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On the Holy Qur'an and Its Interpretation
Jul 1, 2006

The Qur’an is God’s miraculous, matchless message that has been sent to all humanity via His last Messenger. With the Qur’an God has shown humanity, one last time, a short-cut to His good pleasure. He has communicated to us about His Essence, Attributes, and Names. He has expressed in the most explicit way, leaving no room for any misunderstanding, His will to be known and recognized in the correct way, to be believed in and worshipped. Almighty God has put emphasis on the duties and responsibilities of believers, while enthusing hearts and agitating souls with His warrant for punishment and promise for reward. He has presented the Qur’an as a sign for perfection and completion and as an orbit to rotate around for His good pleasure, while condescending to offer this gift to us as a compliment greater than any that has been or will ever be granted to anyone else. The Qur’an is the most radiant and enduring of the hundreds of miracles bestowed upon the Master of creation, upon him be the best of blessings and peace. In addition to its wondrous discourse, articulation, and styles of expression, with its social discipline, legal rulings, principles of good morality, and education, its analysis of the whole creation including especially humanity, with its many allusions and indications to the essentials of almost all the sciences, which are sometimes even presented as manifest expressions, and the alternative solutions it offers for many administrative, economic, and political problems, the Qur’an is the ultimate source of reference for everyone and for all times. It is an untainted fountain with an infinite resource; it is a vast ocean which can never be dimmed by even the most complicated and filthy of eras.

With all respect for its grandeur, I have to confess my inability and insufficiency to elaborate on the depth of meaning and richness of expression and style of the Qur’an. A considerable number of studies have been dedicated to the Qur’an, and many more studies will be carried out on this topic. There is no doubt that all these studies have presented valuable content for any seeking person to grasp the gist of what the Qur’an stands for and to believe in its message, and they mirror the order of Islam in its true essence. However, it would not be right for anyone to claim that they have come up with a perfect interpretation of the endless content of this expository atlas of humankind, the universe and the truth of Divinity. The Qur’an can be interpreted only to the extent that a heavenly and Divine word can be interpreted by human perception. Thus, although it does not seem to be possible to spell out this huge atlas within the measures of an article, we cannot stay indifferent to or neglect studying the Qur’an with the excuse that our interpretations are deficient or the power of our discourse is inadequate. Everyone has the right to study the Qur’an, more than that, it is a duty upon those equipped with necessary, accurate knowledge. We should work harder to better understand the Qur’an, while the learned should wield all their perceptiveness and sensations toward understanding it and conveying its message, allowing a wider audience to learn more from it.

The Qur’an is a miracle of eloquence honored with the merit of being the voice of all ages. It is the most luminous expression of the Divine Speech, around whose light the angels hover like moths. If we take into consideration its Source and purpose of revelation, its first representative(s) and the impact it leaves on hearts, then we must realize that it is not a book to put to one side. When the Qur’an speaks, angels fall deep into a silent vigilance, spirit beings fall prostrate, and the jinn, enchanted with its voice, set out to the deserts to meet it.

The Qur’an is the expression and explanation of God’s laws of creation or “nature,” and the strongest and immutable source of religious rules and pillars. The Qur’an is the indisputable Book that includes the most reliable criteria for studying existence (the whole universe and humankind), thus for all individual, familial, social, or ethical problems we must seek wisdom and illumination from the Qur’an; it cries out that its source is the all-encompassing Knowledge of the One Who knows everything with their causes and results. The Qur’an has captivated everyone to whom its voice has reached-provided they were not prejudiced-with its holistic perspective, comprehensive discourse and style, the vastness of its content and meaning, its delicate expressions, its magical expounding in proportion to the different levels of knowledge and understanding, and its capacity to penetrate souls. Neither its friends nor its foes have been able to come up with something in a similar style or an utterance that is equal in grandiosity, the former motivated for imitation, the latter in fury to choke off its voice, despite their efforts for almost fourteen centuries, even when they use the same material and concentrate on the same issues. Their works have never been able to overcome artificiality, they have never been appreciated by masters of literary skills, and they have never evoked any lasting or effective influence.

The Superiority of the Qur’an

The Qur’an has such a musical harmony and delicate correlations between the topics it deals with, be they interrelated or apparently unrelated with each other, so that one is able to realize, with only the slightest effort of comprehensive thinking, that many apparently unrelated topics have points of junction. The mastership of discourse belongs to the Qur’an, which no literary personality can challenge, and enables those of its audience who are unprejudiced and can judge with some reason to obtain some things from it, introducing them to deeper contemplation beyond their horizons of thought. If once they can judge fairly and let their souls delve into this heavenly waterfall of expression, all other speech-like voices will immediately turn into nothing but rumblings.

Above all, the Qur’an has come from an all-encompassing Knowledge; it contains and explains the meaning and content of human and non-human existence, of humankind, nature, and all the worlds; it is both their language and interpreter of their purpose of creation. It speaks to multifarious dimensions of its audience all at the same time: while addressing the mind, it does not neglect to speak to the heart in its own language; when it calls out to the consciousness, it does not push emotions aside; while conversing with the faculties of reasoning and logic, it does not leave the soul without any favor. All faculties and senses, external and internal, benefit from the Qur’an, which gives each its share without giving rise to any deprivation and contradiction. They all receive their share from this heavenly table, each to the extent of its capacity, and enjoy a most harmonious composition.

All Divine Scriptures, especially before human interpolations were mixed with the original texts, possessed the same holistic approach and all-embracing quality; nevertheless the superiority and widest comprehension of the Qur’an are evident in proportion to the profundity of the spirit of the Prophet Muhammad, upon him be peace and blessings. It is by no means possible to show any other heavenly or man-made book which excels it with its content and extensiveness. It is by no means an exaggeration to claim its uniqueness in dealing with humanity, the universe and Divinity in the most comprehensive, as well as the most exquisite fashion, while interpreting them in the best forms of synthesis and analysis in its own way.

Topics in the Qur’an

All of the topics that the Qur’an deals with are the most valuable treasures of the truths pertaining to Divinity and the realm of creation. Some of these truths are decisive or explicit in meaning and content, and others are concise, metaphorical, and allegorical, the explanation of which has been entrusted to the one who brought the Qur’an, upon him be peace and blessings, and the scholars favored with inspiration. The Qur’an never complicates any of the matters it presents or analyzes. It presents topics concerned with the essentials of faith, worship, and morality, and basic principles of individual and social life clearly and succinctly; while for matters requiring comprehensive thinking, reflection, and careful consideration, it demands deeper examination and scrutiny, and suggests turning to God, without approving of burdening oneself with grave matters that one cannot shoulder. Like a magical chandelier which continuously shines brighter, it is a means for brand new discoveries at diverse wavelengths as hearts and minds go deeper in thought, thus offering Divine gifts of all kinds to our internal and external senses. With its blessings and inspirations augmenting in excess, and light rain becoming a deluge, and with its endless beauty and glittering lights, the Qur’an showers banquets one within another to those who ponder and study it.

True understanding of existence and what lies beyond the sensed dimension of the cosmos, and also humankind with its spiritual depths is possible only through the Qur’an. They discover in its bright realm straight thinking and real sources of reflection, and are thereby saved from the vicious circles of deception and misjudgments based on probabilities. There is no other source of knowledge that is not mistaken or not entrusted to uncertainty or doubt other than this miraculous Speech from God, the All-Knowing of the Unseen. The Qur’an explains and presents everything explicitly, plainly, and correctly. It enables us to understand that it is we who make errors in evaluating the issues, giving rise to contradictory judgments and in filling in the gaps entrusted to reflection. Understanding and interpreting the Qur’an correctly is not only a duty upon us, but also a requirement of our fidelity to it. The fulfillment of this duty and fidelity is closely related with the erudition of every capable and well-equipped individual and in their living in devotion to God. Such individuals dive into this vast ocean with utmost sincerity and commitment for the good pleasure of God, uncovering the truth so that it flourishes. They proceed toward this infinite horizon with caution, composure, comprehensive thought, and without surrendering to their carnality. The Messenger, who brought the Qur’an from God, is their first and greatest guide; they follow the pious scholars among the earliest generations of Islam in the light of its expressions, which are decisive and explicit in meaning and content. They are less likely to err; their efforts to attain the pleasure of God are rewarded with special treatment. Their interpretations and explanations of the Qur’an are each a hue and adornment of Qur’anic uniqueness.

A sound interpretation

On the other hand, the Qur'an cannot be explained as it deserves in consideration of its position and loftiness with rudimentary Arabic and the limited scope of dictionaries; such an attempt would also be manifest disrespect to this heavenly monument of speech. It should be rendered in other languages as is required. Anything concerning Qur'anic expositions (tafsir) should be very well versed and before they are launched, every tafsir should be tested against the exalted Islamic sciences. What falls to us is not to bring the Divine Word down to our level of perception and expression in its immeasurable immensity and depth, excusing such an act as we have translated it for the benefit of everyone. While it is a duty, an appreciation of, or an act of respect toward the Qur'an for experts to make the Qur'an known to everyone via exposition, interpretation, or a commentary, such an attempt would be paramount to insolence if one did not have a high command of Arabic grammar, the principles of rhetoric or eloquence, knowledge of the study of Qur'anic exposition (tafsir), the methodology of hadith studies (Traditions of Prophet) and Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh). The Qur'an cannot be translated as a novel is; even the translation of a novel calls for an expertise in its own genre. Forging the way toward a sound interpretation of the Qur'an, it would be better to discuss first what a “translation” is, and what tafsir (exposition) and ta"wil (commentary) mean. Translation is the rendering of a text or statement in one language into another language, while preserving the meaning. An accurate translation would be to transfer the exact meaning of every word—if this is ever possible—while preserving the relationships between word combinations. On the other hand, a literal translation of the words only, or an exclusively semantic translation would be a deficient translation. To a certain extent we can also talk about translation software; however, the current technology or even more advanced technology to come is not able to help very much in the translation of substantial literary works. Consider the situation when the text is the Word of God, which addresses all times, conditions, and levels and therefore the exposition of which with all its depths is considerably dependent on time, inspiration, and circumstances. Some works of literature are said to be impossible to accurately render; then it is clear that there is no way that the Holy Qur'an, with its immense profundity, can be expressed by an ordinary translation. Many Muslim scholars, including Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, are of the opinion that it is impossible to translate the Qur'an, due to the aforementioned and many other considerations. Some other scholars, on the other hand, approach the matter cautiously, but more moderately, provided that the prerequisites underscored above have been abided with. The late Hamdi Yazýr, one of the greatest contemporary expounders of the Qur'an, states that the translation must exactly correspond to the original text in terms of explicitness and indications, conciseness and comprehensiveness, generalizations and specifics, restrictedness or exclusiveness and inclusiveness, powerfulness, and appropriateness, and eloquence and style. Therefore, prose or poetry can be translated into another language which is as developed as the original language, with the condition that the translator is well-versed with the subtleties of both languages; however such a translation is hardly possible for a book which addresses the mind and heart, the soul and all the senses together, with all its diverse literary delicacy, and its vigor and exuberance. And what happens if the book to be translated is a work of God that transcends all other books Divine or non-Divine with its dimensions beyond time and space, and speaks to all ages?!...

To be understood and to be lived by

The Qur'an is, in the words of Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, a Divine interpretation of the book of existence; it is the voice and breath of the laws of creation, the true interpreter of things and events that bear multifarious meanings, a candid expounder of this world and the world to come, the revealer of the treasure of the Divine Names hidden in the heavens and on the earth, the mysterious key to the mysteries beyond all things, the plain language of the beyond manifested in this world; the sun, the foundation, and the geometry of the spiritual world of Islam, the sacred map that explicitly lays out the worlds of the Hereafter with clearly drawn lines, the voice and clearest interpreter of the Divine Essence, Attributes, and Names, the most reliable teacher of all humanity; the air, the water, and the light of the Islamic world, and the Word of the All-Exalted, All-Majestic Being, Who is the Creator and Lord of all worlds, and His decree and address. This is not to say that the Qur'an cannot be understood; on the contrary and most importantly of all, it was revealed to humanity to be understood and to be lived by. However, its phrases are so deep and have so many meanings, its content is so multi-layered, that even if we can know and understand the meaning of every single word, and sense certain things from word combinations, we will certainly miss many truths that are contained in styles, indications, suggestions, connotations, and purposes, that cannot be fully reflected in any translation. I am of the opinion that every person who approaches the Qur'an with an open mind can perceive all of the above characteristics, and thus appreciate that its sublimity and transcendence cannot be confided to a simple translation. A translation might certainly have some value in proportion to the translator"s learning, knowledge, horizon of perception, and skills; however, it can never convey the Qur'an in all its profundity; therefore no translation, nor no commentary or interpretation can be called the Qur'an itself. A number of books have been written about Qur'anic interpretation and commentary, while objections to the Qur'an and some of its contents have been repeatedly addressed. Many more interpretations and commentaries will continue to be prepared in the future too, just as many new objections will be answered, and this will perhaps continue until the end of time. How many new doubts will be manufactured about the Qur'an; how many more times will minds be exposed to contamination; what new unthinkable plots will Satan, our eternal enemy, play on weak believers; what new scenarios, unheard of until today, will the devils of humankind and jinn put on the stage to tempt humanity; how many more times will they induce suspicion with regards to our values and agitate people? Such animosity has always existed and will continue to exist. Thankfully, hundreds of people with zeal to serve the Religion, will always stand to face them by exploring new depths of that Book of lofty truths and strive to interpret that Eternal Speech, which they hold in the greatest esteem. The mischievous organizations of Satan and his companions will always be challenged by the companions of the Qur'an.

An abridged version of Fethullah Gulen"s introduction to The Qur'an with Annotated Interpretation in Modern English by Ali Ünal.