Principles to Discern the Coherence(Nazm) in Quran

Author: Amin Ahsan Islahi

To describe the principles of how to discern nazm is more important than to enumerate the arguments in order to substantiate its existence in the Holy Qur’ān. A person does not feel compelled to deny nazm in the Holy Qur’ān because he does not appreciate its need and import or is not able to see the strength of the arguments in its favour. More often than not, he denies it because he fails to find it in the Holy Qur’ān for to discern it is really an uphill task. Should it become somewhat easier to find, I am hopeful that this will definitely reflect in people’s assessment of its key role in understanding the Holy Qur’ān.

I find it really hard in this brief lecture to describe all the principles helpful in discerning the nazm of the Holy Qur’ān. The truth of the matter is that even several rounds of discussion, though can be more helpful, are not enough to gain fuller appreciation of these principles. For this type of work, the right approach is to first impart to you a proper understanding of these principles, and then help you practice them in order to fully assimilate them. As far as the matter of understanding the property of nazm is considered, you may consult academic works of Imām Hamīd al-Dīn Farāhī, who have tirelessly served the cause of the Holy Qur’ān in this age. Particularly, if his work on the nazm of the Holy Qur’ān, Dalā’il Nizām al-Qur’ān, is published, I do not see any hurdle in getting full understanding of these principles. However, to practice these principles and employ them during your study depend upon your own intellectual curiosity. In this short lecture, what I can do for you is that I briefly explain certain salient principles that may help you build further understanding of the matter at hand. During a study of the Holy Qur’ān, I think there are three major hurdles which one has to face. My focus, while delineating the principles, would be on these hurdles for I believe that their elimination is tantamount to removing almost all possible problems.

The first hurdle is the specific diction of the Holy Qur’ān because of which people find it difficult to discern the nazm. They fall terribly short of the particular style of expression of the Holy Qur’ān. Actually there is a world of difference between how we speak or write and how the Holy Qur’ān in particular and the Arabs of the classical age in general would speak and write. This difference is not simply the difference in terms of language but in terms of style and taste. Since we do not get acquainted with this style and taste of the Arabs of the classical times, we have to face a lot of problems while studying the Holy Qur’ān, which is altogether immersed in that style and taste. They who have been in touch with classical Arabic literature know how the Arabs initiate a discourse and then make several digressions and then return to the initial point from where they started. On the one hand, there is vastness of the subject matter and on the other hand, there is brevity and conciseness, which the experts of Arabic language can conveniently appreciate to the exclusion of other people. Sometimes, the Arabs mention a thing and present immediately thereafter an argument to substantiate it without informing the audience that it is an argument for the thing just mentioned. It is left to the intellect of the audience to understand them on the basis of the occasion of speech (mawqa‘ kalām ). Similarly, they give an answer but do not specify the objection or the question to which it is an answer. It is again the curious ability and intellectual wisdom of the audience to determine it on the basis of the context. Sometimes, a discourse is initiated with a specific point and then digression comes, which at times, prolong so much that if the audience is not cautious they are bound to lose sight of the original point. Similarly, an anecdote would be narrated but all the links which an intelligent audience can of themselves create would be left out quite unhesitatingly. Sometimes, something would be said with a view to achieve certain results without giving a slightest hint about those results.

These and many other similar things cannot be appreciated unless we fully immerse in the Arabic literature and rhetoric discourses of the orators of the classical age. Since the Holy Qur’ān is the paragon of all sublime qualities of the classical Arabic, full knowledge of it should be acquired to help in studying the Holy Qur’ān.

The second hurdle is that people have not been able to appreciate what kind of literature the Holy Qur’ān is. This is the reason that their efforts to look for nazm have not been fruitful. Therefore, it is a question of paramount importance whether the Holy Qur’ān belongs to the genre of scientific literature or that of poets or oracles or is it similar to the discourse of orators? The disbelievers used to compare it with the rhymed discourse (saja‘) of poets and/or oracles and today, try to equate it with any scientific work on law and order. The truth of the matter is that both of these groups are awfully mistaken. If anything in the external world comparable to the Holy Qur’ān exists, it is the discourse of the orators of the classical age. But it should be noted that it is just a comparison with a closest possible peer. The Holy Qur’ān does not totally and exclusively stand comparable with their discourse. Therefore, it is not right to say that the Holy Qur’ān completely mirrors the oratorical literature of the classical age.

To maintain that the Holy Qur’ān has a sort of affinity with speeches of the Arab orators means that it cannot be disentangled from its specific milieu in which it speaks. Given this characteristic of the Holy Qur’ān, the importance of fully understanding this milieu cannot be emphasized more than what it speaks for itself. This goes without saying that the Holy Qur’ān is a self sufficient source insofar as this matter is considered. The light of the Holy Qur’ān shines and all requisite details become visible to the eye. One is only required to identify that which is entailed by the text of the Holy Qur’ān. Once it is done accurately, the nazm of the Holy Qur’ān becomes so apparent in such a detailed form, intertwined with its specific context, that the reader immediately recognizes it and feels that the text under his consideration has been carved for only what he construes.

Some people rely upon narratives of shān-i nuzūl (occasion of revelation) in order to identify what is entailed by the text of the Holy Qur’ān – the narratives which are found in the commentaries of the Holy Qur’ān. This is not the right approach. These narratives have played a great role in distorting the nazm of the Holy Qur’ān, the narratives which are mostly baseless trivialities. The correct approach is therefore that we should identify the milieu directly from the Holy Qur’ān. As we find out who are they that the Holy Qur’ān is addressing, whether directly or indirectly, and what are the circumstances which the addressees are facing, what are the questions that have poped up, to which proper response is awaited by both friends and foes, and how critical the latter’s antagonism has become; who are included in the circle of friends and how many parties have joined the ranks of the enemies and what tactics of warfare they are planning on; they who are allies, what is their stance in the given situation – once all this is found out, the nazm of the Holy Qur’ān of necessity unveils itself. The things that I have mentioned are alluded to by the text of the Holy Qur’ān itself. It only needs some effort on the part of the reader to identify them – identification which culminates in unveiling the nazm of the Holy Qur’ān. To study the Holy Qur’ān thus leaves such enduring effects upon our hearts as may be elicited by an inspiring oratory of an expert orator.

The third problem in this regard is to know who from among the audience of the Holy Qur’ān is being addressed in a given verse/s. He who ponders on the Holy Qur’ān faces no more an acute problem than the identification of the addressees; he comes to observe that the Holy Qur’ān changes its addressees every now and then, so much so that this change is found even in a single verse. At some instances, Muslims are addressed and at others polytheists. Sometimes, the People of the Book are spoken to and at others Muslims are addressed. At times, the singular form of address is employed and at others the plural. On similar lines, change also occurs in the addresser as well. Now Allah is the speaker and now words flow from the tongue of the Holy Prophet (sws). Now Gabriel is doing the talking and now again the Holy Prophet (sws). This change in both the speaker as well as the spoken to upsets dabblers. In fact, owing to this change, it is really difficult to correctly follow the nazm of the Holy Qur’ān.

To know that the Holy Qur’ān has a sort of affinity with the oratorical literature should remove some of the confusions regarding this change in address. What do orators do to mark a shift in their address? They indicate it by simply changing their posture, twisting their eyebrows, changing the tone of their speech, and through subtle inclination towards that which they desire. In like manner, the Holy Qur’ān alludes to the change that it brings in its address. Should the reader be vigilant as to this characteristic of the Holy Qur’ān, any shift in address does not obscure the discourse. He walks with its flow and faces no difficulty in identifying specific addressees of the Holy Qur’ān. However, there are certain aspects of this change in address which may still elude his mind unless he rehearses enough to enable himself to capture them.

I quote here an excerpt from the prolegomena of the commentary of Imām Hamīd al-Dīn Farāhi, Tafsīr Nizām al-Qur’ān, which is very helpful in resolving most of the difficulties regarding Qur’ānic style of change in address:

There is a consensus among the Muslims that the Holy Qur’ān is a divine discourse, which the Almighty revealed to the Holy Prophet (sws). This does not however entail that the entire discourse is issued from the Almighty alone. For instance, it contains expressions like إِيَّاكَ نَعْبُد (You alone we worship) (1:5). It is obvious that this part is spoken by the servants of Allah. Scholars describe this thing as that the Almighty taught mankind to utter this like he said: “say”. No doubt, a question arises about how we can suppose that there is something like “say” when it is not there. It is a valid question. But a question also arises about identification of addressees of the Holy Qur’ān; how do we identify them? There are two things to consider in a book: The first thing is to identify who is the speaker and the second is who is the spoken to. The truth about both of them is that although they are sometimes general in nature, the intention is particular. And, sometimes, they are particular but the intention is general. Since in knowing this change of address and the actual intention as to general/particular lies the purport of the text, it is of utmost importance to lay down such principles as may be helpful in this endeavour. In an address, there is an origin (masdar) and an end (muntahā). This origin could be either Allah the Almighty, Gabriel or the Holy Prophet (sws). Similarly, the end could be either Allah, or the Holy Prophet (sws) or people. From among people, it could be either Muslims, or hypocrites, or the People of the Book, or the progeny of Ishmaelite, or a combination of these groups or all of them together. From among the People of the Book, it could be either Jews or Christians or both of them. These are the apparent forms. But confusion or uncertainty still has to be faced for the identification thereof. For instance, there could be some confusion in identification of the origin whether it is the Lord, the Archangel, or the Holy Prophet. He who studies the Holy Qur’ān without vigilance, will find it difficult to distinguish the speaker from this trio. The Holy Prophet (sws) and the archangel both are the messengers of God. Sometimes, they just narrate the saying of their sender and sometimes, of their own accord, say that which Almighty puts into their mouth. Given the status of Gabriel as the messenger of God, he sometimes conveys to the Holy Prophet (sws) the message of the Almighty and sometimes says something as a teacher to the Holy Prophet (sws). The Holy Qur’ān is the admixture of all these things which appear in it without a word of caution. Therefore it becomes very difficult to pinpoint them. It is only the context that can help us in this regard. Needless to say that this is not something peculiar to the Holy Qur’ān. It is an inextricable property of the entire portfolio of divine discourses.

The guiding principle in this regard is that when a discourse originates from the Almighty, it portrays might, potency, grandeur and authority. Consequently, there is reason to believe that such discourse appears on very occasional times but in a very conspicuous manner. Let us understand this through an illustration. Sūrah ‘Alaq begins with words as revealed by the Archangel. As the sūrah reaches the point where the disbelievers elicit the divine rage, the Almighty directly takes control of the discourse and says: “كَلَّا لَئِن لَّمْ يَنتَهِ لَنَسْفَعًا بِالنَّاصِيَةِ” (Nay! If he ceases not, we will seize him by the forelock).

In case of the “end”, confusion usually arises in the identification of whether it is the believers in general or the Holy Prophet (sws) himself. Sometimes, it appears that the Holy Prophet is being addressed when, in reality, it is the believers who are the end audience. In such a case, the example of the Holy Prophet (sws) is like that of a representative, who by virtue of his position, is supposed to listen to or speak on behalf of his nation. This is why he is addressed on such occasions. The Torah also contains many examples of this kind where Moses is being addressed singularly when the intention is to say something to his nation. Whenever this happens in the Holy Qur’ān, it can be discerned by pondering the context and occasion (mawqa‘ wa mahal) of the discourse. In Sūrah Tawbah, this verse is a typical example:

إِن تُصِبْكَ حَسَنَةٌ تَسُؤْهُمْ وَإِن تُصِبْكَ مُصِيبَةٌ يَقُولُواْ قَدْ أَخَذْنَا أَمْرَنَا مِن قَبْلُ (٥٠:٩)

If good comes to you [O Muhammad] it pains them, and if calamity befalls you, they say: “very good! We took precaution already.” (9:50)

In this verse, the address is in the singular form but it is believers who are ultimately intended by this verse. Why? The next verse which responds to this verse under consideration affirms our understanding. The Lord says:

قُل لَّن يُصِيبَنَا إِلاَّ مَا كَتَبَ اللّهُ لَنَا هُوَ مَوْلاَنَا وَعَلَى اللّهِ فَلْيَتَوَكَّلِ الْمُؤْمِنُونَ (٥١:٩)

Say: Nothing befalls us save that which Allah has decreed for us. He is our protecting master. In Allah let believers put their trust! (9:51)

Similarly, although it is apparently the Holy Prophet (sws) who has been addressed in Sūrah Banī Israel, yet the discourse is actually directed towards the believers.

إِمَّا يَبْلُغَنَّ عِندَكَ الْكِبَرَ أَحَدُهُمَا أَوْ كِلاَهُمَا فَلاَ تَقُل لَّهُمَا أُفٍّ وَلاَ تَنْهَرْهُمَا وَقُل لَّهُمَا قَوْلاً كَرِيمًا (٢٣:١٧)

If one of them or both of them to attain old age before you, say not “Fie” to them nor repulse them, but speak to them a gracious word. (17:23)

There are so many examples where the address is specific but the intention is general.


(Translated from Islāhī’s Mabādī-i Tadabbur-i Qur’ān by Jhangeer Hanif)

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