What do you need to know to understand the Quran?
Many scholars say that you don’t really need much background knowledge to understand Quran. It’s more independent as a source of knowledge than we think.
Waliullah ad-Dihlawi argues in his book Fawzul Kabir that the Quran comprises of five topics (he calls them ‘sciences’); and that explaining these five is the real reason of revelation of the Quran.
Unless the verse itself indicates otherwise, you don’t need to know any other reason for why Allah sent down any particular verse in the Quran. It must be to explain one of these five.
What are these five topics? Let’s find out.
Almost all of the laws that govern a Muslim’s life are mentioned in the Quran, including laws pertaining to worship, trading and economy, marriage and divorce, inheritance, social etiquettes, family responsibilities, government, war and international politics.
These laws are often just mentioned in the Quran in general terms, sometimes revealing the wisdom behind them, and their detailed explanations and minor details are left for Prophet Muhammad to clarify and demonstrate.
Examples of laws that are mentioned in the Quran:
Praying the five obligatory prayers, fasting in Ramadan, paying zakah, performing Hajj and Umrah; doing ablution for prayer, doing tayammum (dry ablution) when one can’t find water; division of one’s estate after death, dowry, waiting period after divorce, and much more.
The reader of the Quran must keep in mind that some (very few) of these laws were applicable only at the beginning of Islam and had later been abrogated or qualified; and yet others apply only in some specific situations and not in others.
The reader must refer to the Sunnah in order to get a full picture of many of the verses pertaining to laws. Many books of tafsir (such as that of Ibn Kathir) often discuss these verses and the hadiths and rulings attached to them.
In the Quran, Allah points out and challenges the false beliefs of four groups of people: The idol-worshipers (particularly those of Makkah at the time of the Prophet Muhammad), the Jews, the Christians and the hypocrites.
Each of these groups has a unique set of false beliefs and deviant practices; and Allah addresses each in the style most suitable for it.
Often Allah addresses these people directly, for example: “O Children of Israel”, “O People of the Book”. At other times, He discusses them in the third person. Sometimes He quotes what they say and then criticizes it.
It may sometimes be useful to know a little bit about the different beliefs, practices and historical events pertaining to these groups in order to better understand the passages in the Quran that deal with them. You will find information regarding them in a tafsir book like ibn Kathir’s, and in books on the biography of the Prophet Muhammad, such as The Sealed Nectar.
It’s important to remember that, the passages in the Quran regarding these four deviant groups do not only concern them. Any group or individual who has a similar set of beliefs or practices will also find those verses relevant. Therefore, when Allah addresses the Children of Israel, don’t skip those passages assuming that, since I am not a child of Israel, these verses don’t concern me.
Every verse of the Quran has lessons and benefits for us; sometimes we need to deeply reflect on the more subtle points in order to understand them.
3. Mentioning the Favors of Allah
These last three topics all have the same purpose – softening and purifying people’s hearts.
Allah mentions His creation of the heavens and the earth; He mentions all the beautiful and useful things He created for our benefit. He mentions His beautiful names and attributes that highlight different aspects of His mercy on us.
All verses of the Quran deserve to be reflected upon. The verses that mention the favors of Allah moreover urge us to reflect on these favors themselves.
So when you read verses about the seamless perfection of the sky, don’t just read it and move on. Rather, go out and look at the sky itself; experience this everyday miracle of Allah with your own eyes, and reflect upon the power of the One who created it.
4. Mentioning Great Historical Divine Events, Allah’s Interventions in the Past
Allah tells many stories in the Quran, and all these stories are real incidents from history. Allah tells us stories of prophets and other good people who lived great lives in the past; they dedicated their lives to struggle for the sake of Allah and died on the truth. He also tells us of bad people and nations who transgressed despite being sent repeated reminders through prophets, and the fate they finally met with because of their continued arrogance.
Often you will find that, while the Quran only mentions the main message of these stories without going into minor details, the books of tafsir are loaded with further tit-bits that were mainly obtained from Jewish scriptures.
While narrating these stories, Allah mentions only those points that we need to know. For example, in the story of Prophet Yusuf, Allah only mentioned two names: Yusuf and his father Yaqub. But we find mention of many other names in books of tafsir.
Going into the unnecessary details found in these books can sometimes draw our attention away from the main points that Allah wants us to focus on. Therefore, while it may be beneficial to read the tafsir explanation of a story, our reflections should focus on what the Quran mentions.
5. Mentioning Death and What Comes After it
The Quran mentions many things about life after death; and it would be impossible for us to know about unless Allah told us about them. These include vivid descriptions of people rising from their graves at the blowing of the horn, the Day of Judgment, Paradise and Hellfire.
You will notice while reading the Quran that Allah didn’t arrange the Quran according to this or any other classification of topics. In fact, the Quran is not like any other book. It’s Allah’s direct speech; and it takes the form that is best suited to move our hearts and minds.