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Classics

A Guide to Reading the Qur’an

A page of the Qur'an from the Mamluk era, when Al-Suyūtī lived

Anyone wishing to interpret the Noble Book “must seek its explanation first of all in the Quran itself,” wrote Jalāl al-Dīn as-Suyūtī, the fifteenth-century Egyptian scholar

This article was published in Oasis 23. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2019-05-06 12:15:47

 

 

 

Read the introduction here: At the Heart of Sunnism: The first Interpreter is the Prophet, Then His Companions.

 

 

 

 

 

Anyone wishing to interpret the Noble Book “must seek its explanation first of all in the Quran itself,” wrote Jalāl al-Dīn as-Suyūtī, the fifteenth-century Egyptian scholar. In particular, knowing the circumstances of the prophetic revelation is “an art that offers several benefits,” and is essential to its full understanding.

 

 

 

 

 

Texts by Jalāl al-Dīn al-Suyūtī

 

 

 

 

 

A)    The Circumstances of the Revelation[1]

 

 

The revelation (literally, the “sending down”) of the Qur’an is divided into two parts: one part which was sent down without any preceding element;[2] and another part which was sent down after an event or in response to a question. […] Some might think that the art [of knowing the circumstances of revelation] is of no use, as it conflates with history. But they would be wrong, because it is an interpretative art that offers several benefits, enabling the scholar:

 

 

 

 

 

-          To know what form of wisdom underpins the pronouncement of a legal ruling;

 

 

-          to specify the rule, for those who believe that the teaching [contained in a given verse] is specifically related to the cause [for which the verse was sent down];

 

 

-          to recognize that while sometimes a verbal expression is used generically, concrete reference specifies it. So, if one knows the cause [of the revelation], one can restrict the expression to its proper context, and exclude other cases that are similar in form […].

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This art also enables people to discover the true meaning of the verse and eliminate the difficulties. Al-Wāhidī[3] said: “One cannot explain a Qur’anic verse without knowing its history (qissa) and explaining how it came down.” According to Ibn Daqīq al-ʿĪd,[4] “Illustrating the cause of the revelation is a powerful way of understanding the meanings of the Quran.” And for Ibn Taymiyya,[5] “Explaining the cause of revelation helps understand the verse, because knowledge of the cause leads to knowledge of the caused.”

 

 

 

 

 

B)    Clear and Allegorical Verses[6]

 

 

The Most High said: “It is He who sent down upon thee the Book, wherein are verses clear that are the Essence of the Book, and others ambiguous” (3:7).

 

 

 

 

 

As regards this question, Ibn Habīb al-Nīsābūrī[7] put forward three hypotheses:

 

 

1)      that the Qur’an is entirely clear, because it is a “Book whose verses are set clear” (11:1);

 

 

2)      that the Qur’an is entirely allegorical, because it consist of a “a book of allegories, consimilar verses…” (39:23);[8]

 

 

3)      that the Qur’an is divided between clear and allegorical texts, as the verse with which we began affirms. And this is the correct hypothesis. […]

 

 

There are various opinions about which verses are clear and which are allegorical. It has been said that the clear verses are those whose meaning either is known or becomes immediately apparent upon interpretation (ta’wīl). Those that are allegorical, on the other hand, contain knowledge that God has reserved to Himself alone, such as the Hour of Judgment, the appearance of the Antichrist, or the isolated letters that are to be found at the beginning of some suras.[9] According to others, wherever the meaning is plain, the verse is clear; where it is not, the verse is allegorical. Another view is that verses that admit of only one interpretation are clear; those that admit of more than one are allegorical. It has also been claimed that clear verses are those whose meaning is accessible through reason; if not, then the verses are allegorical, as in the case of the number of prayers, or that fact that fasting is prescribed in the month of Ramadan rather than during the month of Sha‘ban.[10] This is the opinion of al-Māwardī.[11] Another definition: what stands alone is clear; what does not stand alone, and needs to be referred to something other than itself, is allegorical. It has been said: that for which the letter of the text is its own interpretation is clear; that which can be understood only through interpretation is allegorical. Or else: whatever is not repeated is clear; the opposite is allegorical.[12] Or again: verses about the shares of inheritance, the Promise and the Threat are clear; the stories and parables are allegorical.[13] […]

 

 

People also disagreed on whether the allegorical may be known [by men], or is known only to God. The divergence arises from the phrase in the Qur’an referring to “those firmly rooted in knowledge” (3:7), whose meaning varies according to whether the phrase is read as coordinated with the previous proposition or not. If the phrase is read as coordinating with what comes before it, then we get: “And none knows its interpretation, save only God and those firmly rooted in knowledge, who say…,” whereas if the phrase is considered as disconnected, we get: “And none knows its interpretation, save only God. As for those firmly rooted in knowledge, they say...”[14]

 

 

The first opinion was supported by a small group of exegetes, like Mujāhid,[15] who referred it to Ibn ‘Abbās.[16] […] This latter, commenting on this passage, said: “I am among those who know its interpretation.” […] Ibn Abī Hātim[17] cites this statement of al-Dahhāk:[18] “‘Those firmly rooted in knowledge’ know the interpretation, for otherwise they would not be able to distinguish the abrogating from the abrogated, the allowed from the forbidden and the clear from the allegorical.” The opinion was adopted by al-Nawawī,[19] who, commenting on the collection of hadīths compiled by Muslim, said, “This is the best opinion, because it is unlikely that God speaks to his servants about things no creature can know.” Ibn al-Hājib[20] added, “This is indeed the meaning of the text as it appears from its reading.”

 

 

But most of the Companions, the Followers, the Successors and those who came after them – especially the Sunnis – embraced the second opinion, which also coincides with the best Qur’anic reading attributed to Ibn ‘Abbās. According to Ibn al-Sam‘ānī,[21] “The first opinion was supported by only a small group, but was adopted by al-‘Utbī.[22] Al-‘Utbī was a Sunni, but he got it wrong. There is nothing odd about this: nobody is perfect, and everyone can make mistakes.” […]

 

 

Al-Tabarānī[23] reports this hadīth in his Major Collection, on the authority of Abū Mālik al-Ash‘arī.[24] “I heard the Messenger of God say: ‘I fear only three evils for my community: that they will become rich and start envying and slaying each other; and that they will open the Book and the believer will set about interpreting it, whereas only God knows the true interpretation’.”[25] […] Al-Hākim[26] reported this statement of the Prophet on the authority of Ibn Mas‘ūd:[27] “‘The First Book descended from a single Door in a single Mode. The Qur’an, however, descended from seven Doors in seven Modes: warning, command, allowed, forbidden, clear, allegorical and parabolic. Consider allowed that for which he has given permission and forbidden that which he has banned; do as you are commanded to do; refrain from that which you have been warned against; reflect upon his parables; act according to that which is clear and believe in the allegorical.’ And [upon hearing these words of the Prophet, the people present] answered: ‘We believe in it; it is all from our Lord!’” (3:7).

 

 

 

 

 

C)    Abrogating and Abrogated[28]

 

 

According to Makkī[29], abrogating verses can be of several types:

 

 

 

 

 

a) An obligation abrogating an obligation, so that it is no longer lawful to act according to the original rule. Such is the case for adultery: the initial penalty was prison, but this was abrogated and replaced by corporal punishment.

 

 

b) An obligation abrogating an obligation, but leaving open the possibility of continuing to act according to the original injunction. This is the case for the verse of perseverance (8:65-66).[30]

 

 

c) An obligation abrogating a concession, such as fighting, which was originally just a concession, but then became an obligation.

 

 

d) And finally, a concession abrogating an obligation, such as the injunction to night prayer that was replaced by the recitation of the Qur’an: “Therefore recite of the Qur’an so much as is feasible” (73:20).

 

 

 

 

 

There are three types of abrogation in the Qur’an:

 

 

 

 

 

            1) Abrogation of both the text and the rule. Such is the case of the hadīth of Ā’isha[31] reported by al-Bukhārī and Muslim: “In the revelation it was written: ‘ten counted breast-feedings’, but it was abrogated and replaced by five, then the Messenger of God died and the five breast-feedings were still in the Qur’an.”[32] The problem is that this verse [to which ‘Ā’isha refers] is not actually in the Qur’an, a fact that has led to much argument. […]

 

 

            2) Abrogation of the rule and maintenance of the text. Countless books have been written about this type of abrogation. In reality, it is a very limited phenomenon, even though people tend to exaggerate the number. […] All in all, scholars are talking about 21 abrogated verses, concerning some of which opinions differ. Apart from these, it is incorrect to talk of abrogation. I have even composed a poem about this, which begins: “People have greatly exaggerated the issue of abrogation / adding many verses to the computation.” [...]

 

 

And if you are wondering what divine wisdom is behind the fact that a rule is rescinded but its text is preserved, there are two responses to this. The first is that the Qur’an is recited so that we may know the rules and therefore act upon them, but also as word of God, so that we may receive our reward from this action. And it is for this second reason that the recitation of the [abrogated] verses has been retained. The other response is that abrogation usually tends to mitigate the law. The text [of the original injunction] is thus retained to remind [the believers] of the grace they have received and the relief granted to them by its abolition.

 

 

The verses in the Qur’an that abrogate pagan practices or norms in the Laws revealed before us or at the beginning of Islam are also few in number, such as the abrogation of the direction of prayer toward Jerusalem in the qibla verse, or the replacing of the fast of Ashura by the fast of Ramadan, and other things that I have listed in my book.[33]

 

 

Sundry observations: it has been said that in the Qur’an, with two exceptions, every abrogated passage chronologically precedes the abrogating verses. [...] Some have added a third [...] and a fourth exception. […] Ibn al-‘Arabī[34] claimed that all the parts in the Qur’an that call for reconciliation with the unbelievers, inviting to refrain from fighting them and to leave them alone, are abrogated by the Verse of the Sword: “Then, when the sacred months are drawn away, slay the idolaters wherever you find them” (9:5). This verse is supposed to have superseded 124 other verses, while its own end abrogating its opening.

 

 

            3) Abrogation of the text and the maintenance of the rule. Some have wondered what divine wisdom is behind the fact of abrogating a text and retaining the rule laid down in it. Would it not be better in this case to keep the text too, so that the rule and the text might be in agreement? My answer is that this was done to show the extent of the obedience of this community, whether it is willing to commit itself wholeheartedly to something that is only likely to be true, without requesting that every question should be neatly resolved. In fact, believers are keen to obey even on the basis of the smallest hint, just as Abraham did when he hastened to sacrifice his son based on a simple night-time dream, which is the lowest form of revelation.

 

 

 

 

 

D)    The Good Commentator[35]

 

 

According to religious experts, anyone wishing to comment on the Noble Book must seek illumination first of all in the Qur’an itself. For something that is summarily stated in one passage may be explained in detail in another. Ibn al-Jawzī[36] wrote a book specifically dealing with those aspects of the Qur’an that are summarized in one passage and explained in detail in another, and I myself have suggested several examples of this practice in the chapter on this question.

 

 

If a commentator cannot make sense of this, then he should examine the sunna, which explains and clarifies the Qur’an. As al-Shāfi‘ī[37] put it: “All the judgments that the Messenger of God has given derive from his understanding of the Qur’an.” […]

 

 

If nothing is to be found in the sunna, then reference should be made to the sayings of the Companions, because they understood the Qur’an better than us, having been witnesses of the circumstances and situations that accompanied the descent of the Book, and having uniquely received from God total understanding, sound learning and a correct course of action.[38]

 

 

(Translation by Martino Diez)

 

 

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation

 

 

 

 

 


 

[1] All the excepts are from al-Itqān fī ʿulūm al-Qurʾān, edited by Muhammad Sālim Hāshim, (Dār al-Kutub al-‘ilmiyya, Bayrūt, 2010). This passage is from Nawʿ 9, Maʿrifat sabab al-nuzūl, p. 48.

 

 

[2] The original reference is to a category of Arabic grammar. The meaning is that these Qur’anic texts were “sent down” without being preceded by any event that might have solicited them.

 

 

[3] ʿAlī Ibn Ahmad al-Wāhidī al-Nīsābūrī (d. 1076) was a well-known commentator, author of a famous work on the circumstances of revelation.

 

 

[4] A great expert on Hadīth and jurist, he was born near Yanbū‘ (a Red Sea port near Medina) in 1228 and died in Cairo in 1302.

 

 

[5] The well-known Hanbali theologian, nowadays a reference for Salafists; he was born in Harran in 1263 and died in Damascus in 1328.

 

 

[6] Nawʿ 43, fī l-muhkam wa l-mutashābih, pp. 309-312.

 

 

[7] A scholar of Qur’anic science and writer. He died in 1016.

 

 

[8] For this translation see note 12, below.

 

 

[9] Some Qur’anic suras, such as the second, are preceded by isolated letters, whose meaning is unknown.

 

 

[10] Rules of worship are without any apparent reason.

 

 

[11] The renowned jurist died in 1058 in Baghdad, author of a treatise on public law which is still widely read.

 

 

[12] Al-Suyūtī is referring here to the view according to which the allegorical passages consist of “similar or repeated texts,” on which see the commentary by Ida Zilio-Grandi at 39:23 in Il Corano (Mondadori, Milano, 2010), p. 734. In order to account for this interpretation, I have moved away from Arberry’s translation of this specific verse.

 

 

[13] The Qur’an contains a mix of different literary genres: normative texts on, for example, the rules of inheritance, homiletic passages centred on the Promise (of Paradise) or the Threat (of Hell), stories of the prophets, and parables.

 

 

[14] In the original, of course, al-Suyūtī does not translate the passage but explains the differences of meaning through  Arabic grammatical categories. The Qur’an contains no punctuation marks.

 

 

[15] Mujāhid Ibn Jabr (d. 722) was one of the earliest Qur’anic commentators. He was a disciple of Ibn ‘Abbās.

 

 

[16] Cousin of Muhammad, he is considered the father of Qur’anic exegesis and he is known as “the interpreter of the Qur’an.” He died in 686/687.

 

 

[17] An expert of Hadīth criticism, Ibn Abī Hātim (854-938) was the author of a biographical lexicon listing more than 20,000 transmitters, whose reliability he subjects to scrutiny.

 

 

[18] A traditionist native of Balkh; he lived in the eighth century.

 

 

[19] A celebrated expert on traditions, al-Nawawī, who lived in Syria between 1233 and 1277, also wrote a commentary on the collection of hadīths compiled by Muslim (d. 860).

 

 

[20] Jurist of the Maliki school and renowned grammarian, he was born in Upper Egypt in 1174/1175 and died in Alexandria in 1249. He is the author of two famous works devoted to the morphology and the syntax of Arabic.

 

 

[21] A native of Merv, also known as al-Sam‘ānī (1113-1166), he was a traditionist and the author of a biographical dictionary.

 

 

[22] This is probably Muhammad al-‘Utbī, a jurist of the Maliki school born in Cordoba (d. 868).

 

 

[23] One of the most important traditionists of the tenth century, he was born in Syria in 873 and died in Isfahan in 971.

 

 

[24] A Companion of the Prophet, of Yemeni origin.

 

 

[25] The third evil is contempt for the wise. The quotation from the hadīth is incomplete.

 

 

[26] Al-Hākim al-Nīsābūrī (933-1014) is an estimated traditionist, author of the Mustadrak.

 

 

[27] Among the first converts to Islam and the most faithful Companions of Muhammad, he is credited with a recension of the Qur’an that differs in part from the canonical text.

 

 

[28] Nawʿ 47, fī nāsikhi-hi wa mansūkhi-hi, pp. 340-345.

 

 

[29] Expert in Qur’anic interpretation, born in Kairouan in 965 and died in Cordoba in 1045. He is the author of an Explication of the abrogating and abrogated in the Qur’an.

 

 

[30] This passage of the Qur’an reads: “If there be twenty of you, patient men, they will overcome two hundred [...],” but the next verse rectifies: “Now God has lightened it for you, knowing that there is weakness in you. If there be a hundred of you, patient men, they will overcome two hundred [...],” thereby reducing the ratio of believing fighters to unbelieving enemies from 1 to 10 to 1 to 2.

 

 

[31] Muhammad’s favourite wife. The two collections of hadīth compiled by al-Bukhari (d. 870) and Muslim (d. 860) are the most authoritative for Sunnis.

 

 

[32] In Islam milk kinship is likened to blood kinship. According to the testimony of ‘Ā’isha, milk kinship was originally established after ten breast feedings, but the threshold was later lowered to five, “as we read in the Book.” In fact, the Qur’an as we now know it contains no indications on this matter.

 

 

[33] According to traditional sources, these changes in worship practices were introduced during the Medinean period. The direction of prayer (the qibla) was moved from Jerusalem to Mecca (Cf. 2:144); and in the same sura, the Ashura fast, modelled on the Jewish Yom Kippur, is replaced by the Ramadan fast (cf. 2:183-185).

 

 

[34] Judge and traditionist of Seville (1076-1148), not to be confused with the mystic of the same name.

 

 

[35] Nawʿ 78, fī ma‘rifat shurūt al-mufassir, pp. 572-573.

 

 

[36] One of the most famous Hanbali scholars of Baghdad, Ibn al-Jawzī (1126-1200) composed more than 300 works, mostly on hadīth and Qur’anic exegeses, but also on history and anecdotes. He is known for its hostility not only against the non-Sunnis, but also against the orthodox mystics.

 

 

[37] The renowned jurist (died in Egypt in 820), founder of one of the four schools of law still existing in the Sunni world. He was a strong advocate of the primacy of the Hadīth for the codification of the Law.

 

 

[38] I read al-‘amal al-sālih instead of al-‘ilm al-sālih to avoid duplication with the previous pair (al-‘ilm al-sahīh).

To cite this article


Printed version:
Text by Jalāl al-Dīn al-Suyūtī, “A Guide to Reading the Qur’an”, Oasis, year XII, n. 23, July 2016, pp. 98-104.


Online version:
Text by Jalāl al-Dīn al-Suyūtī, “A Guide to Reading the Qur’an”, Oasis [online], published on 29th July 2016, URL: https://www.oasiscenter.eu/en/guide-reading-qur.

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