In the name of Allah, the most Merciful and Gracious.
Importance of Tadabbur
Allah says in the Quran:
[This is] a blessed Book which We have revealed to you, [O Muhammad], that they might reflect (yaddabbarūna) upon its verses and that those of understanding would be reminded.Quran 38:29
Then do they not reflect (yatadabbarūna) upon the Qur’an, or are there locks upon [their] hearts?Quran 47:24
Tadabbur (reflecting and pondering) is the central interaction Allah wants every reader or listener of the Quran to have with Him. He says that people doing tadabbur is the very reason He revealed the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad (SAW), and a result of their tadabbur is that they are reminded of their Creator and the Day of Judgement and change their actions accordingly.
Allah also links the lack of tadabbur to a problem in the reader’s heart. Either someone does tadabbur of the Quran or there are chains around his heart preventing him from seeing the light.
Or perhaps Allah means: As for the people who are not guided, either that is because they did not do tadabbur or they did tadabbur but the chains around their hearts prevented them from guidance anyway. So, tadabbur must come from an open heart with a sincere desire to listen to the words of its Creator and learn from them.
As for the one who listens without a sincere intention, Allah says:
[…] He misleads many with it (the Quran) and guides many with it. And He misleads not except the defiantly disobedient.Quran 2:26
They mislead themselves because of their insincerity and arrogance to the truth. When they read the Quran, they read it only to mock it and disbelieve in it. So, by reading the Quran, they only increase the sins they have. That is how the Quran misleads them.
As for those who read it with a sincere heart:
It is but a reminder to the worlds.Quran 38:87
Step 1: Sincerity
This leads to the first step of tadabbur, and this step begins before you even start reading.
Come to the words of Allah with a sincere heart. The Prophet (SAW) said:
Actions are only according to their intentions, and a person only gets (as a deed) what he intended.Sahih Bukhari 1
Sincerity is of two levels.
The first level of sincerity is only in the heart. It is someone looking only for the truth and willing to change himself if he finds it.
It does not matter what sins he committed in the past or still commits. However, if he yearns for the truth and is willing to change himself if he finds it, that is a level of sincerity.
The second level of sincerity is someone who has already discovered some of the truth and acts on it, then comes to Allah seeking more and willing to change for it.
This level of sincerity is higher, and his current good actions and small level of purity in his heart due to his actions allow him to reflect and understand more than the first level.
Muslims coming to the Quran for tadabbur should generally have the second level of sincerity.
Allah says in the Quran:
This is the Book about which there is no doubt, a guidance for those conscious of Allah –
Who believe in the unseen, establish prayer, and spend out of what We have provided for them,Quran 2:2-3
In this verse, Allah links the Quran being guidance to those who already believe, pray, and spend in charity. Their current actions help them extract guidance from the Quran.
Pious Christians and Jews coming to the Quran for tadabbur may also have this level of sincerity.
To sum up, the first step to doing beneficial tadabbur is to make yourself sincere in both your psyche and actions. If you struggle doing any tadabbur at all, the problem is in the heart. If you struggle advancing your level of tadabbur, the problem may be either in your heart or your actions.
The rest of this article will focus on tadabbur specifically for Muslims.
Step 2: Reading
The second step of tadabbur is reading (or listening) to the Quran. For reading to be beneficial in terms of tadabbur, it must be attentive and undistracted.
A person who understands Arabic has an easier job of doing this, but even his job is not as easy as one might imagine.
So when the Qur’an is recited, then listen to it and pay attention that you may receive mercy.Quran 7:204
The Quran is often recited for the reward of recitation itself. I am not here to discourage that practice.
However, the way one recites significantly impacts how attentive he can be to the Quran he is reciting. In the same way, the way one listens significantly impacts how attentive he can be to the Quran he is hearing.
Often, reciters and listeners pay attention to the melody and tajwīd. However, melody and tajwīd are the mediums of the Quran. They are not the Quran itself.
What needs attention is the meaning of the Quran, and the melody and tajwīd should serve as mediums to make it easier and more enjoyable to listen to that meaning.
As for non-Arabic speakers, the first advice to them is to learn Arabic. It is impossible to compare to tadabbur of the Quran while listening to it in Arabic.
While they learn Arabic, their source of tadabbur will be translations of the Quran. It is good to read translations while listening to recitation.
However, tadabbur takes repetition and mulling over the words of Allah, and that may be difficulty while listening to recitations. The word “tadabbur” itself comes from something being repeatedly turned over and over in your mind.
So, reading translations and meditating over them is how they should do tadabbur. When there is a need for elaboration, they should read books of tafsir to explain whatever seems unclear.
Step 3: Reflecting
This step is the heart of tadabbur.
What is Reflection?
Reflection is not tafsīr. Tafsīr is explaining the words and sentences of the Quran. That is, however, not to say tafsīr books do not contain a lot of tadabbur! They often do.
Reflection is also not fiqh. Fiqh is explaining the legal rules that are derived from the Quran and Sunnah.
Reflection is taking tafsīr and deriving wisdom in Allah’s speech and lessons to apply to our lives.
So, the two sides of tadabbur are: 1) Deriving wisdom and 2) Deriving lessons.
Deriving wisdom is to look at a verse or passage, and give a possible explanation of why Allah said what He said, why He said it how He said it, or why He commanded what He commanded.
As for what He said, how He said it, and what He commanded, those are all domains of tafsīr and fiqh.
The domain of tadabbur is to give possible reasons for the why, not out of an arrogant search for meaning but out of a love for your Creator and yearning to understand why He did what He did.
The difference between an arrogant search and tadabbur is that the one doing tadabbur already accepts that this is from Allah but He wishes to know more in his love and curiosity and to deepen his faith.
It is like the story of Ibrahim (AS):
And [mention] when Abraham said, “My Lord, show me how You give life to the dead.” [Allah] said, “Have you not believed?” He said, “Yes, but [I ask] only that my heart may be satisfied.” [Allah] said, “Take four birds and commit them to yourself. Then [after slaughtering them] put on each hill a portion of them; then call them – they will come [flying] to you in haste. And know that Allah is Exalted in Might and Wise.”Quran 2:260
Unlike disbelievers, Ibrahim (AS) did not ask to see how Allah gives life to the dead because he doubted Allah’s ability or was unsure. Rather, he wished to satisfy his heart further and fill himself with awe of Allah’s power. That is also how a person doing tadabbur must approach the Quran.
It is also recommended to acknowledge the limitation of human knowledge by specifying the wisdom you derive is possible rather than definitive, but it is not necessary in every context.
Deriving lessons is to look at a verse or passage and derive a lesson from it to apply to our own lives.
This is the practical aspect of tadabbur. Derivation of wisdom increases your faith. Derivation of lessons tells you what you should do with the energy that increase of faith gave you.
Tadabbur is ultimately an intellectual exercise, but its fruits are known by the change it causes in your actions.
Lessons are not only derived from the commands of the Quran. Lessons are derived from everything including stories and commands to other people.
How to Reflect?
When reading verses of the Quran, your mind should be thinking and generating questions.
Questions about “what does this mean” should be addressed to tafsīr.
Questions about “how does this affect law” should be addressed to fiqh.
Questions about “why (did Allah say this)” and “how (should that apply to me)” are subjects of tadabbur.
Before you begin reflection, acknowledge that you are only a human while the Quran is a sea without shore. You will never answer every question. Your job is only to pick out a drop of water from a giant ocean of Allah’s speech.
So, do not get attached to any question. You may never find the answer.
To answer questions of wisdom, read the surrounding verses and read the context of revelation.
To answer questions of lessons, ponder over your own life and things you have seen. Consider how what Allah says may make improve or alter it.
That is all that can be said about how to reflect. Ultimately, reflection is an act of the heart and mind. It cannot be taught. It is simply practiced.
After pondering over the questions, try searching for the different tafāsīr available to you. Tafsīr books frequently delve into tadabbur. Perhaps one of the scholars of the past has already answered your question.
A collection of English tafsīr works is available on tafsir.fussilat.com. With the proliferation of the internet, there is no shortage of articles on many verses of the Quran a Google search away. Sadly, a lot of content is focused on explaining misconceptions rather than tadabbur (which is a problem this blog is also guilty of).
If you have access to friends who can speak Arabic and are interested in these subjects, you can also ask them to look into Arabic tafāsīr for information there. An excellent website with a large collection of Arabic tafsīr works is الباحث القرآني (tafsir.app).
In Arabic tafāsīr, tadabbur-like content can often be found in Ibn Qayyim and Razi’s Tafāsīr. Those are just ones I am familiar with.
After looking at what past scholars have to say, you may refine your own reflections. It is comforting when your tadabbur aligns with what a knowledgeable person already said.
However, it is not necessary tadabbur be supported in past literature as long as it does not directly contradict what the past scholars say. The doors of tadabbur are not closed and will never be closed until the Day of Judgement.
It is recommended to reflect in a basic sense before searching for what past scholars said because that allows for more creativity and insight. Additionally, the feeling of coming up with a hypothesis then finding out it matches with a scholar’s view is spectacular.
Avoid matters of law in reflection if possible. If your reflection does delve into law slightly then you find out it contradicts all the scholars, leave it. If it matches with one of the major opinions or schools of law, it is fine to keep the reflection.
Overlapping Windows Problem
Imagine words are windows. They cover a certain amount of denotation and connotation. They do not mean exactly and only one thing. The amount of meaning they cover is the area of the window.
Consider that Arabic words of the Quran are windows. Words of your language (e.g. English) are also windows.
Each of them cover an area of meaning. But, it is unlikely you will ever find a word from English that covers the exact same area as a word in Arabic.
What does a mufassir (in Arabic) do?
He tells you, from the window, which part of the window Allah intended as the meaning in a particular verse.
What does a translator do?
A translator chooses a window in English that overlaps well with the meaning He believes Allah intended with the Arabic word.
The problem is the word in English most likely also covers area that the Arabic word did not cover in the beginning.
Thus, the reader of a translation has the possibility of 1) misunderstanding what Allah meant and 2) deriving wisdoms based on connections that only exist in the English word.
Connotation and other meanings that exist in a word are a major source of reflection. So, the Overlapping Windows Problem impairs non-Arabic speakers from fully participating in tadabbur.
The best way they have of limiting this problem is to read multiple translations. By reading multiple translations and taking them into account, a reader should be able to narrow down what the Arabic word probably meant. If he sees most translator’s use the same word, that may be an indication that the word overlaps very well with the Quran’s word.
A mistake people make when reading multiple translations is they treat every translation as a source to take their tadabbur off of. This does the opposite of limiting the problem. It only increases the range of error.
Multiple translations should usually limit the meaning, not expand them.
Reading tafāsīr also aids in limiting the Overlapping Windows Problem. Looking at what types of tadabbur the scholars do gives an idea of what the Arabic word entails.
Asking someone who understands Arabic is probably the best way of solving it.
This problem should not stop a person from attempting tadabbur with translations. It is however a note of caution to keep in mind, and Allah is forgiving of mistakes made in His path.
The Overlapping Windows Problem applies in two cases applicable to Arabic speakers:
- Arabic has shifted from the time of the Quran, so words may only overlap in later Arabic rather than fully correlate with the Arabic of the Quran.
- When the scholars explain one Arabic with another Arabic word, the words may only overlap rather than fully correlate.
For example, this article quoted verse 47:24 in the beginning. These are different renderings of it:
Then do they not reflect upon the Qur’an (Sahih International)
Then, do they not give serious thought to the Qur’ān (Taqi Uthmani)
Will they not contemplate the Quran? (Abdul Haleem)
Do they not then think deeply in the Qur’ân (Hilali/Khan)Quran 47:24
It would be a mistake to take Sahih International’s rendering of “reflect” and derive wisdoms related to mirrors and light reflection. The other translations should give you a hint that Sahih International only meant the contemplation aspect of the word “reflect”.
Also note how none of the translations give you the connotation of “coming to something repeatedly” which this article noted about the word tadabbur. That is because there is no analogue to that in English.
It is possible that one translation conveys an aspect of meaning that other translations do not. That is why this problem is such a dilemma. There is no one complete solution without referring to Arabic. For example, take the following verse from Surah Yusuf:
[Joseph] said, “Appoint me over the storehouses of the land. Indeed, I will be a knowing guardian.” (Sahih International)
Joseph proposed, “Put me in charge of the store-houses of the land, for I am truly reliable and adept.” (Mustafa Khattab)
He said, “Appoint me to (supervise) the treasures of the land. I am indeed a knowledgeable keeper.” (Taqi Uthmani)
Joseph said, ‘Put me in charge of the nation’s storehouses: I shall manage them prudently and carefully.’ (Abdul Haleem)Quran 12:55
Notice the tense of Yusuf (AS)’s statement about himself. Sahih International and Abdul Haleem render it as future tense. I “shall” or “will.” Their renderings indicate this is a promise from Yusuf (AS), not a statement about himself in the present.
Mustafa Khattab renders it in present tense but translates عليم as adept. Taqi Uthmani both renders it in present tense and translates عليم as knowledgeable.
Someone doing tadabbur over this verse should be able to derive the idea that you can describe yourself as knowledgeable or praise yourself (obviously truthfully) in some cases like when looking for a job. But, only Taqi Uthmani’s translation allows that tadabbur in English.
So, the idea of using multiple translations only for limitation fails to account for a scenario like this.
The Inclusion Problem is the tendency of people doing tadabbur to say every lesson and wisdom they derive is included in the words of the verse directly.
It is not difficult to solve. Just understand that not everything you derive is directly in the words of the verse. It is perfectly fine for it to be a derivation based on the same concept as the verse. It may be a type of qiyās or analogical reasoning.
For example, Allah says:
Never will you attain the good [reward] until you spend [in the way of Allah] from that which you love. And whatever you spend – indeed, Allah is Knowing of it.Quran 3:92
A person can do tadabbur over this verse and derive the lesson that we will only attain full reward when we give up whatever we love for the sake of Allah, including the haram things we enjoy like music.
However, the verse is about spending (i.e. charity) in the direct sense. Allah was telling the believers they need to spend from the wealth and property they love.
But, the reflection about giving up haram things for the sake of Allah is a very good derivation from the verse even if it is not directly included in it. After all, if you need to spend from even halal money and property you have for full reward, how will you not need to give up haram things you like?
So, the reflection is good, but the person should recognize that it is not directly included in the verse and that is fine. Allah’s words have more wisdom than only the direct meanings. In fact, uncovering that is the whole project of tadabbur!
This was a small guide to tadabbur for non-Arabic speakers, and I hope there was benefit in it. Any good in it is from Allah. Any mistake in it is from me, and I hope Allah forgives me for it.
May Allah make us among the people who do tadabbur over the Quran, implement that tadabbur into actions, and enter Jannah through those actions.