the nazm with which it is embellished. To deprive it of this nazm means to cause irreparable loss to not only its literary properties but also to its structural and thematic characteristics. People usually attribute to triviality that which is devoid of nazm, and they try to avoid spendig a moment to study it. Everyone knows that the Holy Qur’ān challenged the Arabs to bring a sūrah like that of the Holy Qur’ān but they failed to come up with even a small sūrah despite their pride on being superb literati, having intimate awareness of the delicacies of eloquence and rhetoric. In view of this formidable status that the Holy Qur’ān enjoys, the first thing that it should necessarily have is nazm. This is because a book which is a collection of disparate verses could not be expected to mesmerize the eloquent Arabs.

At the expense of repetition, I want to reiterate that the fundamental property of the Holy Qur’ān which the Arabs found unparalleled to match during this challenge was nothing else than the nazm of the Holy Qur’ān – the miraculous feature of this divine literature. It is proved by the fact that whenever the Holy Qur’ān challenged them, it asked them to bring forth a book like it or ten sūrahs or a discourse (hadīth min mithalihī) or at least one sūrah like it. It never asked them to bring anything less than this for it could not be expected to contain that beauty of formidable literature – the property of nazm. There is a consensus among all the eloquent people, whether Arabs or non-Arabs, that the essence of a discourse is the nazm that it has, from which all its merits flow. He, who has doubt about this thing, should take a piece of literature of any expert rhetorician and jumble it up and then try to assess the extent of its worth that it has lost only by this act.

I have presented only some of the arguments before you to eliminate all doubt about the Holy Qur’ān that it is not an integrated discourse, and erase this erroneous notion that disjointedness of contents is what the real property of the Holy Qur’ān is. I hope that you must now be able to confidently believe that the hallmark of the Holy Qur’ān is its nazm, which should have a permanent bearing upon the interpretative process.

Principles to discern Nazm

To describe the principles of how to discern nazm is more important than to enumerate the arguments in order to substantiate its existence in the Holy Qur’ān. A person does not feel compelled to deny nazm in the Holy Qur’ān because he does not appreciate its need and import or is not able to see the strength of the arguments in its favour. More often than not, he denies it because he fails to find it in the Holy Qur’ān for to discern it is really an uphill task. Should it become somewhat easier to find, I am hopeful that this will definitely reflect in people’s assessment of its key role in understanding the Holy Qur’ān.

I find it really hard in this brief lecture to describe all the principles helpful in discerning the nazm of the Holy Qur’ān. The truth of the matter is that even several rounds of discussion, though can be more helpful, are not enough to gain fuller appreciation of these principles. For this type of work, the right approach is to first impart to you a proper understanding of these principles, and then help you practice them in order to fully assimilate them. As far as the matter of understanding the property of nazm is considered, you may consult academic works of Imām Hamīd al-Dīn Farāhī, who have tirelessly served the cause of the Holy Qur’ān in this age. Particularly, if his work on the nazm of the Holy Qur’ān, Dalā’il Nizām al-Qur’ān, is published, I do not see any hurdle in getting full understanding of these principles. However, to practice these principles and employ them during your study depend upon your own intellectual curiosity. In this short lecture, what I can do for you is that I briefly explain certain salient principles that may help you build further understanding of the matter at hand. During a study of the Holy Qur’ān, I think there are three major hurdles which one has to face. My focus, while delineating the principles, would be on these hurdles for I believe that their elimination is tantamount to removing almost all possible problems.

The first hurdle is the specific diction of the Holy Qur’ān because of which people find it difficult to discern the nazm. They fall terribly short of the particular style of expression of the Holy Qur’ān. Actually there is a world of difference between how we speak or write and how the Holy Qur’ān in particular and the Arabs of the classical age in general would speak and write. This difference is not simply the difference in terms of language but in terms of style and taste. Since we do not get acquainted with this style and taste of the Arabs of the classical times, we have to face a lot of problems while studying the Holy Qur’ān, which is altogether immersed in that style and taste. They who have been in touch with classical Arabic literature know how the Arabs initiate a discourse and then make several digressions and then return to the initial point from where they started. On the one hand, there is vastness of the subject matter and on the other hand, there is brevity and conciseness, which the experts of Arabic language can conveniently appreciate to the exclusion of other people. Sometimes, the Arabs mention a thing and present immediately thereafter an argument to substantiate it without informing the audience that it is an argument for the thing just mentioned. It is left to the intellect of the audience to understand them on the basis of the occasion of speech (mawqa‘ kalām ). Similarly, they give an answer but do not specify the objection or the question to which it is an answer. It is again the curious ability and intellectual wisdom of the audience to determine it on the basis of the context. Sometimes, a discourse is initiated with a specific point and then digression comes, which at times, prolong so much that if the audience is not cautious they are bound to lose sight of the original point. Similarly, an anecdote would be narrated but all the links which an intelligent audience can of themselves create would be left out quite unhesitatingly. Sometimes, something would be said with a view to achieve certain results without giving a slightest hint about those results.

These and many other similar things cannot be appreciated unless we fully immerse in the Arabic literature and rhetoric discourses of the orators of the classical age. Since the Holy Qur’ān is the paragon of all sublime qualities of the classical Arabic, full knowledge of it should be acquired to help in studying the Holy Qur’ān.

The second hurdle is that people have not been able to appreciate what kind of literature the Holy Qur’ān is. This is the reason that their efforts to look for nazm have not been fruitful. Therefore, it is a question of paramount importance whether the Holy Qur’ān belongs to the genre of scientific literature or that of poets or oracles or is it similar to the discourse of orators? The disbelievers used to compare it with the rhymed discourse (saja‘) of poets and/or oracles and today, try to equate it with any scientific work on law and order. The truth of the matter is that both of these groups are awfully mistaken. If anything in the external world comparable to the Holy Qur’ān exists, it is the discourse of the orators of the classical age. But it should be noted that it is just a comparison with a closest possible peer. The Holy Qur’ān does not totally and exclusively stand comparable with their discourse. Therefore, it is not right to say that the Holy Qur’ān completely mirrors the oratorical literature of the classical age.

To maintain that the Holy Qur’ān has a sort of affinity with speeches of the Arab orators means that it cannot be disentangled from its specific milieu in which it speaks. Given this characteristic of the Holy Qur’ān, the importance of fully understanding this milieu cannot be emphasized more than what it speaks for itself. This goes without saying that the Holy Qur’ān is a self sufficient source insofar as this matter is considered. The light of the Holy Qur’ān shines and all requisite details become visible to the eye. One is only required to identify that which is entailed by the text of the Holy Qur’ān. Once it is done accurately, the nazm of the Holy Qur’ān becomes so apparent in such a detailed form, intertwined with its specific context, that the reader immediately recognizes it and feels that the text under his consideration has been carved for only what he construes.

Some people rely upon narratives of shān-i nuzūl (occasion of revelation) in order to identify what is entailed by the text of the Holy Qur’ān – the narratives which are found in the commentaries of the Holy Qur’ān. This is not the right approach. These narratives have played a great role in distorting the nazm of the Holy Qur’ān, the narratives which are mostly baseless trivialities. The correct approach is therefore that we should identify the milieu directly from the Holy Qur’ān. As we find out who are they that the Holy Qur’ān is addressing, whether directly or indirectly, and what are the circumstances which the addressees are facing, what are the questions that have poped up, to which proper response is awaited by both friends and foes, and how critical the latter’s antagonism has become; who are included in the circle of friends and how many parties have joined the ranks of the enemies and what tactics of warfare they are planning on; they who are allies, what is their stance in the given situation – once all this is found out, the nazm of the Holy Qur’ān of necessity unveils itself. The things that I have mentioned are alluded to by the text of the Holy Qur’ān itself. It only needs some effort on the part of the reader to identify them – identification which culminates in unveiling the nazm of the Holy Qur’ān. To study the Holy Qur’ān thus leaves such enduring effects upon our hearts as may be elicited by an inspiring oratory of an expert orator.

The third problem in this regard is to know who from among the audience of the Holy Qur’ān is being addressed in a given verse/s. He who ponders on the Holy Qur’ān faces no more an acute problem than the identification of the addressees; he comes to observe that the Holy Qur’ān changes its addressees every now and then, so much so that this change is found even in a single verse. At some instances, Muslims are addressed and at others polytheists. Sometimes, the People of the Book are spoken to and at others Muslims are addressed. At times, the singular form of address is employed and at others the plural. On similar lines, change also occurs in the addresser as well. Now Allah is the speaker and now words flow from the tongue of the Holy Prophet (sws). Now Gabriel is doing the talking and now again the Holy Prophet (sws). This change in both the speaker as well as the spoken to upsets dabblers. In fact, owing to this change, it is really difficult to correctly follow the nazm of the Holy Qur’ān.

To know that the Holy Qur’ān has a sort of affinity with the oratorical literature should remove some of the confusions regarding this change in address. What do orators do to mark a shift in their address? They indicate it by simply changing their posture, twisting their eyebrows, changing the tone of their speech, and through subtle inclination towards that which they desire. In like manner, the Holy Qur’ān alludes to the change that it brings in its address. Should the reader be vigilant as to this characteristic of the Holy Qur’ān, any shift in address does not obscure the discourse. He walks with its flow and faces no difficulty in identifying specific addressees of the Holy Qur’ān. However, there are certain aspects of this change in address which may still elude his mind unless he rehearses enough to enable himself to capture them.

I quote here an excerpt from the prolegomena of the commentary of Imām Hamīd al-Dīn Farāhi, Tafsīr Nizām al-Qur’ān, which is very helpful in resolving most of the difficulties regarding Qur’ānic style of change in address:

There is a consensus among the Muslims that the Holy Qur’ān is a divine discourse, which the Almighty revealed to the Holy Prophet (sws). This does not however entail that the entire discourse is issued from the Almighty alone. For instance, it contains expressions like إِيَّاكَ نَعْبُد (You alone we worship) (1:5). It is obvious that this part is spoken by the servants of Allah. Scholars describe this thing as that the Almighty taught mankind to utter this like he said: “say”. No doubt, a question arises about how we can suppose that there is something like “say” when it is not there. It is a valid question. But a question also arises about identification of addressees of the Holy Qur’ān; how do we identify them? There are two things to consider in a book: The first thing is to identify who is the speaker and the second is who is the spoken to. The truth about both of them is that although they are sometimes general in nature, the intention is particular. And, sometimes, they are particular but the intention is general. Since in knowing this change of address and the actual intention as to general/particular lies the purport of the text, it is of utmost importance to lay down such principles as may be helpful in this endeavour. In an address, there is an origin (masdar) and an end (muntahā). This origin could be either Allah the Almighty, Gabriel or the Holy Prophet (sws). Similarly, the end could be either Allah, or the Holy Prophet (sws) or people. From among people, it could be either Muslims, or hypocrites, or the People of the Book, or the progeny of Ishmaelite, or a combination of these groups or all of them together. From among the People of the Book, it could be either Jews or Christians or both of them. These are the apparent forms. But confusion or uncertainty still has to be faced for the identification thereof. For instance, there could be some confusion in identification of the origin whether it is the Lord, the Archangel, or the Holy Prophet. He who studies the Holy Qur’ān without vigilance, will find it difficult to distinguish the speaker from this trio. The Holy Prophet (sws) and the archangel both are the messengers of God. Sometimes, they just narrate the saying of their sender and sometimes, of their own accord, say that which Almighty puts into their mouth. Given the status of Gabriel as the messenger of God, he sometimes conveys to the Holy Prophet (sws) the message of the Almighty and sometimes says something as a teacher to the Holy Prophet (sws). The Holy Qur’ān is the admixture of all these things which appear in it without a word of caution. Therefore it becomes very difficult to pinpoint them. It is only the context that can help us in this regard. Needless to say that this is not something peculiar to the Holy Qur’ān. It is an inextricable property of the entire portfolio of divine discourses.

The guiding principle in this regard is that when a discourse originates from the Almighty, it portrays might, potency, grandeur and authority. Consequently, there is reason to believe that such discourse appears on very occasional times but in a very conspicuous manner. Let us understand this through an illustration. Sūrah ‘Alaq begins with words as revealed by the Archangel. As the sūrah reaches the point where the disbelievers elicit the divine rage, the Almighty directly takes control of the discourse and says: “كَلَّا لَئِن لَّمْ يَنتَهِ لَنَسْفَعًا بِالنَّاصِيَةِ” (Nay! If he ceases not, we will seize him by the forelock).

In case of the “end”, confusion usually arises in the identification of whether it is the believers in general or the Holy Prophet (sws) himself. Sometimes, it appears that the Holy Prophet is being addressed when, in reality, it is the believers who are the end audience. In such a case, the example of the Holy Prophet (sws) is like that of a representative, who by virtue of his position, is supposed to listen to or speak on behalf of his nation. This is why he is addressed on such occasions. The Torah also contains many examples of this kind where Moses is being addressed singularly when the intention is to say something to his nation. Whenever this happens in the Holy Qur’ān, it can be discerned by pondering the context and occasion (mawqa‘ wa mahal) of the discourse. In Sūrah Tawbah, this verse is a typical example:

إِن تُصِبْكَ حَسَنَةٌ تَسُؤْهُمْ وَإِن تُصِبْكَ مُصِيبَةٌ يَقُولُواْ قَدْ أَخَذْنَا أَمْرَنَا مِن قَبْلُ (٥٠:٩)

If good comes to you [O Muhammad] it pains them, and if calamity befalls you, they say: “very good! We took precaution already.” (9:50)

In this verse, the address is in the singular form but it is believers who are ultimately intended by this verse. Why? The next verse which responds to this verse under consideration affirms our understanding. The Lord says:

قُل لَّن يُصِيبَنَا إِلاَّ مَا كَتَبَ اللّهُ لَنَا هُوَ مَوْلاَنَا وَعَلَى اللّهِ فَلْيَتَوَكَّلِ الْمُؤْمِنُونَ (٥١:٩)

Say: Nothing befalls us save that which Allah has decreed for us. He is our protecting master. In Allah let believers put their trust! (9:51)

Similarly, although it is apparently the Holy Prophet (sws) who has been addressed in Sūrah Banī Israel, yet the discourse is actually directed towards the believers.

إِمَّا يَبْلُغَنَّ عِندَكَ الْكِبَرَ أَحَدُهُمَا أَوْ كِلاَهُمَا فَلاَ تَقُل لَّهُمَا أُفٍّ وَلاَ تَنْهَرْهُمَا وَقُل لَّهُمَا قَوْلاً كَرِيمًا (٢٣:١٧)

If one of them or both of them to attain old age before you, say not “Fie” to them nor repulse them, but speak to them a gracious word. (17:23)

There are so many examples where the address is specific but the intention is general.

3. The Holy Qur’ān

The third conclusive source for the commentary of the Holy Qur’ān is the Holy Qur’ān itself. The Holy Qur’ān has presented itself as a book that explains itself (kitāban mutashābihan). This means that one part of this book is replica of another. It should be appreciated that in the Holy Qur’ān while one point is mentioned briefly on one occasion, it is explained in a fair detail at another; somewhere it comes by way of merely a claim, and elsewhere it is supported by corroborative evidence. To present one point in different ways is helpful in proper communication thereof; this is very helpful in facilitating understanding of the issue at hand because one aspect missed at one instance is likely to be captured at another. This is why it is emphasized that the Holy Qur’ān per se is a very helpful source for commentary thereof. He who endeavours to solve the interpretative problems that he encounters with the help of the Holy Qur’ān finds that the nazm which he was not able to discern at one point became evident to him at another point or the evidence which he did not see along with one claim of the Holy Qur’ān came his way at another place in the Holy Qur’ān. So much so that the linguistic difficulties of the Holy Qur’ān are cleared up by continuing to ponder other similar linguistic expressions. Since the text of the Holy Qur’ān is conclusively certain, the explanations that it offers is nothing less than a certain body of knowledge. As a consequence, a dissident, no matter how diehard he is, dares not to question the soundness of this knowledge.

4. The Mutawātir and Mashhūr Sunnah

The fourth certain source for the commentary of the Holy Qur’ān is mutawātir & mashhūr sunnah. Insofar as the matter of Qur’ānic terms like, salah (the ritual prayer), zakāh (the alms tax), sawm (the fast), hajj (the pilgrimage), qurbānī (animal sacrifice), masjid-i harām (the sacred mosque of Makkah), safā (a place within the precincts of ka‘bah), marwah (another place within the precincts of ka‘bah), sa‘ī (walk between safā and places) and marwah, and tawāf (circumambulation of the ka‘bah) is concerned, these should be explained in the light of this Sunnah. The reason is that the Holy Prophet (sws) only has the prerogative to explain what is meant by these terms. The only thing that remains in this regard is to establish the authenticity of these explanations as coming down to us from the Holy Prophet (sws). The truth of the matter is that there is no way to question the authenticity of these explanations because they have been preserved in the ritual practices performed across the Muslim world. These practices have come down to us through the same channel of transmission, tawātur10, by which the Holy Qur’ān has reached us. Hence the channel which has been instrumental in preserving the text of the Holy Qur’ān has transmitted to us the meaning and significance of these terms. Therefore, he who concedes the credibility of the Holy Qur’ān cannot doubt the authenticity of the meaning and significance of these terms. To repose faith in the Holy Qur’ān makes it indispensable for him to believe in the knowledge based on Sunnah. Some minor differences in the specific form of Sunnah do not have any importance at all in our religion. All Muslims know for sure that they are obligated to offer five ritual prayers daily – they know this with such certainty as they know the Holy Qur’ān. The question whether Āmīn (amen) should be said slowly or loudly though constitutes a difference of opinion is of little significance, especially when they emanate from solitary reports and not from tawātur. In such matters of secondary importance, an individual has an option to choose what he considers sound without confronting others who adopt the opposite viewpoint. It should however remain clear that to reject that body of Islamic knowledge which is sanctified by tawātur is tantamount to denying the Holy Qur’ān itself – heresy for which there is no room in our religion.

The munkarīn-i hadīth11 have become so audacious and daring that they set aside the mutawātir12 meaning of terms like sawm, salah, hajj, zakāh, ‘umrah and qurbānī and go on describing their self-conceived meanings compatible with their wishes. As explained earlier, this is nothing less than denying the Holy Qur’ān itself. The reason is that the channel which has transmitted the Holy Qur’ān has been instrumental in transmitting the meanings of these terms; not to accept them leaves you with no option to embrace the Holy Qur’ān. The kind of academic blunder that the ignorant from among this group has made in their efforts to distort meanings of these terms, which are otherwise established through a conclusive channel of transmission, can be gauged from the various articles that they have inked about qurbānī, as published in newspapers from time to time. In an effort to broaden the scope of their evil work, they are now questioning the established meaning of words like dunyā (temporal world) and ākhirah (the eternal world). According to them, dunyā means “present” and ākhirah means “future”. Now the directive that we should spend in the way of Allah in order to attain the blessings of ākhirah means that we should not spend every penny here and now but saves something in order to live a better life in future.

In this regard, Imām Hamīd al-Dīn Farāhī has written the following note in the prolegomena of his commentary:

In like manner, all terms of the Islamic sharī‘ah as salah, zakāh, jihād, sawm, hajj, masjid-i harām, safā, marwah, and manasik-i hajj and all those acts which are related to them have been preserved from the earlier generations to the present by the mode of tawātur and tawāruth. Minor differences about them are not really considerable. For instance, everyone knows the meaning of lion though there are minor differences as to the exact shape and form of loins of different regions. Similarly, the ritual prayer which is required to be said is exactly the same which the Muslims say, though there are marginal differences in the form of the prayer that they say. They who go after them in an effort to probe them are utterly unaware of the nature of this dīn-i qayyam (straight religion), as preached by the Holy Qur’ān.

Hence the befitting attitude is to hold on to that part which is common among all the Muslims when a question arises as to the exact form and structure of these terms. To insist on what is prescribed by solitary reports is not appropriate. Because this will lead us to the terrible pit of confusion and doubt and make us pass judgements against the deeds of other people, and there would be nothing which could decide what is right and what wrong.

II. The Inconclusive Sources

Now a word about the zanī (inconclusive) sources available for the commentary of the Holy Qur’ān. By zanī is meant that these sources do not confer absolute certitude on the student of the Holy Qur’ān on a stand alone basis; rather because they admit of a certain amount of doubt, they can be relied upon insofar as they fit in well with the text of the Holy Qur’ān. Should these sources say something in contrary to the Holy Qur’ān, the latter shall take precedence. Following is a brief description of these sources.

1. The Hadīth Literature

From among all inconclusive sources, the most sacrosanct and hallowed is the corpus of Prophetic traditions and the sayings of the Companions (rta). In case this corpus had not fallen short of the established criteria of authenticity, it would have possessed as much importance and preference as the mutawātir Sunnah. But since this element of doubt about their soundness is not eliminated absolutely, whatever this source offers can only be accepted insofar as it conforms to the conclusive sources. They who exaggerate to give overriding importance to this corpus not only harm the Holy Qur’ān but also fail to raise the status of this corpus in real terms. On the contrary, those who totally deny any role of the Hadīth literature in the study of the Holy Qur’ān deprive themselves of the sublime light that this literature provides to help unravel many references and allusions of the Holy Qur’ān. The middle-of-the- road approach is that we should take as much help from this literature as required in unfolding the allusions of the Holy Qur’ān; anything else should be ignored altogether. When a sound Hadīth appears to contradict the Holy Qur’ān, we should not reject it outrightly but deliberate further; we should only set aside it when there is no way to find some explanation of this Hadīth in the light of the Holy Qur’ān or that this Hadīth contravenes some fundamental postulate of the religion of Islam. Inasmuch as the matter of sound Hadīth narratives is considered, there is seldom any dichotomy between them and the message of the Holy Qur’ān, which cannot be explained away. Nonetheless, it should be remembered that the Holy Qur’ān has overriding importance on all such occasions – never to be lost sight of.

There is another thing that needs to be appreciated in case of narratives of shān-i nuzūl (occasion of revelation); besides establishing the authenticity of their chain of reporting, it should be kept in mind that all narratives of this category do not necessarily explain the first cause of revelation of a certain verse/s of the Holy Qur’ān; rather these narratives usually purport to convey the circumstances for which the related verse/s contain some instruction or edict. This is something which has been reinforced by many a great commentator. To embrace this viewpoint is to escape most of the problems encountered usually during the study of the Holy Qur’ān.

Recourse to narratives of shān-i nuzūl is only indispensable where the Holy Qur’ān makes an allusion to a certain event or incident. For instance, the Holy Qur’ān has made certain allusions to some events in Sūrah Tahrīm. Details of such events must be sought from the Hadīth literature inasmuch as these lie in conformity with the Holy Qur’ān. This follows that such details as the text of the Holy Qur’ān does not admit of or which mar the character of those personalities that are sanctified by the Holy Qur’ān itself should be rejected outrightly.

2. Established History

The second inconclusive source which may be helpful in the commentary of the Holy Qur’ān is the established history of nations. The Holy Qur’ān has referred to the history of various peoples in different ways. Sometimes allusion is made to calamities that befell the predecessors of the Arabs like the ‘Ād, the Thamūd, the people of Madyan, and the nation of Lūt (sws). Sometimes the Holy Qur’ān draws attention to the arrival of Abraham (sws) along with his son Ishmael into Makkah, the times of their stay in that region and the construction of the Ka‘bah. At other times, the milestones of the history of the People of the Book are invoked side by side making allusions to certain events of contemporary nations. In a nutshell, the Holy Qur’ān in spite of having nothing to do with history as such involves many historical things. To get full insight into them, we need to have general acquaintance with the history and specific circumstances of those particular nations. Otherwise, the lessons or conclusions which the Holy Qur’ān aims to draw by referring to their history may be lost upon the readers.

Hence there is no doubt that we depend upon this source in order to fully grasp the purport of the Holy Qur’ān. However, this does not mean that it has preference over the Holy Qur’ān, should any disagreement arise. This follows that the Holy Qur’ān is the ultimate criterion to judge any information emanating from this source; whatever lies in agreement with the Holy Qur’ān will be accepted and whatever differs will be rejected.

Seen in this perspective, the Holy Qur’ān is the great benefactor of mankind not only in the arena of true divine guidance but also in the realm of historical knowledge, for both of which humans cannot thank enough the Almighty. The discipline of human history was so pathetic that whatever distilled from it was nothing more than fiction, and which  catered to the false pride of people; to brag about their predecessors was the ultimate use of history to people. When the Holy Qur’ān emerged, it gave a fresh look to the entire landscape of human history; it narrated the ups and downs of human history in such illustrious manner as to draw effective lessons for the audience and, with strong arguments, cemented its stance that prosperity is but a function of the ethical status of a people. By giving this new tinge to human history, the Holy Qur’ān turned a futile corpus of history into a precious resource for the guidance of mankind. The special benefit in this regard goes to the history of the Israelites and the Ishmaelites, for which descendants of these two nations in particular and the rest of the world in general stand obliged. I say this because their history was not merely an itinerary of events; it was a sacerdotal record of the days of the apostles of God that came to both of these nations. For their history to get distorted, as it did in the hands of the Arabs and the Jews, was a grave loss for the whole world. It meant that all landmarks which led to the right path were lost upon the righteous servants of the Almighty. An immense credit goes to the Holy Qur’ān that it restored these landmarks for never to disappear again, to be always there to guide people till the end of time.

3. Previous Divine Scriptures

The third inconclusive source for the commentary of the Holy Qur’ān is the previous divine scriptures. No one disputes the fact that the Holy Prophet (sws) is but one member of the sacred group of God’s apostles and that the Holy Qur’ān is a divine book like other scriptures revealed to prophets. Given consensus on this, a lot of help may be sought from the extant scriptures. True, in order to know the truth from the falsehood, we are not in need of these scriptures. For guidance as to the truth, the Holy Qur’ān, devoid of any shortcoming, is sufficient for us. We do not need stars after sunrise; much less we need these scriptures after the dawn of the Holy Qur’ān. Nonetheless, there are certain incidental benefits which we may draw from them for gaining full understanding of the message of the Holy Qur’ān.

Firstly, to make out some allusions of the Holy Qur’ān, our commentators have to accept some narratives reported by the People of the Book; but since these narratives are nothing more than hearsay, they do not confer any certitude nor do they constitute an argument against the People of the Book because any claim made on their basis would be as shaky as these narratives are. This calls for our direct study of their scriptures so that we could come up with solid information to say anything at all.

Secondly, the Holy Qur’ān completes the message of all the previous scriptures; it amends whatever was changed in them. Consequently, when someone reads the Holy Qur’ān along with these scriptures, they come to realize its due importance and authority; the blessing poured out on this ummah in the form of this Qur’ān is also unfolded so as to become a revealing experience.

Thirdly, the Holy Qur’ān has referred to many historical events while divulging divine edicts or narrating some illustrative incident. To get to the bottom of these historical references, intimate familiarity with these scriptures is indispensable. Because many of our commentators were not acquainted with the Torah and the Gospels, they did not succeed in their endeavours to penetrate such references.

Fourthly, the Holy Qur’ān has accused Jews and Christians of incorporating changes in the word of God, impregnating it with such things as do not belong to it and deleting those facts which were clearly inscribed in it; other allegations included making lawful what was unlawful and vice versa, and their transgressions against the obvious and evident verdicts of their prophets, delivered upon divine bidding. To come up with arguments to support these allegations, an academic ought to do an insightful study of these scriptures; otherwise no fruitful debate may be accomplished with the People of the Book.

Fifthly, in spite of all deficiencies, these scriptures are what we have as remnants of the revelation made to previous prophets. There must be some part of the original revelation extant in these scriptures. He who is well acquainted with the Holy Qur’ān can easily discern that part from these scriptures. Why should he not? What the Almighty revealed to the previous prophets is a treasure trove for the believers. More than anyone else, they have the prerogative to look for it, and embrace it wherever they find it.

(Translated from Islāhī’s Mabādī-i Tadabbur-i Qur’ān by Jhangeer Hanif)





1. Islāhī was invited to explain the principles of interpreting the Holy Qur’ān to post-graduate students of the Punjab University on December 15, 1951. Given here is this speech with some necessary modifications.

2. Abū Ja‘far, Muhammad Ibn Jarīr al-Tabari (d. 310 AH) is a renowned historian and theoligian – celebrated for his Jāmi‘ al-Bayān and Tarīkh Tabarī. (Translator)

3. A famous Indian Muslim scholar, educationist and politician. He led a movement among the Muslims for acquiring modern education – an endeavour in which he received considerable success. He died in 1898. (Translator) 

4. Marfū‘ is a narrative whose chain of narration reaches the  Holy Prophet in which is ascribed to him a saying, a deed or an affirmation (taqrīr). (Ibn Hajar, Sharh Sharh Nukhbah al-Fikr (Beirut: Shirkah Dār al-Arqam b. Abi al-Arqam, n.d.), 545-546). (Translator)

5. Suyūtī, al-Itqān fī ‘ulūm al-Qur’ān,1st  ed., vol. 1 (Beirut: Dār Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 2004), 470.

6. Ibid.

7. Rāzi, Fakhruddīn, Tafsīr al-Kabīr, vol. 27 (Tahrān: Dār al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, n.d.), 133.

8. Ibid.

9. Imām Hamīd al-Dīn Farāhī, Tafsīr Sūrah Qiyāmah (Azam Garh: Dā’irah Hamidiyyah, n.d.), 9.

10. Tawātur means that a matter has been communicated or transmitted by so many people that any possibility of their collusion on forging a lie is altogether unthinkable and so does any human error. (Translator)

11. A faction of those people who deny any potential role of the Hadīth narratives in understanding the religion of Islam. (Translator)

12. That which is transmitted by the channel of tawātur. (Translator)

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