Yet, despite this, the urgent need to devote yourself to understanding the Qur’an remains. The Qur’an has come as a guide, reminder, admonition, and healing. It is not merely a source of reward (thawab), a sacred ritual, a sacrament, or a revered relic. It has come to radically change you and lead you to a new life and existence. Understanding it is no sure guarantee of finding that new life, but without it the task of fulfilling the real purpose of the Qur’an and inviting mankind to it must remain extremely difficult.
Why have we to devote ourselves to understanding the Qur’an, on our own, and to thinking, pondering, and reflecting upon its meaning? Is it not enough that we read or hear its exposition by the learned? It is most certainly not, even though that, too, is essential.
You must exert yourself to absorb and discover what the Qur’an has to say, mainly for one very important, crucial reason. The Qur’an is not merely a book of knowledge, or a collection of do’s and don’ts. It does not merely inform about God and what He wants of you. It also wants to take hold of your person and bring you into a new living and pervasive relationship with Him. Hence, it should increase and strengthen your faith (iman), your will (iradah), your steadfastness (sabr). It should purify you, form your character, and mold your conduct. It should continually inspire you and elevate you to greater and greater heights.
All this can be accomplished only if you enter into a personal relationship of study, meditation, and understanding with the Qur’an. Without pondering over its messages, your heart, your thoughts, and your conduct cannot respond to them. Without immersing yourself in thinking and reflecting over them, you cannot absorb them, nor can they impinge upon your life. Just think: Why should reading the Qur’an with tartil (careful recitation) have been enjoined upon you if not for you to ponder and understand? Why should you be required to pause while reading the Qur’an, and how can you make appropriate inward, physical, and verbal responses which the Qur’an so forcefully emphasizes if you do not know what you are reading?
But is there not a danger that a person who is not guided by a learned teacher nor equipped with all the necessary tools of study, and who still embarks on the formidable venture of understanding, on his own, the Book of God, may go wrong, even astray? Yes, there is, especially when you do not know clearly your own limitations and goals. But the loss is greater, for yourself and for the Ummah, if you do not try to understand at all. While the risks involved in studying on your own can be averted by taking certain appropriate precautions and ensuring that you never go beyond your limitations and goals, the loss incurred by forsaking such study cannot be made up.
Fearful of the consequences, many religious leaders forbid even reading a translation of the Qur’an without the help of a learned teacher. Or they lay down conditions for studying alone which only a handful of people, after long, laborious learning, can fulfill. Such counsels, despite their good intentions, in fact end up depriving you of the great riches that the Qur’an has to offer every seeker. While their fears are genuine, their prohibitions have no logic or basis.
Just think: Can they also prohibit an Arab from understanding the literal meaning of the Qur’an? Why, then, should a non-Arab not read a translation? Again, can they prevent any person from trying to find the meaning of whatever he reads and seeks to understand? Why, then, prohibit attempts to study the Qur’an and find its meaning? And finally, what about the first addressees of the Qur’an, non-Muslim as well as Muslim? They were illiterate merchants and Bedouins, with no scholastic tools in their possession. Yet even some disbelievers were converted by only listening to the Qur’an, without the help of any learned exegeses, and indeed at the first hearing.
Of course, they had the unique and supreme advantage of “seeing” the Qur’anic meaning and message in the lives of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) and his Companions, who were living the Qur’an by going through the crucible of iman, dawah, and jihad. We do not, and cannot, have that privilege. Yet even that should not discourage us. There is no reason why the Qur’an should not open its doors to us once we fulfill the necessary conditions, and most importantly, as emphasized again and again, we, too, live a life of iman, dawah, and jihad as the Companions did.
The protection against going astray certainly does not lie in prohibiting every attempt to understand the Qur’an except by sitting at the feet of a scholar; the cure lies in observing the right guidelines.
This is not to deny the essential need for possessing the necessary knowledge of the Arabic language and of various sciences of Qur’an (`ulum al-Qur’an), of reading tafseer (exegeses), of learning from qualified and reliable teachers, of being conversant with contemporary human knowledge. They are important, but only to the extent of what you desire to achieve from your study of the Qur’an. You must possess tools appropriate to your aims, but you cannot dispense with any attempt to understand the Qur’an because you do not possess all such tools, or because you are unable to go to a teacher.
Imagine that you are on an island; you do not know Arabic, nor have you any opportunity to learn it; you do not have resources like a good teacher or a good commentary, nor can you acquire one. No doubt you should, under such circumstances, recognize the need of acquiring appropriate capabilities to understand the Qur’an correctly, make every possible effort to do so. But even so, the Qur’an remains the guidance for you from Allah.
Fortunately none of us lives on such an island. Such “islands” come to exist only in our perceptions, mainly due to our lethargy and laziness, inattention and inaction, or our lack of conviction that companionship with the Qur’an for understanding it is as essential to the nourishment of heart and mind as food is for the body. What is important to remember is that whether or not one really lives on an island with only a copy of the Qur’an in one’s hands, the literal meanings of which one can somehow understand, or whether or not one has mastered all the Qur’anic disciplines, the need and demand to devote oneself to personally pondering over the Qur’an remains.
By Khurram Murad
Based on the author’s book: Way to the Qur’an, chapter 5: “Study and Understanding”, courtesy of the Islamic Foundation.
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