Chapter 1 of Qur’an in Conversation (Michael Birkel, ed.) focuses on the theme of “hidden knowledge” or “hidden meaning” in three significant texts: al-Fatihah (the Opening, sura one, which is recited as part of all five of the daily prayers, so it’s at least as familiar in a Muslim context as the Lord’s Prayer is in a Christian one), Yusuf (the story of Joseph, as told in the Qur’an), and the story of Moses and Khidr in sura al-Khaf (a text that has no Biblical parallel). The commentaries highlight the nature of sacred text in general, and this sacred text in particular, as revelation – something that makes hidden knowledge manifest – and simultaneously as concealment – of deeper meanings, in particular. Revelation is, in a way, a container of hidden knowledge – levels of understanding that don’t simply lie on the surface, but require meditation or reflection to apprehend, and which point beyond themselves to the vast expanse of what remains to be known about the incomparable, incomprehensible God who is the object of revelation.
Ovamir Anjum provides a line by line English rendering of and commentary on al-Fatiha, noteworthy in itself. Gathering the lines together, Anjum’s rendering of al-Fatiha reads as follows:
In the name of Allah who is most merciful and ever merciful
Praise is due to Allah, the master of the worlds
The most merciful and ever merciful
Master of the day of recompense
You alone we worship and you alone we ask for succor
Guide us on the straight path
Not the path of those who have incurred wrath,
nor the path of those who have gone astray.
The use of “most merciful and ever merciful” is unique, and particularly suggestive in its inclusion of the time dimension (“ever”). Most versions of the Opening include an explicit description of the straight path as the path of those who have been blessed, so the absence of that wording calls attention to itself. Anjum’s comments, however, indicate that the path is implicitly one of blessing – the blessing is to be understood, as is the intimate care and motherly connotation of the underlying idea translated “master,” and the pervasive promise of the opening lines. As Anjum explains, al-Fatiha paints a picture in words of a good and compassionate deity who cares for and accounts for the universe, situating humanity in relation to God, ideally as reliant on God and accepting God’s care and guidance.
Ingrid Mattson donates an exposition of the Qur’an’s story of Joseph, which shares main outlines with the version presented in the Bible, but which differs in numerous particulars. She points out the symbols of hidden reality that recur in the Qur’an’s telling of the story, including the three-fold appearance of Joseph’s shirt, Joseph himself (first hidden away in a well, then hidden in prison, and then in a real sense hidden in full view but, as it were, unseen for who he is by his brothers on their visit to Egypt), dreams, and stored grain – a symbol for something valuable laid up for access at the right time. She derives from all this hidden reality the counsel implicit in the story: to trust the unseen hand of divine providence – hidden reality – even in the process of undergoing real sorrow and tragedy at the level of visible reality.
Maria Dakake’s explication of the tale of Moses and Khidr struck me as especially valuable, possibly because this text is especially resistant to reading by someone schooled in the Biblical tradition. She points out that the text falls at the exact middle of the text of the Qur’an. This is a place of special prominence in a text that, according to Carl Ernst, relies heavily on chiastic structure for encoding its meaning. Dakake’s discussion ties the setting of the story – the majma al-bahrayn, the “meeting of the two seas,” the place where salt and fresh water meet and briefly mingle – to the meeting of Moses and Khidr themselves. The two are distinctly different kinds of prophetic figures, with two distinctly different sorts of knowledge; by nature, in a sense, they can only spend a brief time together. She also summarizes Kashani’s allegorical commentary on the story. Kashani treats the tale as an allegory of the journey of the soul from the eternal source of life, through birth and differentiation, which brings conflict, to the “soul at peace,” in possession of the treasure of spiritual knowledge. She shares the commentary tradition’s story, too, in which Khidr and Moses watch a bird dipping its beak into a river, and Khidr comments to Moses: “you know something different from what I know; I know something different from what you know; but compared to what there is to know of God, our knowledge is like what that bird is taking from that river.” That idea, that all of revelation is no more than a miniscule fraction of the reality that could be known, is one that crosses the boundaries of religious tradition.
All three of these commentaries illustrate something of the distinctive approach that characterizes the reading of the Qur’an. One corollary of this distinctive approach is its significant difference from Biblical exegesis. This, it seems to me, is something many people would benefit from knowing. That is, while we sometimes recognize that it’s difficult to pick up the Bible and read it without some background, it’s even more hazardous to just pick up the Qur’an and read it … at least, if the reader does, indeed, want to come close to grasping the meaning of the text.