Book review: Structure and Qur’anic Interpretation

This is an interesting albeit short book by Raymond Farrin exploring the structure of the Qur’anic text. Farrin prefaces the text by saying that the Qur’an is unfortunately not well appreciated by much of the English audience, as both its dynamic style and a structure that does not follow modern styles of composition seems alien to the modern audience.

His wish is to show that the Qur’an is in fact ruled by structural coherence- although not in a linear pattern, but rather a symmetric structure that follows either a ring or some concentric format.

His first chapter explores some very interesting links between the beginnings and the ends of the Qur’an: he also convincingly argues that Surah al-Fatihah is 6 verses long, ie. excluding the bismillah. I will summarize the links given by Farrin here. The first three verses of both the first and the last Surahs mention 3 names of God in the first three verses: Surah al-Fatihah has God, Lord and Master, while Surah al-Nas has Lord, King and God (interestingly, there is a reading where “Master” is replaced with “King” in Surah al-Fatihah). Both are supplications, and it is appropriate to say that it is therefore likely that Surah al-Fatihah is indeed 6 verses rather than 7 in order to complement these structural and thematic links between the first and last Surahs of the Qur’an.

Farrin then dedicates some chapters to exploring the unity of individual Surahs within themselves, showing intricate ring patterns. His exploration of Surah al-Baqarah was particularly interesting: this Surah exhibits ring composition where each of its member passages (a collection of Ayahs) are also rings within themselves. At the very centre lies core ideas that demarcate the Muslim community as unique and a “middle nation” between the Christians and Jews, while at the same time preaching ideas of peace and tolerance. This structure, in my opinion, is incredibly intricate and only serves to prove the ingenuity and the capability of the author of the Qur’an.

What is more interesting to me is his exploration coherence in the standard order of the Surahs of the Qur’an. Farrin builds upon Muslim exegetes Farahi and Islahi’s ideas of Surah groups, arguing that the Qur’an can be categorized into groups containing consecutive Surahs that have strong thematic links.

This is more speculative, but it seems that the Qur’an itself forms a grand “ring” structure with Surahs 54 and 55 being the central units. The corollary of this organized structure found in the Qur’an as a whole, not just within Surahs, is that it gives support to the position that the Prophet himself (under the guidance of God) organized the Surahs, rather than it being borne of Uthman’s recension.

Not only does Farrin try to find organization in the Qur’an but also explores exactly why the Qur’an is structured that way: one benefit of the ring structure is that central ideas are found in the middle.

Nearly half the book is the appendix, where the author gives a run down of the connections between each Surah group. This will no doubt be a useful reference for further study of Surah groups and pairs.

Overall, this is a good book. One problem I have with the Surah pairing and grouping is that I am not sure whether it is the result of forcing links between consecutive Surahs which is only possible because the Qur’an is repetitive in its themes. Perhaps the links found between the Surahs in each group proposed by Farrin can also be found in Surahs outside said group, thus meaning this grouping scheme is somewhat artificial. I would like to explore this idea further.

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