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Select Translation What is This? Selections include: The Koran Interpreted, a translation by A.J. Arberry, first published 1955; The Qur'an, translated by M.A.S. Abdel Haleem, published 2004; or side-by-side comparison view
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Thematic Guide to Exploring the Contents of the Qur'an

Andrew Rippin, University of Victoria, Canada


The Qur'an does not have any obvious organizational principles, and that makes coming to a full appreciation of its contents challenging to those encountering the text for the first time. An overview suggests that the scripture is dominated by a small number of main themes. Primary attention is to the figure of the one God; He is central to everything. Intertwined with this theme are the other main themes: The one God has sent a series of prophets to humans who are in need of the law that these prophets bring through a process of revelation in order for them to be guided to a proper life. Those who listen and obey will then be able to reap the rewards of paradise rather than suffer in hell for eternity in the afterlife.

To learn more about these themes we need to look directly at the text of the Qur'an. Using electronic texts and search tools facilitates access to these themes in a way that traditional printed material cannot rival. The simplest way to do this is by searching a translation. Two are available here: one by A. J. Arberry and the other by Muhammad Abdel Haleem. Arberry's translation was first published in the 1950s and makes an effort to mimic the form and linguistic syntax of the Arabic text while using some aspects of King James English to convey the "religious" tone of the text (as seen, for example, in the words "thou" and "thy" used to represent the singular second person ["you"] that has a distinct form in Arabic). Abdel Haleem's work is recent and employs more contemporary, although formal, English idiom.

An even more revealing way to explore the themes is by using the concordance developed by Hanna Kassis. Key to this tool is its linking of the Arabic words to Arberry's translation. The concordance lists each word in the text of the Qur'an and provides a short contextual segment for each one (known as a "key word in context" concordance). It is organized not by the English words but by the underlying Arabic words, although it can be searched both in English and in transliterated Arabic. This means that one does not need to understand the technicalities of Arabic in order to be able to gain some appreciation of the text in its original language. For those who have some facility in Arabic, the concordance is accessed through a standard transliteration system employing a "soft" keyboard for the required special characters.

Some attention needs to be paid to the intellectual assumptions that underlie any concordance in order to appreciate the outcomes of the search facilities provided. A concordance functions to privilege individual words in a text and to provide a structured access that is not apparent within a linear (or even random) reading of the text. When a concordance is used, the reader is undertaking an interpretative act by assuming the unity of the text that is under analysis—in this case, the Qur'an. A concordance demands that we see the vocabulary of a text as a unitary concept and that the usage of that vocabulary is consistent throughout the text, suggesting that the words employed do not shift meaning within the confines of the text.

When working within this set of assumptions, then, the use of a concordance such as that of Kassis allows access to many aspects of the Qur'an that would otherwise be hidden, especially because it allows the relationship between the original Arabic and the (always approximate) English translation to be mapped. The following treatment of the themes of the Qur'an encourages use of both the translations and the concordance, along with secondary-source articles, in order to explore the scriptural text.

Exploring the Themes of the Qur'an Using the Concordance

1) GOD

God—Allah in Arabic—is described as all-powerful, all-knowing, just, and merciful in the Qur'an. He is the creator of everything that exists, and He will determine when creation comes to an end. He is beyond description, although, at the same time, the Qur'an uses very human language (anthropomorphism) to try to capture His being in words by describing Him has having a face and a hand and sitting on a throne.

The concordance has a separate section for all the words associated with the divine name Allah. When pursuing the results of a search for an English word, the key words for both parts of the concordance will be incorporated (the method of selecting areas in the search window is unpredictable in its results). Attention needs to be paid to the light gray words above the blue Arabic root letters on the result page: if it says ALLAH then one is viewing the results directly related to the divine name only. If it simply has the name of the first letter of the Arabic root, then one is viewing the complete list. To see the overall sense of the notion of God, however, simply searching in the concordance on the word "Allah" and then choosing the second Arabic word and root that is presented, ilah(*a l h), leads to an extensive list of passages. A glance at that list will show the emphasis on the oneness of God that is found throughout the Qur'an. Clicking on the very first entry, 2:133(127), will provide the fuller context of the passage, which may be viewed through either the Arberry translation or the one by Abdel Haleem, or in both by using the "side-by-side" view. A little further down the list of verses, 4:171(169) illustrates the way in which the Qur'an argues for the oneness of God against Christian notions of the Trinity and, even further down the list, at 9:31(31), against the apparent Jewish tendency to associate Ezra with God. Other passages, such as 41:6(5), condemn the idolaters, usually taken to be the polytheistic pagans of Mecca.

Muslim theology was particularly concerned with anthropomorphism. A simple example may be found in the use of the word "face." A concordance search will display a number of entries of interest under "face (n)." The longest list will be found under the very last entry, wajh (*w j h), where it will be observed that the word has a number of idiomatic uses (including the first instance "to submit one's will") but also that it is also used as the noun "face," sometimes applied to God, and on other occasions to humans. Comparing those usages may suggest there is a difference between the human face and the divine face. The concordance may thus be used to isolate all the passages using the word "face," allowing a determination of what is meant by the divine "face," if this is not to be taken to mean a face just like that of a human. Such a search can then also be tried with other body parts: does God have a hand? A leg? A heart? A head? The body of God can also do things: He sits in a throne, for example. But what is meant by that? Does God "sit" as humans do? Are different Arabic words used to express the attributes of God as compared to humans, or are they the same? All of these questions can be answered using the concordance.

2) PROPHETS

Prophets are designated by God to bring messages to their communities, and each age and each community is said to have had a prophet. Most of the prophets named in the Qur'an are familiar from the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, in keeping with a general sense in the Qur'an that this is a revelation from the one true God who has informed all previous revealed truths. Thus the fact that the basic narrative of the Biblical tradition is repeated in the Qur'an is evidence of this unity of divine source. The first man is Adam, Noah survived the flood, Abraham and Moses were the key figures in the founding of Judaism, David and Solomon were great kings, Job experienced the injustice of the world, Jonah was swallowed by the whale, John the Baptist foretold the coming of Jesus, and Jesus was born of a virgin named Mary and suffered death by crucifixion.

The English word "prophet" often disguises two Arabic words: rasul and nabīy [note that the dictionary entry is under nabi but the concordance is under nabīy]. By searching in the concordance for both of these words it can be seen that translators tend to differentiate the words by using "messenger" (which, it can been seen, is also translated "apostles") for rasūl and "prophet" for nabīy . The question of the distinction between these two can be approached by a careful examination of all the passages, conveniently isolated through the concordance. It is sometimes suggested that the difference lies in the connection to a scripture—that a messenger is a prophet with a scripture. Thus it may be thought that the difference in the usage may be related to the notion of revelation as that process of communication between the divine realm world and humans, another idea that can best be searched through the concordance, especially in its verb form " reveal." The Qur'an is understood to be the revelation given to the prophet Muhammad. Abraham was given scrolls, Moses the Torah, David the Psalms, and Jesus the Gospel.

Some prophets are quite prominent in the Qur'an, a status that is arguably based on the number of times a given prophet is named. With some work, a search on each prophet's name will reveal facts such as which one is mentioned most frequently. A search query can also be formulated in order to show which prophets are mentioned together. For example, to discover if Abraham and Isaac are mentioned together, a search structured as Abraham NEAR Isaac will produce several results. Other examples are Abraham NEAR Moses or Abraham NEAR Jesus. Searches may also combine operators, as in Abraham NEAR (Isaac OR Ishmael). While these searches can also be done directly in the translations, of course, using the concordances also shows the Arabic words that are associated with the passages and allows for further searches on concepts that may be related to these prophets.

Abraham is described in the Qur'an as a ḥanīf, a word that can easily be investigated using the concordance in order to get a sense of its meaning. Again, it is worth pointing out that one advantage of using the concordance for such a search is that it avoids any problems that can arise when a word is translated in different ways in different places in the text. It is also useful for following semantic links systematically through the text. For example, in the first listing under ḥanīf, 2:135(129), the verse explains that a ḥanīf is "not an idolater." By looking up the word "idolater," further clarification can be received as to what then ḥanīf means. Note that Abraham is also called a Muslim in 3:67(60). This, too, can be investigated, again usefully through the concordance rather than the translations because this will produce a list of all the words connected to the root of the word aslama (thus including "Islam" itself).

3) LAW

The mission of the prophets is to guide humans in the proper way of living, one that will be pleasing to God, that being defined as an existence that fulfills the will of God. The structures of this guidance become the law of human society and are embedded in the revelation. Law covers the relationship between humans and the divine (as manifested in ritual activity) as well as that between individual humans in society, and personal behavior. There is a particular emphasis on aspects of the relationship between men and women in matters such as marriage and divorce and inheritance, as well as on food laws and commercial transactions.

One aspect that the concordance can bring out fairly quickly is the way a given word is distributed throughout the text. The question can be raised of whether the word appears in a certain grouping of chapters. This may, with some words and concepts, have something to do with the historical development (or chronology) of the Qur'an. In the case of words related to legal topics, it will immediately be noted that they tend to occur far more frequently in the longer chapters toward the beginning of the Qur'an. Those chapters are the ones traditionally understood to have been revealed in Medina in the later part of Muhammad's career when the Muslim community was being formed and legal regulation became of increasing necessity.

Searching in the concordance under "law" allows access to a list of Arabic words that are translated under that English term. All are based around the same three consonants ‐sh‐r‐' that form the basis of the familiar word sharī'a. By looking at the middle entry, sharī'a, it can be seen that this is translated as "to lay down a law," "to ordain" or "to enact (a law)." In the first of those three passages, 42:13(11), the concept of the laws of Noah as the foundational element of human law is introduced. Further investigation can then be undertaken on the connection of former prophets to the law from the view of the Qur'an by examining other passages related to these words for law that are mentioned in the context of those prophets.

In the translation of the Arabic text, an English word can cover several Arabic terms. This is significant. It indicates that the "semantic range" of any given English or Arabic word does not necessarily match that of the other language. A key concept in the Qur'an that serves as the foundation of the law is found in the notions of the sacred and the holy; these categories are used frequently in religions to designate objects of a character that renders them separate or outside mundane life and which thus must be respected and protected by law. Attention often needs to be paid to the other words that are used in the immediate context of the word being investigated; verbs, adjectives, and other substantives (including opposites especially) can be extremely revealing. An investigation of "sacred," for example, will quickly lead to ideas of "forbidden" and "permitted," suggesting basic rules of behavior for believers, with each of those English words being used as a translation of a number of Arabic terms.

The ritual activities known as the five pillars of Islam are a prominent part of the law in Islam. Searching through the concordance for "charity," for example, brings up three Arabic words, all of which are translated this way. Those three Arabic words may then be compared to see if there is any difference between them. All of the English words for other pillars— prayer, fasting, pilgrimage and witness (or testimony)—can also be searched in the concordance to display the range of Arabic concepts that go beyond the basic ritual requirements and cover other aspects of human behavior.

4) DAY OF JUDGMENT and the AFTERLIFE

The message of the prophets in bringing the law is that human behavior has consequences. Failure to follow the law will produce a judgment after death that results in eternal damnation in the afterlife and burning in the fires of hell, whereas a positive judgment of faith and works will bring the reward of paradise in heaven.

Images related to the judgment day will be found by searching on the word "day." Looking at the word yawm (day) displays a range of descriptors used to refer to this point at the end of time: day of doom, last day, day of resurrection, and so forth. A verse toward the end of the list, such as 73:14(14), provides a fine example of the imagery related to the end of time. Subsequent searching on an element such as mountain will then produce a fuller picture of the judgment day, the vocabulary used to refer to it, and the impact it will have on human existence.

The word "hell" allows an investigation of the people who end up there, and the same aspect can be investigated with the word "paradise." Searching under "hell" brings a long list of results, the first four of which are most relevant: ḥuṭamah, jahannam, jaḥīm, and sa'ir. Looking at these entries it is clear that hell is characterized by fire, another word with multiple entries that can be analyzed as to their differences. Searching under "paradise" produces two words, firdaws and jannah (plus words for the fountains in paradise), which similarly need to be considered to determine if there is any significant difference in meaning between them.

Using the Concordance

Exploring the Qur'an using the concordance and the translations brings about an appreciation of the complexities of the Arabic text and the challenges facing the translator. The common truth that a translation cannot fully convey the meaning of an original text becomes quite clear. There are additional levels of complexity in the text that also become apparent. For example, synonyms might be employed, yet explanations for the use of multiple words for the same idea can sometimes be hard to find. The advantage to using the translations and the concordance jointly is that such elements become readily apparent and can be investigated.



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