A Must Exercise For All Educated Muslims
--- A Comprehensive Exposition with Clarification of Commonplace Polemical, Textual and Oratorical Issues and Some Fresh Insights into the Interpretation of Gender Sensitive Verses.
By Muhammad Yunus, New Age Islam
19 October, 2012
Co-author (Jointly with Ashfaque Ullah Syed), Essential Message of Islam, Amana Publications, USA, 2009
Any person reading a translation of the Arabic Qur’an line by line for the first time is bound to be perplexed if he/she is a believing Muslim and simply bewildered and alienated if he is Qur’an-sceptic Muslim or a non-Muslim. He can neither connect one verse or passage with the next, nor can he find any beauty, coherence and subtlety in its diction. Stark ignorant of the subtlety and nuances of the Qur’anic Arabic, and confronted by literal translation of its idioms and poetical and eschatological imageries, he is angered and frustrated. With no background knowledge of the Qur’an’s historical and Biblical allusions, he is completely at a loss to make any head or tail of what comes under his eyes. With turning of each page he confronts, often in the midst of disjointed and abstruse themes, divine threats and altruistic commandments, both of which he loathes to swallow. Who wants to be told that his wealth is not entirely his own (4:32), or to spend for the needy at every opportunity (2:274), or to write off debt to a poor debtor (2:278), or not to expect any return for a favour bestowed (74:6), or to shun greed, arrogance, back biting and other temptations and cravings of mind? He soon gives up.
The truth is, read pedagogically verse by verse, the Arabic Qur’an – let alone its translation is mind boggling. It is like a literary kaleidoscope that encompasses an exhaustive array of themes, mixes the spiritual with the mundane, the abstruse with the concrete and maintains a sketchy diary of the Prophetic mission with no dates, no names of people or places, no historical details of any kind, scattering all its data in bits and pieces in a random fashion across its text. In the midst of this wide array of themes, it interjects the diverse elements of its guidance and reverts to some of them repeatedly.
The matter becomes far more complex in translation. The Qur’anic diction is elliptic, cryptic, enigmatic and evocative. It is rich with idioms, metaphors, allegories and similes. It features a verb free, intertwined tri-consonantal construction, and carries a hallmark of excellence unparalleled  that is totally lost in translation. The revulsion that it can evoke in an unsympathetic, uninitiated mind is best expressed by the great scholar of the Enlightenment era, Thomas Carlyle, otherwise a great admirer of the Prophet Muhammad ; he charged the Qur’an of being ‘a wearisome, confused jumble, crude, incondite, endless irritation, long windedness, entanglement, insupportable stupidity in short.’ 
Where does the problem lie?
The problem lies in the transformation of the divine speech (revelation) into human scale (the text of the Qur’an). The divine speech, descending from a plane that is independent of space and time, and disregards the linear pattern of human thought, comprehension and chronology - jumps across space, time and theme in complete freedom. Its immediate audience – the Arabs, who had honed their linguistic skill to an advanced level of perfection, were accordingly very confused with the revelation for a long time. They found it strange and unbelievable (38:5, 50:2), a jumble of dreams (21:5) and legends of the ancients (6:25, 23:83, 25:5, 27:68, 46:17, 68:15, 83:13). However, as direct witnesses to the revelation in the live backdrop of its contexts, and under direct guidance of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), they could comprehend the broader dimensions as well as the smaller but critical caveats of its message. But the situation post the revelation altered as the revelation was reduced to a real time disjointed non-chronological, unstructured text. This, in the early centuries of Islam led to the evolution of its theological sciences, notably, the asbab al-nuzul (Construction of the background of revelation), Sira (the biography of the Prophet and the history of his mission), the Hadith, and the Classical Law (Sharia) schools (mathahab). By the fourth century of Islam, the Hadith and the Classical Sharia were canonized as the sole vehicles of religious guidance for the Muslim community; and this remained normative in Islam through to the late medieval ages. This restricted the Qur’an to merely a divine liturgy for recitation in prayer and on solemn occasions or for seeking divine blessings and institutionalized the Hadith and the Classical Sharia as true representation of the Qur’anic message.
The subversion of the Qur’anic message during the classical Islamic civilization
The social, moral and ethical paradigms of the Qur’an conflicted with the political ambitions of the rulers and their craving for wealth, power, glory, lavish haram life and distinctive privileges. Thus, since early centuries of Islam, the dynastic rulers manipulated and even coerced the Ulama to obfuscate the egalitarian, humanistic, gender neutral and pluralistic message of the Qur’an. “According to a number of sources, the Imam Abu Hanifa was imprisoned by Caliph al-Mansur (754 – 775) for defying him in religion. Imam Malik ibn Anas, the founder of another school of law was also flogged during his rule” . Furthermore, as Islam entered new cultures and civilizations, it encountered customs and juristic norms that contradicted the Qur’anic paradigms. To accommodate them into Islam – a historical necessity for the era, the doctors of law declared: “Any Qur’anic verse which contradicts the opinions of ‘our masters’ will be construed as having been abrogated, or the rule of preference will be applied thereto. It is better that the verse is interpreted in such a way that it conforms to their opinion” . Pedagogic study of the Qur’an was also discouraged by citing a tradition that “one who discusses about the Book of God, (the Qur'an) makes a mistake, even if he is correct . These developments coupled with the reverential remoteness of the Qur’an as divine speech led to the relegation of the Qur’an as a purely liturgical text. Over time, this notion has been dogmatized in Islamic societies which conflate the Qur’anic message with the Hadith and the Classical Sharia of Islam. It also purports to restrict the religious obligations of the Muslims to its introductory five pillars of faith, though after the integration of Mecca (630), merely two years before the Prophet’s death (632), compliance with the definitive commandments (ahkamat) of the Qur’an was one of the pillars of faith . Moreover, the Qur’an does not provide any basis to justify reducing its holistic message to only four elements or pillars (Salat, Zakat, fasting, and hajj), besides the shahadah [the first pillar of faith – the oral declaration: ‘I testify that there is no deity but God and Muhammad is the Messenger of God.’]
The distortion of the Qur’anic message today
Fast forward to this era, a section of educated youth – mostly the rich elite, business tycoons and those seeking to free themselves from religious bondage, as well as the atavistic among the Ulama and radicalized elements (a small minority though) ready to blow themselves up in public place and terrorize humanity or condone such acts have unwittingly joined ranks to propagate the weakest accounts (ahadith) and the most grotesque rulings of the Classical Sharia to justify their blatantly anti-Qur’anic views. These insiders (the liberal, rationalist hypocrites and the fanatic and misguided Ulama) thus demonize their Prophet, scandalise his wives (their own mothers in the spirit of the Qur’anic verse 33:6), poison interfaith relations and reduce Islam into a voluptuous and barbaric cult. In historical perspective this is the most dangerous development in Islam, even more dangerous than the recent anti-terror wars on the Muslim lands or the Crusades and the Mongol attacks some eight hundred years ago. These inside demonizers of Islam are unwittingly projecting their faith and fellow Muslims as a heavy and unbearable burden on human civilization and setting the stage for a deadly backlash from the powerful enemies of Islam – the Islamophobic think-tank and military industrial complex - than what the world has seen in the past decade. Therefore, it is absolutely imperative to install the Qur’an in its rightful place as an independent, completed and perfected fount of guidance as it claims and this article aims at.
Clarification of various polemical, textual and oratorical issues
Islamic scholarship is virtually dedicated to a category of issues that virtually sidetrack the core message of the Qur’an. The most commonplace issues are:
i) Speculations about entities that are beyond the categories of human mind, such as angels, jin, hur, ruh (divine spirit), nafs (soul), paradise, hell, ‘lohe mahfuz,’ the true nature of the Prophet’s ‘Night Journey’ to the ‘distant mosque’ and subsequent ascension (mi‘raj) to heaven – whether it was of a physical or mystical nature (17:1), the polarity between freewill and predestination (qadr) for example. The Qur’an forbids any attempt to probe their essence.
ii) Interpretation of the Qur’anic verse 2:106 that clarifies the doubts of the contemporaneous Christians and Jews as to why God should send a succession of revelations. The verse declares: “We never abrogate or consign to oblivion any message (ayat) unless We bring one better than it, or similar to it.” Many early theologians took a restrictive meaning of the word ‘ayah’ (plural, ayat) as a “verse of the Qur’an” to suggest that a few verses of the Qur’an have been abrogated. This is simply untenable  as it will purport to imply that God Almighty, like a human being, changed his mind with the changing context of the revelation.
iii) The identification of the addressee of a given command – whether it is addressed to the present day reader or to the immediate audience of the Prophet.
iv) The Qur’anic fundaments universal notions such as din (moral law), islam (monotheistic faith), taqwa (moral uprightness), ‘believer’ (anyone who believes in God) and the Almighty God of all humanity and beings are often interpreted in an exclusivist manner.
v) Isolationist interpretation of a Qur’anic verse. Thus the verse 3:85, “If anyone seeks other than Islam as a din (religion/moral law), it will not be accepted of him...” is interpreted in isolation from its preceding verses (3:83/84) to claim the exclusivity of Islamic faith. The verse 9:5, “But when the sacred months  are past, kill the pagans wherever you find them, and capture them, surround them, and watch for them in every lookout;...” is interpreted in isolation from its preceding and succeeding verses (9:4, 9:6) that grant peace and security to all non-hostile pagans.
vi) The traditional literalist translation of Qur’anic idioms and similes can be confusing, as typified by these examples (in bold) showing the conceivable textual meanings in brackets: Seal up the heart (block the mind) (2:7); Sickness in the heart (to waver in faith) (2:10); Deaf, dumb and blind (Stubbornly defiant) (2:18), kill (mortify) yourselves...’” (2:54), ‘Be apes despised (disgraced)’” (2:65), ‘We (God) raised Mount Sinai high above you’ (had Mount Sinai towering behind you)…” (2:63), throw behind one’s back (to disregard or renounce) (2:101), Face of God (Presence of God) (2:114), throne of God (Almightiness of God) (2:255), ‘swallow a fire into bellies’ (commit grave sin) (4:10), obliterate faces and turn them about their backs (to inflict severe torment); camel passing through the eye of a needle (an impossibility) (7:40).
vii) As part of its rhetoric, the Qur’an occasionally personifies non-living objects:
“there are rocks that fall down for fear of God” (2:74), “all that are in the heavens and the earth submit to God willingly or unwillingly” (3:83), “prostrate before God willingly or unwillingly, as do their shadows mornings and evenings” (13:15).
viii) The verses relating to the physical paradigms of the contemporaneous civilization, such as the physical mode of punishment, travelling, hunting of birds for food, weighing of goods etc. must be regarded as era specific and not of literal eternal applicability as the Qur’anic message espouses the principle of minhaj (dynamism in the code of life within the limits of divine guidelines - 5:48).
ix) Fighting Verses: In addition to offering guidance and illustrations, the Qur’an also guided the Prophet in defending against his powerful Arab enemies, who had accused him of forging lies and witchcraft (34:43, 38:4), forging lies against God, forgery and making up tales (11:13, 32:3, 38:7, 46:8), witchcraft (21:3, 43:30, 74:24), obvious bewildering witchcraft (10:2, 37:15, 46:7), and of being bewitched or possessed (17:47, 23:70, 34:8). Therefore, all those verses that relate to defending against the pagans were specific to the era. Recorded in full light of history they also attest to the defensive character of the Prophetic mission, the agony and trauma that he and his followers lived in on a day to day, and at times moment to moment basis fearing annihilation at hands of their attackers, and under the ominous shadow of the conspiracies of the hypocrites of Medina and the native Jewish tribes who eagerly awaited their destruction.
Need for fresh insight into some of the Qur’anic verses.
The tafsir sciences (exegesis) evolved in Islam’s early centuries when patriarchy dominated all major civilizations of the world including the newly emergent Islamic civilization. The Qur’an’s verses relating to the empowerment of women and family laws were accordingly interpreted in a gendered fashion. Interpreters in later centuries through to recent times religiously adopted and embellished the works of their predecessors. Thus, practically all the gender sensitive verses - 2:223, 2:229, 4:34, 23:6, 24:31, 70:29/30 for example have been traditionally interpreted in a patriarchic manner. Muhammad Assad’s renditions of these/ such verses are more in line with the gender dynamics of this era than those of the traditional/ past exegetes. Besides, any account or report in the theological discourses of Islam (Hadith, Classical Law and Sira) that contradict the Qur’anic message must not be engaged to contradict any clear and holistically supported message of the Qur’an as this will tantamount to subverting the word of God by word of man. As the Qur’an puts it, ‘Don’t make a joke of God’s signs (verses) (2:231).
Summing Up: The object of this essay is to brace the non-Arabic reader to navigate through the pages of a translated Qur’an, which, without any basic orientation as above, is likely to perplex and even overwhelm him before he reaches the quarter chapter mark of its first major Sura, al-Baqara. The translated Qur’an is quite unlike anything a person may ever have laid his hands on. The early Arab Shaykhs in their profound wisdom had recognized the obfuscating effect of translation – transforming the divine into the human plane - an inherently flawed and risky proposition that admits of a mortal acting veritably as the spokesman of the One who has no common boundary with him. But be it so, the One who is beyond all associations with anything willed to communicate with the humans and framed its speech in a diction that cast spell on its immediate audience, scared it as much as a lion frightens a donkey (74:49-51), utterly bewildered its European translators for more than half a millennium  and continues and bewilder and anger all those skeptic of its divinity. But does this mean that the divine scheme leaves humanity, and particularly the Muslims in the lurch. Far from it!
As though cognizant of the immense complexity of its textualized form, the Qur’an offers a set of clues to humanity to vault over its textual complexity and get to the crux of its message – its tenets of guidance. Thus, it commands humanity to probe its verses (38:29, 47:24) with a positive state of mind (56:79). It calls for focusing only on the definitive verses (ayatum muhkamat) – such as those free from any ambiguity or confusion (mutashabihat) (3:7) and seeking the best meaning in it (39:18, 39:55). It also claims to be a book of wisdom (10:1, 31:2, 43:4, 44:4) made clear and distinct (12:1, 15:1, 16:64, 26:2, 27:1, 36:69, 43:2, 44:2) with all kinds of illustrations (17:89, 18:54, 30:58, 39:27), and claims to be its own best interpretation (25:33), and its own completion and perfection (5:3).
The foregoing enunciations imply that the best way to interpret the Qur’anic message is i) to focus on its definitive – that is clearly stated and unambiguous verses, ii) to use its vocabulary – how a word or root is used across the text; iii) to cross reference the verses bearing same or similar themes which may appear under different Suras of the Qur’an; and iv) to use the Qur’anic themes and illustrations to extrapolate its broader message, rather than quoting any verse or passage in isolation. These clues, which collectively epitomize the most preferred methodology of exegesis – explaining the Qur’an by the Qur’an  can greatly assist any sympathetic reader of the Arabic or the translated Qur’an to comprehend the broader trajectories of its guidance despite the historical gap of some fourteen centuries between its advent and this day and the immense complexity of its text when read line by line in its entirety. A recently published focused exegetic work  attempts to probe the verses of the Qur’an following the above listed Qur’anic clues.
Note of Caution to Islamic Scholarship
The Islamic scholarship may do better to allocating minimal time on probing what the Qur’an forbids it to probe – its ambiguous (mutashabihat) verses, and to actively probe and appropriate its definitive (muhkamat) commandments (3:7) – its social, moral and ethical paradigms, its functional and interpersonal tenets – good deeds, sharing of wealth with the poor, good neighborly and inter-faith relations, charity, generosity, justice and equity; mercy, compassion, patience and tolerance; peaceful conflict resolution, vying with each other in goodness and lawful pursuits, use of reason and discernment, repelling all negative thoughts, unremitting effort for improvement - to cite a broad cross section of the Qur’an’s definitive tenets.
Those who discuss those aspects of the Qur’an that it commands the believers not to probe and supplement their discussions with the Islamic theological sources have virtually swapped the definitive commandments of the Qur’an – the core of its book (ummul kitab) for the obscurantist aspects of its message. As the Qur’an put it, “there is perversity in their hearts and they only seek fitna (confusion, sedition, chaos)” (3:7), and they keep Muslims and Islam stagnated in the track of civilization and its scholarship imprisoned in a closed medieval domain. God alone knows what fate awaits the Muslims for their remoteness from the essence of the Qur’anic message – the saddest episode in Islamic history .
1. Following quotations from some of the most eminent non-Muslim Arabic scholars of the modern era attest to the extraordinary literary beauty of the Qur’an:
o “It is by far the finest work of Arabic prose in existence” - Alan Jones, (The Koran, London 1994, opening page.
o “The sublime rhetoric of the Arabic Koran … its richly varied rhymes… constitute the Koran’s undeniable claim to rank among the greatest literary masterpieces of mankind.” - Arthur Arberry, The Koran Interpreted, London 1956, p. x.
o (Its language is) “the richest and most harmonious in the world.” - Savary. Extracted from: Sliman bin Ibrahim and Etienne Dinet, The life of Muhammad, London 1990, p. 71.
o “.. the recited Qur’an is a distinctively compelling example of verbal expression.” - Michael Sells, Approaching the Qur’an, 2nd edition, Oregon 2007, p. 2.
2. Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), in one of his famous lectures on heroes among the Prophets declares: “A poor shepherd people, roaming unnoticed in its deserts since the creation of the world: a Hero-Prophet was sent down to them with a word they could believe ... as if a spark had fallen, one spark, on a world of what seemed black unnoticeable sand; but lo, the sand proves explosive powder, blazes heaven-high from Delhi to Grenada! I said, the Great Man was always as lightning out of Heaven; the rest of men waited for him like fuel, and then they too would flame.” [http://www.scribd.com/doc/12685866/Hero-as-a-Prophet-by-Thomas-Carlyle]
3. Karen Armstrong, Muhammad – A Western Attempt to Understand Islam, London, 1991. p. 38.
5. Ahmad Hussain, Doctrine of ijma in Islam, New Delhi, 1992, p.16.
6. Sanan Abu Daud, Urdu translation by Wahiduz Zaman, Vol.3, Acc. 253, p. 118.
7. Sahih al-Bukhari, English translation by Mohsin Khan, New Delhi 1984, Vol.1, Chap. 42, ‘The Book of Belief.’
8. Muhammad Asad, Message of the Qur’an, Gibraltar 1980, Chap. 2, Note 87.
9. “According to a pre-Islamic custom prevalent in Arabia , the months of Muharram, Rajab, Dhu 'l-Qa'dah and Dhu 'l-Hiijah were considered sacred in the sense that all tribal warfare had to cease during those months. It was with a view to preserving these periods of truce and thus to promoting peace among the frequently warring tribes that the Qur'an did not revoke, but rather confirmed, this ancient custom.” Note 4, Chapter 9, Ibid.
10. The Qur’an was first translated in Latin in a 1143, republished in 1543 and since then this Latin version has been translated in various European languages.
11. Ahmad Von Denffer, Ulum al-Qur’an, Islamic Foundation, UK 1983, p. 125.
12. Muhammad Yunus and Ashfaque Ullah Syed, Essential Message of Islam, Amana Publications, USA 2009.
13. The Muslims’ ignorance /disregard of the Qur’anic guidance and its Colossal and Recurring Cost.
Oct. 18, 2012
Muhammad Yunus, a Chemical Engineering graduate from Indian Institute of Technology, and a retired corporate executive has been engaged in an in-depth study of the Qur’an since early 90’s, focusing on its core message. He has co-authored the referred exegetic work, which received the approval of al-Azhar al-Sharif, Cairo in 2002, and following restructuring and refinement was endorsed and authenticated by Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl of UCLA, and published by Amana Publications, Maryland, USA, 2009.
Yunus Saheb, May God bless you for the painstaking effort you are engaged in,
explaining to us that some verses in the Quran are of eternal value, of
universal significance, and we Muslims should focus on them. Other verses can
only be understood in a context and were meant for the time in which they came
and for the purpose for which they were revealed and they should be, as you
said in another comment, “set aside.”
If I have correctly understood
your ideas, the problem is only that of semantics: the misunderstanding arising
from the phrase “'De-contextualization of the Noble Qur'an'. I am making
this an issue and consider it important to remove this misunderstanding because
this is precisely what Jihadis do – de-contextualise the Quran and consider
every verse to be of eternal value - to brainwash our youth to get them ready
for a permanent Jihad (in the sense of Qital) against an overwhelming majority
of Muslims whom they consider hypocrites or apostates as well as all non-Muslims. As
another writer says in a different context: “a
decontextualized reading of the Quran can lead to a grave misunderstanding of
its meaning.” Nearly all progressive Muslim writers consider decontextualising
Quran a major fallacy.
In “Believing Women" in Islam:
Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur'an, Asma Barlas argues: the
Qur'an also offers us specific methodological criteria for reading it that
emphasize the principles of textual holism, reading for the best meanings, and
using analytical reasoning in interpretation. The Qur'an's emphasis on reading
it as a textual unity emerges from its warning "Those who break the Qur'an
into parts.” She then quotes a verse: “Them, by thy Lord, We shall question,
every one, Of what they used to do" (15:91-93; in Pickthall n.d., 194). A
little later, she writes: “Similarly,
in a reference to the Book given to Moses, God condemns those who make "it
into (Separate) sheets for show, While ye conceal much (Of its contents)"
(6:91; in Ali, 314). The Qur'an's warning against reading it in a decontextualized,
selective, and piecemeal way emerges also from its criticism of the
Israelites who broke their covenant with God: "They change the words From
their (right) places And forget a good part Of the Message that was Sent
them" (5:14; in Ali, 245). And, again, they "change the words From
their (right) times And places" (5:44; in Ali, 255). Revelation, the
Qur'an emphasizes, is of a continuity and is also internally clear and
self-consistent (39:23; in Ali, 1243-44).”
if the sense that I now make of your ideas in this article is correct, i.e.,
setting aside verses that require to be read in context and focussing on those
that clearly have eternal, universal significance, then I must say that I have
absolutely no problem with them. Indeed, several times in the last decades in
other publications, and in New Age Islam, too, I have explained these in
different contexts. Let me give you some examples:
asked our ulema to declare militant, bellicose verses of the Quran “obsolete.”
These confrontational verses can only be understood in the context of the
Prophet’s time and the existential struggle that Islam was engaged in. In one
article posted on 23
Sep 2008, I wrote: “The so-called Indian Mujahedeen have used in their
notorious e-mails certain Qur’anic verses to justify killing of innocent
civilians. These are the same verses that enemies of Islam’s pacific and humane
philosophy have been traditionally using for centuries to demonise Islam.
Muslims who go berserk and want to simply smite all and sundry in their crazy
stupor also routinely use these verses to justify their fanaticism and probably
also to brainwash the still-not-so-crazy to their cause.
“New Age Islam urges
Indian Ulema to come out with explicit, unequivocal statements that the
Qur’anic verses like the following - “Therefore, when ye meet the Unbelievers
in fight, smite at their necks"- are now obsolete: they were meant for a
specific situation during the Prophet’s life and do not apply today.” Full Text
another context, I wrote: “Mainstream
Islam is not contradicting these claims loudly and widely enough. This
inevitably creates suspicions in the minds of our neighbours, people belonging
to other religions who do not understand the situational nature of Qur’anic
verses, particularly as they are told that every word, comma and full stop in
the Holy Quran is immutable and of universal significance. This also makes the
task of Jihadists easier; they are able to easily brainwash our youth, even
those who are highly educated and intelligent.”
back to this theme several times ever since Osama bin Laden quoted Qur’anic
verses to justify killing of innocents in his terror campaign, particularly in
his notorious “Letter to America” that is consider his manifesto.
Once I also explained that while obsolete these
Qur’anic verses are not quite irrelevant. They tell us of the
near-insurmountable difficulties that the Prophet (saw) overcame to save Islam
in its infancy. But for the defensive wars the Prophet (saw) fought
Islam could not have existed today. So it is important for us to know about
them. But we are not going to fight those wars again. Those circumstances do
not and cannot prevail now, so we should consider these verses only of
historical significance and not treat them as guiding us today.
I also reproduced an article from Jakarta Post by Ida
Indawati Khouw entitled: Muslims
should abrogate verses of war in Islamic Law' November 03,
2008), saying: “Although Islamic
scholars have repeatedly explained that Koranic verses endorsing war and the
use of violence only apply in specific circumstances, for example, in
justifying defensive violence when fighting against repression, nonetheless
contemporary hard-liners continue justifying violent acts using these sacred
texts and seek to legitimize their own actions on religious grounds.
"We should think of a way to end this advocacy of
violence in the name of Islam. Apologists argue that the problem lies in Muslims
having misinterpreted these texts. They refuse to look at the religion in a
critical way but suggest a method of contextualization in interpreting these
texts (emphasizing that the verses are historically bound to the era in which
they were revealed). But I have become tired with this approach."
"The problem is, fundamentalists create
context," Guntur explains further: "For instance, they apply the word
'holy war' to the struggle against United States domination. Another example,
the hard-liners extend the meaning of 'enemy of Islam' not only to followers of
the Jewish faith and Christians but also to Muslims they consider to be
cooperating with the 'infidels'. So, they are very 'contextual' in their
“In order to
'rescue' Islam from being tarnished by violent acts, he suggests Muslims should
dare to abrogate the Islamic law on war and the use of violence, an approach
that is founded on Islamic tradition itself, "Islam acknowledges a method
called nasakh, abrogation of law. It is not a popular approach but we
can take the step when certain stipulations are no longer applicable to the
does not mean to abrogate the holy texts, "texts endorsing war and
violence will still be there but we will regard them as historical facts,"
Guntur, the radicals have been using this method. He points out as an example
that mujahidin fighters in Afghanistan, "abrogated verses that promote
peace and tolerance so that they can wage war (in the name of Islam). So, why
don't we reverse the approach; we should abrogate the verses that suggest
violence and promote peaceful ones, instead?"
Text available at: http://www.newageislam.com/radical-islamism-and-jihad/-muslims-should-abrogate-verses-of-war-in-islamic-law-/d/951
Yunus Saheb, Since you are yourself not happy with the headline calling for “Decontexualising”
the noble Quran, I think the above will clarify things for readers who are
debating this article furiously in university campuses. I have reports from three
university campuses that students, particularly of Islamic Studies departments,
are discussing this article and most of them have the same comprehension problem
that I myself had. I hope this will clear the air.
Dear Afaqsiddiqi Saheb, It is very kind and generous of you to post the clarification. But I must tell you honestly, I did not feel insulted at all because I don't hold any high office as such and I do not write the articles for any recognition or honor. I felt sad and deeply frustrated. I know how hard it is for my fellow Muslims to read and get any guidance from the Qur'an. So they delegate its learning on children and the Mullas and the Muallas swap it with the Hadith and the fuqaha swap it with the Classical Sharia, and the non-Muslim world conflate it with the Sharia law and Hadith - a vicious circle. The orientalist scholarship on the other hand pins the Qur'an down to a point of history and the Muslims who study in prestigious Western Universities take what is dished out to them. So the Word of God is lost in human memory as some un-intelligable litany, in the excruciating utterances of children (non-Arabic) or in the archives. This apart there are serious issues with its interpretation as you know well.
I have been thinking about these issues since my early life and I am convinced and so are many others that the nearly total omission of the Qur'an's social, moral, ethical, humanistic tenets from Muslim scholarship, discourses and world-view has been probably the single most contributory factor for their decline, stagnation, marginalization, exploitation, lacking performance, and devastation. I also fear, if we continue to cling to our medieval brand of Islam dominated by the Mullas and defined by the secondary theological discourses, we may have very heavy price to pay - not we alone but humanity at large. On the other hand, if we want to dump the Qur'an altogether as some scholars suggest, we will be caught in a morass of internal conflict and violence that will be suicidal.
It is simply impossible to sell to any common Muslim including some very modern people that the Qur'an is for mere spiritual fulfilment or God sent it only for the Arabs. So as long as you are a Muslim you have the Qur'an as the final source of authority. If you leave it in the hands of the Mullas, you have the partition of India in 1947 through to what you see in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and all Muslim countries today. If you take it your own hands, you can stand shoulder to shoulder with the rest of humanity - you could have one India today, and kill the twin menace of radicalization and terrorism let alone a host of other benefits. But alas, Muslim scholarship is at its best in argument that produces virtually nothing.
Anyway, I once again thank you for posting your clarification and feel profoundly humbled by your kind words. I may only add I leave God to decide who is kafir ior otherwise for His name is taken in all places of pure worship and His Light is aglow in all human hearts and He alone with judge all humanity. Kindly read my articles referred here.
Afasiddiqi / Copy Saif Shahin, Sultan Shahin.
In another thread you state in relation to the above article addressing Sultan
Shahin Sahib, "Having read your rejoinder to Yunus sahib which was perhaps
in response to my comments on his theory of de-contexting certain ayats or may
be the whole text, I think after your posting on this subject this absurd
debate will end."
I have read some of your articles, seen your photograph and understand you are
a man of global experience and erudition and mean well for the Muslims. I may
not be as privileged or distinguished as you are in academic achievements,
erudition and global experience but I can assure you, I am also a well wisher
of Muslims, no less the broader humanity (the monotheistic part of which is
technically Muslims and the non-monotheistic segment, simply divinely inspired
humans - as each human being is blessed with a portion of God's spirit and
ingrained with the divine moral imperative - taqwa) . The concluding word of
your statement is as hurtful to me as a host will feel if the guest charges him
of attempting to poison him when he offers him a painstakingly prepared
sumptuous meal with a variety of delicacies on a well laid out table set with
shining cutlery, napkins and glassware. I am therefore explaining you what all
the article offers to a Muslims reader, I playing the enthusiastic and well
meaning host explaining my position in grief to an angry guest.
Let me begin from the caption: 'De-contextualization of the Noble Qur'an'.
The on-line dictionary gives this meaning of 'decontextualization': ' to
consider something in isolation from its text' This simply means distilling the
core commandments of the Qur'an from the highly complex textual mosaic of its
text. Incidentally I have jointly authored a focussed exegetic work, Essential
Message of Islam' that has this very objective. In the Qur'anic Arabic the core
commandment which all the Muslims are required to comply with is called the 'ummul
kitab,' - 'the essence of the book.' As a Muslim, it is my duty to probe it
and to share it with humanity.
FIRST THREE PARAGRAPHS
The first three paragraphs explain the difficulty that is inherent in reading
the Qur'an pedagogically - that is, with the intention of grasping the meaning
of each and every verses in a thematically coherent manner. The article pieces
together a set of undebatable propositions or statements, which shed light on
different facets of the Qur'anic diction and textual contents. This is to
reassure a reader that the difficulty he faces in comprehending the text under
his eyes is not due to any anachronism factor as the orientalist scholarship
asserts, and Muslims educated in the western Universities are taught = may be
with the best of intentions. This clarification is absolutely essential to
avoid relegating the Qur'an to the archives and building moral laws based on
what 'we' think is right - with each Muslim sect, group, subgroup, family,
terror outfits, radicalized elements free to appropriate its ways and ideology
into the Qur'an.
is what is happening today. The noble social, moral and ethical paradigms of
the Qur'an, its emphasis on serving humanity through good deeds, sharing one's
substance with the community, standing by justice even if it means taking the
side of an enemy, pursuing universal knowledge (as the most gifted among all
creation and programmed to describe things and keep them in memory),
unremitting struggle for improvement, excellence in lawful pursuits, treating
women with love, mercy and compassion and as co-equals, respecting people of
other faiths for example and its warnings against succumbing to base desires,
addictions, obsessions - be it passion for woman, wealth and glory, temptation
to lead a lavish life at the expense of the community (by underpaying for
goods, services and labour, usurping other's property by fraudulent means,
financial embezzlement etc) and against all forms of petty/ grave vices are
subsumed in a porous unlicensed world-view that gives complete freedom to every
individual to live according to his whims / liking. As a Muslim it is my duty
to bring the people closer to the Qur'an and not the other-way round.
The article then touches on six sub-headings as below which have a direct/indirect
bearing on the theme:
1. The subversion of the Qur’anic message during the classical Islamic
The write up highlights the historical background to the exclusion or omission
of the Qur'an - as a primary / practical source of guidance, and to the virtual
reduction of its holistic message to only four elements or pillars (Salat,
Zakat, fasting, and hajj), besides the shahada. It is fully
substantiated by authentic research and academic works.
2. The distortion of the Qur’anic message today
IT Explains how all kinds of crimes and acts of terror and oppression of women
- for example are being committed with a belief that the Qur'anic message
admits of or condones these heinous acts. All the anti-Qur'anic rulings of the
classical Sharia law that I have illustrated in other related articles are
perceived both by Muslims and non-Muslim to have been rooted in the Qur'an.
This is probably the reason that even well meaning Muslims are keen to pin the
Qur'an down to its historic context, so as to connect all the inhuman rulings
of the Sharia Law to the pre-Islamic Jahilliya. To put it simply, for lack of
any pedagogic study of the Qur'an in Islam and due to reliance on oriental
scholarship on the evolution of Islamic theology and beliefs, the Muslims -
even Western educated often conflate the historically derived Classical Shariah
law of Islam with the Qur'anic message. The present day reader has to
understand this, lest he will have a preconceived aversion to digging into the
pages of the Qur'an as the article aims to paving the way for.
3. Clarification of various polemical, textual and oratorical issues
It attempts to clarify the following commonplace issues, that have historically
drawn a great deal of attention by the Muslim scholars at the expense of any
research to exploring the different facets of its clearly stated commandments
that form its guidance (hidaya):
i) Speculations about entities that fall in the category of the mutashabihat
(3:7) and are to be accepted as articles of faith without going into any
arguments about them - simply because they are impenetrable to human mind.
ii) Interpretation of the Qur’anic verse 2:106 that clarifies the doubts of the
contemporaneous Christians and Jews as to why God should send a succession of
iii) The identification of the addressee of a given command – whether it is
addressed to the present day reader or to the immediate audience of the
iv) The Qur’anic fundamental universal notions such as din al Islam (as
monotheistic faith), taqwa (moral uprightness), ‘believer’ (anyone who
believes in God) and the Almighty God of all humanity - often interpreted in an
v) Isolationist interpretation of Qur’anic verses.
vi) The inherent corruption in meaning of Qur'anic idioms in literalist
vii) The Qur’an's literary personification of non-living objects.
viii) The Qur'an's references to the physical paradigms of the contemporaneous
ix) The existential dimension and record of the Fighting Verses as an eternal
proof of the defensive character of the Prophetic mission, the agony and trauma
that he and his followers lived in on a day to day basis, and at times moment
to moment basis fearing annihilation at hands of their attackers, and under the
ominous shadow of the conspiracies of the hypocrites of Medina and the native
Jewish tribes who eagerly awaited their destruction.
4. Need for fresh insight into some of the Qur’anic verses.
It explains the gendered interpretation of all the gender sensitive verses -
2:223, 2:229, 4:34, 23:6, 24:31, 70:29/30 for example and suggests fresh
interpretation in line with Muhammad Assad’s monumental work. It also warns
that any account or report in the theological discourses of Islam (Hadith,
Classical Law and Sira) that contradict the Qur’anic message must not be
engaged to contradict any clear and holistically supported message of the
Qur’an as this will tantamount to subverting the word of God by word of man. As
the Qur’an puts it, ‘Don’t make a joke of God’s signs (verses) (2:231).
5. Summing Up : It restates the object of this essay - to brace the non-Arabic
reader to navigate through the pages of a translated Qur’an, which, without any
basic orientation as above, is likely to perplex and even overwhelm him before
he reaches the quarter chapter mark of its first major Sura, al-Baqara. The
statement is supported by the views of the early Arab Shaykhs of Islam. It
concludes with the following recommendation:
"The foregoing enunciations imply that the best way to interpret the
Qur’anic message is
to focus on its
definitive – that is clearly stated and unambiguous verses,
to use its
vocabulary – how a word or root is used across the text;
reference the verses bearing same or similar themes which may appear under
different Suras of the Qur’an; and
to use the
Qur’anic themes and illustrations to extrapolate its broader message, rather
than quoting any verse or passage in isolation.
which collectively epitomize the most preferred methodology of exegesis –
explaining the Qur’an by the Qur’an  can greatly assist any sympathetic
reader of the Arabic or the translated Qur’an to comprehend the broader
trajectories of its guidance despite the historical gap of some fourteen
centuries between its advent and this day and the immense complexity of its
text when read line by line in its entirety. A recently published focused
exegetic work  attempts to probe the verses of the Qur’an following the
above listed Qur’anic clues."
6. The article ends with this final Note of Caution to Islamic Scholarship
"Those who discuss those aspects of the Qur’an that it commands the
believers not to probe and supplement their discussions with the Islamic
theological sources have virtually swapped the definitive commandments of the
Qur’an – the core of its book (ummul kitab) for the obscurantist aspects
of its message. As the Qur’an put it, “there is perversity in their hearts and
they only seek fitna (confusion, sedition, chaos)” (3:7), and they keep
Muslims and Islam stagnated in the track of civilization and its scholarship
imprisoned in a closed medieval domain.
God alone knows
what fate awaits the Muslims for their remoteness from the essence of the
Qur’anic message – the saddest episode in Islamic history .
MY FINAL REPLY TO YOU SIR. For you this debate may be "absurd" as the
Qur'an itself was perceived like a 'jumble of dreams' and a 'strange and
unbelievable reading' by its immediate audience. For me the Qur'an is a word of
God and it is a pleasure for me to write this synopsis of the article which,
given the coverage of issues and the immense sensitivity of the theme, I could
not make it any shorter. I just have one question to you of which I will expect
you to answer honestly, bearing in mind that I have done this whole write up to
satisfy you: Did you read the article at all?? No compulsion in religion. Up to
you to answer or ignore. No ill feeling from my side.
MY FINAL REFUTATION OF YOUR SWEEPING AND HIGLY MOTIVATED AND OBJECTIONABLE
REMARk: Your statement purports to project the article as my "theory of
de-contexting certain ayats" simply parallels the attitude of the guest
who take a banquet prepared by his host at great pains as poison. This is the
least I can say.
To Saif Shahin. Finally I have done what I thought a bright scholar of your
standing might have done. Never mind. Take me for mediocre scholar please, lest
your benchmark of scholarship will be lowered. It is for people like you to
defend the faith now under attack from all quarters and you have to hone your
scholarship to the level of the intellectual giants like Sheikh Fadl and not that
of a mere writer and thinker like me.
Note:  Kindly refer to my articles:
Notion Of Din Al Islam; and
Notion Of Taqwa.
Dear Saif Shahin, I have read your comment. May be we are looking at things from slightly different perspectives because of the inherent differences between each individual and different experience patterns and age groups [I am in the late 60's]. All I can say is that there are certain universal criteria of right and wrong, moral imperatives and social and ethical tenets intrinsic to the Qur'anic message regardless of the historical point at which it is interpreted/ applied. My (joint) work has attempted to probe these and share with my fellow Muslims/ humanity at large. Hence to repeat the concluding para of my last comment:
"You as a young and brilliant scholar have a great responsibility and have to take a leading role in jolting up your community - which should either renounce Islam and cut all moorings from faith or make good Muslim - progressive citizens by trying to understand the fundamental/ universal/ pluralistic tenets of the Qur'an as embedded in its core commandment . The moment you connect the Qur'an with history, you restrict the eternal into specific and obscure the simple tenets of Islam, subconsciously, as a way to duck them. My articles are simply expounding what the Qur'an says as a completed writ. For you to take it or leave it. I am only doing my bit as a witness to my faith and to my Prophet (2:143)." lakum dinakum walia din. I do appreciate the para is rather condensed. What needs explanation is that we as Muslims have our own world view. Almost each of us have our own set of addictions/ idols - wealth, woman, glory, gluttony, egotism, hatred of others and so forth which stand in stark contradiction to the Qur'an's core / universal commandments, but each of us tag it to the Qur'an, though only few of us - may be one in a thousand ever read the Qur'an to explore it first hand because a translated Qur'an is inherently complex as a reading material. I have simply tabled a set of recommendations and clarification on how to negotiate the pages of a translated Qur'an. It is for people to take it or leave it. You as a Muslim and a witness to humanity owe a responsibility to recommend or suppress it, if you have read it in detail. lakum dinakum walia din. la ikraha fiddin.