Islam · Muslims · Prophet Muhammad · Qur'an · Religion · Shari'ah

How to Understand the Qur’an

Unlike what most Muslims think, Prophet Muhammad P.B.U.H. didn’t explain all of the Qur’an to his companions, he only explained that which the companions inquired about. His explanation mainly depended on the other verses of the Qur’an which tackle the same issue. That is to say, he understood and explained the Qur’an through its own verses. Other times he gave short brief comments that may help the questioner understand the intended meaning.

Few examples of the prophet’s explanation and responses:

  1. ‘Abdullah Ibn-Mas’ud reported that when the verse: “It is those who believe and do not confuse their faith with sins that are (truly) in security, for they are on (right) guidance,” [The Qur’an (6:82)] was revealed, the companions fell in distress wondering: “Who is he who never sinned before?!”
    The prophet P.B.U.H. responded saying: “Didn’t you hear what the faithful servant [Luqman] said: ‘Verily false worship is a grave sin,’ [The Qur’an (31:13)]. It is false worship that’s intended.” [Recorded by Bukhari].
  2. Abu-Bakr reported that when the verse: “Neither your desires nor those of the People of the Book (shall prevail): whoever sins, shall be requited accordingly.” [The Qur’an (4:123)] was revealed, he fell in distress and asked the prophet: “O prophet, how shall we make amends after this verse?!”
    The prophet P.B.U.H. said: “May Allah forgive you Abu-Bakr – (he repeated this 3 times) – Don’t you fall ill? Don’t you feel sad? Don’t you get afflicted and feel some pain every now and then?”
    Abu-Bakr said: “Sure I do.”
    Then the prophet said: “And this is part of your requital in this life.” [Recorded by Ahmad, Ath-Thawry, Al-Hākem and others].
  3. Jaber Ibn ‘Abdullah reported that the prophet P.B.U.H. said to his wife, Lady Hafsah: “With Allah’s will, no one from those who swore to fight till death when we were (few and outnumbered at Hudaybeyah) will be admitted into the hellfire.”
    Lady Hafsah then said: “Indeed they shall be O prophet, didn’t Allah say: ‘There is none of you but will arrive at it’ [The Qur’an (19:71)].
    So the prophet P.B.U.H. said: “True, but then He said: ‘But We shall save those who were pious, and We shall leave the evil-doers therein.’ [The Qur’an (19:72)].” [Recorded by Muslim].
  4. Abu-Hurayrah reported that on explaining the verse: “Alms are for the poor and the needy” [The Qur’an (9:60)], Prophet Muhammad said: “The needy one is not him who comes asking for some food, but it’s him who is poor and continent. No one knows of his poverty and provides for him, and he never asks others for anything. Read as a proof: ‘…they beg not [for alms] importunately from all sundry.’ [The Qur’an (2:273)].” [Recorded by Bukhari].

Hence, one should understand that the Qur’an is a self-explained book. If you do not understand any of its verses, search in the other related verses and ponder over them, and you shall always find an answer to your question. The prophet taught this to his companions through his answers. The prophetic teachings stand as a supporting agent in making the intended meanings more explicit. The prophet’s primary task was to bring his followers closer to their Creator and to set a model for them through his actions and morals. He was teaching them how to live on a righteous path, and how to interact correctly with the message of their Lord.

The companions were hugely affected by the Qur’an. They saw themselves in each and every verse they heard or read. Their knowledgeable ones followed the prophet’s example in interpreting the Qur’an through its own verses and the circumstances in which they were revealed, alongside the prophet’s actions and teachings. If they still couldn’t reach the meaning intended, they would think of the most acceptable definition linguistically.

Few examples of the companions’ explanations and opinions:

  1. A follower named Sa‘eed Ibn-Marjanah reported that he was once sitting with ‘Abdullah Ibn-‘Omar when he recited the verse: “…whether you disclose what is in your minds or keep it hidden, Allah will bring you to account for it,” [The Qur’an (2:284)] then he said: “If we will be judged according to this verse, we shall surely perish,” and he cried until his beard was drenched by his tears.
    Sa‘eed got up, went to Ibn-’Abbās and narrated to him what had just happened.
    Ibn-’Abbās said: “May Allah forgive ‘Abdullah, other companions reacted the same way when they first heard this verse. After that Allah revealed: ‘God does not charge a soul with more than it can bear,’ [The Qur’an (2:286)] and Satan’s temptations are among what the soul can’t bear to prevent. Allah revealed to us that every soul shall be judged only according to what it has done from good or evil.” [Recorded by Mujahid, Ibn-Jareer and others].

In this example you can see that Ibn-’Abbās didn’t fall into the trap of misunderstanding the mentioned Qur’anic verse because he observed the complete context which cleared the dilemma. Reading the verses in their context is a key step towards a proper understanding of the Qur’an.

2. During the war between ‘Ali and Mu‘aweyah, a follower named Sa‘eed Ibn Al-Jubair reported that one day ‘Abdullah Ibn-‘Omar passed by an assembly of the followers, one among them got up and asked him: “Why don’t you fight while Allah says: ‘Fight against them until there is no more fitnah (i.e. oppression in religion).’ [The Qur’an (2:193)]”
‘Abdullah said: “May you perish! Do you understand what fitnah means? The prophet P.B.U.H. fought against the polytheists because they were trying to force Muslims to forsake their religion and return to polytheism again, and this was a fitnah. He was not fighting them for governorship.” [Recorded by Bukhari].

In this example you can see that Ibn-‘Omar didn’t fall into the trap of misunderstanding the mentioned Qur’anic verse because he knew very well the circumstances under which the verse was revealed, or what the scholars call the reasons of revelation. Sa‘d Ibn Abi-Waqqas agreed with ‘Abdullah in this opinion.

3. A follower named Abi Al-Jawzā reported that he once asked Ibn-’Abbās: “Tell us about the meaning of the verse which says: ‘remember your Lord like you remember your own fathers, or even more fervently than that.’ [The Qur’an (2:200)]. Sometimes a whole day might pass by, and a man doesn’t remember his father at all.”
Ibn-’Abbās  replied saying: “That is not the intended meaning; the verse means that you should get angry when Allah is being disobeyed exactly like you get angry when your father is being insulted or even more fervently than that.” [Recorded by Ibn Abi-Hātem].

In this example you can see that Ibn-’Abbās didn’t fall into the trap of misunderstanding the mentioned Qur’anic verse because he knew very well the prophet’s morals and conduct. Hind Ibn Abi-Hālah, the companion and the prophet’s son in law, described the prophet P.B.U.H. saying: “Not a single matter of this worldly life ever made him angry unless what’s right was violated. If so, He wouldn’t calm down until he corrects the situation; he never got angry for himself, and he never avenged himself.” [Recorded by Tirmidhī] Likewise, lady Āʾishah also described the prophet P.B.U.H. saying: “He never avenged himself, but when the sanctity of Allah was violated he would, that would be for Allah not for himself. He was the last one to get angry and the first to be satisfied.” [Recorded by Bukhari].

4. A follower named Al-Aswad Ibn-Helāl reported that a man came to ‘Abdullah Ibn-Mas‘ud and said: “I’m afraid I’m ruined.”
‘Abdullah asked: “Why are you saying that?”
The man said: “Allah says: ‘…those who are saved from “Shuh” are truly the successful ones,’ [The Qur’an (59:9)] and I’m a miser, I almost give nothing.”
‘Abdullah then said: “What you described is not ‘Shuh’, what you described is miserliness and verily it’s a shameful characteristic, but what Allah mentioned in the Qur’an is something else, it’s the greed that urges you to take what’s not yours unjustly.” [Recorded by Ibn Abi-Shaybah].

In this example you can see that Ibn-Mas’uod didn’t fall into the trap of misunderstanding the mentioned Qur’anic verse because of his vast knowledge of the Arabic language. He knew very well the true meanings of the words, which helped him understand the intended meaning of the verse correctly. ‘Abdullah Ibn-‘Omar also gave a similar explanation on another occasion.

From the previous one should be able to recognize that the doorway to correctly understanding the Qur’an and entering its domain is crossed by four steps:

  1. Understanding every verse within its complete context.
  2. Learning about the circumstances in which the verses were revealed.
  3. Learning about the prophet’s morals and conduct.
  4. Learning the linguistic and idiomatic meanings of the words.


IMME, ISBN:9789779027395
Written By: Ehab Shawky

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