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5 Practical Steps to Understand Quran

I wrote an article about my journey to understanding the Quran. It was a process of years and a lot of reading, attending lectures, and studying complementary texts and a foreign language. And that journey is not even close to being over.

It was an intensive path and continues to be, so much so that it has become a career. But I get it. Not everyone has time for that. However, that doesn’t mean that if you don’t make understanding the Quran your career, you won’t be able to engage with the Quran in a meaningful way.

Even if you are a new Muslim who has never picked up the Quran or a non-Muslim who doesn’t read even a letter of Arabic, you can and should engage with the Quran. What follows are some simple steps anyone can take toward understanding the Quran.

1- Get a Good Translation

Even though the original and only official version of the Quran is in Arabic, you can get a lot of meaning and understanding out of a translation in any language. If you are reading the Quran translated into English, you will find that there are several translations.

Sahih International has been my go to translation for some time. But there are newer translations that may give you more clarity. The Clear Quran and The Study Quran are two that have been published in the past few years that many swear by.

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Find a translation that uses language that has meaning to you. While reading a Quran translation like Yusuf Ali or Pickthall with a million thou’s and shalt’s might feel fancy, it probably won’t help you understand the message of the Quran.

So, skip convoluted translations unless you really do understand Old English better than modern, conversational English. And if that is the case, then you probably also need to check if you are from the past.

2- Know the Objective

Before diving into any book, you would know some basic stuff about it. It doesn’t matter if it is fiction, nonfiction, or an instruction manual, you would at least know who the author is, who the intended audience is, what it is about, and what the intended outcome is. This is no different for the Quran.

Answering these questions about the Quran will be vital in any reader’s understanding. So let me break it down for you.

Who is the author of the Quran? The One and Only God and Creator of everything.

Who is the intended audience of the Quran? Humankind for all times, in all places, but especially for those who have intellect (that’s you!).

What is the Quran about? It is about teaching human beings who God is, what our purpose is, and what will come after death.

What is the intended outcome? Guidance.

3- Remove Bias

Everyone comes to the Quran looking for something. But God tells us that the Quran is a book of guidance (2:2) and asks those who read it not to read their desires into it (3:7).

If you come to the Quran looking for what you have already decided is in it, you will find it. Admittedly a few blessed people who have come to the Quran to prove their bias have found God’s guidance. However, that is not always the case.

Those who come to the Qur’an looking to affirm their beliefs that Islam promotes violence will take fragments of verses out of context and leave with that impression. Those who come to the Quran to look for proof that it is OK to do drugs will take one verse and not look at the Quran holistically.

But those who come to the Quran free from bias and with open hearts and minds, they will find guidance. In the beginning of every chapter of the Quran, save one, you will find mercy.

You will find that justice is fundamental (4:135). And you will find that peace is the cornerstone of the Qur’an. You will find tolerance is a necessity (2:256). You will find that equality is a given (4:2). And in all this and more you will find guidance in the Quran.

The Quran is a mirror to bias and a door to truth. If you come to it with bias, it will be reflected back at you. If you come to it open, it will open for you.

4- Know the Wisdom Behind the Verses

There is ultimate wisdom behind every revealed verse, and knowing what to look for in certain types of verses goes a long way to understanding. Here are a few kinds of verses and what should be derived from them:

– Stories of Prophets/previous nations:

These verses are not just biographical accounts. These are stories for us to take lessons from. The prophets struggled, but their righteous reactions to struggles is an example for us. Previous nations failed tests, and the traps they fell into are examples of what we need to watch out for.

– Glad tidings/Warning:

Verses that promise amazing reward are meant to be soothing to those who are striving to meet their Lord in good standing. Verses that promise punishment are meant to be harsh in order to wake up those who are asleep to their reality before it is too late.

– God’s Nature/Nature of creation:

These verses are fundamental to our understanding of life. They give us perspective, teach us who God is, what our purpose is, and so much more.

– Do’s/Don’ts:

These verse are not rules of what makes God happy. God does not need us for anything. The do’s and don’ts from the Maker of the human being are guidelines to what is harmful to or beneficial for our own body and soul. These are for our own success.

5- Look for Context

The Quran was revealed over a period of 23 years. And it was revealed to a people who faced real life challenges to which the Quran gave answers in real time.

To fully understand the Quran, we have to understand under what circumstances verses were revealed. Certain verses might sound weird if we don’t know what is going on in the context of the real time revelation.

For example, the verse that includes the statement {kill them wherever you find them} sounds weird and very aggressive to us in our modern context where we do not go around killing people who have a different faith from us. This segment of the verse is jarring because it is taken out of both textual and historical context.

The above verse was revealed after the Muslims were tortured by, fought against, and then signed a peace treaty with the pagan Arabs.

Then after all of that, the pagans broke the treaty. And Allah revealed these verses:

Fight in the way of God those who fight you but do not transgress. Indeed. God does not like transgressors. And kill them [pagan Arabs] wherever you find them and expel them from wherever they have expelled you, and persecution is worse than killing. (2:190-191)

This context makes a huge difference to understanding.

For those of us in the West, an excellent source of Quranic context is Nouman Ali Khan’s Quran Cover to Cover or to unlearn a lot of the bias many hold, we can look to Omar Suleiman’s Out of Context.

No one is barred from approaching and understanding the Qur’an. You don’t have to be a Muslim to read and understand it. You don’t have to be fluent in Arabic to get its message and themes. If this were true, then it would not be meant for all people of all times.

Any person from any faith tradition, speaking any language can understand the Qur’an following these five steps.

(From Discovering Islam’s archive)

About Theresa Corbin
Theresa Corbin is the author of The Islamic, Adult Coloring Book and co-author of The New Muslim’s Field Guide. Corbin is a French-creole American and Muslimah who converted in 2001. She holds a BA in English Lit and is a writer, editor, and graphic artist who focuses on themes of conversion to Islam, Islamophobia, women's issues, and bridging gaps between peoples of different faiths and cultures. She is a regular contributor for and Al Jumuah magazine. Her work has also been featured on CNN and Washington Post, among other publications. Visit her blog, islamwich, where she discusses the intersection of culture and religion.