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.