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Understanding Understanding
Publication date: 2003-06-02

With the present spite of violence and lawlessness in the world, some say that it is all due to misunderstandings. "If people could just learn to understand each other ... ".

But what is "understanding"?

Consideration of the phenomenon of human understanding has been on our to-do list for some time, and a recent message at the Independent forum has provided a good example.

A forum participant started a discussion on the topic of the Qur'an, as follows:

I read the Koran out of curiosity, and I have to confess I was impressed by the directness of it. As a piece of literature it certainly leaves an impression on the reader, but as for the content I am not so sure.

From the point of view of stylistics it makes a good read, but since it is basically about a misogynist god, and a man suffering from delusions of grandeur, claiming to be a prophet, there is very limited scope in the narrative for even the best of literary talent to excel.

Here, we have an example of a person, who having read a book has failed to derive any benefit from his understanding.

But, first we need to understand what we mean by the word "understand".

To understand means to form a mental picture (or description) of a subject, which is sufficiently accurate and complete for a given purpose.

Thus, most people understand the meaning of the word "door" to be able to use it in their speech. They also understand how to use doors. But sometimes their understanding of how to use a door does not correspond to the reality. They try to open a door by pushing it, while it should be pulled. So, to succeed in opening the door they have to change their understanding of how it should be opened.

In such simple cases as opening a door the process of understanding happens "naturally", even dogs, cats or monkeys learn to open doors.

But, to understand more complex things can take years of learning and research, and sometimes even centuries of collective human effort.

Also the speed, ease and level of accuracy and precision of understanding depend on natural ability and the amount of accumulated knowledge and experience.

A phrase "a prince married a princess" will produce a different image in the mind of a six year old child from that produced in the mind of a 50 year old real prince, who had a real experience of marrying a real princess.

Now, that we have some idea of what it means to "understand", we can proceed to see why the person mentioned at the start of the article has failed to benefit from his understanding.

While any piece of written text can be seen as literature and analyzed from the point of view of stylistics, in a more specific sense of the word "literature", as a book intended to entertain and please the reader by its style and content, - the Qur'an is not such book. It is not an example of "belles lettres".

Although the "verses" of the Qur'an, in the Arabic original, have beautiful poetical rhythm, the purpose of this rhythm is ease of memorization, not pleasing entertainment. And as the person read a translation of the Qur'an, rather then the Arabic original, then the "stylistics" which impressed him so much were those of the translator, not of the original. But, the purpose of the Qur'an was not its style, but its content - its message. And the message that the person claims to have received from his reading of the Qur'an was that "it is basically about a misogynist god, and a man suffering from delusions of grandeur, claiming to be a prophet".

The word "misogynist" means "a hater of women". But, the person does not say which passages of the Qur'an have anything to suggest that the Creator of the Universe, as God is seen in the Qur'an, hates women. Those who want to attack Islam often blame Islam for mistreatment of women, but those "western" women, who make a sincere attempt to learn about Islam, often finish by converting to Islam and saying that in Islam they have found a true liberation of their real femininity.

The person's reference to the Prophet Muhammad as "a man suffering from delusions of grandeur, claiming to be a prophet" suggests that the person simply does not understand the meaning of the word "prophet" as it is used in the Qur'an.

Many people think that "prophets" were some kind of "fortune tellers" or "super-human" or "super-natural" personalities capable of performing "miracles". But the Qur'anic understanding of the word "prophet" is different. A prophet is just an ordinary person - he walks in the markets and eats ordinary food. A prophet cannot move mountains, see the unseen, or know the unknown. Nor can a prophet produce the Qur'an as a readily printed-and-bound book by calling upon "his God" to throw it down from the sky. A prophet is not an angel and not a magician - he is just an ordinary man. The only difference between a prophet and non-prophets is his ability to understand what other people do not.

A prophet sees the falsehood in which people live and he seeks to dispell it and calls people toward the truth. A prophet condemns injustice and seeks to establish justice. And he does it all without seeking glory or reward for himself. This is the meaning of prophesy in the Qur'an, and this is what Muhammad was doing, and this is why he saw himself as prophet. He saw his prophesy as a great burden, not as a privilege, and he lived a very simple and humble life.

It is not clear on the basis of what the person draws the conclusion that the Prophet was "a man suffering from delusions of grandeur". We do not know what translation of the Qur'an the person read, but, if his intention to understand at least something of the Qur'an was sincere, he clearly had wasted his time.

So, what is the Qur'an?

The Qur'an is a collection of speeches by the Prophet Muhammad which he recited to his followers. These speeches were recited at different times over a lengthy period of time. Some of the speeches address specific events that happened at the time, others deal with general issues.

The Prophet saw his mission as rejection of the myths and superstitions of his time. He did not claim to "invent a new religion", but reaffirmed the guidance of the prophets of the preceding generations and purified it from misinterpretations. Thus, he rejected the claim of the Jews that they had a special claim on God - God guides whom he wills, not just the Jews. He also rejected the Christian claim that Jesus was the God's son, in the sense of a family relationship - God has created the Universe! Would he need a wife and a child?

Besides such general questions, the Qur'an also has specific guidance on marriage, family, relationship between children and parents, contracts, inheritance, and many observation on human nature and behavior.

Such wide variety of issues certainly would be understood differently by people of different ability and experience. And the Qur'an itself has guidance on how it should be read and understood (2:7):

It is he (Allah), who has revealed to you the book. Some of its verses are straightforward, they are the essence of the book, while others require interpretation. Those with perverse minds [ignore the straightforward and] follow those verses which require interpretation. They do it to mislead others, and [for that reason] seek their own [convenient to themselves] interpretation. But nobody knows the interpretation of such verses except Allah. And those with deep knowledge say: "We believe in it. All of it is from our Lord". And only people of understanding will acknowledge that.
People who read the Qur'an repeatedly throughout their lives, discover the truth of that statement. As their knowledge and experience of life increase, with each fresh reading the verses of the Qur'an acquire deeper and broader meaning.

So, understand that which is obvious for your level of understanding and leave the obscure parts for the time when they become clear by themselves. And seek to increase your knowledge. The more you know, the more you will understand.


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