God Almighty has vowed to preserve the Qur’ān from all possibilities of foreign interference and corruption. The Qur’ān says:
It is indeed We Who have sent down this remembrance, and most surely We are its Guardians. (15:9)
The Qur’ān is thus the primary source of knowledge in Islam. Furthermore, the Book itself clarifies that it is meant to be taken as al-Furqān: the ultimate criterion between right and wrong. It says:
Blessed is He Who revealed the Criterion (of right and wrong) to His servant that he may be a warner for the world. (25:1)
Moreover, the Qur’ān has been conferred the role of muhaymin i.e. guardian over the earlier books of divine origin.
The supreme status of the Qur’ān as a source of knowledge entails that in all matters on which the Book of Allāh has given guidance -- direct or indirect, specific or general -- no other source can overrule it. There can always be a possibility of difference of opinion in the understanding of the contents of the Book, but the general rule that the Qur’ānic verdict holds supreme to all other sources of knowledge, whether religious or secular, is so unquestionable that whoever disputes it, disputes the very foundation of Islam. The only theoretical possibility one could imagine of an authority that could have possibly overruled a Qur’ānic verdict was the Prophet (sws) but the Qur’ān has pre-empted to set aside this possibility by requiring him to declare thus:
Say [O prophet]: It is not for me to change it [the Qur’ān] of my own accord. I only follow that which is inspired in me. If I disobey my Lord I fear retribution of an awful Day. (10:15).
Although the Qur’ān was originally revealed in a sequence that was markedly different from the existing one, it is the present sequence in which the Qur’ān was finally left by the Prophet (sws). This sequence, according to the Qur’ān, has divine origins:
Surely, its collection and recitation are Our responsibility. (75:17)
The Qur’ānic text, apart from the sequence, has two other divinely ordained units: āyat (verse) and sūrah (chapter). Where as it is not completely unanimously1 claimed that the entire Qur’ānic text has six thousand two hundred and thirty-six verses, the total number of chapters in the Qur’ān are undisputedly one hundred and fourteen. The entire text is also divided for the purpose of analysing the message into two categories i.e. the one that was revealed to the Prophet (sws) in the first thirteen years of his prophetic mission at Makkah, and the other that was revealed on him in his subsequent ten years of stay at Madīnah. It is estimated that nearly two-third of the Qur’ān is thus Makkan and the rest Madīnan. The Qur’ānic sūrahs are thus categorised as Makkan and Madīnan, even though some of these sūrahs may be carrying a few verses which may have been revealed in an era different from the one in which the rest of the sūrah was revealed.2 The Makkan Sūrahs generally consist of the basic message of faith in God, life of the hereafter, and the prophets, while the Madīnan sūrahs seek to guide believers in the practical aspects of their lives.
The divine scheme of preservation of not only the words but also the sequence of presentation was carried out primarily through the process of memorising the text by the first generation of Muslims many of who would immediately commit to memory the new Revelation, no sooner it was communicated by Angel Gabriel to the Prophet (sws). The fact that the Prophet (sws) used to recite different passages from the revealed text while leading the daily congregational prayers (three of the five of which were performed in a manner that the Prophet (sws) would recite the Qur’ān audibly for the participants) made the task of memorising it easier. Because of the love of the Book of Alla^h and also the fact that the Prophet (sws) had declared the process of memorising the book an act of great virtue, many of the later-generation Muslims emulated their predecessors in memorising the entire Qur’ān. Thus the number of huffāz3 increased from generation to generation. A few huffāz in the first generation (according to an estimate they were not more than thirty) were thus replaced by hundreds in the next generation and the number continued to swell until now more than fourteen hundred years later we observe that there are hundreds of thousands of them all across the globe, most of who care to regularly revive their memory of the text at least once a year during the month of Ramadān. This fool-proof, divinely ordained process of preservation of the Book has ensured that the Qur’ānic promise of its preservation should come true.
The fact that the oral preservation was also accompanied by a written record was only meant to consolidate the process. The objective of preservation of the Qur’ānic text, as we have seen, was effectively achieved through the involvement of hundreds of thousands of believers. The involvement of a few scores of scribes in the first generation was meant only to confirm it. Any criticism on the latter process besides being factually unjustifiable can do hardly anything to take away one’s confidence in the veracity of the text that was basically kept away from possibilities of corruption through the process of memorising. It is reported that the Prophet (sws) used to ask some of his literate companions to write the verses of the Qur’ān immediately after they were revealed. He would conduct special sessions (called ‘ardah) for these scribes where in he would himself recite the entire revealed portion of the Qur’ān to enable the participants to correct errors in copying the text, if any. It is reported that two sessions of ‘ardah took place after the Qur’ān was fully revealed.
At the time of the caliphate of the first caliph, Abū Bakr, some of the prominent huffāz got killed in the battle of Yamāmah fought against a large army of insurgent apostates. That incident prompted ‘Umar Ibn Khattāb to convince the caliph to accept the idea of writing down an official version of the Book, unanimously acceptable to all companions of the Prophet (sws). After some deliberation the caliph gave in to ‘Umar’s arguments. The task was undertaken by a committee of huffāz headed by Zayd Ibn Thābit. A unanimously agreed to version was thus finalised. It was kept by Abū Bakr and then, on his death, the text went into the custody of the second caliph, ‘Umar Ibn Khattāb. Before the latter’s death, however, the copy came in the custody of his daughter Hafsah, the wife of the Prophet (sws). Uthmān, the third caliph, did not initially find it important to get the copy from her. However, the expanding empire of the Muslim world necessitated that the large number of newly converted Muslims most of who were new to Arabic language be spared from the possibility of the confusion of confronting more than one version of the Qur’ānic text. Uthmān, therefore, finally got the copy of the Qur’ānic text from Hafsah and entrusted the task to Zayd Ibn Thābit to finalise the text beyond any possibilities of doubt. The possible differences of the dialects were also eliminated in the light of Uthmān’s decision that in such matters the Makkan dialect would be considered final. On the finalising of the text under the direct supervision of the caliph, a few copies were made, which too were validated for their authenticity by being read out and confirmed. These copies were sent to the important centres of Islamic empire. It is disputed as to whether the number of such copies was four or seven. Some of those copies are claimed to have survived until now.
Whereas some non-Muslim orientalists have attempted to cast serious doubts on the usefulness of arranging the Qur’ān in its present sequence instead of letting it remain the way it was originally revealed, there are many Muslims too who are not properly acquainted with the merits of its present sequence of presentation. However, when the Qur’ānic text is read with a view to discover logical justification for its substantially altered arrangement from the sequence of its revelation, one discovers abundant evidence of thematic and structural coherence in its text to be convinced that the arrangement is indeed not without important merits which more than outweigh the disadvantages that could be imagined in it for not having been arranged in the order it was initially revealed. To be precise, one finds deep coherence in the message of Qur’ānic verses within each sūrah; almost all sūrahs are arranged in a manner that they form sūrah-pairs; and finally, the entire Qur’ānic text is arranged to reveal seven distinct sūrah-groups.
Although many beginners are frustrated in their initial attempts at reading the Qur’ān in an effort to find any real coherent message within a sūrah, the fact is that the verses in all sūrahs of the Qur’ān are very closely knit with their respective basic themes. If the theme is correctly identified on repeated readings of a sūrah, the task of finding the link of the apparently incoherent passages with it becomes an exciting intellectual challenge. For instance, the central theme of the seventh sūrah of the Qur’ān (al-‘Ārāf) is the narration of the fact that the messengers of God conveyed the message to their nations and that the nations found guilty of rejecting them were destroyed. In this broad theme, however, one finds it initially difficult to appreciate, for example, how verses describing the phenomenon of rainfall and the subsequent sprouting of useful plantation -- impressively abundant in some soils and completely disappointing in others (verses 57, 58) -- fit into the general mood of the sūrah. The difficulty in appreciating the contextual relevance accentuates when in the very next verse (59) the reader is confronted with the beginning of the story of the prophet Noah, Allāh’s blessings be on him, which informs how he undertook efforts to convince people of his nation to have faith in the message of Allāh. Most of the people, however, continued to deny; only a few got the privilege of believing in the message. A little more reflection, however, leads one to see the link: Like in case of physical rainfall it depends on the quality of soil whether useful cultivation will take place or not, similarly in the case of spiritual rainfall (i.e. divine revelation) it depends on the quality of inner soil (unbiased preparedness of one’s heart to accept the truth) whether good results (true faith) are going to emerge or not. Thus, the apparently disordered set of verses would begin to appear meaningfully coherent to the reader.
In order to understand the thematic coherence in the verses of a full sūrah, it would be more workable to cite the example of Sūrah al-Jumu‘ah, a relatively shorter sūrah comprising of eleven verses. The central idea of the sūrah is to make the native Arabs aware of the tremendous blessings they have been bestowed with by God Almighty in the form of revelation of the Qur’ān. However, even a casual reading of the sūrah unfolds the fact that the sūrah is in fact divided into three distinct passages: verses 1 to 4, 5 to 8, and 9 to 11. The first passage addresses the central theme of the sūrah directly. The second one, however, refers to the inept attitude of the Jews towards Torah, the book of Allāh given to them, and the consequent degeneration in their spiritual life that followed. The passage does not require a great deal of in-depth reflection to disclose that it, in fact, is meant to forewarn the believers through a historical reference on the ill effects of not valuing the significance of the message of Allāh. It is thus a continuation of the same theme. The third passage of the sūrah is, however, not quite as easily amenable to the strict requirements of thematic coherence. It directly commands the believers to respond immediately to the call for the congregational Jumu‘ah prayers and to leave aside all worldly business on hearing it. Later, it laments the behaviour of those Muslims who were not doing likewise at the time of revelation of these verses. A deeper reflection, however, reveals that this passage too is inextricably linked with the central idea of the sūrah: One of the important injunctions which many of the Jews did not care to abide by with seriousness of purpose was maintenance of sanctity of Sabbath which required them to stay away from worldly activities and concentrate on the remembrance of Allāh on Saturdays. Muslims have thus been cautioned in this sūrah to be particularly careful about their obligation towards Jumu‘ah prayers, an Islamic equivalent of the Sabbath law, lest they should fall into the same trap and face similar consequences. Thus the entire sūrah seems to be contributing to erect the same meaningful structure, although each passage is doing it differently.
A thoughtful reading of the Qur’ān also reveals that a carefully designed scheme of sūrah-pairs is preserved in the existing sequence of the of the Qur’ānic text as a result of which one discovers that two adjacently arranged sūrahs are contributing to achieving the goal of more fully understanding a common, broader topic, although one of the two sūrahs is doing so by approaching the common theme by contributing towards one aspect of it while the other sūrah is serving the same purpose by contributing towards some other aspect of it. Two examples -- one of a sūrah-pair involving two of the longest sūrahs and another involving two of the shortest sūrahs -- would help understand the concept.
al-Baqarah and A^li ‘Imrān, the second and third sūrahs of the Qur’ān, form a pair of Madīnan sūrahs. Apart from many other common aspects in them, an important theme discussed in the two sūrahs is the invitation extended by Allāh to the people of the earlier Books to have faith in His last Message. However, where as in al-Baqarah the invitation is primarily directed towards the Jews, in Ali Imrān Christians are invited to have faith in the new revelation. Viewed in this context, it comes as no surprise that a large passage al-Baqarah is devoted to the description of the history of the Jews interspersed with strong urging to them to have faith in the new Message from Allāh. A^li Imrān, on the other hand, while focussing on the subject of inviting primarily the Christians to accept the new faith, not surprisingly again, mentions in detail the important events preceding the miraculous birth of Jesus (sws). Thus the two sūrah despite having a common, broader theme have their own peculiar sub-topics to contribute to the main theme.
The last two sūrahs of the Qur’ān, al-Falaq and al-Nās (the pair is popularly referred to as Mu‘awwadhatayn i.e. the two sūrahs through which refuge is sought), are no exceptions to the rule of sūrah-pairs. Both are in the style of prayers seeking refuge in Allāh from the evils that threaten man by invoking Him through His attributes. The former, however, seeks refuge in Allāh from the evil forces that pose a danger to the spiritual life of man from without, while the latter seeks to be guarded against the impending dangers that lie within human souls. Thus, although the general theme -- seeking refuge in Allah -- is the same, contributions made by the two is in their own peculiar, distinct ways.
Perhaps the most daunting task of all in the area of finding logic behind the Qur’ān’s present sequencing is to meaningfully justify the structure of the Book in its entirety the way it appears now. The enormity of the task makes the possibility of an attempt prohibitive. However, some recent attempts towards this end have brought forth convincing results. According to the understanding gained from the approach adopted by a few scholars of the sub-continent4, the entire Qur’ān is neatly divided into seven meaningful blocks (called groups) such that each group has its own central idea, again supported in distinct ways by the different sūrah and sūrah-pairs of the group. The sūrahs in the seven groups thus identified are sequenced in such a manner that each begins with one or more Makkan sūrahs to be followed until the end of the group by one or more Madīnan sūrahs. This pattern of alternating appearances of the two categories of sūrah is consistently found all throughout the Qur’ānic text.5
In order to illustrate the sort of meaningful cluster the sūrahs of these groups create, perhaps the simplest approach would be to take the example of the second group of the text consisting of only four sūrahs, two Makkan, al-An‘ām (6) and al-‘Arāf (7), and two Madīnan, al-Anfāl (8) and al-Tawbah (9). The basic theme of this group is to show that the enemies of the messengers of Allāh are doomed to destruction. In order to show this the first sūrah of the group, al-An‘ām, presents to the people of Makkah the basic message of Islam, the same message which, according to the sūrah, was presented by the unanimously revered Patriarch of the Arabs, the Prophet Abraham (sws). The next sūrah, al-‘Arāf, then describes the stories of some of the prominent messengers of Allāh who when they delivered the same message of Allāh whose salient features were described in the previous sūrah (al-An‘ām) their nations rejected them. These nations were, according to the Qur’ān ultimately erased from the face of the earth, through one natural calamity or the other. The next pair of sūrah, being Madīnan by the design of the same Divine scheme that is so consistently observable in the entire text of the Qur’ān, describes the practical manifestation in the contemporary setting of the same law that was outlined in the preceding two Makkan Sūrahs. Sūrah al-Anfāl requires the believers to be both spiritually and materially prepared to face the enemies of Allāh. This being so because, according to a verse of al-An’ām one of the possible ways Allāh sends his retributions to corrupt nations is by letting the swords of some to inflict misery on others (6: 65). Thus, since the believers of Madīnah were to be given the privilege of playing a role which in the case of the earlier nations was played by natural calamities, the believers were required to come upto the standards of the status that was befitting that role. That having being achieved in al-Anfāl, the next sūrah, al-Tawbah, is the sūrah of the declaration of Allāh’s punishment for the infidel pagans of Makkah. It tells the believers that the pagan Arabs who have repeatedly rejected the message of Allāh and have betrayed all pacts with the believers are not deserving to survive in this world any more (like the nations that rejected the earlier messages). No wonder, therefore, that the sūrah is the only one which does not begin with the opening expression of tasmiyah, which mentions those names of Allāh’s that reflect His supreme mercy and compassion. Thus the usual opening words, which would have appeared inconsistent with the general mood of the sūrah had they been allowed to precede its message, were omitted from being mentioned.
To conclude, the Qur’ān is the unquestionably supreme source of guidance for Muslims. Its existing form is exactly the same which the Prophet (sws) himself had left for the followers. The difference in the present arrangement of the Book from its initial sequence of revelation is logically justifiable.
1. The reason for the absence of unanimity regarding the number of verses owes itself to the fact that some scholars regard the identical opening passage (called tasmiyah) preceding each sūrah (but one) as a verse each time it appears and others do not.
2. An example of such an arrangement is found in Sūrah Muzzammil which is acknowledged to be one of the earliest sūrahs revealed in Makkah, but its last verse is unanimously acknowledged to have been revealed much later in Madīnah.
3. Individuals who have committed the entire Qur’ān to memory.
4. Hamiduddin Farahi (1863-1930) was the pioneer of this approach. The discovery of the presence of surah-pairs as well as central ideas in Qur’ānic sūrahs owe a great deal to his epoch making research. The approach was then further clarified and applied to the entire text of the Qur’ān by his illustrious pupil Amin Ahsan Islahi (1904-1997), whose exegesis in Urdu, “Tadabbur-i-Qur’ān”, has made a huge contribution in justifying quite convincingly that the present Qur’ānic sequence is thematically and structurally coherent.
5. It needs to be clarified that the question of the identity of different sūrahs as Makkan or Madīnan is not entirely unanimously agreed to. The point of view that suggests the existence of a definite structural coherence amongst the sūrahs of the Qur’ān makes more sense because, amongst other reasons, if the opinion is accepted, the entire arrangement of the present text would appear more intellectually pleasing.
With thanks to Monthly Renaissance
Written/Published: Jan 1999