Heavenly Order Book - Intro
The introduction to my work-in-progress book, Heavenly Order
For this week, I thought I’d share the draft introduction to my upcoming book, Heavenly Order. I don’t suspect many will read it all the way through, but for those who do, any feedback is appreciated.
For those new to the email list, the goal is to compile all the posts from this blog into a book so that all this research is officially documented and available to the masses. If you’d like to help fund this endeavor, and/or would like a free copy when it’s complete, please consider subscribing below :)
What follows is the first draft of the introductory chapter of Heavenly Order - Observations on the Structure, Organization and Coherence of the Quran.
In the Name of Allah, the Most Merciful, the Very Merciful.
All thanks and praise are due to Allah ﷻ1, the Master of all creation, and may His blessings be upon His last and final messenger, Muḥammad ﷺ2, his family, his companions, and those who follow them until the end of times.
A cursory glance at tafsīr (scholarly interpretation) works is enough to appreciate the rich meaning embedded in every letter of the Quran. The lessons are endless, and the application of those wisdoms is a lifelong journey. But an often-overlooked aspect of the Quran is its organization. How do the āyāt3 come together to form a coherent whole whose placement of āyāt contributes to a well-organized and methodological message? And how might that structuring lend itself to uncovering deeper meanings not as apparent on an initial read through?
Before one answers these questions, it is important to ask why this study is meaningful in the first place. Why should one study how Allah ﷻ organized the placement of His āyāt? There are four of reasons worth discussing:
1) Allah ﷻ is the Best of Speakers and His Speech is the Best of All Speech - Allah ﷻ says in the beginning of Sūrah4 ar-Raḥmān (The Most Merciful), “The Most Merciful, He taught the Quran, created man, [and] taught him al-bayān.”5 Bayān involves both expressing oneself and understanding what has been expressed by others. It can be defined as eloquence, clear speech, explaining, the ability to express oneself, or elucidating.
Allah ﷻ taught humans how to speak and part of communicating effectively is having organized speech. If all of coherent speech is clearly organized, what can be said of the speech of the teacher of all speech? Part of the agreed upon definition of the Quran is that it is the inimitable speech of Allah ﷻ. Nothing can, or will, ever come close to His words in all praiseworthy manners. Allah ﷻ Himself calls the Quran “bayān,” so one should take note of how He organized His perfect words.
Additionally, in Sūrah al-Kahf (The Cave) Allah ﷻ says, “Say, ‘If the sea were ink for [writing] the words of my Lord, the sea would be exhausted before the words of my Lord were exhausted, even if We brought the like of it as a supplement.’“6 And He ﷻ also says in Sūrah Luqmān (Luqmān the Wise), “And if whatever trees upon the earth were pens and the sea [was ink], replenished thereafter by seven [more] seas, the words of Allah would not be exhausted. Indeed, Allah is Exalted in Might and Wise.”7 These āyāt point to Allah’s ability to articulate meanings with many layers of understanding. The more one delves into His āyāt, the more one benefits and finds. How He structured His words may be another layer on top of the already innumerable methods of accessing Allah’s message.
2) All of Creation is Organized8 – Humans are encouraged by Allah ﷻ in a number of āyāt to contemplate the harmony of His creation. In Sūrah al-Wāqi'ah (The Inevitable) Allah ﷻ says, “I swear by the positions of the stars–A mighty oath, if you only knew–that this is truly a noble Quran.”9 Allah ﷻ tied the precision of the star’s positions to the Quran. If the heavens, the earth, the cells in our bodies and even the atoms forming those objects are organized, then how can the speech of Allah ﷻ not be?
Science and mathematics are essentially the study of how Allah ﷻ organized His creation. If not for the regular patterns one witnesses in the world, documenting observations into comprehensible textbooks and research papers would be near-impossible. Just as creation has a structure one can follow, the structure of Allah’s speech is also observable.
3) There Are Claims That the Quran is Unorganized - There are many documented cases of non-Muslims critiquing the Quran for what they perceive to be a lack of cohesion. The famous French philosopher, Voltaire, wrote scathingly about Islam. On the Quran in particular he is recorded to have stated, “The Qur’an is a rhapsody without liaison, without order, without art; it is said nevertheless that this boring book is a very beautiful book–I am referring here to the Arabs, who pretend it is written with an elegance and a purity that no one has approached since.”10
There are also those such as Thomas Carlyle who generally spoke favorably about Islam. He said in praise of the Messenger ﷺ, “It is a great shame for anyone to listen to the accusation that Islam is a lie and that Muhammad was a fabricator and a deceiver. We saw that he remained steadfast upon his principles, with firm determination; kind and generous, compassionate, pious, virtuous, with real manhood, hardworking and sincere. Besides all these qualities, he was lenient with others, tolerant, kind, cheerful and praiseworthy and perhaps he would joke and tease his companions. He was just, truthful, smart, pure, magnanimous and present-minded; his face was radiant as if he had lights within him to illuminate the darkest of nights; he was a great man by nature who was not educated in a school nor nurtured by a teacher as he was not in need of any of this.”11 Which makes his criticism of the Quran all the more impactful when he said, “I must say, it is as toilsome reading as I ever undertook. A wearisome confused jumble, crude, incondite; endless iterations, long-windedness, entanglement [...] insupportable stupidity in short!”12
Then there are the Muslims, though sincere in their questioning, who are confused about how Allah ﷻ organized His speech. What many fail to realize is that the Quran has its own standard of structure, one which is better than anything on offer from Allah’s creation. Despite the lofty standards, Allah ﷻ tells us in the beginning of Sūrah Yūsuf (Joseph), “No doubt We sent it down as an Arabic Quran so that you all may understand [it].”13 The coherence of the Quran is accessible, and this book will demonstrate, at a surface level, how well-structured a sūrah can be.
4) It is a Potential Source for Interpreting the Quran - Tafsīr of the Quran with the Quran is one of the main sources for unlocking the Quran’s meanings. Imām as-Suyūṭī summarized this methodology saying, "The scholars have said: Whoever wishes to interpret the Quran, he should first turn to the Quran itself. This is because what has been narrated briefly in one place might be explained in detail in another place, and what is summarized in one place might be explained in another."14 In simpler terms, using the surrounding context can help to elucidate the meaning of Allah’s words. By understanding how Allah ﷻ organized the āyāt, qualified scholars may be able to uncover an additional layer of context by which to interpret a sūrah.
Part of understanding the Quran is in asking questions, thus observing how and why Allah ﷻ structured His Word opens the doors to new questions and potentially new insights.
As has been explained by scholars for centuries, every āyah of of every sūrah contains rich meanings which one can learn and apply to their life. Another aspect of the suwar which is not as well-known is how each sūrah is organized.
Before beginning the breakdown of the structure of some of the suwar of the Quran, it is important to understand the different methods of organizing communication. The study of the composition of a sūrah involves several aspects. It has been observed that Allah ﷻ utilizes the following tools to varying degrees, with each providing a unique benefit.
The first aspect is called linear coherence, which concerns the linear flow, continuity or sequential arrangement of the Quran. In what way is one āyah or topic connected to the next? This is how any modern text (including this book) is written. Idea #1 leads to Idea #2, which leads to Idea #3, etc. Linear coherence has the most written about it with regards to the Quran, and as such, there will not be too much focus on this method during our study.
There are two main types of symmetrical patterns. The first we will explore is called Parallelism. This is when parts of a composition are ordered on the pattern of ABC/A’B’C’. For example, Allah ﷻ says in Sūrah Qāf (Qāf ) (transliteration provided where needed)15:
Each item corresponds to its source in the list. The point is that the parallel terms must have some conspicuous relationship, whether it is a relationship of similarity, opposites, or something else.
Parallelism is an extremely common device in poetics and rhetoric, because it is simple, intuitive, aesthetically appealing, and poetically moving.16 In terms of the Quran, if one finds a parallel pattern, then Allah ﷻ could be drawing attention to an otherwise overlooked relationship between two items. Conversely, where all but one item corresponds in a parallel structure, it may be that Allah ﷻ is teaching us a lesson about the subtle differences.
The second type of symmetrical form may be called inverted parallelism, or mirror composition: it is where the terms or ideas are presented in one order but then repeated in the reverse order. This follows the pattern ABC/C’B’A’. In a similar vein, the term ring composition is used to describe such a structure when it contains a discrete center. It could either have a stand-alone centerpiece that connects the two halves (as in ABCB’A’) or simply be a mirror composition on a large or complex scale, such as ABCD/D’C’B’A’, in which D/D’ might be considered the center. For example, the story of Mūsā in Sūrah al-Qaṣaṣ (The Story) appears to be structured in this manner17:
Several features are significant about ring composition. First, it may occur on different scales. It can be seen in sentences, passages, or even an entire book. In some cases, as is common in the Quran, a large-scale ring composition consists, in turn, of smaller rings.
Finally, understanding ring structure is important for understanding the meaning of a composition. In a ring composition, usually “the meaning is located in the middle”;18 that is, the center of the composition literally underscores the central idea. The two halves of the composition may be seen as elaborations of that theme, and the beginning and the ending segments (A and A’) introduce and conclude that theme. Moreover, the ring structure points to common themes that underlie the two corresponding terms or segments on the opposite sides of the structure. In essence the ring manifests the relationship between the parts and reveals the logic of the composition. It is important to add that the relationship between the two corresponding segments (e.g., B and B’) does not always have to be immediately obvious. The discovery of a ring structure forces the audience to contemplate and uncover the relationship between the corresponding parts.19
The fourth aspect of coherence to explore is called the integrative coherence of a sūrah. This is concerned with how different āyāt, passages, or sections within a sūrah, or even between separate suwar, are interconnected by key terms, verbal roots, images, parallel expressions, or even sound patterns that they share. To simplify, we will call these unifying items anchors.
Although this sort of study is already known more formally as intertextuality, we will use the term “integrative coherence” to emphasize the role of these anchors in:
Integrating different parts of a section together
linking separate sections of a sūrah, thereby helping to unify it
linking āyāt or passages from separate suwar20
Finally, each of these approaches contributes to understanding the sūrah’s holistic coherence; how the sūrah is united into a consistent and distinct whole. In this regard, one might be interested in identifying a motif, an overarching idea that unites and explains all of the sūrah’s contents or components. In addition to seeing the unity of an individual sūrah and how each part of it fits into the scheme of the whole, one might also be interested in understanding the role of the sūrah in a broader sūrah pair or group, or in the Quran as a whole.21
The study of holistic coherence is a method of the reader inquiring, “Why is this āyah placed in this Sūrah and not another one?” The immediate context creates a meaning that may be altered if the āyah were placed elsewhere in the Quran.
It is important to state that multiple organizational tools may be used to explore a single sūrah, and each tool may yield meanings different, but not contrary, to the others. As we will observe, the same passage may contain multiple structures layered on top of one-another.
How we split up the passages and āyāt may also seem strange at first, as not every structure is split perfectly at the end of a āyah. It is possible that one structure ends halfway through a āyah and another begins at the second half. It may also be the case that one section references a short phrase, while the corresponding section is an entire paragraph. These choices will all be justified below, but consider that Allah’s standards for organizing His words may not match with what we consider “normal” from our limited experiences. What is explained briefly in one part may be expounded in a linked set of āyāt elsewhere.
On that note, it is important to know that these organizing structures are not unique to the Quran. They have been used in other ancient texts across cultures. For example, ring composition was extremely widespread in the ancient world, and even up until modern times. As noted by Randhawa and Khan22, “After its discovery in the Hebrew Bible, scholars in other fields of literature have uncovered ring composition in such diverse works as Homer’s Iliad in Greek; the Gathas, hyms attributed to the Iranian prophet Zoroaster in the Avestan language; Classical Arabic poetry; Chinese literature; the medieval Persian Mathnawi of Rumi; medieval European epic poems such as the Old English Beowulf, the French epic poem chanson degeste, and medieval German Nibulungenlieder; modern English poems such as John Milton’s Paradise Lost and Ezra Pound’s Cantos; and various genres of oral recital in different parts of the world.”23
Finally, please keep in mind that the outlined observations below are just that; observations. We make no claims as to having presented the structure of a given āyah or section, let alone the entire sūrah. It is very possible that others will disagree with our proposed demarcations and that there are arguably better ways of splitting the suwar up. This is not meant to be an exhaustive study of any sūrah’s structure.
We have also tried our best to avoid making conclusions about the text based on a presented structure. In other words, this is not meant to be a tafsīr of the Quran’s meanings. The hope is that qualified scholars take this work and use it appropriately.
With the above terminology understood, we may now begin the study of the first sūrah of the Quran, the structure of Sūrah al-Fātiḥah (The Opening). We will be omitting most Arabic from the forthcoming analysis and providing transliterations when needed to draw a connection. Consult the original Arabic24 for the original wording of the Quran for any āyāt referenced below.
And that concludes the introduction! I am open to any and all feedback. I know already that I have no idea how to correctly cite things. Especially when the citation is from within another citation. For anyone who has experience with this, I’d appreciate some pointers!
And Allah knows best - والله أعلم
After the name Allah, you may see the following symbol: ﷻ. Written out it reads, “جَلَّ جَلَالُهُ (jalla jalāluhu)” which roughly translates to, “Exalted is His majesty.”
After the name of the Prophet Muḥammad, you may see the following symbol: ﷺ. Written out it reads, “صَلَّ اللهُ عَلَيهِ وَسَلَّمَ (ṣalla Allahu ‘alāyhi wa sallam)” which roughly translates to, “May Allah bless, praise and protect him”.
We will be using the words āyah and its plural, āyāt, very often. These terms are usually translated as “verse,” but that definition leaves a lot of the meaning out. More accurately, an āyah is a sign that points you in the direction of something. In the context of the Quran, every āyah is a miraculous sign pointing back to Allah ﷻ. For this reason, we’ll keep using the word āyah instead of translating it as “verse”.
This word (and its plural, suwar) is sometimes translated as “chapter”, but this isn’t a good translation. Here is a more comprehensive breakdown of the word:
Allah ﷻ says in the Quran that He didn’t just reveal āyāt, rather, He actually says He revealed suwar too. For example, Surah al-Nur actually calls itself a sūrah (24:1)
سُورَةٌ أَنزَلْنَاهَا وَفَرَضْنَاهَا وَأَنزَلْنَا فِيهَا آيَاتٍ بَيِّنَاتٍ لَّعَلَّكُمْ تَذَكَّرُونَ
A sūrah; We sent it down and made it obligatory and we revealed clear āyāt in it so that you may remember.
Coming from the same root letters, you get the following words which help us understand its deeper meaning:
سَوْرَ (sawr) – When you have a wine or a liquor that’s extremely heavy or strong, like you’ll get intoxicated just by a few sips. The intensity that reaches/affects the head is what this word means.
سَارَ يَسُورُ (sāra yasūru) – To climb up to a very high place. This word was used to describe the tall walls that were insurmountable and would protect a city.
تَسَوَّرَ (tasawwara) – To scale
سَوْرَة (sawrah) – A high status, a level of a building, borders of something
In the Quran, a sūrah can remind you of another sūrah or of another piece of a sūrah.
“Sūrah” is used to describe something that rises from the bottom to the top. Like the drink that intoxicates you from the bottom to the top, the wall that’s insurmountable, etc.
Interestingly, the Quran actually uses the word sūrah as something that’s dropped down, instead of something being raised from the bottom to the top. That means that it’s impossible to surmount because you can’t see the top; it’s endless. And if you can’t see the top then its not prone to attack.
Taking all of the above into account, defining “sūrah” as a “chapter” is a far ways from its proper definition. For this reason, we’ll stick to calling it a sūrah throughout our studies.
55:1-4 - الرَّحْمَـٰنُ * عَلَّمَ الْقُرْآنَ * خَلَقَ الْإِنسَانَ * عَلَّمَهُ الْبَيَانَ
18:109 - قُل لَّوْ كَانَ الْبَحْرُ مِدَادًا لِّكَلِمَاتِ رَبِّي لَنَفِدَ الْبَحْرُ قَبْلَ أَن تَنفَدَ كَلِمَاتُ رَبِّي وَلَوْ جِئْنَا بِمِثْلِهِ مَدَدًا
31:27 - وَلَوْ أَنَّمَا فِي الْأَرْضِ مِن شَجَرَةٍ أَقْلَامٌ وَالْبَحْرُ يَمُدُّهُ مِن بَعْدِهِ سَبْعَةُ أَبْحُرٍ مَّا نَفِدَتْ كَلِمَاتُ اللَّـهِ ۗ إِنَّ اللَّـهَ عَزِيزٌ حَكِيمٌ
This point is argued in more detail by Shaykh Hamīduddīn Farāhī in his book, Dalāil an-Niẓām
56:75 - فَلَا أُقْسِمُ بِمَوَاقِعِ النُّجُومِ * وَإِنَّهُ لَقَسَمٌ لَّوْ تَعْلَمُونَ عَظِيمٌ * إِنَّهُ لَقُرْآنٌ كَرِيمٌ
Voltaire, “Alcoran” in Dictionnaire de philosophie, cited in Michel Cuypers and Geneviève Gobillot, Le Coran (Paris: Le Cavalier Bleu, 2007)
Carlyle, Thomas Carlyle, On Heroes, Hero Worship and the Heroic in History, ed. Archibald MacMechan (Boston: Athenaeum, 1901)
12:2 - إِنَّا أَنزَلْنَاهُ قُرْآنًا عَرَبِيًّا لَّعَلَّكُمْ تَعْقِلُونَ
as-Suyūṭī, Al-Itqān fī 'ulūm al-Qurān
Heavenly Order. “Sūrah Qāf (Part 2).” 2 Oct. 2020, https://heavenlyorder.substack.com/p/surah-qaaf-part-2.
Ali Khan, Nouman and Sharif Randhawa. Divine Speech: Exploring the Quran as Literature. Bayyinah Institute, 2016.
Heavenly Order. “Sūrah Al-Qaṣaṣ (Part 1).” 6 Nov. 2020, heavenlyorder.substack.com/p/surah-al-qaa-part-1.
See Mary Douglas, Thinking in Circles: An Essay on Ring Composition (New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 2007)
Ali Khan, Nouman and Sharif Randhawa. Divine Speech: Exploring the Quran as Literature. Bayyinah Institute, 2016.
See Mary Douglas, Thinking in Circles: An Essay on Ring Composition (New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 2007), 4-12 and Raymon Farrin, Abundance from the Desert: Classical Arabic Poetry (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press), 2011, xvii.
See Quran.com for translations of all suwar