Search This Blog

The Textual Analysis of the Qur'an*

Ehsan Butt, PhD
Arthur John Arberry (1905–1969) was one of the most prolific twentieth century scholars of Arabic and Islamic studies, and head of the department of Classics at Cairo University in Egypt. He was also Sir Thomas Adams's Professor of Arabic at Cambridge University.  As an expert in the pre-Islamic Arabic literature he was unique in his realization of a textual harmony in the Qur'an. He stated that he was "wishing to show that each Sura(chapter) as an artistic whole, its often incongruous parts constituting a rich and admirable pattern"1. Arberry pointed out the weaknesses in the method and general approach of western scholars towards the understanding of the Qur'an. He wrote, "the disciples of the Higher Criticism, having watched with fascinated admiration how their masters played havoc with the traditional sacrosanctity of the Bible, threw themselves with brisk enthusiasm into the congenial task of demolishing the Koran." Arberry then gave some examples of the inconclusive work of the prominent western Quranic scholars and commented "Such is the position which champions of the Higher Criticism of the Koran eventually reach. It is against this excess of anatomical mincing that I argue the unity of the sura and the Koran;" 2 

The thematic coherence and unity of the Quran has recently become more recognized after a number of studies that positively identified it at almost all places where focus happened to fall. A search for coherence takes direct analytical and open deliberation approach that is motivated with the realization that it was the same text that spellbound all of Arabia and its scholar's contemporary to Prophet Mohammad and it miraculously maintained its status since then. All earliest to modern Muslim Quranic exegetes believe that an inherent thematic unity and deeper organization exists that they call, Nazm. However, it has been scarcely explicitly explained in the currently available Muslim literature if ever to any satisfactory level.  The language and discourses of the Quran are rooted in Pre-Islamic elite literary style, vocabulary, motifs brimming with allusions to its contemporary environment and contemporary visions of its pre-islamic historical environment. Muslims continued to carry that knowlegebase essential for understanding what Quran meant for scholars and commonfolk at its time of revelation. They translated that message with its rationales and understandings to be convincing and effective in later times for centuries till their society decayed and disintegrated and became unable to carry that knowledgebase. Modern scholars of Quranic textual studies focused on the explory of that contemporary to the revelation understandings and were very successful. For any piece of literature to be able to convey something without ambiguity even for people who are attentive and interested in its understanding there has to be some logical order and scheme of presentation. Quran was faced with its opponents and hypocrates and all levels of its listners and miraculously convinced and won over as an evidence for it being a presentaion which is logical and harmoniously composed to be attractive, clear and persuasive. Numerous recent studies undertaken to find the reasons behind the effectiveness of the Quran at formative Islamic times found a design in the Quran that elucidates how every word, verse and sura seems to be embedded in a meaningful structure e.g. series of minor topics develop into a compelling major theme which makes a perfect match with other local and global major themes. The Nazm, can thus be taken as the context and relationship among topics of different parts which highlights several aspects of the meaning of a part. Muslim scholars of all ages have been unanimous that the true meaning of the Quranic text must be completely consistent with not only the local context but also the Qurán as a whole. Incidentally the Nazm, which helps determine the true meaning, also unravels the beauties of expression and eloquence, Blagha, interwoven in its text.


Many scholars worked similar to Arberry and concluded effectiveness of textual analysis in discovering thematic interrelationships in Qur’an consistent with well organized piece of literary discourse. However, two scholars of South East Asia particularly produced most exhaustive works focused on the textual analysis of the Qur'an. Hamiduddin Farahi (1863-1930) a renowned scholar of pre-  Islamic Arabic literature and Islam promoted similar studies of the text of the Qur'an and his famous student Amin Ahsan Islahi(1904-1997) who continued Farahi's investigations. Their voluminous works describe how they arrive at their postulates about the precise theme of a particular sura and how the theme beautifully unites all contents of the sura rendering it as a series of well focused literary dialogues. Islahi completed a full commentary of Qur'an explaining the basis of his exegetical principles, methods and results. Many scholars who have reviewed his works agree that he is amazingly successful in exposing the hidden system of themes. He aims to show how every Sura of the Quran is characteristically a focused thesis hammering out a point of wisdom with the flavor of some super Arabic Ode (Moallaqa). The work of both scholars covers around 100 years of continuous academic research. Islahi believes that the principles elaborated by him in his commentary are scientific, rational, and based on common sense, without which the true message and beauty of the Qur'an cannot be understood or appreciated. For English readers, an introduction to Farahi and Islahi’s work is included in the Ph.D. thesis of Mustansir Mir with Professor James A. Bellamy at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor as supervisors. The thesis concluded: “Islahi has convincingly shown that the Qur’an has design and method. He has shown that individual surahs revolve around specific central themes, an essential complementary nature exists between members of the pairs of surahs, and that larger set of surahs, he calls groups, display identifiable patterns of nazm. A study of Tadabbur-I Qur’an is bound to leave one with the impression that, contrary to the usually held view, the Qur’an is a well ordered book” 3. Other major sources on contributions of Farahi & Islahi works in the English language include Professor Neal Robinson's work "Discovering The Qurán"4 and a volume of Islahi's work translated in to English5. However, a vast majority of their work still remains un-translated in Urdu or Arabic. Most unfortunately, now after them there seem to be no major initiatives in the academic circles of the world to keep this field and knowledge alive. Rather there are several examples that due to the all pervasive ignorance about their work some people begin in this field without reviewing their works and start reinventing the wheel.
The significance of the textual analysis, that naturally aids building academic consensus on the Quranic interpretations, can not be overestimated.
An empathetic attention to Qur'anic studies in mainstream western educational systems will send clear signals in the media and the hearts of Muslim countries effectively countering notions of the clash of civilizations.
A wider access to education in the textual analysis of the Qur’an, which in a sense takes it as an important human heritage can also provide an opportunity for on-going multicultural communication. There is a crucial need for such communications to eliminate countless potential risks of local and global conflicts arising from interpretations of the Qur'an where they originate from circles of vested interests as against scholarly investigations for seeking the truth. Anybody having doubts about the increased multicultural harmony that can be realized from more deeper & coherent understanding of Quran must remember two things
; One, that is also a consensus view of Muslims, that during the glorious times of Muslim civilization they had a better awareness of the original message of the Qur'an than they have today. Two, the historical accounts abundantly confirm that the Muslims during the height of their civilization with a better and mass education on the Qur'an demonstrated the highest degree of culture and religious toleration.

The following two examples are selected from the innumerable reports in the non-Muslim sources that Muslims demonstrated most civilized and tolerant behavior with other nations and religions. Recently Gary Brown brought to light a peculiar instance. He mentioned that, around 1173 the Muslim policy of toleration and the persistent intolerance of many Christian factions had important consequences which are strikingly illustrated by the words of no less a personage than the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople. Addressing the Byzantine Mutual Misperceptions: The Historical Context of Muslim-Western Relations Emperor Manuel I, who was contemplating a religious union with the western Church of Rome, the Patriarch said: “Let the Muslim be my master in outward things rather than the Latin dominate me in matters of the spirit. For if I am subject to the Muslim, at least he will not force me to share his faith. But if I have to be ... united with the [Latin] Roman Church, I may have to separate myself from my God.” 6

Anther such report is of very early classical Islamic time. An Arab force, under the celebrated general Abu 'Ubaydah, had signed a truce of one year with the Christians of Qinnasrin in order to allow those Christians who so desired to leave Syria and to follow Heraclius into Anatolia. A line was established between Christian and Muslim possessions and the line was marked by a column (amiid) beyond which the Muslims were not to go. With the agreement of Abu 'Ubaydah, the Christians painted on this column a portrait of Heraclius seated in majesty (jalis fs mulkihi). One day, however, an Arab Muslim rider, who had been practicing horsemanship, accidentally defaced the representation of the Byzantine Emperor by planting the point of his spear in its eye. The head of the local Christian community immediately accused the Muslims of having broken the truce. Abu 'Ubaydah agreed that a wrong had been done and asked what reparations could be offered. The Christian answered: "We will not be satisfied until the eyes of your king are put out." Abu 'Ubaydah suggested having an image of himself so mutilated, but to no avail, since the Christians insisted that the likeness should be of the Muslims' highest au- thority (malikukum al-akbar). Finally Abu 'Ubaydah agreed, and the Christians then made an image of 'Umar, the caliph of the time, whose eye was then duly put out by one of their riders. The Christian patricius concluded the whole affair by saying to the Muslim general: "Indeed, you have treated us equitably."7


The above provides enough evidence to establish case for promoting world peace through education and studies relating to the textual analysis of the Qur’an. The academic exercise could also help in answering many questions about how the Qurán played its constructive role in the historical development of first Islamic communities leading to a global Islamic civilization. In addition such studies can provide Muslims generation a better quality education about their heritage.

Examples of some topics/activities:

·          Introduction to the textual analysis approach, its methods, results in comparison with traditional and modern modes of Quranic interpretation
·          Critical analysis of Farahi-Islahi works
·          Textual studies focused on legislative Quranic verses
·          Comparative study of Quranic historical accounts based on exploiting internal Quranic resources with other available historical & archeological resources e.g Biblical. The author has been working on the textual analysis of Quranic verses relating to the history of Bani Israel, children of Israel.

Education relating to textual analysis of Quran can take different forms:
It can be included a part, or a project in the regular courses where relevant
At separate regular course level, where opportunities exist
As a continuing education course
As a masters or PhD studies topic, for some thorough and fresh critical examination of previous works and making further progress

This author has been delivering 60-90 minutes seminars with Q&A sessions aimed at exposing the coherence, organization of themes discovered in the first sura, Fatiha,. Intricate textual structures in Fatiha carry themes of higher morals, historical nature, wisdom and philosophical connotations, which are so systematically arranged, that they not only create a literary masterpiece but also a compelling positive motivational effect.

* The text version considered here is the one that 99.9% of Muslims use for reading and 100% use for learning by heart. This version was previously known as Qiratul Aamma (common recitation) or Mushaf ul Umma (Manuscript of the nation) in e.g in Bukhari,  and was considered transmitted by whole muslim ummah and was never associated with any one person. It is a relatively recent phenomena after the decay of  the Muslim civilization that some people started to associate it with somebody Hafs Bin Asim. This actually goes against the consensus view of Twatar in Quran transmission and reduces it to a mere single report, Khabri-Wahid. Khabri-Wahid is a type of reported tradition which at any time was only known to one single reporter. Khabri Wahid is considered a weak report.The Muslim Arabic biographical collections, AsmaurriJaal literature describe  Hafs Bin Asim to be of untrustworthy character.
1 The Koran Interpreted, Translation of Qur'an, Touchstone, Rockefeller Center, 1230 Avenue of Americas, New York, NY 10020, ISBN 0-684-8250, Vol.1 p 25 (1996)
2 ibid Vol. 2 p12 
Coherence in the Qur'an : A Study of Islahi's Concept of Nazm in Tadabbur-i Qur'an by Mustansir Mir , American Trust Publications, p100 
4 Discovering the Quran: A Contemporary Approach to a Veiled Text by Neal Robinson, Publisher: Georgetown University Press; 2 edition (February 28, 2004) English, ISBN-13: 978-1589010246
6 Mutual Misperceptions: The Historical Context of Muslim-Western Relations, by Gary Brown, Department of the Parliamentary Library, Commonwealth of Australia, Current Issues Brief No. 7 2001–02, Foreign Affairs, ISSN 1440-2009 (
7Eutychius, Annales, ed. by L. Cheikho and others, in Corpus Script. Christ. Orient., Scriptores Arabici, 3rd Ser., 7 (Beirut, I909), p. 19.

Open, evidence based search for the original meanings of the Qur'an, which is our common human heritage