The Noble Qur’an : Surah and Ayah
Surah VS Chapter
The Qur’an is made up of 114 Surah. Some people call Surah as Chapters, but Surah and Chapters are distinctively different from one another. Here’s why:
- Chapters have a chronology order; the earliest writing is placed at the beginning and continued on with the later piece. But is the earliest Surah placed in the beginning of the Qur’an then followed with later revelations? If the Qur’an is in a historic chronology order, it would have “Iqra bismi Rabbi kal-ladhi khalaqa.” in the beginning, and some of the ayat of Surah Al-Baqarah at the very end. So the Qur’an is not in a Chapter-order, nor by size, nor by subject [if one asks what is the subject of Surah Al-Baqarah, it’s going to be a very difficult question to answer :)]. Even so, all of the Surah in the Qur’an ARE ORGANIZED by what has been decreed by Allah s.w.t.
- Chapters will not repeat the same concepts that have been mentioned previously. At most, if the previous concept is required to be mentioned again, a footnote will simply be placed: “Refer back to Chapter so-and-so”. The idea of Chapters is to build an argument in a chronology order. But the Qur’an repeats many principals and reminders again, and again.
- Chapters also have titles, which summarize everything about the contents within that Chapter. The Qur’an doesn’t do this.
Therefore, from the literature perspective, it is incorrect to call a Surah as Chapter. It is unique on its own identity. The Qur’an has its own standard, thus we cannot compare the Qur’an to any other literature.
Ayah VS Verse
Inside the Surah, we have Ayah which we sometimes translate as Verse. Here are some implications to consider why Ayah should not be translated as such:
1. Verse is used for poetries / songs. This is a major problem because we are putting the Ayah of the Qur’an on the same platform as poetry. The Qur’an emphatically stated that it is NOT a poetry:
And We have not taught him (Muhammad SAW) poetry, nor is it suitable for him. This is only a Reminder and a plain Qur’an. [Surah Yaseen 36:69]
It is surely the speech of a noble Messenger (that he conveys from Allah). And it is not the speech of a poet, (but) little you believe. [Surah Al-Haqqah 69:40-41]
2. Verse is usually associated with the Bible. When we talk about the Qur’an, we don’t want people to start thinking about the Bible; we don’t want to even give a hint that the Qur’an is associated with it, because of the corruption people have made to the Bible.
Therefore, just like the definition of Surah, the definition of Ayah remains as Ayah due to its uniqueness.
What about Ayah VS Sentence?
Some may wonder: Can Ayah be translated as a Sentence of the Qur’an? Here are some reasons why that is also impossible:
- Is Aliff Lam Meem a sentence? We don’t know if it is, or if it’s not. Only Allah knows what it means.
- A sentence is made up of several words. Look at the first Ayah of Surah Ar-Rahman:
Ar-Rahman. [Surah Ar-Rahman 55:1]
Is 1 word a sentence? No. Sometimes there are Ayat in the Quran that is less than a sentence. Sometimes there are 3 Ayat that goes together, making up 1 sentence. [Surah Al-Fatihah 1:1-3] Sometimes there is 1 Ayah but has 9 sentences inside! [Surah Al-Baqarah 2:255 i.e. Ayatul Kursi]
Therefore, it is also impossible to call an Ayah as a Sentence.
What is an Ayah?
From the Qur’an perspective:
- The unit of the Qur’an is Ayah. Allah s.w.t. says: “It is He Who has sent down to you (Muhammad SAW) the Book (this Qur’an). In it are Ayat that are entirely clear…” [Surah Ali-Imran 3:7]
- Allah s.w.t. also says “Verily, in Yusuf (a.s.) and his brothers, there were Ayat.” [Surah Yusuf 12:7]. So Ayat are not only parts of the Qur’an, but also people, history, human experiences, trees, mountains, the future, what is inside our body, our feelings, our hearts, our sleep, marriage – EVERYTHING in the universe & in existence is accurately define as an Ayah.
The question we should ask is not what is an Ayah, but what is NOT an Ayah? 🙂
From the language perspective: The root word for Ayah is hamza, ya, ya which gives many meanings. Some of them are:
- Something valuable – which means EVERYTHING we experience is valuable, every problem, every gift of Allah, every challenge in life, every day & night, every ANT is valuable.
- Something that inspires curiosity.
- Something that points to a direction. Every Ayah points to a direction – and that is Allah s.w.t. Himself.
- Something amazing – it is supposed to make you wonder. When the believers look at the creations of Allah, they become amazed by it because they confirm the existence of Allah as their Creator.
- Something to get our attention – Every Ayah is calling us; we have to pay attention to the reality around us as there are lessons to take heed.
- A means of bringing us certainty, a source of conviction.
- It means meaning itself – everything is meaningful, nothing is pointless.
- To have a strong purpose, intention.
- A sign.
All of the above is what an Ayah is. So it is impossible to limit Ayah by calling it a Verse or Sentence.
INTRODUCTION – A LITTLE BIT ABOUT ARABIC
We know that the Qur’an is revealed in Arabic, but there are many types of Arabic today. Thus it is critical for us to understand which Arabic is used for the Qur’an before we can analyze it.
3 kinds of Arabic:
- Spoken Arabic – Street Arabic, it’s an informal Arabic one uses in speech, has different dialects.
- Formal Arabic – The Arabic used in the newspapers, lectures, textbooks.
- Old / Classical / Ancient Arabic – Just like there is a big difference between Formal Arabic with Spoken Arabic, there is a BIG difference between Formal Arabic with Ancient Arabic. A lot of students make mistakes because they thought there is no difference.
The Arabs, even before the coming of Rasulallah s.a.w., lived in an isolated desert. Their neighbors were the Romans, Abyssinians, and Persians and these empires left the Arabs alone. One may wonder: How come these superpower didn’t want to take over the Arab lands to expand their own? The Arabs would have no chance against their massive army if they decided to attack.
The simple answer is: There was no oil yet 🙂 There was nothing in the desert, so there was no point of exhausting their manpower for this. Furthermore, if one of them decided to take over the land, then the other neighboring kingdoms would get agitated and start a war. So the Arabs were left alone.
Thus the only people the Arabs spoke to was with each other, with their own people. Some Arabs did some trade, but for the most part, not a lot of people from the outside came. Since there were less outside influences, they became an isolated culture and Arabic became more, and more, and more refined to the point that it became so advanced [just like how we would have some secret codes between close friends that we understand but others don’t :)]. So the Arabs became very proud of their language and really, really took care of it.
Fast-forward: When Allah s.w.t. gave Islam victory, many non-Arabs from different parts of the world entered into the Deen. So there were millions of foreigners and huge population of new Muslims that came to the Arab land, injecting their own sets of language and culture there.
So the Ancient Arabic language gets worse and worse. This happens even in our own times in all countries, where we can see with our own eyes that the decline in language due to outside influence can happen in a very short time. Even the Sahabah noticed this problem. So there were 3 movements that were put into motion: Movement to protect the Quran, movement to protect the Hadith, and movement to protect the Arabic language.
But how did they protect the language? The language in all of the big cities were getting contaminated. The uncontaminated Arabic remains and lies in the villages in secluded parts of the deserts. Thus we learn that previous scholars would leave the city, journeyed into the desert, in order to capture the original, ancient Arabic language.
Why the fuss? Because the Qur’an was revealed in this language.
We have a pair of glasses and there is some dirt on the lens. When we put them on, everything we see looks dirty. When we look at a pristine diamond with these dirty glasses, yes we do see something shiny, but it still seems dirty so we become less impressed with it. But if we look at the same diamond with clear, clean glasses – we will see its true beauty. The problem is not with the diamond, the problem lies with our glasses.
The Ancient Arabic is the clean, pure lens. We cannot look at the Qur’an from the Formal Arabic’s perspective. Just look at the word Ayah, how many meanings were we able to derive? We will not get these meanings from Formal Arabic. Ancient Arabic has died in the desert, and thus today it becomes a research and study. We have to learn this language so that we can analyze the Qur’an with the proper, unstained lens.
– Notes extracted from the Divine Speech Seminar by Ustadh Nouman Ali Khan.