To be able to dissect the question, we first need to understand why the Holy book was sent down to mankind. Let us look at the verse from the Quran:
The Holy Quran was sent down as “a guidance and a mercy unto the righteous ones.” (Qur’an 31:3)
The above ayaat points out that the Qur’an is meant to be guidance for the entire human race, but it is a mercy only to the “righteous ones”. The “righteous ones” are referred to multiple times in the Qur’an, but we shall focus on the next ayaat for this point.
“Those who establish prayer and pay the poor-rate and they are certain of the Hereafter.” (Qur’an 31:3)
The “righteous ones” have a link with Allah through prayer, they contribute to the human society by paying the poor-rate (charity as prescribed in the Holy Qur’an) as well as the belief of the hereafter, which is a powerful drive to avoid sins and perform virtuous acts.
It can clearly be seen from the above two verses, that serve for as an example for countless other verses in the Quran, that guidance was sent down not only for the believers and Muslims but for the non believers and non-Muslims alike. Below are seven different levels we have outlined as to how someone can interact with the Qur’an:
- The Holy Quran can either be heard when the Arabic, translation or lectures are given, enabling the illiterate to gain knowledge and guidance
- Someone with basic reading knowledge or less time can read the translation at the outer meaning level and still gain meaningful advice and direction. This is usually referred to as Zahir, or visible
- Those who have more capability can delve in deeper into the Quran by seeing the patterns and the links between the verses, known as the hidden or “batini” understanding of Quran. Where people can understand of the parables, or metaphors and similes of the Quran.
- The best way to understand the Quran is to read the tafsir, or commentary of the verses of the Holy Quran that are written by those shown in the next level:
- Those actively studying the Holy Quran as well as several other books of sayings (hadiths) of the Prophet and his family, write commentaries and analysis of the Quran; but this is only done after studying for several decades and intensive researching.
- The highest level of understanding a human can reach is that which is achieved by the Holy Prophet and his holy household.
To gain access to the hidden and truly luminous knowledge, you must refer to the Holy Prophet (pbuh) and his Ahl al-Bayt (as).
“And (as for) these examples, We set them forth for men, and none understand them but the learned.” (29:43)
Which is why when referring to more complex issues in the Quran, we must also get guidance from the sayings (hadith) of these infallibles and then make a deduction using these two weighty means.
7. The last level of meaning is only with Allah. No human being can ever reach that. This also includes the letters in some of the surahs in the Holy Quran such as e.g. alif, laam, meem whose knowledge is only with Allah. These are referred to as “huruf muqatta’at” or the mysterious letters.
So lets take a few examples from the Quran to illustrate how simple short ayaats can be heard/read and easily understood. These are easy for a non-muslim, someone with zero background in Islamic history or for a layman to act upon.
Be good to others (4:36)
Do not be arrogant (7:13)
Forgive others for their mistakes (7:199)
Speak to people mildly (20:44)
Lower your voice (31:19)
Do not follow anyone blindly (2:170)
Protect orphans (2:220)
Do not gamble (5:90)
Enjoin right, forbid wrong (31:17)
Treat non-Muslims in a kind and fair manner (60:8)
We can now move on to a number of verse’s or surahs in the Holy Qur’an that may defy human logic and reason if taken literally. In the Quran, parables are used extensively, in a variety of forms and covering many themes. If these verses are taken at a literal level they defy human logic and reason. Thus these verses can only be understood if they are taken as metaphors or parables, these are not instructive stories or orders but rather they play a cognitive role to illustrate abstract concepts and themes into teaching morals and lessons.
In verse 18:45, for example, worldly life is compared to the fall of rain and the cycle of vegetation:
“And strike for them a parable of the worldly life: it is like the water which we send down from the sky, and then the plants of the earth mingle with it. But then they become dry and broken and are scattered by the winds. And God is capable of all things.” (18:45)
In verse 29:41, Allah gives the example of the House of the Spider and warns the believers of the frailty of relying on any thing other than Allah being similar to relying on the House of the Spider to give one protection:
“The example of those who take allies other than Allah is like that of the spider who takes a home. And indeed, the weakest of homes is the home of the spider, if they only knew. “ (29:41)
In Islam we are encouraged to ponder, question and seek knowledge in all fields of life. We are told to “think deeply about the wonders and creation of this universe” (3:191). The Quran was revealed more than 1400 years ago but still holds keys to countless scientific discoveries and theories but once again if these verses of the Quran are only read without any context, they will not be understood.
Dr. Maurice Bucaille, a French medical doctor, member of the French Society of Egyptology, and an author who was a specialist in gastroenterology writes about the origin of the universe in his book “’The Bible, the Quran and Science”. He states how the universe was once a material in the primary nebula, which was divided into fragments that originally was made up of galactic masses. These masses latter split up into stars and provided a sub-product to which we commonly refer to as planets.
If we examine verse 21:30 “Do not the unbelievers see that the heavens and the earth were joined together, then we clove them asunder”. Thus, the Quran gives an accurate account of the formation of the universe to call upon humankind to recognise the power of their creator. Dr. Bucaille considers this verse a proof of “the reference to a separation process of a primary single mass whose elements were initially fused together”.
Therefore the next time you read or hear a verse from the Holy Quran follow the below checklist:
- Look up the translation yourself first (there are several websites or trusted sources such as noblequran.com)
- Try and understand the literal meaning of the verse, and if it defies logic and reason then it may be a metaphor or a parable.
- Search for the commentary on the verse, excellent scholars who have in depth commentary’s are Agha Hajji Mirza Mahdi Puya Yazdi or the Tafsir Al-Mizan by Allāmah al-Sayyid Muḥammad Ḥusayn al-Ṭabāṭabāʾī
- Still in doubt? Shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will put you in touch with a learned scholar to answer your questions one-to-one.