Bismillah (In the name of Allah).
- 1. Introduction
- 2. Themes in the Quran
- 3. Topics of the Quran
- 4. Surahs
A first time reader of the Quran can be startled by the unique organization of topics that are discussed by God in His book. The modern reader often expects non-fiction chapters and books to have an introduction, middle, and conclusion. A story is expected to have an introduction, rising action, a climax, and a resolution. The Quran rarely follows these structures.
The Quran can almost be understood as a conversation from God to humans, and conversations are not organized like essays or stories. Rather, they are characterized by overarching themes, connections between one topic to the next, and repetition. Understanding these themes and topics can be useful when reading the Quran.
A theme (or purpose) can be understood as the underlying message or lesson of a passage, while topics can be understood as the actual objects of discussion in those passages. So, multiple topics can ultimately have the same underlying theme, but likewise, one topic can evoke multiple themes.
2. Themes in the Quran
Four themes are omnipresent in the Quran: God, the afterlife, prophethood, and the perfection of human morality. Almost every passage in the Quran regardless of topic, be it a story about a nation foregone or description of the beauty of this world, is related in some way to these four themes.
Take the story of Musa (AS) mentioned in Surah Nazi’āt (abbreviated):
Has there reached you the story of Musa?
When his Lord called to him in the valley of Tuwa
“Go to Pharaoh. Indeed, he has transgressed.”
And say to him, ‘Would you [be willing to] purify yourself?’
And let me guide you to your Lord so you would fear [Him]?'”
And he showed him the greatest sign,
But Pharaoh denied and disobeyed. […]
And said, “I am your most exalted lord.”
So Allah seized him in exemplary punishment for the last and the first [transgression].
Indeed in that is a warning for whoever would fear [Allah].Quran 79:15-26
God narrates this story of Musa (AS) not for amusement or historical interest but because “in that is a warning” about the Day of Judgement. If the Pharaoh, being the mighty and untouchable king of the greatest civilization of his time, could be destroyed so easily, how can anyone else be foolish enough to disbelieve in God’s religion and feel safe from His punishment on the Day of Judgement?
Now, consider this description of rain:
And We have sent down blessed rain from the sky and made grow thereby gardens and grain from the harvest
And lofty palm trees having fruit arranged in layers –
As provision for the servants, and We have given life thereby to a dead land. Thus is the resurrection.Quran 50:11
God describes how rain brings a lifeless, dry land back to being full of life and brimming with plants and fruits, and the purpose is to show how easy it is for God to bring the dead to life for the Day of Judgement.
In similar ways, all passages of the Quran return to these four themes. A brief explanation of each of them is as follows.
2.1 Theme of God
Teaching God and His rights is the very purpose of the Quran’s existence, so its significance cannot be understated. God wants all humans to be free from the slavery of submitting themselves to false gods and false masters, including being slaves to their own desires, and wants them to submit to the only one worthy of submission and worship: the perfect creator of all things.
2.2 Theme of the Afterlife
Submission to God cannot be complete without also believing God is the most just and fair ruler, and that means it is impossible that people are left alone after death without facing the consequences of their good and bad actions. Who can imagine a just creator would release evildoers against God or humanity without punishing them? That is far from possible, so one of the main goals of the Quran is to establish the reality of the Day of Judgement and to put into people’s hearts a fear of being judged for their sins.
2.3 Theme of Prophethood
We cannot know the details of this Day of Judgement or the true classification of good from evil except if God sends us someone to teach about morality and life after death. The Quran teaches both the necessity of believing in prophets in general and also the necessity of believing particularly in the final prophet, whom it was revealed through, the Prophet Muhammad (SAW). The miraculous nature of the Quran and many passages that prophecy or recount past events the Prophet Muhammad could not have known himself are all meant to prove that the Quran did come from God and that the Prophet Muhammad is a true prophet from God.
2.4 Theme of Morality
The final theme is a fruit of the first three: the Quran teaches humans how to worship God properly and how to attain moral perfection in dealing with God, other humans, animals, and earth as a whole. God, being the ultimate moral arbiter and most intelligent entity in existence, is the only one who is best-suited to teach humans how they should conduct their lives.
3. Topics of the Quran
There are hundreds of topics in the Quran, but they can mostly be divided into the seven categories: 1) descriptions of God, 2) descriptions of the afterlife, 3) teachings of morality, 4) descriptions of the world, 5) logical arguments, 6) stories of the past, and 7) description of people,
3.1 Descriptions of God
Descriptions of God are ubiquitous in the Quran. In many passages, almost every other verse ends by describing God.
The most prominent topic in this category is, however, the oneness of God. Much, if not most, of the Quran is dedicated to teaching people to worship God alone as the sole Creator and Lord.
Say, “It is only revealed to me that your god is but one God; so will you be Muslims [in submission to Him]?”Quran 21:108
Many passages are also dedicated to describing the perfection, power, and knowledge of God. The following verse, Ayat al-Kursi (Verse of the Throne), is considered by Muslims one of the greatest verses of the Quran:
Allah – there is no deity except Him, the Ever-Living, the Sustainer of [all] existence. Neither drowsiness overtakes Him nor sleep. To Him belongs whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on the earth. Who is it that can intercede with Him except by His permission? He knows what is [presently] before them and what will be after them, and they encompass not a thing of His knowledge except for what He wills. His Throne extends over the heavens and the earth, and maintaining them tires Him not. And He is the Most High, the Most Great.Quran 2:255
These descriptions of God are intended to evoke both hope, admiration, and love of God and fear of making Him angry. After all, who would want to earn the anger of the Most Perfect Being, especially when He holds all power over life and death?
One of the central goals of Islam is balance between admiration and love for God and fear of His punishment, neither being overshadowed by the other. Hence, Paradise is often described alongside descriptions of Hell, and God’s mercy and greatness are described alongside His justice and watchful eye.
3.2 Descriptions of the Afterlife
God spends much time in the Quran reminding people about the afterlife and describing it, sometimes in severe detail. This category itself contains several topics, like descriptions of the Day of Judgement itself, Paradise, and Hell.
All of these serve the purpose of informing people what lies beyond death, that being one of mankind’s perennial questions.
They also serve the equal purpose of encouraging believers towards good by the exquisite rewards they will receive in Paradise and away from evil by the unbearable punishment in Hell. God, knowing how many people are not motivated towards good except by material benefit, created motivation for those who need it.
Even for non-believers, these descriptions serve to remind them how high the stakes are in their decision of what to believe and follow. It is the difference between eternal happiness and eternal pain, so they must choose wisely and base the decision on evidence rather than their loyalty to their culture or other meaningless considerations.
And say, “The truth is from your Lord, so whoever wills – let him believe; and whoever wills – let him disbelieve.” Indeed, We have prepared for the wrongdoers a fire whose walls will surround them. […]
Indeed, those who have believed and done righteous deeds – indeed, We will not allow to be lost the reward of any who did well in deeds.Quran 18:29-30
3.3 Teachings of Morality
God is the ultimate judge and arbiter of morality and justice, and our limited minds cannot comprehend the vastness of God’s knowledge. That is why God teaches us how to properly live our lives in accordance with the true laws of morality and not the laws we conjure with our minds.
Moral commandments are of two types: 1) Related to God, and 2) Related to creation.
The first type includes our obligation to be grateful to God for His uncountable blessings, and our obligations to worship Him as He has commanded us.
And if you should count the favors of Allah, you could not enumerate them. Indeed, Allah is Forgiving and Merciful.Quran 16:18
O mankind, worship your Lord, who created you and those before you, that you may become righteous –Quran 2:21
The second type relates to our dealings with other people. He has forbidden stealing, gambling, and interest because these lead to injustice and suffering for people. He teaches against backbiting, slander, and gossip. He teaches good treatment to parents and respect to close relatives. He teaches kindness and justice to all people, Muslim and non-Muslim as long as they do not fight you.
Worship Allah and associate nothing with Him, and to parents do good, and to relatives, orphans, the needy, the near neighbor, the neighbor farther away, the companion at your side, the traveler, and those whom your right hands possess. Indeed, Allah does not like those who are self-deluding and boastful.Quran 4:36
3.4 Descriptions of the World
Many passages in the Quran extol the beauty and creation of the world. From the gleaming stars to the blooming forests to the elevated clouds, God talks about hundreds of aspects of nature.
Indeed, in the creation of the heavens and earth, and the alternation of the night and the day, and the [great] ships which sail through the sea with that which benefits people, and what Allah has sent down from the heavens of rain, giving life thereby to the earth after its lifelessness and dispersing therein every [kind of] moving creature, and [His] directing of the winds and the clouds controlled between the heaven and the earth are signs for a people who use reason.Quran 2:164
These passages attach to different themes. Sometimes, the rain and its revival of a lifeless land is used to remind people of the Day of Resurrection. Sometimes, the colossal creation of the sky is used to remind people of the power, wisdom, and perfection of God.
Sometimes, these descriptions are a reminder to stay away from moral vices.
O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted.Quran 49:13
God’s declaration that He intentionally created diverse tribes and races stands to warn against those who seek to belittle people solely due to tribe or race.
Sometimes, God mentions knowledge about the universe that the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) could not have possibly known as further evidence that he truly received revelation from the all-Knowing God.
And the heaven We constructed with strength, and indeed, We are [its] expander.Quran 51:47
No one at the Prophet’s time would know the concept of the universe expanding, let alone the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) in the backwater Arabia.
3.5 Logical Arguments
Islam is not a religion of blind belief. It is a religion of reasoned faith.
As such, many verses logically argue in favor of various aspects of Islamic theology, like the oneness of God, the truth of the prophethood, and the reality of the Day of Judgement.
Then do they not reflect upon the Qur’an? If it had been from [any] other than Allah, they would have found within it much contradiction.Quran 4:82
Many verses also invite people to ponder and reason. God says:
Know that Allah gives life to the earth after its lifelessness. We have made clear to you the signs; perhaps you will reason.Quran 57:17
Many verses also provide logical arguments against polytheism and the concept of God having a son.
There are also several verses passages related to the challenge of the Quran. God says:
And if you are in doubt about what We have sent down upon Our Servant [Muhammad], then produce a surah the like thereof and call upon your witnesses other than Allah, if you should be truthful.Quran 2:23
3.6 Stories of the Past
A large and memorable portion of the Quran recounts the tales of previous nations and prophets. Humans generally like stories, so this is the section that is most read and remembered.
However, the Quran is not a book of tales or history. Whenever the Quran mentions stories, they are there for a precise purpose.
There are about twenty prophets mentioned by name in the Quran, and the one whose story is repeated most is the Prophet Musa (AS). That is because he was the most similar to the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) in his mission, and his story often serves to comfort the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) that he will eventually succeed like Musa (AS) succeeded over his enemy.
Other frequently mentioned prophets are Ibrahim (AS), Jesus (AS), and Adam (AS). A large amount of the Quran is dedicated to dispelling false beliefs about Jesus (AS).
A large amount of the Quran also recounts prophets like Lot (AS) and the stories of their nations being destroyed when they rejected God. This serves as a reminder of God’s power and ability to punish.
The fact that the Prophet (SAW) was able to recount detailed stories of prophets like Musa (AS) also serves as a miracle in the Quran. How was the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) who had little to no access to Jewish literature relate detailed stories impossible for him to have known? It was only possible because he was inspired by God.
3.7 Descriptions of People
Many passages in the Quran describe different categories of people, like disbelievers, believers, and hypocrites, and their qualities.
Descriptions of hypocrites and disbelievers are examples of what to avoid. Descriptions of believers and good people are what to aim for.
And the servants of the Most Merciful are those who walk upon the earth humbly, and when the ignorant address them [harshly], they say [words of] peace,
And those who spend [part of] the night to their Lord prostrating and standing [in prayer] […]Quran 25:63-64
He also says:
Indeed, the hypocrites [think to] deceive Allah, but He is deceiving them. And when they stand for prayer, they stand lazily, showing [themselves to] the people and not remembering Allah except a little,Quran 4:142
Having understood the main four themes of the Quran and the different categories of topics that appear, it is natural to wonder how this relates to the Surahs of the Quran.
The Surahs of the Quran are unlike chapters, so they do not follow one formula. Some Surahs highlight one theme and talk about it through one topic. This is the case with many of the shortest Surahs at the end of the Quran. Some Surahs highlight one theme but talk about it through multiple topics. This is the case with many of the medium-length Surahs. Some Surahs touch upon several themes through several topics, and this is what most of the larger Surahs (especially in the beginning of the Quran) are like.
Mustafa Khattab’s The Clear Quran is an excellent translation that adds subheadings to show the different topics being discussed. After reading the passage, one should also ponder over what theme(s) that topic intends to portray.