Saturday, May 2, 2009

The Qur'an: Categories of Understanding

Broadly speaking, we may divide the study of the Qur'an into two categories: Tadhakkur and Tadabbur, after the Qur'anic verse:

"That men may ponder over (li yaddabbaru) its revelations and ... may take them to heart (li yatadhakkara)"
[surah Sad 38: 29].

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Tadhakkur, used extensively in the Qur'an, has been translated variously as receiving admonition, deriving advice, remembering, taking heed, and taking to heart. It can therefore be taken to signify the process whereby you try to grasp the general messages and teachings being conveyed by the Qur'an, to find out what they mean for you and what demands they make upon you, to take them to heart, to bring forth corresponding responses of heart and mind and attitudes, to have the will to act in accordance with whatever you find, and, finally, to determine what message you have to deliver to your fellow human beings.

Tadhakkur is a category of understanding which, in its essential nature, should not require any sophisticated tools of scholarship. You may not know the meaning of every word, you may not be competent enough to explore the full meaning of all the important and key words, and you may not understand every verse, but the general, overall message, especially the message for you-how to live-should come out clearly and radiantly.

After all, the people who understood the Qur'an most and benefited from it the greatest were its first hearers they were city merchants, farmers, shepherds, camel riders and nomads. They did not have at their elbows lexicons, tafsir books, treatises on style, diction, cadence, rhetoric nor did they possess all the knowledge of philosophy, history, geography, archaeology, anthropology, or of the social and physical sciences. Yet they were the most successful in understanding the Qur'an. For, they took the message of the Qur'an to their heart and began to live it. Hence this category of understanding ought to be and is available to every person who fulfils the necessary condition for it in this respect. The degree and intensity of what he receives will depend on his effort and capacity. Of course, tools of scholarship may add new dimensions, lend added weight, give new insights, to this process; but they are not a must.

It is in the sense of Tadhakkur that the Qur'an categorically states that it is easy to understand, it is available to every sincere inquirer if he only comprehends what he is reading and ponders over it. It is to this Tadhakkur that the Qur'an invites everyone who can hear, see and think, to be guided by it. It is in this sense that it says:

"Indeed we have made this Qur'an easy for understanding and remembering (dhikr). Is there any, then, that will take it to heart (muddakir)"
[surah al-Qamar; 54: 17].

"Indeed we have made it [the Qur'an] easy [to understand] by your tongue [O Prophet] so that men might take it to heart (yaTadhakkuran)"
[surah al-Dukhan; 44: 58].

"Indeed We have made propounded unto men all kinds of parables in this Qur'an, so that they might understand (yatadhakkarun)"
[surah al-Zumar; 39: 27].

"In this there is indeed a reminder (dhikr) for everyone who has a heart, or will give ear while he is a witness [present with his mind]"
[surah Qaf; 50: 37].

Tadhakkur is not some lower category of understanding; it is the basic essential purpose of the Qur'an. You will have to strive all your life in order to gain the light and guidance and healing through Tadhakkur and through this process you, personally, must continue to gather an unlimited number of gems.


Tadabbur is the other category of understanding. It signifiesL that you try to find the full meaning of every word, Ayah, and, Surah, that you explore the fuller meaning behind those words, metaphors and parables, that you discover the textual cohesion and underlying unity, that you determine the central ideas, delve into lexical intricacies, tanzil, and historical background, and that you undertake a comparative study of different tafsir. Then, that you discover all the implications for the relationship between man and his God, his fellow human beings, his own self, and the world around him; that you derive laws and morals for individuals and society, rules for state and economy, principles for history and philosophy, and implications for the current level of human knowledge.

Such a study would require a greater and deeper knowledge of various 'ulum al-Qur'an (the Quranic disciplines), depending on your goals and aims.

Tadabbur and Tadhakkur are not entirely separate nor mutually exclusive categories of understanding, they overlap.

Your Aims

What should your aims be? Obviously aims will vary from person to person and, even for a person, from time to time. Tadhakkur, in my view, is obligatory for every Muslim who is or can become capable of understanding the Qur'an.

Hence, as an average-educated Muslim, who is trying to fulfil his commitment to Allah in the light of his capabilities and limitations, Tadhakkur should be your first aim, and the most important one. You will stay with it forever; you will never reach a stage where you may dispense with it.

In Tadhakkur, remember, you essentially set out to nourish your heart and mind, to increase your faith, to discover the message that the Qur'an is giving to you, to take it to heart, to remember it. Through all your labours you should be able to hear God's voice: what He wants you to be and to do.

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