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The Coherence of the Quran | Dr. Shehzad Saleem

Dr. Safiyyah: When we open a copy of the Quran, it doesn't seem like there's an introduction, a middle, and a conclusion. Is there a coherence or an order to the Quran?

Dr. Shehzad: Well, this is one of the most fascinating questions that I have been faced with ever since I started my study of the Quran about 45 years ago. I remember that one of the things that really bothered me was that this sudden change of subject. And the thing that actually made me really realize that there's something wrong is that if you pick up Surah Bani Israel, the 17th surah of the Quran, it starts off with the ascension verses of the Quran of the Almighty telling the prophet to that spiritual journey. And then it suddenly changes, I mean, right after one verse there's this history of prophet Noah and the delusion, the rest. So, that was one of the most blatant places which made me think that there is this jump in the Quran and this jump is on many occasions so pronounced, that you just feel whether it is a divine book or not. Because even if I, as a human being would be arranging a book, I wouldn't make this jump or.

One of the reasons of not being able to understand this is that, there is a particular style of the Quran. And that style actually relates to the genre of the Quran, the category to which the Quran belongs to.

So, there are several answers that have been given. For example, there are people who say that it's a book of prose or a book of poetry. And then the question is, is it a book of history, or is it a book in which divine commandments are situated in historical perspective? So, these questions have actually grappled human minds a lot. And I think the answer, or the right answer to this question would answer the question that I was facing and as you just yourself pointed out. So, making sense of this, I would refer to the Farahi's school of thought. And one of the premier, I would say the founder of this institution was Ustad Hamiduddin Farahi, of this school. And he actually pinpointed one thing that did open my eyes, and I do think that once I was aware of what he had said, it made much more sense to read the Quran.

He said that, basically, if you view the Quran, the genre of the Quran, it is a book of dialogues. So, a book of dialogue in which people speak to each other, the speaker changes, the addressee changes, and that goes in a very rapid way.

And it's like a person standing on a pulpit is addressing people who are there in front of him. And there is a group here, and there is a group here, and there is a group there. And each of these groups might be having different issues, different specifics. And because he is addressing all of them at the same time, so once he's addressing the right person that's standing on the right, the group. And then he suddenly shifts to the group which is standing right in the middle. And if you don't account for the change in the audience, you'll find the jump very palpable. The jump is not because there is a jump, the jump is because now the addressee has changed. And at times, the speaker also changes. So, he made this point that you have to realize that basically the Quran is a book of dialogues.

It is situated in a certain point of time. There are certain real people, or real entities which are engaging in this dialogue. And basically, this dialogue has been narrated by the Almighty himself. So we find Almighty himself saying certain words. We find even Satan saying certain words. We find prophets, we find specifically in the era of prophet Muhammad we find the hypocrites, we find the people of the books, we find the idolaters. So speeches which come out of their mouths, they're speeches which come out of the mouth of the prophet, and then they're addressed to specific addresses.

For example, at one instance, the speech of the Prophet would be directed to the people of the book, and then it would shift to the idolaters, and then it would shift to the hypocrites. And he said the Quran, I mean the words that Ustad Farahi used was that that the Quran is like a divine orator. It's like a divine oration in which the direction of address, the line of address keeps shifting from left to right, and if you don't take this into account, the jerks and the jumps would be something that you'll become very used to, and you'll find out, well how can this be a divine book?

And another thing that he pointed out was that not only does the audience change, I mean it's not just the audience, the speaker also changes. So just to give you a human example, it's no way in parallel to the Quran, just a human example. Because I teach this to my students, and because the fact that the Quran is also a literary work. For example, if I have to point out that Shakespeare, his book, his works basically are dramas. And I'm not comparing the Quran in any way to a drama. What I'm just trying to make is that when you portray a drama, or a book of dialogues, what you do is you write the name of a speaker on the left, you put a colon and then his speech comes right after that. And so on and so forth. And at the same time, at times the author himself indicates that the audience has changed. So if you look at a work, for example, "Julius Caesar", or "Hamlet", or any other book that Shakespeare wrote, you'll find that precisely the person who is speaking and the people who had spoken, they are precisely marked by the author himself.

Now imagine that the people who are speaking they are erased. And the people who are spoken to are also erased. And everything is left to you to understand. So exactly this has happened in the Quran.

The Quran is not arranged in a way that the speaker and the spoken to are specified. But through internal analysis of the Quran itself, through our own Arabic understanding, you are able to make sense that this is the time when God is speaking, and he is directing his speech to the hypocrites.

This a time where Prophet Muhammad is speaking, of course the tongue is of God, but he is directing his speech to some other entity. So if this is realized, you'll find that this dialogue is basically the crux of the Quranic structure. And this is like a dialogue embedded in narration. And because of the fact that its dialogue is embedded in narration, you find that if you're able to grasp how books of dramas are written, or a drama is written, that we have act one, act two, scene one, and scene two, so exactly you'll find, I mean, I'm just trying to explain on a human plane level, it's no way a comparison. It's like, making us understand, that just as in a humanly-authored book, like for example, any work of Shakespeare, you'll find these change of scenes taking place, acts changing, and then people changing. So if you just sort of apply this to the Quran, you'll find out exactly very similarly that there are scenes which keep changing. I mean there's a new scene which is brought out, suddenly there is, I mean the Battle of Badr is going on, and the battle finishes, and then there is a small digression, and then there is a comment made by a God regarding that battle. And if you are not aware of that, that there is a change of scene, a new topic has come up, not because it's something which is haphazard, but because the previous incident actually entailed that some comment had to be made on it, and a new scene had to be set up. So acts change, scenes change, and speakers change.

Dr. Safiyyah: So, where does that leave us then? Because we're looking on, it's almost like we're eavesdropping on the conversation. But we know that the Quran is supposed to be a book of guidance for us.

Dr. Shehzad: Absolutely, so you see what has happened is that, because of the fact that this conversation has taken place between characters situated in time, so the lessons we can draw from the Quran is basically with that conversation which goes on between those characters. So it's like an indirect guidance, why? Because as my understanding is concerned, I could be absolutely wrong, is that, what I have learned from my teachers as well, is that 70, 80% of guidance is already ingrained in us.

So basic morality, basic human values, they are common to all mankind. Every single person, whether he believes in God or not, he or she possesses the same moral standards, I would say on a broader sense. And that is why they are called universal truths. So it's just this 20% maybe, above that 80%, that you need guidance in. So the Quran actually furnishes that 20%. The 80% that it speaks of at times is not because it's brought up for the first time. It will not discuss morality because it's something that is not known to us, but because it wants to remind us.

So the Quran is a reminder for that 80% that you already have, and 20% it guides us in areas in which our own intellect is not able to take the right decision. So I would say that the need of that guidance is very specific.

If you in fact single out the verses which do guide us, in the form of the sharia, you'll find that there are very few of them. The rest of them basically are reminders of the Day of Judgment, reminders of the fact that, yes, God is something, I mean a being that can be proven to people. That yes, there is a God who exists. Yes, there is a messenger of God who came, there were messengers who came in certain eras of time. And books of God were revealed in certain eras of time. You'll find the Quran actually discussing these topics and in order to remind the realities that we already have. That conversation between those entities which are situated in time, make us realize that yes, this is how God wanted things to happen.

As we discussed in a previous segment, that there are certain things which those conversations reflect, which are specific to them and they cannot be extended. And then there are other things which are for all times to come. Thus, for example when the Quran says That the system for a government or the system, eclectic system has to be based on consultation or it has to be democratic, you just cannot say that it's part of the prophetic era only. This is something which is a general guidance. The nature of the words themselves tell us. And the context will pinpoint, yes, it is something for all times to come. But, for example, the way that the Almighty punished through his messengers people of those era, we would clearly see that this is something which is specific to that era, because of the context, and because of that divine practice that this is something that is only the prerogative of messengers of God.

I think if we able to first of all understand, that the stylistics of the Quran, that it's a book of dialogue, the dialogues are something which change from person to person, and the content changes. A lot of, I would say, incoherence would stand accounted for. Now, this is one thing.

Another thing is that not only that the Quran has this very specific way in which it speaks and it is spoken to, there is structural coherence in the Quran as well. So the Quranic verse which says, which means, that Almighty is addressing the prophet and telling him that the prophet we gave you the seven consisting of two. If you make sense of the whole verse, you'll find out that what actually is being implied here is, that the Quran has been arranged into seven chapters and within each chapter, surahs are coherent pairs. Basically, these seven chapters have been outlined by Ustad Hamiduddin Farahi and his students, and how these seven chapters have been arranged. And within these seven chapters, every surah are coherent pairs. Thus for example, Surah Falaq and Surah Nas, they are such a natural prayer, that anyone who is just going to in a very read in a very perfunctory way will realize that these are very closely related. Similarly, Baqarah and Ali Imran, the way they are structured.

These are very apparent examples, but if you go in detail, you'll realize that within the chapter, there are surahs, which are occurring in pair. Yes, there are certain exceptions. And then we have, within the chapter, the sequence is always historical. It begins with one or more than one Meccan Surah and ends on more than one Medinan Surah. In this way, these seven chapters are arranged in a way that within the chapter, the sequence are historical.

But overall, it's not that the Quran has been arranged in a historical way, because it's not in a chronological way. It's not that the Meccan Surahs, all of them occur first, and then the Medinan Surahs. But within the chapter, yes the sequence is historical. And then we have every chapter having a theme. And then we have every surah having a theme.

And then we have a surah progressing in a way, in which, just as in literature, we have these literary devices, in which for example, at times you say something in a very precise way and then you digress, or maybe explain that and there's a digression for example. And then the discourse comes back after that digression to the original point. So you should not relate the later discourse to that immediate digression. You have to relate it right before when that started. So the way the Quran is structured is not a linear sort of a sequence, which some people do think, like Imam Razi. He has said this, there is a linear connection with all the verses. That is not entirely true, I would say. The linear connection is not always there because as I said, at times the discourse comes back to a certain point of time.

For example, if there is a question being asked, the answer is given right after that. Now the discourse is not going to start right after the answer because, actually the answer was to that question. It would be linked to the question first, and then it would move forward. So this is just one example, otherwise if you go into details, you will find that the way that the surah progresses, is that at times these literary devices are used. And then as I just pointed out earlier, that within the surah, there are particular addressees, at times the addressees are the people of the book. The whole surah might be related to the people of the book. For example Surah Baqarah, it is directed to, one part of it is directed to the Jews of this time, the prophet's times. And the later part is directed to Muslims. And this shift has taken place virtually near the middle of the surah.

Within the surah these speakers and the spoken to change, and as I said, at the same time, the way in which this progression takes place within the surah is not a linear progression, it's more of a literary progression. And that literary progression actually is something which we can clearly see in a lot of literary works that we are familiar with. So I think that in this background, I mean I have at times over-simplified some of the things, but in this background, you'll find out that if you're able to read the Quran in the lens of this, I would say, all important premise, that you will see that it's a extremely coherent book. And to point out this particular fact, I would say that Ustad Hamiduddin Farahi was not able to write a complete commentary of the Quran, so his student Ustad Amin Ahsan Islahi, and then his own student, Ustad Javed Ahmad Ghamidi, he was my teacher as well. So, both of them got a chance to write commentaries on the Quran. And they followed up these principles, and they actually applied these principles and showed us that how these seven chapters are coherently arranged, how within each chapter, the surahs are coherent pair. How every surah has an addressee, and then how every chapter has an addressee, and how a chapter is sequentially arranged with the other chapters.

Dr. Safiiyyah: If we want to learn more about this structure that we're mentioning, where would we go? Would we look at Islahi's works, Javed Ghamidi?

Dr. Shehzad: I would say Javed Ghamidi's works would be more appropriate, because he's the last, I mean, he's the current authorized scholar. And he has developed and made some contributions as well, and at the same time, given precision to a lot of ideas of Farahi and Islahi. So the pre-amble to his oath of seal, "Al-Bayan" is now available in English as well, I mean, it will be available in a few months. You'll find that he is actually described how these surahs are coherent pair. And that there is a single volume translation available in English as well. And he also has summarized that without the tafseer just the translation part. So in the preamble of that translation, he has described the structure of the Quran. So any person who has access to that translation will see how this pattern goes forth in the Quran, how this seven chapters are arranged, and which of the surahs actually are pairs, and how the transition within the Meccan and the Medinan surahs takes place. And of course, this is a human endeavor and it can be improved upon, and it's not the last word at all.

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