Although we may read from any part of the Quran we wish and take from it wisdom, the Quran is an inviolable whole in a more profound sense, which is important to take into account in trying to understand it. The Quran is unique in being utterly comprehensive in scope, free of contradictions or confusion, presented with great clarity for ordinary people to understand, easy to remember, and of the utmost integrity, both in the sense of being well-integrated and in the sense of being unimpeachable. If one thinks about it, these qualities are mind-boggling. But how can all this fit into a relatively small book, commonly printed at slightly over 600 pages of Arabic text?
The Quran’s sheer comprehensiveness and integrity is mentioned in the Quran itself, often in the form of a challenge of sorts, such as this:
ل لَّئِنِ اجْتَمَعَتِ الْإِنسُ وَالْجِنُّ عَلَىٰ أَن يَأْتُوا بِمِثْلِ هَٰذَا الْقُرْآنِ لَا يَأْتُونَ بِمِثْلِهِ وَلَوْ كَانَ بَعْضُهُمْ لِبَعْضٍ ظَهِيرًا
Say: “If the whole of humankind and Jinns were to gather together to produce the like of this Qur’an, they could not produce the like thereof, even if they backed up each other with help and support.”
(Surat al-Isra’ 17:88)
One of the reasons this would be the case is the all-inclusiveness of subject matter. To present that level of knowledge requires omniscience, a characteristic of none but the Almighty. And yet one wonders how can such a comprehensive subject be conveyed to us? There are a number of ways.
Examples/ Comparisons in the Quran
One if the most important and extensive ways used in the Quran to convey its message is by comparison/ example, in Arabic one word, mathal.
وَلَقَدْ ضَرَبْنَا لِلنَّاسِ فِي هَٰذَا الْقُرْآنِ مِن كُلِّ مَثَلٍ لَّعَلَّهُمْ يَتَذَكَّرُونَ
And We have put forth for people every (mathal) example in this Qur’an, that they may take heed.
(Surat al-Zumar 39:27)
The word mathal, which also means “parable,” “metaphor,” “simile,” “similitude,” or “symbol,” refers to the whole category of comparison references, also including allegory. Notice that the word “kul” or “every/all” in reference to the “examples.” Such comparison can explain or elucidate complex or weighty concepts in relatively brief and comprehensible terms. Terms ordinary people, not only scholars or “cognoscenti,” can understand.
And the Quran is all about elucidation, self-described as mubeen, a word which encompasses the meaning of elucidation, making clear and evident, understandable, and without confusion or contradiction. The word “mubeen” being taken from the root “bayin” or “to show/make clear” and the prefix letter meem, refers to a “doer” of the root word, in this case means literally “that which makes clear/ shows.” One could say it is the opposite of “occult” in the sense of abstruse or obstructed from view. Its target audience is simply all people, or more accurately, al-‘alameen or “all the worlds,” which includes not only worlds of place and culture, but of time (historical eras) and kind (human and jinn). In particular, the Quran is sent to those who think and have free will. That would apply to humans who, like it or not, are responsible for their thoughts and actions.
This responsibility is further described powerfully here:
لَوْ أَنزَلْنَا هَٰذَا الْقُرْآنَ عَلَىٰ جَبَلٍ لَّرَأَيْتَهُ خَاشِعًا مُّتَصَدِّعًا مِّنْ خَشْيَةِ اللَّهِ وَتِلْكَ الْأَمْثَالُ نَضْرِبُهَا لِلنَّاسِ لَعَلَّهُمْ يَتَفَكَّرُونَ
Had We sent down this Qur’an to a mountain, verily, you would have seen it trembling, crumbling for fear of Allah. Such are the similitudes which We propound to people, that they may reflect.
(Surat al-Hashr 59:21)
The responsibility which the knowledge in the Quran gives us is a weighty one, more so than one might have thought. This comparison (mathal) shows us graphically the level of responsibility one takes on by receiving this Quran. And what is the nature of that responsibility? Two things: free will, and the mind, both of which are also referred to as “amaana” or something given in trust or as a responsibility. We are capable of doing right, for which we would be rewarded, and wrong, for which we would be punished.
In fact, the phrase “illitheena aamanu,” often translated as “the believers” or “the faithful,” comes from the root “amaan” or “amaana” which refers to a responsibility taken on: for example, money or property kept “in trust,” or the care of a child or orphan, or simply a promise to be kept regarding actions to be done for someone else. In the verb form, literally “those who have taken on responsibility,” it refers to a freely made decision to surrender one’s life, self, and possessions to Allah. That in turn means a commitment to be compassionate, just, fair, honest, faithful, and appreciative of Allah’s bounty, as well as not worshipping idols or created things, but only the Most High whom we cannot see, hear, or sense except with our minds.
This is stressed in the Quran repeatedly, often as a question: “afa la ta’qiloon” or “will you not use your minds?” This use of the mind, so frequently stressed in the Quran, is as important as performing salat (Islamic daily worship) and giving in charity (zakat:)— note salat and zakat are most often mentioned together. So the Amaana or Trust/ responsibility is actually the basis of faith, and faith itself is an act of the self using its mind that affects and transforms the heart.
إِنَّا عَرَضْنَا الْأَمَانَةَ عَلَى السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ وَالْجِبَالِ فَأَبَيْنَ أَن يَحْمِلْنَهَا وَأَشْفَقْنَ مِنْهَا وَحَمَلَهَا الْإِنسَانُ إِنَّهُ كَانَ ظَلُومًا جَهُولًا
We have offered the Amaana (responsibility, Trust, free will) to the heavens and the earth, and the mountains, but they refused to bear it, and were fearful of it. But the human accepted it; he was an oppressor (oppressed himself with more than he could take), ignorant (didn’t understand what he was doing).
(Surat al-Ahzab 33:72)
Note the similarity between these two examples. First, humans were given the choice to have free will (be entrusted with decisions for which he would carry responsibility) or not. Then, they were sent guidance from Allah Himself, which they would be responsible to understand and then follow. Allah has made it possible for us meet this responsibility, and the reward is great for success (paradise), but it is also formidable. And the consequences of failure are catastrophic (hell).
So it is not surprising that much human activity in religion is devoted to finding a way out of that responsibility, using tricks of the mind.
Bear this in mind when told that knowledge of the Quran is the domain of “scholars” or ‘ulama’. A person can be educated in rote learning, hence a “scholar,” and yet not use his/her mind critically to examine what he/she has been taught. Allah asks us (and this is often posed as a question) to use our minds, not to follow blindly.
وَإِذَا قِيلَ لَهُمُ اتَّبِعُوا مَا أَنزَلَ اللَّهُ قَالُوا بَلْ نَتَّبِعُ مَا أَلْفَيْنَا عَلَيْهِ آبَاءَنَا أَوَلَوْ كَانَ آبَاؤُهُمْ لَا يَعْقِلُونَ شَيْئًا وَلَا يَهْتَدُونَ
When it is said to them: “Follow what Allah has sent down,” they say: “No! we shall follow the ways of our fathers.” What! even though their fathers did not comprehend and had no guidance? (Surat al-Baqara 2:170)
This is usually understood to refer exclusively to those who were not Muslim but worshipped statues when the prophet came to them with a divine revelation. And indeed it does refer to this. But extrapolating further, it also can refer to Muslims who follow their fathers’ ways in religious matters without themselves comprehending or even trying to understand it from the Quran itself, as if knowledge is obtained by simply repeating a set of limited rules and formulaic rituals without thinking about it.
The word ‘aql in Arabic means “mind”, and has a direct verb form, translated here as “comprehend.” But the Arabic verb is an active verb, encompassing both “comprehend” (to understand) and “actively seek comprehension” (think). The “fathers” here did not actively seek comprehension; implying that their ignorance is not a passive state but a willful ignorance. Those who follow them would be likewise willfully ignorant, a state of responsibility, not victimhood. This simple difference in word usage adds to the depth of understanding as we read and follow the Quran. Also note that what is supposed to be followed is what was “sent down,” which is the Quran. “Will you not use your minds?” It’s not enough to read some hadeeths and follow them. All we can unequivocally say is the Quran was sent down, and must be studied.
وَلَقَدْ يَسَّرْنَا الْقُرْآنَ لِلذِّكْرِ فَهَلْ مِن مُّدَّكِرٍ
And We have made the Qur’an easy to remember; are there any that will study (learn)?
(Surat al-Qamar 54:22)
The word thikr is translated “remember” above. But as is often the case with Quranic Arabic words, it too has multiple nuances of meaning. The Quran itself is referred to in the Quran as “thikr al-hakeem,” the word “hakeem” meaning “wisdom” with an additional sense of “fairness,” as its noun form is used to mean “judge.” Here “thikr” is similar to “a reminder” in the sense that the Quran reminds us to consider Allah and His presence in our lives. But it can also refer to simply “mentioning” or to “invoke,” as in invoking Allah’s name, or simply mentioning His name, but with the sense of “bringing to mind.” In fact, that would be the closest expression to thikr. The Quran, in this sense, not only “reminds” us to “remember” Allah, but also brings His message to our minds as we read it. So the fact that the Quran was “made easy for thikr” would also mean “made easy to understand” or “easy to bring to mind.” Which clearly does not imply lacking in complexity or oversimplified; the word translated “made…easy” actually is an active verb, making the phrase above more accurately put as “We have smoothed the way for bringing the Quran into the mind.” So it includes not only memory, the most obvious meaning, but also bringing into the mind’s grasp, understanding. As you can see, there’s a reason Allah frequently mentioned that this Quran is Arabic…so much subtlety can be lost in even the best translation. And even more importantly, the wholeness of the Quran is most evident in Arabic, although it can be accessible to any other language with more in-depth explanations. In fact, the act of such explaining and translation itself forms a valuable study of the Quran, causing the Arabic speaker to think of the meaning in new ways, and appreciate its integrity more.
And one of the most obvious forms of integrity, aside from lack of self-contradiction, would be integrity of style. In the best writing, style and content are closely linked. This is most clearly true of poetry, perhaps, where the most effective and memorable works are written in a style that feels to the reader as if it was “made” for the content, that the content and the words have a strong synergistic relationship. Although it is considered anathema to call the Quran “poetry,” that is due to the fact that poets are human and their poetry is written with usually personal interests and limited points of view. Yet the Quran uses poetic techniques: rhyme, rhythm, alliteration, metaphor/ simile or allegory (mathal), and imagery. These techniques help make the words more memorable, and also help bring the message, some of which involves truths that lie beyond the obvious, to our understanding. Poetry is noted for “showing, not telling” as a way of conveying larger truths that cannot be delivered in rote prosaic verbal packaging. The Quran’s style is a masterpiece of this type of communication in the highest sense.
The Subject is Everything, Yet No Contradictions Exist in its Presentation
How can this be? How can such a supposed subject, “everything,” be presented without any error or contradiction, or indeed, be presented at all in only 114 chapters full of repeated phrases and lines? It goes beyond the normal sense of a well-integrated text. And what in fact is this “everything” being presented? Are there not zillions of uncountable things, including ideas and everything else, more than could possibly be contained in one book?
To make matters even more apparently impossible, Allah describes in the Quran that His knowledge is infinite, giving an example (repeated, of course, in different locations in the Quran) or comparison for our understanding of what this means:
وَلَوْ أَنَّمَا فِي الْأَرْضِ مِن شَجَرَةٍ أَقْلَامٌ وَالْبَحْرُ يَمُدُّهُ مِن بَعْدِهِ سَبْعَةُ أَبْحُرٍ مَّا نَفِدَتْ كَلِمَاتُ اللَّهِ إِنَّ اللَّهَ عَزِيزٌ حَكِيمٌ
And if all the trees on the earth were made into pens, and the ocean were supplied by seven more oceans (as ink), the words of God would not run out. Allah is exalted in power, Wise (full of all wisdom).
(Surat Luqman 31:27)
So the fact that Allah sent down a book of comprehensive wisdom and knowledge in such a relatively small size (as compared with, say, an encyclopedia) is not for lack of words. Rather, such a book as described requires, as a prerequisite, the quality of omniscience. To send a book whose subject is everything, the author must have knowledge of everything.
هُوَ الَّذِي خَلَقَ لَكُم مَّا فِي الْأَرْضِ جَمِيعًا ثُمَّ اسْتَوَىٰ إِلَى السَّمَاءِ فَسَوَّاهُنَّ سَبْعَ سَمَاوَاتٍ وَهُوَ بِكُلِّ شَيْءٍ عَلِيمٌ
It is He Who has created for you all things that are on earth; Moreover He attended to the heavens, and He made them seven firmaments (heavens); and of all things He has perfect knowledge.
(Surat al-Baqara 2:29)
One can understand that the subject “everything” encompasses everything we need to know and are capable of knowing in some way, but does not mean that in this book Allah imparts to us all His knowledge, because we are limited, mere creatures with senses and relatively short lifespans, and hence “all knowledge” is beyond our grasp, or indeed the grasp of all creation including the angels. And yet, there is a sense in which this “all we need to know” is complete, even unlimited. By conveying this message using “examples” and comparisons, Allah lets us know that each “bit” of knowledge is not like a hard object you can throw across the room, or, when asked for it, mutely show it to whoever asks. Just as the mind and imagination extend our knowledge beyond the limits of our senses and minds/bodies, so our minds can comprehend this profound message in a greater, wider sense. And for that greater sense to function, one must consider and study the Quran as a whole, each part illuminating the rest in a way that amazes the truly thoughtful and serious reader, the reader who uses, without reservation, his God-given mind.
For Allah gave us this book without reservation, a gift full of light and truth, in which can be found its own elucidation. To see what that implies, let’s go back to Surat Al-Rahman 55:1-4:
Al-Rahman (The Almighty)
(Who) taught the Qur’an.
(Who) created humankind.
(Who) taught him how to distinguish.
Here Allah is first mentioned as the teacher of the Quran. Although generally interpreted to mean “taught” by teaching, through Jibreel, the “trustworthy spirit” (usually referred to in English as “archangel Gabriel”), the Quran to Prophet Mohammad, in fact the literal Quranic words do not limit the meaning in this way. In fact, this refers directly to the Quran being taught without specifying to whom or how. And although it can be understood as past tense (“taught”), Quranic usage often does not “lock in” a tense in the English sense, allowing for a more “timeless” interpretation. Hence, it can refer to the Quran containing its own “explanation” and the teaching then coming directly from Allah (swt). In fact, this understanding is closer to the original text and does not impose added references (a common issue with explanations of the Quran). This also makes more sense in reference to the immediately preceding Sura, “al-Qamar” or “the Moon” (#54) where we are repeatedly enjoined to literally “study” the Quran. An admonition from its Teacher. To humankind, His students, whom he also taught “to distinguish”——by logic, an act of the mind and sense, between two. Any of the myriad pairs. In a real sense, in this “dual”-focused Sura, we are taught by Allah, through the Quran, that thought and understanding, like life itself (or indeed creation) is developed by distinguishing (separating) “pairs”, in this case, of ideas.
And indeed, the Quran teaches us to distinguish between paired concepts such as good and evil, straight and crooked, clear and obstructed, true and false, and more. But despite this, interpretations of the Quran itself vary between and among scholars and explainers of the Quran. Sometimes these differences merely refer to how the idea is applied, but other disagreements are more basic. To resolve such differences, faith in the wholeness of the Quran means we can interpret one aya or verse in the context of the whole, how the words involved are used, and what the important ideas and admonitions are, comparing these to the matter of dispute. If the Quran does not seem specific enough, then this simply means there is more freedom of difference on that matter than the scholars have allowed, such as in matters of dress codes or even exact details regarding performance of salat. This freedom of choice is often to allow for normal human variables and development, but also leaves some details open to the human mind. The Quran is, after all, a guide, and not a micromanagement tool. The latter would be oppression and contradictory. And the Quran by definition has no contradictions and is timeless and inviolable.