Today I will be talking about different aspects of how we, as believers, can get from the Qur’an the benefit that, by the grace of God, it offers to us. That benefit is guidance. The guidance of the Qur’an is, for Muslims, not just a matter of knowing the list of concrete, particular things we are supposed to and doing them, and avoiding those that are on a list of things to avoid. Rather, this is a guidance that can permeate our whole being, our whole life, give the whole of it direction and meaning and secure for it its salvation. For any rational person, that is the greatest possible benefit that can be imagined; we should not expect to get it unless we strive for it.
Striving for that benefit entails entering into a relationship with the Qur’an that has several dimensions or sides to it. I will try to say as much as I can about those several dimensions, but I want to begin by setting out two of them, because they serve as a sort of frame for the others. If we get our striving in respect of these two dimensions right, our other efforts to get the guidance of the Qur’an will not stray too far into error. Also, I find that living in this world as we have to do in the kind of society in which we live, it is these two dimensions of our relationship with the Qur’an that are the most threatened. I have used the word ‘dimensions’ because we are trying to arrange our thoughts about the matter, to think about it; but as soon as we move on to what we are supposed actually to do, concretely and practically, the right word is not ‘dimensions’ but ‘duties’.
The two duties to the Qur’an that become notably difficult because we live in the modern Western kind of society are reverence and understanding.
By reverence I mean the good manners that are essential in how you approach and handle the Book, how you come to and open it and how you close it and put it away; how you recite it, and how you listen to it. Some of the ritual matters will be known to you. But, as always in matters of ritual, because of the formal repetition of actions and attitudes, the whole thing can become a mechanical habit, and we can lose our awareness of what the habit is for. The most conspicuous element among the repeated actions linked to reverence for the Qur’an is that we recite it in its original form, its original language. To no other text do we accord this status of holiness and sacredness.
Nowadays we often hear people asking — sometimes in a mocking way, sometimes out of honest care — Why do you recite the Book in Arabic, when the great majority of you don’t know what the Arabic means? Wouldn’t it be better to recite it in a language that you understand so that, as you are saying or hearing the words, you are also understanding what they mean? If those asking such questions are brave enough, they might go on to say — Wouldn’t it be better also, if you did the call to prayer (adhan) and you did the prayer itself (salat) in a language that you understand as soon as you speak or hear it?
No, it would not be better. And the reason is not the sociological one that having a common language for the prayer, and having a single revealed text in a single, sacred language, somehow unifies the ummah, or globalises it in some way. If that is the reason, one can only say that, for most of the history of the peoples of the Islamic world, it has not worked well — they have not behaved as a unified political entity. On the contrary, for most of their history, the peoples of the Islamic world have been disunited and easily divided against each other by their political enemies, and their disunity has been thoroughly exploited. No, the reason for our adhering to the absolute primacy of the Arabic language in our relationship with the Qur’an is something else.
The real reason is the hope that somehow it preserves remembrance of the Qur’an as an actual, historical event when God sent it down on the heart of His Messenger, salla l-lahu ‘alayhi wa sallam, on many different occasions over a long period of about 23 years. Mainstream Sunni Islam does not have altars and sacraments or other mysterious procedures or any kind of song and dance to make you feel “spiritual”. But it does have this rite of the recitation and audition of the Qur’an in the very words in which it was sent down. Being attentive in the course of reciting or listening stills the heart and mind and refreshes the spirit; it connects us to God. It establishes inside us a realisation (or at least a remembrance) of the revelation as the historical event it was: these words and sounds are what really happened, and then Islam as a way of life followed — first for the converts to it, whom we revere as the Companions, then for the millions of human beings in the generations after them up to, and including, this present moment. Adherence to the Arabic is an effort to relive the experience of the revelation, to be addressed and honoured by it, directly without intermediation. It revives our awe and fear of God, and it revives our will to carry the responsibility of our humanity with a proper, religious seriousness.
Adjoined to the reverence for the Arabic text of the Qur’an, whether recited or heard, is the habit of striving to memorize the original, Arabic text. Memorizing it means internalizing it, having it as part of our insides, of being attached to it bodily. The term of art for this is hifz. And the person who has completed hifz of the whole Book is honoured with the title of Hafiz. Now, in the society in which we live, learning texts by heart is also looked down on as an inferior use of one’s time and mental energy. The attitude behind this is the same as the attitude that mocks reverence; we are told that somehow learning things by heart prevents novelty and originality of thought, that it encourages mere imitation and blocks innovation in whatever domain of life it is applied. Again, this is an error. In fact, knowing things by heart, fully internalising them, is an essential condition for any higher human activity, including original intellectual activity. This applies to the full range of human actions (including thinking and giving expression to thought) that are dependent on a degree of competence that in turn depends on much repetition, practice, and rehearsal. But it applies most especially to all activity that involves performance, of actually doing something outside of oneself, in the physical world and in relation to others. Speaking a language is the most obvious case, but any human behaviour, like politeness, for example, is the fruit of a great deal of effort — mostly unconscious and as invisible as the roots of a plant — that has been put in over years to internalise different kinds of intonation, facial expression, bodily posture, etc. Such things constitute a repertoire of possibilities that are instantly available to the person to draw upon and combine into an action appropriate to the particular situation they are in.
Hifz of the Qur’an, similarly, should be appreciated, as an effort in the same direction; as the necessary self-preparation, the building-up inside ourselves of a repertoire of possibilities, so that, drawing on that repertoire, our behaviour in the world is inwardly shaped and coloured by the Qur’an. It is important to remember here that in its early usage, hifz did not mean, as it now does, only knowing the words of the Qur’an by heart. In early usage, hifz of the Qur’an meant preserving of the Qur’an but not only as a stream of sounds in the memory.
When we read in authentic reports from the Companions, for example, that so-and-so spent seven, eight or ten years in accomplishing hifz of Surat al-Baqarah, it does not mean that it took that person that length of time to memorize the words of that surah, the longest in the Qur’an. It means, rather, that this Companion spent that number of years with Surat al-Baqarah until he was confident that he had preserved it, that is to say, fully embodied it in his attitudes and his actions. What is being reported here is not, simply, that this Companion did the prayers as commanded in the surah, or the fasting, or the pilgrimage, or that he consumed the halal and shunned the haram as commanded in the surah (for example in its prohibition of riba), or that he understood the commands concerning relations with wives or with orphans and the management of their property well enough both to practise himself and answer the questions of others on such matters. More than all that, his preserving this surah meant his embodying in his conduct and his teaching of others the full meaning of its commands, its exhortations, and its stories, and the linkages and balances between all of these. His ‘preserving’ the halal, for example, would entail not just eating what is permitted and declining what is not, but eating it in the right frame of mind, with moderation, and not wastefully being fearful of losing the blessing hidden in some unspecified crumb of it, preferring to share it with others whenever possible, not complaining (as the Israelites do) of the greater variety of foods available in some other place or under some other regime. His ‘preserving’ of zakah would entail, beyond paying his dues promptly and gladly, interrogating his attitude to wealth, his attachment to it, until he was sure that he looked upon his own and others’ prosperity as a condition of indebtedness to those who lacked that prosperity. His ‘preserving’ of the many stories about the conduct of the Israelites would entail a self-examination of the quality of his own readiness to obey God’s commands and support God’s Messenger against the enemies of both. His ‘preserving’ of the justice commanded by the surah would entail self-examination of his willingness and his competence to give impartial judgement, and practice equitable speech and conduct, toward kin and non-kin, toward fellow Muslims and non-Muslims. It is a long surah, so this list could be extended. It is not hard to understand, if the commitment to get and fully embody the guidance of the surah was sincere and constant, that it might indeed take eight years or longer to be sure one had accomplished it. The end of that effort would be that general disposition towards oneself and one’s life that we know by the name of taqwa, wariness of God — consciousness of Him and fear of Him and hope in His forgiveness, and trust in His mercy, omniscience and power. And by that taqwa the Companion would know, and he would make known to others, how far his ‘preserving’ of Surat al-Baqarah was a preserving of it within the framework of the teaching and example of God’s beloved, his Messenger, and where it went outside of that framework and was, therefore, open to question or open to the variant ‘preserving’, no less valid, of a different Companion.
You will have noticed that, in reflecting upon the meaning of hifz, in its early usage, I have moved from talking about reverence for the Qur’an to the subject of understanding and practising its guidance. Indeed, the two are closely and radically connected, that is, they are connected at the root, and are only seen as distinct when we look at the surface of our relationship with the Qur’an. The essential thing is to remember the priority of reverence as a condition for a safe, and beneficial understanding of the Qur’an. It is an obvious matter — it would not need saying if we did not live in a society whose dominant temperament rejects or abhors reverence and any enquiry or understanding that starts from reverence — it is an obvious matter that if you do not revere the Qur’an as God’s conclusive revelation for the guidance of humankind you cannot expect to derive guidance from it. That said, there are, nevertheless, certain attributes of the Qur’an which should be evident alike to believers and unbelievers. It has a few attributes in common with other texts or scriptures which now, or at some point in the past, their adherents believed to be divine or sacred. But there is an absence in it of several qualities that characterise all other scriptures for which their believers make the same claim. As I will be discussing these, in one form or another, during the hours of teaching ahead, I need here only list them in summary fashion:
- The Qur’an is not the story of an individual or of a people. There is no heroic figure (an individual or tribe), whose status is secured and promoted by this Scripture. Similarly, the Qur’an is not a tale or drama that revolves around a central place, whose status is uniquely privileged by this Scripture.
- The Qur’an is not a text whose words or language have suffered significant alteration over time. It is stable in its entirety. Slight, and without exception trivial, variants in the pronunciation and orthography of a handful of words have been known and recorded from the earliest time. Muslims have disagreed among themselves about almost everything from very early on, often to the point of going to war; moreover, they have split into diverse political jurisdictions and religious factions. Nevertheless, their disagreements when dressed up as disagreements about what the Qur’an means were and are still disagreements about the same words, the same text
- The Qur’an does not contain any sort of theological or philosophical or legal or other specialist definition of anything. It does not define what “Muslim” means, or “virtue” or “God”. Many have proffered definitions of such terms, but the Qur’an does not do this. The Qur’an records God’s commands and exhortations and it names and reiterates many of His attributes; it records a great many examples of behaviour and attitude that express being “Muslim” or being “virtuous”, but it does not do definitions. It is not an exercise in abstract reasoning, nor does it encourage such exercise. It encourages purification of body and mind and intent, and good practice based on good intention, which is explained as doing for the love of God and His Messenger.
- The Qur’an extols and commands worship, but it does not function in any way as a manual of sophisticated techniques of worship. Nor is it, at least in mainstream Sunni usage, a collection of esoteric teachings, or teachings whose meaning is hidden except for a privileged few, who are permitted to pass them on only to a few. On the contrary, the Qur’an frequently describes its guidance as “plain”, “evident”, “clear”. It is for all the people, men women and children, old and young; it is guidance and it is public.
- Just as there is no point of view in the Qur’an (no central hero, no central narrative), there is likewise no editorial layering of its content — notwithstanding much later efforts to distinguish in it abrogating and abrogated verses, the consensus of the Muslims has rejected any attitude or argument that would suggest that some of it is more valid than some other of it. Rather, all of it is valid and applicable, equally and always. The immediate relevance of this or that verse, and the command therein, varies with the mutability of historical circumstances and human competence to affect them — this was true during the period of the Qur’an’s revelation and remains true.
- There is no instance in the tone and address of the Qur’an of any frailty such as frustration, exasperation, rancour or hatred. It is emphatically and unswervingly the word of One whose majesty and power are absolute and whose will, by definition, cannot be thwarted. (Accordingly, the human emotions attendant upon frailty and limitations of power, which are found in the surviving texts of many other scriptures once believed by their adherents to be divine in origin, are not found in the Qur’an.)
- There is no inconsistency in the moral principles advocated in the Qur’an. It does not in one place preach the sanctity of human life and then in another command its “favoured people” to exterminate every man, woman and child of an enemy people and also destroy their habitations and their livestock. Commands that normal humans beings naturally find repugnant to execute are not found in the Qur’an. If it commands war it does so only in the situation where a war is already being waged against the Muslims, and it commands them if the others incline to peace, to accept that and make peace. The enmity of others is not an excuse for injustice or the hateful demonisation practised by them against the Muslims. The authority to eradicate an entire people, even if they are enemies of God, is reserved by God to Himself and not delegated to humankind. Divine favouritism (or “exceptionalism”) is abhorrent to the Qur’an and has no place in it; it is not an appropriate expression of the transcendence and unquestionability of divine will.
- There is no inconsistency in the general attitude to creation. Our being brought to life in this world is by God’s will, and this world’s being amenable to our habitation and use is by God’s will. It is a temporary abode, but it is not inherently evil, nor is it inherently illusory. Human and natural existence are real and beneficial because they are there by the will of God who is essentially merciful and good. The error is only in taking as permanent what is transitory, and as final what is a brief period of preparatory testing. The Qur’an does not commend contempt for the world, nor advocate renunciation of the world; instead, it advocates self-discipline in the world, individually and collectively.
- The tone and style of the Qur’an throughout indicate the majesty of the Creator. The address shifts often from second person to third, the tense from present to past and future, as God sees humankind from within and without, in their here and now and in their past and future. The Author of the Qur’an also knows human beings individually and collectively in their variety of temperaments, abilities and opportunities. Accordingly, although human commentators on the Qur’an fail in this regard, the Qur’an itself does not command what it does not enable. Again, though commentators fail in this regard, the Qur’an itself does not fail to encourage the general virtue that inspires the particular command — it reminds of the necessity of kindness of intent and disposition, even as it encourages legal definition of the rights and duties of Muslims to each other, because kindness can mitigate the effects of legal strictness. The Qur’an is not a book of rules and regulations; the rules and regulation are few and their status is secondary not primary: the primary duty or goal is to purify intent and action; the rules and regulations are a means to that end because so much of human life is conducted in collective arrangements.
- The Qur’an’s being in clear Arabic, its being intelligible, just as the natural world is intelligible to human enquiry and responsive to human labour, is an essential, not accidental element, of its being a mercy for humankind.