The Qur’an

The Qur'an is believed by Muslims to be divinely inspired and provides a complete code of conduct that offers moral and spiritual guidance in every walk of life.

For Muslims the Qur’an stands as the Text of reference, the source and the essence of the message transmitted to humanity by the Creator. It is the last of a lengthy series of revelations addressed to humans down through history. It is the Word of God (Allah, in Arabic) – but it is not God. The Qur’an makes known, reveals and guides: it is a light that responds to the quest for meaning. The Qur’an is remembrance of all previous messages, those of Noah and Abraham, of Moses and Jesus. Like them, it reminds and instructs our consciousness: life has meaning, facts are signs. It is the Book of all Muslims the world over. But paradoxically, it is not the first book someone seeking to know Islam should read. (A life of the Prophet or any book presenting Islam would be a better introduction.) For it is both extremely simple and deeply complex. The nature of the spiritual, human, historical and social teachings to be drawn from it can be understood at different levels. The Text is one, but its readings are multiple.

For the woman or the man whose heart has made the message of Islam its own, the Qur’an speaks in a singular way. It is both the Voice and the Path. God speaks to one’s innermost being, to his consciousness, to his heart, and guides him onto the path that leads to knowledge of him, to the meeting with him: “This is the Book, about it there can be no doubt; it is a Path for those who are aware of God.”

Indeed, the Qur’an may be read at several levels, in quite distinct fields. But first, the reader must be aware of how the Text has been constructed. The Qur’an was revealed in sequences of varying length, sometimes as entire chapters (suras), over a span of 23 years. In its final form, the Text follows neither a chronological nor strictly thematic order. Two things initially strike the reader: the repetition of Prophetic stories, and the formulas and information that refer to specific historical situations that the Qur’an does not elucidate. Understanding, at this first level, calls for a two-fold effort on the part of the reader: though repetition is, in a spiritual sense, a reminder and a revivification, in an intellectual sense it leads us to attempt to reconstruct. The stories of Eve and Adam, or of Moses, are repeated several times over with differing though non-contradictory elements: the task of human intelligence is to recompose the narrative structure, to bring together all the elements, allowing us to grasp the facts.

Just as the universe possesses its fundamental laws and its finely regulated order — which humans, wherever they may be, must respect when acting upon their environment – the Qur’an lays down laws, a moral code and a body of practice that Muslims must respect, whatever their era and their environment. These are the invariables of the universe, and of the Qur’an. Religious scholars use the term qat’i (“definitive,” “not subject to interpretation”) when they refer to the Qur’anic verses (or to the authenticated Prophetic tradition, ahadith) whose formulation is clear and explicit and offers no latitude for figurative interpretation.

As the universe is in constant motion, rich in an infinite diversity of species, beings, civilizations, cultures and societies, so too is the Qur’an. In the latitude of interpretation offered by the majority of its verses, by the generality of the principles and actions that it promulgates with regard to social affairs, by the silences that run through it, the Qur’an allows human intelligence to grasp the evolution of history, the multiplicity of languages and cultures, and thus to insinuate itself into the windings of time and the landscapes of space.

Between the universe and the Qur’an, between these two realities, between these two texts, human intelligence must learn to distinguish fundamental and universal laws from circumstantial and historical models. This intelligence must display humility in the presence of the order, beauty and harmony of creation and of revelation. At the same time it must responsibly and creatively manage its own accomplishments or interpretations, which are sources of extraordinary success, but also of injustice, war and disorder. Between Text and context, the intelligence of the heart and that of the analytical faculty lay down norms, recognise an ethical structure, produce knowledge, nourish consciousness, and develop enterprise and creativity in all spheres of human activity.

The Qur’an is a book for both heart and mind. In nearness to it, a woman or a man who possesses a spark of faith knows the path to follow, knows her or his own inadequacies. No sheik is needed, no wise man, no confidant. Ultimately, the heart knows. This was what Prophet Muhammad answered when he was asked about moral feelings. In the light of the Book, he said, “Inquire of your heart.” And should our intelligence stray into the complexities of the different levels of reading, from applied ethics to the rules of practice, we must never forget to clothe ourselves in the intellectual modesty that alone can reveal the secrets of the Text. For “it is not the eyes that are blind, but the hearts within the breasts.” Such a heart, humble and alert, is the faithful friend of the Qur’an.

Source: Reading the Qur’an by Tariq Ramadan, professor of Islamic studies at Oxford. United Kingdom, and at Erasmus University in the Netherlands.. Originally posted in the New York Times, January 2008.