The structure of Quran is the most useful element we have in trying to understand its message. This is because the structure of Quran (for those who believe it came from Allah like myself) is objective as it was decreed by Allah himself. I am firmly of this belief not due to dogmatic statements but rather to the few disclosures of textual coherence I have witnessed over the years. This essay attempts to describe one of them.
I have playfully named the first four large chapters of Quran as ‘The Fantastic Four’ for ease of reference as well as a tribute to how well they come together as a coherent whole. These chapters are Chapter 2 (Al-Baqarah with 286 ayat – longest in the whole Quran). Chapter 3 (Aali Imran with 200 ayat), Chapter 4 (An-Nisaa 176 ayat) and Chapter 5 (Al-Maidah with 120 ayat).
The first question which may arise is why have I stopped here? Why not continue to include Chapter 6, 7 etc? I have a number of reasons but one of the main ones is that I see Chapter 6 remarkably differs in style and theme from the Fantastic Four. For example, Chapter 6 has no dividing calls (like ‘oh mankind’) and themes seem to more easily ‘flow’ into each other. Another reason is that the Fantastic Four is far more practical. It’s action plan is far more discernible. Chapter 6 if anything gives a more theoretical overview of this plan.
The fact that the the Fantastic Four come straight after Al-Fatihah is no coincidence. Al-Fatihah with its 6 ayat neatly summarises the message of the entire Quran. The Fantastic Four which comes immediately after it gives an explication of the system required in order to fulfill the goal set by Al-Fatihah. This is probably the style of the Fantastic Four is very much ‘call and act’. Chapter 2 itself has at least eighteen calls!
How should the Fantastic Four be read? I used to believe that a sequential reading was the most proper. I still do believe the sequential reading is the most powerful but now I believe that Quran articulates very similar ideas albeit from a variety of angles. Therefore, we should read and consider a variety of permutations in our reading.Trying reading Chapter 2 and compare and contrast it with Chapter 5, for example. What strikes you about such a reading? In order to get a feel of this, lets consider the contents of each chapter of the Fantastic Four:
Chapter 2 is divided into 2 main sections demarcated by calls to the people (in ayas 21 and 168). In the first main section, there are calls to *bani israil* (in ayat 40, 47 and 122). *bani israil are the movement people moving towards higher stages of human existence (away from *firaun*). Chapter 2 is the only chapter among the Fantastic Four to have calls to *bani israil*. This shows that the first section of Chapter 2 is concerned with the movement required to produce peace and justice. On other hand, the second section of Chapter 2 (beginning aya 168) has a sequential series of calls to those who have believed, nine in total. These calls are related to the construction of an ideal society with an emphasis on consumption and economics.
Chapter 3 does not have any calls to the people nor to *bani israil*. It does however have the longest exposition about a Quranic personality which is the story of *isa* (3/35-64). This shows to me that Chapter 3 is focussed on individual evolution more so than Chapter 2. Chapter 3 also has the first calls to ahl-al-kitab (people who belong to the system, contextually the system of *isa*). Like Chapter 2, Chapter 3 also sends with sequential calls for those who believed, seven in total up till the last aya.
Chapter 4 is the first chapter to start with a call to the people. It then gives the entire social philosophy of the system (4/1-18) followed by a series of calls to those who believed. Chapter 4 is unique in the sense that it has a call those who have been given the system in aya 47 (yaa ayyuha alladhina uutul kitab). It also ends with two more calls to the people (Ayas 170 and 174). This seems to show the emphasis of the chapter itself, which is about social relations and how to administrate the system.
The last of the Fantastic Four is Chapter 5 (Al-Maidah). It is unique in a few ways. Chapter 5 is the only chapter to mention ad-deen al-kameel (perfect deen in aya 3). It also uniquely mentions the story of the two children of *adam* (5/27-32) and links it to *bani israil*. Most prominently to me is the two calls to the messengers (oh messenger, ya ayyuha ar-rasool in ayas 41 and 67). This call is not found in any other chapter which tells us that this chapter is centred on the system of the messenger and his perspective on it. Chapter 5 is also the first to give a fairly detailed account of the end period, using *isa* as exanple of the messenger. This end period description is a fitting end to the Fantastic Four.
The Fantastic Four also interact with each other in very interesting ways. For example, Chapter 2 begins with the notion of success (falah – 2/5) and Chapter 3 actually ends with the muflihoon (those who attain falah – 3/200). Chapter 4 begins with the single soul (nafsin wahidah – 4/1) and Chapter 5 ends with the judgement of every ummah (5/116 onwards). This is confirmed by Quran 31/28 which mentions our creation and resurrection as that of a single soul. These are only two examples of how these chapters complement each other.
As you can see, there is a significant overlap of themes among the Fantastic Four but also, a great deal of uniqueness in each of its chapters. By bouncing around each chapter, we would able to see the subtle differences between them, yielding vital nuggets of wisdom hidden in the divinely ordained structure of Quran. This would significantly increase our reading experience.