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Reading the Quran

Print edition : Jan 03, 2003 T+T-

Approaches to the Quran; edited by G.R. Hawting and Abdul-Kader A. Shareef; Routledge; pages 336, 55.

Quran and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman's Perspective by Amina Wadud; Oxford University Press; pages 118, Rs.195.

Islamic Family Law in a Changing World: A Global Resource Book; edited by Abdullahi A. An-Naim; Zed Books; pages 320.

TWO aphorisms coined by Judges of the U.S. Supreme Court have been often quoted by Judges of our Supreme Court. One is that the worst way to read a Constitution is to read it literally. The other, that a word is the skin of a living thought. The skin survives. The thought acquires a new meaning in changed context. Reading scripture is an even more challenging a task. As Karen Armstrong has written, "We have to know how to read our scriptures. They demand an imaginative effort... A true meaning of scripture can never be wholly comprised in a literal reading of the text, since that text points beyond itself to a reality which cannot adequately be expressed in words and concepts... "

The first two volumes break new ground in Quranic studies. The first is a compilation of 13 essays by eminent scholars, both Muslim and non-Muslim, in the field of Quranic studies and Islamic studies. They reflect the variety of approaches to the Quran and the Muslim exegetical tradition.

Prof. A.H. Johns of the Australian National University contributes a brilliant paper on "The Quranic presentation of the Joseph story," well known to readers of the Bible. Public recitation of the Quran is an art form. It moves the listener deeply. "Public recitation is only one of the ways in which the Quran is encountered and celebrated by the Muslim community. It is a primary source for legists of the laws that govern society, for theologians to define the central tenets of Islam, and for mystics to achieve communion with the divine by the recitation of chosen phrases or verses."

The lawyer and the mystic drink from the same fount. The Quran is a "mosaic of diverse styles, parts of it being revealed to Muhammad publicly, others privately, and its language moves from a matter-of-fact to an elevated style, from relaxed to intense communication, often within a group of verses. The Quran is par excellence a storybook, and it teaches through its stories. Notwithstanding its central position as a source of law, its eschatological warnings, its dialogues with Muhammad, a major part of it consists of stories of the prophets before Muhammad that provide his role models and that justify his claim to be a prophet, stories that comfort him for the pain that the insults of his enemies caused him, but which, at the same time, have as a goal the teaching of the central doctrines of Islam: the unity of God, the sending of the prophets, and the resurrection of the dead."

Prof. Johns shows how the dialogue in the Quran is "an important area of Quranic studies in its own right". He analyses the dialogue, the soliloquy, the chorus and explains the story of Jacob as presented in the Quran with rich nuances.

Other essays deal with diverse aspect of Quranic exegesis. Prof. Andrew Rippin discusses Interpreting the Bible through the Quran. He writes, "Within itself, the Quran provides Muslims with a view of the Bible. Mention is made of the `scrolls' of Abraham and Moses, the Tawrat (Torah) of Moses, the Zabur (usually understood as the Psalms) of David and the Injil (Gospel) of Jesus, all conceived as direct revelation from God to the prophet concerned: `Surely we sent down the Torah wherein is guidance and light' (Quran 5.48); `And we sent, following in their footsteps, Jesus son of Mary, confirming the Torah before him; and we gave to him the Gospel, wherein is guidance and light' (Quran 5.50). In this way, all previous scriptures are pictured within the revelatory and compositional image of the Quran itself." Muslims regard Muhammad as the last of the Prophets. They are forbidden to regard him as superior to his predecessors.

Islamic studies in India have fallen on sad days. Prof. Rippin recalls that "one of the few attempts made by a Muslim to write a commentary on the actual text of the Bible itself was that by Sayyid Ahmad Khan (d. 1898). Called The Mohomedan Commentary on the Holy Bible, it was published in 1862 and 1865. Two parts, the first being the `Preliminary Discourse' (covering Genesis 1 to 11) were published in Urdu with English summaries. A portion covering Matthew 1 to 5, together with a short history of Christianity, was apparently prepared at the same time but was not published until 1887 and is available in Urdu only. Ahmad Khan's general attitude is that the Bible should have a positive role in Muslim life as long as it is read in light of the Quranic message, so that any distortions that have occurred as a result of Jewish and Christian misinterpretation (the only extent to which he considers tahrif to have occurred) can be corrected. His work is remarkably free of polemic and is aimed at bringing about a common understanding and inspiration through revealed scripture within the Judeo-Christian-Muslim tradition. Such tendencies continue in contemporary works such as that by the Groupe de Recherches Islamo-Chretien, The Challenge of the Scriptures: the Bible and the Quran."

Amina Wadud is an African-American who embraced Islam 30 years ago and launched in 1992, with the first edition of this book, a "gender jihad as a Muslim woman", courageously and with remarkable erudition. Predictably the "impertinence" was resented by the orthodox. She was pained at the reaction, but was undaunted. Her work is a remarkable study in Quranic reading.

Her thesis is simple. "Because women are not deemed as important as men in most Muslim majority or minority communities, Muslim women do not enjoy a status equal to men. If the definitive basis for what Islam means is determined by what Muslims do, then women and men are not equal. However, I reasoned that only explicit Quranic indication that women and men were other than co-equals could require acceptance of this inequality as a basis of faithfulness to Islam. Mercifully, the more research I did into the Quran unfettered by centuries of historical androcentric reading and Arabo-Islamic cultural predilections, the more affirmed I was that in Islam a female person was intended to be primordially, cosmologically, eschatologically, spiritually, and morally a full human being, equal to all who accepted Allah as Lord, Muhammad as Prophet, and Islam as din. What remained was to advocate the details of this research as legitimate grounds for contesting the unequal treatment that women have experienced historically and continue to experience legally in the context of Muslim communities."

She does not consider the Sunnah, traditions of the Prophet, to be irrelevant. But, "while I accept the role of the Prophet both with regard to revelation, as understood in Islam, and to the development of Islamic law on the basis of his Sunnah or normative practices, I place greater significance of the Quran. This is congruent with the orthodox understanding of the inerrancy of Quranic preservation versus historical contradictions within the Hadith literature. Furthermore, I would never concede that the equality between women and men demonstrated in the Quran could be removed by the Prophet. If such a contradiction did exist, I would choose in favour of the Quran."

Recent research has shown that the Hadith (Sayings of the Prophet) are being misinterpreted to deny Muslim women the rights the Quran recognises as theirs. The thesis is developed with a wealth of learning. Its relevance to the reform of Muslim law on marriage and divorce, a caricature of the Islamic law, is obvious.

Prof. Abdullahi A. An-Nain's masterly survey of Muslim Family Law in Central Asia, the Caucasus, Africa, West Asia, South Asia, and South-East Asia, prefaced by an erudite Introductory essay, should serve as an eye-opener to Indian Muslims. Their law of marriage and divorce violates the spirit and letter of the Quran. It is "Anglo-Muhammadan Law", not Islamic law (Shariah).