How to understand the Quran?

The Quran is an Arabic book consisting of 114 chapters (surahs), essentially it outlines all the principles of the Islamic faith. It has reached us through many chains of reliable sources (mutawatir). The most common and strong chain is  called “Hafs”, this chain is as follows :


  1. Hafs bin Sulaiman al Asadi Al Kufi  (shia)
  2. Asim Bin Abi Nujud Al Kufi (shia)
  3. Abi Abdur Rahman As Sulemi (shia)
  4.  Uthman bi Affan
  5. Ali Bin Abu Talib (shia)
  6. Zaid Bin Thabit
  7. Ubay Bin K’ab
  8. Prophet s.a.w.a


There is actually a shorter version, with the same text which as follows:


  1. Hafs bin Sulaiman al Asadi Al Kufi (shia)
  2. Asim Bin Abi Nujud Al Kufi (shia)
  3. Abi Abdur Rahman As Sulemi (shia)
  4. Ali Bin Abu Talib (shia)
  5. Prophet s.a.w.a


Most of the people in the chain are from the Shia school of thought, that does not necassarily mean that they shared the same views as the shia of today, but it means they were labelled as such by the scholars of that time. So for example Sunni scholars did not take hadiths from Hafs bin Sulaiman Al Asadi Al Kufi because he was shia, same goes for Asim and Abi Abdur Rahman. Unfortunately in the school of companions (“Sunni”), they have some other chains which do have some different texts and sounds. This is a problem for them.



Original “Kufi” script from the oldest known Quran, known as the Tashkent Quran.

It was revealed and recorded without the modern Arabic vowels marked in place, the dots (vowels) were added later. Without the vowels the exact method of saying the Quran would not be obvious unless you were familiar with Arabic. As Islam spread dots were added to the words to make it easier for people to read, then later still further marks were added to understand the vowel sounds.

The top is the original text, next with dots, the 3rd is with dots and vowels. The original text does not change, it is just that there is guidance on how to read it.






So now we what what the Quran is, and how it has reached us, but now how do we understand the text?


The Arabic word for explanation is “tafsir”, and “tafasir” for more than one explanation, now it is not logical to read the Quran to understand how we should try and understand the Quran, that is a circular logic. So we must use our sound reasoned mind (Aql) to create a system of understanding of text or communication, not just the Quran.


For any text there is the apparent meaning of the words, and there may also be another set of meanings beyond the apparent meaning. The apparent meaning is simply the tafsir, the hidden meaning is called “Ta’wil”, for the hidden meaning to be known, there must be some other information other than the text that we are reading, so a hadith or some tradition that can give a meaning that is not apparent from the words alone.



Many have debated how to understand or interpret the words and sentences, should they be taken literally, or by the apparent meaning or is there a hidden meaning that is found via other sources? Let me give an example of why this issue has caused so much debate, if we take the following sentence:

“The man was out of his mind”


Now when ever we read a sentence, we have to try and reach the meaning that the author intended, if we took the individual words literally, then man has actually left his own mind, then we will have an image that a man who has somehow exited his brain. This makes no sense, and it would make even less sense to then to try find a literal meaning based on the sum of the literal meaning of the individual words. Lets have another example:


“my head was spinning after reading this new book”


Again, if we take the literal meaning of the individual words, we arrive at a meaning that suggests my head has been rotating since reading a new book. Hopefully the dangers of taking the literal values of  individual words is clear, we can move on to how a sentence should be accepted. If we look at the first example, the way these words have been used, the accepted meaning of the sentence is “the man was not acting rationally”, and the second example, we understand the real meaning to be “after reading the new book, I feel confused”. As can be seen, in order to reach the reality of what an author intends, one needs to have not only a firm grasp of the language, so that the words can wordsbe understood, but also a clear understanding of the phrases and how they are used. This is why any complex piece of writing is rarely translated by machine properly, as all a machine generally does is translate the individual words for their literal version in a different language. The literalists say that they take the verses literally, without understanding how, without giving any meaning and liking to what is already in the mind, essentially they read the word, and ignore the meaning, and they certainly ignore the value of the sentence and phrase.

This is the reason the Quran is often accompanied with explanatory notes (Tafseer), additionally there are statements passed to us from authentic sources which also suggest some hidden interpretations (taweel) to certain verses. A classic example of how the Quran has been misunderstood by following an incorrect approach is the verses regarding the description of Allah.  Lets examines some of the verses:


“O Iblis (Satan)! What prevents you from prostrating yourself to one whom I have created with Both My Hands?” (38:75)


From this verse, some literalists have accepted Allah must therefore have two hands,  however those familiar with Arabic and the phrases used know that this interpretation is clearly false. Just as in English literature, if I used the phrase:

“Its out of the computers hands”


This does not mean that the computer has hands, the sentence refers to the subject being beyond what the computer is able to do. Let us examine other uses of the word “Hands” in the Quran to confirm how this phrase should be understood.



“Perish the hands of the Father of Flame! Perish he!” (111:1)

“Be patient in the face of what they say, and mention Our servant David the hands, He was obedient.” (38:17)

How about when a disaster strikes them because what their hands have put forward, and then they come to you swearing by God: “We only intended goodwill and reconciliation”? (4:62)

You will find others who want security from you, and security from their own people. But whenever they are tempted into civil discord, they plunge into it. So if they do not withdraw from you, nor offer you peace, nor restrain their hands, seize them and execute them wherever you find them. Against these, We have given you clear authorization. (4:91)

Those who pledge allegiance to you are pledging allegiance to God. The hand of God is over their hands. Whoever breaks his pledge breaks it to his own loss. And whoever fulfills his covenant with God, He will grant him a great reward. (48:10)

9|67|The hypocrite men and hypocrite women are of one another. They advocate evil, and prohibit righteousness, and withhold their hands. They forgot God, so He forgot them. The hypocrites are the sinners


The above verses show how the phrase “hands” were used to describe ones power or influence, Abu Lahab who was a staunch enemy of Islam is being cursed by Allah, the phrase Allah uses is “Perish the Hands”, now a literalist would accept this to mean that only Abu Lahab’s hands would be cursed, however this is obviously not what is intended. The second verse Allah describes Prophet David (AS) as a man of “Hands”, this is clearly a metaphor, however literalists have a method of explaining away these issues by saying:


“the words are correct, we do not know how or why, or what they mean, but we just accept the literal meaning as they are”


In light of the other verses and our knowledge of Arabic phrases, it is understand that this verse is explained that Prophet David (AS) is a man of strength and resolve, so Hands in this respect means strength. Additionally there are fourteen repetitions of the phrase “what your right hand possess”, which is understood to refer to those within your control/power, such as a slave or prisoner of war etc.



At the other end of the interpretation spectrum we find those that make conclusions beyond the apparent meaning (Taweel) without any strong supporting evidence (daleel).  An example, if we had the sentence:


“I was late for work today”


We can assume fairly safely that I was late for my work, it would be an unsupported claim to say that this was because of the traffic, or that I work as an engineer, or that really the phrase “work” relates to a secret spying mission that I am engaged on. This kind of interpretation clearly leads to false conclusions and is not valid. Some have said, but what is my evidence for this approach? I would simply say this is beyond evidence, this is simply the way of literature and logic, as any evidence that could be read or written would also need to conform to the simple guidance that I have already outlined above.

So to conclude, the words of the Quran are not to be taken as individual entities, but they must be seen in the context of the sentence, and in the light of how they are used elsewhere. The apparent meaning of the whole sentence is the only way the correct understanding can be reached, this is the middle way between literalism and assumption, which is the meaning that would be apparent to those at familiar with the Arabic of the time.



This video proves that there are people who claim Allah has hands, shins, fingers etc as many have doubted such people had this type of beliefs. 


You May Also Like

5 thoughts on “How to understand the Quran?

  1. As Islam spread dots were added to the words to make it easier for people to read, then later still further marks were added to understand the vowel sounds.

    Just to clarify, red dots were first added representing different short vowels and later black dots were used to differentiate between letters like ba’ and ta’

  2. Sorry but I see lots of inaccurate claims about the Quran and its chains.

    Shia back then were Sunnis in their beliefs – they were called Shia because they politically supported Ali against Muawiyah – but they also believed in the Imamah of Abubakr and Umar as also admitted by classical Shia scholars. Therefore, it can not be about Imami theological Shia sect we know today. Hafs and Asim were Imams of Qira’at and authorities for Sunnis while both are MAJHOOL (UNKNOWN) or AAMi (Sunni) according to Shia Rijal scholars (See the book of Shia Hadith scholar al-Jawahiri). Infact, Asim was also called Shia of Uthman .

    Their were not good in Hadith, according some scholars, NOT because they were Shia. There are hundreds of Shia reliable narrators in Sunni books. Some people can be good in Quran but weak in Hadith.

    – Imam al-Dhahabi said about Asim:

    فأما في القراءة فثبتٌ إمام ، وأما في الحديث فحسن الحديث

    [As far as recitation he is a FIRM IMAM, and as for narrating then he is good.]

    Imam ibn Hajar al-`Asqalani said about him:

    صدوق له أوهام حجة في القراءة، وحديثه في الصحيحين مقرون

    [Trustworthy but makes mistakes (when narrating), authoritative in recitation, and his narration in al-Sahihayn (Bukhari & Muslim) is backed by support.]

    – About Hafs:

    Imam ibn Hajar al-`Asqalani said:

    متروك الحديث مع إمامته في القراءة

    [They abandoned narrating from him, although he is a leader/Imam (in the field) of recitation.]

    Hafs was not mentioned in the main Shia books of Rijal, not in Kashshi, or Najashi, or ibn Dawud al-Helli, or Khaqani, or al-Barqi. All there is to it is that al-Tusi mentioned him in his Rijal as being from the “companions of al-Sadiq” and he never said a word about his reliability or about him being Shia.

    Please read this for a detail discussion the chain of the Quran:

  3. “Muslim”,

    How can someone be good enough to narrate the Quran, but not good enough to narrate hadith? This statement is frankly laughable, and no one has ever taken this line seriously.

    Secondly, you have conveniently not presented the quotes were the scholars you have mentioned accuse Hafs bin Sulaiman al Asadi Al Kufi and Asim Bin Abi Nujud Al Kufi of ta’shayu (being shia).

    If you cant even present your proofs in an unbiased manner, what does that say about you?

    1. @Philosopher You find it laughable, that is your opinion. Art of narrating Hadiths is different than Quran – anyone who knows the basics of hadith sciences would know it. There is no Imami, especially the Imami twelver Shia, chain for the Quran. The chains are only with the Ahlu Sunnah – all sects rely on Ahlu Sunnah.

      Secondly, when classical scholars state that a person had Tashayu or was Shia doesn’t mean they belonged to theological Imami Shia sects (that we know today) but it referred to people who were Sunni in their beliefs but were more sympathetic to Ali and Alids against their political opponents.

      I already mentioned enough proofs in my first post that you failed to discuss.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *