By Dr Muhammad Maroof Shah
30 Aug 2018
It Contains, Self Avowedly, Nothing New; It Is Only A Reminder.
Unlike great literary classics, scriptures have been assumed to be addressing particular religious communities and we find, for instance, that the Quran is mostly read by Muslims. This is more surprising when we keep in mind that for the Quran there is only one religion – Islam – and what is not named so in the form of world religions is/has been in any way a school/sect of Islam if we fully cognize significance of calling every revealed religion Islam.
For the Quran the world is divided into those who know/believe/are grateful and those who don’t know/don’t believe/are not grateful. Reading the Upanishads, Tao te Ching, The Dhammapada, The Gospels – to name few – one also finds that all are addressed by them. It was never the case that man could say he doesn’t need heavenly wisdom. There is no such thing as cancelling/overriding previous wisdoms as the term Naskh (cancellation) applies only to few, mostly secondary or tertiary, legal matters, not to Deen, metaphysics and ethics.
Despite this few Muslims are informed about wisdom traditions of the world and vice versa is also true. What can now be done so that everyone takes the Quran’s invitation to itself seriously? What should Muslims have done so that every child in the world would have considered it a privilege to read the Quran? Since the Quran is clear that anyone who is not heedless of his own good, of signs within and without or who reveres the Truth (al-Haqq) or is open to the wonder or mystery and who fears God (which means takes seriously the demands or call of the Other/that which commands respect or induces awe) how is it that we find the Quran mostly restricted in the Muslims? And how come many a Muslim scholar today, though not in the past in their days of glory when they could call Plato divine Plato, acknowledge Aristotle as the Master, translate Upanishads as Sirr-e-Akbar (The Greatest Secret), write illuminatingly in objective and sympathetic spirit (by the standards prevailing then) about the religious other (seen in, for instance, Al-Biruni’s Kitab al-Hind) overanxious to read the Quran in terms that write off:
The Abrahamic and Non-Semitic Contexts/Scriptures without Which the Quran Becomes Less Transparent At Many Points
Contested history of exegeses from the earliest period till date – we have a) two major divergent versions in the name of Tafsir Al-Ma’thur – Shi’ite and Sunni, b) further internal divergence in the form of many hardly reconcilable opinions in the first three generations on scores of issues in exegesis – a look at Al-Itiqan by Suyuti or influential Tafsir work by Ibn Kathir gives a peep into this divergence and one can easily list say often discussed 20 key verses and quote simply irreconcilable views from the first three generations regarding such things as their meaning/motives of revelation/Naskh status – and c) huge debates on authenticity of attributed authorship of particular exegetical works in the formative period and of course still live debates on what they meant then or mean now, especially reports about legal verses.
Enormous importance of the question of a) how to interpret – hermeneutics – felt from the earliest times, b) unsettled debates on principles of hermeneutics (just note differences between larger implications and flowering of approaches enshrined in Ibn Taymiyyah’s Muqaddimah fi Usul at-Tafsir (Introduction to the Principles of Tafsir) and Shah Waliullah’s Fouz al-Kabir and divergence between Maulana Thanawi’s Bayan al-Quran, Maulana Amin Ahsan’s Tadabbur-i-Quran and Maulana Syed Maududi’s Tafheem al-Quran though all of them appropriate both Ibn Taymiyyah and Shah Waliullah and the key significance of Tafsir B’el Ma’thur) and c) unavoidable task of engaging with what is now called hermeneutical approach for contemporary reception of the Quran.
The significance of a hermeneutical move enshrined in the constitution of Sunni orthodoxy that celebrated certain disagreement and formulated a methodology to distinguish legitimate and illegitimate disagreement and in practice accommodated (despite smaller family feuds and attempts to demarcate deviant schools but still granting possibility of salvation as deviation didn’t endanger otherworldly prospects) within overarching Tradition exegesis of a) philosophers like Ibn Sina, b) both Ashariite and Mutzailite theologians like Razi and Zamakhshiri though they were at loggerheads, c) Sufis like Ibn Arabi and Kashani d) Hadith centric critics of Asharites/Mutazilite theologians, philosophers and Sufis mentioned above like Ibn Taymiyyah and e) even some of the most important principles that have been invoked in Shi’ite hermeneutics such as four levels of interpretation, need for T’awil as distinguished from mere commentary, Irfan-centrism.
Insistence of Sunni scholarship on certain limitations of (and thus partial dependence on) Tafsir B’el Ma’thur in comparison with Shi’ite position that maintains absolute dependence on Imams believed to have unerringly taught right interpretation or T’awil. Sunnism in recognizing, albeit in limited sense, exegetical space for what is believed to be unerring definitive orally transmitted esoteric meanings and insisting on the role of a Master who, for all practical purposes, virtually substitutes the work of Imam in transmitting the definitive meanings of the Quran converges with one central claim of Shi’ite hermeneutics. In fact leading figures in both Sunni and Shia camps converge on recognizing the central claim that one can still be called a Muslim and hope for salvation while adhering to either Sunni or Shia camp. This mutual accommodation and appreciation at deeper unity at metaphysical-esoteric plane leaves it open to mutually benefit from each other’s exegetical works.
Enormous costs of exclusion legitimized in the name of God or His Prophet (SAW) in upholding certain views – just note how much is in stake in only one issue of correct estimate of cancelled verses (traditionally exegetes have maintained from none to hundreds) as this vitally bears on the Muslim view of non-Muslims, jihad, international relations, women’s rights etc).
Huge problem of sectarian appropriation of what is treated as transmitted exegesis (Tafsir Al-Ma’thur) – major Muslim sects had their own views on/anthologies of transmitted opinions and methodologies of screening the same to suit respective normative view)
Reigning debates in the Islamic tradition regarding binding nature or Hujja of transmitted opinions – Abu Ali Sulieman’s dissertation Al-Tafsir bi al-Ma'thur: The Qur'anic exegeses of the prophet Muhammad (Saw), his companions, and successors documents the clash of classical Muslim scholars over the definition and understanding of Hujja and how this led to varying definitions of al-Tafsir bi al-Ma'thur. It elaborates position of al-Ghazali and others that only the exegesis of the Prophet of Islam is Hujja and that alone properly deserve the title al-Tafsir bi al-Ma'thur.
Such ably defended points as “the construction of a verse’s meaning in works categorized as Tafsir B’el Ma’thur is no less than the product of the Mufassir’s exegetical enterprise than in Tafsir Bi’l-Ra’y; the exegesis is merely concealed within the selection and ordering of Hadith segments” and that the notion of Ma’thur has been invoked mostly in cases where they deny/limit/reframe explicit meaning of Quranic texts.
Iqbal’s point against those who invoke “Lugt Haay-I Hijazi” that “Qalander Juz Du Harf-I La Illah Kuch Nahi Rakhta” and rigorously maintained by him in his Madras lectures.
Given this scenario of extremely limited and heterogeneous and divergently interpretable and interpreted corpus of Tafsir B’el Ma’thur and in turn there being little consensus on its definition, authenticity of some of its parts, scope and Hujja status of significant portion, we can’t but conclude that there remains possibility and prerogative of breaking fresh grounds and thus what is called hermeneutical engagement with the divine texts. This would also help save faith of laity and respect engagement of some of our brightest scholars working in major universities today contributing their bit in more creative engagement with the Quran invoking insights of modern hermeneutics.
The Quran contains, self avowedly, nothing new; it is only a reminder. Reminder of not only what God previously sent but what God has implanted in us and we might not be caring enough. Every man is potentially though not in practice capable of intellection and what is called Revelation is “intellection for the masses” and that only confirms what we can potentially know.
The Quran kindles in us sensitivity to a Question (a concept brilliantly elucidated in philosophers from Socrates to Voegelin) and doesn’t drill a particular answer to that Question. In fact the most profound questions don’t demand answers; they demand one lives them. What is transcendence that is the cornerstone of revealed religions in general and Islam in particular? Nothing but taking the Question of Being/that which transcends every formulation and thus remains a question seriously and refusal to demystify existence/being, refusal to accept common place answers given by ideologies, refusal to leave out the factor of beauty – a messenger from the transcendent world – refusal to be content with any dogmatic answers that exoteric theologians are anxious to drill into us. Speaking from the all embracing divine or metaphysical “viewpoint” one can say that the Quran has no views of its own but admonitions to clear that which lives on views. The Quran talks about what can’t be talked about, the silence, the contemplative attitude that receives the other and reads the signs or better accepts the erasure of interpreting self by the signs/Word.
The Quran seeks to establish peace that results from transcending ideological noise and opinions of all kinds. Truth is not an opinion or a view but what is self attesting, what remains after we have seen limitations of all views. The Quran states God’s (not human exegete’s) omniscience and that implies God’s viewpoint which is not a human viewpoint and that in turn embraces all legitimate viewpoints or (partial) truth in all viewpoints. The Quran announces itself as making all things clear because all things higher leave their reflections on the purified non-judgmental heart that Tazkiyah brings out and express in wisdom that itself is a great bounty that translates itself in terms of felicity.