Author: Dr Khalid Zaheer
There is a wide choice of English translations of the Qur’an to benefit from but, unfortunately, when it comes to the descriptive interpretation, the option is extremely limited. On the other hand, English readers, both Muslims and non-Muslims, are compelled to look to descriptive exegeses to manage better understanding, as their meager backgrounds do not help them in extracting deeper meanings of the Divine Message out of mere translations. It is, therefore, necessary to endeavour to make available to the English readers the significant works on the Qur’an written in other languages.
Tadabbur-i-Qur’an, a contemporary Urdu exegesis, authored by Amin Ahsan Islahi, is, in the opinion of this writer, by far the most outstanding commentary on the Qur’an of this period. It presents the rare combination of being, simultaneously, classical as well as modern. It is classical in the sense that it does complete justice with the language of the Book of Allah. The original text is not forced to digest meanings not compatible with its description – something that has been a hallmark of some of the recent attempts. It is modern, I believe, because what it explains is fully acceptable to an honest present-day reader trained to approach academic issues rationally. Indeed, it is rational only because it is an honest attempt to know and unfold the Message of God the way it is—-unswayed, to a remarkable extent, by foreign influences which always threaten to corrupt all attempts to understand the Book objectively.
The two more widely read English commentaries on the Qur’an are The Holy Qur’an, translation and commentary by Abdullah Yusaf Ali and Towards Understanding the Qur’a’, the English version of Tafhim al-Qur’an by Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi. The former was first published in 1934 and has been, ever since, reprinted many times, reflecting its popularity as an authentic guide for understanding the real meanings of the Book of Allah. Tafhim al-Qur’an, on the contrary, has been by far the most widely read Urdu exegesis of the Qur’an, but its English version has come into the market only recently. Both these endeavours are rendering useful service to the readers in unfolding the true meanings of the Divine Message to the common English-reading public. Being only human attempts to explain a text beyond the complete grasp of mortals limited, after all, in ability to do complete justice with the Word of God, there had to be shortcomings in these works. The factor of human limitation has undoubtedly, played a role in case of Tadabbur-i Qur’an’ as well. In order to facilitate better understanding of the Book of Allah, however, a comparison of the two popular works available in English language with Tadabbur is being attempted by this writer.
The proposed comparison is envisaged to be undertaken in a series of articles in which some important questions that seek explanation while reading the Qur’an will be raised to find how each of the three works has answered them and, thus, helped in improving the understanding of the Message of Allah.
A question that intrigues immediately almost everybody who cares to open the Book, not just to unmindfully repeat its words but to understand it, is regarding the rationale of placing a small surah—Fatihah comprising only six small verses, ahead of the longest surah of the Qur’an—Baqarah consisting not less than 286 verses, and thus apparently disturbing a logical order of marshalling the surahs.
When we turn to Yusuf Ali’s exegesis to seek an answer to the question, we find the following explanation:
“By universal consent it is rightly placed at the beginning of the Qur’an, as summing up, in marvelously terse and comprehensive words, man’s relation to God in contemplation and prayer. In our spiritual contemplation the first words should be those of praise. If the praise is from our inmost being, it brings us into union with the God’s Will…the prayer is for our own spiritual education, consolation, and confirmation. That is why the words in this surah are given to us in the form in which we should utter them. When we reach enlightenment, they will flow spontaneously from us.”
The explanation is not entirely unconvincing. There still remains, on deeper reflection, however, the question as to why someone not necessarily convinced about the divinity of the Message as yet be educated in the very beginning of the Divine Book. The interpretation becomes much more questionable in view of the fact that the Qur’an does in fact make use of many later occasions to achieve the purpose of teaching prayers by using the command qul (say) in the beginning. The departure from this practice shouldn’t be without reason. The reference to the element of spontaneous flow of spiritual enlightenment finding expression in these opening words is much more convincing, although less forcefully emphasized than the significance of the point actually deserved. The reader is not informed that this important aspect of the prayers can be construed by a careful examination of its distinctive style.
When we turn to Mawdudi’s work to find an answer, it says:
Al-Fatihah is actually a prayer, which God teaches to all who embark upon the study of His Book. Its position at the beginning signifies that anyone who wants to benefit from the Book should first offer this prayer to the Lord of the Universe.
Man naturally prays only for what his heart desires, and only when he feels that the object of his desire is at the disposal of the One to Whom his prayer is addressed. The placing of this surah at the head of the Qur’an is a sign that God urges man to read this Book with the aim of discovering the right course in life, i.e. “the straight way” to study it with the earnestness of a seeker after truth, and never to forget that the real source of true knowledge is God Himself. The student of the Book should therefore begin by making a humble petition to Him for true guidance.
Once this is grasped, it becomes self-evident that in relation to the Qur’an this opening surah, Fatihah, is not just an introduction or foreword; the relationship is really one of prayer and response. Fatihah is a prayer from man, and the rest of the Qur’an is God’s response to this prayer. Man prays to God that He may show him the straight way, and in response to this prayer God offers the Qur’an as the true guidance, the “straight way,” which man has sought and prayed for.
The above explanation does clearly point out some important reasons why this prayer has attained precedence over all other surahs of the Qur’an. It also explains convincingly the relationship of this surah with the rest of the Qur’an. It does not, however, clarify why the Almighty has chosen not to present this prayer, whose importance cannot be over-emphasized not the least because of its very positioning in the Book, in the form prayer-wordings have been mentioned elsewhere.
When we seek to find an answer to this problem in Tadabbur, we get the following explanation:
The style of this surah is that of a prayer. Instead of teaching the reader the way to pray, the words have been made to appear as if they are flowing from within us, indicating in a subtle way that if human nature has preserved its original purity despite challenges of corruption, it should find its emotions of gratitude (to the Creator) urging to be expressed in this manner. As this expression is suggested by the One Who created human nature as well, no better way of expressing such feelings could be imagined. Anyone who has managed to protect his true nature, would acknowledge these words to be his very own. Only those who have allowed their pristine soul to be corrupted, would find little affinity to the words of this prayer.
The first two sentences of this translation from Tadabbur are clearly explaining the reason of departure from the more common style of using the command qul (say) before the prayer. It can be appreciated from this explanation that while the earlier two authors did make illuminating remarks to offer explanations, Islahi’s attempt is not just intellectually sound; it, more importantly, seems to flow from the text itself, which is the most significant merit of Tadabbur-i Qur’an,
We first resort to Tadabbur to seek an explanation about the first of the two comments made in response to the question. The author, while explaining the word hamd that has been used to praise God, explains:
The word hamd has commonly been translated as ‘praise’. I have preferred ‘thanks’ instead, because wherever this word appears in the Qur’an, it has been used to convey that very sense. For instance, the Qur’an says:
And they will say: thanks be to God Who guided us to this (felicity).(7:43)
And last of their prayers would be: thanks be to God, the Lord of the entire creation. (10:10)
Thanks are due to the God Who gave me Ismail and Ishaq even when I was old. (14:39)
Indeed the word praise is wider in its application than thanks since one can only express feelings of gratitude on such aspects of someone’s virtues that concern oneself directly, whereas praise may also include the mention of virtues which may include those that do not have any direct bearing on the doer of the praise. The meaning of thanks is however, the more predominant of the two. Therefore, in order to do full justice with this word, one must either use “thanks” along with “praise” or else the translation will have to confine itself to thanks only so that it may do justice in expressing the emotions of gratitude to convey the true spirit of the surah. Man can praise anything good even though it may not concern him directly at all. The ecstatic state of our nature this surah is conveying is, on the contrary, the result of our observation of those aspects of the Almighty’s attributes which are directly concerned with us, like His Sustenance and Mercy. If this aspect cannot be properly conveyed, the real essence of the surah will remain unrevealed. The word “thanks” helps in conveying this sense. (vol. 1, 55-56)
The following explanation is offered by Mawdudi’s Tafheem-ul-Qur’an on the subject:
As we already explained, the character of this surah is that of a prayer. The prayer begins with the praise of the One to Whom our prayer is addressed. This indicates that whenever one prays one ought to pray in a dignified manner. It is not becoming of a cultivated person to blurt out his petition. Refinement demands that our requests should be preceded by a whole hearted acknowledgement of the unique position, infinite benevolence and unmatched excellence of the One to Whom we pray.
Whenever we praise someone, we do so for two reasons. First, because excellence calls for praise, irrespective of whether that excellence has any direct relevance to us or not. Second, we praise One whom we consider to be our benefactor; when this is the case our praise arises from a deep feeling of gratitude. God is worthy of praise on both accounts. It is incumbent on us to praise Him not only in recognition of His infinite excellence but also because of our feeling of gratitude to Him, arising from our awareness of the blessings He has showered upon us. (vol 1, 43)
It can be noticed that Mawdudi’s explanation suggests an equally satisfying answer to the question raised. It does make a definite mention of the emotions of gratitude flowing from the reader’s heart. It is, however, quite noticeable that whereas while going through Islahi’s interpretation the reader is convinced that the explanation definitely emerges from the very words of the Qur’an, Mawdudi’s explanation gives no reason to believe that. If one concentrates on the last sentence of his quoted statement, one cannot avoid imagining that Mawdudi’s explanation, although convincing, gives an impression of being the author’s own, rather than an inseparable part of the text itself. Tadabbur, on the contrary, convinces the reader that the explanation is definitely what the text of the Qur’an intends to convey.
Yusuf Ali’s interpretation makes no attempt to offer any explanation to solve the problem. It translates the first verse of the surah in these words:
“Praise be to God, the Cherisher and the Sustainer of the Worlds.” (vol. 1, 14)
In the introduction to the surah, the worthy author has this to say:
We think in devotion of God’s name and His nature; We praise Him for His creation and His Cherishing care. (vol 1, 13)
It is obvious that the author didn’t have the question at hand in mind while writing his interpretation.
The second comment questions the validity of the explanation that Surah Fatihah is frequently repeated because through its recitation guidance is sought from the Almighty. “Why should we keep repeating the same prayer when the way being sought may have been shown to the seeker already?” questions a probing mind. When we again search through the pages of Tadabbur to get an answer, we find that while commenting on the fifth verse, the author points out:
Ihdina means much more than the commonly known meaning ie. kindly show us the right way: It also conveys these meaning: “Kindly satisfy our heart on the authenticity of the truthfulness of the way, create an earnest desire in us to follow it, make the difficulties of doing it easier for us to overcome and keep us way from wandering in other digressions once we have adopted the right way.” All these meanings can be construed from this verse because of the omission of a preposition. (vol. 1, 59)
It can be appreciated that if the words of the verse are actually so rich in meanings, the objection mentioned earlier is left with no ground to stand on. After all we do need to be constantly guarded against the evil forces and to be convinced about the rightfulness of the way; we also desire that following the right way should be made easier for us. Given our weak nature, all these desires need to be conveyed as regularly as we do in our prayers. Frequent repetition of the surah, given this interpretation, is, therefore, not just understandable; indeed it appears to be very much desirable.
It must be conceded, however, that the author has not done enough to convince the reader that the explanation is very much an integral part of the Qur’anic text. The passing reference to the omission of a preposition needs explanation which the author hasn’t offered.
What he actually means by this remark is the fact that while in the Arabic language, to convey the meanings “show me the right way,” the right expression should have been ihdina al-sirat al-mustaqim the Qur’an has chosen to omit the preposition ‘ila. This omission, which has of course been done deliberately by the Almighty, has added considerable depth to the expression, enabling it to include all the meanings which the author has mentioned.
Yusuf Ali’s interpretation has also quite successfully given a convincing explanation to answer the objection:
If we translate ihdina by the English word “guide,” we shall have to say: “Guide us to and in the straight way.” For we may be wandering aimlessly and the first step is to find the way; and the second need is to keep in the Way: our own wisdom may fail in either case. (vol. 1, 15)
Again the only problem with this explanation is its inability to give the reader a thoroughly convincing reason to believe that he is not reading an attempt to “rationalize” the Qur’an but a real interpretation of the Book. In order to achieve the latter purpose, the interpreter should only relate his explanation to the original text.
The interpretation of Mawdudi has concentrated on the intellectual necessity of a Guidance from God but doesn’t address the question about which we are seeking an answer. His explanation to the relevant portion of the surah says:
We beseech God to guide us in all walks of life to a way which is absolutely true, which provides us with a properly-based outlook and sound principles of behavior, a way which will prevent our succumbing to false doctrines and adopting unsound principles of conduct, a way that will lead us to our salvation and happiness. (vol. 1, 45)