WHAT SHOULD A believing Muslim’s reaction be to the unprecedented spate of hate and bigotry directed against Muslims and their religious symbols in so many places of the world these days? The psychological shock to the community of Muslims is great, and it ought to generate some reaction. In fact, the bigotry and depravity which cause the Community to unite in condemning these acts of visceral hatred and desecration ought to produce something more, something big—something very, very effective, even transforming.
And nothing can be more effective, more consequential as a reaction than taking the message of the Quran really to heart —and repenting from a life of heedlessness and apathy towards the Book of God, and turning to it with a sense of urgency that surpasses our sense of anger and grief at this saddening Islam-bashing. Can you imagine that the merciful Prophet’s complaint to God on the Last Day: And the Messenger will cry out: O my Lord! my own people have treated this Quran as a forsaken thing! [Surat Al-Furqan, 25:30] could be directed at you and me? There is no other complaint that has been reported to us that the Prophet will make—and how do we think Allah will treat His beloved’s only grievance?
But, most Muslims would respond that the Quran is a big, impressive, overwhelming book — then give up on understanding it for ourselves. Besides, it is for the scholars to interpret it for us—there is little that we are missing if we don’t by ourselves understand the Quran. Reading it during Ramadan and occasionally for baraka just about does it for us. Right?
Wrong! The Quran is Allah’s message for everyone, particularly for every believing Muslim. Thus, to miss being intimate with the Book of Allah, to miss knowing its delight and pleasure first hand, to miss hearing its message directly from Allah, is to be deprived of the greatest blessing God gave us in this life. It is to be a weak prey to the merciless whims, confusions and vagaries of a deceptive world. It spells doom for us on the Last Day when the beloved Messenger of God will present his only grievance against such people:
Then the Messenger will say: “O my Lord! Truly my people took this Quran as a forsaken thing!” [Surat Al-Furqan, 25:30]
So, let us get up and refresh our commitment to the Book of Allah. If we haven’t learned to read it, it is never too late. If we read it but not daily, now is time to make a commitment to Allah. If we read it but do not understand it, it is now time to start learning its language. If we know Arabic just barely enough to converse with our grandparents —there is no excuse now to not perfect it.
What follows is an essay reviewing the most useful and accessible books we could find in the market on getting started with the Quran and its sciences. Needless to say, this is provision for just the first step in a long journey—the first step nonetheless is the most important and arduous—and you will be surprised by how quickly, how instantaneously, Allah will return the reward of your effort in this life, and, most surely, in the afterlife. Following is the list of the books we will be reviewing:
- The Way to the Qur’an by Khurram Murad
- An Introduction to the Sciences of the Qur’an by Ahmed von Denffer
- An Approach to the Qur’anic Sciences by Mufti M. Taqi Usmani
- The Qur’anic Phenomenon by Malek Bennabi
- Approaching the Qur’an: The Early Revelations by Michael Sells
The Way to the Qur’an is a beautiful book in every sense of the word—humble yet inspiring, simple yet elegant— just as a true student of the Quran should be. The author’s words are measured to inspire the faith that the author himself has earned through years and years of humble reflection upon the Quran, and to share the irresistible beauty of the Word of Allah by which he himself seems to have been enchanted. This is the first book I would recommend to any serious Muslim intending to make the Words of Allah his or her foremost guidance in life. The book is short and precise, and contains practical tips with do’s and don’ts, as well as an insightful reflection and encouragement.
The author, Khurram Murad, died in 1996 after leading an exemplary life of passionate devotion to the Quran. Whether it was Pakistan, his home country, or the UK, where he spent the later years of his life, or wherever he went, he worked incessantly to learn and teach the Quran, by writing, speaking, but mostly, by being. Throughout the book, one feels the presence of the author as a humble student of the Quran, who is not taunting the readers for their ignorance or laziness, but is encouraging them empathetically like a benevolent fellow-student and loving teacher at the same time. Take this one paragraph, which is as moving as any you will ever come across:
As you come to the Quran, you come to a new world. No other venture in your life can be so momentous and crucial, so blissful and rewarding, as your journey to and through the Quran. It is a journey that will take you through the endless joys and riches of the words that your Creator and Lord has sent to you and all mankind. Here you will find a world of untold treasures of knowledge and wisdom to guide you on the pathways of life, to mold your thoughts and actions. In it you will find deep insights to enrich you and steer you along the right course. From it you will receive a radiant light to illumine the deeper reaches of your soul. Here you will encounter profound emotions, a warmth to melt your heart and bring tears running down your cheeks.
Though simple and obvious, the basic point highlighted by the book is tremendously important: the main purpose of a Muslim believer in reading the Quran is not simply intellectual pursuit, scientific discovery or historical research—but to be completely transformed by the Quran— transformed in the mold of the Quran, into a receptacle that receives the light of God, the love of God, and finally the victory from God. The first readers of the Quran—the Prophet and his Companions—were completely transformed by the Quran because that is how and that is why they approached the Book of God. They were transformed and they in turn transformed the world—and we Muslims can follow in their footsteps only if we read the Quran for the same ultimate purpose.
This book is particularly valuable in that it contains a judicious balance of theory, exhortation and practical advice. The second chapter lists the intellectual prerequisites for benefiting from the Quran, and these are useful to briefly enumerate here: anyone can read the Quran, but cannot be fully transformed by it until he or she
- believes that this is the word of God;
- comes to it for nothing but for submitting to its message as the only means to attaining the pleasure of God. That is, the purpose should neither be mere intellectual pursuit or pleasure, nor to find support for one’s view against one’s opponents, nor anything else;
- internalizes the words of the Quran, by developing the faculty to praise God for his greatness and thank Him for His enormous bounties—and thus inculcating in one’s soul a deep love for Him;
- accepts every single word and statement of the Quran— to reject even one statement is to reject it all;
- brings to his/her reading the will to instantly submit to the Quran and change one’s behavior in accordance with it;
- remains aware of the hazards and snares in approaching the Quran—because Satan will do his utmost to dissuade the reader from benefiting from the Quran—and so the reader should never consider himself self-sufficient but should always seek refuge with God actively; and finally
- trust only God in leading him or her to His guidance.
The third chapter is still more practical: It begins with an explanation of the role of the heart in the entire exercise of approaching the Quran, and lists seven states that aid one’s inner participation in active recitation of the Quran, such as recognizing Allah’s presence while reciting to the point that you hear the Words of Allah directly from Allah, and that every single word of the Quran is for you—as it is for every single one of us. Then the author mentions seven acts of the heart and the body—from the trembling of heart to the tearing of eyes, and from ritual purity to respectful and attentive bodily posture—that would aid the seeking of benefit from the Quran.
Murad’s book ends with a more practical piece of advice and a few suggested curricula for the Qur’anic study circles. Studying the Quran with a group of believers is extremely useful for intellectual benefit, psychological support as well as brotherhood among Muslims, even though solo recitation—particularly at night when only Allah sees and hears you—is indispensable.
THE NEXT BOOK: An Introduction to the Sciences of the Qur’an by Ahmed von Denffer is perhaps the best next step after Khurram Murad’s book. Denffer’s book is more of a first textbook in the field of Qur’anic sciences—with digestible technical definitions, a bare minimum history of the text and its various sciences, and accessible explanations of terms like tafsir, ahkam, nasikh, manshukh, mutashabih, muhkam, etc.—technical words that we all hear but many do not fully understand. It is a very useful first book for young Muslim students of the Quran, a textbook at, say, a high school level, although it makes for an interesting read for anyone. With ample references and bibliography, it is also useful as an academic first step to further study the Qur’anic sciences. Written originally in 1981, the book has seen several reprints and two editions, and has been rightly appreciated by all English-speaking Muslim communities.
NEXT COMES A much more in-depth book on the sciences of the Qur’an by a world- renowned scholar of Islam, Justice Mufti Muhammad Taqi Usmani, —who has served as Chief Justice of Pakistan, but is also widely known for his penetrating research monographs on several contemporary Islamic issues. The present book An Approach to the Qur’anic Sciences, is a translation of Mufti Usmani’s original book in Urdu—it is nonetheless extremely useful in that is has the depth, comprehensiveness and style of the classic Islamic books such as Al-Suyuti’s Al-Itqan. But, it is also thoroughly aware of contemporary issues and was written with those in mind— and hence it speaks well to the contemporary reader. The translation is also relatively well-done and presents readably the same wealth of information contained in the original book. The original book was written in 1970’s, but the English translation first appeared only in 2000.
Mufti Usmani’s scholarly approach preserves the worthy tradition of the great line of scholars that he comes from—though it is not lineage but one’s own accomplishments that really matter in Islam—and in that too the author has excelled. He brings to this book the great evaluative and argumentative skills of the classical Islamic scholarship, —particularly the South Asian Hanafi-Deobandi tradition—while at the same time keeping in mind the concern to respond to the doubts and attacks of the modern adversaries of the Quran. The book is comprehensive in addressing all subjects traditionally dealt with under the rubric of the sciences of the Quran—with over 500 pages of well-researched, well-referenced and clearly presented material.
The first eight chapters of the book deal with the sciences of the Quran in terms of the history of its preservation, script, readings, linguistic and literary inimitability and miraculousness, and the next four focus on the science and tradition of tafsir, or, the exegesis and interpretation of the Quran. The first two chapters explain the phenomenon of wahy (revelation) and its various forms, addressing both the traditional topics such as wisdom and causes of the specific mode of the Qur’anic revelation, as well as the modern questions about the possibility of revelation that arise from narrowly positivist modern thinking. The third chapter addresses in detail the much-debated issue of “the Seven Letters” of the Quran— and after presenting all the opinions of scholars from across centuries and schools of thought, the author privileges the explanation of this problem by Imam Malik—who interpreted the seven letters to mean seven kinds of well-known variations in the recitation of the Quran. He supports his view extensively by presenting and critiquing every contradicting evidence or opinion. Next, he deals with the problem of abrogation in the Quran, and presents evidence for the majority-traditional opinion about the issue, and refutes objections to it.
The next two chapters, the fifth and the sixth, present a learned account of the history of the preservation of the Quran, and address the objections of Western scholars to it. My favorite perhaps is the next chapter which deals with the miraculous nature of the Quran, particularly its linguistic beauty. While there are plenty of such exposés in Arabic and other Muslim languages, there is little in English that goes beyond simply asserting that the Qur’anic language is truly a superhuman phenomenon and a masterpiece. This part of the book is an exceptionally lucid and compelling account of the power of the Qur’anic language. The chapters on tafsir similarly elaborate in detail the history and principles of tafsir.
While there is a shortage of good and elegant writings about the Quran in English—and more should be done both by way of translations of the traditional sources and more importantly original critical research on the topic— Mufti Usmani’s book has done a great service to the Muslims who wish to learn the Qur’anic sciences at a deeper level.
OUR NEXT BOOK: The Qur’anic Phenomenon, is a very special kind of book, and even sixty years after its author penned it (1946), it has not lost its value. Malek Bennabi, one of the most brilliant Algerian Islamic intellectuals, was a committed believer, an elegant philosopher, an affable arguer and an unabashed exponent of Islam. He dealt in this book with the philosophical questions of his time surrounding the Quran—the questions of the authenticity of the Quran, and of whether such a book could be a product of human intellect. His arguments do not include the historical preservation of the Quran—a topic on which a magnificent book has been written by M. M.Azami, titled The History of the Qur’anic Text.
The English translation of Bennabi’s book is surprisingly elegant and recalls some of the crispness of Bennabi’s compelling original in French—which is said to have convinced many regarding the truths of Islam. It does not take long to realize why that would be, once you begin to page through the book.
The author is deeply versed in philosophy and Western thought, and is aware of the Orientalists’ theories about Islam. The most gripping feature of the author’s presentation is that he appears to be deeply convinced of his project—which is to show, with elegant and compelling philosophical argument, that the Quran is the word of God. The author is not enamored of the Orientalists’ theories about the Quran—and this is particularly impressive in an environment in which most Arabic intellectuals and littérateurs of his time, particularly those from Egypt—the then intellectual center of the Arab world—were enormously influenced by the Western scholarship of Islam and would blindly imitate any new theories that reached them.
Bennabi points out, for instance, that the famous secular Arab belletrist and writer of Egypt, Taha Hussain—celebrated in secular Arab circles as one of the greatest authors of modern Arabic— wrote his famous and influential book Fi Al-Shi’r Al-Jahili on Pre-Islamic Arabic Poetry in 1926, —only one year after a British Orientalist—Margolioth, published the original thesis “The Poetry of the Jahiliyyah.” Many other so called objective and critical secular Arab intellectuals were likewise slavishly imitating whatever ideas and theses about Islam came from the West—no matter how porous the evidence and how sloppy and blatantly biased the theories.
The most useful part of Bennabi’s book perhaps is the last half in which the author compares certain Qur’anic narratives with the parallel ones in the Bible, showing the similarities as well as differences. He shows compellingly that the Qur’anic narrative is fundamentally superior, and different in its basic thrust, and internally consistent with its teachings about God and Prophecy—in contrast to the Biblical narrative, which can be internally contradictory, redundant, sometimes plainly erroneous, and always ridden with the human concerns of those who compiled it. The author compares, for example, the story of Yusuf/Joseph in the two sources, and shows that the Qur’anic picture of the story is basically moral and spiritual, with emphasis on the devotion and faith of the two great prophets, Joseph and Jacob— while that of the Bible is a saga of family favoritism, jealousy, the power of seduction, and the glory of power.
Bennabi ends the book by stating through an analogy of physical sciences his religious as well as philosophical conviction:
Islam, therefore, is the science of being human, and the Holy Qur’an, the Book of guidance for all men, contains the laws meant to help men to return to their Creator. The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, was the vehicle of this guidance.
In many ways, Bennabi’s book uses philosophical and rational argument to address topics similar to the ones tackled in a more traditional way by Mufti Usmani’s book. They serve as a fit complement to each other and work towards the shared goal of clearing up the doubts in the Muslim mind created by ignorance and apathy on the one hand, and confusions and doubts created by Western scholars on the other.
AND FINALLY, I introduce a book by a contemporary American scholar, written for non-Muslims, in an extremely insightful and beautiful way. Approaching the Qur’an: The Early Revelations by Michael Sells is perhaps the best book for introducing non-Muslims to the beauty and power of the Qur’anic language. The author focuses only on the early revelations—perhaps partly because of his concern for the linguistic beauty, which shines most in the early chapters, and partly because the message contained in these surahs is simple and straightforward, —and does not contain injunctions about society and politics that would take a lot more work to explain and contextualize.
Even a born Muslim educated in Islam will find the insights in this book refreshing and useful. The book consists mostly of translations of selected early chapters with some commentary and notes. The best part of the book is the author’s thirty some page introduction—in which he (a Westerner himself) introduces the Quran to fellow Westerners, in a way which is not only honest and insightful, but also moving and inspiring. The book comes with a CD that contains recitations of parts of the Quran to complete the spiritual delight with the aesthetic one.
Of the five books reviewed here, Khurram Murad’s is by far the most inspiring and moving for a Muslim believer interested in getting close to the Quran but intimidated by its language, its immensity and the overwhelming scholarship surrounding it. Those looking to systematically understand the sciences of the Quran will find Denffer’s an apt introduction and Mufti Usmani’s book a worthy next step. Those interested in approaches that are informed by more contemporary sciences and philosophies and yet are committed to Islam will find Bennabi enlightening. Finally, when introducing Islam and the Quran to non-Muslims or Western Muslims who have had no prior contact with the Quran, an excellent starting point would be Michael Sells’ Approaching the Quran: The Early Revelations. After reading it, give it as a present to your non-Muslim friends.
 Western non-Muslim scholars of Islam and Islamic texts.