Quran & Sunnah

An Introduction to Quran (قرآن): Part 1 – The Structure

I am writing this article to help the non-muslims – especially, but not limited to, people having a Jewish or Christian background – in understanding the ‘Structure‘, ‘Style‘ and ‘Sequence‘ of the Holy Quran. However, even muslims, who are a bit less-versed with the style of the Holy Quran, shall also find it beneficial, as an introduction to the Holy Quran, they might never have had. This is the 1st part and shall focus on the divisions and structure of the Holy Quran.

Quran (phonetically qur-aan | قرآن) is the Holiest Book of Islam. We Muslims, believe it to be the ‘Word of God’ – something like the Jews and the Christians consider the ‘Bible’ to be; but with a big big difference: While once a Jew or a Christian calls the Bible as ‘Word of God’, he/she is implying that ‘text of the Bible is interspersed with words of God‘; since they accept undisputedly that words of prophets and apostles and even saints have found their mention in the Bible; and even many of the portions they believe to be revealed by God, they believe were actually uttered by the prophets and apostles in their own words after being inspired by the original message revealed to them. Hence, what they actually mean is that the Bible contains words of God, words of prophets/apostles and words of saints. And anyone in possession of the Bible can testify to this after leafing through the Book. But this is ‘NOT‘ what we Muslims mean when we say ‘Word of God’!

We Muslims believe the Quran to be ‘ONLY’ the ‘Word of God‘ – i.e. it contains the exact words, in the language they were revealed, verbatim; as were revealed by God, down to every verb, conjugation, noun, adjective, preposition, pronoun etc., metaphorically speaking…. down to every dot – and NOTHING ELSE! No rephrasing or rewording or elaborations by the Holy Prophet or anyone else – no words of Saints and Scholars, or Historians – no need of approximations in translated words due to unavailability of text in its original language – no nothing, BUT only the ‘exact’, ‘original’ words of God Himself. That is why there is only one Quran, and no versions of the Quran; like there are versions of the Bible; such as King James version, Revised Standard version etc. I have intentionally stressed this point so that people coming from Jewish or Christian background do not confuse it with the Bible-Style ‘Word of God’ expression, because I’ve seen many of them finding it difficult to keep this difference in their mind. I hope this helps. Although, and to quell any doubts arising from this explanation, Quran confirms the ‘Bible’ and even lumps it together with the Quran to certify it’s divine status – with great passion I might add – at various places. Moreover, the Holy Bible is a collection of divine Books/Pamphlets revealed to various prophets and apostles over time, such as Moses, David, Solomon, Jesus etc. (عليهم السلام); whereas the Holy Quran, all of it, was revealed to only one prophet, whom we believe to be the Final Messenger, i.e. Muhammad (صلى الله عليه وسلم).

 Structure of the Holy Quran

Since Holy Quran is a book, people normally tend to it thinking that they would discover a familiar sequence and structure that they are used to finding in books; but as soon as they open it up, they find themselves in completely unfamiliar territory. Moreover, since Bible has been laid out as a book in the traditional sense of the word – divided into verses, chapters and books – even Christians and Jews, despite being holders of divine scriptures, come across a disconcerting feeling when they delve into the Quran. Both these kinds of people come at the Quran expecting to find sequentially laid out inscription: with chapters narrating exactly what their title claims to narrate; with themes taken progressively from basic to advanced; with topics separately classified, discussed and closed before moving on to the next ones; and some form of chronological or logical division of subjects – But, to their surprise, they find none!

Actually we Muslims are responsible for instilling this disconcerting feeling in the non-muslims’ minds. It was our brethren who started referring to divisions of the Quran as verses and chapters. They did so considering the ease with which people could assimilate Quranic divisions with divisions they were already familiar with. Though their aim was noble, but in reality, they had sown a seed of confusion in their minds that would bar them from understanding the Quran, altogether. I think it is high time now that we start referring to the divisions of the Holy Quran correctly, as a matter of practice, so that most people, if not all, can at least connect to the book at some level. So here goes…

The divisions of the Holy Quran can be classified in two broad categories. The Basic Divisions and the Recitational Divisions. The comprehension of the Holy Quran depends upon the Basic Divisions. Unless these are understood in essence, the text would not make much sense to the reader. The recitational divisions on the other hand, as the name depicts, have been done merely to break or combine the text of the scripture keeping in view ease of recitation during the prayers. Mostly, it doesn’t have anything to do with the comprehension of the text. I have written ‘mostly’, because as elaborated by some latter-day scholars, such as Farahi and Islahi etc., some of these recitational divisions too help in the comprehension – but only at a ‘higher’ level.

Basic Divisions

There are two basic units of division in the Holy Quran: Ayah (آية) and Surah (سورة). Both of these were divinely ordained; and came with the Book.

Ayah (آية): (Plural: Aayaat, آيات) These are analogous to ‘Verses’ in terms of Biblical divisions, but have their own connotation and must not be contemplated as verses. The term ‘Verse’ implies that the text being referred to as a verse is a complete sentence; no matter how long or short it is. Whereas, Ayah is not necessarily a sentence: it can consist of some individual alphabets, or just one word, it can be a sentence, many aayaat may have to be combined to form a sentence, and one ayah may consist of many sentences. The word ‘Ayah’ literally means ‘Sign’: classically meaning ‘a sign of God’. I think, therefore, that either these should be referred to as ‘Aayaat (Singular: Ayah)’ so that it can be phased into the English and other languages in its original form, or alternatively, they may be referred to as ‘Signs’ in English, for ease of the audience. Hence, to refer to any particular Ayah one should say ‘Sign:142′ or ’55th Sign’ etc. The next higher division i.e. Surah, is a combination of a few or many Signs.

Surah (سورة)(Plural: Suwar, سور) These are analogous to ‘Chapters’ or ‘Books’ in the Bible, but are like none of them. Literally the word ‘سورة’ means a walled city, or wall, or a line of bricks in each level of a wall, or a built structure, building etc. Again, either this word should be used in it’s original Arabic form so that it can be phased into other languages, or alternatively, one of the following words should be used: Structure, Building, Construction, Construct, or Composition. I favour the last one, owing to its ease of assimilation by the audience. As shall be clear shortly, the word ‘Composition’ faithfully befits each Surah when applied to it, no matter how small or large the Surah may be, and it induces the correct expectation in the mind of the listener when he/she tends to it in the Holy Quran. I shall therefore refer to ‘Suwar’ as ‘Compositions’ here onwards, and would humbly request all brethren to use this word in place of ‘Chapters’ for purposes of clarity and uniformity.

Names of Compositions (سور): The name of a composition is NOT it’s ‘Title’ – Instead, it is simply an ‘Identifier’. The word ‘Name’ implies that it has something to do with the content of the composition, whereas the word ‘Title’ implies that it depicts the subject matter of the composition as a whole. Both inculcate a wrong expectation in the mind of the listener. ‘Identifier’ on the other hand, is a word that is simply chosen to separate out one composition from the other, while not promising anything as an expectation to the listener. To give an analogy, to identify a single episode that is part of a TV Series, such as the famous Sitcom ‘Friends’, for example, the episode title, as it appears on its DVD set, might read something as ‘The One with Five Steaks and an Eggplant‘. But those who watched the episode know that it was only a short scene in the entire episode in which the five steaks and an eggplant were brought by Monica and given to her friends. (Click here for its synopsis). It by no means had anything to do with the subject matter of the episode, but instead the title was only conjured up from within the episode to uniquely identify that particular episode in a television series. Most of the TV Series employ a similar naming mechanism to identify their episodes. Well, just like that, the ‘Identifier’ of each ‘Composition’ in the Holy Quran was simply conjured up by the Holy Prophet (صلى الله عليه وسلم) and his Companions (رضي الله تعالى عنهم) to identify each composition separately. It may or may not have to do with the overall subject matter of the composition. I wrote ‘may or may not’, because a very few identifiers can actually be thought of as the titles too – but this should be considered as a mere coincidence. Hence, when you read any particular Title (but actually Identifier) for a composition in the Holy Quran, such as ‘The Cow’, or ‘Jonah’ or ‘The Hereafter’ or ‘Muhammad’, please realize that they merely mean ‘The composition in which a unique incident of a cow has been narrated’, and ‘the composition in which Jonah has been discussed in a specific manner’, and ‘the composition that has the words Hereafter in the first sign’ and ‘the composition that has the name of Muhammad in the opening signs’ – and thus may not have to do anything with cows, Jonah, Hereafter and Muhammad (صلى الله عليه وسلم), respectively. This naming scheme might seem mindless to you for now, but once you go through the next article in this series, discussing the Style of the Quran, you’ll realize that there is no other uniform mechanism you can adopt for naming these compositions. But just as food for thought: How would you name a particular ‘Presidential Address’ in a series of presidential addresses?

These are the only two divisions people should be aware of. All the other ones are only Size-wise distributions of these two, in order to aid in recitation, and have got nothing to do with the comprehension of Allah’s message.

Recitational Divisions

Since recitation of portions from the Holy Quran during prayers has been made obligatory by Allah, these divisions were crafted in order to streamline the recitation according to the kind of prayer one wishes to offer. Muslims offer many kinds of prayers: such as five obligatory prayers during one day and night, in which recitation is kept relatively light as they have to be offered in congregation; then there are supererogatory prayers, which due to being offered in solitude, one might wish to extend the recitation as per the level of linkage he/she wishes to establish with the Lord; and then there are those prayers that have been advised to us during some special times, such as those offered in the month of Ramadan. The recitational divisions, therefore, befit these various recitational spans. These are three (3), for now, but we can do more, since they are merely dependent on the amount of recitation one wishes to do during prayers; and as discussed earlier, have got nothing to do with the comprehension of the Holy Quran. These are: Hizb (حزب) or Manzil (منزل), Ruku’ (ركوع) and Juz (جزء). Only the first one is considered divine; while the 2nd and 3rd ones were done afterwards, either by the companions or latter-day scholars.

Hizb (حزب) or Manzil (منزل): ‘Hizb’ means group or assemblage, whereas ‘Manzil’ means a place for dismounting and resting (usually after a day’s journey). To coin an English word for it, these can be called as Group, Assemblage, Compilation etc. or in TV-Series parlance these may be referred to as Seasons. I favour the 1st one i.e. Group. It’s simple and commonly understood. Now to explain what these ‘Groups’ actually depict: These are sequential collections of ‘Compositions (سور)’ that have been grouped keeping in view relative-equality in size and relative similarity in subject matter, of the overall Group. Thus, entire Holy Quran has been divided into 7 almost symmetrical groups, considering the fact that companions (رضي الله عنهم) wished to complete the recitation of the entire book each week, during the supererogatory prayers offered during the night, classically called as ‘Tahajjud (تهجد)’ prayer. I’ve used words like ‘relatively’ and ‘almost’ because, owing to the strong semantic-coherence in the subject matter in each Composition, the span of each Hizb is dictated not alone by symmetrical equality, but also by the actual end-points of Compositions. As discussed earlier, compositions are actually ‘Walled Cities’ metaphorically speaking, and hence, just to bring about artificial equality in the size of each group, the city wall is never broken. And since, compositions vary from over thousands of words long, to less than 20 words long, hence the 7 Groups also are only ‘approximately’ symmetrical. There span is as follows:

  • 1st Group: 3 x Compositions
  • 2nd Group: 5 x Compositions
  • 3rd Group: 7 x Compositions
  • 4th Group: 9 x Compositions
  • 5th Group: 11 x Compositions
  • 6th Group: 13 x Compositions
  • 7th Group: 65 x Compositions

The groups housing less number of compositions is because of the compositions being lengthy, and those with many compositions is because they are short. Those who wish to acquire greater understanding of the sequence and arrangement of these Groups for imbibing a higher understanding of the Holy Quran, please refer to the preface of the famous commentary ‘Tadabbur-e-Quran (تدبر قرآن)’ by ‘Amin Ahsan Islahi’ or that of ‘Al-Bayan (البيان)’ by Javed Ahmad Ghamidi.

Ruku’ (ركوع): It literally means to bow down, and classically refers to a particular posture during the offering of daily prayers, when after reciting a portion from the Holy Quran, one shifts the posture from standing to kneeling with hands on the knees and the torso parallel to the ground. Thus, every Composition has been marked at the places where one may kneel, if he wishes to, in each unit of every prayer, after he has recited a sufficient portion from the Holy Quran. These may be thought of as ‘passages’ to compositions. In TV-Series parlance, these can be thought of as ‘scenes’ in each ‘episode’. While these divisions are extensively used by muslims in every prayer, it appears, they owe their existence to a special prayer which was prescribed during the month of Ramadan, called the ‘Taraweeh (تراويح)’ prayer. It is a lengthy prayer which is offered during the 29/30 nights of the month of Ramadan, and hence the size of recitation in each unit of every night’s Taraweeh prayers had to be kept considerably small, yet sized appropriately keeping in mind that the Holy Quran could be completed before the month ends. Thus, the lengthy Compositions had to be distributed into ‘chunks’, so that the overall temporal experience of the attendees of the prayer, in terms of time spent, can be made approximately equal. We can therefore call them as ‘Kneeling Markers’ or ‘Segments’. Thus, just as ‘Groups’ represent an assembly of Compositions, ‘Kneeling Markers’ represent an assembly of Signs that are coherent contextually. It is uncertain, as to who actually forged these divisions, but these seem to have been done by someone, who took a certain amount of care to not break the thematic experience of the listeners/attendees of the recitation/prayer.

Juz (جزء): These are ugly but symmetrical divisions of the Holy Quran, which neither cater for the thematic coherence of the Signs nor of the semantic integrity of the Compositions. It literally means ‘part’ or ‘portion’ and seem to have been done, merely, to divide the Holy Quran in 30 equal portions – in terms of size. Different editions of the Holy Quran in different parts of the World may have different number of these divisions, because these are mostly discretionary and do not have anything to do with the comprehension or recitation during the prayers. It seems, these were crafted by/for Huffaaz (حفاظ) i.e. people who memorize the whole Holy Quran by heart, to simplify their ‘memorizing’ and ‘revising’ experience. Thus, these do not respect any of the ‘divine’ divisions. We may call them as ‘Pieces’, ‘Sections’, ‘Slices’ etc. But any word, that might imply a meaningful and semantic division, should be avoided.

There! You are now duly informed of the Structure and Divisions of the Holy Quran.

2 thoughts on “An Introduction to Quran (قرآن): Part 1 – The Structure

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