The Qur'an: It's Structure and Main Theme
Dr. Abu Ameenah Bilal Philips
Taken from Usool At-Tafseer The Methodology of Qur'anic Interpretation, pp. 88-90
Not only is the Qur'aan unique among books today in its origin and purity, but it is also unique in the way it presents its subject matter. It is not a book in the usual sense of the word wherein there is an introduction, explanation of the subject, followed by a conclusion. Neither is it restricted to only a presentation of historical events, problems of philosophy, facts of science or social laws, though all may be found woven together in it without any apparent connection and links. Subjects are introduced without background information, topics sometimes crop up in the middle of another for no apparent reason, and the speaker and those spoken to change direction without the slightest forewarning.
The reader who is unaware of the Qur'aan's uniqueness is often puzzled when he finds it contrary to his understanding of a book in general and a "religious" book in particular. Hence, the Qur'aan may seem disorganized and haphazard to him. However, to those who understand its subject matter, aim and its central theme, the Qur'aan is exactly the opposite. The subject matter of the Qur'aan is essentially man: man in relation to his Lord and Creator, Allah; man in relation to himself; and man in relation to the rest of creation. The aim and object [sic] of the revelations is to invite man to the right way of dealing with his Lord, with himself, and with creation. Hence, the main theme that runs throughout the Qur'aan is that God alone deserves worship and, thus, man should submit to God's laws in his personal life and in his relationships with creation in general. Or, in other words, the main theme is a call to the belief in Allah and the doing of righteous deeds as defined by Allah.
If the reader keeps these basic facts in mind, he will find that, from beginning to end, the Qur'aan's topics are all closely connected to its main theme and that the whole book is a well-reasoned and cohesive argument for its theme. The Qur'aan keeps the same object [sic] in view, whether it is describing the creation of man and the universe or events from human history. Since the aim of the Qur'aan is to guide man, it states or discusses things only to the extent relevant to this aim and leaves out unnecessary and irrelevant details. It also repeats its main theme over and over again in the presentation of each new topic.
In the preface of one of the best orientalist translations of the Qur'aan, the translator, Arthur John Arberry, writes: "There is a repertory of familiar themes running through the whole Koran; each Sura (Qur'aanic chapter) elaborates or adumbrates (indicate faintly or in outline) one or more - often many - of these. Using the language of music, each Sura is a rhapsody composed of whole or fragmentary leitmotivs (recurring features); the analogy is reinforced by the subtly varied rhythmical flow of the discourse." (The Koran Interpreted, p. 28)
The following four principles should be kept in mind by the new reader of the Qur'aan if he or she is to avoid unnecessary confusion and disorientation:
- The book is the only one of its type in the world.
- Its literary style is quite different from all other books.
- Its theme is unique.
- Preconceived notions of a book are only a hindrance to the understanding of the Qur'aan. (These four statements are quoted from Abu'l A'la Maududi in The Meaning of the Qur'aan, vol. 1, p. 7.
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