How difficult is the Quran?

  • And what one requires for its understanding


Is Quran a difficult book to understand? Of course, the words ‘easy’ and ‘difficult’ are relative, so what’s easy for one man may be difficult for another. As the last revelation, and for the whole of mankind for all time to come (as Muslims believe it is), one would expect it to be accessible to the masses. Indeed, one verse that recurs four times in the Quran says the same. ‘Certainly, we have made the Quran simple to serve as a reminder. So, is there anyone who will take heed?’ [54:17,22,32,40]

For those not familiar with Arabic, the first difficulty is obviously the language itself. Only a minority of Muslims speak Arabic. If one considers all inhabitants of the planet, the percentage of those who understand Arabic is very small indeed. Fortunately, multiple translations are available in all languages; and since there is no dispute about the original text, there is little room for translators to go very far from the text. (Exegeses are a different matter, but more on that shortly.) So, while one may need a teacher (or a translator) to understand the Quran, it can certainly be done without having any scholastic credentials. Of course, like any other study, it requires mental effort and sincerity on the part of the reader. There’s no escape from that.

It’s unfortunately true that the layman often makes it difficult for himself by unnecessarily bringing in matters of fiqh (jurisprudence) into his understanding of the Quran, and imposing meanings on it from culture and/or texts other than the Quran. Many exegetes have also been guilty of the same. (The author has covered an aspect of the issue in these pages in an article entitled, ‘Quran and hadees’). The ordinary man should be able to understand the message of the Quran, provided he sticks to the text (or the translation) and doesn’t rely too much on one exegesis (tafseer) or another.

The basic message of the Quran then is loud and clear, and easy enough to understand. This should suffice for the purposes of the majority, since few among any community are scholars or philosophers. In this respect, the Quran is not at all difficult to understand. It repeats its core message now from this angle, now from that one; emphasising this aspect in one place and that aspect in another. And this is what one expects of it too. For who should know how best to talk to man but his Creator? Unfortunately, there are many Muslims who say the Quran can only be understood by a select few. Some of them obviously don’t know what they are talking about, but others (the professional clerics) have ulterior motives of their own. And no wonder, because the ordinary man relying blindly on their interpretations does no harm whatsoever to their politics and bank balances.

It’s unfortunately true that the layman often makes it difficult for himself by unnecessarily bringing in matters of fiqh (jurisprudence) into his understanding of the Quran, and imposing meanings on it from culture and/or texts other than the Quran

So much for the basic understanding that is vital for a Muslim. But is that all there is to the Quran? Not even close. This is a book that claims that it is complete (in theological matters); and nothing has been left out of it. ‘And no argument do they bring to you, but We give you the truth and the best explanation’ [25:33]. For those who are of a philosophical or academic disposition, there’s a wealth of material in it over and above the basic understanding. In addition to answering every argument against it; it deals with complex matters such as free-will and predestination, the limitations of human knowledge and God’s attributes from the human point of view. According to a hadees, the wonders of this book will never cease. It is this breadth and depth that makes it probably the most difficult book in the world. One could spend a lifetime on it and still cover only a small portion of it. Coming from the Creator of the universe, again this is what one would expect of it.

There’s another group that complains that the Quran is too difficult to understand for ordinary folks. Interestingly, this group is diametrically opposed in temperament to the professional clerics who make the same claim for very different reasons. ‘As a man of the world, I must earn a living, raise kids and what not; so how can I be reasonably expected to understand the theological intricacies of the Quran?’, or so the argument goes. Leaning towards atheism, this group is not against the Quran in particular, but rejects all revelation on these grounds. When one of them is told that not everybody is required to be a scholar of the Quran any way, he then proceeds to critique the Quranic arguments, usually in a very superficial manner. This is a very dishonest position, because by his own admission he doesn’t possess the time (or the intellect) to understand the thesis (the original arguments); but mysteriously has time (and intellect) to understand the antithesis (refutation of the arguments).

There are many layers to the understanding of the Quran. The ordinary man and the scholar obviously have different questions, and the Quran has the capacity to satisfy the simpleton and the intellectual alike. However, it has no benefit for those who pick and choose depending on what is convenient.