A THEMATIC COMMENTARY ON THE QUR’AN by Shaykh Muhammad al-Ghazali. Pub: International Institute of Islamic Thought, USA; Islamic Book Trust Malaysia [ibtbooks.com], 2000. Pp: 800; Price: RM60.00.
The Qur’an, even when analysed by non-Muslims, is widely (though not universally) acknowledged as being of divine origin. Its contents, organised in 114 surahs (or ‘chapters’) are all-encompassing. The text of the Qur’an is awe-inspiring in prose and content, yet poses challenges in interpretation to most readers. When the student is not proficient in Arabic, the language of the Qur’an (and indeed of the Hereafter), he is dependent on works of translation, hoping that the translator has remained as true to the word and meaning of God’s revelations as is humanly possible. While there can be no other-language equivalent to the original text in the original language, some commendable English translations (with the Arabic text in close proximity on the same page, which is very important) are in print and available.
Publications that elaborate and explain the divine revelations are invaluable aids in understanding the Quran. That is precisely what this book is: an invaluable aid. These 800 pages consist of a surah-by-surah commentary of the Qur’an. The book identifies the main themes of each surah and how these relate to the main themes of the Noble Reading. This enables the reader to appreciate the ‘character’ of each surah.
This book is not a substitute for translations of the Qur’an (which in turn are no substitute for the Qur’an itself); nor does it claim to be. It would be unreasonable to expect such a book to cite every verse of the Qur’an somewhere or other; instead, selected Qur’anic verses are chosen to form the nucleus around which the discussion of each surah is organised. The circumstances and events in which verses were revealed are described, giving the reader added insight into and appreciation of the verses in question. The author then applies his considerable knowledge of the Qur’an and the deen, tempered by his God-given hikmah (wisdom) to explore the topic at hand.
In this book the late Shaykh Muhammad al-Ghazali conveys the concept of Islam as a truly complete way of living, in a most attractive manner. His credentials as a persuasive and knowledgeable scholar are demonstrated clearly in this work. A typical example is in the chapter on surah at-Tawbah (9), where he counsels that "the mission of the Muslim community in the world is to recognise God’s sovereignty and to make the rest of mankind aware of it, to worship God and to urge others to submit to Him. It is a community that stands for the right to worship God and opposes religious persecution in all forms. Muslims believe in the right of all humans to live according to the beliefs (i.e. religion) of their choosing, and to support all victims of oppression."
It must be noted that at-Tawbah is the surah that gives the sternest warnings from Allah to themushrikeen (literally, those who associate partners with Allah). The surah begins by openly declaring the bara’ah (dissociation) of Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala, His Messenger (saw) and the Muslims from the mushrikeen, because shirk is the most grievious crime in the sight of Allah. Most commentators of the Qur’an have expressed the opinion that these stern warnings are the reason that surah at-tawbah is the only surah that does not start with the tasmia (bismillahi ar-Rahman ar-Raheem: "in the name of God the Merciful and Compassionate", roughly). The tasmiaunderlines Allah’s attributes of mercy and compassion, which those have no right to hope for who give their allegiance to any but Allah, because such behaviour is the ultimate treachery.
Shaykh al-Ghazzali had committed the Qur’an to memory (that is, he became a hafiz of the Qur’an) by the age of 10 years, and spent the remaining 70 years of his life learning and working out its meanings and significance. That the book (in its original Arabic edition) was written in the 1990s results in the relevance of topical issues quoted as examples. A Thematic Commentary is therefore the sharing of one man’s rich experience of the Qur’an and of life, founded on a sound base of knowledge and insight.
The author, in appraising the Muslims of this age, comments candidly on the "pathetic and miserable state of Muslims today." He laments the Muslims’ shortsightedness and loss of purpose, and identifies their "pursuit of worldly pleasures", which today is "elevated to the status of religion, and people have all but forgotten about accountability in the hereafter."
Shaykh al-Ghazali also provides us with valuable notes on various interesting points: for example, the chapter on Surah al-Mu’minun (23) has a paragraph that informs us about the likely modern-day geographical locations of the places where prophets Nuh, Hud, Salih, Shu`ayb, Ibrahim, Musa and Isa (peace and blessings be upon them all), appeared or delivered their message.
The book also picks out verses that are sobering and strong reminders to humanity: "He [Allah] forgives sins and accepts repentance; His punishment is severe and His bounty is infinite" (Ghafir40:3); "to God belongs all that is in the heavens and on earth, ...do not therefore be infatuated by your self-importance" (an-Najm 53:31-32).
In the chapter reviewing surah al-Hadid (57), the author repeats that the Muslim community’s "mission is to impart and communicate God’s message, leaving people free to decide whether to believe or reject it. Those who refuse to believe are free to pursue their lives in peace as long as they do not pose any obstacle or threat to Islam and the Muslims, who perceive their faith as the strongest and most vital binding relationship between God and humankind and that it is their responsibility to make others aware of it and provide them with the opportunity to understand and appreciate it."
The Qur’an itself helps us to open our eyes to its "virtues" (that is the benefits that we can avail ourselves of from it), as we read in surah Yunus (10:57): "O Mankind! There hath come to you a warning from your Lord and a Healing for (the diseases in) your hearts, and for those who believe a guidance and a mercy."
The concept of tilawah, which is the reading, understanding and application of (i.e. living) the Qur’an, is an unending journey for human beings. Reading the Qur’an is like walking in an enchanted forest, with blooms of divine knowledge at every step; new buds appear with each repeated excursion. This book helps us to uncover even more of them to our sight. Its author and and translator have performed an invaluable service for the Ummah.