Why is the Qur’aan (Seemingly) Disjunct in its Typography?


Question:

Christians (non-Muslims) and some Muslims find the Qur’aan (in English) to be disjunct. It does not follow through with one persistent topic throughout a Surah (Chapter) or throughout several Surahs in succession. It seems to jump from one topic to another without fluidity, why is this?

Answer:

Note: (This post is not about translation issues but rather about the typography we should expect from a book from God.)

I have previously remarked somewhat on a this topic in the article, “Why Didn’t Allah Send the Qur’aan in a Universal Language?” We can begin to understand the nature of the typography (form/ art/ style of writing) of the Qur’aan by using the example of a commonly known book, the Bible. Anyone who picks up the Bible and reads it, immediately understands what he’s reading. The narrative reads like any other story would, the knowledge it is presenting to you is easily digestible. You can read it to an elderly man, and to a young child and they’ll be able to follow the narrative without difficulty. Let’s say we’re reading the Gospel attributed to Matthew. It’s about a man who has this lineage and he does these things with these people at these places. Thus, there is no difficulty in reading it and therefore understanding what the Gospel of Matthew is trying to convey is a simple matter.

The ease of understanding of the narrative is a direct reflection of the knowledge, skill and ability that the author possesses. What this means therefore, is that the author and the reader are on the same level of knowledge, skill and ability. If you can pick up a piece of literature and find no difficulty in understanding what it attempts to convey or express, then the literature has nothing to offer you, it is of the same level of knowledge that the reader possesses. However, let’s say a child opens a University textbook on neuroscience and begins to read, he’s going to have many problems. Most likely, he’s going to encounter terms, statements, descriptions, language devices, formulas that the child has never met before. The child would struggle to read such a textbook and that is because the knowledge, skill and ability of the author is far greater and more advanced than that of the child. Therefore the child has to climb the stairs of knowledge to attain understanding and to thereby make sense of what the textbook is presenting.

The same can be said of a book from God. What do we expect such a book to convey? If it’s a book from God, and we assume in this scenario that the deity of said book is all knowing, then we must expect the book to be at a higher level than us. In other words, we have to stretch our intellectual capabilities and skills to develop the requisite (required) knowledge to understand the book from God. This is a simple, yet significant difference between the Bible and the Qur’aan. If we continue with our example of the Gospel attributed to Matthew, what this means for us, is that the author was as simple minded and knowledgeable as you and I are. We don’t have to stretch our intellect, develop our cognitive abilities to reach the level of knowledge needed to understand what the author is trying to convey. This therefore, clearly indicates to us that the Gospel is a human work, a human production and not from a being of higher knowledge. Whereas with the Qur’aan, it can be difficult to translate something accurately that uses terms, phrases, knowledge of a higher intellectual spectrum. It becomes difficult to express its intricacies and complexities because it possesses and conveys ideas and narratives of a higher intellect than that of ours. This is a hallmark of a message from God, its complexity demonstrates that it is not from a simple minded human. Consider the case of the following child’s bedtime story:

cc-2014-storybook

 

Did you struggle to read it? Of course not, well not unless you are between the ages of 1 year and 2 years old. That was simple to read. Nothing complex, unfamiliar, difficult, educational, informative, critically intensive or tedious. It’s a story for a simple mind, by a simple mind, the author cannot express complex emotions and ideas or theories in such a limited vocabulary and typography, it’s quite limiting. To the contrary, the Qur’aan is like a University textbook, it requires ability, knowledge and skill to read it, because it presents knowledge, beyond that of a human, it contains knowledge we would expect a deity to possess; knowledge expressed in a form distinct from human forms of expression. In this way, the “author” of the Qur’aan, can express significantly greater information because its typography is of a higher intellectual nature. It therefore reflects, the knowledge, skills and ability of a higher being as opposed to a simple minded one.

To the person who therefore says that the Qur’aan in difficult to follow in its fluidity, then this is not due to the Qur’aan’s fault. This is a fault of the reader, who does not possess the requisite knowledge, skills and ability to approach the message of the Qur’aan. We should be reminded that the English translations are meant to merely represent what the text is trying to say on an apparent level and not necessarily generated to express the complete ideas and teachings of the “author”. In the same way one has to have a certain level of knowledge, skill and ability to study a University textbook on neuroscience, we should then understand that one needs to possess a certain level of intellectual competency to comprehend the Qur’aan. The Qur’aan is not a simple book, it is from a higher being, an all knowing deity that is conveying some message to us, and if we can afford the time needed to study human works of higher intellect, then we can more than dedicate the same time and effort needed to study the Qur’aan. Anything less should be considered as laziness and complacency, not that of sincerity.

If one wishes to read more on this topic, an excellent book which examines epistemological typography is, “How to Read a Book”, by Mortimer J. Adler.

and Allaah knows best.

9 comments

  • Jazakallaahu Khayran for the link Sidi.

  • The content of this article does not deal exactly with the subject of its title and the introductory question, which is actually commonly felt even among native Arabic-speaking Muslims. What are those prerequisite skills? What are the practical takeaways of this article? That all and sundry should be versed in exegesis or learn classical Arabic formally? Exegetes are able, for example, to puzzle out a common trope of the part of the second sura in the first hizb (verses 1 to 25): a classification and rundown of the spiritual stances of humanity (believers from verse 2 to 5, unbelievers in 6 and 7, and hypocrites from 8 to 20), concluded with an overview of the right stance, its reward, and the ramifications of rejecting it from 21 to 25. The problem is not about semantics or grammar but just what is in the title and the introductory question.
    I personally think this layout of the Quran is down to, rather than dissonance and digression, a desire throughout it for a style of variegation far removed from the conventional human usages of language and conventional forthrightness, for instance the variation in tenses and the pronounced variation in persons of speech denoting Allah.

  • Thanks for your response, brother. However, I respectfully disagree, I am responding to the perceived disjointedness of the typography of the Qur’aan by exploring its epistemological typological framework and its requirements to make sense of its typography. As far as I am aware, most Arabs do not speak fusha in their day to day interactions, they speak some vernacular or colloquial form of Arabic. The prerequisite skills needed are familiarity and understanding of fusha without conflating modern words and their meanings.

  • I don’t think the write-up does justice to the topic. A child is not able to understand a University Textbook in what sense? If he can understand english, he can understand any text is english, be it a University textbook or a grade one text book. However he may not be able to comprehend the text because of the level of intellectualism he carries. With respect to the Quran this would mean that one who would read it in English would understand it but might not be able to appreciate its contents.
    The questioner poses the question about change of subject from verse to verse and chapter to chapter (a haphazard arrangement apparently) which is same in English translation and Arabic Text. What should have been discussed is “Coherency of the text”. Ḥamīd al-Dīn Farāhī’s “Muqaddamah Niẓām al-Qur’ān” talks about this thing in great detail. Its english translation is “Exordium to. Coherence in the Qur’ān”.
    Thanks

  • Thanks for your remarks, but what you’ve said is contradictory. If a child can understand the text, then how can he not comprehend it? Doesn’t comprehend mean understand and vice versa?

    Lastly, I’m not dealing with translation issues. I’m dealing with the epistemological typography of the Qur’an by explaining basic concepts which informs the lay man of why he finds difficulty with reading the text. I’ll check out the work you mentioned.

    Please keep in mind that the format of these articles are for basic question and answer and are but in-depth in what they cover.

  • Let me not get into an argument here, let me clarify what I wanted to say. Understand means, “perceive the intended meaning” and comprehend means, “grasp mentally”. When I said, “understand” what I meant was the person is able to make out what the text is saying. Now to comprehend what the text is saying is altogether a different thing. I understand what “Theory of Relativity” says, but I am not able to comprehend its postulated. I hope I am clear now.
    I understand the Quran says: “Alif Laam Meem, That is the book…”, I am not able to comprehend its meaning. 🙂
    Thanks

  • @Saaib Ahmed
    “The questioner poses the question about change of subject from verse to verse and chapter to chapter…”
    Maybe this explanation from Maariful Quran Volume 3 will suffice for now.
    “People who are blessed with insight into the Holy Qur’an know
    that it is no book of folklore, fiction or history where the purpose is to
    relate an event from the beginning to the end. But, events of the past
    and accounts of earlier peoples carry many lessons and wise counsels
    within their fold. That is the real essence of history. Then, in them,
    there are such conditions and circumstances as form the basis of different
    religious injunctions. In view of these very beneficial considerations,
    the Qur’an employs a methodology of its own throughout the
    text. It would, when the occasion warrants, narrate an event. Most often,
    it would not narrate the whole event in one sequence and at one
    place. In fact, preference is given to narrating a particular segment
    from it which bears some element of purpose and is relevant at the
    given place.”

  • Thank you for the clarification. You are indeed correct about modern-day Arabs, but I am still not entirely sure; does your point about surmounting the seeming disjointedness of the Quran’s typography include understanding its language? Because language is patently paramount for any literary undertaking. So I take those prerequisite thinking faculties that need to be honed to be at least akin to those of exegesis, which I tried to exemplify above.

    PS: My tack is in part illustrated by the quote provided by flightjam, in case I did not make it clear enough in my initial comment. That may also pertain to the difference between the staple verbosely historical structure of the Bible (though I am not personally qualified to pass that judgement) and the concisely and generally edifying homilies of the Quran.

    Wassalāmu ‘alaykum.

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