How to Read the Qur’an

In one of my previous posts, I wrote about the considerations one needs to keep in mind when reading the Bible. Now, we shall cover the considerations one must bear in mind when attempting to read the Qur’an.

As with the Bible, you need to keep in mind cultural context, historical context, perspective and its application. However, this is where the similarities end, because there are additional considerations when studying the Qur’an.

You see, there are points in the Qur’an where the verses and passages won’t make much sense, because they don’t have any apparent context. They just sort of float there.

It’s for this reason you’ll need copies of the supporting literature, such as the Hadiths and the Sira of Muhammad, in order to gain a full understanding of the Qur’an.

An example of this would be Qur’an 4:24, which states, “Also forbidden are women already married, except those your right hands already possess.” Granted, if you read the entire verse and passage, it is outlining who it is Muslim men can marry, but when you consider that the bondage of slavery and captivity (those possessed by the right hand) robs a person of their right to free will, even consensual sex isn’t truly consensual; let alone marriage. In short, we’re discussing rape and forced marriage of captives and slaves. Under the circumstances, the Western mind would have a hard time understanding what slaves and captives would be doing on the list of marriagable women, but there it is.

As if that weren’t enough, when you turn to the Hadith, Sunan abu Dawud, and find 2150, you find, “Abu Sa’id Al Khudri said “The Apostle of Allaah(ﷺ) sent a military expedition to Awtas on the occasion of the battle of Hunain. They met their enemy and fought with them. They defeated them and took them captives. Some of the Companions of Apostle of Allaah (ﷺ) were reluctant to have relations with the female captives because of their pagan husbands. So, Allaah the exalted sent down the Qur’anic verse “And all married women (are forbidden) unto you save those (captives) whom your right hand posses.” This is to say that they are lawful for them when they complete their waiting period.” To paraphrase, Muhammad’s men were reluctant to rape married female captives whose husbands had survived, and Muhammad told them its was acceptable. (This passage can be found at: http://sunnah.com/abudawud/12/110)

As you can see, much of the Qur’an would be as clear as mud without the supporting literature. Of course, things don’t end here. When studying the Qur’an, you also need to consider chronology.

The chapters of the Qur’an, known as Suras, aren’t arranged in chronological order, as one would find in the books of the Bible. You could read the entire Qur’an cover to cover and never come closer to understanding it. For a list of the Suras, in order of revelation, visit: http://tanzil.net/docs/revelation_order

The end result is, you experience a jolt when you finish one Sura and start the next in line. It’s rather a bit like starting at the second chapter of a book you’ve never read before, then jumping to chapter ten, followed by six, then the final chapter, etc. Before long you might be able to piece together a somewhat clear picture of what’s going on, but some of the details will remain a bit fuzzy.

The reason for this has to do with one peculiar aspect of Qur’anic verse. Roughly every fifth sentence is completely incomprehensible. They’re completely without context, and this is a recurring theme throughout. This is according to Gerd R. Puin, a German scholar on Qur’anic historical orthography, who said, “The Koran claims for itself that it is ‘mubeen,’ or ‘clear,’ but if you look at it, you will notice that every fifth sentence or so simply doesn’t make sense.”

As if that weren’t enough, it’s also incomplete, which might partially account for the every fifth sentence thing. That actually speaks to a feature of the Qur’an. In the early days after Muhammad’s death, his father-in-law and successor, abu Bakr, made a practice of sending those who had memorized the Qur’an into battle. He believed that Allah would protect his word, thereby rendering those carrying it invincible in battle.

Unfortunately for him, this wasn’t the best decision as many were lost in battle. There really isn’t any way of knowing exactly how much of the Qur’an was lost, before it was finally compiled into a singular book, known as the Uthman Codex, which is believed to be the archetype for the Qur’an today.

It’s known as such because Uthman, the third Rashidun Caliph, saw the losses, and the varied surviving copies, and decided to codify it all in a single book. It’s worth noting that he followed it up by ordering the destruction of any version of the Qur’an that differed from his.

Of course, there were portions not lost in battle. There were many lost to accidents as well as the failure of memory. One such fragment, possessed by Muhammad’s child bride Aisha, was lost when a stray sheep supposedly found it’s way into her bedroom and ate it.

If you’re confused, don’t worry. When you consider that Muhammad’s “revelations” claimed that the earth is flat, the sun sets in a pool of murky water far to the west, that human embryonic development begins with a blood clot stage and that males and females both produce semen from glands located between the ribs and spine, it all makes far more sense.

Contrary to the assertions of many Muslims, the Qur’an is rather difficult to read, given that one needs thousands of volumes of supporting literature to fully interpret any of what it says. In fact, there’s so much material to follow, it would almost be impossible to get through it all. There is a ray of hope, though.

As it turns out, the Qur’an offers a very clear template to follow, in order to be a good Muslim. That would be Muhammad, the “prophet” of Islam. According to the Qur’an, all believers are commanded to emulate his fine example.

I suppose it’s fortunate for the rest of us that only a portion of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims actually take those verses seriously. We’re having enough of a time dealing with the ones who do, imagine if they all chose to emulate a mass-murdering, child molesting, serial-raping megalomaniac with delusions of grandeur. Life would be considerably more dangerous.

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