People who read the Quran earnestly most of the times do not engage with the Quran personally. The Quran, to them, is a fascinating book with insights into history, philosophy, ethics, and even psychology. Rightly so, these people savour the literary motifs of the Quran and the poetic sensualism of its language. Despite this, however, these people do not feel the Quran speaking to them. We can read the plays of Marlow, we can listen to the music of Bach, we can look at the statues of Rodin, but we rarely converse with them. We admire these works of art but we do not admit them into our inner selves and talk to them as friends. Our appreciation of them, though immense, is not personal. The same applies to how most people appreciate the Quran.
The Quran is a personal book that was written for you personally. This may sound implausible but it isn’t. Is it really implausible to think that God cares about you as an individual? God’s mercy is limitless so He cares for you individually as He cares for all the other six billion people on earth. Though an individual, you are not a monolith. Every day you are different: happy today, sad tomorrow, rich today, poor tomorrow, healthy today, sick tomorrow. Because the Quran is a personal book written for you, the Quran speaks to you differently in your differing situations. To doubt this, you have to imagine the Quran is a piece of art. Marlow, Bach, and Rodin did what they did not for you personally but for abstract humanity. God’s artistry is such that He can write the Quran for abstract humanity whilst writing it for you personally, and without ruining its ‘artistic’ value.
The Quran says:
And We have sent down to you the Book as clarification for all things and as guidance and mercy and good tidings for the Muslims (16:89)
This verse does not mean that the Quran mentions the exact blue-print of a V8 engine, or the architecture plans for the Golden Gate Bridge. As evident by how the verse ends, “all things” refers to the human predicament, to the human struggle, to the human condition. When you approach the Quran as a book that talks to you about yourself, then you will have a personal encounter with it.
Scholars have traditionally divided the Quranic passages into three categories: theology, narratives, and law. While useful, these categories can hinder a closer appreciation of the Quran. Imagine you have just got promoted at work. Your boss is happy with your performance but your colleagues are not. They are jealous and are trying to plot your demotion. You are troubled and your mind is fixated on how to save your good position. In the morning, at sunrise, after you have prayed Fajr, you sit down and read the Quran. This is the verse you read first:
And when you are among them and lead them in prayer, let a group of them stand [in prayer] with you and let them carry their arms. And when they have prostrated, let them be [in position] behind you and have the other group come forward which has not [yet] prayed and let them pray with you, taking precaution and carrying their arms. Those who disbelieve wish that you would neglect your weapons and your baggage so they could come down upon you in one [single] attack. But there is no blame upon you, if you are troubled by rain or are ill, for putting down your arms, but take precaution. Indeed, God has prepared for the disbelievers a humiliating punishment (4:102)
This verse refers to the laws pertaining to warfare and prayer. Following the traditional categorisation of verses, this is a verse on law. Thus, as you read it you do not feel personally affected by this verse, because what it describes has no relevance to your predicament. But what if you eschewed the traditional categorisation and consider every verse in the Quran to be related to you personally. Every single verse is God speaking to you about your specific situation. If you have this personal approach to the Quran, the above verse provides answers tailored to your specific needs. The verse describes people who are being hounded by enemies. You are being hounded by your workmates. The verse describes how the people simultaneously defend themselves physically against attack and also spiritually keep praying to God.
In your situation at work, you should not simply pray to God and hope for the best; instead, you have to physically do something to counter your workmates while also relying upon God. The verse says that even those who cannot physically defend themselves need to still take precautions. Your options are limited at work. If you try to isolate those who plan ill against you, you open yourself up to their complaints that you are abusing your powers and targeting workmates out of personal hatred. This will jeopardise your standing with your boss. In your situation, your hands are tied. But that doesn’t mean you sit back and do nothing. You have to keep alert regarding your workmates’ plan to demote you. Seen this way, the verse helps you in your situation by giving you guidance on how best to act. Because of your personal encounter with the Quran, the verse is not describing a Bedouin fight in the desert as you initially thought.
The Quran recognises that the human condition is unstable, volatile, forever changing. That is why, unique among religious books, the Quran has no linear structure or thematic blocks. The structure of the Quran is fluid. A verse begins by referring to history then ends by referring to law. That is, it begins in the past and ends in the present. Another verse begins with theology and ends with history. The infinite is given context with the finite. This fluidity represents the human predicament. As a person you are always changing, not only in emotions but also in ideas. It is no surprise, then, that in our personal encounters with the Quran we find different answers and different ideas that we did not find in our last reading of the Quran. This is because the Quran speaks to us in the here and now rather than in the long gone past. Our here and now is always changing, so is the Quran’s message to us.
To personally encounter the Quran a person must understand what s/he reads. For a non-Arab speakers, this means reading from a translation of the Quran. Reading the original Arabic is beneficial but limited if you do not understand Arabic. To personally encounter the Quran, you must read it while keeping in mind that God is talking to you specifically, right now, and that He has answers to whatever dilemmas you face. You should also be mindful that God is All-Merciful and is not Judge Dredd whose sole goal is to demoralise us. No person can live up to all the moral rules enshrined in the Quran, or any other book. This does not mean we have to view the Quran as a minefield where we carefully avoid verses that criticise certain practices. For instance, in the problem you are facing at work, you will block any personal encounter with the Quran if you keep your mind fixed on the fact that you work in a bank that deals with interest (riba). God did not write the Quran to demotivate you; rather, He wrote it to uplift you.
A personal encounter with the Quran is like a personal encounter with a friend. But more intense. Any friend you have will be limited in wisdom and empathy. God has no limits. The Quran is His message to you as a person, living in your specific situation. Reading the Quran every day, even a few pages, becomes an intimate discussion with a friend who cares for you more than anyone else.