Monday, October 22, 2012

The Four Quls: al Mu'awwidhatayn, Chapters On Seeking Refuge (1/3)

The last two of the Four Quls, known as al Mu’awwidhatayn, are also the last two chapters of the Quran. 

The first thing to observe is that these two surahs are about seeking protection.  The first of al Mu’awwidhatayn, al Falaq (Surah 113), is about seeking protection from something supernatural (such as black magic) and from the envy of the envier; while the second, an Nas (Surah 114), is about seeking protection from the genie (or devil) and the mankind who whisper or conspire.

It is a fitting way to end the Quran, as far as its arrangement is concerned.  The Quran opens with the prayer seeking guidance (Surah al Fatihah) and ends with seeking protection.  What a nice way to arrange the book, if we ponder about it. 

But it is perceptible only to the believers and those seeking guidance.  To the disbelievers and those who seek otherwise, the arrangement appears to be gibberish.  Worse, some claim that this arrangement is part of the sinister ways to brainwash the believers to become terrorists bent on world domination.(1)

We can ignore the second claim above, because it has no value even to the disbelievers, but the first claim, namely that the Quran is arranged in a nonsensical way, is a common view.  Even some Muslims find the arrangement somewhat odd.  What more can be expected from disbelievers.

In this regard, some have attempted to rearrange the chapters in the Quran.  I don’t find it strange when the non Muslims do it, but I have seen some “professed Muslims” make similar attempt, which say a lot about their faith. 

Anyway, let’s not get carried away too far.  Let’s straight away proceed to illustrate one example. 

Rev. J. M. Rodwell has translated and made a commentary on the Quran.  But he does more than that.  He also rearranges its chapters completely.  His translation and rearrangement is available in the Internet, in case you are curious.(2)

In the Rodwell’s translation, Surah No. 1 is no longer al Fatihah, but al Alaq, which is Surah 96 in the normal Quran.  Surah No. 2 is no longer al Baqarah but al Muddaththir (Surah 74 in normal Quran).  The two last concluding surahs are no longer al Mu’awwidhatayn, but at Tawbah (Surah 9 in normal Quran) and al Ma’idah (Surah 5 in normal Quran), respectively.

In other word, according to Rodwell, the Quran should not be opened with al Fatihah and followed by al Baqarah, and closed with al Falaq and an Nas, as have always been the case, but by al Alaq followed by al Muddaththir, and closed with at Tawbah and al Ma’idah.

But why does he think that Quran should be arranged that way?

He explains it in his Preface.  It is quite a long Preface, so I shall quote only the gist.

He opens his Preface by saying:

It is necessary that some brief explanation should be given with reference to the arrangement of the Suras, or chapters, adopted in this translation of the Koran. It should be premised that their order as it stands in all Arabic manuscripts... is not chronological...

Now we get some idea as to why he rearranges the chapters in the Quran upside down.  His foremost contention is that Quran is not arranged chronologically.  Rodwell then goes on narrating the story of Quran compilation which was performed by Zayd bin Thabit (none of substance to be quoted here), but he continues, saying:

Zaid and his coadjutors, however, do not appear to have arranged the materials which came into their hands upon any system more definite than that of placing the longest and best known Suras first, immediately after the Fatihah...although even this rule, artless and unscientific as it is, has not been adhered to with strictness.

Anything approaching to a chronological arrangement was entirely lost sight of. Late Medina Suras are often placed before early Meccan Suras; the short Suras at the end of the Koran are its earliest portions; while...verses of Meccan origin are to be found embedded in Medina Suras, and verses promulgated at Medina scattered up and down in the Meccan Suras.

In other word, Rodwell thinks that Zayd was a scribe who did not seem to know any nut or bolt about book arrangement.  Zayd seemed to arrange it by the length of the chapters: the longest first, then the shorter one.  But since this is not quite the case, for Quran is not actually arranged in that way, then Zayd, to Rodwell’s view, must have arranged it according to “first come first serve” basis.  Whatever he got first, that would be the beginning.  Or, in Rodwell’s words:

It would seem as if Zaid had to a great extent put his materials together just as they came to hand, and often with entire disregard to continuity of subject and uniformity of style. The text, therefore, as hitherto arranged, necessarily assumes the form of a most unreadable and incongruous patchwork...and conveys no idea whatever of the development and growth of any plan in the mind of the founder of Islam, or of the circumstances by which he was surrounded and influenced.

Having thus described the artless and unscientific method of Zayd’s Quranic arrangement, resulting in “a most unreadable and incongruous patchwork”, Rodwell switches his thought.  Perhaps this artless arrangement is actually Zayd’s way of being honest with his work.  Or, as Rodwell says:

It is true that the manner in which Zaid contented himself with simply bringing together his materials and transcribing them, without any attempt to mould them into shape or sequence, and without any effort to supply connecting links between adjacent verses, to fill up obvious chasms, or to suppress details of a nature discreditable to the founder of Islam, proves his scrupulous honesty as a compiler, as well as his reverence for the sacred text, and to a certain extent guarantees the genuineness and authenticity of the entire volume.

Zayd’s honesty, however, had not only make Quran unreadable, but appeared to do disservice to the Quran itself.  His methodology had inadvertently caused Quran to have many contradictions as well as inaccurate statements.  If only Zayd had been more critical: is deeply to be regretted that he did not combine some measure of historical criticism with that simplicity and honesty of purpose which forbade him, as it certainly did, in any way to tamper with the sacred text, to suppress contradictory, and exclude or soften down inaccurate, statements.

Seeing thus the artlessness, unscientific and uncritical mind of Zayd, Rodwell proceeds to correct these deficiencies.  With that in mind, he continues:

The arrangement of the Suras in this translation is based partly upon the traditions of the Muhammadans themselves, with reference especially to the ancient chronological list printed by Weil in his Mohammed der Prophet, as well as upon a careful consideration of the subject matter of each separate Sura and its probable connection with the sequence of events in the life of Muhammad...

For fear that the readers would get bored, I shall stop the quotations up to this point.  Rodwell goes on and on, but the gist of it all is that Rodwell thinks Quran is a history book, and therefore should have been arranged chronologically.  And Zayd, not being a historian in the mind of Rodwell, had uncritically inserted many errors and contradictory statements in the Quran.

To Rodwell’s eyes, Zayd should have known that the Quran, which Muhammad claimed to have been revealed by God, is in fact the work based on the Jewish scriptures.  If Zayd had known histories and Jewish Scriptures, he would not have made that kind of mistakes perpetrated by Muhammad himself, who did not seem to know the Jewish Scriptures any better.  Putting it differently, had Zayd known history and Jewish Scriptures, he would have corrected the mistakes and inaccuracies made by Muhammad.

Everything that Rodwell says sounds logical and reasonable enough, if viewed from his angle.  He thinks that Quran is a book of history, which is why it should have been arranged chronologically.  He also believes that Quran is based on the Jewish scriptures.  Hence, if some of the contents do not match the Jewish scriptures, then these must be inaccurate statements. 

But Quran is not a history book; it a book of guidance.  One reads and studies it for guidance to the path that can achieve progress and harmony in this world, and salvation in the Hereafter.  One who approaches the Quran along that line would find that every time he reads it, he would find some guides in it.  No matter how many times he reads it, there will always be something “new” in it.  It is pretty much like a well that is never dried, no matter how much one extracts water from it. 

It is an acknowledged fact that since the Quran was first compiled into a book form, it is opened with Surah al Fatihah.  This Surah is a prayer, a prayer seeking guidance to be on the straight path; not the path of those who incur Allah’s wrath, nor the path led by the misguided ones.  If one is looking for a guidance to be on the straight path, then Quran is the book.  On the other hand, if one is looking for history, then he should go to history books.  In the case of early Islamic history, he should go to Seerah.

After this short prayer, al Fatihah, Quran in fact goes straight to tell what the book is all about. 

Opening with the three letters, whose meaning is known only to Allah, namely Alif, Lam, Mim, the Quran straightaway declares itself, that “this is the Book about which there is no doubt, a guidance to Godfearing people”  (al Baqarah: verse 2).  It then proceeds by delineating what it means by Godfearing people (the first condition is that they must be the believers), and declares that these people are the successful ones.

Then, starting from the verse 6 of al Baqarah, it talks about the opposite groups: the disbelievers  (of various kinds) and the hypocrites (also of various kinds), and declares that these are the losers.

From thereon, the rest of the Quran are the details of these, of what it means and what it takes to be the believers, and to be wary of disbelieving and hypocrisy.  These are the indispensable details by which all Muslims must know, at least the basic of them.   After, or more properly while, learning and knowing as much as they could about these details, they must practice and act upon these as well as they could. After all of these are done, the Quran concludes by telling those seeking guidance to seek protection from Allah. 

If only Rodwell accepts that Quran is book of guidance, then its arrangement would not only be logical to him, but clear as well, because it is Allah Himself who wants it arranged that way.  Zayd bin Thabit merely compiled it. 

Zayd was the best man for the job.  He was among those who had memorized Quran by heart, and knew about its arrangement, also by heart.  But the responsibility of compiling it had weighed on him enormously.  Moving a mountain would have been easier and more preferable, as Zayd himself was quoted as saying.   And Zayd was not joking.  

Moving a mountain during his time was impossible, but still it was more preferable than compiling the Quran, although he already knew it by heart.  Being a true believer, Zayd knew that if he made any mistakes, then the consequence would not only be disastrous to him as a believer, but to Islam as a whole.  That’s why he said that moving mountain would have been easier.

In any case, Zayd was not alone in doing the work.  He was assisted by his “coadjutors,” as Rodwell puts it.  And he was supervised by the leading companions, including Abu Bakar, Umar and Ali. 

Rodwell has approached the Quran wrongly.  He starts by having a wrong notion about the Quran itself.  He thinks it is a history book, and proceeds to rearrange it accordingly. He is not even successful in that endeavour, for in his own words, he says:

I have, however, placed the earlier and more fragmentary Suras, after the two first, in an order which has reference rather to their subject matter than to points of historical allusion...

Even the scholarly Rodwell sometimes has to depart from his “scientific” approach of arranging the chapters chronologically. 

As to his conjecture that Quran is based on the Jewish Scriptures, this is the common position held by the Orientalists.  We need not delve too much on this, other than saying that any similarity between the two is due to the fact that both the Quran and the Jewish Scriptures came from the same source, Allah Himself.  But the Jewish Scriptures had been badly tempered with, which had led to the many differences between the two.

As to how the study of the Quran should be approached, I find the Introduction to Al-Maudoodi’s tafsir provides an extremely good guide.  His Introduction, however, is rather too long to be quoted without losing its essentials.  Those interested may go straight to the source, with the link provided below.(3)

At this point, you may wonder as to why I write this observation vis-à-vis the last two of the Four Quls.  The answer will come in the subsequent parts.

Stay tuned.


(1)       If you are interested in the idea why Quran arrangement is designed for terrorism and world domination, here is the site:

(2)       If you are a serious reader and have time to spare, here is Rodwell’s site quoted above:

(3)       The Introduction to Maudoodi’s tafsir, a must read for anyone who wants to understand how to approach the study of the Quran, is available here:

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