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The Quran and the west


By Dr Muzaffar Iqbal



Paths to the Quran have become restricted for Muslims but they are totally blocked for a vast majority of human beings who have grown up in the contemporary western world. This is a calamity not only for those whose hearts have become sealed to the last and the final message from the Creator, but for the entire humanity because it creates a fundamental divide between 1.6 billion Muslims who constitute one fourth of humanity and roughly the same number of other human beings who live in the large geographical region now home to the modern western civilization. This includes Europe, North America, the New Zealand, Australia and parts of South America.

What creates this block is a complex mix. It is made up of numerous old and new historical events, general perceptions of the Quran created by three centuries of western scholarship, many deep-seated biases against Muslims, and a number of other factors arising from within western civilization. Whatever its make up, this block against the Quran is so solid that very few western seekers of truth are able to break it and get to the first stage of actually reading a translation of the Quran. A large majority of those who do so, find it absolutely impossible to understand, for they encounter a narration unlike any they have ever read: there is no apparent logical flow in the text, a stylistic element so essential for the Western mind. In addition, even in the best of translations, the imagery of the Quran remains utterly foreign for the western mind not to speak of its vocabulary and its historical sweep. The result is total incomprehensibility.

All that a sincere western reader of the Quran gets out of his or her first encounter with the Quran is an overall sense of its awesome alienation. Thereafter, most westerns stop their further quest of understanding the message of the Quran. Those who persist, attempt to read various books on the Quran (such as the Major Themes of the Quran by Fazlur Rahman), and this helps to some extent, but does not really open direct paths to the Quran.

This dilemma of the western mind is not only due to the inherent linguistic difficulties or the foreignness of the Quranic vocabulary and imagery, but also due to certain fundamental assumptions and presuppositions which have become ingrained in the western civilization. One of these fundamental aspects of the modern western civilization is its loss of understanding of the phenomenon of revelation. Modern western civilization is built on humanism and its pivotal belief in rationalism. Anything beyond reason is, by definition, unreasonable, hence not worthy of serious attention. Thus it is very difficult for a western mind to grasp that there might be worlds upon worlds beyond the realm of reason and rationality. Not only revelation, but even ‘intellect’, which in Islamic thought is called aql-e kulli, is not fully understood in the west as an inner human faculty distinct from ‘reason’. (called aql-e juzwi).

As a result, the phenomena of revelation is often confused with inspiration. For most contemporary Westerns, there is no such thing possible as a direct revelation from the Creator, all that is humanly possible is inspiration under which a human being writes. This can be poetic inspiration or religious inspiration. Shakespeare and Dante are considered great poets because they were truly inspired in a poetic sense. The four gospels, which make up the New Testament, are great books because of the greatness of the religious inspiration, which produced them. The Prophets of the Old Testament were human beings who wrote accounts of their truly heroic and great spiritual journeys. This understanding, emerging out of a historical past going back to the Renaissance, has so colored the Western understanding of revelation, and hence that of religion itself, that it is well-nigh impossible for most Westerns to grasp even the basic Quranic claim that it is actually the Word of God Himself, sent down through the agency of a Noble Messenger (Rasulun Kareem, meaning the Angel Jibril) to the heart of the Prophet (SAW).

In the absence of this basic understanding, a western reader sincerely trying to understand the Quran approaches it in the same manner in which he or she approaches the Bible. This approach blocks are paths to the Quran immediately, for it is a living Book and when those who do not believe in its Divine origin approach it, it puts a veil between itself and such readers: We have laid veils which prevent them from understanding it and into their ears, deafness. And so, whenever, you mention your Sustainer, the one and only, they turn their backs in aversion. (al-Isra: 46)

No doubt, there are individuals in the west who have surpassed this difficulty. These exceptional men and women have left behind certain testaments of their spiritual journeys and their encounters with the Quran which might be useful for those who sincerely seek guidance from the Quran. But in general, western readers of the Quran will not be facilitated in their attempts unless there is a much greater support from Muslim scholars who can make a major effort to open certain paths to the Quran for the contemporary seekers of truth. This effort needs to remain rooted in the Quranic worldview, but made in a style and language that is accessible to Western readers. Of course, there is no substitute for a living source and therefore, the best option for a Western seeker of truth is a person who has already successfully opened paths to the Noble Quran for him or herself.

The writer is a freelance columnist. Email:


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