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Definition of 'Ulum al-Qur'an

The knowledge of 'Ulum al-Qu'ran, or 'The Sciences of the Qur'an', deals with the knowledge of those sciences that have a direct bearing on the recitation, history, understanding and implementation of the Qur'an. It is, therefore, a vast field of Islamic scholarship, and one that if of primary importance.

Thus, for example, with regards to recitation, 'Ulum al-Qu'ran deals with the science of pronunciation (tajwid), the different methodologies of reciting the Qur'an (the qira'at), the blessings of reciting the Qur'an, and the etiquette of its recitation.

With regards to the history of the Qur'an, 'Ulum al-Qu'ran deals with the stages of revelation of the Qur'an, the compilation of the Qur'an, the art and history of writing the Qur'anic script (rasm al-masahif), and the preservation of the Qur'an.

With regards to its understanding and implementation, 'Ulum al-Qu'ran covers the causes of revelation (asbab an-nuzul), the knowledge of maki and madani revelations, the knowledge of the various forms (ahruf) it was revealed in, the understanding of its abrogated rulings and verses (nasikh wal-mansukh), the knowledge of the various classifications of its verses (muhkam and mutashabih, 'am and khas, mutlaq and muqqayad, etc.), the knowledge of its interpretation (tafsir), the grammatical analysis of the Qur'an ('Irab al-Qur'an) and the knowledge of those words whose usage has become uncommon over time (gharib al-Qur'an).

It has been said that the knowledge of 'Ulum al-Qur'an is in reality the knowledge that one is required to know in order to properly interpret the Qur'an. Therefore, to call this branch of Islamic knowledge 'The Procedure and Methodology of Interpretation' ('Ilm 'Usul at-Tafsir) instead of 'Ulum al-Qur'an would not be far from the truth.{qluetip title=[1]}cf. ar-Rumi, Fahd ibn 'Abdur-Rahman ibn Sulayman: Dirasat fi 'Ulum al-Qur'an, Maktabah at-Tawbah, Riyadh, 1994, p.33, who equates 'Ulum al-Qur'an with 'Usul at-Tafsir.{/qluetip} However, 'Ulum al-Qur'an also includes topics that have very little or no bearing of tafsir, such as compilation of the Qur'an, and the development of the script of the Qur'an. Therefore, the knowledge of the 'Ulum al-Qur'an is more general that 'Ilm Usul at-Tafsir.

Benefits of Studying 'Ulum al-Qur'an

There are many benefits to the knowledge of 'Ulum al-Qur'an. Firstly, it enables the reader to realize the wealth of knowledge and insight that exists with regards to the Book of Allah. As some of the scholars of the past said, "True knowledge is to know one's ignorance." Only when a person realizes what he does not know will he appreciate how little he does know. Secondly, it enables the student of knowledge to better understand the Qur'an, in that he will be familiar with the history of its revelation and collection, and the various aspects that aids its comprehension. When he reads the books of tafsir, he will be able to understand the terms used, and benefit from the knowledge in them to a greater extent. In other words, he will be equipped to further increase his knowledge and to learn about his religion. Thirdly, it increase a person's belief (iman), because he will realize the beauty of the Qur'an and the great blessings that he has been given through its revelation. He will not be fooled by the fallacious claims of its enemies, and his heart with be at ease with regards to its authenticity. He will understand the miraculous nature of the Qur'an, and thus better cherish the greatest Book that mankind has been given. Fourthly, he will be able to defend the Qur'an against his enemies, since he will be equipped with the true and pristine knowledge of the Qur'an, unadulterated by the prejudices of its opponents.

It is no exaggeration to say that, once a person learns the essentials of his religion and what is required for him to know, the first knowledge he should turn his attention to is the knowledge of the Qur'an and its sciences. As Allah says{qluetip title=[2]}It should be pointed out that the Qur'an is only in Arabic, and is the speech (kalam) of Allah, as shall be proved and elaborated upon in the next chapter. Therefore, the unconditional phrase, "Allah says," when used in this book (or any book), only refers to the Qur'an. When this phrase is used in a language other than Arabic, it contains an additional implicit cause, that should be understood by the audience, and this clause is, "the meaning of which is," since the Qur'an is only in Arabic. Therefore, this phrase should be understood as, "The Meaning of what Allah has said is ... "{/qluetip} in the Qur'an:

"(This is a) Book that We have sent down to you, full of blessings, so that they may ponder over its verses, and that men of understanding may remember." [Al-Qur'an 38:29]

The History of 'Ulum al-Qur'an

Like all the sciences of Islam, the knowledge of 'Ulum al-Qur'an initiated with the Prophet sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam himself. The Companions of the Prophet sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam about any concept that they did not understand in the Qur'an. For example concerning the verse:

"Those who believe and do not mix their belief with injustice, only they will have security, and they are guided." [Al-Qur'an 6:82]

They asked, "O Messenger of Allah! Who amongst us does not do injustice (to his soul)?" They had understood that the verse was referring to those believers who did not commit any injustice, or sin. The Prophet sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam replied that the injustice referred to this verse was shirk, or the association of partners with Allah.{qluetip title=[3]}Reported by al-Bukhari{/qluetip}

Such was the enthusiasm of the Companions in seeking this knowledge that they were able to not only explain any verse in the Qur'an, but also give its history and the cause of its revelation. Ibn Mas'ud said, "I swear by Allah, besides whom there is no other god, there is no Surah in the Qur'an except that I know where it was revealed! And there is not a single verse in the Qur'an except that I know the reason behind its revelation! If there were any person that knew more about the Qur'an than I did, and it was possible for me to reach him, I would ride (on my camel) towards him (to get his knowledge." {qluetip title=[4]}Reported by al-Bukhari{/qluetip} 'Ali ibn Abi Talib told his students, "Ask me! For I swear by Allah, there is nothing that you will ask me except that I will answer you. Ask me concerning the Book of Allah! For I swear by Allah, there is not a single verse in the Qur'an except that I know whether it was revealed at night or during the day, or on a mountain or on a plain!" {qluetip title=[5]}Ar-Rumi, p.37{/qluetip}

There were many Companions who were famous for their knowledge of the Qur'an, among them were the four Khulafah ar-Rashidun{qluetip title=[6]}A term that means 'The rightly guided Caliphs', used to denote the first four caliphs, Abu Bakr, 'Umar, 'Uthman and 'Ali.{/qluetip}, 'Abdullah ibn Mas'ud (d. 32H), 'Abdullah ibn 'Abbas (d. 68H), Ubayy ibn Ka'ab (d. 32H), Zayd ibn Thabit (d. 45H), Abu Musa al-Ash'ari (d. 50H), 'Abdullah ibn az-Zubayr (d. 73H) and 'A'ishah (d. 57 H).

The generation that came after the Companions, the Successors, studied eagerly under the wise guardianship of the Companions. These students took over their predecessors' responsibilities, and passed this knowledge faithfully to the next generation. Ibn 'Abbas' students, Sa'id ibn Jubayr (d. 95H), Mujahid ibn Jabr (d. 100H), 'Ikrimah al-Barbari (d. 104H), Tawus ibn Kaysan (d. 106H), and 'Ata' ibn Rabah (d. 114H), were all famous in Makkah; Ubayy ibn Ka'ab's students, Zayd ibn Aslam (d. 63H), Abul-'Aliyah (d. 90H) and Muhammad ibn Ka'ab (d. 120H), were the teachers of Madinah; and in Iraq, 'Abdullah ibn Mas'ud left behind his great legacy to 'Alqamah ibn Qays (d. 60H), Masruq ibn al-Ajda' (d. 63H), al-Hasan al-Basri (d. 110H), and Qatadah as-Sadusi (d. 110H). These three places, Makkah, Madinah, and Kufah, were the leading centres of all the sciences of Islam, including tafsir and 'Ulum al-Qur'an.

Thus the knowledge of the Qur'an was passed on " ... by the trustworthy (scholars) of the 'Ummah, who protected it from the alteration of the heretics, the false claims of the liars, and the false interpretations of the ignorant." {qluetip title=[7]}A paraphrase of an authentic hadith of the Prophet sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam, reported by Ibn 'Adi and Ibn 'Asakir. The beginning of the hadith is, "This knowledge will be carried by the trustworthy of the 'Ummah, who will protect ... "{/qluetip}

Early scholars did not write on 'Ulum al-Qur'an in general, but rather wrote separate tracts on each science of the Qur'an. This was due to the fact that, during the early stages of Islamic history, the oral transmission of knowledge occupied a more important status that the written transmission. In addition, the general level of knowledge was high, and did not warrant the extensive writing down of knowledge.

The first and most important of the topics to be written on was tafsir. For example, each of the following scholars wrote a tafsir of the Qur'an, composed of statements from the Prophet sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam and the Companions: Sufyan ath-Thawri (d. 161H), Sufyan ibn 'Uyaynah (d. 198H), Waki' ibn al-Jarrah (d. 197H), and Shu'bah ibn al-Hajjaj (d. 160H).

Following his predecessor's footsteps, Muhammad ibn Jarir at-Tabari (d. 310H) wrote the monumental Jami' al-Bayan 'an Ta'wil ay al-Qur'an, a tafsir that all later scholars who benefit from. Other early tafasir were written by Abu Bakr ibn Mundhir an-Naysaburi (d. 318H), Ibn Abi Hatim (d. 328H), Ibn Hibban (d. 369H), al-Hakim (d. 405H) and Ibn Mardawayh (d. 410H). All of these tafasir were based on reports from the Prophet sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam and the Companions and Successors, and included the chains of narration (isnad) of the report.s.

After the books of tafsir followed a plethora of books on the other sciences of the Qur'an: 'Ali al-Madini (d. 234H), the teacher of Imam al-Bukhari, wrote a book on Asbab an-Nuzul; Abu al-'Ubayd al-Asim ibn Sallam (d. 224H) wrote two books, one on the science of the Qira'at (which was one of the first of its kind), and one on abrogation in the Qur'an, Nasikh wal-Mansukh; Ibn Qutaybah (d. 276H) wrote a book on rare words in the Qur'an, Mushkil al-Qur'an; Abu Ishaq az-Zajjaj (d. 311H) wrote a grammatical analysis of the Qur'an, 'Irab al-Qur'an; Ibn Darstawayh (d. 330H) composed a tract on the miraculous nature of the Qur'an, I'jaz al-Qur'an; Abu Bakr as-Sijistani (d. 330H) wrote another book on rare words in the Qur'an, Gharib al-Qur'an; Abu Bakr al-Baqillani (d. 403H) wrote his famous treatise, also related to the miraculous nature of the Qur'an, I'jaz al-Qur'an; Imam an-Nasa'i (d. 303H), the author of the Sunan, wrote one on the merits of the Qur'an, Fada'il al-Qur'an; Abu al-Hasan al-Wahidi (d. 468H) wrote his famous book on Asbab an-Nuzul; 'Ilm ad-Din as-Sakhawi (d. 634H) wrote one on the various qira'at, and so on.n.

It must also be mentioned that, in addition to these books, many of the books of hadith, such as the Sahihayn of al-Bukhari and Muslim, included sections on various topics of 'Ulum al-Qur'an. For example, most of the books of the Sunnah have chapters on the tafsir of the Qur'an, the benefits of reciting the Qur'an, the history of its compilation, and other topics.

Finally, the scholars of the later generations started compiling all of these sciences into one book, and thus began the era of the classic works on 'Ulum al-Qur'an. The first works of this nature were actually meant to be works of tafsir. One of the first works that is reported in later references (but is not extant) is that of Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Khalaf ibn al-Marzaban (d. 309H), entitled Al-Hawi fi 'Ulum al-Qur'an{qluetip title=[8]}Ar-Rumi, p.45, quoting Ibn Nadim's Fihrist, p.24.{/qluetip}. Another work, of which manuscript copies of fifteen of a total of thirty volumes are extant, is that of 'Ali ibn Ibrahim Sa'id (d. 330H), otherwise knows as al-Hufi, which he entitled, Al-Burhan fi 'Ulum al-Qur'an. This book is primarily one on tafsir, but also discusses all related aspects of a verse. So, for example, after each portion of the Qur'an, it includes information about the verse's meaning, its interpretation, its purpose of revelation, its proper method of recitation, the different qira'at of the verses and how they affect the meaning, where to stop and where not to, and so forth. This work is considered to be the first of its kind in its expansive approach to all the related sciences of the Qur'an.{qluetip title=[9]}az-Zarqani, Muhammad 'Abdul-'Adhim: Manahil al-'Irfan fi 'Ulum al-Qur'an, Dar al-Fikr, Cairo, n.d., p.35 and Qattan, Manna': Mabahith fi 'Ulum al-Qur'an, Muasasat al-Risalat, Beirut, 1983, p.14.{/qluetip}

There appeared after this, books of a similar nature, until finally Badr ad-Din az-Zarkashi (d. 794H) appeared with his monumental Al-Burhan fi 'Ulum al-Qur'an (the same title as al-Hufi's work). This is one of the great classics on 'Ulum al-Qur'an available in print. A little over a century later, another classic appeared, that of Jalal ad-Din as-Suyuti (d. 911H), entitled al-Itqan fi 'Ulum al-Qur'an. These two works are considered the standard resource works on 'Ulum al-Qur'an, and both have been printed a number of times during the last few decades.

Books on 'Ulum al-Qur'an continued to appear throughout the centuries{qluetip title=[10]}See ar-Rumi, pps.41-48, where he lists the most important works in this field from every century of the hijrah, starting from the second century until the present one.{/qluetip}, and these last few decades have been no exception. The better know books of this era have been Manahil al-'Irfan fi 'Ulum al-Qur'an by Shaykh Muhammad 'Abdul-Adhim az-Zarqani; al-Madhkhal li Dirasat al-Qur'an al-Karim by Muhammad Abu Shahmah; and the two books, both of which are entitled Mabahith fi 'Ulum al-Qur'an, one by Dr. Subi Salih and the other by Dr. Manna' al-Qattan..

Unfortunately, there does not seem to be great interest in English circles concerning this topic. Other topics, such as hadith and fiqh, have been given greater attention{qluetip title=[11]}In hadith, the best works out for introductory level students are Hadith Literature: Its Origins, Development and Special Feature by Muhammad Zubayr Siddiqi (Islamic Texts Society, London, 1993), and Studies on Hadith Methodology and Literature by Muhammad Mustafa Azami (American Trust Publication, Indianapolis, 1977); in 'Usul al-Fiqh, a good work is by Muhammad Hashim Kamali, Principles of Islamic Jurisprudence (Islamic Texts Society, 1991).{/qluetip} In English, the only work present{qluetip title=[12]}This is the only book that this author came across concerning this topic from a Muslim author. There is, however, a translation of Ibn Taymiyyah's An Introduction to the Principles of Tafsir (Al-Hidaayah Publishing and Distribution, Birmingham, 1993).{/qluetip} is Ahmed Von Denffer's book, 'Ulum al-Qur'an: An Introduction to the Sciences of the Qur'an{qluetip title=[13]}Published by, 'The Islamic Foundation,' Leicester, 1983.{/qluetip}. It is a useful book in that it presents a summary of many concepts of 'Ulum al-Qur'an, and is meant for a young adult audience. However, probably due to the nature of the audience, the author does not go into great detail.

(s) Excerpt from An Introduction to the Sciences of the Qur'aan, Al-Hidaayah Publishing and Distribution

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To all who love and revere the Book, And earnestly strive to find in it, Not a reflection of their own fancies, But a clue to Unity, Discipline, And the call to higher matters of the spirit, The Fruit of Life, Thought and Study.
'Abdullah Yusuf Ali (d. 1373H), may Allah have mercy upon him