Understanding the Uniqueness of the Qur'an

The study and knowledge of the Qur'an is essential for every learned person as well as for all faithful believers. It is specially essential for those scholars who are interested in the study of man and society, since this book has been effectively instrumental not only in moulding the destinies of Islamic societies, but also in shaping the destiny of the human race as a whole. A brief glance over history would be enough to provide sufficient proof of the claim that there has been no such book that has ever influenced human societies to the magnitude of the Qur'an. It is for the same reason that the Qur'an automatically steps into the precincts of sociological discussions, and becomes the elemental constituent of the subjects of research in this discipline. This means that any deep study and profound research in the field of world history of the last fourteen hundred years, is impossible without the knowledge of the Qur'an. 

The study of the Qur'an is essential for every committed Muslim, since it is the main source and foundation of the religious thought and faith. Whatsoever gives meaning, essence and sanctity to his existence lies in the Holy Qur'an. 

The Qur'an is not just like other religious books which are content to discuss the problems of existence of God and creation in cryptic tones, or like those which merely convey a series of simple moral advice and counsels, so that those who believe in them are hopelessly left to search for guidance in other sources. Unlike such books the Qur'an formulates the tenets of faith besides communicating the ideas and views that are essential for a man of faith and belief. Similarly, it also lays down the principles of moral and ethical values for the purpose of social and familial existence. It leaves the job of explanation, interpretation, and occasionally that of ijtihad and application of principles (usul) to secondary matters (furu') to be dealt with through ijtihad and sunnah. Accordingly, utilization of any other source depends on the prior knowledge of the Qur'an. The Qur'an is the criterion and standard for judging all other sources. We should judge hadith and sunnah in the light of the Qur'an. We can accept it only when it is in accordance with the Qur'an, otherwise we do not accept it. 

There are four more books that come after the Qur'an, and are regarded as the most sacred and the most authentic sources (by the Shi'ah Muslims). They are: Al-Kafi, Man la yahduruhu al-faqih, Tahdhib, and Istibsar. There are also other sources like the Nahj al-Balaghah, and the prayers of al-Sahifah al-Sajjadiyyah. All these books are secondary to the Qur'an, and their authenticity of source is not so absolute as that of the Qur'an. A hadith from al-Kafi is as trustworthy as it may be in conformity with the Qur'an, and reliable so far as its words comply with the teachings of the Qur'an and do not go against it. The Prophet (S) and the infallible Imams have said that their traditions should be checked in the light of the Qur'an; if they do not coincide with the words of the Qur'an, they should be regarded as false and fake, and as being wrongfully attributed to them; since they have not said anything that can go against the Qur'anic teachings. 

Approaches to the Understanding
of the Qur'an

Now that the necessity of understanding the Qur'an has been confirmed, let us see what are the ways of understanding this book. Generally for the purpose of a profound understanding of any book it is necessary to study it in three ways: 

1. Authentication:At this stage, we want to know to what extent the relationship of a book with its author is authentic. Suppose we want to study the Diwan-Hafiz, or the Ruba'iyyat of 'Umar Khayyam. At first, we have to see whether the work which is attributed to Hafiz, wholly belongs to him, or whether a part of it is Hafiz's work and the rest is an apocryphal annexation to it. Similarly in the case of 'Umar Khayyam, and others too, we must judiciously scrutinize their works. It is here that the matter of examination of manuscripts --and for that matter the oldest of them-- becomes relevant. Thus we see that none of these books can dispense with such a treatment. The Diwan-e-Hafiz printed by the late Qazvini, which has been based on some of the most authentic manuscripts of Hafiz's work, varies greatly from the ordinary editions of Hafiz. printed in Iran and Bombay, which are usually found in homes. The editions of Hafiz's works published during the last thirty or forty years contain as much as twice the amount of Hafiz's original works. In view of certain modern manuscript experts of repute, they are fake; although we occasionally come across in them some verses which match the sublime heights of Hafiz's poetry. Likewise when we study the quatrains attributed to 'Umar Khayyam, we shall find nearly two hundred quatrains of the same poetical standard with only minor differences usually possible even among the authentic verses of a single poet. However, if we look back at the history of Khayyam's times, we shall notice that the number of quatrains attributed to him may perhaps be less than twenty. The authenticity of the rest of them is either doubtful, or may with certainty be said to belong to other poets. 

It means that the first step towards the research study of any book is to see to what extent the book in our hands is authentic, whether all the things recorded on its pages are genuine, or if only a part of it is authentic. Moreover, what criteria and standards should be employed in order to judge the authenticity and genuineness of authorship? By what logic can the authenticity of any book be totally rejected or affirmed? 

The Qur'an is absolutely exempt from all such criteria that may be applicable to all worldly books. It is regarded as the exclusively singular book since the ancient times. No book of ancient days has remained above doubt to such extent despite a long lapse of several hundred years. No one can ever say about it that such and such a surah has a questionable authenticity or such and such a verse that is present in such and such a manuscript is missing from another manuscript. The Qur'an stands above the notions of manuscript reading. There is no place for the slightest doubt that all of the verses that exist in the Qur'an are those conveyed to Muhammad ibn 'Abd Allah (S) who communicated them as the miraculous Word of God. Nobody can ever claim that another version of the Qur'an existed anywhere, or still exists. There has not been any Orientalist either who would begin the study of the Qur'an by saying, "let us trace from the earliest of the manuscripts of the Qur'an to see what was included in it and what was not." The Qur'an is absolutely free from this kind of investigation necessary in case of such books as the Bible, the Torah, or the Avesta, or the Shahnameh of Ferdowsi, or the Gulistan of Sa'di and every other ancient or not so ancient work. 

Only for the study of the Qur'an no such questions arise, and the Qur'an is far above the usual norms of authenticity and the craft of manuscript reading. Moreover, besides the fact that the Qur'an is one of the heavenly scriptures and has been regarded by its followers as the most basic and authentic proof of the Prophet's (S) claim to prophethood, and as the greatest of his miracles, the Qur'an, unlike the Torah, was not revealed at one time and was not subject to later difficulties in distinguishing the true manuscript. The verses of the Qur'an were revealed gradually during a span of twenty-three years. From the very first day, the eager Muslims memorized its verses, preserved and recorded them. Those were the days when the Muslim society was quite a simple society. No other book existed besides the Qur'an, and the Muslims were inevitably inclined to memorize its verses. Their clear, unmarked minds and their powerful memory, their general ignorance about reading and writing, all these factors assisted them in acquiring and retaining their information regarding the Qur'an. This is the reason why the message of the Qur'an, which was so congenial to their sensibilities and their natural propensities, got effectively imprinted on their hearts like inscription on stone. Since they believed it to be the Word of God, it was sacred to them also. They couldn't permit themselves that a single word or even a letter of it be altered or replaced in its text. They tried to acquire the nearness to God by reciting its verses. It should be noted here that from the very early days the Prophet (S) had engaged a group of scribes for the purpose of writing down the Qur'an, who were known as the "Scribes of the Revelation." This should be regarded as one of the merits in favour of the Qur'an from which all other ancient books are excluded. The absence of any alteration and change in the Word of God was on account of this process of writing and recording from the very beginning. 

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