In this essay, we will use the analogy of a cookbook to understand how to maximise our Quranic experience and acquire a Quranic State of Being (QSOB). We define QSOB as a state of existential awareness, a moment where one comes to understand a certain concept and its connection with one’s essence. When this happens, one becomes totally connected to reality and comes to understand the truth about existence. The QSOB, we believe, is why Quran is arranged the way it is.
Unfortunately, Muslim engagement with Quran rarely, if ever, utilizes much of Quranic arrangement. Most times, Quran is quoted in half verses as if the context has no impact on meaning at all. The structure of the chapter and passages are simply ignored. The theme of Quran itself is not even touched upon. This is indeed a great pity because if there is any kind of objective tool we have to understand Quran, it is its arrangement.
As mentioned above, we will use the analogy of a cookbook to understand the nature of Quran. Cookbooks usually have a typology and the recipes within its general type will not run from it. For example, a vegan cookbook will not have the recipe for southern fried chicken. This is very obvious yet Quran is read as if it is a text of religious rites. It is not unusual to find Muslims reading Quran to obtain spiritual points from Allah. Even more strange is Muslims reading Quran to bless their dearly departed. This is clearly not found in Quran itself.
So what type of ‘cookbook’ is Quran? Judging from its contents, we find Quran is very grounded, meaning it deals with the real world. Even notions of worshipping Allah are found to be intertwined with ethical considerations. This is evident from Chapter 7 (Al-A’raaf) which is the first chapter to discuss this extensively in sequential narrations.
Next, we think about recipes. In every cookbook, there are a number of recipes. These recipes are constituted by a number of ingredients. Some ingredients are more common than others. Obviously, in Indian cookbooks, spices like chilli powder, curry powder and turmeric would be more common in its recipes. To enjoy the flavours of each spice, we must prepare the dish. We do not enjoy them by taking in spoonfuls of each spice!
In the same way, Quran has a multitude of concepts. It is not unusual to find Muslims removing verses with a particular concept from their original context, bringing them together other verses of the same nature with the intention of deriving a particular meaning. This may work to a certain extent but fails to express the full breadth of meaning. Each recipe utilizes an ingredient in a particular way and thus changes the ingredient itself to a certain extent.
Moving on, lets think about the ingredients of each recipe. Recipes with their ingredients reflect a particular flavour which we derive from a dish. It would be most unusual, if not improper to have coriander powder in Chinese style stir-fry vegetables! Every recipe must maintain the integrity of their intended flavour.
In the same way, each chapter (some call it ‘sura’) of Quran has a specific set of ingredients. There are ‘soft’ chapters which are focussed on metaphysical ideas and ‘hard’ chapters which are focussed on social action. There are even chapters which mix ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ elements to produce a unique experience of meaning. However, if we do not take cognizance of these elements, we will fail to appreciate these experiences.
We should also think about how ‘ingredients’ are used in each ‘recipe’. The musa ‘ingredient’ is the best example of this. Musa is used in thirty one chapters of Quran and each time, a different angle is touched. What does the ‘musa’ ingredient bring to the dish?
Finally we should think about the structure of each recipe. When we make Jamaican rice and peas, we usually blend our onions, garlic and ginger and shallow fry them before adding in our rice. We also add in Jamaican all-spice powder and thyme while the rice is on the boil. If we do not follow this sequence, we will find that the tastes of these ingredients will not be fully integrated with the rest of the dish and this will mar our enjoyment or even make it completely distasteful.
Going back to Quran itself, we find each recipe (read: chapters) meticulously so much so that even though Muslims debate on meanings and authority, there is no dispute at all about arrangement which is faithfully recited and memorized from the time of the Prophet. Yet, few of us take cognizance of the sequence of these ‘recipes’ when we formulate meaning.
Perhaps the best example of this is Chapter 2 (Al-Baqarah). This chapter is often quoted for its family laws (2/226-241). However, readers fail to take into account that these laws are found in the second section of this chapter (2/168-283). The first section of this chapter (2/21-167) is where an ideal society is founded. Without this ideal society formed, should the laws be put into place? This is how the sequence of each chapter helps us understand.
The analogy of a cookbook aptly fits the understanding of Quran as a text. Let us use it in our conceptualization of Quran and apply it in our readings. In that way, we may achieve a true appreciate of the recipes and achieve the QSOB.