Part 8

The Quranic sciences

January 29, 2020

The Quran is the word of God that was revealed to His Prophet.

It was written down between the two covers of copies of the Qur’an (mushaf). Its transmission has been continuous in Islam.

However, the men around Muhammad transmitted it on his authority in different ways. Eventually, seven ways of reading the Qur’an became established. Transmission (of the Qur’an readings), with their particular pronunciation, also was continuous. They came to be ascribed to certain men from among a large number of persons who had become famous as their transmitters.

Later on, other readings were occasionally added to the seven. However, they are not considered by the authorities on Qur’an reading to be as reliably transmitted as (the seven).

The seven Qur’an readings are well known from books which deal with them. Certain people have contested the continuity of their transmission. In their opinion, they are ways of indicating the pronunciation, and pronunciation is something that cannot definitely be fixed. This, however, they thought not to reflect upon the continuity of the transmission of the Qur’an. The majority did not admit their view. They asserted the continuity of the transmission of the (seven readings).

Others asserted the continuity (of all seven), except with regard to (the fine points of) pronunciation, such as the longer pronunciation of the long vowels and the weakening of the alif, 78 because the ear is not able to determine how it must be done. This is the correct opinion.

Qur’an readers continued to circulate and transmit those readings, until the sciences were fixed in writing and treated systematically. Those readings, then, were set down in writing, along with the other sciences, and became a special craft and science in itself.

People in the East and in Spain handed them down generation after generation. Eventually, Mujahid, a client of the ‘Amirids, 79 became ruler of eastern Spain, He concerned himself with this particular Qur’anic discipline, because he was held to it by his master, al-Mansur b. Abi ‘Amir, who made every effort to instruct him (in it) and to have him study (it) with the authoritative Qur’an readers at his court.

Thus, he acquired a very good knowledge of it. Later on, Mujahid became amir of Denia and the eastern islands (the Baleares). As a result, the reading of the Qur’an was greatly cultivated there, because he was an authority in it and because he was much concerned with all sciences in general and with the reading of the Qur’an in particular.

In his time, there appeared Abu ‘Amr ad-Dani. 80 He achieved the greatest perfection in the reading of the Qur’an. The knowledge of it rests with him, and its transmission in its entirety goes through him. He composed numerous works on the subject, which became the authoritative works, and people no longer consulted anyone else. 81 Among (ad-Dani’s) works, the Kitab at-taysir became the general reference work.

In the times and generations closely following that, there appeared Abul-Qasim b. Firruh (ash-Shatibi), of Jativa. He set out to correct and abridge the systematic works of Abu ‘Amr (ad-Din!). He versified the whole material in a poem in which he referred cryptically to the names of the Qur’an readers by the letters of the alphabet, according to his own arrangement. His purpose was to be as brief as he could be and to make the subject easier to memorize by means of the rhymed form.

He skillfully compressed the whole subject in his poem. People undertook to memorize it and to teach it to children studying (the subject). That was the practice in the cities of the Maghrib and Spain.

The discipline of Qur’an readings is often extended to include also the discipline of Qur’an orthography (rasm), which deals with usage of the letters in copies of the Qur’an and with the orthography of the Qur’an. The Qur’an contains many letters that are used differently than is usual in writing. There is, for instance, the addition of the y in biayydin “with hands (power)”; 83 the addition of the alif in la’-‘adhbahannahu “I shall indeed slaughter him” 84 and in wa-la’-‘awda’u “and, indeed, they would walk swiftly”;

The addition of the w in jaza’uw-z-zalimina “the sinners’ reward”; 86 and the omission of the alif in some places and not in others. Then, there are the is that are written in the Qur’an with the letter t, while they should be written with the h with two dots over it, and other things. An explanation of Qur’ anic orthography was given earlier in connection with the discussion of writing. 87

When the divergences in the usage and norm of writing made their appearance, it became necessary to deal with them comprehensively. Therefore, they, too, were written down, when scholars fixed the sciences in writing. In the West, they reached the afore-mentioned Abu ‘Amr ad-Dani. He wrote a number of books about them, the best known being the Kitab al-Mugni’. People took up the book and employed it as a reference work. Abul-Qasim (b. Firruh) ash-Shatibi versified the (Kitab al-Mugni’) in his famous poem rhyming on r. People eagerly memorized that poem.

Then, there were more orthographic divergences which concerned other words and letters. (These words and letters) were mentioned by Abu Dawud Sulayman b. Najah , 88 a client of Mujahid, in his works. He was a pupil of Abu ‘Amr ad-Dani, and famous for the fact that he preserved ad-Dani’s learning and transmitted his works.

After him, other divergences came up. A modern Maghribi scholar, al-Kharraz, 89 composed another rajaz poem. In it, he added many divergences to those of the Muqni’. He indicated (in each instance) who their transmitters were.

This poem became famous in the Maghrib.

People now memorized only it, and they discarded in its favor the works of Abu Dawud, Abu ‘Amr, and ash-Shatibi on Qur’an orthography. 90 Qur’an interpretation

The Qur’an was revealed in Arabic according to Arabic rhetorical methods. All Arabs understood it and knew the meaning of the individual words and composite statements. It was revealed in chapters and verses, in order to explain the oneness of God and the religious duties according to the (various) occasions.

Some passages of the Qur’an concern articles of faith. Others concern the duties of the limbs of the body. Some are early and are followed by other, later passages that abrogate the earlier ones.The Prophet used to explain these things, as it is said= “So that you may explain to the people that which was revealed to them.” 91 He used to explain the unclear statements (in the Qur’an) 92 and to distinguish the abrogating statements from those abrogated by them, and to inform the men around him in this sense.

The men around him, thus, became acquainted with (the subject). They knew why individual verses had been revealed, and the situation that had required them, directly on (Muhammad’s) authority. Thus, the verse of the Qur’an, “When God’s help comes and the victory,” 93 refers to the announcement of the Prophet’s death, and similar things.

These (explanations) were transmitted on the authority of the men around Muhammad and were circulated by the men of the second generation after them on their authority. They continued to be transmitted among the early Muslims, until knowledge became organized in scholarly disciplines and systematic scholarly works were written. At that time, most of these (explanations) were committed to writing. The traditional information concerning them, which had come down from the men around Muhammad and the men of the second generation, was transmitted farther.

That (material) reached at-Tabari, al-Waqidi, ath-Tha’alibi, 94 and other Qur’an interpreters. They committed to writing as much of the traditional information as God wanted them to do.

The linguistic sciences then became technical discussions of the lexicographical meaning of words, the rules governing vowel endings (i’rab), and style (balaghah) in (the use of) word combinations. Systematic works were written on these subjects.

Formerly, these subjects had been habits with the Arabs. 95 No recourse to oral and written transmission had been necessary with respect to them. Now, that (state of affairs) was forgotten, and these subjects were learned from the books of philologists.

They were needed for the interpretation of the Qur’an, because the Qur’an is in Arabic and follows the stylistic technique of the Arabs. Qur’an interpretation thus came to be handled in two ways.

One kind of Qur’an interpretation is traditional. It is based on information received from the early Muslims. It consists of knowledge of the abrogating verses and of the verses that are abrogated by them, of the reasons why a (given) verse was revealed, and of the purposes of individual verses. All this can be known only through traditions based on the authority of the men around Muhammad and the men of the second generation.

The early scholars had already made complete compilations on the subject. However, their works and the information they transmit contain side by side important and unimportant matters, accepted and rejected statements. The reason is that the Arabs had no books or scholarship.

The desert attitude and illiteracy prevailed among them. When they wanted to know certain things that human beings are usually curious to know, such as the reasons for the existing things, the beginning of creation, and the secrets of existence, they consulted the earlier People of the Book about it and got their information from them.

The People of the Book were:

  • the Jews who had the Torah
  • the Christians who followed the religion of the Jews

The Jews who lived among the Arabs at that time were themselves Bedouins. They knew only as much about these matters as is known to ordinary People of the Book (in contrast to learned rabbis). 96

The majority of those Jews were Himyarites who had adopted Judaism. When they became Muslims, they clung to the (information) they possessed, such as information about the beginning of creation and information of the type of forecasts and predictions. That information had no connection with the (Jewish or Christian) religious laws they were preserving as theirs. Such men were Ka’b al-ahbar, 97 Wahb b. Munabbih,98 ‘Abdallah b. Salim, 99 and similar people.

The Qur’an commentaries were filled with material of such tendencies transmitted on their authority. It is information that entirely depends on them. It has no relation to (religious) laws, such that one might claim for it the soundness that would make it necessary to act (in accordance with it).

The Qur’an interpreters were not very rigorous in this respect. They filled the Qur’an commentaries with such material, which originated, as we have stated, with the people of the Torah who lived in the desert and were not capable of verifying the information they transmitted. However, they were famous and highly esteemed, because they were people of rank in (their) religion and religious group.

Therefore, their interpretation has been accepted from that time onwards.

Later, scholars applied themselves to verification and critical investigation. Abu Muhammad b. ‘Atiyah, 100 a recent Maghribi scholar, made his appearance. He abridged all the commentaries and selected the most likely interpretations. He set that material down in a good book, which is in general circulation among the inhabitants of the Maghrib and of Spain. Al-Qurtubi 101 adopted his method in this respect in another work, which is well known in the East.

The other kind of Qur’an interpretation has recourse to linguistic knowledge, such as lexicography 102 and the stylistic form (balaghah) used for conveying meaning through the appropriate means and methods. 103 This kind of Qur’an interpretation rarely appears separately from the first kind.

The first kind is the one that is wanted essentially. The second kind made its appearance only after language and the philological sciences had become crafts. However, it has become preponderant, as far as certain Qur’an commentaries are concerned. The commentary in which this discipline is best represented is the Kitab al-Kashshaf by az-Zamakhshari,104 of Khuwarizm in the ‘Iraq.

However, its author is a Mu’tazilah in his dogmatic views. Therefore, he uses the various methods of rhetoric (balaghah), arguing in favor of the pernicious doctrines of the Mu’tazilah, wherever he believed they occurred in the verses of the Qur’an.

Competent orthodox scholars have, therefore, come to disregard his work and to warn everyone against its pitfalls. However, they admit that he is on firm ground in everything relating to language and style (balaghah). If the student of the work is acquainted with the orthodox dogmas and knows the arguments in their defense, he is no doubt safe from its fallacies. Therefore, he should seize the opportunity to study it, because it contains remarkable and varied linguistic information.105

Recently, an Iraqi scholar, Sharaf-ad-din at-Tibi,106 of Tabriz in the non-Arab Iraq made a commentary on the work of az-Zamakhshari. He follows az-Zamakhshari’s work literally, but opposes its Mu’tazilah dogmas and arguments. He shows their lack of validity, explains that an eloquent style exists in a given verse but it reflects the opinions of orthodox Muslims, and not the dogmas of the Mu’tazilah.

He does that very well, and he also possesses all the various disciplines of rhetoric (balaghah).


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