Understanding the Qur’an
The first step to understanding the Qur’an is to understand Arabic, the language in which it was revealed, for language has the same meaning for a text as bodily features have for a person. The essential existence of a text lies in its meaning, just as a person’s essential existence lies in his or her spirit. Bodily features are the externalized form assumed by the spirit, and therefore serve as a mirror in which to see into his or her character. In the same way, the Qur’an’s language and styles are the form of its meaning and cannot be separated from it.
The second step is to penetrate its meaning, which requires living it. Although its language constitutes its outer form and structure, and therefore is very important in penetrating its meaning, restricting its understanding to linguistic understanding means restricting oneself to form or formalism. One can penetrate the Qur’an’s meaning, in which its essential existence lies, through purifying the “heart” (the spirit’s seat) by avoiding sin and evil, performing the necessary acts of worship, and living a pious life.
In the words of the late Professor Haluk Nurbaki, a Turkish scientist, the Qur’an is “like a rose that continuously grows petals in the womb of time.” As science develops and contributes to penetrating its depths of meaning, the Qur’an blooms to an even greater extent and grows younger and fresher. Thus, having sufficient knowledge of such topics as the abrogation of laws, laws and principles dependent on certain conditions, and unconditioned, general, and particular rules and the occasions on which the verses were revealed is not enough; the general principles of natural science also must be known. Since Prophet Muhammad received the Qur’an and taught and practiced it in his daily life as an infallible authority, knowledge of his Sunna, his practice of the Qur’an, and his example of living Islam also are indispensable to understanding the Qur’an.
The Qur’an is not a book of science, history, or morality. Nor is it a book in the literal sense of the word. It is a book to be practiced, for it came to guide people to truth, to educate them intellectually and spiritually, and to govern their individual and social life. Therefore, it can be understood only through daily practice. Remember that the Qur’an was not revealed all at once, but over a 23-year period on many diverse occasions. Separating the Qur’an and practical life means reducing it to the status of an ordinary book to be read. It does not unfold itself to any significant degree to those who consider it to be no more than this.
However, it declares that everything wet or dry is in a Manifest Book (itself) (6:59). A Prophetic saying states that it contains the history of previous peoples, tidings of those to come after its revelation, and solutions to disagreements among people. It addresses and satisfies all levels of understanding and knowledge, regardless of time and place.
Hundreds of interpreters have written commentaries on it during the 14 centuries of its existence, and none have claimed to understand all of its various aspects and meanings. Thousands of jurists have inferred laws from it and based their reasoning upon it, but none have asserted that they have inferred all of the laws contained therein or understood all of the reasons behind its injunctions and prohibitions. All pure and exacting scholars who “marry” mind and heart, all revivers (the greatest, saintly scholars who come when needed to revive and restore Islam) find their ways in it, all saints derive their sources of inspiration and ways of purification from it, and all authentic Sufi paths depend upon it. And yet, like a source of water that increases as it flows, it remains as if untouched.
The Qur’an’s miraculous eloquence gives it this depth and richness of meaning. Its creative and artistically rich style is only one element on which its eloquence is based. It frequently speaks in parables and adopts a figurative, symbolic rhetoric using metaphors and similes. This is natural, for the Qur’an contains knowledge of all things and addresses all levels of understanding and knowledge.
Ignoring this symbolic and artistic style caused the Zahiriya movement to appear. These people were content with a superficial, narrow-minded understanding of the Qur’an’s outward meaning. At the other extreme, the Batiniya (esotericism) movement searched for the whole truth in symbols and neglected the expressions’ outer meaning. Both currents are harmful, for the middle way is always preferable.