Posted by: Dawud Israel | March 2, 2014

Minimal and Maximum Meaning in Reading the Qur’an

In the West, we tend to approach the Qur’an with certain attitudes. We are looking to be impressed many a time, and if not impressed, we are searching for some astounding meaning or insight. This is the culture of scientific miracles of the Qur’an and all manner of twisted fascination with odd discoveries. In short, our hearts and minds aren’t reading the Qur’an, our boredom is reading the Qur’an. We want it to astound us but in a way that is completely predictable, and there is the problem. This is part of the maximum reading approach that seeks certain meanings in the Qur’an, perhaps as affirmations of one’s own ideas, or to satisfy some insecurity or inferiority complex or simply to rescue us from our own boredom with religion. If we don’t find that in reading the Qur’an it is as if we didn’t ready anything at all – it is an all or nothing approach. This approach speaks to an attitude that does not read the Qur’an as revelation but as an ultimatum with a time-limit on it. The false aim of this approach is that there is a maximum meaning in the Qur’an, that is difficult to reach, and that maximum meaning may even be easily translatable into materialistic terms.

The Messenger will say, “Lord, my people had abandoned this Quran.” (Qur’an 25:30) 

In the East, the approach to the Qur’an historically and perhaps even today, has been of finding the minimum meaning in the Qur’an. At the very minimum God’s word is great, so even if you find the least meaning you have found something immense. The attitude is to find the bare meaning, to find the meaning of every single word or pronounciation/recitation. This is the approach you find in Tafsir books and among early Sahabas discussing the Qur’an. We in the West dislike quarreling over semantics and may see this as being as such. But no, the fact is this is the revelation from God, and as such, even the smallest point can be of great importance, if not immediately, perhaps in some other far reaching corner of Islamic law and spirituality. Nothing is beyond valuing. In order to mine the Qur’an of meaning you must start at the bare minimum. This speaks to a contentment and harmonious well-being with the deen.

reading quran

The minimal approach to the Qur’an comes from the Sahabas world of zuhd, while the maximum approach of us Westerners comes from the world of abundance and materialism. We see knowledge materialistically in the West and as such approach it with haste, not patience and greed. The minimal approach finds more meaning in less, thus find more meaning in the least, and this is the baraka and secret of zuhd. This may also affect how many adhkar we do, we may do much but in reality we budget our dhikr, and put less and less of ourselves into each of those dhikrs until it is not our egoes but the dhikr that is effaced. To find more meaning in little, even if its a single verse, is a fruit of zuhd and allows the heart to be more positively affected.

The upshot of all this is it shows how precise our thinking is. A maximum approach is messy, illusory and easily confusing, while a minimal approach can be clear, exact, clearly differentiated, given definition, and built upon for deeper and greater understandings.

An example of this is when we read of the exploits of King Sulayman (Solomon) alayhis-salam. A maximum reading of the Qur’an will note his power over jinn, animals and the wind, while a minimal approach will note the small things. When Sayyidina Sulayman speaks to an ant, a creature of the minimal, and praises God for speaking to this ant, but when he speaks to the Queen of Sheba, a figure who is always maximizing wealth and power, he does so with much force and harshness. If we were in his position we may do the reverse – we would talk to the Queen with honorifics and crush the ant. The ant could be seen as the zahid and the queen as dunya obsessed.  Sulayman sees clearly the minimal meaning in the ant, the one clear fact: that this helpless creature is the least of his subjects and it is crossing his path and trying to protect its compatriots, so he acts mercifully. And because he sees clearly the minimal meaning in the queen, her kufr and obstinacy, he is not deluded by her power and wealth. He effaces everything but what is essential and what he needs to see and is not concerned with the extraneous and what he has no concern for as a believer.

The Messenger of Allah, sallallahu `alayhi wa sallam, said, what translated means, ‘A sign of one’s excellence in his Islam, is ignoring what does not concern him.’ [Related by Ahmad, Malik & At-Tirmithi]

At the end of the day, we can only ever understand the least about God. The shahada of Islam is addressed at minimum requirements, no more is needed and the same is throughout Islam with the faraidh (obligations) and this tells us God understands our human nature far better than we do ourselves.

Subhana kallahumma wa bihamdika ash-haduana la illaha illa ant astaghfiruka wa atubu ilayk, ameen.  


  1. The Holy Quran is the Ultimate guide for our life guiding us in every aspect of our lives. We should learn the Holy Quran and live our lives according to the guidance provided in the Holy Quran. Thanks

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