Lecture 2 in the Ramadaan series:
EXPLORING THE SHIA APPROACH TO THE QURAN
Friday 18 May 2018 (2 Ramadaan 1439)
at the Ahlul Bait (a.s) Masjid, Ottery, Cape Town
delivered by Mowlana Syed Aftab Haider
We are now moving to the very interesting and informative discussion in the Quran about how it was revealed.
Almighty Allah (SWT) says in verse 106 of Surah Israa (chapter 17 of the Holy Quran):
وَقُرْآنًا فَرَقْنَاهُ لِتَقْرَأَهُ عَلَى النَّاسِ عَلَىٰ مُكْثٍ وَنَزَّلْنَاهُ تَنْزِيلًا
“And it is a Quran which We have revealed in portions so that you may read it to the people by slow degrees, and We have revealed it, revealing in portions.”
This particular verse of the Holy Quran is indicating one very unique quality, that the Holy Quran is not a normal book. It is very different in many aspects, and one of the unique aspects is that it is divided into parts. There is a philosophy for the Quran being revealed in portions. This verse explains that the reason is so that it can be relayed to people piecemeal.
Every sentence of this Quran has a deep message which requires proper understanding. Therefore, you cannot simply read it fast and get it done. You need to read it with breaks in between, so that the people can digest its true essence!
We always discuss this in the night of Qadr, that the Quran was a gradual revelation. This is indeed one of the unique qualities of the Holy Quran. Therefore, the Holy Quran has been divided into various categories, which really sets it apart from any other book.
IMPORTANT SUB-DIVISIONS IN THE QURAN
In this discussion, we will delve deeper into the different divisions of the Quran. Some of these divisions were made by Rasulullah (SAWA), while other divisions were done gradually in order to make the recitation and understanding of the Holy Quran easier.
1. Firstly, the Quran has been divided into 114 Surahs (chapters).
2. Then, Surahs are further divided into verses (ayah). There are 6,236 verses in the Holy Quran.
3. Furthermore, Surahs are further divided into Rukus (paragraphs), of which there are 540 in the Holy Quran.
4. There is another division, namely 30 equal parts called Juz.
5. Furthermore, every Juz is divided into 4 Hizb (groups) which means the Quran has 120 Hizbs in total
6. 1200 Ushr
7. There is also the division of Quran into 7 portions known as manazil.
Amongst these divisions, Surahs and verses are regarded as Tauqifi. This means that nobody has any right to touch it, because this is how Rasulullah (SAWA) has divided it. In other words, he placed a batch of verses together, which forms one Surah. The Surah starts and ends with the verses in the order that he determined.
However, when it comes to Ruku, Juz, Hizb etc., these are divisions done by religious scholars for various reasons. One of the reasons for these divisions is for reading in a week, and so the Quranic text is divided into 7 portions, with each portion being referred to as Manzil.
So the point is that these divisions are not coming historically from the time of Rasulullah (SAWA). It occurred much later for convenience sake like taraweeh salaah which is performed by Sunni Muslims during Ramadaan.
WHAT ARE SURAHS OF THE QURAN?
Let us speak a bit more about Surah (chapters). This is the historical divisions completed directly by Rasulullah (SAWA).
What is the meaning of Surah? There are plenty of meanings, since it is a technical discussion. The most suitable meaning to be applied comes from the word Soor, which means the doors or walls which are around a city to protect it. Example is Soor-ul-Madina, which means those walls which are around the city of Madina. It is most likely this meaning which has been applied to mean chapter, in the context of a collection of verses of the Holy Quran having a boundary around it called Surah.
Normally, Surah has been translated into English as chapter, which is not technically accurate, but due to the limitations of the English language, we find that the word “chapter” is the best fit. Normally, if you have chapters in books, it means that you have divided the topics of the book into sections called chapters. This is not the case with the Holy Quran. Surahs are not chapters in that sense.
Surahs are Tauqifi, which means we have no say over it. Rasulullah (SAWA) says this verse is in this Surah and so forth. We have very long Surahs in the Quran such as Surah Baqarah, which is the longest, and then we also have very short Surahs such as Surah Kauthar, which is the shortest.
WHY IS THE QURAN DIVIDED INTO SURAHS?
These Surahs are not necessarily divided based upon subjects. This is another important point ie. what is the philosophy behind dividing the Quran into Surahs? There are major academic debates on this topic amongst commentators of the Holy Quran. Some belief that Surahs are divided based upon the most central theme covered therein. Honestly talking, this is not correct, especially when it comes to long Surahs such as Surah Baqarah and Surah Aale-Imraan, which covers plenty of discussions under different subjects.
In summary, there is a whole host of varied discussions on this topic explaining the philosophy of dividing the Quran into Surahs.
The great commentator of the Holy Quran, Allama Tabataba’i says that this is just the way it is. There is no question of why Rasulullah (SAWA) divided Surahs in the manner that he did.
Similarly there is no dispute in the number of Surahs. Everyone agrees that there are 114 Surahs in the Quran. At least this is one matter where we are all aligned!
The word Surah has also been used in the Quran, 9 times in singular form and once in the plural form.
WHERE DO THE NAMES OF SURAHS COME FROM?
The names of Surahs open up debate. The big question is, did Rasulullah (SAWA) give names to each of the 114 Surahs or were these names created afterwards? There is a difference of opinion here. Allama Tabataba’I says that some Surahs have more than one name. In fact, Surahs like Surah Fatiha has 10 names like al-Hamd, al-Fatiha, etc.
There are a number of other Surahs which have multiple names. So, he says that people basically extracted some hints from the verses of that Surah and named it accordingly. Over the years, that Surah became known by that particular name.
An example is Surah Baqarah, where the story of Nabi Musa (a.s) is the most detailed. Sometimes, the names of Prophets have been applied to the name of a particular Surah. Sometimes, Surahs have been named based on the first letters. The point is that Rasulullah (SAWA) did not explicitly name the 114 Surahs.
WHAT ARE AYAH OF THE QURAN?
With regard to Ayah, it means “signs” in the Arabic language. We translate it to mean verse, which technically speaking is not correct, because verse means line or sentence. Therefore, we also refer to verses in the Bible or poetry for that matter.
The Holy Quran has used this word Ayah as a sign of Almighty Allah (SWT) in various contexts. Sometimes, looking at different signs of Allah (SWT) gives a clearer indication, such as verses starting with “wamin ayati…” (and among His signs).
Sometimes, the Quran refers to Ayah in reference to relationships. Sometimes, Prophets (a.s) are referred to in the Quran as Ayah (signs). Then, we find that there are times when the sentences of the Holy Quran are called Ayah.
The word Ayah has different implications in the Holy Quran, as signs of Almighty Allah (SWT) in this world and creation at large, including His Prophets (a.s). In addition, like we commonly know, the word Ayah refers to the verses of the Holy Quran as well.
Who decided where an ayah starts and ends? Again, this is Rasulullah (SAWA) who determined this directly.
HOW MANY AYAH ARE THERE IN THE QURAN?
With regard to the number of verses in the Holy Quran, there seems to be difference of opinion among the scholars. Some believe that it is 6,666, but the most accurate calculation is 6,236. Why is there a difference on this? Is it due to any addition or omission in the Quran? Not at all!
The best way to answer this question is to understand what is meant by Ayah! Some regard very long verses as one ayah, while others may have subdivided it to recognize more than one Ayah in the same long verses. This is what creates the difference in opinion.
The people of Kufa calculated the number of verses of the Holy Quran to be 6,236. This is the calculation of the Qurans we have as well, without Bismillah. When one studies this matter in history, we see that this calculation of 6,236 verses in the Holy Quran tallies up with the calculation of none other than Amir-ul-Mu’mineen Imam Ali (a.s).
There is also a reason given for the difference of opinion in the number of verses of the Quran is that they say that sometimes Rasulullah (SAWA) would read a verse and stop, to mark the end of that verse. However, at other times, he would connect verses. This caused some confusion where people thought the 2 verses he read were actually one verse. This is how the difference in opinion occurred on the number of verses in the Quran.
WHY DO WE HAVE MECCAN AND MADANI SURAHS?
There is another important and interesting division of the Quran and in fact Surahs. This very important discussion has an effect on our understanding of the Quran. The 114 Surahs (chapters) of the Quran are divided between Meccan and Madani Surahs. What is the reason for this? The criteria are time, space and audience!
Time means that all the Surahs which were revealed before the Hijra (migration) are Meccan Surahs, and all the Surahs which were revealed after the migration are Madani Surahs.
With regard to space, the Surahs which were revealed in Mecca and its surrounds are Meccan Surahs, and the Surahs which were revealed in Madina and its surrounds are accordingly referred to as Madani Surahs.
Coming to the third criteria of audience, if the audience is the people from Mecca, then the Surah is referred to as Meccan, and Madani if the audience is the people from Madina.
HOW DO WE KNOW IF A SURAH IS MECCAN OR MADANI?
There are 2 methods to determine if a Surah is Meccan or Madani:
1. Historical recording from Sahaba (companions of Rasulullah (SAWA))
2. Analysis of the contents and subjects covered in the Surah will help determine if it is Meccan or Madani.
In fact, the great commentator of the Quran, Allama Tabataba’i, prefers the second method, saying that it is the most reliable. He says that historical recordings are not very concrete, and therefore prefers the second method.
This discussion helps us enormously in our understanding of the Holy Quran.
WHAT ARE THEY SUBJECTS OF MECCAN VERSUS MADANI SURAHS?
Meccan Surahs mainly discuss matters of:
a. Aqidah – our ideology;
b. Noble moral character – since the society was extremely corrupt;
c. Short Surahs – a general hallmark of Meccan Surahs;
d. Meccan Surahs mainly debate with Mushrikeen – idol worshippers ie. those who associate partners with Allah (SWT);
e. Meccan Surahs more often address the whole of mankind when they start, and not specifically to the believers only;
f. Meccan Surahs narrate stories of the previous Prophets (a.s) and previous nations.
In contrast, we find that Madani Surahs:
a. Have long Surahs with long verses;
b. Debate with the people of the Book, namely Christians and Jews;
c. Discuss Jihad in great detail;
d. Discuss Islamic laws;
e. Speak about socio-political and economic matters.
We can see the distinction here between Meccan and Madani Surahs, and with these criteria, we are able to distinguish accordingly between Meccan and Madani Surahs.
WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF DISTINGUISHING BETWEEN MECCAN AND MADANI SURAHS?
What is the benefit of knowing this? The benefit is that we will get to understand the full journey of the Prophetic mission! If a Surah is Meccan, it refers to the early part of his mission, where he challenged the people and presented sound arguments in response to their criticism. This is also how he taught his very small group of supporters how to survive in this horrible environment.
Then, when you trace this journey further, the Hijra occurs, and the migration to Madina of Rasulullah (SAWA) takes on a new dimension, as the society and conditions are different. There is a big difference in understanding between verses in Meccan Surahs in comparison to versus in Madani Surahs.
Another very interesting benefit of distinguishing between Meccan and Madani Surahs is that there are certain commandments from Allah (SWT) specifically to the early Muslims ie. Meccan Surahs. In this time, mere acceptance of Tauheed is the guarantee of salvation. Further down the line, we see this evolve into the full belief system of Islam, together with all its relevant details and responsibilities.
Another very important benefit of distinguishing between Meccan and Madani Surahs is that we are able to be clear if there is a false argument being presented. We sometimes see this in our debates, where someone will claim that a particular verse was revealed for a particular reason or personality.
One can immediately point out the inconsistency if the person being referred to in the argument as an early Muslim, for example, only became Muslim AFTER Hijra, and the Surah referred to is Meccan! How can this verse be praising this particular person if in fact he was not around in the era pre-Hijra ie. Meccan Surahs? This is how arguments often fall apart!
There are plenty of examples of when we use verses of the Holy Quran to prove a point, or to praise or condemn a particular personality. This distinction between Meccan and Madani Surahs becomes a crucial benefit then, in order to determine if there is a match between the argument and the verses of the Quran being cited in its defense.
To be continued…….
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