The Quran is the Holy book of Islam, but books need to be read and understood, so many Muslims make the classic mistake of reading a sentence and not understanding the intended meaning. This article will highlight common mistakes and show you how to understand the Quran better.


Understanding the Quran


How to understand the Quran

Original “Kufi” script from the oldest known Quran, known as the Tashkent Quran.

The Quran is an Arabic book consisting of 114 chapters (surahs), essentially it outlines all the principles of the Islamic faith. It has reached us through many chains of reliable sources (mutawatir). The most common and strong chain is  called “Hafs”, this chain is as follows :


  1. Hafs bin Sulaiman al Asadi Al Kufi
  2. Asim Bin Abi Nujud Al Kufi
  3. Abi Abdur Rahman As Sulemi
  4.  Uthman bi Affan
  5. Ali Bin Abu Talib
  6. Zaid Bin Thabit
  7. Ubay Bin K’ab
  8. Prophet s.a.w.a
how to understand the quran

The top is the original text, next with dots, the 3rd is with dots and vowels. The original text does not change, it is just that there is guidance on how to read it.

There is actually a shorter version, with the same text which as follows :


  1.  Hafs bin Sulaiman al Asadi Al Kufi
  2. Asim Bin Abi Nujud Al Kufi
  3. Abi Abdur Rahman As Sulemi
  4. Ali Bin Abu Talib
  5. Prophet s.a.w.a


It was revealed and recorded without the modern Arabic vowels marked in place, the dots (vowels) were added later. Without the vowels the exact method of saying the Quran would not be obvious unless you were familiar with Arabic. As Islam spread dots were added to the words to make it easier for people to read, then later still further marks were added to understand the vowel sounds.

So now we what what the Quran is, and how it has reached us, but now how do we understand the text?


The Arabic word for explanation is “tafsir”, and “tafasir” for more than one explanation, now it is not logical to read the Quran to understand how we should try and understand the Quran, that is a circular logic. So we must use our sound reasoned mind (Aql) to create a system of understanding of text or communication, not just the Quran. So the human mind is the primary and the Quran is actually secondary, eg the Quran is for our guidance, we are the intended audience, so it must make sense to us and it must be read by us.

For any text there is the apparent meaning of the words, and there may also be another set of meanings beyond the apparent meaning. The apparent meaning is simply the tafsir, the hidden meaning is called “Ta’wil”, for the hidden meaning to be known, there must be some other information other than the text that we are reading, so a hadith or some tradition that can give a meaning that is not apparent from the words alone.

Many have debated how to understand or interpret the words and sentences, should they be taken literally, or by the apparent meaning or is there a hidden meaning that is found via other sources? Let me give an example of why this issue has caused so much debate, if we take the following sentence:

“The man was out of his mind”

Now when ever we read a sentence, we have to try and reach the meaning that the author intended, if we took the individual words literally, then man has actually left his own mind, then we will have an image that a man who has somehow exited his brain. This makes no sense, and it would make even less sense to then to try find a literal meaning based on the sum of the literal meaning of the individual words.

Lets have another example:

“my head was spinning after reading this new book”

Again, if we take the literal meaning of the individual words, we arrive at a meaning that suggests my head has been rotating since reading a new book. Hopefully the dangers of taking the literal values of  individual words is clear, we can move on to how a sentence should be accepted. If we look at the first example, the way these words have been used, the accepted meaning of the sentence is “the man was not acting rationally”, and the second example, we understand the real meaning to be “after reading the new book, I feel confused”. As can be seen, in order to reach the reality of what an author intends, one needs to have not only a firm grasp of the language, so that the words can wordsbe understood, but also a clear understanding of the phrases and how they are used.

For example, in English we all know that if we go to the chip shop, we order “Fish and Chips”, not “Chips and Fish”, if someone asked for “chips and Fish” its still the same, but its not the common phrase. So understanding the language and the phrases is important to understanding the true meaning of the Quran. If one reads the Quran, you do get a feel for how certain phrases are used, as the same phrases are used in different situations, but the meaning is often the same.

This is why any complex piece of writing is rarely translated by machine properly, as all a machine generally does is translate the individual words for their literal version in a different language. The literalists say that they take the verses literally, without understanding how, without giving any meaning and liking to what is already in the mind, essentially they read the word, and ignore the meaning, and they certainly ignore the value of the sentence and phrase.

This is the reason the Quran is often accompanied with explanatory notes (Tafseer), additionally there are statements passed to us from authentic sources which also suggest some hidden interpretations (taweel) to certain verses. A classic example of how the Quran has been misunderstood by following an incorrect approach is the verses regarding the description of Allah.  Lets examines some of the verses:

“O Iblis (Satan)! What prevents you from prostrating yourself to one whom I have created with Both My Hands?” (38:75)

From this verse, some literalists have accepted Allah must therefore have two hands,  however those familiar with Arabic and the phrases used know that this interpretation is clearly false. Just as in English literature, if I used the phrase:

“Its out of the computers hands”

This does not mean that the computer has hands, the sentence refers to the subject being beyond what the computer is able to do. Let us examine other uses of the word “Hands” in the Quran to confirm how this phrase should be understood.

“Perish the hands of the Father of Flame! Perish he!” (111:1)

The above verses show how the phrase “hands” were used to describe ones power or influence, Abu Lahab who was a staunch enemy of Islam is being cursed by Allah, the phrase Allah uses is “Perish the Hands”, now a literalist would accept this to mean that only Abu Lahab’s hands would be cursed, however this is obviously not what is intended.

“Be patient in the face of what they say, and mention Our servant David the hands, He was obedient.” (38:17)

The second verse Allah describes Prophet David (AS) as a man of “Hands”, this is clearly a metaphor, however literalists have a method of explaining away these issues by saying:

“the words are correct, we do not know how or why, or what they mean, but we just accept the literal meaning as they are”

In light of the other verses and our knowledge of Arabic phrases, it is understand that this verse is explained that Prophet David (AS) is a man of strength and resolve, so Hands in this respect means strength. Additionally there are fourteen repetitions of the phrase “what your right hand possess”, which is understood to refer to those within your control/power, such as a slave or prisoner of war etc.

How about when a disaster strikes them because what their hands have put forward, and then they come to you swearing by God: “We only intended goodwill and reconciliation”? (4:62)

Again “hands” is referring to what you have done through your influence or control, even if a person had no actual hands, they would still be referred to in the above ayat.

Those who pledge allegiance to you are pledging allegiance to God. The hand of God is over their hands. Whoever breaks his pledge breaks it to his own loss. And whoever fulfills his covenant with God, He will grant him a great reward. (48:10)

Again, the use of hands can not be literal here, when the people pledged allegiance, they joined with the Prophet SAW and supported him, and God also supported them.

9|67|The hypocrite men and hypocrite women are of one another. They advocate evil, and prohibit righteousness, and withhold their hands. They forgot God, so He forgot them. The hypocrites are the sinners

Again, the hands here refers to influence, perhaps in this instance it refers to charity , or withholding charity or help to others.

At the other end of the interpretation spectrum we find those that make conclusions way beyond the apparent meaning (Taweel) without any strong supporting evidence (daleel).  An example, if we had the sentence:

“I was late for work today”

We can assume fairly safely that I was late for my work, but it would be an unsupported claim to say that this was because of the traffic, or that I work as an engineer, or that really the phrase “work” relates to a secret spying mission that I am engaged on. This kind of interpretation clearly leads to false conclusions and is not valid. Some have said, but what is my evidence for this approach? I would simply say this is beyond evidence, this is simply the way of literature and logic, as any evidence that could be read or written would also need to conform to the simple guidance that I have already outlined above.

One can not read the words of the Quran, and then ignore the apparent meaning and substitute a completely different meaning with no supporting evidence, this is effectively denying the Quran. If Allah says “He is One”, and someone says, well actually I think that means He is two, that would make no sense, its removing any logical value of words and sentences. If one does that, then they are not reading the words of God, but just making up their own words and saying that is from God, which is completely unacceptable in Islam.

So to conclude, the words of the Quran are not to be taken as individual entities, but they must be seen in the context of the sentence, and in the light of how they are used elsewhere. The apparent meaning of the whole sentence is the only way the correct understanding can be reached, this is the middle way between literalism and assumption, which is the meaning that would be apparent to those at familiar with the Arabic of the time.