Muqaddimah – Tafsir Nizam-ul-Quran – Sūrah as a Unit
By this discussion I aim to establish that each sūrah is a well-structured unit; it is only lack of consideration and analysis on our part that the sūrahs seem disjointed and incoherent. Every student of the Holy Qur’ān can notice that the Book contains short as well as long sūrahs. Had it not been a fact that each sūrah imparts a specific message as its central theme, and that the completion of this theme marks the end of the sūrah, then there would have been no need to divide the Qur’ān in distinct sūrahs. Rather the whole Qur’ān could have been made a single unit. Also, we note that the sūrahs are not equal in length: there are longer sūrahs as well as shorter ones. Had God not intended dealing a specific issue in each sūrah in a well-coherent fashion He would not have aligned the verses in a single unifying thread. He would have, on the contrary, scattered everything casually whereby some of the surāhs could have comprised of a single line.
We see that a specific set of verses has been placed together and named after the sūrah in which it resides in the same way a city is built with a wall erected around it. Now, a single wall must contain a single city in it. What is the use of a wall encompassing different cities?. Also, it is a fact that even similarities in meaning do not cause distinct sets of verses to fall under a single sūrah. As an example, the contents of the last two sūrahs are remarkably similar yet they are not considered a single sūrah; both of these have always been considered independent and distinct units. Similarly, Sūrah Takwīr, Sūrah Inshiqāq, Sūrah Mursalāt, Sūrah Nazi‘āt, and Surah Zāriyāt address similar issues. However, their structure as well as style of expression is completely different.
The Qur’ān challenged the Quraysh to compose ten chapters of [the quality of] the Qur’ānic sūrahs. When they were not able to meet this challenge they were asked to try composing at least one. They were, however, never asked to compose something less than a sūrah. This challenge included all the sūrahs, longer or shorter, but in no way did it include a given length of discourse lacking the qualities of a sūrah. Some of the Muslim exegetes have missed this fact. They thought that the Quraysh were challenged to compose a number of verses of the length of a sūrah. Having assumed this, they had to go a long way to see what aspect of inimitability was required of such a quantity of Qur’ānic verses. For example the verse (4:23):
Forbidden to you are your mothers, your daughters…
is longer than Sūrah Kawthar. This made them wonder what aspect of inimitibility was involved in this length of discourse which was more than a sūrah but not a sūrah in its form. In fact, the Holy Qur’ān did not challenge them to carve a discourse equal to or more than a sūrah but rather to produce a sūrah as a unit containing a meaningful, well-ordered, discourse. All the jinn and the humans can never succeed in composing a sūrah of the same grandeur, even a small one like Sūrah Kawthar. These facts lead us to conclude that by a sūrah in the Qur’ānic challenge to the Quraysh, God meant a well-structured, coherent discourse; the length of such a discourse was not relevant. Just as common words like tree, plants, and animals etc. are applied to a class of things, disregarding differences in the members of such a class, the word sūrah covers all sūrahs, short and long. Some of the earlier scholars expressed similar views corroborating our thesis. ‘Allāmah Suyūṭi writes:
Ju‘ayrī has said, “A sūrah is defined as a set of Qur’ānic verses consisting of a preface and a conclusion. The least amount of verses in a sūrah is three.”
I, however, define a sūrah as a set of verses which is a well-knit discourse dealing with a specific theme. This set of verses must contain a preface, a central theme, and a conclusion. A sūrah, therefore, must contain at least three verses.
Moreover, a study of the shorter sūrahs reveals that they follow the characteristics of the longer ones in being equally well-knit coherent chapters. The shorter sūrahs contain in them all the elements of beautiful ordering and unity of structure. Therefore, to hold that the shorter sūrahs like Sūrah Kawthar, Sūrah Mā‘ūn, and Sūrah ‘Aṣr do not contain any fine coherence in them would be wrong. Understanding interconnectedness of the shorter sūrahs can greatly help in deciphering the coherence in the longer sūrahs. Similarly, some of the longer sūrahs contain passages which are obviously well-knit: only a dull minded person can fail to notice it. For example, the first twenty verses of Sūrah Baqarah are manifestly coherent. When a student ponders over such passages he develops the ability to discover finer points of interconnection in other sūrahs. I have come to understand the coherence in the Qur’ān in this very manner. I am sure that any person who intends to seriously ponder over the Holy Qur’ān in this manner should be able to understand the coherence in the Qur’ān, as is affirmed by the Holy Qur’ān (47:17):
Those who adopted the right path, He increased their guidance