A Picture of Time, a Calendar, a Guide

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After looking at Al-Fatiha, the first Sura of the Qur’an, it’s time to go back to the overall structure, to see if we can find meaning and purpose in it.

The Suras (roughly, “chapters”) of the Qur’an are arranged, not precisely, but overall fairly consistently, from the longest to the shortest. After Al-Fatiha, which is in some respects in a category by itself, the second Sura is the longest one, also containing the longest aya, as well as other long ayat. The very last Sura, Al-Nass (People), number 114, is not the shortest, but certainly among the shortest. Since the descending size of the Suras is not precise and there are variances, this aspect of Qur’anic structure would be of general significance but not specific.

Then there is the issue of the nature of this arrangement itself. The Qur’an was “sent down” from Allah to Prophet Mohammad via Jibreel, the same archangel who “sent down” the revelations/messages to all the prophets, including Aissa (Jesus). This is an entirely different way of looking at sacred texts than the one common in the West, in which the method of transmission is “inspiration” (“inspire” being derived from “spirit,” noting that the archangel Jibreel (Gabriel) is sometimes referred to as “roh al qudus” or “holy spirit”). “Inspiration” in this case refers to a somewhat unclear concept involving internal mental processes, wherein the recipient (such as a prophet) “receives” a message, perhaps in the form of thoughts or a mental image or words. It is not pictured as an earthshaking event wherein a gigantic and powerful angel takes over the prophet’s mind. It is not a physical event. But in Islam, the delivering of a sacred message is a physically demanding event, and quite overwhelming. The “sending down” of the Qur’an took place over a period of 23 years.

The order of “sending down” the Qur’an is different than the arrangement of the Suras in the final text, so one has actually two possible versions. The final arrangement was itself sent down by Jibreel, and thus became the final version. The arrangement by order of “tanzeel” or “sending down”  actually begins with smaller Suras, working towards the big.

The dynamic between the two orders of Suras, where the final order runs from large to small Suras, whereas the order of tanzeel (sending down) runs from (even less consistently, but still…) small to large, strikes me as a “graphic” of time and how we perceive it. When we are young children, all we have is the looming and consuming present, with all its urgency, and it fills our minds and lives. As we age, we attain a certain sense of distance, wherein the present feels smaller, less vivid, less urgent, part of a larger pattern of repeating “presents” of which the moment is but one example. What fills our minds is a continuum of past, present, and future, and the older we get, the less the present feels “alive” and the more the overall picture, including the past, feels just as important. One can say that with children, when we are in the beginning of our lives, time is shorter but more intense, it contains less yet is profoundly more. When we age, time shrinks, and individual moments become like distant objects getting smaller as they close in on the horizon, our “event horizon” being death. This is not only true of individual life spans, but also for the “lifespans” of nations, such as the fledgling nation of Islam under the leadership of Prophet Mohammad.

In the order of Suras, we have a structural replica or (again) “blueprint” of the progression of perceived time. As the Suras were “sent down” over years, the young nation to whom they were sent received these portions of the Qur’an in real time, and the Suras that first came down were those that matched the people’s experience of time and of the new message, where everything was new and intense, and moments seemed to last forever even though they were actually short. So the short, intense, and less practical Suras came down first, when faith was young, and not concerned with details more than in the emotional impression of the power of Allah, His mercy, and the strong desire to attain His acceptance, as well as to defend the new religion against zealots from the old one and their desire to eradicate the threat of a new faith. Like new shoots breaking through the ground, their concern is to just break out, not to worry over the technicalities of flowering and scattering of seeds.

Later as the nation matured, longer Suras detailing practical matters of law, behavior, marriage, property, commerce, agriculture, and rituals such as Hajj (pilgrimage) and fasting, came down to a more settled and organized people who had more time and space to concern themselves with these things. Thus the longer Suras mostly came later. But in the final arrangement of the order of Suras, the long ones are first. Why? Because now that Islam is established as a religion and propagated on a wider scale, it is older, hence, the longer perspective is presented first. But conversely, the “weight” of time as an element is greater, just as when a person approaches old age, distance and memory make one’s focus on the larger issues necessary. No longer living in the moment, time appears longer and more repetitive, one’s sense of perspective is enhanced, and so the longer Suras are there. Yet one feels the passage of time as more fleeting, harder to hold on to.

If the structural ordering of Suras represents the passage of time, one can’t help but think of a calendar. And here we have a clue: al-Fatiha has 29 words. As we shall examine, the number 29 represents a symbolic month, whereas the number 30 represents a practical month, as thirty is mentioned as the number of days for various practical matters such as fasting and marriage. If every word in Al-Fatiha represented one day, then Al-Fatiha would be one month. This simply indicates that in some symbolic way, one can consider the Suras to represent months.

Here I must emphasize that I do not mean the purpose of the Qur’an is to be a calendar, far from it. The Qur’an is a message, pure and simple. But due to the huge importance of time in our lives, and the fact that it will “run out,” the structure of the Qur’an is symbolically based on time, and even on a sort of calendar, but not just any calendar.

The Quran mentions that the year contains 12 months. Therefore, I decided to arrange the first 12 Suras, structurally, in a 12-month cycle, or circle, based on the idea that each Sura may represent one month.

Were we to place each Sura in one section of a circle divided into twelve sections, one then may ask what about the rest of the Qur’an?

We could continue to place each subsequent Sura in a new circle inside the first, each divided into twelve, thus forming a spiral of concentric circles leading to the smallest central area. Since 114 is divisible by 19 (19 X 6), but not by 12, we would find the largest number less than 114 that is divisible by 12, which is 108, leaving a remainder of six (a half-circle) to add up to 114. The as months would fit in 9 complete circles and one half-circle, tapering towards the center, since their size would gradually decrease. Were these concentric circles to be made into a 3D object, they would form something like a large shell, univalve, with 12 “chambers” dividing each circle. The first can be examined as separated into 12 “chambers” of gradually descending size, each “chamber” representing one Sura.

The 3D model of these concentric circles would be a chambered nautilus, with its spiral concentric circles (roughly, as seen in a cutaway view) divided into 12 chambers of varying size. for each “level” of concentricity, making it relatively large. This model has proved useful, when viewed in 2D as a cutaway, for memorizing the order of Suras and visualizing their relative relationship to one another in terms of placement in the Qur’an. That, in turn, makes study of the “architecture” of the Qur’an, and its relationship to the meaning, easier.

One fascinating point is that the chambered nautilus adds new chambers as it grows, just as we add memories “behind” us as we grow, just as the new “nation” of Prophet Mohammad received new Ayat of the Qur’an, which was revealed over a period of 23 years. The “short” and more intense ayat, like those intense childhood memories and that immediate sense of time (when fewer memories exist), gradually were “stored” in the center of the circle-“shell.” Towards the end, as the nation matured, the Suras increased in size and complexity. This is a rather oversimplified perhaps, but nonetheless beautiful, image of how the smaller Suras were the first to be sent down, while the larger Suras were sent later, while the order of the Suras in the book itself as completed are from larger to smaller — as it should be now that the message is complete, and we are presented with the “mature” version.

In short, the overall “architecture” of the Qur’an, by which I mean its structural framework, forms roughly the form (although larger in scale) of a chambered nautilus, which is in turn symbolic of time itself.

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