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Muqaddimah – Tafsir Nizam-ul-Quran – Names of the Sūrahs and their Central Themes

July 11, 2010

Four factors seem to have been considered in naming the sūrahs of the Holy Qur’ān:

  1. Some of the sūrahs have been named using incipits (i.e. the first few words of the sūrah) . Imām Suyūṭī has recorded that following sūrahs have been named this way:
    • Ḥamd (the Praise: 1)
    • Barā’ah (the Acquittal: 9)
    • Subḥān (Glorified: 17)
    • Ṭāhā (20)
    • Ḥawāmīm (40-46, collectively)
    • Yāsīn (36)
    • Iqtaraba (It approached: 21)
    • Raḥmān (the Merciful: 55)
    • Tabāraka (Exalted: 67)
    • Sa’ala (He enquired: 70)
    • ‘Amma (About what: 78)
    • Al-nāzi‘āt (Those that snatch away: 79)
    • ’Ara’ayta (Have you seen: 107)
    • Tabbat (Perished, 111)
  2. and the like. Many books in the Hebrew Bible have also been named in Hebrew using incipits

  3. Some sūrahs have been given names after some conspicuous words used in them, for example:
    • Zukhruf (Ornaments of Gold: 43)
    • Shu‘arā’ (the Poets: 26)
    • Ḥadīd (Iron: 57)
    • Mā‘ūn (Neighborly Needs: 107)

    These words do not indicate the intended message of the sūrahs. They have been, however, conspicuously placed in the sūrahs as distinguishing marks. Arabs would sometimes name places and even people considering this element. Names like Mutalammis (the seeker) and Tābbaṭa Sharran (he carried a snake under his arm) have been given on this principle. Another analogical case is the practice of logicians. They sometimes relate the meaning of a thing to some of its specific condition which in fact has no bearing on its real meaning

  4. Some names of the sūrahs allude to a conspicuous theme discussed in them. Sūrah Nūr Light: 24), for example, has been named considering the verse of Nūr (24:35). Sūrahs like ’Ᾱl-i ‘Imrān (Family of ‘Imrān: 3), Nisā’ (Women: 4), Ibrāhīm (Abraham: 14), and Yūnus (Jonah: 10) have been named this way
  5. Names of some of the sūrahs however, reflect their ‘umūd (i.e. the Central Theme).
    • Sūrah Fātiḥah (The Opening: 1) has also been named Sūrah Salāh
    • Sūrah Barā’ah (Acquittal: 9)
    • Sūrah Banī Israel (Children of Israel: 17), and
    • Sūrah Muḥammad (47) which has also been referred to as sūrah of war

    The last two sūrahs of the Holy Qur’ān, referred to as Mu‘awwadhatayn (i.e. the two seeking refuge) (113 – 114), and Sūrah Ikhlāṣ (112), also provide an example of such names.

It is to be noted that this last method of naming the sūrahs takes into consideration their basic themes. Had all the sūrahs been named following this principle the coherence in all of them would have been discernible to the readers. I do not, therefore, see any problem in naming all the sūrahs considering their ‘umūd so that their basic purpose is highlighted, provided the Sharī‘ah does not prohibit us. Now let us take this issue…*


*This discussion too could not be completed by the author.
This is a rendering of English translation of Muqaddimah – Tafsir Nizam ul Quran by the permission of the translator, Tariq Mahmood Hashmi. Original version available here.

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