An Introduction to the Sciences of the Qurān

This is a guest post that has been taken from the Light of the Furqan blog.

سبحانک لا علم لنا الا ما علمتنا

Glory be to thee, We have no knowledge except for that which you have taught us[1]

For a while now I have wanted to briefly introduce some of the different subjects that are discussed and researched as a means to understand the Qurān. However, practically I have found this task very difficult due to numerous reasons, one of them being simply because of the numerous subjects that are associated with the Qurān[2]. Anyhow, my goal here is to introduce merely some of the numerous subjects that are critical to one’s understanding of the Qurān.

1. Exegesis of the Qurān (Tafsir)

Perhaps the most widely studied subject in relation to the Qurān is that of exegesis. Exegesis is sometimes defined as, “Attempting to understand the intent of Allah in accordance to the capabilities of human beings”[3]. That is, exegesis is an attempt to understand the intended meaning of Allah within the Qurān while taking into account that man is a limited being and is not necessarily capable of perceiving the depths of the meanings within the Qurān. Throughout history, exegesis has been the subject of a lot of debate and discussion and literally thousands of exegeses (tafasir) have been written in attempting to convey understood meanings of the Qurān. Not only have thousands of exegeses been written, in addition most exegeses are typically large in size and often take different approaches to understanding the Qurān. Jalal al-Deen Suyuti has recorded the names of many exegetes (mufassirs) in his book, Tabaqaat al-mufasireen, and in one instance he records the existence of an exegesis composed of 300 or 500 volumes[4]. Contemporarily, many of our scholars are researching and practicing exegesis, such as Ayatollah Javadi Amoli[5].

The subject of exegesis of the Qurān is one that has been practiced by varying approaches. Some scholars have written grammatical exegeses of the Qurān, whilst others have asserted that only the ahlul-bayt can provide a true understanding of the Qurān’s meaning and thus have written exegeses that are compilations of narrations (ahadith) from the ahlul-bayt that explain the Qurān. Others still, have taken mystical or philosophical approaches to the Qurān. Overtime there have been many books published in study of the different exegetes and exegeses that have existed throughout history. Two works that have found some popularity are those of Ayatollah Muhammad Haadi Ma’rifat and Doctor Dhahabi, both of which have been named, “al-Tafseer wa al-Mufassiroon” (Exegesis and Exegetes). A more recent work that has taken a very analytical approach to different schools of thought in relation to the methods of practicing exegesis is that of Akbar Babaee entitled, “Makatib Tafsiri” (Schools of Exegesis).

Overall, exegeses are works that one can refer to in order to attempt to understand the apparent meaning of the Qurān and delve into deeper analysis of the meanings of the Qurān. Exegeses also serve as a tool to understand how previous scholars who lived closer to the times of the Prophet and Imams understood and interpreted the Qurān; thus they can serve as historical tools.

2. History of the Qurān

One of the most important questions that should arise for a Muslim when handed a copy of the “Qurān” (Mus’haf to be more precise), is to ask where this book came from. Are its chapters (suwar) and verses (ayaat) ordered according to the command of the Prophet or someone else? Who collected this Qurān (Mus’haf)? These are all questions, amongst others, that the subject of the history of the Qurān deals with. Recently there have been many books that have attempted to deal with these questions, Ayatollah Haadi Ma’rifat discussed this topic in the first volume of his, “al-Tamheed fi Ulum al-Quran“, as did Doctor Muhammad Baqir Hujjati in his book, “Tareekh Qurān Kareem” (The History of the Holy Qurān).

One’s understanding of this subject can affect the practice of exegesis, for example, if one believes that the chapters (suwar) of the Qurān were not organized according to an order by the Prophet, then one would not attach any sort of significance or importance to the existing order of chapters within the Qurān.

3. The Readings of the Qurān (Qira’aat)

Another critical topic that is the cause of much intellectual divide is that of the numerous readings of the Qurān. There exist today many different ways to read the Qurān, 7 of which are famously known as the Qira’aat Saba (The 7 Readings)[6].The matter of debate is as to which reading(s) of the Qurān is/are correct. Some say that the Qurān was revealed with seven different ways to read it. Others say that it was revealed with only one way to read it and due to the passage of time different readings of the Qurān have slowly developed. Questions arise as to whether these readings affect the meaning of the Qurān or whether we have a correct reading of the Qurān within reach today.

The answers to some of these questions can significantly affect one’s beliefs as to whether we have the correct Qurān in our hands today. Also, answers to these questions can affect how one practices exegesis. For example, if one believes that one reading is correct over another, then one would be obliged to practice exegesis in relation to that specific reading (this would be significant if different readings provide different meanings).

4. Distortion of the Qurān (Tahreef)

One of the most foundational subjects which is closely interrelated to the above two subjects is that of whether or not the Qurān has been distorted/changed over time. Unfortunately, this discussion has taken on a polemical nature over the course of time, however, objectively speaking, the question of distortion within the Qurān is a very key question. Firstly, distortion must be classified, e.g. one form of distortion is related to addition whilst another is related to negation, that is, it is one form of distortion to add something to the Qurān and it is another to take something away from the Qurān. Upon classification of the different sorts of distortion, one must investigate the effects of such distortions and then look into any evidence that is indicative of such distortions. Overall, this is a very sensitive subject that needs to be objectively considered and researched.

One’s views on this subject can affect their acceptance of Islam or their view of the Qurān. Views on this subject can be found within the exegeses of our scholars as well as within different books that either defend the Qurān from distortion or accuse it of being distorted.

5. The Phenomenon of Revelation (Wahi)

This subject deals with some very interesting questions concerning the possibility of revelation, what revelation is, the possibility of revelation being interrupted by other beings, etc. One question that has been the subject of discussion and debate over time is the question of how many times the Qurān was revealed. Some scholars assert that the Qurān was revealed twice, that is, all of it was revealed once to the Prophet on the night of power (lailat al-qadr) and then again over a period of 20/23 years whilst others argue otherwise[7].

Another famous issue that exists here is the narration that suggests that Shaitan interrupted the revelation of the beginning of Surah Najm, thus causing something that Allah had not intended to be revealed to the Prophet[8].

6. The Grammar, Morphology and Language of the Qurān

These are subjects that are often taught separately in the seminary (Howza), but they have significant effects on one’s understanding of the Qurān. For example, in terms of morphology, one very interesting question is that of whether “greater morphological derivation” (ishtiqaq al-kabeer[9]) is present within the Qurān. For example, some claim that because the words عمل, which means action, and علم, which means knowledge, are composed of the same letters (that is, ع م ل), that they are somehow related in meaning. Such an understanding affects the methodology one uses in attempting to understand the meanings of the words within the Qurān. Another very important discussion that is often the subject of debate is that of the existence of synonyms, specifically within the Qurān. Some scholars argue that Allah would not use two synonyms within the Qurān because that would go against his wisdom, their conclusion being that every word must have a specific meaning and it must have precise differences in comparison to words that seem to be similar to it. Others may argue that synonyms do exist within the Qurān, and it is of no consequence if two words have the same meaning.

One’s understanding of the Arabic language and its grammar can lead to significant differences in their understanding of the meanings of words within the Qurān. It is due to such understandings that dictionaries such as, al-Tahqeeq fi Kalimaat al-Qurān (Research into the Words of the Qurān), have been written which espouse views that lead to very precise differences in the understanding of the meaning of words within the Qurān.

7. The Contexts and Causes of Revelation (Shu’un wa Asbaab al-Nuzul)

A topic that is the source of much discussion is that of the context within which a verse was revealed and the cause for which a verse was revealed. This subject involves the study of narrations concerning why or what caused a verse of the Qurān to be revealed. Studying such narrations can often help shed light unto the meaning of a verse. A very famous work in this field is that of Wahidi Nishapuri, “Asbab al-Nuzul“, which contains many narrations related to the cause of the revelation of particular verses.

An important question pertaining to this subject is that of whether verses are limited to the context in which they were revealed. One’s answer to this question would affect the practice of exegesis, for if one believes that the context or cause of revelation limits a verse, then they would interpret the Qurān only in accordance to such contexts.

8. Abrogated Verses (Nasikh wa Mansukh)

This subject concerns itself with the study of verses that were abrogated by other verses. The main questions being, what is abrogation, is it possible for a verse to be abrogated by another verse and if so, what verses have been abrogated. This subject is usually limited to the laws of Islam. Scholars often discuss and debate the different types of abbrogation that can occur and have varying views as to how much abrogation has taken place within the Qurān.

Views in this subject typically concern the deriviation of Islam laws and thus would affect the views of a jurist (marjah) when deriving Islamic laws.

9. The Miraculous Nature of the Qurān

One of the discussions that has persisted throughout history is that of the inimitability of the Qurān. The Qurān in various verses has challenged those who do not accept it to produce something that is similar to it. Throughout history, scholars have discussed what it is that makes the Qurān inimitable.Some argue that it is the eloquence and style of the Qurān, both of which are reasons as to why no one can produce anything similar to the Qurān whilst others argue that the Qurān is inimitable due to other reasons, eg. its foretelling of events within the future. This is a discussion that consists of many views and has persisted throughout history.

Research into this subject can affect one’s belief. Figures such Ibn al-Rawandi in the past concluded that the Qurān was not miraculous and inimitable at all and thus ended up rejecting Islam[10]. The study of the inimitablity of the Qurān can also serve as a means to strengthens one’s faith, as perception of the miraculous nature of the Qurān serves a means to believe in its message.

The subjects mentioned above constitute just a small sample of some of the sciences that are often studied in association with the Qurān. Some of these sciences are related to the Qurān from an “exterior” perspective, that is, they do not have any relation to the actual content of the Qurān whilst others are related to the Qurān from an “interior” perspective, they are related to the actual content of the Qurān and they affect one’s understanding of the content. Overtime, God willing, I will attempt to share what I know and learn about these different subjects.

[1] Surah Baqra, 2:32

[2] Contemporarily, the term “Sciences of the Qurān” (Ulum al-Qurān) is used to refer to a collection of sciences that are relative to the study of the Qurān. Unfortunately, as of now, I have not found a precise definition for this science which is problematic because it becomes difficult to distinguish between which science should be considered a science of the Qurān. Scholars vary in their definitions, some definitions are very expansive (including anything related in any manner to the Qurān), whilst other definitions are very limited.

[3] This definition is taken from the first lecture of Syed Kamal al-Haidari’s series on an introduction to the principles of exegesis.

[4] Jalal al-Deen Suyuti, Tabaqaat al-Mufasireen, entry 57.

[5] Ayatollah Javadi Amoli’s exegesis is named, “Tafseer-e-Tasnim”, of which over 30 volumes have been published so far. He is also writing a topical exegesis of which over 10 volumes have been published.

[6] Ibn Mujahid is famously known for having “compiled” the seven readings in his book, “al-Saba fi al-Qira’aat”.

[7] Sheikh Saduq is famously known for arguing that the Qurān was revealed all at once to bait al-ma’moor and then revealed to the Prophet all at once. After that, it was again revealed gradually over a period of 20 years. Sheikh Mufid, his student, argued that Sheikh Saduq had accepted a weak narration and that it was not logical for the Qurān to be revealed to the Prophet all at once, because in such a scenario events which refer to the past in the Qurān would not have occurred, thus being untruthful. (Sheikh al-Mufid, Tashih al-I’tiqaadaat al-Imamia, Baab fi Nuzul al-Qurān)

[8] This supposed event is recounted in Tafseer Tabari, Volume 17, Pages 131-134.

[9] Ibn Janbi introduced this term in his book, al-Khasais.

[10] Ayatollah Haadi Ma’rifat, al-Tamheed fi Ulum al-Qurān, Volume 4, Page 244.

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