The Importance of Understanding Qur’an (Dr. Mansoor Alam, Ohio, USA)

Perhaps, it may be no exaggeration to state that the Qur’an is the most oft-recited but least understood of books.

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 or even in one night in the last ten days of the month of Ramadan.   In addition to actual participation, Taraweeh prayer is broadcast live every year from the holy city of Mecca to many Muslim countries. 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.

Indeed, listening to and reciting the Qur’an has become extremely popular, and even fashionable among religious Muslims. However, how many of us are able to understand what is being recited? And how much importance 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.  Many non-Arab Muslims mistakenly think the Arabs can understand the Qur’an better than others because they know and speak the Arabic language.  This may be so, but it is not true in general. Although most Muslims from the Indian subcontinent know and speak Urdu, can they understand Iqbal or Ghalib?  Do the British and Americans, just because they speak English, understand Whitehead, Russell, Emerson, or Thoreau?  Do all Germans understand Kant or Nietzsche? Do all French understand Bergson? Do all Iranians understand Rumi, Ghazali, or Shirazi?  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.  But is it sufficient? Books of famous thinkers (in any language) may be read by many but, in reality, are understood by very few.  So, how can the Qur’an  whose author is Allah, possessing infinite knowledge and wisdom, be understood by Arabs simply because they know the Arabic language? They may be able to read an Arabic newspaper, but understanding the Qur’an, requires much more than just knowledge of the Arabic language.

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 is a guiding force in our daily lives.  Therefore, they do not consider it worthwhile to expend time and intellect in exploring Qur’anic meanings in the same way that other areas of interest are explored.  Further, 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. But why do most of their followers shut the door for further critical thinking and research into the Qur’an?  However, as human knowledge evolves, it becomes imperative to enhance, reinterpret, or even correct past understanding (or misunderstanding) of the Qur’an.

A further stumbling block 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?  Many have become accustomed to living on Western crumbs 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?

Iqbal’s couplet describes our general malaise quite succinctly:

Bujhee  ishk  ki aag  andher  hai

Musalmaan nahin raakh ka dher hai

[The fire of love (of understanding and living by the Qur’an) among Muslims has died. Muslims now are nothing but a heap of ash.]

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. 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: Li yundhira man kaana hayyan.

But, living by the Qur’an requires that, we, Muslims, understand it first. In order to understand it, however, we have to use our minds. And in order to use our minds we have to spend time and effort, we have to struggle and persevere, just like 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 academic pursuits, sports, and hobbies? Also, it’s important to know that acquiring the knowledge and understanding of the Qur’an is incumbent on every Muslim.  Seeking knowledge of the Qur’an (and the Universe) is a sacred duty imposed by Allah on every Muslim.  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.]

We must question our own hearts – why do we not seek to understand the Qur’an on our own?  Why do we 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. But do we really consider the Qur’an as the most valuable thing in our lives?  How much of our day- and night-time hours do we devote to it?  To what extent is our understanding of it 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 a life of Muslim, then it is not possible except to live by the Qur’an.]

Also we must quit imitating the past, for imitation destroys our potential and damages our nafs.  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 revelations [25:73].  Allah tells us to do tadabbur in the Qur’an. “Afalaa yatadabbaroon al-Qur’an?” (4:82) Tadabburmeans 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’s 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.

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