By Aakar Patel
Latin flowered into the Romance languages — Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian — and itself died away. But Arabic, another ancient language like Latin, is still alive, spoken by people from Morocco to Iraq. The reason is the Quran.
Standardised only a few years after the death of Muhammad in 632 AD, classical Arabic has been transmitted down in the same form, linking all people who follow the Islamic faith. The Quran was meant for recitation (the word Quran means recitation), to be held in memory, the Arabic word for which is Hafiza. When someone adds the word Hafiz to their name, it means they have memorised the entire book.
In the time of the second Caliph, Umar, it was noticed that the memorisers from the time of the prophet were dying. Muhammad’s secretary, Zaid ibn Thabit, was given the responsibility of putting together what would become the book as we know it. Scattered portions were collected — these were on ribs of palm leaves, on stone fragments, as well as in the memorisers’ heads. The writing was in the Kufic script, a sort of ornate typeface used in decoration. Kufic was replaced by the script still in use today: Naskh.
The codex thus prepared was kept at Medina and three copies were sent to the military camps in Damascus, Basra and Kufa. The arrangement is mechanical: the chapters are in order of length. After the opening (Surah Fateha), comes the longest chapter, Baqara, meaning ‘cow’, with 286 verses. After that is the second longest, Imran, with 200 verses, and so on till the 114th. The last chapter is AnNas (The People). It is just a few words. The whole chapter reads:
The reference to jinns— spirits of lower rank than angels — made the more scientific-minded believers want to rationalise. According to one of them, Ghulam Ahmed Parwez, the reference was to tribals.
The exegesis or critical explanation of the Quran is called tafsir. The most famous tafsir used in the subcontinent even today is the three volumes written by Abul Kalam Azad, who had been educated in Arabia and was truly learned. Another one, in seven volumes, is by the famous Abul A’la Maududi of Aurangabad, who founded the Jamaat-e-Islami in Lahore in 1941. His interpretations of the unity of god (tawhid, from the word for ‘one’, Wahid) and of jihad were used by the Arab dissident Sayyid Qutb, whose works were the founding texts for al Qaeda.
The chapters of the Quran are divided into those that were received by Muhammad in Mecca in the original and formative period of Islam, and those that came to him in Medina. The former, about 90 in all, are shorter and more prophetic in feeling, fiery and passionate, according to writer Philip Hitti. The latter are long, verbose and full of legislative material. They refer to prayer, fasting, pilgrimage and are written in rhymed prose, which is pleasant to hear (and read).
I have several versions of the Quran. The one I refer to most is in three volumes, called The Glorious Quran, compiled by Dr. Shehnaz Shaikh and Kausar Khatri. It is a word-for-word translation into English for those who can read Arabic but don’t fully understand what it means. Another one is The Qur’an: A Modern English Version by Majid Fakhry.
Muslims believe that the words of the Quran are god’s and so the book itself is sacred. In the subcontinent, with our native sentiment towards the written word, this feeling is even more heightened. During the riots in Delhi in February this year it was touching to see Muslims, and perhaps some Hindus as well, gathering burnt pages of the Quran from the charred remains of mosques.
It is possible, perhaps even likely, that those who torched the mosques have never read the book they burnt. It would benefit many of us if we would be curious enough to look into what the other’s religion teaches. In the case of the Quran, the non-believer would profit from knowing the contents of the book that is behind one of the world’s largest faiths.
Original Headline: Read it right, know it well: The Quran
Source: The Hindu
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