It is ironic that a substantial number of educated Muslims (their number is increasing with time) believe that the Qur’an contains chapters and verses. To them, chapter is equal in meaning to Surah (suːrɑː), and verse is the same as Ayah (ɑːyɑː). For example, a renowned Islamic website has confidently written (i) under the subheading “What is the Qur’an all about?” in its article “What is Islam?”, and (ii) on the page of Qur’an-topics, as follows:
“The chapters and verses of the Qur’an were revealed throughout Prophet Muhammad’s Mission, … As verses of the Qur’an were revealed Muhammad – they were written down, recited, and memorized. The Prophet also typically led the formal worship five times daily, during which he recited the revealed verses … the Qur’anic verses played an immediate and practical role … before he passed away, the Prophet arranged the 114 chapters into the sequence we find in the Qur’an as we have it today”.
It is widely regarded as the finest work in classical Arabic literature. The Quran is divided into chapters (surah in Arabic), which are then divided into verses (ayah).
To first or only know what Surah and Ayah really mean, please go to part-2 and read the subject matter under the 1st and 4th subtitles, that is: Meaning of Surah as the Qur’anic Structural Term as well as Meaning of Ayah as the Qur’anic Structural Term.
Sorting Out From the Basics
Islam is a straightforward religion where most conflicts can easily be resolved by commonsense analysis, provided the parties are ready to give up their ego and accept the fact of the matter. So let us revisit the following well-known facts:
(1) The Qur’an mentions Surahs and Ayahs in it.
(2) The Prophet dictated to his scribes as well as told his other companions about the revelations in terms of Surahs and Ayahs.
(3) The Prophet’s companions used NO alternative terms. Arabic is said to be a vast language, so their synonyms or alternatives should have been there if they were NOT unique terms coined by God. Or, it needs to be proved that the literary divisions of Surah and Ayah were existing before the advent of the Qur’an.
(4) Other Arabic books, including those of Hadith, do NOT use Surah and Ayah for chapter and verse (paragraph) respectively. This is clear proof that Surah and Ayah are NOT considered parallel structures to chapter and verse in Arabic.
As a matter of fact, WORDS Surah and Ayah were well known to Arabs before the revelation of the Qur’an, but they were not using them as the literary TERMS. And even after the advent of the Qur’an, they (whether believers or disbelievers) did NOT use them in relation to the speeches or writings outside the Qur’an.
(5) In other languages, chapter and verse are NOT referred to by words that are equal or close in meaning to that of Surah and Ayah.
In reality, Surah and Ayah are specific terminologies for the divisions of the Qur’an. And there are no literary terms in use to substitute them in any language.
(6) Muslim scholars and intellectuals of modern times have never proved that Surah in Arabic is equal in meaning to chapter in English, and similarly, Ayah is the equivalent of verse.
As a matter of principle, the burden of proof has been on them, but they have not been fulfilling their responsibility.
The likening of Surah and Ayah to chapter and verse is made because there is a strong tendency to copy the West; otherwise, there is no thoughtful work of Muslim intellectuals behind it.
It should also be noted that it is not the case of Arabic vs foreign words such as God for Allah, Namaaz (Persian word) for Salah, fasting for Saum, wedding for NikaH, and the like. Rather, it is the issue of uniquely created literary divisions (Surah and Ayah) of the Qur’an, which bear the signs of divine authorship. Whereas, Allah for God, NikaH for wedding, etc, are neither novel terms, nor do they bear the signs of divinity.
Historically, it was the Church that started propagating the Bible as having chapters and verses in 17c. onward. Then, it was the orientalists who first translated the Qur’an into English language, and interpreted Surahs and Ayahs as chapters and verses respectively. Obviously, they had the frame of mind of the Church. Nonetheless, when Muslims started translating, they also did not correct the orientalist vernaculars of chapter and verse in relation to the Qur’an, rather they validated them without giving any closer look. The first of such translations came out in 1930 by Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall (born Marmaduke William Pickthall) after 13 years of his conversion into Islam from Christianity. Being a journalist, he was oriented to chapters and verses in scriptures as per the prevailing vocabulary in Europe. However, even after him, Muslim translators who were born in Muslim families and countries also translated Surah and Ayah as chapter and verse respectively. Also in the modern era, the people of the West have been referring to Surahs and Ayahs in the Qur’an as chapters and verses, which they learned from the English translations done by the orientalists or Muslims. And with the passage of time, educated Muslims in general followed suit of the Church, orientalists, and westerners without sensing any problem in it.
(7) According to the etymology of chapter and verse, the Bible was divided into chapters in the 14th century, and into verses from 1550s to 1620s. This means that the division into chapters and verses is a late alteration even in the Bible.
The above well-known facts — from the Qur’an, the Prophet, his companions, Arabic and other languages — clearly expose that Surah and Ayah are the specific structural terms for the divisions of the Qur’an, introduced by God. But this UNIQUE divine wisdom has been replaced by dissimilar, nonspecific, and Church-promoted units of scripture — chapter and verse — in English translations by Muslims since the 20th century. So far their understanding of alternative new vocabulary, chapter and verse are actually very different in meanings from those of Surah and Ayah. Speaking frankly, such a translation plainly reflects the deep-seated trend of Muslims to copy the west. This is why they have not been thinking over it.
To these Muslim intellectuals or common persons, the pertinent questions are:
Q1: Is it right to embrace the form-related characteristics that non-Muslims assign to the Qur’an, and ignore the characteristics that God and His messenger stated?
Q2: Did WISE God create the terms of Surah and Ayah unnecessarily since chapter and verse, or their equivalents, existed before?
Q3: The Qur’an challenges humans to make a single Surah like it (2:23). But if a Surah is the equivalent of a chapter, then the Qur’an simply challenges to make a chapter like it.
Now, “a chapter like of it” means what? Since the author is challenging those people who call this book fake, it cannot ask them to produce a similar message or messages in their penned chapter. So it plainly means a chapter similar in structure. And the structure of all chapters is the same — a limited title and the following passages. As per this undeniable construction, there are billions of chapters composed of limited titles and the following passages, religious and nonreligious, out there. In other words, Quran’s challenge has been met by a huge number of human writings if a Surah is the equivalent of a chapter. Isn’t this right?
Even Arab polytheists could have easily written, in Classical Arabic, chapters consisting of titles and following passages at the time of the Quran’s revelation. So the questions are: Was its author’s challenge such a big lie? Why did the die-hard polytheists give no attention to this stark lie? And, why did they not meet this extremely easy challenge, rather they let this lie or extremely easy challenge prevail?
From Critical Thinking
Critical thinking is neither difficult nor reserved for intellectuals; each and every human being, whether educated or unlettered, can do some. You simply need to reflect that as per the nature of the given problem, how could it have been done fittingly? Also, how should have Wise God accomplished it, or did He do wonderfully that I was unable to think of? If you reflect along these lines, you will get enough insight to answer your concerns, or at least you will realize whether or not some given interpretation is right. Now let us employ some critical thinking on the issue at hand:
(A) Suppose a country’s president addressed his nation twenty times, then would you call the transcripts of his addresses chapters? Since public speeches are not called chapters, how can God’s addresses to humanity (through His prophet) be called chapters?
Also, when a speaker delivers a speech, he does not tell the audience where he moves to the next paragraph — paragraphs are not apparent in oral speech. On top of it, no human can say for sure where God wanted to change the paragraph. Therefore, the right way is to transcribe a divine speech continuously, i.e. without breaking it into passages (verses).
(B) Chapter and verse are the terminologies of education; unlettered masses neither know nor understand them. For example, if you ask an unlettered person what a chapter or verse is, he/she would not be able to answer.
But God guides humanity whose overwhelming majority has been unlettered. If you look back one century ago, then two centuries ago, then three centuries ago, and so on and so forth, you will realize how fewer people were able to read and write in former times. Still today, many developing countries have very low education rates. Then, how did God convey to the unlettered masses in terms of chapters and verses? Did God NOT know that the unlettered audience did not understand what a chapter or verse was?
On the other hand, the unlettered masses did and do understand public speeches — at least the things that concern them. This has been happening across the world in relation to tribal chiefs and political leaders, at least. So divine speeches without delineating chapters and verses are perfect for everyone, whether educated or unlettered.
(C) When you guide your kids, you do not go by chapters. Rather, you keep giving them a mix of teachings as per situations. The same thing is done by a tribal chief or founding father of a nation. Going by chapters is not the way of guiding masses.
Similar technicality applies to paragraphs: when you give a talk to your kids or human masses, you do not delineate paragraphs in your speech.
(D) Historically, Arabs were doing oratory, but their speeches were not called Surahs. Similarly, because of poetry, they were well familiar with verses, but they were not calling them Ayahs.
(E) In the books of science, economics, and other subjects, you call sentences or paragraphs, not verses. It is poetry where verse is used. According to the dictionary of etymology, verse was used for a line or passage in the songs of David in Psalm in the Bible. Later, the Church extended it to the whole of the Bible (1550s-1620s), which is an unsuited term for a sentence or paragraph. Then, how can such an unbefitting term be attributed to God’s speech? Does God speak wrong words or terms?
(F) It is apparent that the authors of the Bible REARRANGED the anecdotal materials by subject titles, and later on, the Church created chapters and verses.
When a human mind memorizes information on a subject, it keeps all of it together in a systematic way. For example, a physician’s mind tries to keep all the information on Diabetes together. This leads to pertinent title, sections, and paragraphs when he/she goes to write it down. But this physician has not learned all this information from one essay, one lecture, one observation, or one experience. In the same way, Biblical writers gathered anecdotal, divine teachings on a particular subject from many of His speeches. Then they rearranged these subjects into various sections (books) and gave them appropriate subject titles. Later, the Church divided these books or sections into chapters and verses. In a nutshell, the arrangement by subject-titles, chapters, and verses in the Bible represents human works.
To the contrary, if a listener or scribe wanted to transcribe the divine addresses (through His prophet) without sorting out the contents or sophisticating in any other way, he would have written down every address word for word continuously from the start to the end. This would have created no topic titles, chapters, or paragraphs (verses) — the case one finds in the Qur’an (not the English translations).
(G) According to the Qur’an, The Bible is a corrupted scripture. Then, why would God imitate the structure and style of a corrupted scripture? And if He does, would it not confuse humanity in recognizing the uncorrupted one?
(H) A Surah usually (a) does not have a topic-title, (b) does not elaborate its title whatever it is, (c) deals with a mix of subjects, and (d) carries repetitions. These things are unfitting for a chapter.
Also, the Prophet dictated to his scribes the words of a divine address continuously, while a chapter is broken down to many paragraphs (verses).
It is also an incongruous innovation of the Church (in c.17) to write down multiple verses in a paragraph, just by numbering them. To the contrary if you look at nonreligious books, you will never find multiple verses inside one paragraph. Why would God do, or compel His prophet to do, such inappropriate things?
(I) There are Surahs of only three or four small sentences, while a whole chapter does not carry three or four small sentences only.
Conversely, there are very long Surahs, for example, the second or the third one in the Qur’an. A chapter is never this long. A long section is divided into smaller chapters, for instance, Genesis in the Bible is a book or section that divides into about 50 smaller chapters.
(J) Literally, chapter is from Latin capitulum, diminutive of caput “head”. Because of its meaning “little head”, it figuratively refers to a limited heading followed by a small section or subsection of the subject matter. For example, if a book on physics has three chapters on sound, there is a section of sound, which has three subsections or chapters. To the contrary, if the book has only one chapter of sound, the chapter refers to the small section of sound there.
And this word chapter nowhere means a surrounding wall, a partition wall, or something having walls on all its sides figuratively — which are the meanings of Surah.
Also, verse means a line of words, a stanza, a passage, a paragraph. It neither means a punctuation mark nor a sign hinting to someone (God), which are the meanings of Ayah.
(K) One cannot substitute chapter and verse in English writings by a surrounding wall (Surah) and sign (Ayah) respectively. For example, you cannot say that your book of physics has two surrounding walls, or enclosures, on optics instead of saying that the book has two chapters on optics.
Likewise, you cannot say that a write-up x has 15 signs (Ayahs) meaning the write-up has 15 passages.
Damage from Such Translations
Such translations could not and cannot impact English understanding audiences considerably for two reasons.
(1) It does not expose people to the literary signs of divine authorship, which is present everywhere in the Qur’an and can be shown to everyone. Those who apply critical thinking can see these signs themselves, but most people do not do as such.
The Qur’an forbids to invent any lie on it and asks its Daa-ee (callers) to convey its messages (a very important message or sign is in the construct of Surah and Ayah) absolutely clearly (called Al Balagh Al Mubeen in Arabic). And it is plain common sense that clear and exact presentation does not mean misrepresentation. If Arabic words such as Islam, Qur’an, Hajj, Zakah or Zakat, Zimmi (tax), Assalamu Alaykum, Allah, Insha Allah, etc., can be conveyed to non-Muslims, why not Surah and Ayah? Using addressees’ unbefitting vocabulary and misrepresenting the Qur’an is not any option; it amounts to virtually corrupting the Qur’an.
(2) It reinforces the Church-propagated notion that Muhammad took Biblical materials, made changes in them, and then wrote the Qur’an. This reinforcement feels natural or justified when, in the later book (the Qur’an), the stories are similar as well as the architecture is the same (chapters and verses).
To many others, this reinforcement further builds up when they find in-coordinated speeches in Quranic chapters implying something wrong in Muhammad’s mind or his inability to properly write a chapter.
To be continued.
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