3. Understanding the Qur’an

Series on Ramadan Preparation, ‘A Month of Barakah’

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Jul 19, 2011
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3. Understanding the Qur’an

One of the ayaat that mentions the Ahlul Kitaab, Allah ʹazza wa jall says:

And there are among them (Jews) unlettered people, who know not the Book, but they trust upon false desires and they but guess.’

This ayaah says that among the people of the book, there are illiterates (in terms of not understanding the book of Allah), they have the book with them but they have no a clue what the book is talking about. All that they learn from the book is what fits their worldly interests. They were selective in what they would learn. If something would benefit them in their dunya then they would learn otherwise they would leave it aside. They follow doubts and conjecture.

What does this ayaah mean? Ibn Taymiyyah rahimahullah says, ‘Ibn Abbas radhiAllahu `anhu and Qatadah rahimahullah interpreted the meaning of the ayah ‘ummiyyoon’ (illiterate) as meaning, ‘they do not understand the meaning of the book. They learn it, they memorise it, and they recite it without understanding it and do not know what is being talked about. Ibn Taymiyyah
rahimahullah the meaning of ‘illiterate’ in this verse does not mean that they cannot read or write.

They read it, memorise it and teach it yet they don’t understand what the book is talking about. They are satisfied by only reciting it.’

In our current times, you would find that television stations and radio stations broadcast Qur’an. They do this because they know the people do not understand so the people will not follow the Qur’an‐ they will merely listen to it without any understanding. Even in the state of Israel they broadcast Qur’an! Let the people listen to Qur’an for the people don’t  understand and will not follow it. This is a problem that exists among us now. Subhan’Allah, as if (the ayaat) is referring
to us.

Imaam Ahmed rahimahullah narrates that the Rasul (sallAllahu `alayhi wa sallam) said something and then he (sallAllahu `alayhi wa sallam) said, ”That would happen when knowledge is lost.” One of the Sahabah (Ibn Lubayd) said,”‘O Messenger of Allah (sallAllahu `alayhi wa sallam), how can knowledge be lost? When we have studied Qur’an, we are teaching it to our children and our children will teach it to theirs.” The Rasul (sallAllahu `alayhi wa sallam) said, “Woe to you! I thought you were one of the most learned men of Madinah. Can’t you see the Jews and Christians have Torah and Gospel (tawrath and injeel their scriptures) with them and they are not benefiting anything from them?”

So Rasulullah is telling Lubayd our neighbours right here‐ you can see them, they have the Towrath, they have the Gospel but they’re not benefiting from it. So Rasulullah sallAllahu `alayhi wa sallam is telling us a time will come when the Qur’an will be with us and we will not benefit from it.

The Qur’an is not to be put on the shelf, decorated and covered. In fact Abu Darda radhiAllahu `anhu said, ‘Whenever the time comes when you will decorate your mosques and decorate your mushafs, that is the time when you will be destroyed.” This is because that is an indication you are favouring symbols over substance, my mosque looks beautiful‐ look how beautiful the
mosque is, and the Qur’an is written with gold letters and covered with velvet covering so you do not want even touch it or read it because it looks so good. So, you don’t even open it to read it because its so expensive and wonderful, it looks beautiful. Abu Darda states when this happens, radhiAllahu `anhu ‘You will be destroyed!’

At the time of Abu Darda radhiAllahu `anhu the Qur’an was written on bones, leaves and pieces of leather, it’s was a collection of these. If people were to see the Qur’an written on bones or other pieces, they would be quick to say that such a thing is disrespect to the Qur’an‐ ‘This is disrespectful you are writing it on bones?’ Now the issue has become ‘respect’ of Qur’an but don’t touch it, don’t read it, and don’t follow it (people don’t think that not following the Qur’an is disrespect to it). We have lost track of what the Qur’an should do for us or how we should study the book of Allah subhana wa tala

Allah says:

‘(This is) a Book (the Qur’an) which We have sent down to you, full of blessings that they may ponder over its Verses, and that men of understanding may remember.’ [Surah Saad, Ayah 29]

‘Do they not then think deeply in the Qur’an, or are their hearts locked up (from understanding it)?’ [Surah Muhammad, Ayah 24]

Allah ʹazza wa jall is not only asking us to recite the Qur’an, rather He is asking us to meditate and contemplate over the Qur’an. We have to have tadabbur (deep contemplation).

How did the Sahabah study the Qur’an? If we take the example of Abdullah ibn Umar radhiAllahu `anhu, he says: ‘It took me forteen years to finish memorising Surah al‐Baqarah.’
Fourteen years! I mean we could memorise Qur’an in a year, how come it took Abdullah ibn Umar radhiAllahu `anhu forteen years to memorise just Surah al‐Baqarah?
He radhiAllahu `anhu was so happy after memorising it, he said ‘and then I slaughtered a camel and I invited all the people to come to a feast.’ It was such an important event for him, he memorised Surah al‐Baqarah he made this huge invitation and called everyone to come over, because of memorising the Surah it was a great day of celebration for him. Now we can memorise Qur’an now within a few months‐ how come it took him so long?

The reason is, as narrated by one of the Tabi’een, who said, ‘I met with some of the Sahabah of the Rasul sallAllahu `alayhi wa sallam and they told me that the way they would study Qur’an is that they would take ten ayaath and they would study these ten ayaath, they would study the eemaan, the ilm, and the halaal and haraam in the ayaah, then memorise the ayaath and then
they’d move onto the next ten ayaath. They would never move onto the next ten ayaath until they applied it. Not until it became alive and a second nature to them. I was told this by many of the Sahabah, not just one.’ This is their method‐ take ten ayaath, study the ayaath, memorise the ayaath, learn the eemaan in them, because eemaan in the beginning is knowledge, in the initial stages ie. ‘Fahlam La illaha illAllah’, know there is no God worthy of worship but Allah, so it starts by ilm. Then you have the emotional commitment to it later. You cannot have tasdeeq unless you have ilm, you cannot believe in something unless you know it. So they (the Sahabah) would learn the eemaan in it, they would apply the halaal and haraam, (memorise), then move onto the next ten ayaath.

Imaam Muhammed al‐Ghazali rahimahullah said, ‘I memorised (the whole) Qur’an when I was ten years old’, here he was talking about a problem we have in the modern method of education in the teaching of Qur’an, he said ‘……as a kid I memorised the whole book but I didn’t understand anything. Because of the mode I was in (of just reciting without learning and
understanding), when I grew up and was attempting to learn and understand the Book of Allah, I was finding it very hard because I was programmed to just repeat the verses’. He says ‘It took me a lot of effort, struggle, and striving until I was able to break that cycle and start thinking and contemplating over the ayaat of Allah ʹazza wa jall.’ So, we have to go through the struggle in order to understand the Book of Allah. One key that might help us is that the Book of Allah does not throw its gems upon you, you have to look for them; it does not offer us the benefit unless we are keen for learning and receiving the guidance. This is something that is interesting about the Qur’an.

Allah ʹazza wa jall says:

‘And We send down from the Qur’an that which is a healing and a mercy to those who believe (in Islamic Monotheism and act on it), and it increases the Zalimun (polytheists and wrong‐doers) nothing but loss.’ [Surah Isra, Ayah 82]

The Qur’an draws some people closer and it draws some people further (away). If you want to benefit from Qur’an, the Qur’an will benefit you and if you do not then Allah ʹazza wa jall will honour His Book (regardless with or without you), with the Zalimeen it (the Qur’an) adds to their loss (of the oppressors)‐ to turn away even further. This is part of the uniqueness of the Book of Allah. We need to have tadabbur of the Book of Allah‐ I (Imaam Anwar) am not saying you take forteen years to memorise Surah al‐Baqarah if you can do it in a month‐ do it, but the point is that after we memorise it we have to take the next stage that is to apply it and not just reciting without understanding. Rasulullah sallAllahu `alayhi wa sallam said, ʺIn the last days (of the world) there will appear young people who will recite Qur’an and it doesn’t even go past their throats” (al‐Bukhari), they have taken the Qur’an as something that is just recited, (they don’t understand it‐ they might be doing it for monetary reasons but then the Book of Allah ‘azza wa jall is not used (correctly). So, its used for opening a ceremony, or closing a ceremony, and that’s it.

All of my life I am alive the Qur’an (remains) sitting on the shelf, and then when they die the people pull it out and recite some Qur’an and then it goes back on the shelf. And when I die they’ll pull it out off the shelf and shall recite some ayaath on me! When I am already dead, and then it will go back onto the shelf. So the Qur’an only comes out in the celebrations and in the
times of death.

When there is a marriage they recite Surah al‐Fatihah and when someone dies Surah Yaseen is recited, that is all that the Book of Allah is used for‐ Marriage and death! Subhan’Allah, the Book of Allah ʹazza wa jall was the moving force behind the early Muslims. What made the Sahabah different? It was the Qur’an, nothing else. Qur’an completely changed the Sahabah from people who were at the lowest levels and it made them the role‐models of humanity. It the Qur’an that was the power that made them into the great Nation, the Book of Allah will do the same for us if we have tadabbur‐ we need to have tadabbur of the Book of Allah subhana wa tala.

An example of how the Qur’an was studied is Mujahid, Mujahid was one of the Mufassireen of the Qur’an‐ if you study Qur’an you’ll always find his name, he studied the Qur’an with Ibn Abbas radhiAllahu `anhu. He was a student of Ibn Abbas. It is said that he went over the entire Qur’an three times with Ibn Abbas, going over each and every ayaah, asking him questions about every single ayah in Qur’an. Mujahid says, ‘I would stop Ibn Abbas after every ayaah, asking him about its meanings.’ He did this three times!

Living the Book of Allah ʹazza wa jall and taking it very seriously in our life demands that we love the Book of Allah. If we read and recite the Qur’an and feel you don’t have that attachment to it then a person might not get the benefit. That can be understood from the saying of Uthman ibn Affan radhiAllahu `anhu, ‘If the hearts are pure, they will never satisfy their hunger from the Book of Allah’ you’ll always want more. If we love the Book of Allahʹazza wa jall, we will never be able to have enough.

When one of the Taabi’een in order to find out more about the life of Abdullah ibn Umar radhiAllahu `anhu, (they asked questions to the Sahabah to emulate them‐ to follow their footsteps), this Tabi’ee, he learned about Abdullah ibn Umar, he studied with him but he wanted to know how his life was in private‐ what does Abdullah ibn Umar do at home? So, he asked the servant of Abdullah ibn Umar, ‘What does Abdullah ibn Umar do when he is in the privacy of his own home?’ The answer was simple, no sophistication‐ no complication, he said: ‘He would go to prayers and recite Qur’an in between,’ that’s his life! Very easy and simple. If he wasn’t doing business, and he wasn’t in jihaad in ribaat (the frontlines) for he Abdullah ibn Umar spent twelve years in ribaat in the areas of al‐Dibijaan and Armenia. ‘If he was at home this is what he would do. He’d go home recite Qur’an and wait for salaah’, that’s his life, living with Qur’an. I (Imaam Anwar) kind of find that very difficult as a comparison when you look at the life Abdullah ibn Umar and you observe our lives when months would pass and will not even open the Book of Allah! For Abdullah ibn Umar radhiAllahu `anhu, his life would revolve around the Book of Allah, reciting Qur’an all throughout the day.

Uthman ibn Affan radhiAllahu `anhu who said, ‘If the hearts are pure, they will never satisfy their hunger from the Book of Allah’, he would start Qiyaamul‐Layl reciting Qur’an in two Rakaat and the night would be over, and he would be still going on reciting Qur’an. When you imagine standing in two rakaah and reciting the Book of Allah subhana’ wa tala –how many hours has it
taken him for two rakaah? Four? Five hours? Allah Alaam but I would assure you he would not feel any pain or boredom because of the involvement with the Book of Allah, Allahʹazza wa jall would make it easy for him.

Rasul sallAllahu `alayhi wa sallam, would stand up for salaah and his feet would swell, it would become sore and injured because of standing up all night! And his wife ‘Aishah radhiAllahu `anha would say, ‘Why don’t you rest? Didn’t Allah forgive all of your sins?’ You don’t have to do this. You don’t have to go through all of this pain Allah has already forgiven you of all of your sins.

What did Rasulullah say? ‘Shouldn’t I be a grateful Servent?’ (Bukhari and Muslim). And Rasulullah was so involved in his ibadaah he wouldn’t be feeling that pain. He had love for salaah, he said “The most beloved thing for me is standing for salaah, that would be the best moments of my life”

What we need is to develop this relationship with the Book of Allah, take it seriously. In our studies, lets not get distracted from the Book of Allah ‘azza wa jall. It is good to study different Islamic Sciences, but let’s not get distracted from studying the Book of Allah ‘azza wa jall.

Sometimes we will study everything but Qur’an and then we think that we studying Islamic studies. But, if you’re not studying the Book of Allah ‘azza wa jall then it would be problematic to call that an Islamic curriculum. We have to empathise on Qur’an and to have a comprehensive understanding of the Book of  Allah not only on the individual level but also in the way we
perceive and view the world.

An example before closing (the lecture): The Sahabah radhiAllahu `anhum recited the Qur’an and this was the only source of knowledge for them, they didn’t know anything else. Before Islam they were illiterate people, ignorant‐ they knew nothing. Take for example Umar ibn al‐Khattab radhiAllahu `anhu, what was his knowledge? Umar ibn al‐Khattab was once seen laughing and then crying; one after the other. They asked why he was laughing, and then cryng? He said, ʺI laughed and I cried because I remembered my days of Jahiliyyah, I laughed because I remembered the day I was travelling and I forgot to take my ‘god’ (a portable idol), idols they would take with them on travel‐ small idols, they had big huge idols in Mekkah but then they had portable idols they’d take with backpacks with them on their travels. Umar ibn Khattab forgot to take this small idol with him, when he felt like doing worship he remembered he had forgotten to bring an idol along. So he took his food‐ dates, and he moulded them in the form of an idol and made sujood to it, an idol made out of dates. After a while he became hungry, so he
ate his ‘god,’ he had it for dinner! He said that’s why I was laughing.

They asked him so why was he crying? He said, the reason I am crying is because I remembered the day I buried my daughter alive. After I prepared the grave for her, some dirt came on my beard so my daughter cleaned my beard for me before I threw her into the grave. And he cried. He laughed and he cried when he was a Muslim, because as a Muslim these were things that
made him laugh and cry, but without Islam it wasn’t funny and it wasn’t sad‐ it was normal. Without Islam making sujood to dates, then eating that ‘god’ was absolutely fine and acceptable.

And without Islam killing his daughter by burying her alive was something acceptable. It was Islam that changed him, it was Qur’an that changed Umar ibn al‐Khattab‐ so, the Sahabah had nothing without Islam. They didn’t have any formal education, they didn’t learn anything‐ they were illiterate. What they were after Islam was what they learned from the Book of Allah.
‘Umm Haram (bint Milhan) radhiAllahu `anha, the sister of the mother of Anas ibn Maalik, studied the Qur’an and realised that this religion would spread and there would be jihaad on the path of Allah in land and on sea. So she went to Rasul sallAllahu `alayhi wa sallam and said, “I want to be one of those who will go feesabillaah in the sea, I want to be with them.” For them this was something abnormal because the people of Makkah and Madinah never travelled in the sea.

Remember, they’re in a Peninsula in the middle of the desert, Subhan’Allah the Arabs had no Navy and no commercial trade even by the sea‐ their trade is with Yamaan and as‐Shaam and that’s it all in land. The ones who had experience with the oceans and the sea were the ones in the coastal areas. And none of the Sahabah lived in the coastal areas.

So, she said I want to be of those who go to jihaad by sea, Rasulullah sallAllahu `alayhi wa sallam made du’aa for her so that she would be with them. (Bukhari hadeeth no.129)

And she was with the ones who went in the early jihaad under the Khilafah of Muawiyyah bin Abi Sufyan radhiAllahu `anhu. She understood this religion through studying the ayaath that Allah has subjected the sea to us.

Allah subhana wa tala says:

‘And He it is Who has subjected the sea (to you), that you eat thereof fresh tender meat (i.e. fish), and that you bring forth out of it ornaments to wear. And you see the ships plowing through it, that you may seek (thus) of His Bounty (by transporting the goods from place to place) and that you may be grateful.’ [Surah Nah, Ayah 14]

Even though she never went on board a ship in her life (previously), she understood just by reading Qur’an that one day this deen (Islam) would spread through the sea and Allah has subjected the sea to us.

Now in the world, there are twenty or thirty thousand ships sailing on the oceans of the world. The oceans make up about 8/10 of the surface of the face of the earth and not one of these ships is manufactured by the Muslims, not even one. Amongst all of these twenty or thirty thousand ships or vessels sailing on the ocean not one submarine belongs to Muslims. So where are we
from the understanding of Qur’an where he mentioned he has made the sea subjected to us?

Where is our understanding of the Qur’an? When the Sahabah understood this, and they were people who had no involvement whatsoever with the ocean they immediately established a navy and commercial fleets. Muawiyah ibn Abi Sufyan radhiAllahu `anhu was the one who established this, founder of the Islamic Navy and also the Islamic commercial fleets that then became the dominant commercial force all over the world for a few centuries, in terms of Navy and in terms of commercial trading. So it is clear that we are quite far away from having the right understanding of the Book of Allah ʹazza wa jall.

We ask Allah ʹazza wa jall to give us fiqh (understanding) of His Religion and to benefit us all, Aameen. Imam Anwar al‐Awlaki (Hafidhahullah)

Transcribed by: ‘Abd al Fattaah (Abu Rawaahah) from the lecture ‘Understanding the Qur’an’

Author's note: Tayyibun Institute UK for the teachings of Qur’an & Sunnah (,
Keywords: Understanding the Qur’an, ramadaan, fasting, islam, Allah, self-restraint, mulims, siam, sacrifice, prayer, month, Series on Ramadan Preparation

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