I was raised by a deeply religious Catholic mother who put me through nine years of Catholic school and extracurricular Confraternity of Christian Doctrine classes.
I stood, knelt, and sat my way through church every single Sunday and often on Fridays. And so, at the beginning of my journey as a Muslim I was far more familiar with the Bible than the Quran. Today, not so much.
Admittedly, I have always found the Bible confusing. It doesn’t have any recognizable plot points or even a time line. Nor does it mimic the pattern of a biography or autobiography. It has no similarities to textbooks or any kind of manual or self-help book. But having had the religious education that I did, I knew some stuff.
But as a young adult in the dark days before the internet held within its web legit Islamic resources, I converted to Islam. And for real I found the Quran utterly perplexing.
Heritage Muslims would often say to me as a new Muslim—read the Quran, it will increase your faith, you will learn about your faith, it will make you a better Muslim, and so on.
None of that was true for me and it was my dirty, big secret. I found the Quran… indecipherable and it made me feel like a bad Muslim, as new as I was. But I really shouldn’t have, looking back.
You might even be thinking I was a bad Muslim or at least that I was an ignorant new Muslim. And you might also think that people who make the decision to change religions as adults must have studied the scripture of that faith in detail and understood it first. And you would be wrong to think that.
The reality is that you don’t need to know everything about the Quran or have even read much of the Quran to believe in 1-God the Creator’s indivisibility and utter uniqueness and 2-God’s message about His oneness sent to humankind through His Noble Prophets.
This is the theme of the Quran and its central message. If you get it, believe it, and surrender your will to God’s, then you are Muslim. And I got it. I believed it. I surrendered. I became a Muslim.
In fact, the first Muslims did the same. They came to Islam after only a few verses of the Quran were revealed. They had not known and understood the entire Quran either. But they believed in God’s absolute Oneness and the veracity of the most truthful and trustworthy man they had ever met, Muhammad (PBUH), the last Prophet and messenger.
But even though I understood and affirmed the central message of the Quran, I could not get into my reading of it. It had not plot points, timeline, nor was it entirely a biography or instructional.
Yet, the Quran is filled with stories, biographical accounts, and instruction. So, for my first few years as a Muslim, I thought my lack of Quranic reading comprehension was just because I was stupid or bad.
I saw that some people just got it. They read the Quran and they became Muslim. I was not one of those people. They are beyond savants; may God bless and keep them. I am not a super savant or even a savant. I was just a rocket scientist’s daughter who was confused by her holy book.
Gary Vaynerchuk, famous author, entrepreneur, and media guru; once wrote:
“Content is king, but context is god”.
He didn’t write this to mean that context is worthy of worship. But to emphatically present the idea that “great content is predicated on context”.
While I obviously do not agree with this blasphemous statement—God is God. End of story, folks—I can agree with the sentiment.
You can’t understand anything without context. If I were to walk up to you and say, ‘comes from all its mass’, you probably wouldn’t have any idea what I was talking about. You might even think that I am a rambling lunatic and try to give me your change to get rid of me.
I wouldn’t blame you, sneaking up on someone and spouting out random sentence fragments is not nice. But if I had said something to the tune of—’hey, my 4-year-old daughter just told me that the Earth’s gravity comes from all its mass. Isn’t she smart?’, you might have a better understanding of where I am coming from. This is because context matters in all things.
This is no different for revelation. Even though the content is from the Creator of language, the human tongue, and the part of the brain that formulates and understands communication—Context. Still. Matters. And this is because we are still human beings.
I had to learn the hard way that you have to read, understand, and think about the Quran in context. I started to realize this as I learned more and more about Islam. After I started to read books of Hadith and about the life of the Prophet Muhammad, reading the Quran started to become a bit clearer.
When I figured out that language is also context that is often lost in translation, the Quran became less perplexing. I knew that if I found a word or phrases used that made no sense to me or made a verse sound off message, I could turn to the Arabic linguists for meaning.
After I read ibn Kathir’s Stories of The Prophets and some tafsir, the Quran started to come into focus in a big way. When I realized my own bias could get in the way of an authentic understanding, the Quran became less random. After I learned that the opening chapter (Al Fatihah) is the lens through which all the Quran should be read, I could finally say that the Quran was not confusing to me.
Piece by piece, like a puzzle that had been scattered, I was picking up some context. I knew that if something didn’t sound right to me or if it just confused me, I needed to find the context, look at the seerah or the stories of the Prophets, research a word or phrase that might have been mistranslated into English; or reflect on my own bias.
Losing the original content and the context of the Bible was a tragedy. But that was God’s will. Today we still have the original content of the Quran, the last and final revelation from God.
But even if the content is the same, we still need some frame of reference, we still need context. And the many, many scholars of the past and present have preserved that context so that we can understand revelation even 1400+ years after the Quran was sent to humankind.
Coming to a point where I can say the Quran is not confusing is just the beginning of my journey, Insha’Allah. And nothing is more amazing to me than knowing I have the opportunity to understand God’s message in depth.