Firstly, I must start this post with a shame-faced admission that the resource I found most helpful when researching the structure of the Quran turned out to be…Wikipedia.
…but it was hard to use other resources for what I needed. I mostly wanted information about the Quran’s organization and literary qualities. What translations are best? How is it divided? Is there a method behind the way it is arranged? While most sites only offered pious instructions, Allahsquran.com, Wikipedia: Surah, and some scattered forums proved to be my best sources of general information. I’m sure that if I spoke Arabic properly, there would be many more quality resources available to me. As my current vocabulary only covers asking for coffee (an important life priority), it’ll be a while before I can get to them.
First I checked translations, of which there are many. Perhaps the most famous translation is by Yusuf Ali, which is stylized with thees and thous à la KJV. Another much more recent translation by Abdul Haleem received some praise, and had a formal review that kindly explained its translation philosophy. The app that I’d chosen last week relied on the Sahih International, which emphasizes more literal vocab and grammatical choices. Although I really liked my first app, I have decided to switch to an app called simply “Quran for Android”. It isn’t as easy to navigate as my first app, but I have access to more translations should I need clarification of a phrase. It would be good if you readers also found a Quran in some format to read for yourself. My plan is to mostly stick with Sahih International Translation.
[Edit: I later found this website which defaults to Sahih International but features a variety of translations under the settings icon.]
Let’s translate the jargon of Quranic structure first:
I think it’s important to know the literal translation of these words. Ayah is regularly made counterpart to the Christian term “verse,” and Arabic Christians use it thusly, but the word doesn’t literally mean that. To Muslims, the Quran is so beautiful and consistent with itself, despite being revealed across a two decades by a man with no known background for poetry, that it is a self-evident miracle. Every phrase is considered a “Sign” of its miraculous nature. Also, in the more literal vein of application, each verse is delineated by a marked sign in the text: with a number inside. I do not know who decided how to break up each surah into ayat (plural of ayah), but I understand that some of the choices have to do with poetic qualities that I will not perceive in English. I’ll try and find resources about the poetic qualities as I go, and I’ll even listen to the muttaral (sung recitations) to try and catch what makes Muslims find the words so beautiful.
Belief in the immutability and purity of the content is foundational to how Muslims read the Quran, and why so many Muslims learn an archaic form of their language (or someone else’s language) in order to be faithful. The Quran is understood to be the pure words of God, without any words or influence from Muhammed’s own mind. Interpretation into another language requires a human to arbitrate the meaning of the words, and thus separates the reader from God’s exact thoughts. Its process of revelation, transcription, and compilation is much more straightforward and expedient than Christian or Jewish Bibles, suggesting that it had less chance for human interference. The Christian counterpart to the Quran is not the Bible, it is Jesus: the Word revealed.
Books of the Bible have genre (e.g., lore, poetry, biography, informal letters), and awareness of these genres helps the reader comprehend and respond to the messages within. The Quran seems to lack any of these genres, or at least I found no discussion of it. This may be due to religious pressure to see the Quran as miraculously unique and free of human patterns. I will have to make out forms, tone, and context by my own research.
Like the Bible, some people choose to get through the Quran by dividing it up into equal quantities over a span of time. There are juz’ divisions, by which the whole book can be read in thirty days (months only have thirty days in the Islamic calendar). I would rather read each surah in its entirety, in order to try and catch thematic elements, so I will not read by juz’. There are also compilations that order surahs chronologically, but their chronology is very academic speculation and has no concrete evidence to depend on. I’d rather just follow the traditional order.
So my goal: once a week I shall read a single surah (possibly multiple should they be very small) and write my reflection on here. Once or several times during this project I’d like to visit a mosque and discuss my readings with a teacher there. I’m still approaching this as a non-believer, but I am going to try and read as sympathetically as I can. I know how my religious scriptures can be butchered without context, and I am not wanting to execute that same butchery upon this book.