The Content of the Quran

article picked 4U by - Mohammad Shahrour

May 27, 2020

The Content of the quran

In the Book the term Quran appears both in its definite as well as in its indefinite form:

  1. a) definite: Ramadan is the (month) in which was sent down the Quran… (Baqara:185) And We have bestowed upon you the seven oft-repeated (verses) and the grand Quran. (hijr:87)
  1. b) indefinite: Nay, this is a glorious Quran [quranun majidun], * (inscribed) in a tablet preserved! (Buruj:21–22)

If an article determines the noun, it refers to the Qur’an as we have defined it so far. If the noun is undetermined, however, it refers to a subcategory of ‘a Quran’, which means that there are several (sub-) Qurans within a larger unit called ‘the grand Quran’ ( al-Quran al-‘adhim). The Quran, revealed in the month of Ramadan, belongs to the former category, whereas the Quran, inscribed on a ‘tablet preserved’, is of the latter. Therefore, the content of the Quran must be subdivided into two classes:

  1. A fixed part: This class appears in verses 1–2 of Surat Buruj (‘Nay, this is a glorious Quran (Quran majid ), * (inscribed) in a tablet preserved!’). In this class we group all those universal laws that will never change or be abolished: the certainty of death, the coming of the Last Hour, the resurrection of the dead, the existence of Hell and Paradise. These things exist or will occur independent of any human interference and are, thus, certainties that cannot be questioned, even if all the prophets of this world want it (because ‘none can change His words’ [Kahf:27]).

These are the laws of objective reality that are ‘inscribed in a tablet preserved’ (lawh mahfudh), a tablet that controls all changes within the universe, holds all information, and instructs the ‘glorious Quran’ ( al-Quran al-majid ). It holds the highest authority and represents the ultimate complexity of knowledge that can ever be grasped—by a gradual epistemological progress in al-tashabuh—through philosophy, the mother of all sciences.

  1. A changeable part: Referred to in verse 12 of Surat Ya-Sin (‘Verily We shall give life to the dead, and We record that which they send before and that which they leave behind, and of all things have We taken account in a clear book (of evidence) (imam mubin)’ [Ya-Sin:12]). Two further subcategories are mentioned in this verse:
  1. a) Events in nature: Unpredictable occurrences of floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, and such; the sudden changes of colors in trees, exceptional growth in plants, sudden changes of health in animals and humans, and such; nothing of that is prefixed. Yes, death is certain but its arrival is not predestined—one may prolong or shorten life by one’s own actions.

The generic term for the changeable parts of nature is ‘sign of God’ (ayat Allah), see: ‘And among His signs (min ayatihi) is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the variations in your languages and your colors…’ [Rum:22] and ‘Such are the signs of God…’ [Jathiyya:6]. These ‘signs of God’ are kept in a ‘book manifest’ (kitab mubin), see: ‘With Him are the keys of the unseen, the treasures that none knows but He. He knows whatever there is on the earth and in the sea.

Not a leaf does fall but with His knowledge: there is not a grain in the darkness (or depths) of the earth, nor anything fresh or dry (green or withered), but is (inscribed) in a record clear (kitab mubin) (to those who can read)’ [An’am:59]. None of this is ever predetermined or prerecorded before its occurrence. One might try to influence the course of events, for example, by prayer and invocations of God and He then might or might not send rain by changing the direction of the wind in times of draught or, in cases of childless couples, increase their fertility by granting them better living conditions, and the like.

The outcome of this is always unpredictable, but we trust the words saying that ‘nothing turns (back) destiny except the du’a“-prayer’. Moreover, more research in biology, chemistry, medicine, and so on can be undertaken because it will equip us with better ways to change the weather or maintain good health. In doing so we realize the tashabuh of God’s signs, contained in the ‘book manifest’, and this is the true meaning of the verse: ‘When He has decreed a plan, He but says to it, “be”, and it is!’ [al ‘Imran:47].

  1. b) Human affairs: These are things that can change within human history. The technical term for them is ‘stories’ (qasas) because the Book stores such data as stories. ‘We tell you [Prophet] the best of stories (ahsan al-qasas) in revealing this Quran to you. Before this you were one of those who knew nothing about them’ [Yusuf:3]. And as verse 12 of Surat Ya-Sin points out, such historical narratives are installed in ‘a record clear’ (imam mubin), not in the lawh mahfudh.

Their recording takes place only after their historical occurrence. ‘We shall certainly bring the dead back to life, and We record what they send ahead of them as well as what they leave behind: We keep an account of everything in a clear record (imam mubin)’ [Ya-Sin:12]. These stories report how, during the long history of divine revelations, people have responded differently to the messages of the prophets and how, in accordance with their degree of knowledge, they have implemented what they learned from the text.

Such accounts are so valuable for later generations to hear that they are, as in Surat Yusuf, called the ‘best of stories’, which are stored in the imam mubin but contained in the ‘clear book’ ( al-kitab al-mubin), a term that appears in three separate suras. Each story, however, forms a separate ‘book manifest’ (i.e., indefinite kitab mubin), covering one single event in human history or nature.

The varying and ever more increasing ability of humankind to learn from these stories provides the basis for their tashabuh: the further advanced our knowledge the better equipped we are to interpret the stories’ lessons for our own time period (= ta”wil ). In conclusion, the quran is either general or particular. In its general form it is stored as Quran majid in the ‘tablet preserved’, referring to the words of God that are unchangeable and everlasting. It enjoys absolute, unquestionable authority and nobody and nothing can escape its rule. Its authority is eternally valid as it is eternally stored in the lawh mahfudh and, hence, is not subject to occasions of revelation (asbab al-nuzul ).

In its particular form, however, the Quran responds to change and alterations in nature and records human history reflecting its peculiar fluctuations and unpredictable movements. And yet, the particular quran will never undermine the authority of the general quran. Instead, it works within the limits of the laws and conditions set by the quran majid. As it is said in the verse: ‘when he has ordained something, He only says, “be”, and it is!’ [Al-An’am 6:47]. This connectivity between the general laws of the universe and the particular manifestations in nature and human history defines the core of al-Quran (= the one which ‘connects’—Qarana).

Literally, the word ta’wil (derived from the root a-w-l) means ‘to return’, implying a return to the original meaning of a word in order to establish its real meanings and its unadultered semantic connotations. al-ta’wil is the search for the most adequate contemporary connotation that a Qur’anic word has acquired even if the resulting (indirect or secondary) interpretation is different from its literal (direct or primary) interpretation. the point is that language, like everything else in society and history, changes, and that words develop new connotations which reflect adequately the current state of affairs in science and society.

Even if the primary connotation of a word does not change (it stays fixed with the text’s shape) its secondary connotations always do (the text’s content), and it is the task of ta’wil to follow up on these constantly newly emerging meanings that the divine text allows.