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Quran and Muslims

 By Dr Muzaffar Iqbal

10/27/2007 Because of their mental training and aptitude, most educated Muslim readers of the Quran expect to read a text that would systematically lay out the articles of faith, procedures for religious rites, provide continuous narration of historical events and have a beginning and an end. Instead, they find themselves reading the story of Prophet Nuh in one verse or group of verses and in the very next verse the Quran tells them about Allah's unchanging custom of annihilating nations which transgress and soon thereafter is the mention of Allah's unbound mercy and compassion.

This makes them utterly confused. When they attempt to resolve this confusion, they generally have recourse to an English or French work on the Quran wherein they find un-reverential verdicts. In frustration, many close the Quran forever. Those who persevere, continue to struggle with the help of various aids to understand the holy book. These include exegeses and explanatory books written by human beings, which reflect another human being's understanding of the book of Allah.

Behind this dilemma is a deeper malady: the alienation of the contemporary Muslims from their own intellectual tradition. Most Muslims educated in schools and universities simply have no idea of the vast corpus of scholarship their forefathers have produced on all subjects. Most of it has been relegated to museums and whatever little circulates is among specialists; it is not a part of the education most Muslims receive in their colleges and universities. The death sentence passed on this material by the 18th and the 19th century orientalists has pushed this vast corpus out of reach of ordinary Muslims. As a result, paths to the noble book have been blocked for them.

This difficulty is further complicated by rampart humanism: the very foundation of modernity. Humanism has made human beings the measure of all things. Hence, whatever is beyond the rational faculty of human mind, is stamped as unreliable or at least suspect. Humanism is a product of the post-Renaissance western thought, a legacy that was succinctly summarised by Muhammad Hasan Askari in a short treatise, Jadidiat ya maghrabi gumrahion ki tarikh ka khakah, in 1971. This short book contains two articles; the first is an insightful and concise history of the aberrations (gumrahis) which have appeared in western thought since the Renaissance; the second is a list of 153 aberrations which have crept into Muslim mind and have a direct relationship with religion in general and the revelation in particular. One of the most important things Askari pointed out was that in the previous eras, aberrations were limited in number and in their geographical spread, but this is not the case anymore. Furthermore, modern aberrations mix up truth and falsehood so that it has become impossible for ordinary people to sift them apart.

Thus, Muslims who rely on orientalism to understand the Quran can hardly distinguish the insidious currents of various 'isms' that are rampant in this scholarship. These include Protestantism of various shades, humanism, naturalism, nationalism, the scientific revolution of the 17th century, rationalism, deism, idealism, organism, positivism, historicism, utilitarianism, Marxism, scientism and other "isms". Askari pointed out certain key traits of oriental scholarship which stand in stark contrast to the normative beliefs of the people whose religious traditions they study. For instance, orientalists believe that the oral tradition is not reliable. Thus, when they encounter the fact that the Quran was compiled from oral sources, they immediately cast a doubt on its textual validity. For Muslim, oral tradition is superior to the written text; the true authority for them is not a written and bound book containing the text of the Quran, but a hafiz who has memorised it and received a stamp of approval from a teacher - another hafiz, who in turn has done the same and so on until the chain goes back to the prophet (pbuh) himself. Muslims proclaim testimony of faith (shahadah); they do not write it out and sign it.

Likewise, western scholarship on the Quran has no clear distinction between a revealed text and an inspired text. The New Testament and the Quran are taken to be at par, whereas the former is clearly attributed even in their own estimates to the four disciples of Sayyidna Isa (AS). Similarly, the clear distinction between beliefs (aqa'id) and deeds (a'mal) is lost in this scholarship. Muslims who approach the Quran from within the traditional perspectives, for instance, clearly understand that beliefs are the foundation of deeds. But those who do not have such training have little understanding of the distinction between the two. Thus, many such Muslims find "a lot of Islam in the west" when they see honest dealings in everyday business transactions, not realising that Islam is not based on honest business transactions but on the two testimonies (shahadas).

There is only one true remedy to this basic problem faced by 80 per cent Muslims now living on the planet earth: to study the Quran in its own language and from its own perspective. This is indeed a serious undertaking demanding time and effort, but then life itself is a serious undertaking for the believers. This daunting task is made easier for those who know with certainty that a day will come when they will have to answer for how they spent their time on earth by the first bearer of the Quran, the prophet (pbuh), who said that on that day the Quran will itself speak for such a person. They will be told to keep reciting the Quran and as they recite, their station will become loftier and loftier in an ever-lasting abode.

The writer is a freelance columnist. Email:




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