By Saif Shahin, New Age Islam
20 June, 2011
Text and Context: Quran and Contemporary Challenges
By Arif Mohammed Khan
Rupa & Co.
Pp 306, Rs395/-
IS ISLAM inherently violent? Are Muslims in India and the world over condemned by their faith to remain steeped in illiteracy, intolerance and radicalism? Or can they meet the modern world, the world of democracy, women’s rights and multiculturalism, on its own terms?
Arif Mohammed Khan thinks they can. And in Text and Context: Quran and Contemporary Challenges, a collection of his newspaper and magazine articles published over the past decade or so, this rare scholar-politician tells us why.
As the name suggests, the essays here tackle a host of issues that have beset Indian Muslims in particular and the global ummah in general in recent years from a Quranic perspective.
What is more, Khan takes care to provide the contexts in which many of these issues arose, as well as the contexts in which the Quranic injunctions he refers to were revealed—showing how critical contextualisation is for a proper understanding of such issues and injunctions.
Take, for instance, the issue of ‘triple talaq’. Those who use Quranic verses to justify a divorce by three pronouncements at one go rarely tell you that Prophet Muhammad, when informed about someone, who had done so, stood up in anger and said: “You are making sport of the Book of God.” Or, that Caliph Umar had such people whipped!
Another common practice is to call some people ‘kafir’, or non-believer, and declare war upon them. Khan says the practice started at a meeting of Deoband clerics in 1945 after one group split from Jamiatul Ulema to support the Muslim League.
“A perusal of the minutes of the meeting,” writes Khan, “shows that ideologically both groups held similar views and their dispute were confined to the question whether their interests would be served better in a united India or in Pakistan.”
Abuse of ayats
To justify his political and self-serving decision to support the Muslim League, Maulana Shabbir Ahmad Usmani resorted to the misuse of religion, declaring all non-Muslims as one group of kafirs and all Muslims as united against them.
Today, of course, it’s not just non-Muslims who are thus damned; the clergy of virtually every Muslim sect calls all other sects kafirs who must be annihilated in the name of Islam.
Where does the Quran stand on this issue? Khan writes: “The Quran, unlike the clergy, acknowledges that all people have been recipients of divine guidance and uses the term ‘kafir’ for individuals and groups who deny the truth and arrogantly indulge in persecution and mischief. The Quran does not use the term Kafir to describe any religious denomination or community.”
Khan goes on to challenge Islamist exclusivism and violence-mongering as a religious cause by enunciating Quran’s emphasis on restraint and thoughtful action. The Quran, he says, has more than two dozen verses highlighting the importance of the virtue of moderation and strongly denouncing extremist behaviour in religion and other matters.
In addition, the Quran has more than 500 verses exhorting believers to reflect and contemplate. The Prophet, Khan says, is believed to have declared that an hour’s reflection is better than worshipping God for seventy years.
“The teachings of Islam and the prophetic exhortations had created an unquenchable thirst for knowledge of subjects hitherto unknown,” writes Khan. “Islam made no distinction between religious and natural sciences. On the contrary, it made a distinction between knowledge and ignorance…”
It was this aspect of Islam that made Muslims purveyors of science and philosophy; intellectual adventurers who took Eastern knowledge to Europe and helped usher in the Renaissance.
Route to reform
Text and Context relies heavily on the works of Indian Muslim reformers like Sir Syed Ahmed Khan and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad to make its case for modernising the Muslim milieu and inter-community harmony.
It quotes Sir Syed as saying at an Amritsar college: “The College is indeed for national education. And by nation, I do not mean one community, I mean both Hindus and Muslims. They both should study in this institution and learn good manners. We may describe ourselves as Hindus and Muslims, but foreigners call us Indians.”
Maulana Azad went a step further, and said in 1923: “These thousand years of our joint life have moulded us into a common nationality. This cannot be done artificially. Nature does her fashioning through her hidden processes in the course of centuries. The cast has now been moulded and destiny has her seal upon it. Whether we like it or not, we now have become an Indian nation, united and indivisible.”
Azad was proved wrong in calling the nation “indivisible” a quarter century later. But six decades hence, “Islamic” Pakistan’s abject failure as a state and its transformation into something redolent of the pre-Islamic Jahiliya period, an age of tribal wars and utter lawlessness—in contrast with plural India’s rise as a global power where Muslims live largely in peace with non-Muslims—shows that his thinking was right.
Both Sir Syed and Maulana Azad were criticised by clerics for their supposedly “anti-Islamic” teachings and actions. History repeats itself, and people like Khan face the same charge today for trying to represent Islam as tolerant and forward-looking rather than bellicose and bigoted.
That is because it is such bellicosity and bigotry that give rise to Islamophobia, which in turn leads to discrimination and attacks on Muslims in India and worldwide, creates a sense of victimisation in the community and builds the grounds on which “Muslim leaders” and “Muslim sympathetic parties” can ply their trade.
Khan had to resign as a Union minister in 1986 when the Congress government, pandering to the Muslim clergy, overturned a Supreme Court judgement in the momentous Shah Bano case. It was a moment of weakness whose ill effects are still being felt by Indian Muslims.
The self-serving clergy will remain what it has always been, but Muslims can change by turning their back on it as they embark on a difficult road illuminated by the text of the Quran—in its proper context.