In the name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.
“The Quran is easy to understand.” This is a misunderstanding that has become prevalent among most of the Muslims today leading to several issues; including people taking matters of salvational significance into their own hands.
If the Quran was easy to understand we wouldn’t have had people of the likes Abu Bakr (RA) not knowing the meaning of the word “أبا” in 80:31, or the likes of Umar (RA) not knowing what the word “تخوف” meant in 16:47; which most of us today mistakenly understand to mean fear.
Some may argue this thesis of mine with verses like the following:
“Verily, We have sent it down as an Arabic Qur’an in order that you may understand.” [12:2]
Here are some thoughts to consider when using the previous verse to say that the Quran is simple to understand:
– The word ‘Quran’ here is اسم جنس, which can be used to refer to an entire object or a part of it. Over here it is referring to a mere part and that is the story of Yusuf, which is what Zamakhshari/Baydaawi alluded to.
– The revelation of the Quran was in the Arabic language so that we may understand as the language has a greater capacity of rhetoric, more definitive and accurate vocabulary, and superiority over other languages in eloquence in general. Hence, it allows more room for the إعجاز (miraculous nature of the Quran) that we hear of all the time. This gives us, finite beings, more room to explore what God really meant, not that it is easier for us to understand it.
If you study the Quran with all of the core sciences required to simply comprehend what Allah meant, such as Balaghah/Usool/Nahw/Sarf, only then will you come to a realization of how “easy” the Quran really is and how often does Y=X. The aforementioned sciences do not include supporting sciences, such as Hadith/Mustalah, etc. Rather, these sciences are simply what are ABSOLUTELY CRUCIAL for anyone to even read through concise Tafseer works like Al-Jalalayn and assure that he doesn’t misunderstand the author.
An example of my statement about Al-Jalalayn:
“وادعوا شهداءكم إن كنتم صادقين”
“… call your witnesses besides Allah, if you are truthful.” [2:23]
As-Suyooti says in Al-Jalalayn commenting on the verse,
“في أن محمداً قاله من عند نفسه فافعلوا ذلك”
“[if you are truthful] in the fact that Muhammad fabricated this Quran himself then do so (call your witnesses)!”
Now most of us who have studied the three Madina books or have taken some primary courses on the Arabic language will all find this commentary extremely simple to comprehend and will continue reading, failing to understand that what we understood is not what the author meant. The author was trying to allude to two concepts in the aforementioned sciences.
1- Nahw: Can جواب الشرط (the result) precede the فعل الشرط (condition) or not? In other words do we need a completion for the following part of the verse or not: “If you are truthful…” which is clearly a condition that is not followed up or preceded by a result. The author seems to believe that we need a completion and that is why he completed it by saying, “…then do so…”
2- Balaghah: If we needed a completion yet Allah deliberately chose to omit a crucial portion of the sentence, what did He mean? This is studied in the chapter of omission (Al-Hadhf) in Balaghah. Why? When? What?
This is just a simple example of how one can totally fail to understand what a Mufassir is trying to say and yet be deluded into believing that he understood exactly what was being said.
Note: I take pride today in saying that at least I feel prepared to merely study Al-Jalalayn after nearly a decade of full time studies, Alhamdulillah! In the previous generations, Al-Jalalayn was only taught to premier students of knowledge. On the contrary, we find people having the nerves to teach Al-Jalalayn today who have barely finished learning Arabic. I am not inviting people to shut their Tafseer classes down, but I do feel that the notion that Al-Jalalayn is the easiest Tafseer in the world is a direct result of “compound ignorance.” Rather, it may even be safe to say Al-Jalalayn is the most difficult Tafseer which ever existed. For lay folks I would recommend Tafaseer like Ibn Kathir or Al-Baghawi.
This intricate nature is not limited to Quran. The Prophetic traditions, statements of the Salaf and books in various Islamic sciences share a certain degree of intricacy as well.
Does Islam have a system of clergy?
One may look at the previously mentioned information and object saying that, “This makes it seem like Islam has a system of clergy, whilst in reality it doesn’t…”
Islam does have a system of clergy. Abu Hurariah said, “I memorized two bags full of traditions from the Messenger, which had I shared, my pharynx would have ended up being sliced.” Ali ibn Abi Talib (RA) said, “Share information with people based on the level of their understanding. Do you wish for Allah and His Messenger to be belied?!” Ibn Masood said, “You will never share something with a group of people who fail to comprehend [what you said] except that it will become a trial for some of them.”
So, Islam does have a system of clergy. The only difference is that the Islamic clerical system has much more room for lay people to explore than religions like Christianity or Judaism. The Islamic system doesn’t ordain mandates for people to be deprived of the right to explore. This becomes really evident when one gets deeper into the knowledge circles and constantly hears statement such as, “This sort of information shouldn’t be shared with lay people as they may not understand…”
This concept proves ever so important when dealing with delicate issues whilst the Quranic passages at hand may seem “clear” at first glance but carry a greater understanding that one can only attain after employing the required tools to understand the Quran & Sunnah accurately. So X doesn’t always equal X. Sometimes it can equal Y.
Here is an example of how Y = X.
Allah’s Messenger says, “I have been commanded to fight the people until they bear witness that there is no God but Allah…” The text is fairly clear in that Allah’s Messenger was commanded to fight the people up until they agree to accept Islam. One may say that, “we are commanded to follow the Messenger’s footsteps; in turn we should do the same.” So over here it seems like X = X. But if you take an Usooli look at things, X is no longer X.
Generalities as found in Usool Al-Fiqh can be of three different types:
1 – A general statement which remained general.
2 – A general statement by which a particular reference is being made.
3 – A general statement which is then particularized later on.
The previous tradition falls in one of the last two categories, i.e. we are not commanded to fight all of humanity, nor was the Prophet (SAWS). Who? Why? Well, we understand that the Prophet (SAWS) was always the first to fulfill all things he was obligated to do and if fighting all of humankind was an obligation upon him, he would’ve at least sent an army to all nations to have fulfilled the obligation. So who is the tradition referring to? It is referring to the pagan Arabs during his time… Why? We find that the word “الناس“ (same word used in this tradition) is used to refer to them in the following verse, “Those unto whom people (hypocrites) said, ‘Verily, the people (pagans) have gathered against you…’
We also find that the same tradition, as recorded by An-Nasa’i, says, “I have been commanded to fight the ‘pagans’ until…” So in the light of the previous information we understand that X didn’t mean X, rather it really meant Y.
Ibn Hajar said commenting on this tradition: “If one was to say this tradition necessitates fighting all of humanity, why then were the people who pay Jizyah (Islamic Tax) & those who Muslims have a treaty with exempted from being subject to war? The answer can be from several angles… the third answer is that this tradition is a general statement by which a particular reference is being made. So the meaning in his statement ‘to fight the people,’ would come out to mean ‘the pagan [arabs]’ and not the people of the book…”
In conclusion, the Quran, Sunnah, classical works of Islamic sceinces, and the statements of the Salaf can all, at times, prove to be complex and thus require thorough study. To say, “Quran is easy to understand,” or “Islam is very simple” is either an unmerited effort to propel one’s self into the world of Ijtihaad or a result of sheer ignorance.
And Allah knows best!
Abdul Wahab Saleem
Riyadh, Saudi Arabia