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Why Study the Qurʾān Thematically?

We are on this earth because Allah Most High commanded the Father of humanity (Abū al-Bashr) to “go down” and dwell on the earth for a while:

And We said: “O Ādam, dwell you and your wife in this Garden, and eat freely thereof, both of you, whatever you may wish; but do not approach this one tree, lest you become among the wrongdoers. But then Satan caused them to stumble therefrom, and expelled them from that wherein they were, and We said, “Get you down, each of you an enemy to the other. On the earth is your dwelling place and provisions for a while.” (Q 2:35-36)

In the above-quoted verses of Sūrat al-Baqara, the command to (“go down”) appears as a masculine plural imperative verb (اهْبِطُوا; ihbiṭū), whereas at that time there were only two human beings in the Garden, Ādam and his wife. Why is the plural form used, instead of the dual as it is in Q 20:123?

Just two verses later, the command is reiterated with emphatic “all of you” (قُلْنَا اهْبِطُوا مِنْهَا جَمِيعًا ) added to the previous command: We said, “Go down from it, all of you. And when guidance comes to you from Me, whoever follows My guidance—there will be no fear for them, nor will they grieve. (Q 2:38)

The command appears two more times: (i) In Q 7:24, where the same masculine plural imperative verb (ihbiṭū) is used; and (ii) in Q 20:123, where the 2nd person masculine dual imperative verb, اهْبِطَا (ihbiṭā), is used. Why?

A serious reader who reflects on the Qurʾānic text would naturally want to know the subtleties, mysteries, benefits, and secrets of this usage. The key to understand and appreciate these aspects of the Qurʾān is the correct understanding of the thematic links of such verses. In this particular case, the theme is human beings and a correct understanding of the above-cited verses requires a correct understanding of what Allah Most High says about us, human beings, how He has created us and for what purpose.

Yet, all of these are subsets of the Creation theme of the Qurʾān, because our creation is just one of the countless creations of the Creator (al-Khāliq). Furthermore, what happened in the Garden is thematically linked to certain other themes of the Qurʾān: Divine Decree, Tribulation, Repentance and several others.

In addition, since “The Creator (al-Khāliq)” is an Attribute of Allah Most High, the creation theme itself is a subset of several themes related to the Beautiful Names of Allah (al-asmāʾ al-ḥusnā), which, in turn, are subsets of the ultimate and most primary theme of the Qurʾān: Allah Most High Himself.

Writing toward the end of his life, Abū Hāmid al-Ghazālī (450-505/1058-1111) said:

The aims of the Qurʾān and its valuables are of six kinds:

The secret of the Qurʾān, its purest pith, and its ultimate aim is calling people to Allah—the Most Powerful, the Lord of this world and the Hereafter, the Creator of the heavens above and the layers of earth below, and of whatever is between them and whatever is under the moist subsoil.

For this reason, the suras of the Qurʾān and its verses consist of six types, of which three are precedents and foundational principles and [the remaining] three follow, enrich, and complete them.

As to the three important divisions, they are:

(i) the definition of Allah to Whom human beings are called;

(ii) the definition of the Straight Path, perseverance in which is required in advancing towards Him; and

(iii) the definition of the condition at the time of attaining to Him.

 As to the three divisions which enrich them and complete them:

(i) the first describes the state (aḥwāl) of those who answer to the call to Allah, and His delicate dealings with them, the secret and the purpose of this being to inspire others to desire the same and to encourage them. It also describes the conditions of those who shrink from answering the call and the manner of the suppression and punishment of them by God, the secret and the purpose of this being to provoke consideration and fear.

(ii) the second narrates the state of those who deny God; it unveils their disgrace and ignorance in disputing and arguing against the Truth. The secret and the purpose of all this being, on the side of falsity, to make manifest and to create aversion, and, on the side of truth, clear apprehension, confirmation and constraint;

(iii) the third division defines the Stages of the Path [to Allah] and the manner of taking provision and preparation for it.

Jewels of the Qurʾān p. 11-12.

One century later, Fakhr al-Dīn Muḥammad b. ʿUmar al-Rāzī (543-606/1148-1209) used this tripartite conceptual framework to draw attention to many subtleties and degrees of eloquence of the Qurʾān. Three centuries later, Jalāl al-Dīn al-Suyūṭī (849-911/1445-ca.1505), the mujtahid Imam, foremost hadith master, jurist, philologist, and historian, who authored works in virtually every Islamic science, would systematically list over one hundred tropes of rhetoric beauty of the Qurʾān in his encyclopedic work, al-Itqan fī ʿUlūm al-Qurʾān (“Precision and Mastery in the Sciences of the Qurʾān”).

Thematic study of the Qurʾān can, thus, yield a richer understanding of the Book. In fact, there are hundreds of verses in the Book where correct understanding of the meanings depends on a correct understanding of the theme related to their subject.

About This Class
Two different sets of challenges are posed by the Qurʾān to the two categories of readers who approach it: those who do not believe in its claim to be a revealed book sent down by Allah to guide humanity but nevertheless wish to explore the text, face one set of difficulties; those who approach it believing it to be a Divine Revelation to Prophet Muhammad—upon him blessings and peace—encounter another set. For the former, the most important difficulty is accessibility; the Qurʾān does not open itself to those who do not believe in its message and an invisible veil (hijaban mastura; Q 17: 45) comes between them and the Qurʾān. For the believers, the Book of Allah is like an ocean which can never be sufficiently explored, but which opens itself to those who strive in understanding it.

For a believing heart yearning to understand the Qurʾān, the problems relate to the development of personal resources which will allow one to delve into this unfathomable ocean. This is not to say that the basic message of the Qurʾān requires any prior specialized training for its understanding; rather, the essence of the Book can be understood by all seekers who come to it with a sincere heart. In fact, the message of the Qurʾān is so direct and simple, that sincere hearts receive it in a transcendental manner, leading to an inner Certitude that there is but one God, Who has created all that exists for a specific purpose and for a fixed time, after which there will be a Day of Reckoning and an ever-lasting life in one of the two abodes He has prepared.

Yet, for a deeper understanding of the Qurʾān, for anchoring Īmān (belief) in the Book of Allah, and to resolve certain difficulties posed by the wide-spread secular modernity there is a need to understand the Qurʾānic message from within its worldview. For this, certain spiritual, intellectual, and linguistic resources are needed. This need was well-recognized by the Companions of the Prophet, Allah be pleased with them all, and the subsequent generations who systematized their knowledge of the Book in various branches of the Sciences of the Qurʾān (`ulum ul-Qurʾān).
Abu `abd al-Rahman reported from Uthman bin `Afan—may Allah be pleased with both of them—who narrated that the Prophet sallahu alaihi wassalam said: “The best among you is the one who learned the Qurʾān and taught it.” Abu `abd al-Rahman said, ‘that is why I am still sitting here [on this chair, teaching
the Qurʾān]’; he had started his dars during the time of Uthman (RA) and continued until the time of Hajjaj bin Yusuf.

The Qurʾān is a relatively small text: according to the enumeration of Abu Amr al-Dani (d. 444/1052) in his al-Bayan fi `add ay al-Qurʾān, it comprises 77,439 words (kalim) in 6,216 verses (ayat) arranged in 114 suras. The shortest sura contains 3 verses; the longest, 286. Muslims believe the Qurʾān to be the actual Speech of Allah (kalam Allah), which cannot properly be translated, having been revealed at a specific place and time but transcending both geography and history. The Descent of the Qurʾān from the Well-Guarded Tablet (al-lawh al-mahfuz) was a solemn event that took place within the sacred time of revelation, not in the time of profane history marked by its incessant flow from one moment to the next. This entrance into human history of the Qurʾān completes and culminates the coming down of the
revelation that began with Adam, upon him peace.

The Qurʾān is a living text that transforms the reader in the very process of being read; it is neither prose nor poetry; it consists of words made up from the twenty-eight letters of the Arabic language, yet it is clearly distinguished from all other Arabic works whether they be poetry or rhythmic or non-rhythmic prose.

Even though the message of the Qurʾān is clear and simple, as soon as we begin to read it, we realize that we are face to face with a text that embodies a vast range of subjects and themes including precepts of belief, moral guidance, legal rulings, history, cosmology, science, definitions of primary concepts, admonitions, and graphic descriptions of a life to come after this life. As we proceed in our reading, we discover that this vast range of subjects appears in a manner unique to the Qurʾān: historical accounts are reiterated, sometimes with additional details; metaphors and parables shake us to the core of our being as they appear and disappear at key locations in the narrative; then there are the abrupt transitions in the active voice, from the first to the second or the third person. These, and a host of other aspects of the Qurʾānic style, leave the untrained reader with a sense of inadequacy at first encounter
with the Book.

At another level, it is a common experience for the apparent meanings of a verse to suddenly open an hitherto unknown, much deeper and enriching subtlety which one had missed when the verse was previously read. Similarly it is not uncommon to encounter a totally different facet of a given verse after fifty years of reading it over and over—such are the mysteries of this text that even the most learned are humbled by it and no one has been able to master all that is contained in the Book and no one has been able to produce anything like it.

ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib, Allah be well-pleased with him, once said about the Qurʾān: “It is a light whose radiance cannot be extinguished, a lamp whose flame does not die, an ocean whose depth cannot be fathomed, a path that does not lead astray, a blaze whose brilliance does not darken, a criterion whose evidence
cannot be suppressed, an elucidation whose cornerstones cannot be demolished… Allah has made it the quencher of the thirst of the learned, a springtime for the hearts of jurists, a destination for the path of the righteous, a cure after which there is no malady, a light not followed by darkness, and a rope whose knots are firm” (Ibn Abī Shayba, Musnad 1:251 §8376; Ḥākim, Mustadrak 1:741 §2040;  al-Bayhaqī, Shuʿab al-īmān 3:333 §1786).

Thematic Study of the Qurʾān is a humble effort to explore the mysteries of this unearthly text. Intended for serious and dedicated seekers only, this class will provide a forum to enrich our understanding of the Book of Allah and, bi-idhni-Llah, equip us with some of the tools to further our knowledge of the Book that defines, shapes, and directs our lives and that is our means to gain an everlasting abode in the Hereafter.

‘Abd Allah b. Amr related that the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, said, “It will be said to the companion of the Quran: Recite and ascend as you recited in the world! Verily, your rank is determined by the last verse you recite.”
Source: Sunan al-Tirmidhī 2914; Grade: Sahih (authentic) according to Al-Tirmidhi

The Prophet, upon whom blessings and peace, also said, “A heart devoid of the Qurʾān is like a deserted house.” Infusing the heart with the Qurʾān through a continuous process of reflection and understanding ought to be a life-long goal of every believer for whom the Book of Allah provides guidance and solace at every stage of life. This process requires a strong commitment and devotion as well as a systematic approach to the Book which is, paradoxically, the easiest as well as the most daunting Book in humanity’s possession.

This class is in continuation of my Qurʾān class, which started on Saturday, February 12, 2005 at MCE (Edmonton); it continued until Ramadan 1443/ April 2022, when we finished the dars. This took seventeen years. I do not know how long this thematic study will last; there are three main themes (Allah Most High, Prophethood, and the Hereafter) and almost 350 sub-themes which fall in these three categories. Let us pray that Allah Most High grants us all His succor to benefit from the insights of scholars and illuminate our hearts with this Divine Light.

Prerequisites
A serious engagement with the Qurʾān, a yearning to understand its message deeply, eagerness to
receive what our traditional scholarship has to offer, and most of all, a heart
longing to stay connected with the Book.

Resources
During the course of the year, several resources will be uploaded to the resource page of the class website, insha Allah.

Registration
Free registration is required for the class. Please click here to register.

Start Date: The class will start on Sunday November 6, 2022, insha Allah.