By A Faizur Rahman
February 25, 2021
On January 30, The Washington Post published a report that came as a pleasant surprise to Muslim reformists. It said that Saudi Arabia was purging its textbooks of anti-Semitic, homophobic and misogynist content.
Among the passages that were removed was a section that supported capital punishment for homosexual relations, adulations of extremist martyrdom and its characterisation as the highest aspiration of Islam, misinterpreted Quranic verses that extolled the superiority of men over woman and justified domestic violence, and a statement attributed to the Prophet that spoke of the killing of all Jews by Muslims as one of the signs of the Day of Judgement.
This momentous theological shift is without doubt a kairotic moment in the history of Sunni Islam and needs to be welcomed by all Muslims. The Islam propagated by Prophet Muhammad was never meant to be a supremacist ideology (mazhab). It was an egalitarian social system (deen) that sought to include in its benignant embrace the whole of humanity.
To emphasise this, the Quran described God as rabb al aalameen (the cherisher of humanity) and the Prophet as rahmatal lil aalameen (the embodiment of universal compassion).
The “Muslim” too was not defined in identitarian terms nor was Islam presented as a propitiatory creed. Islam was the House of Peace (daar as-salaam), and Muslim, the one who walked the “paths of peace” (subulus salaam) to come out of darkness into light (10:25, 5:16).
Islam not anti-Semitic
Sadly, this universalism did not last long. The emergence of newfangled messianic beliefs after the passing away of the Prophet and Muslim expansionism, especially the Umayyad Caliphate launched by Muawiya in 661 CE, saw the otherisation of rival tribes and communities using fabricated Prophetic statements (hadiths) with the aim of scripturally bolstering the dynastic ambitions of the imperialists.
Anti-Jewish ascriptions to the Prophet too were probably forged during this period.
The possibility of the Prophet having made such statements can be easily ruled out based on the fact that neither he nor the Quran demeaned any community. On the contrary, in two places (2:62 and 5:69) the Quran showcases its salvific inclusivity by offering divine redemption to Muslims, Jews, Christians, Sabians and anyone who recognises accountability to God and undertakes constructive humanitarian work.
The Quran also underscores (in 22:40) the importance of protecting non-Muslim holy places such as sawaami’u (monastries), biya’un (churches), and salawaatun (synagogues) because the name of God is invoked in them in abundant measure (feeha usmullahi kaseera).
The Prophet on his part included the Jews within the larger Muslim ummah (community) in a covenant called Meesaaq al-Madina signed with them in 622 CE. Thus there is a huge difference between condemning Israel for its atrocities against the Palestinians and imagining the entire Jewish community as an enemy of Islam. While the former is justifiable, the latter is wrong. There are scores of Jews within and outside Israel who oppose Islamophobia and Zionist extremism.
This suppression of Quranic egalitarianism has also resulted in Muslim misogyny. For centuries, androcentric ulema have been arrogating to themselves the ultimate right to interpret religion and promoting a paternalistic anatomisation of Islam where women are subservient to the authoritarian male.
The most draconian aspect of this infantilisation is the pervading belief that men have the divine right to beat their wives. This attitude which has hardly been subjected to any ethical investigation is based on a misinterpretation of the Quranic verse 4:34. Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, who was awarded the Padma Vibhushan this year, translates it as: “...as for those [wives] from whom you apprehend infidelity, admonish them, then refuse to share their beds, and finally hit them (lightly)”.
The parenthetical insertion of “lightly” is an attempt to moderate the violent rendition and indicates the Maulana’s feeling of guilt about the wrongness of his translation. For how could anyone be sure that God expects men to beat their wives only “lightly” especially when that word is not part of the Arabic text of the Quran?
The fact is that the Quran does not allow wife-beating. For a detailed discussion on the issue, readers may refer to an earlier article I have written on the subject.
Likewise, the conviction that Islam gives primacy to men over women is based on misinterpretations of the Quran and uncritical acceptance of questionable Prophetic traditions such as the one which states that women are both intellectually and Islamically deficient, and that they will outnumber men in hell because of their imprecatory tongue and ingratitude towards their husbands (Kitab al-Haiz, Sahih Bukhari).
It is astonishing that clerics who propagate these narrations do not for a moment pause to ask how the Prophet could have held misogynist views even while reciting verses from the Quran about gender equality. These verses do not just declare that wives and husbands have rights and responsibilities on a par with each other (2:228), they envision an equal, collaborative partnership (wilayat) between men and women in pursuance of peace through support for good causes and resistance to evil (9:71).
More needs to be done
The Saudis therefore deserve to be commended for taking steps to protect school children from the harmful effects of Quranic misinterpretations and inauthentic hadiths. However, a drastic change in Muslim attitudes is not possible without seriously rethinking the isolationist theology that has tied the community up in knots for centuries, and otherised non-Muslims using mistranslated terms such as kafir and mushrik.
Indonesian Islamic scholar Yahya Cholil Staquf has rightly called for the “recontextualisation” of Islamic teachings by drawing on the peaceful aspects of Islam to encourage respect for religious pluralism and the fundamental dignity of every human being.
This entails overhauling the outdated madrasa curriculum to open up Islam to modern interpretations within the framework of its original sources, inculcate a sense of tolerance among Muslims for different points of view and equip them to respond positively to the requirements of multicultural societies they live in.
If Muslims manage to assert their independence and succeed in pressuring the anachronistic custodians of Islam into modernising their thought, it could herald the beginning of a transformative relationship with the non-Muslim world – one in which confrontation makes way for cooperation, and Islamophobia stands back to let trust prevail.
A Faizur Rahman is the Secretary-General of the Islamic Forum for the Promotion of Moderate Thought. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Original headline: Moderating Muslim theology: It’s time to open up Islam to modern interpretations
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