Are You Talkin’ to Me?
That is the book, wherein no doubt, is guidance for those who are on their guard (2:2).
I felt a shiver run through me as I read the above verse. I thought to myself, Are you talking to me?
I was on only the second page of the Qur’an and I had already experienced a sensation I would have repeatedly as I made my way through the text. On the previous page of the Scripture was the first surah (chapter) of the Qur’an, which is essentially a prayer for guidance. It reads:
Praise belongs to God, the Sustainer of the Worlds;
The Merciful, The Compassionate;
Master of the Day of Judgement.
To You we pray, and You we seek.
Guide us on the straight path,
The path of those whom You have favored,
Not of those who have strayed or upon whom is wrath (1:1-7).
Here, on the second page, at the beginning of the second surah, God himself responds to the reader, stating that the guidance for which he or she just prayed is undoubtedly right in his or her hands. I thought, So you are saying that in this book is the guidance I just prayed for? I looked again at the second verse:
“That is the book.”
“What an original and appropriate way to present a revelation!” I said to myself. Instead of relating a history of a people, or a biography of a great teacher, or a collection of sayings of a prophet, the author, whom I assumed to be Muhammad, writes the Scripture in the form of a direct address from God to humanity. I thought that this is exactly what we should expect from a divine revelation— sort of like the Ten Commandments expanded to a book.
As I made my way through the Qur’an, my respect for its cleverness grew. I was particularly impressed by the way I would repeatedly have the same experience I mentioned above—but on an increasingly profound level—where I would have the eerie feeling that the Qur’an was actually communicating to me, intellectually, and, for lack of a better word, spiritually. I figured that somehow the author inserted in the text a large number of passages that he knew would provoke certain questions and reactions in the reader, and then he responded to the anticipated reader’s reactions in the subsequent passages. This ability of the Qur’an to engage the reader in mental and spiritual conversation—or as Fredrick Denny puts it, “to read the reader”—gives it tremendous psychological power, and this I believed might account for the renowned religious fervor of Muslims. I felt that the author must have had deep insight into human nature, especially since this inherent power of the Qur’an, judging at least from my own experience of it, is still extremely strong fourteen centuries after it first appeared.
The first twenty nine verses of the second surah concisely and eloquently summarize the Qur’an’s major themes: Humanity's need for self-surrender to God, Muhammed’s prophethood, the Hereafter and Final Judgment, the Qur’an's use of symbolism (2:26), the resurrection of man and God's ultimate sovereignty. These verses also contain a description of the Scripture’s potential audience. The readers who will benefit most from the Qur’an are the sincere believers. The readers who will gain the least are the close-minded who are bent on rejecting the Qur’an. In between these two categories are the pretenders and self-deluded who claim to be sincere in faith but who really put worldly pursuits and self-interests above faith. These will profit little from reading the Scripture unless they change their mindset. In form, the Qur’an’s introduction is not unlike introductions of many modern instructional texts, introductions which describe their books’ contents and the prerequisites needed to learn from them.