There is a wide choice of English translations of the Qur'an to benefit from but, unfortunately, when it comes to the descriptive interpretation, the option is extremely limited. On the other hand, English readers, both Muslims and non-Muslims, are compelled to look to descriptive exegeses to manage better understanding, as their meagre backgrounds do not help them in extracting deeper meanings of the Divine Message out of mere translations. It is, therefore, necessary to endeavour to make available to the English readers the significant works on the Qur'an written in other languages.
"Tadabbur-i-Quran", a contemporary Urdu exegesis, authored by Amin Ahsan Islahi, is, in the opinion of this writer, by far the most outstanding commentary on the Qur'an of this period. It presents the rare combination of being, simultaneously, classical as well as modern. It is classical in the sense that it does complete justice with the language of the Book of Allah. The original text is not forced to digest meanings not compatible with its description---something that has been a hallmark of some of the recent attempts. It is modern, I believe, because what it explains is fully acceptable to an honest present-day reader trained to approach academic issues rationally. Indeed, it is rational only because it is an honest attempt to know and unfold the Message of God the way it is---unswayed, to a remarkable extent, by foreign influences which always threaten to corrupt all attempts to understand the Book objectively.
The two more widely read English commentaries on the Qur'an are "The Holy Quran", translation and commentary by Abdullah Yousaf Ali and "Towards Understanding the Quran", the English version of "Tafhim-ul-Quran" by Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi. The former was first published in 1934 and has been, ever since, reprinted many times, reflecting its popularity as an authentic guide for understanding the real meanings of the Book of Allah. "Tafhim-ul-Quran", on the contrary, has been by far the most widely read Urdu exegesis of the Quran, but its English version has come into the market only recently. Both these endeavours are rendering useful service to the readers in unfolding the true meanings of the Divine Message to the common English-reading public. Being only human attempts to explain a text beyond the complete grasp of mortals limited, after all, in ability to do complete justice with the Word of God, there had to be shortcomings in these works. The factor of human limitation has undoubtedly, played a role in case of "Tadabbur-i-Quran" as well. In order to facilitate better understanding of the Book of Allah, however, a comparison of the two popular works available in English language with "Tadabbur" is being attempted by this writer.
The proposed comparison is envisaged to be undertaken in a series of articles in which some important questions that seek explanation while reading the Quran will be raised to find how each of the three works has answered them and, thus, helped in improving the understanding of the Message of Allah.
A question that intrigues immediately almost everybody who cares to open the Book, not just to unmindfully repeat its words but to understand it, is regarding the rationale of placing a small surah---Faatihah comprising only six small verses, ahead of the longest surah of the Qur'an---Baqarah consisitng not less than 286 verses, and thus apparently distrubing a logical order of marshalling the surahs.
When we turn to Yusuf Ali's exegesis to seek an answer to the question, we find the following explanation:
"By universal consent it is rightly placed at the beginning of the Quran, as summing up, in marvelously terse and comprehensive words, man's relation to God in contemplation and prayer. In our spiritual contemplation the first words should be those of praise. If the praise is from our inmost being, it brings us into union with the God's Will...the prayer is for our own spiritual education, consolation, and confirmation.
That is why the words in this surah are given to us in the form in which we should utter them. When we reach enlightenment, they will flow sportaneously from us."
The explanation is not entirely unconvincing. There still remains, on deeper reflection, however, the question as to why someone not necessarily convinced about the divinity of the Message as yet be educated in the very beginning of the Divine Book. The interpretation becomes much more questionable in view of the fact that the Quran does in fact make use of many later occasions to achieve the purpose of teaching prayers by using the command qul (say) in the beginning. The departure from this practice shouldn't be without reason. The reference to the element of spontaneous flow of spiritual enlightenment finding expression in these opening words is much more convincing, although less forcefully emphasised than the significance of the point actually deserved. The reader is not informed that this important aspect of the prayers can be construed by a careful examination of its distinctive style.
When we turn to Maududi's work to find an answer, it says:
"Al-Fatihaha is actually a prayer, which God teaches to all who embark upon the study of His Book. Its position at the beginning signifies that anyone who wants to benefit from the Book should first offer this prayer to the Lord of the Universe.
Man naturally prays only for what his heart desires, and only when he feels that the object of his desire is at the disposal of the One to Whom his prayer is addressed. The placing of this surah at the head of the Quran is a sign that God urges man to read this Book with the aim of discovering the right course in life, i.e. `the straight way' to study it with the earnestness of a seeker after truth, and never to forget that the real source of true knowledge is God Himself. The student of the Book should therefore begin by making a humble petition to Him for true guidance.
Once this is grasped, it becomes self-evident that in relation to the Quran this opening surah, al-Fatihah, is not just an introduction or foreword; the relationship is really one of prayer and response. Al-Fatihah is a prayer from man, and the rest of the Quran is God's response to this prayer. Man prays to God that He may show him the straight way, and in response to this prayer God offers the Quran as the true guidance, the `straight way', which man has sought and prayed for."
The above explanation does clearly point out some important reasons why this prayer has attained precedence over all other surahs of the Quran. It also explains convincingly the relationship of this surah with the rest of the Quran. It does not, however, clarify why the Almighty has chosen not to present this prayer, whose importance cannot be over-emphasised not the least because of its very positioning in the Book, in the form prayer-wordings have been mentioned elsewhere.
When we seek to find an answer to this problem in "Tadabbur", we get the following explanation:
"The style of this surah is that of a prayer. Instead of teaching the reader the way to pray, the words have been made to appear as if they are flowing from within us, indicating in a subtle way that if human nature has preserved its original purity despite challenges of corruption, it should find its emotions of gratitude (to the Creator) urging to be expressed in this manner. As this expression is suggested by the One Who created human nature as well, no better way of expressing such feelings could be imagined. Anyone who has managed to protect his true nature, would acknowledge these words to be his very own. Only those who have allowed their pristine soul to be corrupted, would find little affinity to the words of this prayer."
The first two sentences of this translation from "Tadabbur" are clearly explaning the reason of departure from the more common style of using the command qul (say) before the prayer. It can be appreciated from this explanation that while the earlier two authors did make illuminating remarks to offer explanations, Islahi's attempt is not just intellectually sound; it, more importantly, seems to flow from the text itself, which is the most significant merit of "Tadabbur-i-Quran".