As with other sacred texts, one of the most important subjects regarding the Qur’an concerns its interpretation or tafsir. As a matter of fact, its language and communicative style require interpretation even for legalistic verses. The fact that the Qur’an is the absolute authority for the Islamic faith increases the importance of its interpretation. Beginning from the early centuries, Muslims developed interpretation methods such as recording the circumstances or historical context of the revelation-known as asbab al-nuzul. Whereas for early scholars, the asbab al-nuzul comprised the most important exegesis of the text-critical explanation or interpretation, later scholars attempted to interpret each verse of the Qur’an by collecting what the Prophet, his companions, and the former scholars had said about each verse. This technique is known as tafsir bi al-riwaya. And finally, Qur’anic scholars began to use their own opinions and the philosophical ideas of their times in interpretation (tafsir bi al-diraya).
These three methods of classical exegesis have been very helpful in understanding Qur’anic text. However, because they typically explain the Qur’an verse-by-verse, it can be difficult to use them as a means to understand the overall or core teachings of the Qur’an especially for today’s readers. In today’s world, people who begin to study the Qur’an can easily become confused when they see the same verse interpreted in completely opposing ways, say by radicals on one side and peace activists on the other side. To alleviate this confusion, we need to understand the major themes and overall purposes of the Qur’an.
To grasp one of the major Qur’anic themes, I will attempt to analyze the beginning of the chapter, Al-Baqara (The Cow). I propose that the major purpose of the Qur’an is to draw the picture of the ideal person by proclaiming (a) what he/she needs to believe (b) how he/she should perform worship and (c) how he/she needs to act within a society. This ideal person is a “muttaqi”-a true believer (muttaqin is the plural form). By describing the ideal person, the first five verses of the Al-Baqara chapter best summarize the whole content of the Qur’an. This passage tells us what kind of society the Qur’an intends to establish by listing the important characteristics of individuals within an ideal society. These are the first five verses:
“Alif, lam, mim. This is the Book. There is no doubt in it. It is a guide to the muttaqin. Who believe in the Unseen, are steadfast in prayer, and spend of that We have bestowed upon them. And who believe in that which has been revealed to you and that which was revealed before you and are certain of the hereafter. These are on guidance from their Lord and these are the successful.”
The chapter begins with the mysterious Arabic letters called al-huruf al-muqatta’a (isolated letters). Scholars have suggested many theories to explain such isolated letters which occur 29 times in the Qur’an. For our purposes here, it is sufficient to mention that chapters that being with al-huruf al-muqatta’a usually are followed by the verses about the Qur’an itself.
The specific Arabic words used in the second verse are a categorical negation of any doubt-their usage signifies that the Qur’an contains no doubt at all, not even the slightest one. This doubtless book, as the same verse states, is guidance (huda) for the muttaqin or servants of God. To anticipate the discussion on the next verses, we need to understand more about the word muttaqin as it is used in the Qur’an.
Muttaqi comes from the same Arabic root as the word taqwa. Thus, the meaning of taqwa is implied here. We need to consider this very important concept to fully understand these opening verses of Al-Baqara. When we consider all the Qur’anic verses together in which the muttaqin are mentioned, the evidence points to the idea that taqwa means an ideal piety according to the Qur’an and refers, as an umbrella term, to zeniths humans can excel in both religious and human terms. More specifically, the following aspects of taqwa can be deduced from the Qur’anic accounts: faith, piety, obedience, abstaining from bad deeds, and sincerity. These can be considered the interdependent sides of taqwa. Namely, when a person has the sense of taqwa associated with faith and piety in his heart, this leads him/her to perform good deeds and prevents him/her from carrying out bad deeds.
The fourth verse of Al-Baqara poses the relationship between yaqin (certain belief) and taqwa. This relationship evokes many similar Qur’anic verses that end with a special emphasis on God’s certain attributes such as All-Hearing (al-‘Alim), All-Knowing (al-Khabir), and All-Seeing (al-Basir). These attributes remind us that everything is under God’s control. Thus, the Qur’an attaches obedience of servants to the strong belief of an “Omniscient God.” Concerning this subject, we should mention another term, which took on a specific importance in the Sufi tradition: al-ihsan. Although ihsan literally means to be kind and to do good, a very famous tradition gives it a specific meaning. According to the tradition known as the hadith Jibril, the angel Gabriel (in the form of a human) asked the Prophet when he was with his companions, to explain the meaning of ihsan. The Prophet answered the question by saying, “It is to worship God as if you see Him; and although you do not see Him, He sees you.” So, ihsan refers to God-consciousness to the extent as if the person is seeing God. In brief, the Qur’an as a whole wants its followers to have such a high level of consciousness of God. Strong faith is indispensable for achieving this quality.
Another meaning of taqwa is protection-taqwa protects God’s servants from falling into sin. How can a human being sin if he or she remains constantly mindful that God is ever present? What is more, the muttaqi is the person, according to the hadith, who abstains not only from sins but also from dubious actions: “A servant cannot be among the muttaqin unless he refrains from certain permissible things for fear of falling into impermissible things.” There is another tradition that reinforces the meaning of abstinence for taqwa. According to the story narrated by Uqba b. Amir, the Prophet was given a silken garment as a present. He wore it and started to pray. When he finished his prayer, he took it off immediately as if with a strong aversion to it and said, “This does not suit muttaqin.”
Another meaning of taqwa given by the Qur’an is “good intention.” This meaning is clear in the following verse that was revealed about the sacrificial animals: “It is neither their meat nor their blood that reaches Allah, but it is taqwa from you that reaches Him.” Here, taqwa is understood and interpreted as sincerity and good intention. Another verse in the same chapter underlines the relation between the taqwa and the heart, saying “And whoever respects the symbols of Allah, such (respect) should come truly from the taqwa of the heart.” The hadith collections also contain many traditions supporting the same sense. For instance, after giving some advice to his companions, the Prophet says three times, “The taqwa is just here,” pointing to his chest.
As for the importance of taqwa in Islam, we can state that individual salvation in the hereafter and social order in this world are possible only by the presence of taqwa in individuals who together constitute the society. The Qur’an often connects salvation in the hereafter (as exemplified by gaining the eternal reward or escaping from eternal punishment) to taqwa. Among many of the verses involved, the following ones are enough to show its significance with reference to the eternal happiness: “And hasten to forgiveness from your Lord; and for a paradise as wide as are the heavens and the earth, it is prepared for the muttaqin” (3:133). “…And the hereafter is with your Lord only for the muttaqin” (43:35). Not only the Qur’an, but also hadith collections contain traditions giving good tidings to the muttaqin about the next life. For instance, according to the tradition, the Prophet declared that taqwa and good character (husn al-khuluq) are the most frequent reasons for eligibility to enter Paradise.
Taqwa, according to the Qur’an and the related traditions, includes all good religious and moral qualities. If one asks “Who is the muttaqi according to the Qur’an?” the correct answer, regarding its overall exposition, would be the following: “The muttaqi is the ideal believer who has all inward and outward qualities celebrated by religion and lives a perfect godly life.” Moreover, the first verses of Al-Baqara summarize all the characteristics of the muttaqin under the three titles: unshakable faith, fulfillment of personal responsibility before God, and accomplishment of social responsibility for the sake of the community.
The third verse discusses the attributes of the muttaqin. Three different attributes can be easily noticed in the verse: they believe in the unseen (ghayb), they establish the prayer, and they spend out of what they have been provided. In brief, the verse denotes the most perfect forms of the three categories-belief, worship, and social responsibilities. For example, belief in ghayb includes all the Islamic faith principles including the belief in God, his messengers, angels, revelations, the hereafter, and the divine decree. Meaning “certain faith,” the notion “iqan” employed in the following verse, on the other hand, marks the highest level of belief. The preference of the word iqama of the prayer which means establishing the prayer “in conformity with its conditions” instead of the verb “salla” that has a simpler sense, points out the most perfect way in praying. In addition, the prayer, the most important and the most frequent form of worship in Islam, can be considered here as the representative of all the Islamic worships because those who are steadfast (iqama) in the daily prayers would be the ones who perfectly perform the other Islamic duties. The last part of the verse is even more interesting (They spend out of what We have given them as rizq). Many other Qur’anic verses use the expression “alms giving”-zakat. Instead, the word used here is more comprehensive- rizq or blessings from God. Rizq is not limited to zakat or sadaqa (obligatory and voluntary charity), but includes everything given to humans in this world such as wealth, knowledge, time, and power. Thus, the verse seems to call God’s servants to share everything they possess with other people in the society in order to be counted among the muttaqin. The verse reminds Muslims of their social responsibilities which extends beyond their personal relationship with God. In summary, verse three provide us the picture of an ideal member of the Muslim society: he/she holds the highest rank in God’s sight by having the strongest faith, perfectly performing worship, and carrying out social responsibilities.
This verse is so comprehensive that much of Islamic scholarship revolves around these three subjects-faith, worship, and social responsibilities. These subjects constitute the major Islamic disciplines: Kalam (Muslim theology) that is interested in faith principles (i’tiqadat), Fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) dealing with the subjects concerning worship (‘ibadat), and Islamic Ethics (Akhlaqiyyat). In addition, these three are the main sections in the introductory course books (‘ilm al-hal) that were produced in the later periods.
The wisdom of dealing with the three subjects under discussion separately seems crucial because to confuse them with each other has caused serious problems in the history of Islam. First of all, since one’s faith cannot be known with certainty other than by God, no one has the right to denounce the faithfulness of a people or any individual unless they, themselves declare their disbelief. Not distinguishing faith from actions, some marginal groups, unlike the majority, tend to charge people with infidelity examining their actions. Secondly, it is important to distinguish between personal responsibilities in front of God (worship) and social responsibilities within a society. The former is between God and a person and affects each individual’s afterlife, whereas the latter makes a person responsible before the society. In this sense, only the state has the rightful authority to punish violators of the rules related to social duties. Likewise, declaration of war for a purpose, as Muslim scholars have emphasized, is the exclusive authority of the state. Therefore, individuals or groups cannot start war nor kill people based on their own decisions or their own understandings.
The fourth verse adds extra details to the faith principles touched on in the previous verse. “(a) To believe in what is sent down to Muhammad, peace be upon him, and to the previous prophets” and (b) “to believe in the hereafter” are included in the principle “iman bi al-ghayb.” In the fifth verse, “guidance” (huda) is reemphasized and the muttaqin are called as “muflihun” (successful). This success has been understood as both in this world and the afterlife.
When we consider this exposition of the first five verses of Al-Baqara, we can conclude that all the subjects of the Qur’an can be construed in the following three: faith, worship and social responsibility. Therefore, the main purpose of the Qur’an is to inform Muslims about these subjects. It is imperative not to confuse these three with each other. It is also important to remember that the muttaqi is the person who has all of them at the highest level.
‘Abd al-Baqi, Muhammad Fuad, al-Mu’jam al-mufahras li alfaz al-Qur’an al-Karim, Cairo: Dar al-Hadith, 1996.
Bukhari, Muhammad b. ‘Isma’il, Sahih al-Bukhari, Beirut: Dar Ibn Kathir, 1987.
Ibn Majah, Muhammad b. Yazid, Sunan Ibn Majah, Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, nd.
Muslim b. al-Hajjaj, Sahih Muslim, Beirut: Dar Ihya al-Turath al-‘Arabi, nd.
Nawawi, Abu Zakariyya Yahya b. Sharaf, Riyad? al-salih?in min kalam sayyid al-mursalin, Dimashq: 2003.
Tirmidhi, Muhammad b. ‘Isa, Sunan al-Tirmidhi, Beirut: Dar Ihya al-Turath, nd.