Chapter 1: The Journey of Life
The Qur'an is the word of the Ever-living God; it has been sent down to guide man for all times to come. No book can be like it. As you come to the Qur'an, Allah speaks to you. To read the Qur'an is to hear Him, even to converse with Him, and to walk in His ways. It is the encounter of life with the Life-giver. 'God - there is no god but He, the Ever-living, the Self-subsisting (by whom all subsist). He has sent down upon you the Book with the Truth ... as a guidance unto mankind ...' (Al 'Imran 3: 2-3).
For those who heard it for the first time from the lips of the Prophet, blessings and peace be on him, the Qur'an was a living reality. They had absolutely no doubt that, through him, Allah was speaking to them. Their hearts and minds were therefore seized by it. Their eyes overflowed with tears and their bodies shivered. They found each word of it deeply relevant to their concerns and experiences, and integrated it fully into their lives. They were completely transformed by it both as individuals and as a corporate body - into a totally new, alive and life-giving entity. Those who grazed sheep, herded camels and traded petty merchandise became the leaders of mankind.
Today we have the same Qur'an with us. Millions of copies of it are in circulation. Day and night, it is ceaselessly recited. In homes, in mosques, and from pulpits. Voluminous exegetical works exist expounding its meaning. Words pour out incessantly to explain its teachings and to exhort us to live by it. Yet eyes remain dry, hearts remain unmoved, minds remain untouched, lives remain unchanged. Ignominy and degradation appear to have become the lot of the followers of the Qur'an. Why? Because we no longer read the Qur'an as a living reality. It is a sacred book, but it tells us something of the past only, concerning Muslims and Kafirs, Jews and Christians, the faithful and the hypocrites, who 'once upon a time used to be'.
Can the Qur'an, again, be a living, relevant force, as powerful for us now, 1400 years away, as it was then? This is the most crucial question that we must answer if we wish to shape our destiny afresh under the guidance of the Qur'an.
There appear, however, to be some difficulties. Not least of which has to do with the fact that the Qur'an was revealed at a certain point in time. Since then we have traveled a long way, made gigantic leaps in technological know-how, and seen considerable social changes take place in human society. Moreover, most of the followers of the Qur'an today do not know Arabic, and many who do have, little idea of the 'living' language of the Qur'an. They cannot be expected to absorb its idiom and metaphor, so essential to exploring and absorbing the depths of the Qur'anic meaning.
Yet its guidance, by its own claim, has an eternal relevance for all people, being the word of the Eternal God.
For the truth of this claim, it seems to me, it must be possible for us to receive, experience, and understand the Qur'an as its first recipients did, at least in some measure and to some degree. We seem to almost have a right to this possibility of receiving God's guidance in its fullness and with all its riches and joys. In other words, despite the historical incidence of the revelation in a particular language at a particular time and place, we should be capable of receiving the Qur'an now (because its message is eternal), capable of making its message as much a real part of our lives as it was for the first believers and with the same urgent and profound relevance for all our present concerns and experiences.
But how do we do this? To put it very forthrightly, only by entering the world of the Qur'an as if Allah were speaking to us through it now and today, and by fulfilling the necessary conditions for such an encounter.
Firstly, then, we must realize what the Qur'an as the word of God is and means to us, and bring all the reverence, love, longing, and will to act that this realization demands. Secondly, we must read it as it asks to be read, as Allah's Messenger instructed us, as he and his Companions read it. Thirdly, we must bring each word of the Qur'an to bear upon our own realities and concerns by transcending the barriers of time, culture and change.
For its first addressees, the Qur'an was a contemporary event. Its language and style, its eloquence and rationale, its idiom and metaphor, its symbols and parables, its moments and events were all rooted in their own setting. These people were both witnesses to and, in a sense, participants in the whole act of revelation as it unfolded over a period of their own time. We do not have the same privilege; yet, in some measure, the same ought to be true for us.
By understanding and obeying the Qur'an in our own setting, we will find it, as far as possible, as much a contemporary event for ourselves as it was then. For the essence of man has not changed; it is immutable. Only man's externalitiesthe forms, the modes, the technologies - have changed. The pagans of Mecca may be no more, nor the Jews of Yathrib, nor the Christians of Najran, nor even the 'faithful' and the 'unfaithful' of the community at Madina; but the same characters exist all around us. We are human beings exactly as the first recipients were, even though many find it extremely difficult to grapple with the deep implications of this very simple truth.
Once you realize these truths and follow them, once you come to the Qur'an as the first believers did, it may reveal to you as it did to them, make partners of you as it did of them. And only then, instead of being a mere revered book, a sacred fossil, or a source of magic-like blessing, it will change into a mighty force, impinging, stirring, moving and guiding us to deeper and higher achievements, just as it did before.
As you come to the Qur'an, you come to a new world. No other venture in your life can be so momentous and crucial, so blissful and rewarding, as your journey to and through the Qur'an.
It is a journey that will take you through the endless joys and riches of the words that your Creator and Lord has sent to you and all mankind. Here you will find a world of untold treasures of knowledge and wisdom to guide you on the pathways of life, to mould your thoughts and actions. In it you will find deep insights to enrich you and steer you along the right course. From it you will receive a radiant light to illumine the deeper reaches of your soul. Here you will encounter profound emotions, a warmth to melt your heart and bring tears running down your cheeks.
It is crucial for you because, as you travel through the Qur'an, at every step you will be summoned to choose, and to commit to Allah. To read the Qur'an is nothing less than to live the Qur'an willingly, sincerely, devotedly, and totally. The outcome of your entire life depends on how you heed the call given by God. The journey is therefore decisive for your existence, for mankind, for the future of human civilization.
A hundred new worlds lie in its verses.
Whole centuries are involved in its moments.
Know, then, that it is the Qur'an, and only the Qur'an, which can lead you on and on to success and glory in this-world and in the world-to-come.
It is beyond man's power to comprehend, or to describe, the greatness and importance of what the Qur'an holds for him. Yet, to begin with, you must have some idea of what it is and what it means to you, such that you are inspired to immerse the whole of your self in the Qur'an, in total commitment, complete dedication and ceaseless pursuit, as it demands.
The Qur'an is Allah's greatest blessing for you. It is the fulfillment of His promise to Adam and his descendants: 'There shall come to you guidance from Me, and whosoever follows My guidance no fear shall be on them, neither shall they sorrow' (al-Baqarah 2: 38). It is the only weapon to help your frail existence as you struggle against the forces of evil and temptation in this-world. It is the only means to overpower your fear and anxiety. It is the only 'light' (nur), as you grope in the darkness, with which to find your way to success and salvation. It is the only healing (shifa') for your inner sicknesses, as well as the social ills that may surround you. It is the constant reminder (dhikr) of your true nature and destiny, of your station, your duties, your rewards, your perils.
It was brought down by one who is powerful and trust- worthy in the heavens - the angel Jibra'il. Its first abode was that pure and sublime heart, the like of which man has never had - the heart of the Prophet Muhammad, blessings and peace be on him.
More than anything, it is the only way to come nearer and closer to your Creator. It tells you of Him, of His attributes, of how He rules over the cosmos and history, of how He relates Himself to you, and how you should relate to Him, to yourself, to your fellow men and to-every other existence.
The rewards that await you here are surely many, increasing manifold in the Hereafter, but what awaits you at the end of the road, promises Allah in the Hadith qudsi, 'the eye has seen not, nor the ear heard, nor the heart of man ever conceived', and, adds Abu Hurayrah: read if you wish [in al-Sajdah 32: 17]: 'No human being can imagine what joys are being kept hidden for them in reward for all that they did' (Bukhari, Muslim).
Most important to remember is that what you read in the Qur'an is the word of Allah, the Lord of the worlds, which He has conveyed to you in a human language, only because of His mercy and care and providence for you. 'The Most-merciful, He has taught the Qur'an' (al-Rahman 55: 1-2). 'A mercy from your Lord' (al-Dukhan 44: 6). The majesty of the Qur'an, too, is so overpowering that no human being can comprehend it. So much so that, says Allah: 'If We had sent down this Qur'an upon a mountain, you would have seen it humbled, split asunder out of the fear of Allah' (al-Hashr 59: 20).
This act of Divine mercy and majesty is enough to awe and overwhelm you, to inspire you to ever-greater heights of gratitude, yearning and endeavour to enter the world of the Qur'an. Indeed, no treasure is more valuable and precious for you than the Qur'an, as Allah says of His generosity:
O men! There has come to you an exhortation from your Lord, healing for what is in the hearts, and a guidance, and a mercy for believers. Say: In [this] bounty of Allah, and in His mercy - in it let them rejoice. It is better than whatever they amass (Yunus 10: 574).
Rejoice you must, in the mercy and blessing and generosity of Allah. Seek you must, for the treasures that await your search herein. But the Qur'an opens its doors only to those who knock with a sense of yearning, a sincerity of purpose and an exclusive attention that befit its importance and majesty. And only those are allowed to gather its treasures, while they walk through it, who are prepared to abandon themselves completely to its guidance and do their utmost to absorb it.
It may quite possibly happen therefore that you may read the Qur'an endlessly, turn its pages laboriously, recite its words beautifully, study it most scholarly, and still fail to make an encounter with it that enriches and transforms your whole person. For, all those who read the Qur'an do not profit from it as they should. Some remain unblessed; some are even cursed.
The journey has its own hazards, as it must, just as it has its own precious and limitless rewards. Many never turn to it, though the Book always lies near at hand, and many are turned away from its gates. Many read it often, but come back empty-handed; while many others who read it never really enter its world. Some do not find, but are lost. They fail to hear God even among His own words; instead, they hear their own voices or those other than God's. Still others, though they hear God, fail to find inside themselves the will, the resolve and the courage to respond and live by His call. Some lose even what they had and, instead of collecting priceless gems, they return with back-breaking loads of stones which will hurt them for ever and ever.
What a tragic misfortune it would be if you came to the Qur'an and went away empty-handed - soul untouched, heart unmoved, life unchanged; 'they went out as they came in'.
The Qur'an's blessings are limitless, but the measure of your taking from it depends entirely upon the capacity and the suitability of the receptacle you bring to it. So, at the very outset, make yourself more deeply aware of what the Qur'an means to you and what it demands of you; and make a solemn determination to recite the Qur'an in an appropriate manner, so that you may be counted among 'Those whom We have given the Book, they recite it as it ought to be recited; it is they who believe in it' (al-Baqarah 2: 121).
Tilawah is the word that the Qur'an uses to describe the act of its reading. No single word in English can convey its full meaning. 'To follow' is closest to its primary meaning. To read is only secondary, for in reading too, words follow each other, one closely behind the other, in an orderly and meaningful sequence. If one word does not follow the other, or if the sequence and order is not observed, the meaning is destroyed.
So, primarily, tilawah means, move closely behind, to go forward, to flow in a sequence, let go in pursuit, to take as a guide, leader, master, a model, to accept the authority, to espouse the cause, to act upon, walk after, practice a way of life, to understand, to follow the train of thought - or to follow. Reading the Qur'an, understanding the Qur'an, following the Qur'an - that is how those who have any right to claim faith in it relate themselves to it.
Tilawah or recitation is an act in which your whole person, soul, heart, mind, tongue and bodyparticipates. In short your whole existence becomes involved. In reading the Qur'an, mind and body, reason and feeling lose their distinction; they become fused. As the tongue recites and words flow from the lips, the mind ponders, the heart reflects, the soul absorbs, tears well up in the eyes, the heart quakes and trembles, the skin shivers and softens just as the heart does, there no longer remains any duality between the two, even your hair may stand on end. And 'so he walks in a light from his Lord ... that is God's guidance, whereby He guides whomsoever He will' (al-Zumar 39: 22-3).
To read the Qur'an thus, as it deserves to be read, is not a light task; but nor is it too difficult or impossible. Otherwise the Qur'an could not have been meant for laymen like us, nor could it be the mercy and the guidance that it surely is. But obviously it does entail much travail of heart and mind, soul and intellect, spirit and body, and requires that certain conditions be observed and obligations be fulfilled - some inwardly, some outwardly. You should know them all, now, and endeavour to observe them before you enter the glorious world of the Qur'an.
Only then will you reap the full harvest of blessings that await you in the Qur'an. Only then will the Qur'an open its doors to you. Only then will it let you dwell inside it and dwell inside you. Nine months spent in the womb of your mother have transformed a drop of water into 'you' - hearing, seeing and thinking. Can you imagine what a lifetime spent with the Qur'an - seeking, hearing, seeing, thinking, striving - can do for you? It can make you into an entirely new 'being' - before whom even angels will feel proud to kneel. Ascending at every step taken within the Qur'an and every moment spent therein, you will reach towering heights. You will be gripped by the power and beauty that breathe and move within the Qur'an.
From Abdullah Ibn 'Amr Ibn al-'As: The Prophet, Allah's blessings and peace be on him, said, 'The companion of the Qur'an will be told: recite and ascend, ascend with facility as you used to recite with facility in the world. Your final abode is the height you reach at the last verse you recite' (Abd Da'ud, Tirmidhi, Ahmad, Nasa'i).