Why does the Qur’an seem incoherent? [i]
Every communication has a purpose and an aim. If we read a textbook as an example, we know what the author is trying to get across. In fact, from the very title of the chapter and the introduction, it may be very clear. The author may say, the aim of the chapter is such and such. One of the criticisms the Orientalists level at the Qur’ān is that it is a jumbled up incoherent book.Noldeke said the Qur’ān “brusquely interrupts one subject to jump to another which it will also abandon to return to the first”.[ii]
This is why some of their translators like Richard Bell have re-ordered the Qur’ān in a different way that would seem coherent to them.
The Qur’ān is unique
Most, if not all books, have clear demarcated chapters with a very visible outline. The Qur’ān on the other hand is a book that consists of over 6200 verses of varying length; the shortest chapter is 2 lines whilst the longest is 50 pages.
There are a number of unique matters features regarding the Qur’ān:
Firstly, it was revealed over a period of 23 years. Sometimes it took 9 years to reveal a surah,[iii] and sometimes it was sent in one go.[iv] There is much wisdom for this, just to mention a few. The ṣaḥāba were an intrinsic part of the revelation process, that is to say that verses were revealed about them and as a result of them. Their importance was fundamental in the recording, compiling and explanation of the verses which is to be used until the Day of Judgement. So their witnessing and living and breathing these verses helped in preserving the Qur’ān in text and meaning.
Wisdom of Qur’anic structure
We may find that in a standard book, there is not much repetition in it. There may be a bracket or a footnote that tells the reader to go back to chapter such and such. Some people will find some chapters more relevant than others and will skip some parts over others. But the structure of the Qur’ān is so profound that Allāh makes every part of it relevant and that is why each āyah is a sign, it is a miracle. So it is as though Allāh is pushing us to not read part of it, but all of it.
Secondly, the structure of the Sūrahs is not very clear for everyone. The wisdom of this is that the Qur’ān is not to be taken for granted and for one to have a deep understanding of the Qur’ān they need to make a lot of effort. The main message of the Qur’ān and what is expected from the believers is very clear. But to have a deep understanding of the Qur’ān, one has to read the Qur’ān several times and match one verse that is in one sūrah with another verse from another sūrah. This keeps the believers on their toes and has a stronger attachment by trying to explore things from generation to generation.
Thirdly, the chapters are in decreasing order (the longest chapter are at the front whist the shortest are at the back) which is not found in any text of history with a similar size. And that is why some would find it strange that the longest chapter is so early in the text. When a book is written, it usually begins off with the basics and then gets more difficult and difficult. Sūrah al-Baqarah is a very powerful sūrah that deals with many matters related to legislation and it is a Madani sūrah. The first sūrahs to be revealed to the ṣaḥābah were the Makkan sūrahs that helped them stabilise their Īmān, so some would find it strange that the first set of sūrahs are Madani which are legislative by nature. One of the reasons for this is that one of the aims of Sūrah al-Baqarah is to prepare the ummah of the Prophet in accepting the commands of revelation, something the Banī Israel found difficult to do. And what a person requires in terms of guidance in the very early stages of reading the Qur’ān is how to live their lives such as the do’s and the don’ts. It is also no coincidence that the sūrahs that we need to help us stabilise our Īmān are the shorter sūrahs that we have not only memorised but recite every day in our prayers.
So to look at the Qur’ān with a binary, Aristotelian logic we are all familiar with in the west is not correct.[v] But what we should anticipate is a different, multi-fold and higher form of logic, which reveals itself in diverse forms the more one struggles and engages with the Qur’ān. For instance, when a person reads a verse quoted in a book, it is as though they are reading it for the very first time. It feels fresh because the Qur’ān has an incredible ability to re-reveal itself.
The structure of the Qur’ān is more suited for a book that would be read regularly and even memorised. The way that books are written is for them only to be read once only. But the Qur’ān almost forces a person to read all of it and refer to different parts of it.
Above are some of the wisdoms, but what are the main reasons the Qur’ān is presented in this intriguing but yet unique way?
Message in a Theme
Unlike a textbook in which the chapters are divided into specific topics rarely discussed outside of that specific section, the Qur’ān is distinctive in that it is not chapter driven, but theme driven. A cursory look will demonstrate that one story is mentioned several times in various chapters. For instance, the story of Ādam (ʿalayhi al-Salām) is mentioned in Sūrah al-Baqarah, al-Arāf, al-Hijr, al-Isrā’, Ṭāha and Ṣād.
By having a theme – Allāh includes certain messages and stories that are relevant to us as an ummah. Mūsā (ʿalayhi al-Salām) is the most often referred to Prophet in the Qur’ān as there is a need for us to take lessons from him and his people. If a revelation of Allāh was sent many centuries ago to another ummah – perhaps Mūsā (ʿalayhi al-Salām) would not have been the most often mentioned Prophet. In other words, there was a reason why Mūsā was cited. Everything stated in the Qur’ān is something that the ummah requires. We have unique challenges that are different to ummahs that have passed.
Since the Qur’ān is theme driven, each verse, although revealed for a certain occasion and reason, lays down principles which are as applicable to the recipients as they were to those living 1400 years ago. In other words, the verses are not restricted to the reason of revelation. This can be extended to verses that may seem very particular to an incident and those verses that have been abrogated. Some verses may not be applicable to us at the moment, but were in the past and may be applicable in the future. This demonstrates to us the importance of sticking to the intended meaning of the text of the Qur’ān. Changing the meaning of a ruling to ‘fit our times’ may lead to a precious wisdom inadvertently being lost.
It is these themes that encompass the major goals of the Qur’ān. It is out of the scope of this article to discuss them in detail. But just to mention a few, the main ones are (and not limited to): Oneness of Allāh and His description, what pleases and displeases Him, Messengership, Hereafter, building an Islamic Community and struggling against the enemies of Islām.
Goals of the Qur’ān
Since the Qur’ān is not only a guidance for our life, but our daily lives, the main goals of the Qur’ān being imbedded in every other page ensures that we are able to grasp and be reminded of the main message every day we read the words of Allāh. This methodology of the Qur’ān is such that everyone can benefit from it irrespective of how much they read. That is, that a person does not need to read the entire or large portions of the Qur’ān in one sitting to find out what Allāh wants from us.
Allāh knows that we will read the Qur’ān every day and we need to be reminded of its message daily. So through His infinite wisdom, He scattered the aims of the Qur’ān on every other page of Qurān. Since it was revealed over such a long period of time, the point at which they were revealed was not just a group of verses about their circumstances, but much more and that is why we can find the major aims being mentioned so often. In some books, if you do not read a crucial part of it, you will not understand the rest of the book. But there are crucial parts all over the Qur’ān. Sometimes, when we read a book, we may consider one aspect of it really juicy or a particular chapter our favourite. But the entire Qur’ān is breath-taking. And that is why, if you ask different people what is their favourite Sūrah, they will give 114 different answers. And the Qūran is so effective in getting its message across that snapshots of the aims are presented on a micro level (every other page) and from a macro level (in every chapter).
“Allāh has sent down the best of statements, a Book, its parts resembling each other in goodness and truth, oft-repeated.”[vi]
And those things which Allāh repeats often are those matters we need reminding of. Terms such as sabr, taqwa, iḥsān are replete throughout the Qur’ān. And there are matters such as fasting in Ramaḍān which is only mentioned once as He knows we only need to be told once, for us to perform this. Therefore, we do not need to do a thorough investigation of what Allāh wants from us, rather we are able to grasp the major aims of the Qur’ān fairly quickly. But they are also mentioned so often that we are able to read it every day from our daily reading of the Qur’ān in order to act upon them.
Makkan and Madani
We also find that the Makkan and Medīnan chapters are not arranged such that all the Makkan sūrahs are gathered together and Medīnan chapters clustered together. Rather, the first chapter, Sūrah Al Fātiḥa is Makki, whilst the subsequent chapters are Madani only to be revisited by a Makki Sūrah in the form of Al-Anām, the sixth chapter. These two types of chapters have distinct features that give particular qualities to the reader that the other may not give in such a comprehensive manner. They develop the character and mindset of the Muslim in distinct ways. And this is why we should not recite Makkan Sūrahs only. It is true that these Sūrahs focus on matters of the ākhirah more than Medīnan Sūrahs – but Allāh wants us to be well-rounded individuals. This will be brought about by being shaped by these two types of Sūrahs. The two types of sūrahs are therefore not gathered in one place as it serves to develop a Makki-Madani mind-set and not an exclusive Madani mind-set and an exclusive Makki mind-set. The Qur’ān is a cure, so when we only read one Sūrah or one type of a Sūrah, we only gain a part of that cure. The holistic picture drawn and derived from the scholars drives us to understand one part of the Qūran in light of the other. A story in the Qur’ān as an example is complete in and of itself – but the details or a more comprehensive framework is provided by looking at other Sūrahs.
As can be seen from this article, there are many wisdoms and benefits of the Qur’ān being structured by themes. It is relevant, addresses us and encapsulates the major themes of the Qur’ān. We are able to grasp the major aims quickly, are told about them often to act upon them, and it develops us in different ways. The summary of the entire Qur’ān or that which is mentioned here can beautifully be expressed in a statement by Ibn Qayyim Al-Jawziyyah (raḥimahu Allāhu) (d.751). He said:
‘The secret or the heart of the creation and the command and the books that were revealed, and laws that were revealed, the reward and the punishment ultimately result in these two statements. It has been said that Allāh revealed 104 books and he combined all its knowledge in the Torah, Injeel and Furqan. And he combined the ilm of these books in the Qur’ān. And he combined the ilm of the Qur’ān in the short Sūrahs at the end of the book. And he combined those meanings in Al-Fātiḥa. And He combined the meanings of Al-Fātiḥa into iyyāka naʿbudu wa iyyāka nastaʿīn.’
[i] Note that this paper doesn’t look to prove that the Qur’ān is coherent, but the wisdoms of why it looks incoherent. To read further about the coherency of the Quran, refer to Coherence of the Qur’ān by Mustansir Mir.
[ii] Quoted in The composition of the Quran by M Cuypers
[iii] Like Surah al-Baqarah
[iv] Like Surah al-An’aam
[v] Aristotelian logic also known as Greek logic is more linear in nature so they would have an introduction, narration, proof, argumentation and conclusion. Semitic logic is quite different as that is why when those who read Semitic texts, view it with the lense of Greek logic we are all very familiar with. One of the characteristics of Semitic logic is that it is not linear, but symmetrical (this is why most of the beginning and endings of the surahs in the Quran are similar). Cuypers comments: “We can further note that the Quran has a way, which is often very obvious (for those who know to look!) of handling Semitic rhetoric. The sudden changes of subject, sometimes interrupted (by central verses) and then continued, the frequent changes of person (traditionally known by the term iltifat: a leap from the divine ‘We’ to the third person, for example), are all indicators of the texts division. They make the framework visible, under the skin of the text.” (The Banquet P475)
[vi] Al-Qur’ān, 39:23