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The Qur’an: A Dialogic Text
Ameen Fayyaz

The meaning of the word Qur’an in Arabic is to read and to keep the things in a proper order (that is to make something cohesive and coherent like the pearls of a necklace). The Qur’an is the name of the holy book that Allah, the Almighty, revealed upon the last prophet of Islam, Muhammad (sws). In the holy Qur’an itself, Allah has used many other names for this book, for example, Furqan (a book that differentiates between truth and falsehood), Dhikra (a book that serves as reminder for the mankind), Nur (a book that is full of divine light for the mankind) and so on and so forth. While reading this book of guidance, a serious reader realizes it very easily that the Qur’an is actually a book that engages a man in a serious conversation with God. A further serious engagement with the book reveals to the eyes of a reader that at every step in Book there is actually unfolding a serious dialogue between Allah and the Prophet, between Allah and His servants, between Allah and the mankind as a whole, between Allah and the believers and non-believers from amongst mankind, between Allah and nature and between Allah and the angels and jinn; in other words, one can say that the discourse of the Qur’an is polyphonic having different addressers and multiple addressees all of whom are subservient to the central voice and command of Allah who wants to uplift mankind from mere menfolk to the status of His vicegerents under the son. This dialogic nature of the Qur’anic text has been theorized and explained by one of the most important twentieth century Islamic scholars of India, Hamid al-Din Farahi in his Nizam al-Qur’an, Rasa’il, Mufradat al-Qur’an, Aqsam al-Qur’an and other books on the subject. His student, Amin Ahsan Islahi has further explicated the theory of Hamid al-Din Farahi in his monumental exegesis of the Qur’an titled Tadabbur-i Qur’an. In this write up, I would try to build on the same theory and present some glimpses of the dialogic nature of the Qur’anic discourse.

First and the foremost that I would like to state about the subject is that Allah is the addresser of the Qur’an and His address throughout the Qur’an is directed to either the Prophet or to the believers or to the non-believers or to the hypocrites or to the mankind as a whole or to the nations and people who were no more at the time of the revelation of this Book. Then Allah either makes these addressees to speak in various contexts or quotes them in different contexts or assumes them to talk to Him or respond to Him in different contexts. This aspect of the Qur’anic discourse makes it not only dialogic but polyphonic as well. It further points to an important fact about the Qur’an that through this continuous and sustained dialogue it actually is all the time subservient to the Chief addresser, Allah, to the three key central themes of the Qur’an, tawhid, risalah and life after death. There are hundreds of sub-themes in the Qur’an that one would always find subservient to these three central and key themes of the Qur’an; therefore, the dialogue among different speakers in the Qur’anic text revolves around these main themes with reference to and through the hundreds of sub-themes that are involved in the making of the Qur’anic text.

Secondly, what is very beautiful about this dialogue and polyphony in the Qur’an is the proper turn taking and shift from one voice to another voice. Those who are not familiar with the concept of coherence and cohesion in the Qur’an would say that the Qur’an is not an organized discourse and would also claim that it is an assemblage of verses that are disjointed and unorganized as has been the claim of many Orientalists and Muslim scholars as well latently or manifestly; however, those who are well versed in the science of coherence and cohesion and have a good understanding of the Qur’anic language would find such claims baseless the moment they realize how from the beginning to the end the Qur’an is not only a continuous and constant flow but in this constant and continuous flow of conversation there is also a proper turn taking and shift from one voice to another voice also which makes it a dialogue proper and a highly organized and well-connected discourse also. From the Surah al-Fatihah to Surah al-Nas, the small and big chapters of the Qur’an testify to this singularity with multiplicity of voices and then within every chapter of the Qur’an all the ayat do also testify to the same fact. In his Nizam al-Qur’an and Rasa’il, Hamid al-Din Farahi has in detail explained and theorized the concept of coherence that exists in the discourse of the Qur’an. In his seminal work on the subject, he has not only theorized the concept but illustrated it also with the help of hundreds of examples from individual verse to the chapters of the Qur’an. In fact, from individual words to verses to surahs and the whole Book, this well-knit linguistic dialogue offers an extraordinary example of the singularity of the Qur’an and makes it much in tone with the themes of tawhid that is the mother of all other themes of the Qur’anic discourse.

Thirdly, apart from having an addresser and an addressee, what a proper dialogue requires is a message that is sent across through a mutually understood code. The Qur’an, whether it is being reflective about nature and the whole cosmos or it is admonishing the non-believer or the disbeliever or the hypocrites or sharing glad tidings with the believers, a reader familiar with the language of the Qur’an at every juncture understands it that the Qur’an has a message for all and that too according to their capacity of receptivity. While quoting from past history about nations and people, it not only quotes what they would believe and say about Allah and His prophets and the life after death but it also picks up a message and shares it with its present and future addressees. In a successful and effective communication, if the message is not communicated properly the dialogue and communication ceases to be effective and successful. The message is communicated through a code which can be the shared language between the addresser and the addressees. Both need to understand the metaphors and symbols of the language in which the dialogue is taking place. In the Qur’an, we find that when Allah has to talk to an audience which is highly reflective it creates such a discourse that is highly reflective and philosophical in nature and the message is communicated through that metaphoric and symbolic representation; however, when it has to communicate a message that must be understood by one and all, it comes up with direct and simple messages that aim at the reformation of the target audience. Similarly, there are instances when the Qur’an intends to serve reminders to mankind wherein the messages are full of examples from human history which are known to the target audience and so it is easy for them to identify with the message and the being referred to.

As no dialogue in our mundane conversations can be without a context having a text, a pre-text, a sub-text and a post-text, similarly the verses of the Qur’an cannot be understood without reference to the context of its verses and the relationship of one verse with the other. As Islamic scholars unanimously opine that parts of the Qur’an explain the other parts of the Qur’an, it becomes the responsibility of the readers of the Qur’an to see how such relationships and interrelationships are possible within the text of the Qur’an. Such readings will definitely save the reader from many misunderstandings about the various messages of the Qur’anic verses as contexts in which the verses of the Qur’an appear would reveal to a reader the essences of the meanings which Allah wants to send across. In this context, readers may help themselves by attempting explanations which are easy to understand and which are in tone with the central message of the Qur’an; therefore, one would enjoy the conversation with Allah and would also be able to dispel the darkness of doubt and uncertainty that Satan may cause to shroud upon the intellect of a reader. An example in this context may be Surah al-Anfal and Surah al-Bara’ah which most of the people read without reference to the context in which they appear and with the least regard to the essences that follow the verses that ask for war against infidels and those who force war upon believers.  

There might be a question from the readers of this write up: why it is important for the readers of the Qur’an to know about these technical features of the Qur’an-ranging from its language to its cohesion and coherence to its dialogic text? This is an important question and deserves to be addressed in the context of the subject of the present write up. Farahi has in detail responded to such queries in his Rasa’il and it would be in place to briefly respond to this question in this write up. The message(s) that Allah intends to put across through the text of the Qur’an exists in the language of the Qur’an; therefore, no profound understanding of the Qur’an could be possible without understanding the language of the Qur’an and its nature. Secondly, as all communications are rooted in different codes, the language of the Qur’an has also a code and that code is rooted in its linguistic culture; therefore, anybody who wants to understand the Qur’an with all its profundity is supposed to familiarize himself with the linguistic culture of this code. Thirdly, more than six thousand ayat of the Qur’an demand that a reader is fully able to develop relations, interrelations and co-relations among these verses for a broader understanding of the Qur’an which again is not possible until the reader is able to understand the surface and deep structures of the Qur’anic dialogue and conversation with Allah. Fourthly, all the attempts at understanding the Qur’an as a whole would be unsuccessful if its coherence is not taken care of, which seeks to bring the attention of the reader to one and only one thing that is to read the Qur’an for seeking guidance towards the straight path and light. Last but not the least, the understanding of all the linguistic tools is to be treated as a means to end which is to listen to what Allah wants from man and how He wants to shape and nurture him through the guidance that is recorded in the Qur’an.

Concluding, the prayer to find the straight path that is recorded in the opening chapter of the Qur’an finds its echoes and reverberation through the discourse(s) of the Qur’an in the form of a long and sustained dialogue which polyphonic and multi-contextual and highly illustrative. One hundred and fourteen small and big surahs having more than six thousand ayat are an extraordinary unified whole all directed towards bringing the fallen man back to his Edenic innocence and purity and directing him towards the straight path the features of which have been very clearly shown through the discourse(s) of the Qur’an. It is not Allah alone who speaks in the Qur’an, rather He records and documents the voices of those people also who believe and disbelieve and those of us also who transgress. It is, therefore, a multicultural and polyphonic text which listens to all but directs towards the path which is sublime and suitable to the status of man and the purpose of his creation under the sun. Lest we forget, Allah has even recorded the voices of animals, stars and planets, insects and human self. Such a democratic and open dialogue in the Qur’an points to the fact that guidance from Allah is like the light of sun which we see and never dispute, provided one has the eyes to see, ears to listen and a heart to understand as the ayat of the Qur’an are the signs unto themselves and each sign of the Qur’an is complimented by hunderds and thousands of signs that the microcosm and the macrocosm have in varied forms. Every sign in the Qur’an initiates a dialogue which is echoed by the dialogue within and without us. May Allah help us in understanding His Book and the books within and without us for understanding His signs spread in multi-colour forms all around us!



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