Coherence of the Qurʾān

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© Mohammad Akram Nadwi, Oxford

(This paper was prepared to supplement a day course taught by the author and is not meant to be an exhaustive discussion of the subject)

In relation to the Qurʾān, coherence can be understood in three different senses or aspects: consistency, interconnection (munāsabah) and thematic unity (niẓām). I will discuss here all these three different aspects of the coherence of the Qurʾān.


The coherence of the Qurʾān for the earlier generations meant that the Qurʾān is consistent. The Qurʾān itself says: “Do they not consider the Qurʾān? Had it been from other than God, they would surely have found therein much discrepancy” (4:82). Al-Zamakhsharī says: “Then much of the Qurʾān would have been at variance from each other and contradictory, its ordering, eloquence and meanings would have been at variance. Then some of it would have reached to the degree of miracle, and some of it would have been trailing behind that so that it could be contested; some of it would have been true information about the unseen, and some would have been false; some would have been denoting true meaning according to the experts of meaning, and some of it would have been conveying incorrect and incongruous meaning. Since all of its elements agree with each other in miraculous eloquence exceeding the abilities of the eloquent people, and all of them support each other in correctness of meanings and truth of the information reported, it is known that it is not but from One Who is Powerful over what others do not have power over, and Knower of what others are unable to know.” (al-Kashshāf, sub 4:82)

So the Qurʾān is consistent in the quality of its eloquence, in its call to the Hereafter, to worship God alone, in its central theme of guidance and its account of rewards and punishments. No part is at variance with another part, and no command contradicts any other command. The laws of God are universal and eternal and they never change. “The practice of God among those who lived aforetime; no change will you find in the practice of God” (33:62). Similarly, there is consistency in the messages of all the Prophets that the Qurʾān reports. And so too there is consistency between the teachings of the Qurʾān and the practice of the Prophet Muḥammad, upon him blessings and peace.

This meaning of coherence is agreed upon by all the scholars, it is supported by the Qurʾān itself, and one can examine the text of the Qurʾān by this criterion.


Later in the ‘Abbasid period, because of the influence of the so-called rational sciences another meaning of coherence developed, namely that the Qurʾān must have sequence and order in its statements and arguments. This is termed munāsabah. Munāsabah literally means closeness and relation (al-Jawharī, al-Ṣiḥāḥ, sub ‘n-s-b’; Ibn Manẓūr, Lisān al-ʿarab, sub ‘n-s-b’; al-Zabīdī, Taj al-ʿArūs, sub ‘n-s-b’). It is defined as interconnection of the discourse and interrelation of the arguments, much as the connection between beginnings of the verses and their endings. That connection or relation refers to a common term between them, such as general or specific, rational or known by sense or imagination, or other relation like the relation between cause and effect, similar or opposite, etc. The merit of this approach to the Text is to make the parts of the discourse hold to each other, and their interrelation thereby becomes stronger. (al-Burhān, 1/131)

The proponents of munāsabah believe and affirm that the Qurʾān is interconnected and interrelated. The chapters of the Qurʾān and the verses in every chapter are put together in their right place; any change in the order will corrupt the meaning. Imām Rāzī says in the tafsīr of Sūrat al-Baqarah: “Whoever ponders on the subtleties of the ordering of this chapter, and novelties of its arrangement, will know that as the Qurʾān is a miracle in the eloquence of its words and the nobility of its meanings, so also it is also a miracle in the ordering and arrangement of its verses’.

The first person who brought the knowledge of munāsabah was Shaykh Abū Bak’ al-Naysābūrī, who was very learned in the law and literature. Whenever anything of the Qurʾān was read to him he would explain why one verse is placed next to another, and why one chapter has been placed next to another chapter (al-Burhān, 1/132). Abū Jaʿfar b. al-Zubayr (d. 708), the teacher of Shaykh Abū Ḥayyān wrote a book on this topic and named it al-Burhān fī munāsabat tartīb suwar al-Qurʾān, and in the tafsīr of Imām Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī there is much discussion of this (al-Burhān 1/130). Shaykh Burhān al-Dīn al-Biqāʿī wrote Naẓm al-durar fī tanāsub al-Āy wa al-suwar; Jalāl al-Dīn al-Suyūṭī wrote Tanāsuq al-durar fī tanāsub al-Āy wa al-suwar. (al-Itqān, 2/299)

Many earlier works of tafsīr seek to bring out the connection and contextual relation between Qurʾānic verses. Imām Rāzī comments, while explaining the meaning of the verse (41:44) on the those who deny such interrelation in the Qurʾān: “This means that there is no connection and relation between the verses of the Qurʾān. And that is a grave objection against the Qurʾān. If that were so, it would be difficult to call the Qurʾān a book, let alone accept it as a miracle. To my understanding, this chapter, from beginning to the end, is an interrelated discourse” (al-Tafsīr al-Kabīr, sub 41:44).

To illustrate the importance of knowledge of munāsabah, the following example will show how it helps one to avoid some of the mistakes in interpretation that have crept into tafsīr literature. The instance in point is verse 40 of Sūrat al-Aḥzāb, proclaiming: “Muḥammad is not the father of any of your men, but he is the Messenger of God, and the seal of the Prophets.” Misconstruing this verse, the Qādiyānīs maintain that the Prophet Muḥammad, upon him blessings and peace, had a seal of prophethood. Any prophet who follows him will be endorsed by his seal. Thus no permanent or independent prophet will appear. This Qādiyānī notion betrays their ignorance of the proper context of the above verse. In the light of the theory of coherence, this Qurʾānic verse may be explained satisfactorily thus: in accord with Arab customs, an adopted son was regarded as one’s real son. The Qurʾān sought to abolish this custom. It therefore commanded that people should be ascribed to their father. Zayd, who was the Prophet’s adopted son, was called Zayd, the son of Muḥammad. After the revelation of the above sūrah, however, he was no longer attributed to the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace; rather he was called Zayd ibn Ḥārithah, ascribing him to his father. At the Prophet’s behest Zayd had married Zaynab bint Jaḥsh. However, it was not a successful marriage and Zayd divorced her, which hurt her all the more. The Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, was commanded by God to marry Zaynab. Since the Qurʾān intended to end the pre-Islamic Arab practice regarding adopted children, it clarified that the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, is not the father of any man. This being the case, there was nothing wrong in his marrying Zaynab. This could, however, give rise to the question of why he had to marry her. To answer this, the Qurʾān affirmed that he is the Messenger of God, upon him blessings and peace. In this capacity, he is to put an end to the ignoble traditions of the jāhiliyyah. One could also ask why such a great Messenger had to do this. Other prophets coming after him could have accomplished this. In reply the Qurʾān declares that no prophet will ever follow him, for he is the seal of the Prophets. It was therefore his duty to end this custom.

If the knowledge of munāsbah is so worthwhile, then why has there not been a sustained effort to understand and explain that munāsabah? Al-Zarkashī says: “The knowledge of munāsabah is a noble knowledge. However, the mufassirīn paid very little attention to it, because of its subtle nature. Among those who discussed it much is Imām Fakhr al-Dīn Rāzī who says in his tafsīr: “The most subtle interesting points of the Qurʾān are entrusted to the orders and connections” (al-Burhān 1/132). Qāḍī Ibn al-ʿArabī says in Sirāj al-Murīdīn: [Knowledge of the]; “Interconnection of the verses of the Qurʾān with each other so that the Qurʾān looks like a single discourse where the meanings are coherent and the structures are organized, is a great knowledge. No one has touched it except one scholar who applied it to Sūrat al-Baqarah, then God opened it for us. But when we did not find receivers of it and we saw the people are negligent we stopped it.” (al-Burhān 1/132)


Niẓām is defined as thematic unity; every chapter of the Qurʾān has a specific theme around which all elements of the chapter are woven. (Niẓām al-Qurʾān 5). According to the concept of niẓām, the Qur’an being coherent means that it has an overall theme, each chapter has a theme, and the whole book and every chapter of it are connected in how they present those themes. In other words, niẓām refers to the order of the Qurʾān, and the sequence of its arguments and statements, in relation to the theme of the whole Qurʾān, then to the order of different groups of chapters, then the order of elements within each sūrah in each group. Since the Qurʾān emphasizes that it is a book, and a discourse, then it must mean that it has an order like any other book or any other discourse.

Mawlānā Ḥamīd al-Dīn Farāhī (d. 1930) of India is credited with inventing the idea of niẓām and the systematic search for the coherence in the Qurʾān. He was a devout, insightful scholar, who dedicated his whole life to the study of the Qurʾān. The fruits of his life-long study of the Qurʾān are found in his works – Asālīb al-Qurʾān, Dalāʾil al-niẓām, Muqadimmah tafsīr niẓām al-Qurʾān, Mufradāt al-Qurʾān and Jamhara al-balāghah. Farāhī’s other writings also stand out for their originality and freshness of approach, namely al-Raʾy al-Ṣaḥīḥ fī man huwa al-dhabīḥ, and al-Imʿān fī aqsām al-Qurʾān. Reading these one gains a clear picture of Farāhī’s thinking.

Farāhī was alive to the significance of the niẓām of the Qurʾān and carried out a sustained study. He developed the thesis that every Qurʾānic chapter is thematically linked to the chapter immediately preceding and the chapter immediately following it. The same holds true, according to him, for the verses, which are interrelated with one another. The fact that the compilation of sūrahs in the Qurʾān, under the guidance of the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, was different from the order in which they were revealed, is an argument for some deliberate arrangement. Why is it arranged as it is? The simplest arrangement would have been to put the verses in the chronological order of revelation. But, as every one knows, the Qurʾān was put in an order different from that. Whenever the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, received any revelation of the Qurʾān, he would call those who wrote for him, and would say: “Put these verses in the chapter where so and so is mentioned’. ʿUthmān b. Abī al-ʿĀṣ narrates: I was sitting with the Messenger of God, upon him blessings and peace. Suddenly he raised his eye, then he lowered it, then he raised it again and said: Gabriel, peace be upon him, came to me and commanded me to put this verse in this place of this chapter, and he mentioned the full verse’. (al-Musnad, 13/546)

Mawlānā Farāhī’s student Mawlānā Amīn Aḥsan Iṣlāḥī wrote a complete tafsīr of the Qurʾān in which he implemented the ideas of his teacher on niẓām. According to Iṣlāḥī’s explanation, the sūrahs of the Qurʾān are divided into seven distinct groups, with a distinct theme. Every group begins with one or more Makkan sūrahs and ends with one or more than one Madīnan sūrahs. In each group, the Makkan sūrahs always precede the Madīnan ones. Each sūrah in all these groups is an independent unit and has a central theme around which the verses of the sūrah are woven in a close-knit way. The seven groups of surahs are as follows:

The first group starts with al-Fātiḥah (1) and ends with al-Māʾidah (5); the first being Makkan and the other four Madīnan, and the central theme of the group is Islamic Law.
The second group starts with al-Anʿām (6) and ends with al-Barāʾah (9); the first two are Makkan and last two are Madīnan, and the central theme of the group is the consequences for the polytheists of Makkah of denying the prophet.
The third group starts with Yūnus (10) and ends with al-Nūr (24); the first fourteen chapters are Makkan, and the last chapter is Madīnan, and the central theme is glad tidings of the Prophet Muhammad’s victory in Arabia.
The fourth group starts with al-Furqān (25) and ends with al-Aḥzāb (33); the first eight chapters of this group are Makkan, and the last one is Madīnan, and the central theme is arguments that substantiate the prophethood of Muḥammad, upon him blessings and peace, and the requirement of faith in him.
The fifth group starts with Sabaʾ (34) and ends with al-Ḥujurāt (49); the first thirteen are Makkan and last three are Madīnan; the central theme of this group is arguments that substantiate the belief of tawḥīd and the requirement of faith therein.
The sixth group starts with Qāf (50) and ends with al-Taḥrīm (66); the first seven chapters in this group are Makkan, and the last ten are Madīnan. The central theme is arguments that substantiate belief in the Day of Judgment and the requirement of faith therein.
The seventh group starts with al-Mulk (67) and ends with al-Nās (114); starting with Makkan surahs and ending with a Madīnan; the central theme is admonition to the Quraysh about their fate in this world and the Hereafter if they deny the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace. (Tadabbur-i Qurʾān, 1/17-25)

The nature of Qurʾānic coherence

Farāhī’s exposition is undoubtedly appealing. Yet he and his followers are not persuasive in convincingly identifying connection between consecutive verses and consecutive chapters of the Qurʾān. Moreover, there are a number of obvious objections that can be raised against the theory. To begin with, it does not have an authority from within the Qurʾān. Then, the division of the whole Qurʾān into seven groups is not convincing. Among the earlier generations there were people who divided the Qurʾān into seven parts—but these were equal parts to mark out and enable a complete recitation of the Qur’an in seven days, without any claim of thematic unity. That is why their division differs from Farāhī’s division; for example in their division, the second part starts with al-Māʾidah (5); the fourth group with Banī Isrāʾīl (17); the fifth with al-Shuʿarāʾ; the sixth with al-Ṣāffāt; and the seventh with Qāf (50).

Another problem is the distinction between Makkan and Madīnan sūrahs; about which there is no established unanimity. According to the above-mentioned grouping, the chapters al-Raʿd and al-Ḥajj of the third group are Makkan; but they are considered by many to be Madīnan; the chapter al-Raḥmān of the sixth group is Makkan, but some consider it as Madīnan; and there are many more differences about the chapters of the last group.

Because of problems like that, the scholars in the past did not search for a niẓām that would satisfy human reason or literary tastes which, necessarily, vary with epoch, culture and circumstance. They believed that the Qurʾān as the Book of God is necessarily different from works authored and arranged by merely human minds. The Qurʾān is neither the life-story of an individual nor the history of a people, it has no bias of that kind; it is neither prose nor poetry; it does not have the language or arrangement of the human works written about it, literary, philosophically, legal, and so on. Shaykh ʿIzz al-Dīn b. ʿAbd al-Salām says: “It is a condition of well interconnected discourse that it has a unified theme where the beginning is connected with the ending. If there is no unified theme; rather the arrangement is based on different relations then there is not a connectedness. Anyone who makes up a connectedness is a pretender of what he is unable to do except with an ugly [i.e. forced, tasteless] connection from which any discourse is to be spared, let alone the best discourse. The Qurʾān was sent down over more than 20 years about different rulings made for different causes. Whatever is like that, its parts can not be connected to each other” (al-Burhān 1/133).

Among the people of the later times, Shāh Waliullāh acknowledged this aspect of the Qurʾān and he is very clear that the coherence in the sense of thematic unity in every chapter does not exist in the Qurʾān. He says: “The noble Qurʾān was not sent down on the pattern of chapterized and sectioned texts, so it could have a theme specific to a chapter or a section. Rather, think of the Qurʾān as the collection of the letters or decrees sent by kings and rulers to their subjects according to their situations and conditions. They send one decree, then a second, then a third until their number becomes abundant, then someone comes and collects them and puts them together”. (al-Fawz al-Kabīr, 85). Another analogy that may be helpful is of sermons or religious teachings over many years, later complied into a ‘book’. However, with both analogies, we must remember that the knowledge and perspective of human teachers are limited by their culture, circumstances and their purposes, whereas the knowledge and perspective of the Author of the Qur’an are not constrained in this way, indeed it embraces all time, all being and existence, including the unseen.

Many followers of the Farāhī school consider those who deny the niẓām in the Qurʾān as rejecters of the coherence in the Qurʾān. That is is not true. The coherence in the sense of consistency is agreed upon by all scholars; in the second sense of munāsabah, the coherence in the Qur’an, has been supported by a great number of scholars. However, coherence in the third sense of thematic unity lacks any authority from within the Qurʾān, and in practice it places the Qurʾān within the limits of human reason and ingenuity and is in many respects an artificial ‘coherence’.

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