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How To Understand the Quran?

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Necessary Preliminaries in Understanding the Quran:

1- It’s undeniable that a general understanding of the Holy Quran is not limited to a specific group; the Quran came for the benefit of all. This is confirmed by many verses, consistently emphasizing that the Quran is a book of guidance for the righteous. It is both enlightenment and enlightening, clarifying truths and duties. It’s evident that those who directly benefited from the Quran were those among whom the Prophet (PBUH) was sent.

History is replete with stories of individuals who opposed Islam and disbelieved it but became deeply attached to Islam and guided by its guidance after listening to some of its verses and understanding their meanings. Muslims identified their religious duties through the Quranic rulings and jihad commands revealed to the Prophet (PBUH) in the form of Quranic verses, which he conveyed and recited to them. Most of the Quran — not just a small part of it — is facilitated for the understanding of the general public, as some verses explicitly state and as is evident from their clear meaning. Anyone with knowledge of history and the Prophet’s biography knows that this is one of their axioms.

2- The Quran, while mostly facilitated for the general understanding, was revealed firstly in Arabic, secondly in the language of the Prophet’s era, and thirdly as oral discourse, not written text. It was a direct speech addressed to people gradually and on various occasions, not in the form of a composed book organized from beginning to end. The Prophet would convey to people the verses that were revealed to him orally; they would memorize or write them down.

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Those interested in studying and understanding the Quran must pay significant attention to these three issues and their implications: Firstly, a good grasp of the Arabic language is imperative for direct access to the Holy Quran. As we mentioned, the language of the Quran is Arabic, and understanding the Arabic text requires – for the reader – a good grasp of the Arabic language. Unfortunately, I’ve noticed that some try — with good intentions — to understand the meanings of the Quranic verses, despite not being proficient in Arabic. They rely on their superficial knowledge of Arabic morphology and grammar and on Arabic-foreign dictionaries or recent translations of Quranic vocabulary into foreign languages. Hence, they fall into laughable errors. However, due to their good intentions and kindness, they accept advice with an open heart when we point out the shortcomings of their methods.

 From here, a good knowledge of morphology, grammar, and language, and the ability to benefit from linguistic books (noting that some words have several meanings, which requires a relative ability to use linguistic books to determine the appropriate meaning) are matters that arise from the first issue. Secondly, it is essential to be familiar with the language and culture of Arabia in the Hijaz, Najd, Yemen, and other regions during the era of prophecy, as the Quran was revealed in contemporary Arabic at the time of the mission.

Everyone with knowledge of languages knows that languages evolve and change among all peoples. Thus, it is crucial to understand the meanings of Quranic vocabulary in that era. If a word has acquired a different meaning today, it’s incorrect to interpret it based on the intended meaning in the era of the Quran’s revelation, as that meaning did not exist at that time.

3- A noticeable feature in many verses is that the first word in the subsequent verse completes the action or adjective in the previous verse. In other words, two segments of a long sentence may be presented as two verses. Neglecting this issue can lead to misunderstandings of the Quran. Verses 25 and 26 of Surah Al-Mursalat, are examples of this. The phrase (the living and the dead) is not a standalone sentence but rather complements the preceding one. Even if we assume that “Kifatan” was used during the era of revelation to mean ‘swift bird’, the context between the two verses necessitates that its meaning is ‘encompassing’ and not ‘swift bird’.

4- There are Quranic verses that address the same topic at different times and due to changing circumstances, they address new issues. Therefore, if we want to ascertain Islam’s stance on a particular topic, it is necessary to explore all related verses and organize them according to the chronological order of their revelation. Hence it is said, “The Quran explains itself.

5- We mentioned that the Quran is a discourse revealed in specific historical circumstances, addressing the issues of its time. However, being a universal and eternal book, its content is not confined to the circumstances of that era but transcends to encompass all times and places. This is a clear and accepted fact affirmed by the Quran itself. For example, it describes the Prophet (PBUH) as a ‘warner to all peoples’ and calls for guidance from the Quran in every time and place, indicating its universality. However, extracting Quranic meanings across different eras and regions is a task beyond ordinary understanding and requires specialization and readiness.

6- The Quran addresses humans in all their intellectual, spiritual, and behavioral dimensions. Given the wide variance among people in these aspects, the Quran’s impact on individuals differs. Some may feel spiritually uplifted by a verse, while the same verse may not affect another. Personal interpretations of a verse can vary based on individual dispositions. This variability should be considered when attempting to understand the Quran and other religious and humanistic texts.

7- There are sometimes peculiar pitfalls in deriving new conclusions from the Quran. For instance, some have interpreted the verse ‘Establish prayer’ to mean ‘initiate a revolution’, arguing that since prayer deters indecency and wrongdoing, and seeing that regular prayers of millions haven’t prevented indecency, the term must mean something else, like ‘revolution’. This interpretation twists the original meaning to fit a particular narrative.

True prayer, in essence, is a remembrance of God and should naturally deter one from indecency and wrongdoing. The concept of ‘establishing prayer’ is a common linguistic expression in Arabic and should not be conflated with initiating a revolution. This is an example of interpretation based on personal opinion, which even non-believers reject for its lack of fairness. While the Quran is indeed revolutionary in many aspects, its message and meanings shouldn’t be arbitrarily reshaped. Some claim that the Quran’s language is symbolic, which, while partially true in the case of certain verses, the majority are clear and straightforward. Understanding the deeper meanings of the Quran requires more than a superficial reading; it requires a deeper intellectual and spiritual engagement.

8- Understanding the Quran at advanced levels requires specialization, and in some of these levels, it can only be achieved by referring to the source of revelation. One level of Quranic understanding is exclusive to the Prophet (PBUH) and the Imams (peace be upon them); reaching this level is only possible through their narrations. This is particularly true in cases where the connection between the words and phrases of the Quran and the symbolic or general meaning is not apparent, even if the meaning seems understood. Just as the Prophet received revelation, he could also provide these exceptional clarifications. Narrations referring to this level of interpretation specify that it is exclusive to the Prophet (PBUH) and the Ahl al-Bayt (peace be upon them).

There’s another type of symbolic meaning where the connection between the word and the meaning isn’t clear enough for many to understand, but if someone does understand it and explains it to others, they accept it as the new meaning reflected by the verse. This is also an interpretation of the Quran, but it’s not the type exclusive to the Prophet and the Imams. In this kind of interpretation, it’s essential to avoid personal biases and desires, or else the meaning of the verse will merely reflect those biases.

Some may wish that the verses give meanings that suit their desires and quickly accept anyone who claims to understand those meanings. This approach is a form of interpretation by opinion, which is frowned upon and rejected, as strongly opposed in the narrations from the Prophet and the Imams. Our reference to the prayer issue earlier is a testament to this statement, as that individual was seeking evidence in the Quranic verses to prove the Quran’s revolutionary nature, thus his mind was only open to meanings that neutral observers wouldn’t associate with the words.

9- The Quran contains ambiguous verses and words whose meanings are not immediately clear, such as the opening letters of some chapters like “Alif Lam Meem,” “Ya Seen,” “Kaf Ha Ya Ain Sad,” and other cryptic words and phrases. The Quran, in Surah Al-Imran, emphasizes that only Allah and those who have acquired knowledge from Him, namely the Prophet and the Imams, know the interpretation of these statements.

This calls for great caution with ambiguous verses; it’s wrong to interpret such words and phrases according to desires and in pursuit of discovering new topics, leading to attributing to the Quran topics that have no clear connection or evidence. Through my Quranic studies, I’ve found that there are two types of ambiguity:

  1- Complete ambiguity, like “Alif Lam Meem”.

  2- Relative ambiguity, where the meaning of the phrase is somewhat clear, but beyond that, it becomes ambiguous, and one is puzzled in understanding it. In such cases, one should refrain from interpreting. In situations of ambiguity – when unsure about the meaning of the phrase, or when the phrase can mean two opposite things – one should stop at the realistic indication of the phrase and not attribute topics to the Quran that can’t be inferred from the words. A phrase might give a direct meaning up to a certain limit, but multiple meanings if we go beyond that limit, are known as “relative ambiguity.”

They are definitive concerning the direct meaning and ambiguous beyond that. In all cases, one should not rely on phrases in the extent that they give two or several meanings. This is among the advice emphasized by the Quran, as adopting multi-meaning phrases leads only to sedition and disagreement. As the Quran says: “But those in whose hearts is deviation [from truth] will follow that of it which is unspecific, seeking discord and seeking an interpretation [suitable to them]. And no one knows its [true] interpretation except Allah and those firm in knowledge” (Al-Imran/7).

Only Allah and those who have acquired their knowledge from Allah, i.e., the Prophet and the pure Imams, know the interpretation of the ambiguous verses. Therefore, we are not like the Akhbaris who believe that understanding everything in the Quran is exclusive to the Prophet and the Imams and that understanding any verse necessarily involves referring to the narrations addressing that verse.

10- Some attribute the interpretation of a verse or a Quranic topic to the Prophet or the Imam merely because they found a single narration referring to it. But who said that any narration is indeed from the Prophet or the Imam just because it is attributed to them in any book? Yes, if it is proven that the interpretative narration is from the Prophet or the Imam, there’s no debate about its significance in understanding the Quran. However, how many interpretative narrations can we be certain came from the Prophet and the Imams?

Undoubtedly, many interpretative narrations are not fully authenticated, and even if they are, they are often singular reports and thus do not constitute conclusive evidence. Based on this, our position on interpretative narrations is clear and is supported by the consensus of senior scholars. Every narration that is authentic and definitive in its implication is, in our view, on par with the Quran. This is what is meant by the Book and the Sunnah, or the Book and the Progeny. But if the chain of narration is questionable or speculative, meaning its phraseology isn’t definitive, we do not have the right to give it an important role in understanding the Quran.

This stance I declare is definitive and not personal; it is generally the stance of our researchers and stipulates that every narration proved to have come from the Prophet (PBUH) or the Imams (peace be upon them) and is not ambiguous or complicated, and its meaning is clear, then it plays a decisive and fundamental role in interpreting the Quran. Otherwise, it doesn’t have such a role, as is the case in historical studies, where most interpretative narrations are not firmly authenticated and unclear in meaning.

The Quran is the primary standard because its attribution to the noble Prophet is certain, and the sayings of the Prophet (PBUH) and the Imams are like the Quran and equivalent to it if they are definitive. Thus, utilizing hadiths and narrations in understanding the Quran is a very delicate and skillful art and requires full specialization, as some hadiths are fabricated and some are not considered reliable, leading to errors.

I reiterate that those with a deep understanding of the intricacies of social, ethical, mystical, and spiritual human issues can draw valuable and lively conclusions when they refer to the noble Quran. We must never overlook the importance of these conclusions, provided they do not reach the extent of interpretation by opinion, imposing our desires on the Quran. There are wonderful narrations in the interpretation of the Quran, and they are useful provided that we do not grant them the primary role in interpretation but rather a complementary role.

The primary role is given only to the narration whose attribution to the Prophet or the Imam is certain. We say certain and not speculative, and even if it is a sound report, a sound report in the terminology of hadith science – which we allow to rely on in jurisprudence – does not play a primary role in interpreting the Quran if it is not definitive, as it does not always lead to certainty and is not definitive, being transmitted by only one reliable person. This type of report may be an argument in jurisprudence, but not in interpretation. Only a definitive report can play a primary role in interpretation, within the limits of clear and definitive implication, and other narrations play a supportive role.

I hope we can walk on the straight path by observing these standards and benefiting from the noble Quran, which is a clear book and light and guidance for the worlds from Allah: “There has come to you from Allah a light and a clear book. * By which Allah guides those who pursue His pleasure to the ways of peace…” (Al-Ma’idah/15-16).


Source: Mohammad Hossein Beheshti, Resalat Al-Thaqalayn Magazine/ Issue 9, 1994.

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