What the Quran is not

How not to approach it

It would not be an exaggeration to say that untold millions struggle to derive a fraction of the benefits the Quran has to offer on account of their faulty understanding of the kind of book it is. This, despite a lot has been written and said on how best to approach the Quran. Therefore, it may be a good idea to broach the subject from the opposite direction; namely, what the Quran is not, and how not to approach it. We all are not only error-prone, but we also tend to forget after once knowing things well; therefore, what follows is meant to be a reminder, and not a criticism of anybody. So, here – in no particular order – are some things the reader would be well advised to keep reminding himself about the Quran:

1. Not meant to be read blindly. Like any other book, the Quran is meant to be understood. A visitor from Mars would probably wonder why something so obvious needs to be even stated. Until he comes to know the millions of Muslims who insist on reading the Quran blindly for the sake of ‘blessings’. Although the Quran is much more than merely an intellectual exercise, none of its benefits can be expected if one chooses to bypass the understanding part of it. For the truly blessed are only those whose beliefs, actions, and temperament all reflect the teachings of the Quran.

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2. Not a collection of miscellaneous verses. Ideally, this too would hardly warrant mention let alone emphasis. Because the Quran must have a coherent structure to it if it is to be a binding discourse. Unfortunately, there are many Muslims who treat it as a collection of random verses. Since each verse is stand-alone and independent of the other verses (as far as they are concerned), each can have multiple meanings. With no coherence among the verses, there is no way to decide which of the meanings is the correct one, and it becomes a matter of arbitrarily picking and choosing based on one’s temperament and/or convenience. Since the Quran is one organic whole, the context of a particular verse and what the Quran has to say in other places must be considered if disagreements regarding the meanings of verses are to be settled.

3. Not a device for reinforcing one’s prior biases. If somebody approaches the Quran to find validation for his way of life and that of those he loves, he is sure to find therein plenty of material that satisfies this desire. Similarly, if one wants confirmation of the evil ways of one’s real and perceived adversaries, he is apt to find that too in abundance. But that is not what Quran is for. It is meant to be a guidance instead – first and foremost for the reader himself. It is best read with the reader’s mind approaching a state as close to a clean slate as humanly possible, with the sole aim to improve himself – not to congratulate himself on how pious he is as compared to the rest of the mankind. Read the Quran to learn from it; do not read your preferred interpretations into it.

4. Not like any other books. The books we are accustomed to consist of chapters, sections, and subsections. They move from chapters to chapter in pretty much a linear fashion, starting with the introduction to a topic, treating the different aspects of it in separate sections and subsections, and completing the discussion before moving on to the next topic. There is none of this linear progression in the Quran. The Quran calls itself remembrance; therefore, one finds threads of key beliefs continuing even while it gives detailed instructions regarding some other matter. Also, it has a way of taking up the same issue at different places separated by hundreds of pages, everywhere focusing on a separate aspect of it, or a particular application of it. This is what makes the practice of consulting it through its index so tricky. To learn Quranic wisdom then, the reader must therefore not only surrender his preference for a linear narrative, but also resist the temptation of quick word-searches. There is just no shortcut to spending time with the Quran, reading it over and over, pondering on its verses, and befriending it in the process.

If somebody approaches the Quran to find validation for his way of life and that of those he loves, he is sure to find therein plenty of material that satisfies this desire. Similarly, if one wants confirmation of the evil ways of one’s real and perceived adversaries, he is apt to find that too in abundance.

5. Does not merely address the intellect. Reading the Quran is not meant to be an armchair exercise – far from it. It is much more than just an intellectual activity. The Quran needs to be read – not only to understand it, but – to live it. If its contents do not make an integral part of one’s actions and temperament, it raises legitimate questions regarding one’s understanding too. The religion presented by the Quran is a holistic affair: a sound belief-system prompts the right actions, and righteous deeds in turn reinforce one’s beliefs; while both combine to make one’s temperament to conform more and more to the kind that constantly looks to improve its God consciousness. The Quran, in this way, conditions one’s very soul – at any rate, it should. Anything less, and the reader has failed to benefit from it as he should have. In the fashion of many armchair and professional philosophers for example, it will not do to ‘believe’ in determinism and absence of free will and at the same time live a life that is completely at odds with that philosophy.

6. Not amenable to private interpretation. No doubt the Quran is God’s speech, but since God is speaking to man it is couched in Arabic – one of the languages that men speak. Therefore, if you want to directly access it, you have no option but to do that via the Arabic language. If you do not have that kind of competence, you must naturally rely on somebody else’s expertise. In either case, you must guard yourself against personal symbolism. Beware of any teacher/exegete who employs private interpretation by inventing peculiar meanings of words. Or who tears verses from their contexts and declares something to be literal or figurative disregarding the accepted and standard norms of literature. Here, too, the context will settle the matter one way or the other.

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Hasan Aftab Saeed
The author is a connoisseur of music, literature, and food (but not drinks). He can be reached at www.facebook.com/hasanaftabsaeed

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