My Journey Through the Quran

Syed Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi (1914-1999), also known as Shaikh Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi in the Arab world and Ustad Ebul Hasan Nedewi in Turkey and central Asia; was a renowned scholar, a prolific writer, an avid traveler, a social influencer and also a played the role of a politician priest for the Muslims of India.

Maulana Ali Miya, as he is popularly known, authored more than 50 books. He was the first Chairman of ‘Center for Islamic Studies’ at the University of Oxford, a visiting scholar at Madinah University and many other institutes of higher learning across the world. He served as the rector at his alma mater Nadwatul Ulama in Lucknow for nearly thirty years.

Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi was the co-founder and the first Chairman of All India Muslim Personal Law Board. His political stances often put him at loggerheads with governments in India, for instance the Shah Bano case during Rajiv Gandhi’s era and the Vande Mataram controversy during the time of Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

(Late) Professor Mushirul Hasan, the former Vice-Chancellor of Jamia Millia Islamia and a vocal critic of Maulana’s political thought wrote in his obituary[1] for the latter, “ Ali Mian, as he was popularly known, is no more. But this spiritual and intellectual mentor of the north Indian Muslims will be remembered for his piety, his profound scholarship and erudition.……within the framework of traditional Islamic scholarship, Ali Mian was perhaps the most outstanding Muslim scholar in post-1947 India. He travelled far and wide in his quest for knowledge, pursued his intellectual probing…..and eventually prepared his own blueprint for a safe and secure future for his co-religionists……He has left behind a rich intellectual legacy, although it must be carried forth in the eclectic spirit that had guided the founders of Nadwa.

This article in Urdu by Maulana Ali Miya was published in the form of a short book titled ‘Mere Quran ke Motaale ki Surgushist’ in 2017. I have attempted here to translate it into English.

Muhammad bhi Tera, Jibreel bhi, Quran bhi Tera
Magar ye harf-e-sheeree’n tarjuma Tera hai ya Mera

(Muhammad (PBUH) is thine, Gabriel Thine and Thine is the Quran
But this charming rendition is Thine or Mine?)
– Sir Muhammad Iqbal

My Journey Through the Quran

My initiation to the Quran was in consonance with the traditions prevalent among Muslim households to this day. Once fluent at reading, I spent time reciting and re-reading the holy scripture. However much to the dismay of my elders, I struggled at being regular with my recitation and learning endeavors. This changed when I was finally inducted into learning the Arabic language, and I gradually started to somewhat understand the meaning of the verses recited.

My teacher Sheikh Khaleel Bin Muhammad Arab had an exquisite liking for and devotion towards the Holy Writ. During my childhood, I remember him often praying at our mosque. The Sheikh came from the tribe about which Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) had said, “The people of Yemen have the gentlest minds and softest hearts[2]. God had blessed my teacher with immense treasures of piety and sentiment; it was difficult for him to hold back his intense emotions while reading and reciting the Quran; his choked voice, the trail of tears covering his face, the melancholy and his beautiful rendition left a deep and lasting impact on me. I remember him well starting with one of the larger Surahs[3] derived from the last two of the thirty paaraas of the Quran, but often overpowered with the beauty and magnificence of the text he was forced to cut the prayers short – fellow worshippers were often left asking for more of his beautiful and powerful recital.

The beginning of my Quranic education was under his tutelage. A firm believer in the indivisible oneness of the Divine, the sheikh’s faith was pure and deep and he aimed to embolden the same conviction among his students. I am grateful to Allah for blessing me with a tutor of such impeccable integrity and pristine faith. Surah Zumar in the Holy Quran, that includes some very powerful and clear injunctions related to Tawheed[4] was sheikh’s most liked chapter of the holy book. He delivered lectures on this Surah when I started to proverbially walk with the language after the slow crawl; lectures on Surah Zumar were followed by Surah Momin and Surah Ash Shura. The sheikh had an inherent affinity towards some specific parts of these chapters. This was reflected in his enthusiasm and the emotions he personified while reading, reciting and teaching them; for example, one of these ‘parts’ were the last 10 verses (190-200) of Surah Al Imran (Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s translation)

190- Behold! In the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the alternation of night and day, – there are indeed signs for men of understanding

191- Men who celebrate the praises of Allah, standing, sitting and, lying down on their sides, and contemplate the (wonders of) creation in the heavens and the earth, (With the thought): “Our Lord! not for naught Hast Thou created (all) this! Glory to Thee! Give us salvation from the penalty of the Fire

192- “Our Lord! any whom Thou dost admit to the Fire, Truly Thou coverest with shame, and never will wrong doers find any helpers!

193- “Our Lord! we have heard the call of one calling (Us) to Faith, ‘Believe ye in the Lord,’ and we have believed. Our Lord! Forgive us our sins, blot out from us our iniquities, and take to Thyself our souls in the company of the righteous.

194 – “Our Lord! Grant us what Thou didst promise unto us through Thine messengers, and save us from shame on the Day of Judgement: For Thou never breakest Thy Promise.”

195 – And their Lord hath accepted of them, and answered them: “Never will I suffer to be lost the work of any of you, be he male or female: Ye are members, one of another: Those who have left their homes, or been driven out therefrom, or suffered harm in My cause, or fought or been slain, – verily, I will blot out from them their iniquities, and admit them to gardens with rivers flowing beneath – A reward from the presence of Allah, and from his presence is the best of rewards.”

196 – Let not the strutting about of the Unbelievers through the land deceive thee:

197 – Little is it for enjoyment: Their ultimate abode is Hell: what an evil bed (To lie on)!

198 – On the other hand, for those who fear their Lord, are Gardens, with rivers flowing beneath; therein are they to dwell (forever), – a gift from the presence of Allah; and that which is in the presence of Allah is the best (bliss) for the righteous

199 – And there are, certainly, among the People of the Book, those who believe in Allah, in the revelation to you, and in the revelation to them, bowing in humility to Allah: They will not sell the signs of Allah for a miserable gain! For them is a reward with their Lord, and Allah is swift in account

200- O ye who believe! Persevere in patience and constancy; vie in such perseverance; strengthen each other; and fear Allah; that ye may prosper

As per Sahih (authentic) Hadith traditions, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) would recite these verses from Surah Al Imran before Tahajjud[5] prayers. Another Rukuh (group of verses) that Sheikh Khaleel Bin Muhammad Arab would recite often with passion was from Surah Al-Furqan (Verses 63-75)

63- And the servants of the Most Merciful are those who walk upon the earth easily, and when the ignorant address them (harshly) they say (words of) peace

64- And those who spend (part of) the night to their Lord prostrating and standing (in prayer)

65- And those who say, “Our Lord, avert from us the punishment of Hell. Indeed, its punishment is ever adhering

66- Indeed, it is evil as a settlement and residence

67 – And (they are) those who, when they spend, do so not excessively or sparingly but are ever, between that, (justly) moderate

68 – And those who do not invoke with Allah another deity or kill the soul which Allah has forbidden (to be killed), except by right, and do not commit unlawful sexual intercourse. And whoever should do that will meet a penalty

69 – Multiplied for him is the punishment on the Day of Resurrection, and he will abide therein humiliated-

70- Except for those who repent, believe and do righteous work. For them Allah will replace their evil deeds with good. And ever is Allah Forgiving and Merciful

71- And he who repents and does righteousness does indeed turn to Allah with (accepted) repentance

72- And (they are) those who do not testify to falsehood, and when they pass near ill speech, they pass by with dignity

73- And those who, when reminded of the verses of their lord, do not fall upon them deaf and blind

74- And those who say, “Our Lord, grant us from among our wives and offspring comfort to our eyes and make us an example for the righteous.”

75 – Those will be awarded the Chamber for what they patiently endured, and they will be received therein with greetings and (words of) peace.

It is as if I can still hear him reciting these verses with melancholy in his voice and eloquence in his articulation. Listening to him often, I started to like these verses too and thus started my intellectual journey with the Quran.

The furtherance of my noesis for Arabic language helped me develop an interest in reading and understanding the Quran. At that time, our family was faced with strangely atypical circumstances, where it seemed as if many verses of the Quran were manifesting themselves before my eyes and bearing testimony to God’s Universal and All-Encompassing attributes. It became evident that the rise and fall of nations, communities and tribes were in congruence with their characters and actions Verily never will God change the condition of a people until they change it themselves (With their own souls)” (Surah Ar R’ad: Verse 11).

I had reached a stage where I was convinced with utmost palpability and certitude, while reading the Holy Quran, that it is a living book of guidance for the life and times of those who are truly alive. It is like an album of life where each individual can not only see their own reflection but themselves too. The Quran says, We have certainly sent down to you a Book in which is your mention” (Surah Al Anbiyaa: Verse 10) – there have been multiple interpretations and commentaries on this verse. One of them is that it speaks directly to the reader; Hazrat Ahnaf Bin Qais (R.A), an illustrious Tabi[6]’ on hearing this verse is said to have asked for the Quran and said ‘Let me see in what words am I mentioned in the Book’. Turning many pages and reading through many verses, he stopped at a verse and said ‘I found my mention’. The verse was “And (there are) others who have acknowledged their sins. They had mixed a righteous deed with another that was bad. Perhaps Allah will turn to them in forgiveness. Indeed, Allah is Forgiving and Merciful” (Surah At-Tawbah: Verse 102).

I was astounded by the profoundness of the Quran in its underlining of the causes and circumstances for the rise and fall of nations, tribes and individuals. Despite my intellectual cowardice, imperfect knowledge and limited exposure to the history of nations and tribes, this theme and the principles were conspicuous in my surroundings. This experience furthered my interest and affinity towards the Holy Quran. I remember reading with relish Surah Maaid’ahSurah Anaam and Surah Araaf in particular during those days.

I am not sure if it was just charming coincidence or a divine favor – I am inclined more to believe the latter, that my education, unlike most students pursuing religious studies, was not all clubbed into one. Also, I was introduced, taught and trained into each discipline independently. My teacher, Sheikh Khaleel, was a man of great intellect and vision. He introduced and acquainted us with the Arabic language through its literary and cultural treasures. Staring with the basic reader by the name of  Al Arabiya, we were also taught complicated texts such as Nahjatul Balaghat wa Hamasa [7] and Dalaael Al Ijaaz[8]I spent three years spending days and nights in understanding and learning Arab literature, culture and etiquette under the tutelage of my nous teacher, I thus started to develop an aptitude for deciphering the subtleties of a given text without much support. Thus was the gradual dawn of the mystifying and enchanting light of the Quran. It became a reality so distinct that no interlocution was further required. Each and every word of the text attests to its divine origins and even the collective spite and refusal of all mankind cannot alter this truth in any way.

Gaining knowledge on Arabic language and literature, I became affluent enough at Arabic to develop the right taste for the intricacies of the Quran and its uniqueness among all Arabic literary treasures I encompassed. I shall be grateful until eternity to my benevolent teacher and loving brother[9] for helping me trod this path.

Rooh e Pardam Shaad ke Farmood be Ostaaz
Farzand Mara Ishq Baya Moz Degar Haech

(Poet Unknown)

(May God bless my father’s soul who said to the teacher,
Teach nothing to my child but love)
[Translated by Akram Gholemi]

In my opinion, the teaching methodologies of our Arabic Madarsas (Seminaries) are lacking in leading to such results. The outworn existing curriculum lacks the life and soul necessary to instill this prowess. The witless and wanton syllabi at these institutions is a compilation of books ill-suited to develop the right taste for the language. It usually includes texts written by Non-Arabs in times when the prime of Arabic language, literature and culture was on the decline. It is practically unfeasible to encompass the efficacy and experience the serenity of the Holy Quran through the archaic rhetoric of these texts. Any exception to this is a mere coincidence in both logical and customary order of things.

 After graduating from Sheikh Khaleel’s course, I was lucky to gain the tutorship of Allama Muttaqi ud Din Hilaali Marakeshhi – a prominent scholar of contemporary Arabic Literature and I consider him to be the first among equals of all the masters of this genre. Later, I spent time learning Fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) at Darul Uloom Nadwatul Ulama [10]and studied Hadith under Maulana Haider Husain Khan, a renowned DarsI Nizami [11]scholar. The maulana also taught me some parts of Tafsir Baizawi[12]Later, I travelled to Lahore to study Maulana Ahmad Ali’s exegesis of the Holy Quran directly from the man himself. Maulana Ahmad Ali was a distinguished disciple of the illustrious Maulana Abdullah Sindhi. Maulana Ahmad Ali’s elucidation and commentary of the Quran was donnishly fixated on the political philosophy of the scripture. His work did not leave much of a mark on me intellectually. However, I was deeply influenced by Maulana’s moral character and his vehement belief in the indivisibility of the Divine.

After returning from Lahore and completing my studies in Hadith, I dedicated all my time in reading and trying to comprehend various commentaries on the Quran. I forgot to mention earlier that I also scrutinized and scanned through some Quranic assessments of Sheikh ul Islam Ibn Taymiyyah[13] and the works of Maulana Hamiduddin Farahi [14]as a student. Most of my learning in these days was through tutoring myself; when in doubt, I referred to other commentaries for clarification. Prominent explications that I read word by word in those days include Al Baghawi[15]’s Ma’alim at-Tanzil, Jalal ud Din al-Mahalli[16]’s Tafsir al-Jalalayn (the tafsir was completed by al-Mahalli’s student Jalal ud Din as-Suyuti[17] after the former’s death), Allama Zamahshari’s detailed commentary of the Quran and Allama Nasafi[18]’s exegesis – I remember reading each word of the first half of his magnum opus; the other half, I glanced through.

While going through various commentaries, I realized that a single interpretation no matter how elaborate, could not suffice the grey matter for all and sundry due to the diversity in intellects and tastes. More often than not, a doubt faced by a proverbially less intelligent reader is overlooked by those with more accomplished intellects. Thus, the latter moves ahead without paying much attention to the details. Some of my qualms, while trying to understand the scripture, could not be addressed through renowned and celebrated commentaries, but through relatively obscure, little known and much less read books.  

When it fell upon my lowly being to give lectures on The Quran at Nadwatul Ulama, I had more time and good reason to dedicate my entity in reading and comparing various commentaries of the Holy Book. Allama Alusi’s commentary Rooh al Muani was of great help during this time. An experience that I would specifically like to highlight from this time was in regards with Tafseer al Kabeer[19], which has unnecessarily been infamous among the intelligentsia much to my dismay. The disgust from the commentary is such that it has also been said that ‘Everything else is true except this’. I say this with all sincerity that Tafseer al Kabeer does not deserve this disdain, and this commentary holds rare treasures that are not to be found in other less disliked and more renowned works. At this time, I happened to glance through many other writings on the Quran among which was Abu Hayaan’s [20]Tafsir Al Bahr Al Muhit, however, these did not leave much impression on my mind. Allama Rasheed Reza[21]’s Tafseer al Manaar is also an important and useful work worth mentioning here along with Arbab ul Quran, a commonly taught commentary in Madarsas.

 Maulana Abdul Majid Darybadi[22]’s exposition titled Tafseer e Majidi had not been published by that time, and the addendum in English language was being added. I happened to travel to Daryabad on certain occasions usually to discuss, clarify and seek clarity on affairs related to historical events and other religious and sectarian opinions; the excursions to Daryabad were intellectually fulfilling indeed. A lot of what was discussed with Maulana Abdul Majid Daryabadi has been recorded in his work Tafseer e Majidi; it is indeed a valuable resource for understanding the Quran, especially for those who do not have the time and convenience to delve deep into other traditional commentaries.

Upon the completion of my teaching responsibilities and retiring from that capacity, I dedicated more time in furthering my understanding of the Holy Scripture. I thus chanced upon Tafseer e Tabari[23]. I was amazed at the extent of knowledge lying within those pages. Tafseer e Tabari is a profuse documentation of the history and culture of pre-Islamic Arabia, in addition to being a detailed commentary and interpretation of the Quran. In my opinion, it is the best resource to comprehend the circumstances, social environment, context and the various stages of Quranic revelation. The possession of this commentary can rightly be classified among the highest gifts of providence.

 It’ll indeed be an act of injustice and inequity should I not mention a brilliant scholarly work. This though is not an exhaustive commentary of the Quran, but a masterly rendition in Urdu language. I am referring to Shah Abdul Qadir’s[24] Muzeh al Quran. This Urdu translation is an exceptional treasure for sincere seekers of Quranic knowledge. My assertion would certainly ring a bell with those who have waded in detail various commentaries, interpretations and analyses of the Quran and are also familiar with the archetypal toil associated with presenting the right meaning in its true context; such people will truly value and appreciate the sheer brilliance of Shah Abdul Qadir’s delineation that lays bare such strains through pertinent words bringing out the true meaning. Almost all of Quran’s Urdu translators post Shah sahib, have taken more than a cue from his work. I remember well my teacher Maulana Haider Husain Khan used to tell us with interest that late Maulana Mazhar Nanautvi (RA), the co-founder and patron of Jamia Mazahir Uloom [25]at Saharanpur would make his students read Shah Abdul Qadir’s translation after teaching various other detailed commentaries.

 Now keeping my academic experiences aside, I believe that the doors to true treasures of the Quran are opened and the curtains are lifted when one ponders over the word of God with no interlocutors in between, through regular and sustained reading of the scripture, through voluntary prayers with virtuous intentions and deeds and in the righteous company of those who live by the Quranic values of rectitude and morality. It is important that the reader should feel as if he or she is the direct addressee of the Quran. The poet has said it right,

Tere zameer pe jab tak na ho nuzool e Kitaab
Girah kusha hai na razi shib e kashaaf

(Unless the book is revealed unto your heart
Interpreters though profound, cannot expound the subtleties) 
(Muhammad Iqbal)

[1] Frontline, January 22, 2000 (Print)

[2] Reference : Musnad by Imam Ahmad Bin Hanbal (on the authority of Hazrat Abu Said al-Khudri (RA))

[3] Surah: A chapter in the Holy Quran is referred as Surah

[4] Oneness of God

[5] Pre-dawn prayers

[6] Successors of Sahaba, each Tabi’s is said to have personally known atleast one Sahabi (Sahabi: Companion of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH))

[7] Nahjatul Balaghat (The way of Eloquence) is a collection of sermons, letters, Quranic explanations by Caliph Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and the fourth Caliph of Islam

[8] Dalail al-Ijaz (Proof of the inimitability of the Quran) by Abdul Qahir al-Jurjani (d1078) a prominent Muslim thinker of the eleventh century

[9] Dr. Maulana Syed Abdul Ali Hasani (Writer’s elder brother)

[10] Darul Uloom Nadwatul Ulama: An Islamic university founded in 1893, located in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh

[11] Dars-I Nizami – A study methodology originated and developed in the Indian subcontinent

[12] A popular classical Quranic interpretation composed in the thirteenth century by Al Baydawi

[13] Fourteenth century Islamic scholar, jurist and philosopher

[14] Twentieth century Islamic scholar from India.

[15] Abu Muhammad al Husain ibn Masud ibn Muhammad al-Farra’al Baghawi was an eleventh century Persian jurist, Hadith scholar, Quran scholar, philosopher and thinker

[16] Abu Abdullah Muhammad ibn Shahabuddin Jalaluddin al-Mahalli was a fifteenth century Egyptian scholar of Quran and jurisprudence

[17] Al-Suyuti was an Egyptian scholar, jurist, historian and theologian

[18] Abu Hafs Umar al-Nasafi was a twelfth century Persian historian, theologian and writer

[19] Al Tafsir Al Kabir – a 12th century exegesis and commentary on the Holy Quran by Muhammad Ibn Umar Fakhr al Din al-Razi

[20] Abū Ḥayyān Athīr ad-Dīn al-Gharnāṭī – A thirteenth century Spanish commentator of the Quran and Arabic grammarian

[21] (Allama) Muhammad Rasheed Reza (1865-1935) – An Islamic reformer and a proponent of Islamic Modernism

[22] (Maulana) Abdul Majid Daryabadi – An Indian Muslim scholar, writer and commentator of the Holy Quran

[23] An interpretation of the Holy Quran by Ninth century Persian scholar Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari

[24] Shah Abdul Qadir Dehlvi (1753 – 1815): A renowned Islamic scholar and son of Shah Waliullah Dehlvi

[25] Established in 1866, it is among the largest Islamic seminaries in North India