On the Importance of Understanding the Qur’an
Millions of Muslims around the globe recite the verses of the Qur’an daily in their prayers. In Ramadan, recitation of the entire Qur’an is completed in thousands of mosques around the world. In some cases, the recitation of the entire Qur’an is completed in three nights in the last ten days of the month of Ramadan, the month we have just left behind.
In addition to actual participation, Taraweeh prayer is broadcast globally live every year from the holy city of Mecca. A global Qur’anic recitation competition takes place every year. Tapes, CDs and the Internet also provide Quranic recitation so people can hear it while on land, sea, and air. Perhaps, it may be no exaggeration to state that the Qur’an is the most recited but least understood of books.
Indeed, listening to and reciting the Qur’an has become extremely popular among religious Muslims. However, how many of us are able to understand what is being recited? Moreover, how much importance in our lives do we attach to this understanding? Further, what does it take to understand the Qur’an?
Several obstacles impede Muslims’ understanding of the Qur’an. Reading a book does not necessarily mean that one can understand it. Knowledge of a language is of course necessary for understanding a book written in that language. However, is it sufficient? Books of famous thinkers (in any language) may be read by many but, in reality, are understood by very few, then what to say of the Qur’an whose author is Allah, possessing infinite knowledge and wisdom?
Another obstacle in understanding the Qur’an stems, on the one hand, from the mistaken belief that salvation in the Hereafter is achieved by faith alone and not by understanding the meaning of the Qur’anic verses. On the other hand, secular and liberal Muslims dismiss the idea that the Qur’an should be a guiding force in our daily lives. Therefore, they do not consider it worthwhile to spend time and intellect in exploring the depth of Qur’anic meanings in the same way that other areas of interest are explored. Furthermore, some Muslims have assigned such special status to past Islamic scholars and Imams that the latter’s works are considered sacred and beyond error. In this case, the question arises: Should all Qur’anic interpretation be frozen in their time and space? No doubt, these scholars of the past did their best critical thinking and research into the Qur’an during their time; and their works are treasure for us. However, why do most of their followers shut the door for further critical thinking and research into the Qur’an? In fact, as human knowledge evolves, it becomes imperative for us to enhance, reinterpret, and advance the past understanding of the Qur’an.
The Quran is very clear on this point:
In time We shall make them fully understand Our messages [through what they perceive] in the utmost horizons [of the universe] and within themselves, so that it will become clear unto them that this [revelation] is indeed the truth. (41:53).
In time We shall make them fully understand Our messages [through what they perceive] in the utmost horizons [of the universe] and within themselves, so that it will become clear unto them that this [revelation] is indeed the truth.
A further obstacle in understanding the Qur’an is the susceptibility of human beings to take shortcuts. If we believe that simply reciting the verses of the Qur’an (without understanding them) is sufficient to bring lots of rewards – here as well as in the Hereafter – then why should we struggle to understand the Qur’an? Ingenious shortcuts to wealth, prosperity, good health, and multiple rewards in the Hereafter through recitation of certain words, and verses, and even by simply running one’s finger on the words of the Qur’an are commonplace in the collective Muslim experience.
This has led to a mental malaise wherein Muslims fail to recognize and revere the value of acquiring Islamic knowledge and understanding of the Qur’an. In turn, this lack of understanding of the Qur’an and our subsequent failure to act upon it, has led to our present deplorable status in the world. How else to explain the position of the more than fifty Muslim countries which depend on others even for their physical survival despite the fact that they own the richest resources of the Earth? How else to explain the behavior of Muslims colluding with non-Muslims to inflict suffering on other Muslims?
Is there any hope for us to regain our lost dignity? The Qur’an proclaims there is. The Qur’an says that Muslims should never despair of Allah’s mercy and blessing (39:53). It says that the Book of Allah is always there to help them at every step but … But it can only help those who want to live by it and not those who simply want to read or recite it for earning some easy rewards for the Hereafter. The Qur’an is for the living and not for the dead:
To the end that it may warn everyone who is alive [of heart] (36:70).
However, living by the Qur’an requires that, we, Muslims, understand it first. In order to understand it, however, we have to use our minds. Moreover, in order to use our minds we have to spend time and effort, we have to struggle and persevere, just as we do for other things in life. There are no shortcuts in this process. This is Allah’s law of requital. Without proper input, one cannot get proper output.
How much time and effort do we normally spend in trying to understand the Qur’an compared to other pursuits of life? In addition, it is important to know that acquiring the knowledge and understanding of the Qur’an is incumbent on every Muslim:
Will they not, then, try to understand this Qur’an? (4:82)
– Will they not, then, try to understand this Qur’an? Thus seeking knowledge of the Qur’an is a sacred duty imposed by Allah on every Muslim. Allah says that He has revealed this Qur’an so that humanity can come out of the depth of darkness into the shining light of its guidance:
A DIVINE WRIT [is this -a revelation] which We have bestowed upon thee from on high in order that thou might bring forth all mankind, by their Sustainer’s leave, out of the depths of darkness into the light (14:1).
How seriously do we take the Qur’an? Do we live by it and die for it as instructed by Allah? Or, do we pay mostly lip service by reciting it to earn rewards for the Hereafter? In probing the human psychology of evasion, Iqbal advises: Ai Musalmaan apne dil se pooch Mullah se na pooch. [O Muslims! Ask your own hearts, not Mullahs.] So, we must question our own hearts – why do we not seek to understand the Qur’an on our own? Why do we solely rely on fatwas and others’ understanding of the Qur’an? Or, are we waiting to hear what we want to hear?
Allah says the Qur’an is more valuable than any treasure we can accumulate (10:58). So, do we really consider the Qur’an as the most valuable treasure in our lives? How much of our day- and night-time hours do we devote to it? To what extent our understanding of it is compromised by our lack of willingness to study it?
To remove these aforementioned obstacles, we must make a sincere pledge towards understanding the Qur’an and then trying to live by it. According to Allama Iqbal:
Gar tu mi khwaahi Musalmaan zeestan
Neest muumkin juz ba Qur’an zeestan
[If you wish to live the life of Muslim, then it is not possible except to live by the Qur’an.]
Moreover, we must quit imitating the past, for imitation destroys our potential and damages our “self.” Allah says that if all the trees on the planet became pens and all its oceans became ink, the words of Allah (i.e., the meanings contained in them) would not be exhausted (31:27, 18:109). How then can we say that books written in the second and third century after the Prophet (PBUH) contain all the knowledge that we need to understand the Qur’an? Allah enjoins on every Muslim in every age to use his/her reason, intellect, and knowledge to understand and explore the meanings of His revelation. Allah says:
and who, whenever they are reminded of their Sustainer’s messages, do not throw themselves upon them [as if] deaf and blind; (25:73)
– when Our verses are presented to them, they do not submit to these by ignoring their intellect, wisdom, rationale and reason. They do not respond to them as if they were deaf and blind. Allah tells us to do tadabbur in the Qur’an:
Will they not, then, try to understand this Qur’an? Had it issued from any but God, they would surely have found in it many an inner contradiction! (4:82).
Do they not reflect upon the Quran? Were it from anyone other than Allah, they would have found many inconsistencies therein. Tadabbur means highly focused, goal-oriented, intense thinking to discover the application of the Qur’an to our way of life.
Let us pledge today to do that. Let us not wait until the morrow, which may never come. Let the truth of the Quran change our individual and collective lives in this world as well as in the Hereafter.
Written by Mansoor Alam