The very first revelation came down with one bold word and one unmistakable command—Read! Though crystal clear in its wording, it has been variably interpreted and celebrated throughout history. In this brief article, Dr. Akram reveals his own thoughts on this misunderstood command. For him, it is no endorsement of education or the sciences, but an emphasis of the prayer, which is of central importance in the Islamic faith.
They said: Explain the statement of God—“Read in the name of your Lord who created!”— and remove the shrouds of confusion from us, since it is the very first revelation of the Qurʾān upon the Prophet and it is not clear to us what was the reason for this command to read. We have reviewed the various views of interpreters, but that exercise has only pushed us into foolishness and stupidity and increased the muddling of the truth and even more confusion.
This is from those matters of the Qurʾān that people have been mistaken about in their understanding, and wound up falsifying what is true and correct. Some have made the command to mean reading in a general sense and inferred from it the seriousness of reading and knowledge in Islam. Others have taken this verse as a symbol for schools and institutions of secular education, suggesting that the verse was revealed to clarify the importance of the sciences and learning that is acquired in these institutions, all in an attempt to establish themselves in the earthly world and enjoy this fleeting life.
They asked: What is their mistake?
No doubt Islam greatly values reading and knowledge in numerous verses of the Qurʾān and ḥadīth narrations of the Prophet, but this command which you asked me about is misunderstood, wrongly applied, and not at all associated with what these people and their associates claim in various connections. Were they to reflect over it in the context of the sūrah in which it appears, in the context of its position in the Noble Qurʾān and in light of the reasons for its revelation, its meaning would not escape them and they would not be deaf to its sense and content. The entire Qurʾān is crystal clear in the strongest sense, devoid of all crookedness or aberration, and its being difficult to comprehend for those who don’t ponder over it does not negate its perfect clarity.
They said: Tell us about its meaning in a clear way that would radically open up our understanding and comprehension of this first stamp of Prophethood.
Its comprehension lies in understanding three separate matters.
They asked: What are they?
First, you must understand the state of the Prophet himself at the time of this revelation: increasingly disenchanted with the world and greatly averse to it, he chose instead to turn his face towards his Lord and find solace in remembering Him and turning to Him exclusively. I have mentioned in a previous article that faith in God as a sustaining Lord (rabb) and object of worship (ilāh) is both natural and rational. Our Prophet, following the practice of all the Prophets and Messengers before him, was guided to his Lord through his sound nature, and that guidance was then increased through the insight of his reason and thinking. So even prior to receiving revelation, the Prophet recognized his Lord, feared Him, was devout towards Him, and was emotionally invested in Him. He was moved and inspired by his profound love for Him to be ever grateful and to worship Him. This, in turn, left him in profound distress and strange agitation without rest. His longing was further compounded by his aspiration to find the correct way to worship, and there was really no one around him who could teach him that nor could he attain that through his intellect alone. So prior to prophethood, he began to frequent the cave of Ḥirāʾ for a particular type of devotion. In turn, God responded to his aspirations, alleviating his tension and healing his illness. He guided the Prophet to the correct way of worshipping Him out of mercy for him, just as He had mercy towards the people by creating and fashioning them.
Second, you must understand the exact meaning of read: reading here does not mean any reading but the reading of the Noble Qurʾān. In other words, the command is to recite the Qurʾān. This is the very reason the next sūrah begins: “Surely We did reveal it in the Night of the Decree.” [97:1] The reference of the pronoun here can only refer to this, i.e. the Qurʾān. In conventional speech, very often a portion is mentioned which is meant to refer to the whole. This is a normative and well-known matter in all human languages and is also used quite frequently in the Qurʾān. Standing (qiyām), bowing (rukūʿ), prostrating (sujūd), and glorification (tasbīḥ) are all parts of prayer, and the use of any of these terms is meant to denote the prayer. Similarly, recitation of the Qurʾān is also a great pillar of prayer, and God uses it to mean the prayer as well. In other words, the first command to the Prophet was the prayer, just as the first command to other prophets was also prayer and worship. When God spoke to Mūsā, for instance, to choose him for prophethood, He said to him: “Verily, I am God, and no one deserves worship but I, so worship Me and establish the prayer to remember Me.” [20:14] And similar to that, in combining recitation with prayer is His statement: “Recite what has been revealed to you from the Book and establish prayer” [29:45], referring to the recitation that is part of prayer. Another example is: “O you the enwrapped one! Stand up in prayer by night, all but a small part of it; half of it, or reduce it a little; or add to it a little; and recite the Qur’an slowly and distinctly.” [73:1-4] And then there is His statement in another instance: “Those who hold fast to the Book and establish Prayer.” [7:170]
Third, you must understand the structure of the sūrah itself: look deeply into the entirety of the sūrah, and you will see that God ends it by saying: “But prostrate yourself and become nigh (to your Lord).” [96:19], i.e pray, for prayer brings you near and into His presence. Just as your prayer includes recitation, it also necessarily includes prostration, for prostration is proximity to Him. When the Prophet responded to his Lord by performing the prayer, the mighty Quraysh resisted him. God says in the very same sūrah, quite explicitly: “Did you see him who forbids a servant (of Allah) when he prays?” [96:9-10] And prior to this verse there was no reference to prayer in the sūrah except for the command to read.
I also said:
It should be apparent from my explanation that this command was revealed upon the Prophet as a response to his desire to worship and his inclination towards it. The Prophet was the most keen of all people to follow the commands of his Lord. Had the command to read meant simply learning to read in general the Prophet would have learned to read. But what we do know is that the first thing he began focusing on after Prophethood was the prayer. More importantly, this concerned and frightened the leaders of Quraysh, so they tried to stop him from it and viciously resisted him in that.
The asked: What is the relation of this command with creation, as God says: “Read in the name of thy Lord who created”?
Creation is a great manifestation from the manifestations of God’s abundant mercy, and its stages follow the paths of mercy. Gratitude for this blessing is to confirm the innate nature upon which God created all of humanity, while ingratitude would be to destroy it and reject it entirely. Because of this, worship and devotion were selected to be in harmony and agreement with existence itself. God being the most noble and most merciful of all beings necessitates that He first favor us with His creation and second, He prepare the human being for the choicest of blessings, which is to recite the Qurʾān in worship through prayer, reciting each verse in succession. So He commanded him with prayer and standing before the Divine presence from two aspects: from the blessing of creation and originating as well as the blessing of education and guidance.
They asked: Why was reading tied to the name of the Lord?
The first form of worship is the mention of the name of the Lord, as in the verse: “. . .and he mentions the name of his Lord and prays.” [87:15] and “Glorify the name of your Lord, the Most High” [87:1]; which is also a command to pray with mention of His name.
They asked: Has the recitation of the Qurʾān come in this sense—in the meaning of recitation within prayer—in any other place?
Yes, there is God’s statement: “And hold fast to the recitation of the Qurʾān at dawn, for the recitation of the Qurʾān at dawn is witnessed.” [17:78] This refers to the recitation of the Noble Qurʾān in the Fajr prayer. There is also His statement: “We shall make you recite and then you will not forget” [87:6], which points to his recitation in prayer, for the prayer is where most of recitation takes place. How close is the servant to his Lord and how high he climbs among the lofty ranks when he combines the two in humility and devotion! There is also His statement: “So when the Qur’an is recited, listen carefully to it, and keep silent so that you may be shown mercy” [7:204], which also refers to prayer.
They asked: Did the Prophet understand this meaning that you have mentioned?
No one can arrive at the understanding of a speaker from his own perspective, even if the statement is from another world, until he gains intimate familiarity with it. For the Prophet, the first revelation was a strange and alarming event, even fearful and dreadful. But after some days had passed, this strangeness and fright dissipated, and he began to look forward to it. There is no doubt that the meaning of read became apparent to him after some time. And when it did, he became so preoccupied with prayer, with passion and longing, that it became his comfort, his repose, and the delight of his eyes. He could not relax without it. He took delight and great joy in it.
Imlā al-Khāṭir Series
In this series, which he names Imlā al-Khāṭir (literally, “dictation of thoughts”), Dr. Mohammad Akram Nadwi follows in the tradition of the Ḥanbalī scholar Ibn al-Jawzī’s Ṣayd al-Khāṭir and shares with the world his reflections on a variety of topics ranging from theology to law, history to heart softeners, philosophy, education and more. Composed in a casual, conversational style consisting of questions followed by their brief answers (each portion predicated by qālū/qultu, “they said”/”I responded”), he utilizes therein the highest level of Arabic, reflecting his love of the language and his extensive expertise in Arabic grammar and rhetoric. These short but poignant reflections are part of the balāghah genre and tradition of Arabic literature. It should be noted that these translations, done by his senior students, serve as a guide and can never fully match the style, tone and eloquence of the original Arabic. Also note that Dr. Akram does not necessarily review each translation and is not responsible for any errors, improper word choices, or the likes, that are an inevitable part of the translation process.
سلسلة إملاء الخاطر| Imlā al-Khāṭir Series
A Centre for Arabic and Islamic Sciences
Oxford . London . Online