A creative ferment

The Quran & modernity

Print edition : February 22, 2013

The sharia prescribes stoning to death for adultery, but nowhere in the Quran is there anything remotely related to stoing, says Ziauddin Sardar. Here, the reformist Iranian lawmaker Elaheh Koulaee at an extraordinary congress of the Iran Islamic Participation Front in Tehran in December 2002. Iran's women legislators launched a campaign to abolish stoning as a punishment, but the practice still survives. Photo: HASAN SARBAKHSHIAN/AP

A member of the sharia police force known as Wilayatul Hisbah insists on inspecting the clothes of girls relaxing in a park in Indonesia's Banda Aceh, in December 2012. Sharia police personnel patrol parks and beaches every day looking for unmarried couples, Muslim women without headscarves or those wearing tight clothes, and people drinking alcohol or gambling. Photo: DAMIR SAGOLJ/REUTERS

The Quran, the Word of God, is understood only by the fallible mind of man.

TO most South Asian Muslims, the Quran is a closed book, closed with the lessons they learnt from ignorant mullahs. In the West there is a creative ferment in thinking about the Quran, Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. If the meanings were as fixed and certain as some believe, how do we explain the new translations of the Quran which differ on significant topics?

Selective readings

Neil MacFarquhar’s report from Chicago in The New York Times in March 2007 is quoted in extenso because it shows why people still toil on translations and why misconceptions persist among Muslims as well as non-Muslims. He wrote: “Laleh Bakhtiar had already spent two years working on an English translation of the Koran when she came upon Chapter 4, Verse 34. She nearly dropped the project right then. The hotly debated verse states that a rebellious woman should first be admonished, then abandoned in bed, and ultimately ‘beaten’—the most common translation for the Arbic word ‘daraba’—unless her behaviour improves. ‘I decided it either has to have a different meaning, or I can’t keep translating,’ said Bakhtiar, an Iranian-American who adopted her father’s Islamic faith as an adult and had not dwelled on the verse before. ‘I couldn’t believe that God would sanction harming another human being except in war.’… Bakhtiar, who is 68 and has a doctorate in educational psychology, set out to translate the Koran because she found the existing version inaccessible for Westerners. Many Jewish and Christian names, for example, have been Arabised, so Moses and Jesus appear in the English version of the Koran as Musa and Issa. When she reached the problematic verse, Bakhtiar spent the next three months on ‘daraba’. She does not speak Arabic, but she learned to read the holy texts in Arabic while studying and working as a translator in Iran in the 1970s and ’80s.

“Her eureka moment came on roughly her 10th reading of the Arabic-English Lexicon by Edward William Lane, a 3,064-page volume from the 19th century, she said. Among the six pages of definitions for ‘daraba’ was ‘to go away’. ‘I said to myself, “Oh, God, that is what the Prophet meant”,’ said Bakhtiar, speaking in the offices of Kazi Publications in Chicago, a mail-order house for Islamic books that is publishing her translation. ‘When the Prophet had difficulty with his wives, what did he do? He didn’t beat anybody, so why would any Muslim do what the Prophet did not?’ She thinks the ‘beat’ translation contradicts another verse, which states that if a woman wants a divorce, she should not be mistreated. Given the option of staying in the marriage and being beaten, or divorcing, women obviously leave, she said. There have been similar interpretations, but none have been incorporated into a translation.” Predictably, the orthodox denounced her; some others dismissed her translation as a “feminist translation”.

Interestingly, both the other two translators were born in Arab lands and won academic honours in Western universities. Tarif Khalidi was born in Jerusalem in 1938 and taught at Cambridge University. M.A.S. Abdul Haleem was born in Egypt and taught at Cambridge and the University of London.

M.M. Al-Azami’s book is an erudite study of the history of the Quran, its recording, collection and presentation, as also a comparative study with the Old and New Testaments. Ziad Elmarsafy’s book is a polemical refutation of Western detractors of the Quran in olden times.

There have been translations that are grossly misleading and productive of mischief. N.J. Dawood’s The Koran ranks high on the list. A.J. Arberry’s work The Koran Interpreted is universally praised as the most poetic of all translations.

Incidentally, in the West people have moved away from the Orientalist translation in vogue in the colonial era, the Koran, to the Qur’an; but in the Indian press most publications use “Koran”.

Common misconceptions

Common misconceptions that confront one in daily life deserve a decent burial even if they are hugged by some. Naeem Akhtar, a highly respected retired civil servant in Srinagar, points out, with copious citation, how the Quranic injunction to “acoustic modesty” is violated by the loudspeakers atop the mosques ( Kashmir Times; July 27, 2012). He writes: “There are numerous verses in Quran instructing silence and low tones in invoking Allah. ‘And remember your Lord within yourself, humbly and with fear and WITHOUT LOUDNESS IN WORDS in the mornings and in the afternoons and be not of those who are neglectful’ ( Al-A’raf). Mornings and evenings are the main victims of loudspeaker contests crowding out all space for connecting with God. Similarly in Sura Al-Asra Allah commands: ‘And offer your salat (prayer) neither aloud nor in a low voice, but follow a way between.’ Does use of a loudspeaker fit into this? ‘Invoke your Lord with humility and in secret. He likes not the aggressors,’ says Allah in Al-A’raf.”

Far more harmful has proved the false meaning assigned to kufr (unbelief) and the non-believer ( kafir). It does not mean a non-Muslim. Let me quote an able article by Renuka Narayanan in Hindustan Times (October 10, 2008) entitled “Opening the Book”. She exposes the myths about jehad and kufr on the basis of consultations with the scholar Sadaquat Husain Qasmi of Deoband and Jamia Millia Islamia. “The meaning of ‘kafir’ is made clear here: those ungrateful for God’s gifts. By this ayat (verse), no one is a believer or unbeliever by birth. Kafir is an adjective, denoting the nature of a person. ‘Even an outwardly practising Muslim who is ungrateful is technically a kafir in the Quranic sense,’ says Qasmi, for this deep adjectival import of kafura is often not fully understood.”

Muhammad is only the last of the prophets, and Muslims are forbidden to claim that he is superior to others. “Say: we believe in God and what has been revealed to us and what was revealed to Abraham, Ismail, Isaac, Jacob, and the tribes, and in what was given to Moses, Jesus, and the prophets from their Lord. We make no distinction between one and another among them and to Him [God] do we submit” (Quran 3:84).

In another verse addressed to the Prophet Muhammad, God advises him, “And if you [Muhammad] are in doubt concerning that which We reveal to you, then question those who read the scripture [that was revealed] before you” (Quran 10:94). Another verse addressed to the Muslim faithfuls says, “And argue not with the People of the Book unless it be in a way that is better, save with such of them as do wrong; and say we believe in that which has been revealed to us and to you; our God and your God is one and unto Him we submit” (Quran 29:46).

A noted scholar points out: “While the concept of the People of the Book was originally coined to refer to the major monotheistic traditions in the Arabian milieu, there were attempts to expand the term theologically to include other groups, such as the Zoroastrians in Iran and Hindus and Buddhists in India, as the Islamic tradition spread outside the Middle East and Muslims encountered other religious traditions. In seventeenth-century India, Dara Shikoh, a prince from the ruling Mughal dynasty who was strongly influenced by the pluralistic teachings within Islamic traditions of mysticism, considered the Hindu scriptures, the Upanishads, to be the ‘storehouse of monotheism’ and claimed that they were the kitab maknun, or “hidden scripture” referred to in the Quran (56:77-80). He personally translated these Sanskrit texts into Persian and held that it was the duty of every faithful Muslim to read them.”

Ziauddin Sardar’s work is a mini-classic written by an erudite public intellectual of distinction. Born in Pakistan, he was raised in England. His work is truly a modern man’s guide to the Quran. “The eternal and infinite are not qualities of human knowledge, understanding or experience. By definition, not all the scholarship of all the ages, individual and/or collective, can ever be an absolute and permanently fixed reading of the divine word. To accept the Quran as eternal means acknowledging that there is always more to the text than our partial intellect will comprehend, and to begin one’s reading from that premise with humility. The interpretative relationship begins with personal and individual reading, but that does not undermine or obliterate collective consequences. The personal and individual are the necessary precursor and are inclusive of a perspective on communal obligations and responsibilities. Everyone who claims to be a Muslim must struggle with the meaning of the Quran. There is no ‘get out’ clause, no escape. This responsibility is not fulfilled by merely reciting its words; nor by being told by other, more qualified people what it means and should mean. It is something we need to discover for ourselves.” The Quran, the Word of God, is understood only by the fallible mind of man.

It had to be interpreted immediately after the death of the Prophet Muhammad by the Caliphs who succeeded him. One of the most distinguished Arab journalists, Mohamed Heikal, noted the “different flavour” which Islam acquired in India and Pakistan. “Asian Muslims tended to take the Koran literally, while Arabs were more inclined to interpret it. Reading the text in their own language enabled Arabs to set it in historical context, keeping in mind observations by Arab religious authorities, but Asians were less able to look beyond it— partly because other works had not been translated into their languages, but more importantly because the Arabic language was the tongue of Islam. Deprived of linguistic context, the Koran inevitably takes on a slightly different character, forcing non-Arab readers to rely more on the text than on the way the ideas are expressed” ( Illusions of Triumph; page 57, Emphasis added, throughout).

The Quran was revealed over 23 years from 610 to 632. The author traces the various approaches adopted by scholars in its interpretation. The context must not be ignored. The Quran is an invitation to reflection, to the use of reason. The text is eternal but was revealed in history over 1,400 years ago. Eighty-five suras were revealed in Mecca and 29 in Medina after the Prophet’s migration to that city.

Out of the 2,600 verses in the Quran, Abdel Haleem records, 70 discuss personal law; 70, civil law; and 20, matters relating to the judiciary and testimony. These tend to emphasise the values of justice and compassion rather than detailed laws. The text is not arranged chronologically. The invitation to reason is spread all over the Book. “I think the Quran should be approached through questions and arguments. That’s what the text itself demands. The Quran is full of questions: ‘How can you worship something other than God?’ ‘How did this happen?’, ‘Have you considered?’, ‘Have you heard?’, ‘What are they asking about?’ And it is jam-packed with debate—particularly in the longer suras. Clearly, God loves a good argument. Perhaps the most important question to consider is: What is the Quran asking us to do now? The potential answers would lead to numerous arguments. Given that Muslims see the Quran as a living, dynamic entity—which is what Fareed Esack—a South African scholar—argues beyond this analogy— it is not an argument that could be settled once and for all. It is an ongoing debate whose contours change with changing circumstances.”

The author renders high service by emphasising the need to read the Quran in the light of our times. “Whatever the merits of classical commentaries, they tell us little about the relevance of the Quran to our own time. Traditional methodology… cannot cope with the enormous challenges of contemporary times. Neither is a sensible commentary on the Quran possible without taking the needs and requirements of our times into consideration. As human beings, we can only engage with the Quran, and interpret it, according to our own contemporary understanding. It has to make sense to us as ordinary mortals here and now; it has to have significance for us in the light of our needs and requirements in current times; it has to guide us through the moral, ethical and spiritual dilemmas of today. So the context of our time is equally important for its interpretation. Thus, we have to approach the Quran from the perspective of how morality on, for example, such issues as gender equality and environmental concerns has evolved in our own time, and engage with the text in the light of our changing circumstances.”

He adds: “The Quran provides the essential basics of morality on which we have to build and expand in ever widening horizons. That is exactly what exploring the Quran in a contemporary context is all about. For many Muslims this prospect raises a whole series of concerns that have been inculcated by history. Islam has increasingly become a redoubt to be defended by conservative and preservative traditionalism. Further, defining and observing in practice an idealised traditionalism offers religion as a badge of identity, a supposedly inherited persona in the face of depersonalising mass society. By relying on classical commentators, inherited opinion has elevated the original community, the Medina state of the Prophet Muhammad, to that of a timeless ideal.” It is cited as a model for an Islamic state, which has no basis in the Quran. Islam does not establish a state. It moulds humans and society, through them.

After a detailed exposition of the first two suras, Al-Fatiha and Al-Baqara, Ziauddin Sardar discusses “themes and concepts” of the Quran—time and history, truth and plurality, reason and knowledge and the like—and plunges headlong into contemporary topics—the sharia (Muslim law), power and politics, polygamy, sex and society, the veil, freedom of expression, science and technology, art, music and imagination, etc. This is by far the most instructive part of the book.

The Quran is misread, conveniently and deliberately, by the mullahs on matters like adultery, divorce, blasphemy and apostasy. For example, four witnesses are required to prove adultery, but there is also an injunction against entering a home except by the leave of the owner. Clearly, the penalty prescribed was for public exhibition of the indecency.

What the author has to say on the sharia (the law) deserves to be quoted at length: “What is regarded as Islamic law nowadays is essentially a body of juristic opinions that began to be socially constructed during the early Abbasid period of the eighth and ninth centuries. Today, what is understood as the Sharia incorporates layer upon layer of classical legal rulings, known as fiqh, or jurisprudence, which has acquired an immutable status. When people look to the Sharia for guidance on a particular issues, what they are actually looking at is fiqh, the rulings of medieval jurists, rather than looking directly at how the Quran treats that issue. …

“The discrepancy between theory as presented in the Quran and the Sharia, which is supposed to put Quranic principles and injunctions into practice, arises in three forms: (1) the Sharia frequently acts against the strict injunctions of the Quran; (2) what the Quran relegates to the periphery as extreme or boundary condition, the Sharia brings to the centre and makes them the norm; and (3) while the Quran repeatedly insists on justice, the Sharia often ends up propagating injustice. To give a few examples: 1. The Qurán declares that ‘there is no compulsion in the religion’ (2:256), but the Sharia prescribes capital punishment for apostasy. 2. The Sharia prescribes stoning to death for adultery. Nowhere in the Quran do we find anything remotely related to stoning. Moreover, the Quranic legislation on adultery makes it virtually impossible to prove adultery. 3. The Quran asks for four witnesses to prove ‘lewd’ behaviour to ensure that injustice is not committed on those who are accused of such behaviour, particularly women. The Sharia treats rape and ‘lewd’ behaviour as equal. In the absence of four witnesses, the rape victims are treated as adulterers and punished as such; thus, under the Sharia, they are doubly victimised. … Virtually all of the Sharia legislation regarding women—divorce, alimony, custody of children—is in fact misogynist and anti-women, whereas the Quran demands that men and women should be treated equally before the law

“These few examples illustrate how far the Sharia has deviated from the teachings of the Quran, and how little relevance it has to the Sacred texts. Its development is intertwined with the social and cultural dynamics of the development of Muslim rule, which go a long way to explaining how irrelevant, absurd and ridiculous the Sharia appears in the contemporary world.”

The fundamental issue of our times is whether the compassionate faith of Islam is to be reduced to a set of intimidating rules of criminal law. “For me, the greatest implication of all we learn about prophethood in the Quran is that of universalism. The attention given to the plurality of prophets, named and unnamed, as well as the fact that all people have received guidance from God, creates the most important context that challenges our understanding. We have not only to reason our way through the specifics of the message given to Muhammad and the rootedness of this specific revelation in his time and place; we have also to seek the intersection of this specific revelation with the transcendent moral vision of which all people and communities in history have had their share. The prophethood of Muhammad exists to make clear the recurrence of God’s message and help us to transcend the limitation and narrowness of our perspectives shaped by tribalisms, factionalisms, sectarianisms or nationalisms. The search is not merely to follow the Prophet as best as we can, but also to seek God’s pleasure as a way to realise and respond to the search for the divine in all people. Whoever they are.”

The narrow outlook and the bigotry propagated by the votaries of sharia are totally opposed to the teachings of the Quran.

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