Khutba: The Qur'an
17 December 1999
This Qur'an has been revealed to me so that I may warn you by it, and anyone else it reaches. (6:19)
This Qur'an guides to the most upright Way and gives good news to the muminun (17:9)
We tell you the best of stories in revealing this Qur'an to you, even though you were unaware of it before it came. (12:2-3)
We send down in the Qur'an that which is a healing and a mercy to the muminun. (17:82)
The month of Ramadan has a special relationship with the Book of Allah. As we know from Surat al-Baqara the Qur'an was first revealed during Ramadan and in it we devote more time than usual to its recitation both in Salat at-Tarawih and outside it.
All Muslims are well aware of the supreme importance of the Qur'an. We know that it was the greatest miracle of the Messenger of Allah, salla'Llahu 'alayhi wa sallam, the Guidance from Allah, which he was sent to transmit to us and which he implemented and demonstrated throughout the course of his life as a Prophet among his Companions in Makka and Madina. Yet in spite of this many of us do not give it the primal importance it demands in our own lives. Perhaps this is because the mass printing of it has made it so easily accessible to us that we no longer give it the value it deserves; it has become something we take for granted, forgetting that it should be the very cornerstone of our day to day existence. It is an inestimably precious gift from Allah to every one of us so let us not become like those communities before us who:
disdainfully toss the Book of Allah behind their backs, just as if they did not know. (2:101)
Firstly, putting aside the exquisite beauty of its language and the supreme eloquence of its means of expression, we must be aware of the meaning of what it contains, what Allah has put in it for us, what He considers it necessary for us to know. Our 'ulama have traditionally divided the contents of the Qur'an into three parts; these are not hard and fast divisions but indicate the three main topics with which Allah's Book deals. They have defined these as tawhid, qasas and ahkam: in other words the Unity of Allah, stories of the Prophets and legal judgements. Each of these divisions covers a wide area and none of them is mutually exclusive. And we must always bear in mind that Allah's Book defies any attempt at precise analysis or exact definition of any sort.
The part dealing with tawhid first and foremost tells us what we can know about Allah Himself and includes such passages as Surat al-Ikhlas, Ayat al-Kursi, the beginning of Surat al-Hadid and the end of Surat al-Hashr and of couse, many other ayats which deal directly with the nature of the Divine Reality. They tell us all we need to know, indeed all we can know, about our Lord and Creator. Alongside these are the arguments for His existence with which Allah ta'ala confronts those who do not believe in Him. Surat al-An'am is full of these but they occur in many other places as well. However, the tawhid part of the Qur'an extends far beyond this and tells us about the nature of existence as a whole and of the universe we inhabit. We are told about the unseen realms of angelic power. We are told about the Last Day and the accounting process that takes place on it and are given detailed and graphic descriptions of the Garden and the Fire. Physical sciences covered by the Book are physics, biology, astronomy, geology and meteorology; it goes into the plant world and the animal world, tells us in detail about the growth process, the weather cycle and many other matters we need to know about the world we live in and, most importantly, tells us how all these things relate to their Lord and Creator, Allah tabaraka wa ta'ala.
The part dealing with qasas or stories is limited in many people's minds to the stories of ancient peoples and their Prophets, mentioned particularly in Surat al-A'raf and Sura Hud but found right through the whole Qur'an from beginning to end. It does of course include these and from them we gain much knowledge particularly of the besetting vices which corrupt human societies and eventually bring about their destruction, all of which seem to be prevalent in the world today. But in fact the section covers far more than just that. First of all it gives us a complete understanding of human history which turns upside down the historical perspective with which all of us have been have been thoroughly indoctrinated. This alone is a huge lesson to grasp. The various recountings of the story of Musa and Pharaoh give us, along with much other knowedge, a comprehensive picture of human political possibilities. Musa's dealings with the tribe of Israel and what we learn about them give us a great insight into the geopolitical situation of the world today if we study them carefully. Then we have the accounts relating to Adam, Ibrahim, Yusuf, Dawud, Sulayman and 'Isa, 'alayhim as-salatu wa salam, and other Prophets and people of the past all of which contain untold instruction for us.
Very importantly also under this heading come the many passages dealing with what happened during the life of the Prophet and his Companions whose archetypical nature is made clear to us. Allah squeezes out for us every drop of wisdom from the very texture of the events themselves so that the lessons they teach are as equally applicable and useful for our own lives today as they were then, to the extent that there is scarcely any state or predicament a human being can get into which is not prefigured and resolved in the text of the Qur'an. Finally and vitally it is in this part that Allah instructs us in those qualities of character which mark out the muminun and are indispensible for gaining His pleasure and tells us of those which characterise the kafirun and munafiqun.
The third division, comprising ahkam or legal judgements, is also much more extensive than it is often reckoned to be. It is by no means restricted to those ayats which lay down the specifics of the Shari'a of Islam, although they, of course, form its core. It also includes such passages as those in Suras al-An'am and al-Isra and the beginning of Surat al-Muminun and the end of Surat al-Furqan which give the outline of the ancient deen which underlies the specifics of its final form in the Islamic Shari'a. And also within its compass are the many ayats addressed directly to the muminun containing all sorts of instructions and prohibitions which may not necessarily be legal injunctions but which nonetheless govern our behaviour to a considerable extent.
This then has been a general rundown of the classical formulation of the contents of Allah's Book but it would be absurd to assert that it covers them completely. There is much, much more. Its conents are inexhaustable. It contains everything we need for our lives in this world and the Next. Allah says in it:
We have not omitted anything from the Book (6:38)
And Allah speaks the truth. We must not treat it as an ancient historical text; each ayat is as fresh and vibrant today as it was the day it was revealed. We can either keep it carefully on the shelf as revered printed pages in a bound book or we can recite it and study it and use it and take it on as Allah intended and the Messenger, salla'Llahu 'alayhi wa sallam, showed us how to. The matter is in our hands.
You receive the Qur'an directly from One who is All Wise, All Knowing. (27:6)
If We Had sent down this Qur'an onto a mountain, you would have seen it humbled, crushed to pieces out of fear of Allah. We make such examples for people so that hopefully they will reflect. (59:21)
So far we have been discussing the what is in the Qur'an but now I want to look at what the Qur'an is. What on earth is the Qur'an? What is this Book whose descent is so powerful that it would smash a mountain to bits? This is a question which very few Muslims seem to ask any more but it is something which our forebears cared passionately about. What happened that night in the cave of Hira when Allah's Messenger, salla'Llahu 'alayhi wa sallam, received the first revelation? Words were brought to the Prophet, salla'Llahu 'alayhi wa sallam, by the Angel Jibril, 'alayhi's-salam, directly from Allah tabaraka wa ta'ala which took the form of Arabic letters and words and emerged as the sentence:
Iqra' bismi rabbika'lladhi khalaq
khalaqa'l-insana min 'alaq
Recite: In the Name of your Lord who created,
created man from clots of blood. (96:1-2)
What we have to realise is that this cataclysmic event is from any rational standpoint completely impossible. Something directly from the Lord and Creator of the Universe who is beyond form and cannot be contained by any form somehow entered into the form of letters and words which were etched into the heart of the Prophet Muhammad, salla'Llahu 'alayhi wa sallam, and then emerged on his tongue out into this world. In some way which is beyond our capacity to comprehend, something directly from Allah Himself descended into this world; the timeless came into time; the infinite somehow became finite in the words of the Qur'an. A famous classical definition expresses it thus: the Qur'an is the real word of Allah and is neither created nor originated in time; it is recited by our tongues, written in books and preserved in our breasts but does not dwell in them.
This subject was a matter of passionate debate for years in the early centuries of Islam. Ahmad ibn Hanbal, following the path of the noble Salaf, was beaten daily for months and months for refusing to bow to the dictates of the rationalists and assert that the Qur'an was created. There can be no "how" about the exact nature of the Qur'an just as there can be no "how" about the nature of the Divine Essence. The point is that it happened.
Something of the momentous nature of the event can be gleaned from what happened to the Prophet, salla'Llahu 'alayhi wa sallam, when the Revelation came to him, and remember that he was created for it and prepared by Allah to receive it. We know that the first time it came he was twice crushed to the point of death. On other occasions it is reported that his weight increased dramatically at the time when ayats were being revealed and that he sweated profusely on even cold days. Abu Bakr as-Siddiq, radiya'Llahu 'anhu, showed that he understood what was happening when he said when questioned about the Prophet's Night Journey to Jerusalem: "If he says so it is true. He tells me that Revelation comes down to him in no time at all right from Heaven to earth during both day and night and that is a far greater matter than you are carping on about."
No, the Qur'an is something tremendous beyond what we can possibly know. Every letter, every syllable, in it comes to us directly from the presence of Allah, the unknowable who is All-Knowing, the formless who is All-Encompassing, the Creator of the universe and of each one of us and all our actions. A taste of the awesome reality of Allah's words in His Book was once brought home to me by a man of great knowledge in Morocco when I was living there shortly after I became Muslim. He asked me if I had read and understood the Qur'an. I said that I had an English translation and had done my best to match it up with the Arabic. He said to me, "No, I don't mean that. Have you really understood the Qur'an." "What do mean then by understand?" I asked. "If you were truly to understand even a single letter of the Qur'an," he replied, "you would scarcely eat or sleep for forty days because of the light that is in it. I know this," he continued, "because it happened to me." This is the truth about the Qur'an; every ayat is potentially more powerful than a nuclear bomb; every letter a possible window onto the very Face of Allah. Yet how comparatively nonchalantly we rattle off the ayats as we do our salat each day; with how little real consideration we pick up the Book and recite our daily portion. How great is our heedlessness and how abundant is Allah's mercy towards us.
I have mentioned these things in order to remind myself and you of the immense inheritance we have received, of the incalculable debt of gratitude we owe to our Lord for making us people of the Qur'an. So let us take advantage of what remains of this Ramadan to renew our relationship with the Qur'an and deepen our love for it so that it truly becomes a constant companion for us in everything we do. It is called the Encompassing Ocean so let us swim in it and drown in it and absorb its meanings into ourselves so that it turns into the very texture of our lives. In doing this we will grow in love for Allah and his Messenger and discover for ourselves the very source of the Sunna of our Prophet, salla'Llahu 'alayhi wa sallam, for as 'A'isha, radiya'Llahu 'anha, told us his character was the Qur'an; and in doing this we will be following in the footsteps of the Companions and those who have followed them in taking on Allah's guidance at the source and putting it into practice in their lives and making it available to those around them who are so desperately in need of it.
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