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Blogging the Qur'an by Ziauddin Sardar- Part 50: Pause for Thought



By Ziauddin Sardar


September 01, 2008

At this juncture, it would be good to take another pause. Let us see what we have achieved so far and what I have tried to do. I have been drowning in questions - apart from Madeleine and the bloggers, I have also faced questions of perennial nature from Andrew and Brian. There are a couple of important questions that I answered only partially. I also want to tackle them now.

Apart from answering the questions raised, I have tried to give a reading that covers the basic ground (lest I am accused of serious omissions), conveys the conventional wisdom (to avoid the accusation of bias), brings out the key Qur'anic terms and concepts (essential in my opinion for any understanding or analysis of the text) and used them to develop and present my own position. Frankly, juggling all these simultaneously has not been easy. Particularly when I often started working on a blog not knowing what my own position on a particular theme or issue was.

Reading the Qur'an thematically has enabled us to connect various verses in different parts of the Qur'an and see the text in much more holistic terms as interconnected. I would not suggest the connections to each theme were exhaustive, but most certainly they allowed us to draw more general conclusions when compared with verse-by-verse analysis. Moreover, a thematic reading also allowed us to use tools of critical analysis ranging from semantics, hermeneutics, and cultural theory to contextual analysis and old fashioned intellectual questioning. In the process, I hope we have seen that the whole can sometimes produce a bigger, more nuanced and hence more moral picture than the parts.

A few weeks ago, Madeleine asked: "why isn't this kind of astonishing insight more widely evident within the Islamic world". I can now say that it is because I have deliberately avoided the conventional route of interpretation - for example, I have consciously not cited or used the Hadith or sayings of Prophet Muhammad - and used an eclectic mix of contemporary methodologies. There are two points to be made here. My interpretations are not unknown to classical scholars or to scholars steeped in traditional Islamic scholarship, though you might have to search for them or more often ask the right question in the right way to get similar answers. But I am also by no means unique in my approach among my contemporaries. A whole generation of Muslim scholars, such as Amina WadudAsma Barlas and Abdullah Saeed, are also using more modern approaches to interpreting and understanding the Qur'an. I believe this will become much more common in the future.

Anyway, there are two conclusions that go against the grain that I would like to draw. While the Qur'an is not a record of history it is a moral history. The ultimate goal of the text is to provide moral and ethical guidance. But morality does not end with the Qur'an - a common assumption amongst most Muslims. Morality begins with the Qur'an. The Qur'an paints the boundaries of the moral universe in broad brushstrokes, points to the outer limits, and illuminates universal precepts. After that, it asks believers to explore, enhance, expand, and develop their own understanding of morality and ethics according to their own context and times. This is what being a trustee of God is all about.

We can say the same about knowledge. The Qur'an is undoubtedly a book of knowledge. But all knowledge does not converge in the Qur'an - it is not the sum of all knowledge, a common Muslim fallacy. On the contrary knowledge emerges from the Qur'an: its emphasis on reasoning, criticism, reading, writing, observation, accuracy and travel are impetuses for the general pursuit of knowledge and knowledge is cumulative, built up over time.

So to the question asked so frequently on this blog: why are Muslims so far removed from the enlightened teachings of the Qur'an?

My answer is that this is largely due to three category mistakes. Most Muslims think that the only valid interpretation of the Qur'an is the one made in history, particularly by the first generation of Muslims. This, in my opinion, is a theory of decline: no progress is possible if all progress has already been made in history, over 1400 years ago. In addition, moral evolution comes to a grinding halt if you think that all morality ends with the Qur'an, and we, our conscience and modern knowledge have nothing to do with expanding or discovering contemporary insight based on the principles of the Qur'an. Finally, your fate is really sealed if you believe that the Qur'an is a repository of all knowledge and there is nothing for you to discover. These three category mistakes undermine the ethos of the Qur'an, and are the main causes of the degeneration, discord and impasse in contemporary Muslim societies.

This is a failure of Muslim reasoning. As a result many Muslims are quite incapable of articulating moral positions on contemporary issues. Or perhaps one should say their approach to answering the moral dilemmas of contemporary times does not take the present, its knowledge and complexity seriously, preferring to backtrack to comparisons with the world as it was centuries ago.

The discrepancy between theory and practice, I fear, will become even more evident when we look at some of the burning issues of our time. I have my own list of the topics I want to cover - such as Sharia law, evolution and suicide bombings. Others, like women and the veil, have already been suggested on this blog. But if you a particular topic you would like me to discuss, do let me know.



Answers to Questions


September 03, 2008

Solocontrotutti has raised the issue of Hadith a number of times. In a recent post Solo suggests that "The quasi deification of the prophet and the subsequent justifications using Hadith have led to a sometimes lop sided faith that seems to contradict itself all over the place and rely heavily on the Hadith and to a prescriptive obsession with the mundane minutiae of the Sunnah to the detriment of the Qur'an and to Islam in general." I agree with you Solo. And let me give you my own take on Hadith.

You may have noticed that, unlike most commentators, I have avoided quoting Hadith and treated the text of the Qur'an and its context purely in its own terms. Hadith literature is complex and problematic. The collection and codification of Hadith was a human endeavour. Despite almost Herculean efforts by those who collected Hadith - and Muslims should be rightly proud of the methodologies they developed for the task - the literature presents its own particular challenges. We have to be aware of the process that brought Hadith into existence, the purposes for which it was originally used and how the use - and I would argue abuse - of this literature developed over time.

First, and the point should be self evident - though its meaning has been entirely inverted over the course of history - Hadith exist because not everything is written in the Qur'an. What I mean is, while the framework of moral and ethical guidance is complete, how it is to be operated and applied to actual human circumstances is not.

The kind of detail that Dr Jazz demands - how do we look after the planet, how much should I spend on my daughter's wedding, etc - are things we need to work out ourselves as a human community. The Qur'an leaves us free to choose, suggests and recommends, sets limits and objectives within which individuals and society can find many ways of selecting good, better or best or distinguish bad, worse or worst. Historically, this meant those who succeeded Prophet Muhammad as leaders of the rapidly expanding Muslim community were frequently confronted with similar questions and choices. The first four successors of the prophet had been among his closest companions, yet even they did not feel encyclopaedic either about how the Qur'an should be understood and interpreted or what the prophet would have done under the same circumstances. Intent on making the best choices, they began the practise of consulting other companions to see if they had any experiences or memories of the words or actions of the prophet that could be used to determine the matter in question - and thus Hadith came into existence.

Second, the Hadith were used as a tool to settle contentious points, matters on which choices were to be made. From the beginning Hadith existed in both oral and written form and came from people who took varied points of view. The Hadith were attempts to settle questions by reference to the authority of the prophet but were put forward to advance sectional interests on matters of dispute or doubt.

Third, while not necessarily doubting the integrity of those who provided their memories there can be no question the Hadith represent a human, social, and from the beginning political endeavour. The great methodologies developed to scrutinise and critically assess Hadith are the best testimony to this. If, as I have emphasised, we need to understand the historical context in which the Qur'an was revealed to grasp and interpret its meaning then these caveats apply even more to Hadith. The very process and purpose for which Hadith came into being put an emphasis on the ideas, outlook, diversity and differences of specific human beings, with all their limitations, faults and foibles forged by their social background, education and personal experience in the context of time and place. Many who provided their memories never left Mecca or Medina, others were part of the rapid geographical expansion of Muslim rule exposed to and involved in extensive new cultural contacts. We all have selective memory because we use it to support what we think is right and best, because we wish to urge the outcome we think ought to triumph in a debate. The humanity of the process does not invalidate Hadith, but it does not make their use self-evident.

The Hadith are not free from political bias, prejudice against women and frankly many things I find to be at times irrational or questionable. When the Qur'an is read in conjunction with the Hadith it can be interpreted in all sorts of unsavoury ways. And, almost anything, from stoning to misogyny, can be and has been justified by this means. This is why, wherever possible, I have followed the intra-textual route and used the Qur'an to interpret the Qur'an. This, I think, is the best way to bring out the spirit of the holy text.

But there is another reason. The Qur'an, as we have seen, is not a historical document. It uses history to illustrate its points and illuminate its stories and parables. The revelations own specific history is the context in which it was revealed - the life and times of the Prophet Muhammad. Specific verses were revealed because of specific events and have to be seen within that history. But that does not mean that we should restrict the teachings of the Qur'an to that context alone. However, this is precisely what we do if we bring in Hadith and what the followers of the prophet were saying and how they understood the text. If their understanding of the text is best, as is commonly believed by many Muslims, then we turn the Qur'an from a book of guidance to a book of historical records. And we limit its understanding to the understanding of particular people at a specific point in time.

I also think that constant references to the companions and followers of the prophet becomes a barrier between what the Qur'an should mean to us here and now and an arcane reading carried out in the seventh, eighth or ninth century. When this is coupled with the practise of seeing the companions as somehow perfect people, even though the Hadith themselves prove they were as fallible as any of us, the problem is compounded. For me, each interpretation of the Qur'an is a product of the relationship between the text and the reader and therefore cannot be the same as interpretations from another epoch or the understanding of another generation. Far from constantly looking back we need to take a forward-looking approach to our interpretation, or at least anchor it in the circumstances and dilemmas of our time.

I hope, Solo, you can now drop your deep concern with Hadith and move on!


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