Monday, June 27, 2016
Ramadan 2016, Day 21 – Qur’an Discussions
Last night I was out at a sohour dinner with some friends and given that it was Ramadan the topic soon moved to Islam. One of my friends discussed some of the complications regarding interpreting the Qur’an and Sunnah given things such as nuskh (abrogation, some verses supersede other verses), and that some passages in the Qur’an were meant to apply to the specific situation at the time they were revealed whereas others had a more general application, and that scholars sometimes disagree as to whether the verse was specific or general.
So I asked a question that any Westerner who has read through the Qur’an probably had, why are the verses ordered in the way they are?
The Qur’an is ordered into a number of chapters, called surahs, and their order is not by chronology but by length. Aside from the first surah, which is short but not the shortest surah, thereafter they are organized from the longest to the shortest (so the second surah is the longest surah in the Qur’an, the third surah is the second-longest, etc). As for the verses in the surahs, at first glance they would appear disorganized. Topics can have verses spread out over many surahs, and the text seems to jump from one thing to another usually without any smooth transitions. For example there are four verses in the Qur’an on alcohol and they appear over (I think) three different surahs. Given that some supersede the others you would need to know all of the verses to make sense of the restrictions.
My friends weren't entirely sure why it was ordered the way it was. They knew that the Prophet Mohammed had determined the order of the verses but none of them were sure why it was in that order. After Internet searching I guess that is the correct answer. The Prophet Mohammed ordered the verses during his lifetime and there seems to be a consensus that he was consistent in how the verses were ordered. During his lifetime most people were illiterate and to preserve the revelations they memorized the Qur’an (a significant feat) and the order of the verses was consistent. I believe the official written version was finalized after the Prophet's death, around the time of Caliph Omar or Caliph Uthman. As for why, I believe that the Prophet claimed it was due to divine revelation that they had to be ordered that way and, in the end, never said why they were ordered that way.
I recall an article by an Islamic scholar that I read long ago that speculated the verses were “jumbled” to force the reader to know and be familiar with the entire Qur’an, rather than focus on just a section or a few chapters. If someone wanted to know what the Qur’an had to say about a specific topic you could not just be aware of one verse, you had to be familiar with potential verses that could be in other chapters of the Qur’an. This was even more important given that some verses superseded others, and some were considered to be for a specific event that was happening at the time it was revealed rather than to be applied generally. When I mentioned this to my friends they thought that was a reasonable explanation but given that there was no official reason given as to why the verses are in the order they're in it could only be, at most, speculation.
And with that we concluded sohour. It was almost 1am y’know.