Quran: A Dialogic, Polyphonic Text

Quran: A Dialogic, Polyphonic Text

All attempts at understanding the Quran as a whole would be successful only if its coherence is taken care of, which seeks to bring the attention of the reader to one and only one thing, that is, to read the Quran for seeking guidance

The meaning of the word Quran in Arabic is to read and to keep things in a proper order (that is, to make something cohesive and coherent, like the pearls of a necklace). The Quran is the name of the holy book that Allah, the Almighty, revealed upon the last prophet of Islam, Mohammad (PBUH). In the holy Quran itself, Allah has used many other names for this book, for example, Furqan (a book that differentiates between truth and falsehood), Zikra (a book that serves as reminder for the mankind), Nur (a book that is full of divine light for the mankind) and so on. While reading this book of guidance, a serious reader realises easily that the Quran is actually a book that engages man in a serious conversation with Allah. A further serious engagement with the book reveals to the eyes of a reader that at every step in the Book there is actually unfolding a serious dialogue between Allah and the Prophet, between Allah and His servants, between Allah and mankind as a whole, between Allah and the believers and non-believers from amongst mankind, between Allah and nature, and between Allah and the angels and djins; in other words, one can say that the discourse of the Quran is polyphonic, having different addressers and multiple addressees all of whom are subservient to the central voice and command of Allah who wants the upliftment of mankind from a mere species to the status of His vicegerents.
This dialogic nature of the Quranic text has been theorised and explained by one of the most important twentieth-century Islamic scholars of India, Maulana Imam Hamid ud Din Farahi, in his Nizam ul Quran, Rasa’il, Mufradat ul Quran, Aqsam ul Quran and other books on the subject. His student, Maulana Amin Ahsan Islahi, has further explicated the theory of Farahi in his monumental exegesis of the Quran titled Taddabur al Quran. In this write-up, I would try to build on the same theory and present some glimpses of the dialogic nature of the Quranic discourse.
First and foremost what I would like to state about the subject is that Allah is the addresser of the Quran and His address throughout the Quran is directed to either the Prophet or to the believers or to the non-believers or to the hypocrites or to mankind as a whole or to the nations and people who were no more at the time of the revelation of this Book. Then Allah either makes these addressees to speak in various contexts or quotes them in different contexts or assumes them to talk to Him or respond to Him in different contexts. This aspect of the Quranic discourse makes it not only dialogic but polyphonic as well. It further points to an important fact about the Quran that through this continuous and sustained dialogue, it actually is all the time subservient to the chief addresser, Allah, to the three key central themes of the Quran: tawheed, risalat, and life after death. There are hundreds of sub-themes in the Quran that one would always find subservient to these three central and key themes; therefore, the dialogue among different speakers in the Quranic text revolves around these main themes with reference to and through the hundreds of sub-themes that are involved in the making of the Quranic text.
Secondly, what is very beautiful about this dialogue and polyphony in the Quran is the shift from one voice to another. Those who are not familiar with the concept of coherence and cohesion in the Quran would say that the Quran is not an organised discourse and would also claim that it is an assemblage of aayats that are disjointed and unorganised, as has been the claim of many Orientalists and Muslim scholars as well, latently or manifestly. However, those who are well versed in the science of coherence and cohesion and have a good understanding of the Quranic language would find such claims baseless the moment they realise how from the beginning to the end the Quran is not only a continuous and constant flow but in this constant and continuous flow of conversation there is also a proper shift from one voice to another, which makes it a dialogue and a highly organised and well-connected discourse also. From the Suratush Shifa to Surat an Naas, the small and big chapters of the Quran testify to this singularity with multiplicity of voices and then within every chapter of the Quran all the aayats do also testify to the same fact. In his Nizam al Quran and Rasa’il, Imam Hamid ud Din Farahi has in detail explained and theorised the concept of coherence that exists in the discourse of the Quran. In his seminal work on the subject, he has not only theorised the concept but illustrated it with the help of hundreds of examples from individual aayats to chapters of the Quran. In fact, from individual words to aayats to chapters to the whole Book, this well-knit linguistic dialogue offers an extraordinary example of the singularity of the Quran and makes it much in tune with the themes of tawheed that is the mother of all other themes of the Quranic discourse.
Thirdly, apart from having an addresser and an addressee, what a proper dialogue requires is a message that is sent across through a mutually understood code. The Quran, whether it is being reflective about nature and the whole cosmos, or is admonishing the non-believer or the disbeliever or the hypocrites, or sharing glad tidings with the believers, a reader familiar with the language of the Quran at every juncture understands that the Quran has a message for all and that, too, according to their capacity of receptivity. While quoting from past history of nations and people, it not only quotes what they would believe and say about Allah and His prophets and about life after death, but it also picks up a past message and shares it with its present and future addressees. In a successful and effective communication, if the message is not communicated properly, the dialogue and communication ceases to be effective and successful. The message is communicated through a code which can be the shared language between the addresser and the addressee. Both need to understand the metaphors and symbols of the language in which the dialogue is taking place. In the Quran, we find that when Allah has to talk to an audience which is highly reflective, it creates a discourse that is highly reflective and philosophical in nature and the message is communicated through that metaphoric and symbolic representation; however, when it has to communicate a message that must be understood by one and all, it comes up with direct and simple messages. Similarly, there are instances when the Quran intends to serve reminders to mankind wherein the messages are full of examples from human history which are known to the target audience and so it is easy for them to identify with the message.
As no dialogue in our mundane conversations can be without a context, which has a text, a pre-text, a sub-text and a post-text, similarly the aayats of the Quran cannot be understood without reference to the context and the relationship of one aayat with the other. As Islamic scholars unanimously opine, parts of the Quran explain other parts of the Quran, thus it becomes the responsibility of the readers of the Quran to see how such relationships and interrelationships are possible within the text of the Quran. Such readings will definitely save the reader from many misunderstandings about the various messages of the Quranic aayats as the contexts in which the aayat appears would reveal to a reader the essence of the meanings which Allah wants to send across. In this context, readers may help themselves by attempting explanations which are easy to understand and which are in tune with the central message of the Quran; therefore, one would enjoy the conversation with Allah and would also be able to dispel the darkness of doubt and uncertainty that Satan may cast upon the intellect of a reader. An example in this context may be Surat al Anfal and Surat al Bara’t which most people read without reference to the context in which they appear and with least regard to the essence that follows the aayat that ask for war against infidels and those who force war upon believers.
There might be a question from the readers of this write-up: why is it important for the readers of the Quran to know about these technical features of the Quran, ranging from its language to its cohesion and coherence to its dialogic text? This is an important question and deserves to be addressed. Imam Farahi has in detail responded to such queries in his Rasa’il and it would be in place to briefly respond to this question here. The message(s) that Allah intends to put across through the text of the Quran exist in the language of the Quran; therefore, no profound understanding of the Quran could be possible without understanding the language of the Quran. Secondly, as all communications are rooted in different codes, the language of the Quran has also a code and that code is rooted in its linguistic culture; therefore, anybody who wants to understand the Quran with all its profundity is supposed to familiarise himself with the linguistic culture of these code. Thirdly, more than six-thousand aayats of the Quran demand that the reader is fully able to develop relations, interrelations and correlations among these aayats for a broader understanding of the Quran, which again is not possible until the reader is able to understand the structures of the Quranic dialogue and conversation with Allah. Fourthly, all the attempts at understanding the Quran as a whole would be successful only if its coherence is taken care of, which seeks to bring the attention of the reader to one and only one thing, that is, to read the Quran for seeking guidance. Last but not the least, the understanding of all the linguistic tools is to be treated as a means to an end, which is to listen to what Allah wants from man and how He wants to shape and nurture him through the guidance that is recorded in the Quran.
Concluding, the prayer to find the straight path that is recorded in the opening chapter of the Quran finds its echoes and reverberation through the discourse(s) of the Quran in the form of a long and sustained dialogue which is polyphonic and multi-contextual and highly illustrative. One-hundred-fourteen small and big chapters, having more than six-thousand aayats, are an extraordinary unified whole, all directed towards bringing the fallen man back to his Edenic innocence and purity, and directing him towards the straight path the features of which have been very clearly shown through the discourse(s) of the Quran. It is not Allah alone who speaks in the Quran; rather, He records and documents the voices of those people also who believe and disbelieve and those of us also who transgress. It is, therefore, a multicultural and polyphonic text which listens to all but directs towards the path which is sublime and suitable to the status of man and the purpose of his creation. Lest we forget, Allah has even recorded the voices of animals, stars and planets, and insects. Such a democratic and open dialogue in the Quran points to the fact that guidance from Allah is like the light of the sun, which we see and never dispute, provided one has the eyes to see. The aayats of the Quran are signs unto themselves and each sign is complemented by hundreds and thousands of signs that the microcosm and the macrocosm contain in varied forms. Every sign in the Quran initiates a dialogue which is echoed by the dialogue within and without us. May Allah help us in understanding His Book and the books within and without us, for His signs spread in multicolour forms all around us!

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