Life – An Exalted Destiny – Aga Khan III

Life - An Exalted Destiny - Aga Khan III Life is a great and noble calling; not a mean and grovelling thing to be shuffled through as best as we can, but a lofty and exalted destiny.

Understanding the Quran — Diana Steigerwald

Surat al-Fatihah Quran 1.1-7 The Opening -
Understanding the Quran

— Diana Steigerwald

California State University (Long Beach)

‘I  believe  in  one  God,  and  Muhammad,  an Apostle  of  God’  is  the  simple  and  invariable profession of Islām. The intellectual image of the Deity has never been degraded by any visible idol; the honor of  the Prophet has never  transgressed the  measure  of  human  virtues;  and  his  living precepts  have  restrained  the  gratitude  of  his disciples within the bounds of reason and religion. (Gibbon  and al., 54)

There will come a time when nothing will remain of the Qur’ān but a set of rituals. And nothing will be more common than attributing falsities to God and the Prophet. — ‛Alī Ibn Abī Tālib

The Qur’ān contains a powerful message which generates a material and spiritual response. From its original source, the Mother of the Book (Umm al-Kitāb) came down to convey all humans to its universal message. It was revealed in fragments of varying lengths over twenty-three years, and every sūra was not only related to the overall Divine plan but also to emerging situations. Madinian sūras are generally the longer ones; the difficulty of rearranging them in chronological order was increased by the fact that most Madinian and many Makkan  sūras were composite, containing  discourses  of  different  periods  bound  up  together. Apart  from  the  relatively  few allusions  to  exactly  date  historical  events,  the  principal  evidences were  supplied  by  general criteria of style and content. (Gibb, 36)

The collation of the Qur’ān began at the death of the Prophet in 632, but even during his life  some verses were written down. Partial compilations were made on  rather unsatisfactory materials (bones, leather sheets, stones etc.). The dying off of the companions of the Prophet, and the  sharpening  of  a  debate  among  surviving Muslims  pushed  the  third  caliph,  ‛Uthmān  (d. 35/656), to gather the Qur’ānic revelation into a single compilation called mushaf. The collection was  declared  complete  and  closed;  the  text was  established  by  the Caliph  ‛Uthmān  and  his entourage;  and  the  other  compilations  were  destroyed  to  avoid  feeding  dissent  about  the authenticity of the official Qur’ān.

For Muslims, Allāh speaks directly  to humankind in  the  first person  in  the Qur’ān.  Its literary  style  and  diction  are  altogether  different  from  the  sayings  (ahādīth)  of  the  Prophet Muhammad. To those who doubt its Divine origin, the Qur’ān throws a challenge asking them to imitate  its  full  text, or even  to produce one  sūra similar  to  it. Most Muslims believe  that  the ‛Uthmānic Codex contain integrally the truly Word of God.

As  professor  Mohammed  Arkoun  remarked,  modern  historians  have  examined  the chronological order of the ‛Uthmānic Codex with critical rigor, principally because the Qur’ān was assembled in a very troubled political climate. Theodore Nöldeke (1836-1930), a German Arabist,  carried out  the  first  critical examination of  the Qur’ān around 1860. Régis Blachère (1900-1973), a French scholar, refine this methodology by proposing a chronological order for the sūras, an issue that had preoccupied Muslim jurists (fuqahā’) seeking to identify which verses abrogated  others  (al-nāsikh  wa  al-mansūkh).  “It  is  unfortunate  that  philosophical  critique  of sacred texts —which has been applied to the Hebrew Bible and to the New Testament without thereby  engendering  negative  consequences  for  the  notion  of  revelation—  continues  to  be rejected by some Muslim scholars.” (Arkoun, 35) The works of the German school continue to be ignored, and most Muslims do not rely upon such research even though it would strengthen the
scientific  foundations  of  the  history  of  the  ‛Uthmānic Codex  and  Islamic  theology.  Through various  verses  the  Qur’ān  discloses  its  full  message  and  reveals  its  different  stages  of transmission. Some linguistic, grammatical subtleties, and semantics of the Qur’ān show its long elaboration and maturity.

Critical Reflections on the Qur’ān

This  last decade, heated debates between  the Western  and Muslims  scholars occurred on  the question of the veracity of the Qur’ān and Islam itself. A review of the content demonstrates that the issue raises intense emotions, and sometimes do not promote good communal relations, or useful academic dialogue. It is important to understand how the compilation of the Qur’ān was established.  The  early  Sunnī-Shī‛ī  dispute  engendered  the  division  of  Islam  into  two major branches leading over time to different ways of approaching the Qur’ān. At the end of the reign of the third Caliph ‛Uthmān (d. 35/656), it became evident to some members of the community that  there were  too many variations  in  the memorized  texts.  In 634, many of  the memorizers (qurrā’) of the Qur’ān lost their lives in a battle against a rival community at Yamāma in Arabia. Fearing that the complete Qur’ān would be lost, the first Caliph Abū Bakr asked ‛Umar and Zayd b. Thābit to record any verse or part of the revelation that at least two witnesses testified at the entrance of the Mosque in Medina. All of the material gathered was recorded on sheets of paper, but was not yet compiled as a volume. These sheets were transmitted from Abū Bakr and ‛Umar to ‛Umar’s daughter Hafsa who gave them to ‛Uthmān who had them put together in the form of a volume. ‛Uthmān sent several copies of his compilation to different parts of the Muslim world and he then ordered that any other compilations or verses of the Qur’ān found anywhere else be burned. The ‛Uthmānic text was completed some twenty years after Muhammad’s death but  it
was only a consonantal text. The final vocalized text of the Qur’ān was only established in the first half of the tenth century. Some scholars engaged in the search for the historical Qur’ān have questioned the authenticity of the ‛Uthmānic edition of the text and some have been guided by what the early Companions and Muslim scholars say about its compilation. The major issue in these debates was whether the ‛Uthmānic text comprehended all the Qur’ānic verses revealed to the Prophet, or whether there had been further verses missing from the text.

Very early Muslim  scholars were  trying  to  solve  inconsistencies affecting a variety of legal injunctions in the Qur’ān. In order to resolve the differences of regulation found in disparate verses,  they  developed  an  intra-Qur’ānic  theory  of  abrogation  that  substituted  the  legislative authority of an earlier Qur’ānic verse with that of a later one. Other Muslim scholars developed a criterion,  called  “the  occasions  of  the  revelation,”  that  connected  some Qur’ānic  verses with extra-Qur’ānic  tradition  to  explain  the  context  in  which  the  verses  were  revealed.  Both approaches to the Qur’ān concentrate their analysis on individual verses, rather than considering each Qur’ānic chapters as integral units. Other Muslim scholars  in later medieval times based their approach to the Qur’ān on the assumption that each individual chapter formed original units of  revelation  and  could  only  by  divided  be  the  place  they  were  revealed  “Meccan”  and “Medinan.” (Böwering 2003: 349)

From the mid-nineteenth century, Western scholars began literary research on the Qur’ān, bringing  together  the  findings  of Muslim  scholarship  with  the  philological  and  text-critical methods  inspired by biblical scholarship  just beginning  in Europe. The Western scholars were mainly trying to establish a chronological order of Qur’ānic chapters and passages that could be related with the main events in Muhammad’s life. This Western chronological approach to the Qur’ān  reached  its  peak  in  the work  of  Theodore Noeldeke, which was  then  challenged  by Richard Bell, and was completed by Rudi Paret’s manual of commentary and concordance to the Qur’ān.  It  largely adopted  the  traditional distinction between Meccan and Medinan  suras, yet subdivided  the Meccan period of Muhammad’s  revelation  into  three distinct periods, with  the Medinan period as the fourth. These scholars were relating Qur’ānic passages to historical events known  from  extra-Qur’ānic  literature  while  systematically  analyzing  their  philological  and stylistic nature (Böwering 2003: 349-350).

A Muslim backlash has not deterred  the  critical-historical  study of  the Qur’ān, as  the collected essays published in The Origins of the Koran (1998). This book, edited by an unknown author  Ibn Warraq  (neither his  full name nor his  institutional affiliation are mentioned  in  the book), consists of thirteen previously published essays on the history and nature of the Qur’ānic text,  twelve  of  them  were  published  between  1890  and  1940  and  only  the  thirteenth  was published in 1985. Patricia Crone, an uncommon scholar, wrote with Michael Cook, Hagarism: The Making of the Islamic World (1977) making controversial claims about the origins of Islam and  the  writing  of  Islamic  history.1  The  arguments  put  forwards  in  Hagarism  came  under immediate attack, from Muslim and non-Muslim scholars alike, for its heavy reliance on hostile sources. A  harsh protest  came  in 1987,  in  the Muslim World Book Review,  in a paper  titled “Method Against  Truth:  Orientalism  and Qur’anic  Studies,”  by  the Muslim  critic  S.  Parvez Manzoor.

There are considerable divergences among  specialists. Günther Lüling  (1973) affirmed that “The text of the Qur’ān as transmitted by Muslim Orthodoxy contains, hidden behind it as a ground  layer  and  considerably  scattered  throughout  it  (together  about  one-third  of  the whole Qur’ān text), an originally pre-Islamic Christian Text.” (Lüling, 1) Lüling wants to demonstrate that the ‛Uthmānic codex is not the real Qur’ān revealed to Muhammad. For him, the doctrine included in the real Qur’ān should have been closer  to pre-Islamic Jewish and Christian texts. Unfortunately  there  is not  enough Arabic, Syriac or Aramaic published  texts  (on pre-Islamic Jewish and Christian manuscripts) which can back up and legitimate his thesis. Many pre-Islamic Judaic and Christian texts are not available and most of them are unknown or not yet edited in a scholarly  manner,  therefore  their  authenticity  is  not  yet  validated.  All  these  preliminary researches need to be done in order to be able to compare rigorously the author’s assumptions.

— 1  Their controversial claims were: i) the text of the Qur’ān did not reach its final form before the last decade of the seventh century; ii) Mecca was a secondary sanctuary; iii); the migration (hijra) of Muhammad and his followers
from Mecca to Medina in 622, may have evolved long after Muhammad’s death etc. —

Presently the thesis of Lüling is highly speculative, the work done by the author seems to be a premature work. John Wansbrough (1977) believe the Qur’ān was not compiled until two to three hundred  years  after Muhammad’s  death  while  John  Burton  (1977)  argued  that Muhammad himself had already established the final edition of the consonantal text of the Qur’ān.

Christoph Luxenberg, a pseudonym used by the author (2000), basing himself on obscure Qur’ānic passages, seeks to prove that the consonantal text of the ‛Uthmānic version was misread by  the  early Muslim  generations.  According  to  Luxenberg,  the  language  of  the Qur’ān was profoundly  influenced by Syriac,  the written  language common  in  the Middle East used  long before Arabic was committed to writing. He looks for Syriac words in the Arabic of the Qur’ān and analyses their meaning in various verses. “This results in some astonishing readings, which appear plausible at times when elegant solutions are suggested for Qur’ānic phrases that experts are unable to render with certitude, or startling at other times, for example when the heavenly virgins  are  banished  from  the  Qur’ān  by  the  substitution  of  grapes  as  fruits  of  Paradise.” (Böwering 2003: 353)

Despite such resistance, Western researchers with a variety of academic and theological interests press on, applying modern textual and historical analysis to the study of the Qur’ān. Brill Publishers have decided to publish the first-ever Encyclopaedia of the Qur’an. The general editor of the encyclopaedia, Jane McAuliffe, a professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Toronto was hoping that it will be analogous to biblical encyclopaedias and will be a comprehensive work for the Qur’ānic scholarship. The Encyclopaedia of the Qur’an is a collaborative compendium, carried  out  by Muslims  and  non-Muslims.  This  encyclopaedia,  published  by  Brill  combines alphabetically-arranged articles about Qur’ānic terms, concepts, personalities, place names, and cultural history with essays on the most important  themes  in the Qur’ān. So far four volumes have been published: volume one (A-D) in 2001, volume two (E-I) in 2002, volume three (J-O) in  2003,  volume  four  (P-Sh)  in  2005.  Recently  Andrew  Rippin  has  edited  The  Blackwell Companion  to  the  Qur’ān.  (Oxford:  Blackwell  Publishing,  2006)  which  comprises  various chapters written by renowned specialists; this book will be useful for students as well as scholars in the field.

The nature and the content of the Qur’ān

It is equally important to understand how Muslim believers view the Bible through the lens of the Qur’ān, and in their estimation their Holy Book is the only Scripture preserved in its authenticity. Muslims  believe  in  previous  revelations  at  least  those  mentioned  in  the  Qur’ān.  The  oral traditions  (ahādīth)  played  an  important  role  in  preserving  the  proper  interpretation  of  the Qur’ānic text. It is generally believed that Muhammad acquired his biblical knowledge mainly through  oral  tradition  in  his mother  tongue.  This  oral wisdom  came  from  Syriac, Aramaic, Ethiopian, and Hebrew materials, since there are many foreign words in the Arabic Qur’ān.  In Christianity,  the  role of  the Bible  is secondary  to  that of Christ;  it witnesses  to Him and His actions.  The  Christians  develop  a  personal  relationship  with  Jesus  living  a  Christocentric experience. Islam, by contrast, centres on the Qur’ān which is its “raison d’être.” The Qur’ān isthe  Divine  revelation  which  instructs men  how  to  live  according  to  the  will  of  God.  The understanding of the Qur’ān as a perfect and inimitable in message, language, style, and form — referring to the preserved Tablet (Lawh-i mahfūz) or celestial Qur’ān — is strikingly similar to the Christian notion of the Bible’s “inerrancy” and “verbal inspiration” that is still common in many places today.

The Qur’ān is thus also known as al-Furqān, literally, “the discernment,” which enables man to distinguish between good and evil. The Book is known also as al-Hudā, the Guide, since it contains the necessary knowledge to remain upon the straight path (al-sirāt al-mustaqīm) and become  aware  of God’s Will. Moreover, for Muslims, the Qur’ān is the Umm al-Kitāb, the Mother of the Book, since it is the prototype of all books, the archetype of all things, and the root of all knowledge.  It  is  important to distinguish  between  the Qur’ān and its  translation. For Muslims, the Divine Word assumes a specific Arabic form, and that form is as essential as the meaning that the words  convey. The Qur’ān  cannot be translated  adequately into any other language. Hence only the Arabic Qur’ān is the Qur’ān, and translations are simply limited and partial.

Exhortations  to observe  the nature,  to  reflect upon Allāh’s creation,  to study and draw lessons from the history of past nations and civilisations are all disclose to man to strengthen his real  convictions.  The  Qur’ān  gives  insight  into  some  natural  phenomena,  to  give  a  few illustrations: it alludes to the sphericity and revolution of the earth (XXXIX: 5) and describes the formation of rain (XXX: 48); fertilisation by the wind (XV: 22); the revolution of sun, moon, and 6 planets in their fixed orbits (XXXVI: 36-40); the aquatic origin of all living creatures (XXI: 30); the duality in the sex of plants and other creatures (XXXVI: 35-36); the bees’ mode of life (XVI: 68-69); and the successive phases of the child in his mother’s womb (XXII: 5; XXXIII: 14). Its central spiritual theme converges on the fact that man has misled himself by following his desires based on superficial observations. The straight path has been pointed out to men again and again by the Prophets in all ages. The teleological purpose of the Qur’ān is to invite man to follow the Divine Guidance.

Variant readings are also an interesting feature of the Qur’ān. One tradition for example linked this feature to seven different ways to recite the text, even if it is generally not accepted. At the time of the Prophet, Arabs spoke many different accents and many of them did not know how to read or write. Other differences include variant readings of words which can be read as either singular or plural in the unvowelled  text or  in different wordings. The Muslim scholars point out that the script used had no diacritical points; each word could be read in various ways. This difference in recitation was later to lead to conflict between Syrians and Iraqis, and this led later  Muslims  to  standardise  the  Qur’ānic  text.  Muslims  have  disagreed  over  the  exact interpretation of Qur’ānic verses as much as  followers of other  religions have over  their own scriptures. One of the sources of the rich Islamic intellectual history comes from the variety of interpretations  provided  for  the  same  verses.  Some Muslim  thinkers  often  quote  Prophetic traditions to the effect that every verse of  the Qur’ān has seven meanings, beginning with the literal sense, and as for the seventh and deepest meaning, God alone knows that and those who are firmly rooted in knowledge (al-rāsikhūn fī al-‛ilm) (III: 5-7). The language of the Qur’ān is anagogic —  each  word  shows  the  richness  of  the  Arabic  language.  Naturally  people  grasp different meanings from the same verse. “The richness of Qur’ānic language and its receptivity toward different interpretations help explain how this single book could have given shape to one of  the  world’s  great  civilisations.  […]  The  Book  had  to  address  both  the  simple  and  the sophisticated, the shepherd and the philosopher, the scientist and the artist. […] Islam did in fact spread very quickly to most civilisations of the world, from China and Southeast Asia to Africa and Europe. […] The Qur’ān has been able to speak to all of them because of the peculiarities of its own mode of discourse.” (Sachiko Murata and William C. Chittick, XV – XVI)

The Qur’ān as the source of guidance for Muslims

Far from being an obstacle to the spread of Islam, the Arabic language unites all Muslims. Even though the text was fixed, the meaning was left to fluidity and adaptability. People who did not know Arabic were encouraged to learn the Arabic text and then understand it in terms of their own  cultural  and  linguistic  heritage.  But  no  one’s  interpretation  could  be  final.  From  one generation  to  the  next,  each Muslim  needs  to  establish  his  or  her  own  link with  the Divine scripture.

For Westerners,  it  is extremely  fastidious  to  read  the Qur’ān, especially  in  translation. Major barriers remain that prevent an appreciation of  the Qur’ān by non-Muslims or by  those who do not have a thorough training in the Arabic language and religion. Even such training does not guarantee access  to  the book. According  to Muslims,  the Qur’ān  is  inimitable  (i‛jāz) and unsurpassable not only in the grandeur of its diction, the variety of its imagery and the splendour of its words painting, but also in its substantial meaning and profundity. To disclose the spiritual significance of the Qur’ān, it is essential to remember that the Qur’ān was a sonoral revelation. The first words revealed by Gabriel surrounded the Prophet like an ocean of sounds. The sounds of the Qur’ān reverberate on the Muslim soul even before it appeals to his mind. The Qur’ān is thus the very first sound that welcomes the Muslim into the first stage of his journey on earth. And  it  is  the Qur’ān  that  is chanted at  the moment of death and accompanies  the  soul  in  its posthumous journey back to the Divine Presence.

The writing of the Qur’ān is the sacred art of Islam. The Muslim calligraphy, which is so central to Islamic civilisation, is inseparable from the Qur’ān. To understand the reverence that Muslims show toward the Qur’ān, it is necessary to take into account the spiritual meanings of the calligraphy of words and the sounds that surround and penetrate man when the text is recited. Instinctively every faithful feels this powerful Divine Presence and finds comfort and protection in the reflection over the meaning of the Qur’ān. (Nasr, 5)

The Qur’ān appeals to the intellect of man. It encompasses all the creation, the Day of Judgement (Yawm al-Dīn), and the Life Beyond. It establishes a metaphysical link between man and God. Not only the supreme doctrine of Unicity (Tawhīd) but all Islamic doctrines are rooted in the Qur’ānic revelation. All branches of Islam whether Sunnī or Shī‛ī base their teaching upon the Qur’ān. Whether  they  agree  or  differ  on  the  question  of  determinism  and  free will,  the primacy of faith or action, or  the relation of God’s Mercy  to His Justice, they all derive their teachings from verses of  the Qur’ān, which  is like an ocean into which all streams of Islamic thought flow. (Nasr, 7-8)

Likewise, the practices of Muslims as ordained by the religious law (sharī‛a) have their origin in the Qur’ān. The elaboration of the sharī‛a depends, furthermore, upon consensus (ijmā‛) and analogical reasoning (qiyās), in principle all the sharī‛a has to derive from the Qur’ān. The other sources are only means of elaborating and making explicit what is already contained in the Qur’ān. The Qur’ān determines, for Muslims, all ethical norms and principles. What the Qur’ān teaches  constitutes  morality,  not  what  human  reason  determines  on  the  basis  of  its  own judgements.

Shī‛ī interpretation of the Qur’ān

The first person to compile the Qur’ān after the demise of the Prophet was ‛Alī ibn Abī Tālib. He did so in accordance with the instructions and testament of the Prophet. He arranged the verses chronologically and described  their context. According  to many early transmitted reports, ‛Alī presented his compilation of the Qur’ ān to the companions; but they rejected it, so he took it back. These reports also pointed out that there were substantial differences between the various compilations of the Qur’ān. The only copy of the complete Qur’ān with verses proclaiming the exalted status of ‛Alī and the future Imāms, was in ‛Alī’s possession. ‛Alī, known for his vast knowledge  of  the  Qur’ān,  preserved  this  original  copy  of  the  Qur’ān  and  passed  it  on  his Successors.  In  his  codex  of  the Qur’ān  he  had  reportedly  indicated  the  verses, which were abrogated, and those, which abrogated them. (cf. Tawil in Twelver Shiism)

The Nizārī Ismā‛īlī al-Shahrastānī (d. 548/1153), the famous Muslim historian of religions, in his book Mafātīh al-Asrār wa-Masābīh al-Abrār, refers to a compilation (mushaf) of ‛Alī Ibn Abī  Tālib.  He  writes  that  on  the  recommendation  of  Muhammad,  ‛Alī  had  included  some exegetical explanations in his compilation. ‛Alī then reprimands some Prophet’s companions who refused his compilation and then al-Shahrastānī reported the following:

After completing the funeral rites of the Prophet, he (‛Alī Ibn Tālib) took an oath not to wear a robe, except for attending the Friday prayers, until he compiled the Qur’ān; because he had been categorically commanded to do so. He then collected and compiled the Qur’ān in the order of its revelation without any tampering or addition or subtraction. The Prophet of Allah had earlier mentioned  [to him] the order and the position of the verses and the 9 chapters  of  the  Qur’ān  as regards  their  sequence  (Shahrastānī,  Mafātīh  al-Asrār  wa-Masābīh al-Abrār, vol. 1, p. 5.)

‛Alī’s  compilation  comprised  the  main  text  and  the  commentaries  within  margins. (al-Shahrastānī,  Mafātīh  al-Asrār  wa-Masābīh  al-Abrār,  vol.  1,  p.  5.)  And  then  al-Shahrastānī continues as under:
And it is said that after completing its compilation he took it to the people (the so-called elderly ashab) who had gathered in the Mosque. They carried it with difficulty and it is said that it was as large as a camel-load. The Imām announced to them: “This is the Book of Allah exactly as it was revealed to Prophet Muhammad and I have compiled it between two covers. They said: ‘Pick the mushaf and take it back with you, we are not in need of it.’ The Imām  said:  ‘By Allah, you will never  see  it again. Since  I had compiled  it,  it was my responsibility to inform you about  the compilation.’ He [the Imām]  then returned home, reciting this verse: ‘…O my Lord! Surely my people have treated this Qur’ān as a forsaken thing’”. (25:30) (al-Shahrastānī, Mafātīh al-Asrār wa-Masābīh al-Abrār, vol. 1, p. 12

Another significant feature of the Mafātīh al-Asrār is that it quotes the sequence of the mushaf of Imām ‛Alī from Muqatil ibn Sulaymān (b. 150 AH). Al-Shahrastānī reported the event of Ghadīr Khumm; according to Shī‛ites, Islām reached its perfection when Prophet Muhammad revealed the religious mission of his cousin and son-in-law ‛Alī ibn Abī Tālib:

Of whomsoever I am the Master (Mawlā), ‛Alī is the Master (man kuntu mawlāhu fa-‛Alī-un mawlāhu). May God befriend those who befriend him, and be an enemy to those who are enemies to him; may he assist those who assist him, and forsake those who forsake him. May the Truth be with him wherever he goes. So, I have delivered [the message]. (Shahrastānī, 140)

Prophet Muhammad is reported to have said: “I am from ‛Alī and ‛Alī is from me.” On another occasion of  the historic Mubāhala, he  apparently declared: “‛Alī and  I are one  and  the  same Light.” (Corbin, 62) Classical Shī‛ī doctrine holds that ‛Alī and the succeeding Imāms received inspiration (ilhām) from God. But it is only the legislative Prophecy which came to an end, the guidance of humanity must continue under the Walāya (Institution of the Friends of God) of an esoteric  Prophecy  (Nubuwwa  bātiniyya).  Thus  ‛Alī,  the  first  Imām,  is  designated  as  the foundation (asās) of Imāma. He is the possessor of a Divine Light (Nūr) which is transmitted
after his death to his Successor.

The Ahl al-Bayt  (the People of  the House  [of Muhammad])  and  the Qur’ān  are  “two inseparable  entities  (al-Thaqalayn)”  guiding  all  the Muslim  community  (umma). During  the expedition of Tabūk, Prophet Muhammad declared: “You (‛Alī) are  to me what Aaron was to Moses except that there will be no Prophet after me.” (Jafri, 18) The inclusion of Fātima in the Ahl al-Bayt (XXXIII: 33) is by virtue of her unique position, being the daughter of the Prophet, the wife of  the  first  Imām,  and  the “Mother” of  all  Imāms,  she  establishes  the  link between Prophecy (Risālat) and divine Guidance (Imāma). For Sunnī Muslims, the Ahl al-Bayt include only the wives of the Prophet while for Shī‛ites, they comprise ‛Alī, Fātima, Hasan, Husayn, and their  direct  descendants  designated  by  nass  (appointment).  Wilferd  Madelung  makes  the following remark on the verse of purification (tathīr) (XXXIII: 33) concerning the “five People of the Mantle”: “Who are the ‘People of the House’ here? The pronoun referring to them is in the masculine plural, while the proceeding part of the verse is in the feminine plural. This change of gender  has  evidently  contributed  to  the  birth  of  various  accounts  of  a  legendary  character, attaching the latter part of the verse to the five People of the Mantle (Ahl al-Kisā’): Muhammad, ‛Alī, Fātima, Hasan, and Husayn. In spite of the obvious Shī‛ite significance, the great majority of the reports quoted by al-Tabarī in his commentary on this verse support this interpretation.” (Madelung, 14-15.)

Most sources agree that ‛Alī was a profoundly religious man, devoted to the cause of Islām and the rule of justice in accordance with the Qur’ān and the Sunna.

The unbelievers say: “No apostle art thou.” Say: “Enough for a witness between me and you is God, and the one who has knowledge of the Book.” (XIII: 43)

Who is this person “who has knowledge of the Book”? According to some traditions, it refers to ‛Alī  ibn Abī  Tālib.  (Sunnī  reference,  see  al-Suyūtī,  vol.  4,  669;  and  for  a  brief  review  see al-Tabātabā’ī, vol. 11, 423-428.)
In a Hadīth Qudsī, Allāh said: “I am the city of Knowledge (‛Ilm) and ‛Alī is its Door (Bāb).” Muhammad also said: “‛Alī is the best of all judges of the people of Madina and the chief reader of the Qur’ān.” The Imām is the “Inheritor” and “Treasurer” of the Knowledge of God, these qualifications are based on  the following verses of the Qur’ān (al-rāsikhūn fī al-‛ilm III: 5-7; LXXII: 26-27; III: 179). The Knowledge of the Unseen (‛Ilm al-Ghayb) is also a key concept in Shī‛ism which unables the living Imām  to explain and actualise  the meaning of  the Qur’ān according  to  the  new  Era.  The  following  verses  clarify  this  concept  “He  [alone]  knows  the Unseen (Ghayb), nor does He make any one acquainted with His Mysteries, – Except an apostle whom He has chosen: and then He makes a band of watchers march before him and behind him.” (LXXII: 26-27) “God will not  leave  the believers  in  the  state  in which ye are now, until He separates what is evil from what is good nor will He disclose to you the secrets of the Unseen (Ghayb). But He chooses of His Apostles [for the purpose] whom He pleases. So believe in God and His apostles: And if ye believe and do right, ye have a reward without measure.” (III: 179) According to Shī‛ī traditions, Imām ‛Alī was blessed with the ‛Ilm al-Ghayb because he had the full knowledge of the Qur’ān as described by verse XIII: 43 discussed previously. On this basis, ‛Alī  is  believed  to  inaugurate  the  universal  Imāma. Moreover,  according  to  Shī‛ī  traditions (ahādīth), the Prophet had conveyed all his knowledge to ‛Alī who gave it to his progeny (Ahl al-Bayt).

Esoteric commentary on the Qur’ān

The Qur’ān  is  the  source of not only  religious  law  (sharī‛a) but  also of  spiritual quest. The spiritual life of Islam as it was to crystallise later in the Sūfī orders goes back to the Prophet, who is the source of spiritual virtues found in the ideal Muslim soul. But the soul of the Prophet was itself illuminated by the Light (Nūr) of Allāh as revealed in the Qur’ān, so that quite justly one must consider the Qur’ānic revelation as the origin of Sūfism. The Sūfīs have been the foremost expositors and commentators upon the Qur’ān and that some of the greatest works of Sūfism such as the Mathnawī of Jalāl al-dīn Rūmī (d. 672/1273) are in reality commentaries of the Qur’ān.

The spiritual exegesis requires a great deal of training to enter into the Qur’ānic discourse. Moreover, this training is accompanied by the embodiment of the Qur’ān through recitation and ritual. The Qur’ān possesses an innate power to transform those who try to approach it on its own terms. This is precisely what Islām is all about — submission to Allāh — it is a submission firmly grounded in real faith (imān). The Qur’ān has an inner dimension like the soul which gives life to the body. The esoteric meanings of the Qur’ān cannot be comprehended directly through human thought alone. Only Allāh and those firmly grounded in knowledge (al-rasikhūn fī al-‛ilm) can give the spiritual exegesis (ta’wīl) of the Divine revelation. “It is to cause something to arrive at its origin. He who practises ta’wīl, therefore, is someone who diverts what is proclaimed from its external appearance (its exoteric aspect or  zāhir), and makes it revert to  its  truth, its haqīqa.” (Corbin, 12)

Beyond the rules and regulations which are related to the material life and are relevant only for a certain period of time, we must understand the spirit of Islam and look for the genuine Qur’ān. The precepts of Islam must not be interpreted as unalterable dogmas; as circumstances change, they must be replaced with new precepts more compatible with Islam’s ideal society. The Qur’ān is a dynamic revelation which claims to respond to the problems and needs of humankind and society in any circumstances. When Muslims fail to perceive the dynamism of the Qur’ān, it inevitably  leads  to  retrogression,  oppression  and  discrimination  in  the  name  of  Islam.  In  the Qur’ān all human beings are equal, regardless of gender, race or nationality. Allāh is the only One who knows how to differentiate between Muslims according to their degree of piety (taqwā) and righteousness (XLIX: 13)

We may end this chapter by quoting the striking hadīth attributed to Prophet Muhammad: “Everything has a heart and the heart of the Qur’ān is the sūra Yā-Sīn (XXXVI); and he who reads it, God will write for him rewards equal to those for reading the whole Qur’ān ten times.” (Hughes, 521) The Qur’ānic science is divided into many fields. The exegetical tradition of the Qur’ān  played  important weight  in  the Muslim world  throughout  history;  its  exegesis  is  not limited to the various schools of Qur’ānic commentators, but is found in almost every kind of literature.


Qur’ān translations:

The Holy Quran.   Text,  translation and commentary by Abdullah Yusuf Ali. Elmhurst, N.Y.: Tahrike Tarsile Qur’an, Inc. ; Scarborough, Ont. : Mihrab Publishers & Book DistributorsCanada [distributor], 1987.
The Koran Interpreted. Translated by Arthur J. Arberry. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Selected studies:

Abu Al-Qasim Ibn Ali Akbar Khui, Prolegomena to the Qur’an, trans. by Sachedina, Abdulaziz Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Arkoun, Mohammed. Rethinking Islam. Translated and edited by Robert D. Lee. San Francisco: Westview Press, 1994.

Ayoub, Mahmoud. The Qur’an and Its Interpreters, vol. II: The House of Imran.  Albany NY: State University of New York Press, 1992.

Baljon, J. M. S. (Johannes Marinus Simon) Modern Muslim Koran  interpretation, 1880-1960. Leiden, E. J. Brill, 1961.

Bell,  Richard.  Bell’s  introduction  to  the  Qur’an.  Completely  revised  and  enlarged  by  W. Montgomery Watt. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, c1977, 1990.

Blachère, Régis. Introduction au Coran. Paris: Maisonneuve et Larose, 1991.

Böwering,  Gerhard.  The  mystical  vision  of  existence  in  classical  Islam:  the  Qur’anic hermeneutics of  the Sufi Sahl At- Tustari  (d. 283/896). Berlin, New York: De Gruyter, 1980.

Böwering,  Gerhard.  “The  Qur’ān  as  the  Voice  of  God”.  Proceedings  of  the  American Philosophical Society. Vol. 147.4 (2003): 347-353.

Burton, John. The collection of the Qur’an. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977 Corbin,  Henry.  History  of  Islamic  Philosophy.  Translated  by  Liadain  Sherrard  and  Philip Sherrard. London: Kegan Paul International, 1993.

Cook, Michael. The Koran: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Crone  Patricia  and Michael  Cook.  Hagarism:  The Making  of  the  Islamic World.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977.

Faruqi, Isma‛il. “Towards a New Methodology for Qur’anic Exegesis.”  Islamic Studies (1962) pp. 35-52.

Gibb, Hamilton. Mohammedanism: An Historical Survey. New York: Mentor Books, 1953.

Gibbon, Edward and Simon Ockley. History of The Saracen Empires. London, 1870.

Gilliot, C. Exégèse, langue, et théologie en Islam: L’Exégèse coranique de Tabari. Paris, 1990.

Hughes,  Thomas  Patrick. Dictionary  of  Islam. New Delhi: Adam  Publishers & Distributors, 2003.

Ibn Warraq (ed.). The Origins of the Koran: Classic Essays on Islam’s Holy Book. Amherst, NY:
Prometheus Books. 1998.

Izutsu,  Toshihiko.  God  and Man  in  the  Koran:  Semantics  of  the  Koranic Weltanschauung. (Tokyo, 1964).

Izutsu, Toshihiko. Ethico-Religious Concepts in the Qur’an. (Montreal, 1966). Revision of The Structure of the Ethical Terms in the Koran. Tokyo, 1959.

Jafri, Syed H.M. The Origins and Early Development of Shi‛a Islam. London: Longman, 1981.

Jeffery, Arthur. The Qur’an as scripture. New York: R. F. Moore Co., 1952.

Jeffery, Arthur. ed. Materials for the history of the text of the Qur’an : the old codices : the Kitab al-masahif of Ibn Abi Dawud, together with a collection of the variant readings from thecodices of Ibn Ma‛sud, Ubai, ‛Ali, Ibn ‛Abbas, Anas, Abu Musa and other early Qur’anicauthorities which present a type of text anterior to  that of the canonical text of ‛Uthman. New York: AMS Press, 1975.

Lester, Toby. “What is the Koran?” The Atlantic Monthly, January 1998, vol. 283.1, pp. 43-56.

Lüling,  Günter.  A  Challenge  to  Islam  for  Reformation:  The  Rediscovery  and  Reliable Reconstruction of a Comprehensive Pre-Islamic Christian Hymnal Hidden  in  the Koran under Earliest Islamic Reinterpretations. Delhi, Motilal Banarsidass, 2003; Book Review of Diana Steigerwald in Journal of the American Oriental Society. Vol. 124.3 (2004): 621-623.

Luxenberg Christoph, Die syro-aramaeische Lesart des Koran; Ein Beitrag zur Entschlüsselung
der Qur’ānsprache. Berlin: Das Arabische Buch, 2000.

McAuliffe,  Jane  Dammen,  Claude  Gilliot  and William  Graham  (Ed.)  Encyclopaedia  of  the
Qur’an. Vol. 1, Leiden: Brill, 2005.

Madelung, Wilferd. The Succession to Muhammad: A Study of the Early Caliphate. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Mir, Mustansir. Dictionary of Qur’anic terms and concepts. New York: Garland Pub., 1987.

Murata, Sachiko and William C. Chittick. Vision of Islam. St. Paul (Minnesota): Paragon, 1994.

Nasr,  Seyyed  Hossein,  ed.  Islamic  Spirituality:  Foundations.  New  York/London:  Crossroad 1987.

Noldeke, Theodor. Geschichte des Qorans. Leipzig, 1909.

Nwyia, Paul. Exegese coranique et langage mystique: Nouvel essai sur le lexique technique des mystiques musulmans. Beirut, 1970.

Paret, Rudi. Der Koran: Kommentar und Konkordanz. Stuttgart, W. Kohlhammer, 1971.

Paret,  Rudi.  Mohammed  und  der  Koran:  Geschichte  und  Verkuendigung  des  arabischen Propheten. (Stuttgart: W. Kohlhammer, 1957.

Rahman, Fazlur. Major themes of the Qur’an. Minneapolis, MN: Bibliotheca Islamica, 1980.

Rippin, Andrew.  ed. Approaches  to  the History  of  the  Interpretation  of  the Qur’an.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Seale, Morris S. Qur’an and Bible: studies in interpretation and dialogue. London: Croom Helm, c1978.

Al-Shahrastānī, Kitāb al-Milal wa al-Nihal, translated by A. K.  Kazi and J. G. Flynn in Muslim Sects and Divisions. London: Kegan Paul International, 1984.

Al-Shahrastānī, Mafātīh  al-Asrār  wa-Masābīh  al-Abrār.  Library  of  the  Consultative  Islamic Assembly, Tehran, 1989.

Smith,  W.C.  “The  True  Meaning  of  Scripture:  An  Empirical  Historian’s  Nonreductionist Interpretation of the Qur’an.” IJMES (1980), 11, pp. 487-505.

Steigerwald, Diana. “‛Alī.” Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World. Vol. 1 (2003): 35-38.

Steigerwald, Diana. “Ta’wīl in Ismā‛īlism.” In The Blackwell Companion to the Qur’ān. Edited by Andrew Rippin. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2006.

Steigerwald, Diana. “Ta’wīl in Twelver Shī‛ism.” In The Blackwell Companion to the Qur’ān. Edited by Andrew Rippin. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2006.

Al-Suyūtī, Jalāl al-Dīn. Al-Durr al-Manthūr. Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, n.d.

al-Tabātabā’ī, Muhammad Husayn. Al-Mizān. Beirut, 1973.

Wansbrough, John E. Quranic studies: sources and methods of scriptural interpretation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Watt, W. Montgomery. Companion  to  the Qur’an, based on  the Arberry  translation. London: Allen & Unwin, 1967.


One Response to Understanding the Quran — Diana Steigerwald

  • Feriyal says:

    ShukarAllah for Blessing mankind with Qur’an Al Karim, Our Beloved Prophets and Imams.
    A very well researched relevant essay written by Diane Steigerwald. The Historical and researched facts relating to compilation of the Holy Qur’an is not discussed much by the practicing Muslim Ummah or their leaders and brief mention by the Muslim authors and that too ignoring the recent findings and hence the compilation done during Uthman’s time is accepted unquestioned…Hence an amnesia amongst Muslims to these researched findings that may be not what they want to know. Alas…Sad state existing even in the 21st century!!!
    Good Article thanks for the post 🙂

Please leave your comments

Quran, 13:28

ألا بِذِكْرِ اللهِ تَطمَئِنُّ الْقُلُوبُ

“Verily! In the remembrance of Allah do hearts find contentment.” - Quran, 13:28

Prophet Muhammad

Prophet Muhammad:

‘Ali is ‘as my own soul’ (ka-nafsi).

He said to ‘Ali, ‘You are from me and I am from you (anta minni wa ana minka).’

‘Truly, ‘Ali is from me and I am from him (inna ‘Ali minni wa ana minhu), and he is the wali (patron/spiritual master) of every believer after me.’

Hazrat Ali

12. When some blessings come to you, do not drive them away through thanklessness.

13. He who is deserted by friends and relatives will often find help and sympathy from strangers.

Imam Ali Sayings

Imam Jaffer Sadiq

لاَ يَكُونُ شَيْءٌ فِي اْلاَرْضِ وَلا فِي السَّمَاءِ إِلاَّ بِهذِهِ الْخِصَالِ السَّبْعِ: بِمَشيئَةٍ وَ إِرادَةٍ وَقَدَرٍ وَقَضَاءٍ وَ إِذْنٍ وَكِتابٍ وَأَجَلٍ. فَمَنْ زَعَمَ أَنَّهُ يَقْدِرُ عَلى نَقْضٍ وَاحِدَةٍ، فَقَدْ كَفَرَ.

“Nothing occurs in this earth and in the heaven except with the following seven stages: Will, intention, destiny, decree, permission, book and implementation. Then whoever thinks that he can reduce any of these stages, then indeed he has disbelieved.”

- Imam Jaffer Sadiq, Usul al Kafi, vol. 1, p. 149

Rumi on Ramadan

The month of fasting has come, the emperor’s banner has arrived; withhold your hand from food, the spirit’s table has arrived. The soul has escaped from separation and bound nature’s hands; the heart of error is defeated, the army of faith has arrived. Fasting is our sacrifice, it is the life of our soul; let us sacrifice all our body, since the soul has arrived as guest. Fortitude is as a sweet cloud, wisdom rains from it, because it was in such a month of fortitude that the Koran arrived. …Wash your hands and your mouth, neither eat nor speak; seek that speech and that morsel which has come to the silent ones.


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99 Beautiful Names

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Aga Khan jokes

Aga Khan Speech Brown University May 1996:

"Looking around this colorful gathering, I recall helping in the choice of the Aga Khan University's regalia. Our research into Islamic traditions of academic dress revealed that an academic's rank determined the height of his hat. The higher the rank, the taller the hat. The senior most professors therefore appeared taller than their students even when sitting down. I have just learnt that my friend Neil Rudenstein, the President of Harvard has given instructions that all Harvard hats are to be heightened by at least a foot. This has caused havoc in the Ivy League which is now debating resolution MAHH96, standing for Maximum Allowable Hat Height. My academic standing and that of President Gregorian, should be evident from the hats that we are presently wearing!"

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