Reading the Koran

Category: Americas, Faith & Spirituality, Life & Society Topics: Heart, Quran Views: 11550

For Muslims the Koran stands as the Text of reference, the source and the essence of the message transmitted to humanity by the creator. It is the last of a lengthy  series of revelations addressed to humans down through history. It is the Word of God -but it is not God. The Koran makes known, reveals and guides: it is a light that responds to the quest for meaning. The Koran is remembrance of all previous messages, those of Noah and Abraham, of Moses and Jesus. Like them, it reminds and instructs our consciousness: life has meaning, facts are signs.

It is the Book of all Muslims the world over. But paradoxically, it is not the first book someone seeking to know Islam should read. (A life of the Prophet or any book presenting Islam would be a better introduction.) For it is both extremely simple and deeply complex. The nature of the spiritual, human, historical and social teachings to be drawn from it can be understood at different levels. The Text is one, but its readings are multiple.

For the woman or the man whose heart has made the message of Islam its own, the Koran speaks in a singular way. It is both the Voice and the Path. God speaks to one's innermost being, to his consciousness, to his heart, and guides him onto the path that leads to knowledge of him, to the meeting with him: "This is the Book, about it there can be no doubt; it is a Path for those who are aware of God." More than a mere text, it is a traveling companion to be chanted, to be sung or to be heard.

Throughout the Muslim world, in mosques, in homes and in the streets, one can hear magnificent voices reciting the divine Words. Here, there can be no distinction between religious scholars (ulema) and laymen. The Koran speaks to each in his language, accessibly, as if to match his intelligence, his heart, his questions, his joy as well as his pain. This is what the ulema have termed reading or listening as adoration. As Muslims read or hear the Text, they strive to suffuse themselves with the spiritual dimension of its message: beyond time, beyond history and the millions of beings who populate the earth, God is speaking to each of them, calling and reminding each of them, inviting, guiding, counseling and commanding. God responds, to her, to him, to the heart of each: with no intermediary, in the deepest intimacy.

No need for studies and diplomas, for masters and guides. Here, as we take our first steps, God beckons us with the simplicity of his closeness. The Koran belongs to everyone, free of distinction and of hierarchy. God responds to whoever comes to his Word. It is not rare to observe women and men, poor and rich, educated and illiterate, Eastern and Western, falling silent, staring into the distance, lost in thought, stepping back, weeping. The search for meaning has encountered the sacred, God is near: "Indeed, I am close at hand. I answer the call of him who calls me when s/he calls."

A dialogue has begun. An intense, permanent, constantly renewed dialogue between a Book that speaks the infinite simplicity of the adoration of the One, and the heart that makes the intense effort necessary to liberate itself, to meet him. At the heart of every heart's striving lies the Koran. It holds out peace and initiates into liberty.

Indeed, the Koran may be read at several levels, in quite distinct fields. But first, the reader must be aware of how the Text has been constructed. The Koran was revealed in sequences of varying length, sometimes as entire chapters (suras), over a span of 23 years. In its final form, the Text follows neither a chronological nor strictly thematic order. Two things initially strike the reader: the repetition of Prophetic stories, and the formulas and information that refer to specific historical situations that the Koran does not elucidate. Understanding, at this first level, calls for a twofold effort on the part of the reader: though repetition is, in a spiritual sense, a reminder and a revivification, in an intellectual sense it leads us to attempt to reconstruct. The stories of Eve and Adam, or of Moses, are repeated several times over with differing though non-contradictory elements: the task of human intelligence is to recompose the narrative structure, to bring together all the elements, allowing us to grasp the facts.

But we must also take into account the context to which these facts refer: all commentators, without distinction as to school of jurisprudence, agree that certain verses of the revealed Text (in particular, but not only, those that refer to war) speak of specific situations that had arisen at the moment of their revelation. Without taking historical contingency into account, it is impossible to obtain general information on this or that aspect of Islam. In such cases, our intelligence is invited to observe the facts, to study them in reference to a specific environment and to derive principles from them. It is a demanding task, which requires study, specialization and extreme caution. Or to put it differently, extreme intellectual modesty.

The second level is no less demanding. The Koranic text is, first and foremost, the promulgation of a message whose content has, above all, a moral dimension. On each page we behold the ethics, the underpinnings, the values and the hierarchy of Islam taking shape. In this light, a linear reading is likely to disorient the reader and to give rise to incoherence, even contradiction. It is appropriate, in our efforts to determine the moral message of Islam, to approach the Text from another angle. While the stories of the Prophets are drawn from repeated narrations, the study of ethical categories requires us, first, to approach the message in the broadest sense, then to derive the principles and values that make up the moral order. The methods to be applied at this second level are exactly the opposite of the first, but they complete it, making it possible for religious scholars to advance from the narration of a prophetic story to the codification of its spiritual and ethical teaching.

But there remains a third level, which demands full intellectual and spiritual immersion in the Text, and in the revealed message. Here, the task is to derive the Islamic prescriptions that govern matters of faith, of religious practice and of its fundamental precepts. In a broader sense, the task is to determine the laws and rules that will make it possible for all Muslims to have a frame of reference for the obligations, the prohibitions, the essential and secondary matters of religious practice, as well as those of the social sphere. A simple reading of the Koran does not suffice: not only is the study of Koranic science a necessity, but knowledge of segments of the prophetic tradition is essential. One cannot, on a simple reading of the Koran, learn how to pray. We must turn to authenticated prophetic tradition to determine the rules and the body movements of prayer.

As we can see, this third level requires singular knowledge and competence that can only be acquired by extensive, exhaustive study of the texts, their surrounding environment and, of course, intimate acquaintance with the classic and secular tradition of the Islamic sciences. It is not merely dangerous but fundamentally erroneous to generalize about what Muslims must and must not do based on a simple reading of the Koran. Some Muslims, taking a literalist or dogmatic approach, have become enmeshed in utterly false and unacceptable interpretations of the Koranic verses, which they possess neither the means, nor on occasion the intelligence, to place in the perspective of the overarching message. Some orientalists, sociologists and non-Muslim commentators follow their example by extracting from the Koran certain passages, which they then proceed to analyze in total disregard for the methodological tools employed by the ulema.

Above and beyond these distinct levels of reading, we must take into account the different interpretations put forward by the great Islamic classical tradition. It goes without saying that all Muslims consider the Koran to be the final divine revelation. But going back to the direct experience of the Companions of the Prophet, it has always been clear that the interpretation of its verses is plural in nature, and that there has always existed an accepted diversity of readings among Muslims.

Some have falsely claimed that because Muslims believe the Koran to be the word of God, interpretation and reform are impossible. This belief is then cited as the reason why a historical and critical approach cannot be applied to the revealed Text. The development of the sciences of the Koran -the methodological tools fashioned and wielded by the ulema and the history of Koranic commentary -prove such a conclusion baseless. Since the beginning, the three levels outlined above have led to a cautious approach to the texts, one that obligates whoever takes up the task to be in harmony with his era and to renew his comprehension. Dogmatic and often mummified, hidebound readings clearly reflect not upon the Author of the Text, but upon the intelligence and psychology of the person reading it. Just as we can read the work of a human author, from Marx to Keynes, in closed-minded and rigid fashion, we can approach divine revelation in a similar manner. Instead, we should be at once critical, open-minded and incisive. The history of Islamic civilization offers us ample proof of this.

When dealing with the Koran, it is neither appropriate nor helpful to draw lines of demarcation between approaches of the heart and of the mind. All the masters of Koranic studies without exception have emphasized the importance of the spiritual dimension as a necessary adjunct to the intellectual investigation of the meaning of the Koran. The heart possesses its own intelligence: "Have they not hearts with which to understand," the Koran calls out to us, as if to point out that the light of intellect alone is not enough. The Muslim tradition, from the legal specialists to the Sufi mystics, has continuously oscillated between these two poles: the intelligence of the heart sheds the light by which the intelligence of the mind observes, perceives and derives meaning. As sacred word, the Text contains much that is apparent; it also contains the secrets and silences that nearness to the divine reveals to the humble, pious, contemplative intelligence. Reason opens the Book and reads it -but it does so in the company of the heart, of spirituality.

For the Muslim's heart and conscience, the Koran is the mirror of the universe. What the first Western translators, influenced by the biblical vocabulary, rendered as "verse" means, literally, "sign" in Arabic. The revealed Book, the written Text, is made up of signs, in the same way that the universe, in the image of a text spread out before our eyes, abounds with these very signs. When the intelligence of the heart -and not analytical intelligence alone -reads the Koran and the world, the two speak to one another, echo one another; each one speaks of the other and of the Unique One. The signs remind us of meaning: of birth, of life, of feeling, of thought, of death.

But the echo is deeper still, and summons human intelligence to understand revelation, creation and their harmony. Just as the universe possesses its fundamental laws and its finely regulated order -which humans, wherever they may be, must respect when acting upon their environment -the Koran lays down laws, a moral code and a body of practice that Muslims must respect, whatever their era and their environment. These are the invariables of the universe, and of the Koran. Religious scholars use the term qat'i ("definitive, "not subject to interpretation") when they refer to the Koranic verses (or to the authenticated Prophetic tradition, ahadith) whose formulation is clear and explicit and offers no latitude for figurative interpretation. In like manner, creation itself rests upon universal laws that we cannot ignore. The consciousness of the believer likens the five pillars of Islam to the laws of gravitation: they constitute an earthly reality beyond space and time.

As the universe is in constant motion, rich in an infinite diversity of species, beings, civilizations, cultures and societies, so too is the Koran. In the latitude of interpretation offered by the majority of its verses, by the generality of the principles and actions that it promulgates with regard to social affairs, by the silences that run through it, the Koran allows human intelligence to grasp the evolution of history, the multiplicity of languages and cultures, and thus to insinuate itself into the windings of time and the landscapes of space.

Between the universe and the Koran, between these two realities, between these two texts, human intelligence must learn to distinguish fundamental and universal laws from circumstantial and historical models. This intelligence must display humility in the presence of the order, beauty and harmony of creation and of revelation. At the same time it must responsibly and creatively manage its own accomplishments or interpretations, which are sources of extraordinary success, but also of injustice, war and disorder. Between Text and context, the intelligence of the heart and that of the analytical faculty lay down norms, recognize an ethical structure, produce knowledge, nourish consciousness, and develop enterprise and creativity in all spheres of human activity.

Far from being a prison, or a constraint, revelation is an invitation to mankind to reconcile itself with its deepest essence, and to find there both the recognition of its limitations and the extraordinary potential of its intelligence and its imagination. To submit ourselves to the order of the Just One and of his eternity is to understand that we are free and fully authorized to reform the injustices that lie at the heart of the order or disorder of all that is temporally human.

The Koran is a book for both heart and mind. In nearness to it, a woman or a man who possesses a spark of faith knows the path to follow, knows her or his own inadequacies. No sheik is needed, no wise man, no confidant. Ultimately, the heart knows. This was what the Prophet answered when he was asked about moral feelings. In the light of the Book, he said, "Inquire of your heart." And should our intelligence stray into the complexities of the different levels of reading, from applied ethics to the rules of practice, we must never forget to clothe ourselves in the intellectual modesty that alone can reveal the secrets of the Text. For"it is not the eyes that are blind, but the hearts within the breasts." Such a heart, humble and alert, is the faithful friend of the Koran.

Tariq Ramadan is a professor of Islamic studies at Oxford and at Erasmus University in the Netherlands.

  Category: Americas, Faith & Spirituality, Life & Society
  Topics: Heart, Quran
Views: 11550

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Older Comments:
Assalamu Alaikum, am from kano the northern part of nigeria,and am happy to tell you that,this is a very interested topic, because Qur,an is the word of GOD.Is light that bright every where, and is also, reminds us muslims,where we were, and where heads to.May ALLAH help protects this your fantastic, and also the most meaningful than any other website.And i will not hesist to inform you that,your r our best ever.AMIN

Quran is the only holy book on earth.Am very proud of it.

Pls continue the good thing u asre doing. Insha_Allah Allah will reword you!

Prof Ramadan argument is explicity and thourough. Intellect and mind must work together to fully appreciate and understand various signs in the Glorious Qur'ian. Interpretation of verses based on one of the two components alone will always led to conflict between body and soul.


Assalamu Alaikum
A great book!!!!!!!
I love IT !
I am from China,I want to take all of Muslim friends.
Sorry ,my English is pool ,but i will hard study English.We pray that Allah may guide our way to the truth way forever!
my E-mail:[email protected]
I wait you together to talk about out nation.

Assalamu Alaikum,
Humanity is blessed to have such a wonderfull Holy Book as a guidance. The inspiration derived while and after reading IT is wonderfull.

Salam alekum,
The Quran contents is above description, the more time you read IT, the more you understand the message. It is repetition in parts, but the reason being that some may only learn or read a part of it, therefore they still get at least part of the message, and perhaps the ability to formualate an oppinion or receive some peace of mind.
When I feel down, I just read the Quran and each time I find peace of mind, it is the best medicine.
I can only say that our God is great and the Quran could had only derived with the total influence of our only and precious God.
May God bless you and recompens you for your good work.
Ugo starri

Can I please get the French version if possible? Thank you in advance.
salam alaikum.

My Brother Kris the same Dua to you and the whole humanity who sincerely want guidance.Koran is the real true guidance as there is no single misguidance in the Holy Book.Remember it is the only Book that one reads and it will be his companion in solitude both in Duniya and the Grave as well as the Day of Judgement.Therefore every single word in the Book is a real true guidance for one who seeks guidance.It is the only Book in which a person may read a single letter and he gets the reward of ten hasanah.It is the only Book in the whole World that is memorised by thousands or millions of people and it is the only one that would continue to be memorised up to the Day of Judgement.So May Allah continue to guide us on Siratal Mustaqim.One more Jazakallah and May Allah give us Istiqamah in His Deen up to the Day when we meet Him.Amen.


Brother Babandi A.Gumel, I'll recite the same thing that you had quoted from the Quran and that particular verse is among the many that continue to touch the depth of my heart.

And to all Muslim Brothers and Sisters, I believe that the best time to get the necessary concentration in reading the Quran is early in the morning after the dawn ( subuh ) prayer. Of course others may have their own preferred time, but what is of importance is that when we read the Quran, read it consciously and sisncerely with the hope of getting the merits and benefits of the lessons from the words of ALLAH and finally to re-strengthen our faith, to hope for the Rahmah and Baraqah from ALLAH.

And to Brother Babandi, may you forever be in the guidance of Allah. And to all Muslim brothers and sisters too.


Say We believe in Allah and that which has been revealed to us and that given to Abraham,Ishamel
Isaac, Jacob and the offspring and that which has been given to Moses,Jesus and that which has been given to (all) the Prophets from their Lord.We make no distinction between them and to Him (Allah) we have submitted.So if they believe in the like of that you believe then they are rightly guided but if they turn away it is they only in schism and Allah will suffice you against them for He is the All-Hearer the All-Knower. That is the simple message of Islam as narrated in the Quran with no crookedness direct to the point guide to the right path.Those who believe(sincerely) and confuse not their belief with Wrong (of worshipping others) for them is security and they are guided.So exactly that was the proof given to Abraham against his folk raising the status of whomsoever He wills as He is All-Wise the All-Knowing.We bestowed on him Isaac and Jacob,each of them We guided and before him ,We guided Noah and among his progeny (were) David,Solomon,Job,Joseph Moses and Aaron.That is how We reward the doers of good.And
Zachariah,John,Jesus,Elias each one of them was of the righteous.And Ishmael,and Elisha,and Jonah and Lot and each of them We preffered above the world.And also some of their forefathers and their progeny and their brothers
We chose them and guided on the Straight Path.This is the guidance of Allah with which He guides whomsoever He wills of His bondsmen.But if they joined others with Allah (in Worship) all that they used to do would have been in vain.So the Quran guides all those who sincerely
seek guidance.It is the only Book no doubt and is sure guidance to all those who ward off evil.
Say if mankind and jinn were together to produce
the like of this Quran they could not roduce the like thereof even if they helped one another.An astounding challenge to the humanity 1400 years ago the Living Scripture with no contradiction or discrepancies.Allahu A