One who really wishes to understand the Qur’ān, irrespective of whether or not he believes in it, must divest his mind, as far as possible, of every preconceived notion, bias and prejudice, in order to embark upon his study with an open mind.
One who begins to study the Qur’ān with a set of preconceived ideas is likely to read those very ideas into the Book. No book can be profitably studied with this kind of attitude, let alone the Qur’ān which refuses to open its treasure-house to such readers.
For those who want only a superficial acquaintance with the doctrines of the Qur’ān one reading is perhaps sufficient. For those who want to fathom its depths several readings are not even enough. These people need to study the Qur’ān over and over again, taking notes of everything that strikes them as significant. Those who are willing to study the Qur’ān in this manner should do so at least twice to begin with, so as to obtain a broad grasp of the system of beliefs and practical prescription that it offers.
In this preliminary survey, they should try to gain an overall perspective of the Qur’ān and to grasp the basic ideas which it expounds, and the system of life that it seeks to build on the basis of those ideas. If, during the course of this study, anything agitates the mind of the reader, he should note down the point concerned and patiently preserve with his study. He is likely to find that, as he proceeds, the difficulties are resolved. (When a problem has been solved, it is advisable to note down the solution alongside the problems.) Experience suggests that any problems still unsolved after a first reading of the Qur’ān are likely to be resolved by a careful second reading.
Only after acquiring a total perspective of the Qur’ān should a more detailed study be attempted. Again the reader is well advised to keep noting down the various aspects of the Qur’ānic teachings. For instance, he should note the human model that the Qur’ān extols as praiseworthy, and the model it denounces. It might be helpful to make two columns, one headed ‘praiseworthy qualities’, the other headed ‘blameworthy qualities’, and then to enter into the respective columns all that is found relevant in the Qur’ān.
To take another instance, the reader might proceed to investigate the Qur’ānic point of view on what is conducive to human success and felicity, as against what leads to man’s ultimate failure and perdition.
An efficient way to carry out this investigation would be to note under separate headings, such as ‘conducive to success’ and ‘conducive to failure’, any relevant material encountered. In the same way, the reader should take down notes about Qur’ānic teachings on questions of belief and morals, man’s rights and obligations, family life and collective behaviour, economic and political life, law and social organisation, war and peace, and so on. Then he should use these various teachings to try to develop an image of the Qur’ānic teachings vis-a-vis each particular aspect of human life. This should be followed by an attempt at integrating these images so that he comes to grasp the total scheme of life envisaged by the Qur’ān.
Moreover, anyone wishing to study in depth the Qur’ānic viewpoint on any particular problem of life should, first of all, study all the significant strands of human thought concerning that problem. Ancient and modern works on the subject should be studied. Unresolved problems where human thinking seems to have got stuck should be noted. The Qur’ān should then be studied with these unresolved problems in mind, with a view to finding out what solutions the Qur’ān has to offer. Personal experience again suggests that anyone who studies the Qur’ān in this manner will find his problem solved with the help of verses which he may have read scores of times without it ever crossing his mind that they could have any relevance to the problems at hand.
It should be remembered, nevertheless, that full appreciation of the spirit of the Qur’ān demands practical involvement with the struggle to fulfil its mission.
The Qur’ān is neither a book of abstract theories and cold doctrines which the reader can grasp while seated in a cosy armchair, nor is it merely a religious book like other religious books, the secret of which can be grasped in seminaries and oratories.
BLUEPRINT OF MESSAGE
On the contrary, it is the blueprint and guide book of message, of a mission, of a movement. As soon as this Book was revealed, it drove a quiet, kind-hearted man from his isolation and seclusion, and placed him upon the battlefield of life to challenge a world that had gone astray. It inspired him to raise his voice against falsehood, and pitted him in a grim struggle against the standard-bearers of unbelief, of disobedience to God, of waywardness and error. One after the other, it sought out everyone who had a pure and noble soul, mustering them together under the standard of the Messenger. It also infuriated all those who by their nature were bent on mischief and drove them to wage a war against the bearers of Truth.
This is the Book which inspired and directed that great movement which began with the preaching of a message by an individual, and continued for no fewer than 23 years, until the Kingdom of God was truly established on earth. In this long and heart-rending struggle between Truth and falsehood, this Book unfailingly guided its followers to the eradication of the latter and consolidation and enthronement of the former. How then could one expect to get to the heart of the Qur’ānic truths merely by reciting its verses, without so much as stepping upon the field of battle between faith and unbelief, between Islām and Ignorance? To appreciate the Qur’ān fully one must take it up and launch into the task of calling people to God, making it one’s guide at every stage.
MEET THE EXPERIENCES
Then, and only then, does one meet the various experiences encountered at the time of its revelation. One experiences the initial rejection of the message of Islām by the city of Makkah, the persistent hostility leading to the quest for a haven of refuge in Abyssinia, and attempt to win a favourable response from Taif which led instead, to cruel persecution of the bearer of the Qur’ānic message.
One experiences also the campaigns of Badr, of Uhud, of Hunain and of Tabuk. One comes face to face with Abū Jahl and Abū Lahab, with hypocrites and with Jews, with those who instantly respond to this call as well as those who, lacking clarity of perception and moral strength, were drawn into Islam only at a later stage.
This will be an experience different from any so-called ‘mystic experience’. One of the characteristics of Qur’ānic ‘mystic experience’ is that at each stage one almost automatically finds certain Qur’ānic verses to guide one, since they were revealed at a similar stage and therefore contain the guidance appropriate to it. A person engaged in this struggle may not grasp all the linguistic and grammatical subtleties, he may also miss certain finer points in the rhetoric and semantics of the Qur’ān, yet it is impossible for the Qur’ān to fail to reveal its true spirit to him.
Again, in keeping with the same principle, a man can neither understand the laws, the moral teachings and the economic and political principles which the Qur’ān embodies, nor appreciate the full import of the Qur’ānic laws and regulations, unless he tries to implement them in his own life. Hence the individual who fails to translate the Qur’ānic precepts into personal practice will fail to understand the Book. The same must be said of any nation that allows the institution of its collective life to run contrary to the teachings of the Qur’ān.