Linguistic Meaning of Read (اقرأ)
The Arabic term (اقرأ) primarily refers to read however it can also alternative meanings such as to recite, repeat, read, utter, call and others. (Lisan al-Arab, al-Qamus al-Muheet)
Considering the term read, its meaning comprises looking at, decoding and comprehending the meaning of written, visual or printed matter by interpreting the characters or symbols of which it is composed.
Regarding the first revelation in the cave Aisha (ra), the Prophet's wife narrated what happened:
جَاءَهُ الْمَلَكُ فَقَالَ اقْرَأ ... فَقَالَ: اقْرَأْ بِاسْمِ رَبِّكَ الَّذِي خَلَقَ * خَلَقَ الإِنْسَانَ مِنْ عَلَقٍ * اقْرَأْ وَرَبُّكَ الأَكْرَمُ.
"The angel came to him and asked him to read. … and then released me and said, 'Read in the name of your Lord, who has created (all that exists), created man from a clot. Read! And your Lord is the Most Generous." (Qur'an 96.1-3)" (Sahih al-Bukhari 3)
This then led to 22 years of Qur'anic revelation.
The term "read" is unqualified (mutlaq), nothing is specified, which would suggest Jibreel's command was for him to read anything he wished to. Should he do that he would do it with the name of God, its creator? The rest of the Qur'anic verses repeatedly emphasise the signs of God are everywhere, which if one was to read the world and whatever was in it like a book, with comprehension, they would see the signs, interpret them and realise the fingerprint of God, its creator, was everywhere.
The 20th-century commentator Abdulkareem al-Khatib said:
وفِى هَذَا تَنْوِيهٌ بِشَأْنِ القِرَاءَةِ، وَأَنَّهَا السَبِيلُ إِلَى المَعْرِفَةِ والعِلْمِ، ثُمَّ إِنَّ الأُمِيَّةَ، وَإِنْ كَانَتْ حَائِلَةً بَيْنَ المَرْءِ وبَيْنَ أَنْ يَقْرَأَ فِى كِتَابٍ، فَإِنَهَا لَا تَحُولُ بَيْنَهُ وَبَيْنَ العِلْمِ والمَعْرِفَةِ، فَهُنَاكَ كِتَابُ الوُجُودِ، الّذِي يَقْرَأُ الإنْسَانُ آَيَاتِهِ بِالنَظَرِِ المُتَأَمَلُ فِيهِ، والبَصِيرَةِ النَافِذَةِ إِلَى أَسْرَارِهِ، وعَجَائِبِهِ… فَلْيَكُنْ الإَنْسَانُ قَارِئًا أَبَدًا، عَلَى أَيِّ حَالٍ مِنْ أَحْوَالِهِ، قَارِئًا بِنَفْسِهِ، أَو قَارِئًا مُتَابِعًا لِغَيْرِهِ."In this verse (iqra) a hint of the status of reading as it is the way to knowledge and science. Although illiteracy is a hindrance against reading a book, it does not prevent from science and learning because there is the book of existence that Human beings read its signs through reflection and comprehending its secrets and wonders. … So, a man has to keep, reading regardless of his state, either by himself or by following others." (al-Khattib, at-Tafseer al-Qur'ani Lil-Qur'an, Vol 16, p. 1624)
An alternative perspective is to consider the word iqra used in its metaphorical sense (majaazi). This is best illustrated when Muslims read the Qur'an from memory in the prayer, hadiths use the term read (اقرأ-قرأ) in reference to the recitation in the prayer. Thus the Prophet (saw) said to Mu'adh:
يَا مُعَاذُ أَفَتَّانٌ أَنْتَ اقْرَأْ بِسُورَةِ كَذَا وَسُورَةِ كَذَا
"O Mu'adh, do you want to cause hardship to the people (in the prayer)? Recite (اقرأ) such and such a surah, and such and such a surah." (Nasa'i 835)
Muslims also are required to seek the refuge of Allah against Iblis (Satan) whenever they recite the Quran whether by memory or when reading, but Allah says:
فَإِذَا قَرَأْتَ الْقُرْآنَ فَاسْتَعِذْ بِاللَّهِ مِنَ الشَّيْطَانِ الرَّجِيمِ
"So when you recite (قرأت-read) the Qur'an, (first) seek refuge in Allah from Satan, the expelled (from His mercy)." (Qur'an 17:98)
In another narration, the Prophet stated to his companions to recite a short chapter before when getting to sleep and it certainly recited from memory. The Prophet (saw) said:
اقْرَأْ: قُلْ يَا أَيُّهَا الْكَافِرُونَ، ثُمَّ نَمْ عَلَى خَاتِمَتِهَا فَإِنَّهَا بَرَاءَةٌ مِنَ الشِّرْكِ
"Read (اقرأ) (the Surah): 'Say, O you disbelievers!' (Surah No. 109) and then go to sleep at its end, for it is a declaration of freedom from polytheism." (Abu Dawud 5055)
So Allah (swt) and His Prophet (saw) use the term read (اقْرَأ - قَرَأْت) where it refers to reciting.
The Prophet (saw), in a similar situation, was teaching a companion a surah and this narration is very similar in terms of expression and conversation. Uqbah narrated:
قَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم لِعُقْبَةَ " اقْرَأْ " . قَالَ وَمَا أَقْرَأُ يَا رَسُولَ اللَّهِ قَالَ "اقْرَأْ: قُلْ أَعُوذُ بِرَبِّ الْفَلَقِ، مِنْ شَرِّ مَا خَلَقَ" . فَأَعَادَهَا عَلَىَّ حَتَّى قَرَأْتُهَا
"The Messenger of Allah (saw) said to Uqbah: 'Read.' He replied: 'What should I read, O Messenger of Allah?' He said: 'Read: 'Say: I seek refuge with (Allah) the Lord of the daybreak, from the evil of what He has created.' (Qur'an 113:1-2) And he repeated it until I had read it." (Sunan an-Nasa'i 5433)
In this narration, the first three expressions for 'read' mean recite or repeat, but the last one means learned. So the word read (اقرأ) does not necessarily mean the literal reading but could mean repeat, recite, learn and others.
So the verse could mean to recite, repeat or mention the name of your Lord.
Views of Mufasireen (Qur'anic Scholars)
The mufasireen did not elaborate on the meaning of the word read (اقرأ) instead emphasising the importance of commencing any reading or recitation with the name of Allah.
Imam Baydawi argues:
ِاقْرَأْ بِاسْمِ رَبِّكَ أَيّ اقْرَأْ القُرْآنَ مُفْتَتِحًا بِاسْمِهِ سُبْحَانَهُ وَتَعَالَى. أَوْ مُسْتَعِينًا بِه
"Read in the name of your Lord means to read beginning by His name (swt) or seeking His help." (Baydawi, Anwar at-Tanzeel, Vol. 5, p. 325)
Imam Qurtubi for instance said:
ِوقيل: معنى اقْرَأْ بِاسْمِ رَبِّكَ أَيّ اذكُر اسْمَهُ. أَمَرَهُ أَنْ يَبْتَدِئَ القِرَاءَةَ بِاسْمِ الله.
"It has been said: the meaning 'read in the name of your Lord' is mention His name. He (Allah or Gabriel) ordered him to start the reading with the name of Allah." (Qurtubi, al-Jami Li Ahkam al-Qur'an, Vol. 20, p. 109)
Whilst Imam al-Baghawi cites a statement of the companion Abu Ubaydah (ra):
قَالَ أَبُو عُبَيْدَةَ : مَجَازُهُ : اقْرَأْ بِاسْمِ رَبِّكَ يَعْنِي... اذْكُر اسْمَهُ أُمِرَ أَنْ يَبْتَدِئَ القِرَاءَةَ بِاسْمِ اللهِ تَأدِيبًا
"Abu Ubaydah said: it is a figurative (verse), as read in the name of your Lord means ... mention His name. (Allah) orders to begin the reading with His name as a sign of politeness." (Baghawi, Ma'alim al-Tanzeel, Vol. 1, p. 477)
The verse can mean both literally "to read" in the name of your Lord, or "recite" or "repeat" something beginning with the name of your Lord.
Al-Khattib, at-Tafseer al-Qur'ani Lil-Qur'an
Baydawi, Anwar at-Tanzeel
Baghawi, Ma'alim al-Tanzeel
Qurtubi, al-Jami Li Ahkam al-Qur'an
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