The Challenge of the Arabic Quran for English Readers | (Part 2 of 2)

The Challenge of the Arabic Quran for English Readers (Part 2 of 2)

THE NOVICE READER of the Quran needs to be informed that each sûrah has traditionally carried—for convenience of reference—one or more names(s), not part of the revealed text, picking out an Arabic word which occurs somewhere within that sûrah, but not necessarily relevant to any overall theme of the sûrah.

The first time reader should also be aware that scholars have classified each of the Quran’s 114 chapters and labeled each as either revealed in the commercial center of Makka (the earliest 10 years and characterized by content rich in basic belief and trust in God), or, as revealed later in the agricultural oasis community of Madinah (when the Muslim community was more secure and ready for practical instruction in regulating their personal lives, their society and state).

Table 1 lays out the application of these two categories in rough blocks:

Table 1: Blocks of Makkan and Madinan Sûrahs within the Sûrah Groups [i]

Group Makkan Sûrahs Madinan Sûrahs
I 1 2-5
II 6-7 8-9
III 10-23 24
IV 25-32 33
V 34-46 47-49
VI 50-56 57-66
VII 67-109 110-114

 

Scholars have assigned sûrahs and sections of sûrahs to one period or another based on such things as practical regulations vs. spiritual guidance, literary features of the text, and correlation with an event from an independently known time/location period.

The longest sûrahs are located at the beginning of the Quran, and are likewise composed of long verses with complex sentence structure. The long sûrahs’ literary features (giving them coherence) differ from the characteristics of the short sûrahs. Successive verses of the Quran typically have an end rhyme, along with other literary devices: The short sûrahs at the end of the Quran are closer to poetry as opposed to a prose form which is characteristic of the long chapters.

In general the length of the sûrahs decreases as one proceeds through the Quran. The major counter example of this is the first sûrah, which constitutes a prologue consisting of seven short verses and setting the tone for the rest of the Book.

As Muslims learn ayât (verses)—notably to recite them as a component part of their ritual Prayer—they begin with memorizing the shortest sûrahs, which are strong in rhythm—produced by an alternation of long and short syllables—and sporting a prominent end rhyme. These short sûrahs came down largely in the beginning (Makkan) period and project a more ultimate reality theme or spiritual bent.

Regardless of one’s depth of involvement with the Arabic Quran on the part of the English Quran reader, he should be aware that the Quran is not—contrary to what he might first assume—is not a chaotic collection of texts on half-baked topics thrown together haphazardly within one binding. It is foremost a “Book” in the sense of a firm text divinely provided for mankind. That fixed text and arrangement furthermore comprises a Book with an overall unifying theme: guidance for mankind. The Book as a whole is composed of successive layers of sub-sections, each with its own progression of unifying themes: at the Book, Group, Sûrah, Section and Sub-section levels.

In fact there is a tradition of research paying attention to the nam (stylistic organization” or “coherence” or “rhetorical structure”) of the Quran wherein the ¢amûd (unifying theme) of each part at each successive level is discovered. This scholarly tradition is accessible to the English reader through the work of Mustansir Mir.  In his 1986 work, The Coherence of the Quran, he lays out the following as the first layer of compositional structure:

Table 2: Nam Groups, their Sûrahs (Makkan/Madinan), and their CAmûds. [ii]

Sûrah Group Sûrahs (Makkan) Sûrahs (Madinan) Group  CAmûd
I 1 2-5 Islamic Law against the background of the Torah: Dialogue with the People of the Book.
II 6-7 8-9 Islam as the religion of Abraham:
Dialogue with the Quraysh, who are in conflict with Muslims.
III 10-23 24 God and His prophets triumph; opponents suffer humiliating defeat.
IV 25-32 33 Prophecy
V 34-46 47-49 Oneness of God
VI 50-56 57-66 The Hereafter: Purpose, Basis for compensation, Its signs, No intercession against divine justice; Injunctions
VII 67-109 110-114 Warning to the disbelievers

 

As can be imagined, much technical detail and knowledge of Arabic grammar and literature must be considered in working one’s way down to the sûrah level and into the grouping of ayahs (verses) within the chapter (sûrah). Happily the larger scheme of this scholarly work is already available to the English reader and can guide his reading adventure through his preferred translation of the Book.

As an example of how each sûrah likewise has its own ¢amûd, its unifying theme, we note the individual themes for the sûrahs  of Group II, based on Mir’s work:

Table 3: Group II Camûd: Islam as the religion of Abraham: Dialogue with the Quraysh, who are in conflict with the Muslims.
Sûrat Al-AnCâm (6) Camûd:    Invitation for the Quraysh to embrace Islam
Sûrat Al-ACrâf (7) Camûd:        Warning of consequences for fighting against Islam
Sûrat Al-Anfâl (8) Camûd:       Muslims to unite in Islam for defense against Quraysh
Sûrat Al-Tawbah (9) Camûd:    Ultimatum for the Quraysh to choose Islam, not war

 

The average reader of the Quran may not be up to following a line of study researching the skeletal structure and features of the Book’s literary composition, especially for multiple levels of structure.[iii] Yet it is important for every reader of the Divine Book to know that there is a progression in content and increasing depth of engagement with topics as one proceeds from the first sûrah to the last.

The best English translation for each individual reader is the one which enables him personally to move along, absorbing enough of the obvious meaning of the text as will keep him continuing his journey. Yes, the Quran can be read in detail for nuances, but first it must be read for its grand import and foundational truths.

The Muslim is mandated to punctuate his daily life’s journey with regular meditative stops (Prayer) so as to check in with his Lord. During that same stop, as his daily schedule allows, it is empowering for him in his connection with Allah to ingest the next segment in his Scripture reading program, keeping in mind the thematic thread that runs through the Group or Sûrah or passage that he is currently reading.

Quran reading is not one of the “pillars of Islam,” but Salah (ritual Prayer) is.  The Quran engages the mind of the believer with ‘official’ communication from God received within a holistic human setting during the heady days of Prophet Muhammad’s presence.  One cannot perform Salah without reciting its first Sûrah (Al-Fatiḥah, “The Opening”)—which puts on our lips the words to renew our ongoing quest for divine guidance; following Al-Fatiḥah, one must recite in his Prayer another portion of the divine Text; the worshipper should keep in mind that any one part of this Book is a form of answer to that preceding request for guidance.

If one cannot recite the whole Book from memory so as to incorporate it all in his Prayer, at least he can read the whole Book, bit-by-bit over time, cover to cover. As one memorizes new verses—no matter how few, day-by-day, he can incorporate them into the recitation portion of his Prayer.

Like with any complex task, approaching the Quran—when done methodically, step-by-step and with adequate tools—one can expect gratifying and even unexpected results.

This divine Writ–let there be no doubt about it – is [meant to be] a guidance for all the God-conscious…  [Surat Al-Baqarah, 2:2]

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[i]    Information is taken from the analysis of Mustansir Mir, 1986, Coherence in the Quran.  Note that these categorizations are not black-and-white and there is not a scholarly agreement on all of them.

[ii]     The information displayed in this table is my summary of Mir’s analysis, in his The Coherence of the Quran, pages 85-96.

[iii]    A full and meticulously detailed and technical ‘rhetorical analysis’ is available in English for Sûrat Al-Ma’idah:

Michel Cuypers, The Banquet: A Reading of the Fifth Sura of the Qur’an (Rhetorica Semitica), 2009, Convivium Press

A less technical and more accessible work in English is:

Raymond Farrin, Structure and Qur’anic Interpretation: A Study of Symmetry and Coherence in Islam’s Holy Text, 2014, White Cloud Press

Written By

Growing up Christian, Dr. Linda Thayer came to realize in her teens, that Jesus as ‘divinity’ and Jesus as the second ‘person’ of a ‘Godhead’ (the doctrine of the ‘Trinity’) were philosophical constructs, evolved later and not part of the New Testament Gospel books’ portrait of the Son of Mary. In her 30’s, when working as Bible translations consultant and linguistic advisor in West Africa, she had already added all things Islamic to her reading list, along with Biblical Studies. She has three university degrees in linguistic science (BA, MA, PhD), with a minor in anthropology. She believes that her fellow Muslims need to be current with the thinking and findings of modern Biblical Studies in order to meet Christians halfway in understanding the prophetic mission and personal nature of Jesus. To this end, she writes of the historical phenomenon of the Jesus movement from an interfaith perspective that dovetails with the Quran and ahâdîth.

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