Thursday, December 13, 2007

This is the supplementary essay I promised to send to comments sent by readers o f my piece "The Quran's Status as Scripture in Islam" published under the rubric Muslims against Sharia on 12/12/2007. I am hoping this essay is featured on or copied on that site. Rasheed Talib.


A justification of my radical thesis on Islamic reform
by Rasheed Talib


The Quran, it is argued in the piece that follows, is a unique scripture. The history of how it came into existence, as narrated by Islam's early Traditionists, shows that the revelations were received by the Prophet not as a whole or in a single session. They came down to him 'from on high' at various times and stages of his 22-year prophetic career – as and when he needed divine guidance during his career as prophet-cum-political-leader.
A close examination of the Quran's verses leads one inescapably to the conclusion that these are of two kinds: i) verses which convey cosmic and spiritual truths; and ii) verses which deal with mundane and routine issues. The whole of the Quran can hardly be treated as being of equal significance. And it is only reasonable to conclude that while verses of spiritual import are obligatory on the Believer, those of a mundane, this-worldly nature are not.
A major constraint in Islam's developing a modern world-view has been that its followers are discouraged – from fear of a massive clerical backlash – to examine closely the historical facts that underlie the Quran's origin. As a result, the community has been led (misled?) into believing that the Quran so completely embodies a set of divine instructions, aimed at solving the world's problems no matter how complex, that it is sinful even to lift its covers as it were and confront the truth that so glaringly stares one in the face. This has in turn led to the common belief among Muslims that the Quran is God's eternal word, aimed at governing every aspect of life on earth, a quick-fix for all human problems, a complete code of life. Put in words favoured by the ulema, the Quran is "Word of God, true and valid for all times and places".
When one takes into account the varied circumstances and situations in which the Quran was revealed, however, it is truer to say that the Holy Book contains both historical/political verses and scripturally significant ones and is thus best seen as part-scripture, part-history.
Once one views the Quran in this light, many of the difficulties posed by Islam's medieval human and social value-system disappear – difficulties arising specifically from verses that prescribe: a) cruel forms of punishment; b) unequal treatment of women; c) outdated gender-insensitive rules of inheritance; and d) the waging of 'jihad' in the sense of holy war against 'kafirs' or non-Believers.


Now, half-way in my effort to write a book on Islam – with the tentative title "Islamic Reform and Renewal: Transforming a Tradition from Within" – friends who have read my earlier essays have rightly raised questions. What, they ask, do I mean by the expression 'Situating the Quran in history'? How does my approach to Islamic reform differ from that of my predecessors, especially those from the India-Pakistan subcontinent who in the past two centuries made valuable contributions to the subject?
This note is an attempt to answer these questions. It is divided into three major Sections: I) Background, II) Argument, III) Answers (and sub-sections under some of the heads).

Section I. Background

An Indian Muslim myself, I believe Indian Muslims are in a better position than their co-religionists from other regions to think and write freely on issues of Islamic reform. I say this for the following reasons.

First, with a population which at last count was estimated to be more than 120 million, Indian Muslims today constitute the third largest such community in the world - after those of Indonesia, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

Secondly, Muslims in India live in a country which is constitutionally, and most of the time politically too, a secular state. And, it is my belief that a secular ethos makes for an environment in which an individual is free to take a radical position on sensitive religious issues – a privilege not available to people in an ideology-bound 'Islamic state'. (I must add, however, that few Indian Muslims since the subcontinent's partition in 1947 have utilized this freedom).

Along with some other writers, I make a distinction between a country with a large Muslim minority like India and a Muslim-majority country like Pakistan – or, for that matter, Indonesia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia et al – a list which must now include Bangladesh. While all these are Muslim-majority countries, they are also by constitutional choice 'Islamic states'.

Thirdly, pre-Partition India was home to a rich tradition of radical writings on Islam to which scholars of all shades of opinion contributed. To take examples from each of the two camps into which they can be broadly divided – 'radical-conservative' and 'radical-reformist' – there were Syed Abdulla Barelvi and Maulana Abul Ala Mawdoodi from the former and Saiyyid Ahmad Khan and Allama Iqbal from the latter.

While their perspectives on the subject were vastly different, they shared one objective in common. Moved by the sad state into which a once-vibrant Islam had fallen in comparison with Christianity, each, according to his vision, sought to redefine the role of Islamic tradition in the modern world.

Section II. Argument

I shall begin this Section by laying out the first premise of my argument. I believe if Muslims are to find their way to a Reformation of the faith, they must start by taking a fresh look at their most sacred book, the Quran. One way, they could do this is by 'situating the Quran in history'. To put it another way, by locating the Quran in the context of its times.

While maintaining this, I do not in any way mean to undermine the traditional belief, cherished by a majority of Muslims worldwide, that the Quran is in its most literal sense 'the Word of God' – a divinely revealed scripture directly revealed to Muhammad in 7th century Arabia. For a journalist-writer like me, who lacks the necessary credentials, it is futile to try to do so.

The secular-minded in India had this lesson drilled into them in the early 1990s – when despite loud protests, a historic mosque was razed to the ground by fundamentalist mobs for the only reason that it was built by a Muslim ruler on a site believed to be the birthplace of a Hindu warrior-deity of uncertain historical origin. The lesson we learnt then was: Matters of faith cannot be resolved by arguments of reason.

Time is the best solvent

But there is hope yet for Islam. History shows, time is the best solvent. Muslims today may take comfort from the fact that they are not the only people to hold that their scriptures are a direct revelation delivered from the Heavens. Until recently, Christians subscribed to a similar doctrine, called 'the inerrancy of the Bible'. Today, apart from a fundamentalist fringe, found chiefly in parts of the United States, few Christians take the belief seriously.

Of the three great monotheistic faiths of the East, Islam today is the youngest. Historically, it can be traced back a mere 1500 years. Christianity by contrast is more than 2000 years old and Judaism twice that old. The two religions have had time to mellow and mature. They have now been able to assimilate the human and social values of the modern age into their traditional belief-systems. Islam too will no doubt before long evolve a rational view of the Quran's true status as scripture.

A moderate interpretation fails

The eminent Pakistani scholar, Fazlur Rahman, had put out a moderate interpretation of the traditional doctrine about the Quran's being the literal word of God. Without disturbing the belief, he sought to rationalize it so that it was more in accord with the modern temper. But instead of examining his suggestion critically, the ulema accused him of seeking to subvert the faith. He was hounded out of the office he held as director of Pakistan's official Institute of Islamic Research where he was doing useful work on updating Islam's tenets.

What was Rahman's "sin"? All he had done was to suggest tentatively that a rational view of the Quran required Muslims to accept that it was a divinely 'inspired' rather than a directly 'revealed' scripture. He supported this view with scholarly citations from the Quran. Yet his effort failed to satisfy the ulema. They nipped it in the bud although many modern Muslims felt it was carefully enough formulated to come within the bounds of tradition.

The following lengthy excerpt from Rahman's book, entitled "Islam", will help readers see what exactly he had in mind and how hesitantly – and somewhat ambiguously - he had put the point across. (Incidentally, these may be the very passages that led to his downfall).

For the Quran itself, and consequently for the Muslims, the Qur'an is the Word of God (Kalaam Allah). Muhammad, too, was unshakably convinced that he was the recipient of the Message from God, the totally Other . . . so much so that he rejected, on the strength of this consciousness, some of the most fundamental historical claims of the Judaeo-Christian tradition about Abraham and other prophets. This 'Other' through some [ineffable non-human] channel 'dictated' the Qur'an with an absolute authority. The voice from the depths of life spoke distinctly, unmistakably and imperiously. Not only does the word qur'an, meaning 'recitation', clearly indicate this, but the text of the Qur'an itself states in several places that the Qur'an is verbally revealed and not merely in its 'meaning' and ideas. The Qur'anic term for 'Revelation' is wahy which is fairly close in its meaning to 'inspiration', provided the latter is not supposed to exclude the verbal mode necessarily (by 'Word', of course, we do not mean sound). The Qur'an says, God speaks to no human being (i.e. through sound words) except through wahy (i.e. through idea-word inspiration) or from behind the veil, or He may send a messenger (an angel) who speaks through wahy . . . Even thus have We inspired you with a spirit of Our Command . . . (chapter 42, verses 51-52).
When, however, during the second and the third centuries of Islam, acute differences of opinion, controversies partly influenced by Christian doctrines, arose among the Muslims about the nature of the Revelation, the emerging Muslim 'orthodoxy' [meaning the ulema], which was at the time in the crucial stage of formulating its precise content, emphasized the eternality of the Prophet's Revelation, its 'otherness', objectivity and verbal character. The Qur'an itself certainly maintains the 'otherness', the 'objectivity' and the verbal character of the Revelation, but it had equally certainly rejected its externality vis a vis the Prophet. It declares, The Trusted Spirit [meaning presumably Angel Gabriel] has brought it down upon your heart [ i.e. Muhammad's} that you may be the warner' (chapter 26, verse 194) and again, 'Say: He who is an enemy of Gabriel (let him be), for it is he who has brought it down to your heart upon your heart (chapter 2, verse 97: emphasis in the original).

Reason for failure

Like a good academic, Rahman went on to explore the reason for the ulema's failure to interpret 'revelation' in terms he had done. The reason may be, he observed, because of the medieval scholar's inability to make the distinction between the 'externality' or 'otherness' of the Quran and its nonetheless being a part of the subjective personality of the Prophet. Orthodoxy, he wrote, indeed all medieval thought

lacked the necessary intellectual tools to combine formulation of the dogma the otherness and verbal character with the work of the religious personality of the Prophet on the other, i.e. it lacked the intellectual capacity to say both that the Qur'an is entirely the Word of God and, in an ordinary sense, also entirely the word of Muhammad. (Rahman 1966:30-1)

A distinction, one feels, too subtle for the layperson to grasp.

Christianity's 'inerrancy of the Bible' doctrine

Since, as just noted, Islam's problem may be resolved with the passage of time, it is useful to inquire how Christianity overcame its 'inerrancy of the Bible' difficulty. Change in Christian thought - writes the Canadian scholar Andrew Rippin significantly in his slim 2-volume book, "The Muslims: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices" - came between the late 18th and early 19th centuries when scholars began to apply the 'historical-critical method' to the study of the Bible. (One wonders whether a critical study of the Quran based on historical principles may not do the same for Islam).

Taking his cue from the gloss Rahman had boldly put on orthodox dogma, and observing the potential in Islam for a similar transformation, evidenced by the recent spate of Modernist writings in some parts of the Muslim world, Rippin writes:

Another common tendency is to conceive the Quran [as Rahman does] not as revealed literally but as installed in Muhammad's heart and then spoken through the human faculties of the prophet. The language, therefore, is Muhammad's although it is still possible to hold that this is ultimately God's word also.
The impetus behind these discussions rests with the basic drive of the Modernist movements: the need to modernize, reform and rejuvenate Islam. The means to do this is found in removing what is envisioned to be the stumbling block: anti-rationalistic ideas along with norms which are perceived as not being in keeping with modern society.
In addition, there has been the methodological influence of the historical-critical method as developed in Europe. Basic to this method are a number of assumptions, all revolving around the scientific rational impulse – that history moves by causality and that those causes may be determined and studies. History must be studied according to the laws of reason, for that is the way the world works. Religion is nothing special in this regard: it is like philosophy or literature and like nature itself. It must be coherent, logical, and capable of being incorporated into an understanding of human history. Biblical scholarship of the eighteenth century enunciated this stance quite plainly, for example, in the case of Johann Salamo Semler who published a study of the Bible between 1171 and 1775 which 'called for a purely historical-philological interpretation of the Bible, in the light of the circumstances surrounding the origin of the various books, without any concern for edification'. . .
For the most part, the impact of the historical-critical method has been slow to be felt in the Muslim world, at least within the study of the Quran. The reasons for this lie within the traditional discussions concerning the nature of the Qur'an which have just been mentioned. It must be remembered how much Muslims perceive to be at stake here: the existence of Islam classically depends upon the miracle of the Qur'an. Thus, for those who have determined that this is the route to go, caution is a continuous feature. Assessing the basic character and nature of the Qur'an must be accomplished first, and that means raising the questions of the rationality of the text and its relationship to historical fact. The issue still lingers, as the following examples will show, of just how far Muslims can go in pursuing these questions while still remaining Islamic. (The Muslims, Volume 2: The Contemporary Period, p 104-5). [My note: Examples of modern reform movements referred to by the author towards the end of the excerpt were summarized in my last essay entitled "Jihad in its many avatars" e-mailed to many of you in August 2005].

Section III. Answers

I must turn now to the two pointed questions asked by the readers of my earlier pieces and mentioned in the Introduction. My replies are set out under Sections marked below as A) Situating the Quran in History; and B) Difference between my approach and that of earlier reformers.

A) Situating the Quran in history

In my earlier essays, I had set out at length the reason why I regard the Quran to be a unique scripture. Unique, not in the sense of contents but in the manner in which it was revealed. The revelations, it may be recalled, 'came down' to the Prophet not as a whole or at a single sitting, but at various times during his prophetic career (610-632).

On this point, all major sects of Islam seem to be agreed. The Shiites hold however - for what looks to me as being political rather than theological reasons - that the verses of the Quran (all 6,000-plus of them) were collected and compiled into a volume in the Prophet's lifetime, and a copy was actually presented to him by his cousin and favourite son-in-law, Ali bin Abu Talib. The Sunnis on the other hand argue that this was not possible since the last of the revelations was communicated to him only a week or so before his death. They staunchly believe that the Quran in volume form first came into existence a decade or two after the Prophet's death thanks mainly to the efforts of the third caliph, Uthman bin Affan (ruled 644-656).

The common ground between the two sects, however, is that the revelations came down as and when the Prophet needed divine guidance to cope with situations he faced during his career first as prophet in Mecca, and later as prophet-cum-political-leader in Medina. This is why the Quran may be called a unique scripture inasmuch as the manner of its delivery differs from that of other scriptures. Also the reason why I call it an 'instalment scripture'.

But, even if one accepts the traditional view that the Quran's verses are equally binding on the Believer, no matter what their nature, can it be seriously urged that everything contained in them is sacrosanct enough to make them 'scriptural'? Or, is it better to say that the verses fall into two different categories: the first comprising verses of spiritual significance (which are no doubt absolutely binding); and the second made up of verses dealing with politico-historical issues (which, being of lesser spiritual value, are not)?

If this way of looking at the Quran is accepted, the latter category of verses would include those that I have listed in the opening Section under items a) to d) – namely, a) cruel forms of punishment; b) unequal treatment of women; c) gender-insensitive rules of inheritance; and d) intolerance of and violence against non-Believers through 'jihad' in the sense of a holy war.

These and other similar verses are not, I submit, an integral part of the Prophet's religious mission; they are more in the nature of divine advices and instructions to the Prophet rather than scriptural prescriptions, often meant to help the Prophet steer the ship of state through the stormy seas of tribal politics.

To this, my radical suggestion that the Quran's verses need to be separated into 'binding' and 'non-binding' types, two objections could plausibly be raised: a) that the Quran is either wholly divine or not divine, thus some of its verses cannot be treated as binding while others are not; and b) that the concept of God is too elevated for Him to be seen playing a role in human affairs. I answer these objections under their respective heads below.

a) My reply to the first objection

Splitting the Quran's verses into different categories is not unknown to Islam. Early Muslim scholars often separated verses dealing with mundane matters from verses prescribing spiritual requirements calling the former 'muamalaat' and the latter 'ibadaat'. There is also the division that the text itself makes between verses revealed during the Prophet's first decade (when he functioned purely as prophet) called the 'Meccan' verses; and those revealed in Medina (where he had become head of what was virtually the world's first Islamic state) called the 'Medinan' verses.

This trend continues to this day and can be seen in the writings of contemporary Muslim scholars, the most eminent of them being the late Fazlur Rahman of Pakistan (discussed above). In one of his books, Rahman wrote that the Quran's messages of a moral and ethical kind need to be differentiated from those laying down legislative ordinances. In recent years, Columbia University 's professor of philosophy Aqueel Bilgrami, canvassed the view that while interpreting the Quran, its 'Meccan' verses need to be treated differently from its 'Medinan' verses.

Once a separation of some verses of the Quran from others is accepted as legitimate, it is but a short step to my point that its truly spiritual verses are significant in a higher sense than those dealing with mundane issues.

b) My reply to the second objection

I have a two-fold reply to give to the second objection:

i) Allah is often represented in anthropomorphic terms

There is a tendency among Muslims to see Allah in anthropomorphic terms; to see Him, in other words, as some kind of super-person rather than - as strict Islamic doctrine requires - as a wholly Abstract Being.

The strict position, however, is good merely in theory. In actual fact, Islam could not avoid going down the alternative path of lending to its abstract doctrine a human touch in order to make it popularly acceptable. Indeed, the Quran itself encourages the tendency. Some of its verses expressly refer to Allah's Hands; His Throne; His being able to see humans on Doomsday; and so on. And, at least two of the major schools of theology (the Hanbalite and even the more formidable Asharite) reinforced this view in arguing that the Quran's references to God should be seen as literal and real – a subject I hope to deal with in a subsequent essay.

Western scholars provide a historical basis for this dilution. Islam from its inception, they say, was involved in fierce competition with Christianity. It was necessary for it to make a clear-cut departure from Christian dogmas. One way this was achieved was to define Islam in wholly abstract terms since it was felt that Christianity had moved away from strict monotheism because of its belief in the Trinity. Similarly, Islam's doctrine of God being totally non-human helped it to distance itself from the other Christian dogma about Jesus being both Man and Son of God.

Arabic-knowing Malise Ruthven reinforces the Western theory with the following linguistic analysis:

As is suggested by the inclusion of the definite article in his name the God of the Quran is rather more abstract than that of the Old and New Testaments. Fatherhood is explicitly rejected, a matter of considerable significance in a society which set such store by kinship and paternity . . . It is the overwhelming presence of this deity, unique and unknowable, which makes itself felt in every verse of the Quran. Allah is supra-personal rather than abstractly impersonal. (Ruthven 1988:114). [A point for the interested reader to note: The prefix 'al'- in Arabic stands for 'the' the name Allah being a grammatical derivative of 'al-ilah', meaning 'the High God'. Cf also Waines, 1995:7-8]

There is here an interesting coincidence between two totally dissimilar sources. Malise Ruthven, in my reckoning the most popular of writers on Islam, reminds us that Alexander Pope's cryptic dictum, 'Presume not God to scan', meaning it is presumptuous of Man to analyze God in human terms: God's nature is above and beyond human understanding.

The same argument was curiously made by Islam's theologians during the debates that waged in the 9th century between the Asharites and the Mutazilites. To recapitulate it here briefly: One issue in those debates was whether some of Allah's 99 attributes mentioned in the Quran did not contradict some others. The Asharites, who took a literalist view, trumped the Mutazilites with their innovative doctrine of 'bi la kaif', which may be paraphrased as: "It is not for humans to ask 'how God is what He is'".

Ruthven writes:

Ashari's point was similar to Alexander Pope's 'Presume not God to scan'. God's omnipotence and his omnibenevolence cannot be reconciled within the bounds of ordinary logic. By the same argument, the Quran, God's revelation cannot be subjected to rational expectations. (Ruthven, 1988: 201).

ii) The Quran itself speaks of Allah taking a hand in human affairs

This second objection to my scheme of the Quran's verse-separation is simplistic. My reply to it has necessarily to be simplistic.

The Quran portrays God as an All-Powerful, All-Knowing Being. How can it be beyond His powers should he wish to intervene directly and influence history and politics of the Prophet's time? More so, when such intervention was in the interest of Islam.

Again, the Quran itself has verses which point to Allah's taking a hand in worldly affairs. A conspicuous example of this are verses of chapter 66 where God is shown as intervening to sort out a sensitive situation in the Prophet's family life. (See chapter 66, verses 3-5 and the much-respected translator-commentator Maulana Yusuf Ali's cautious comment in footnote 5529-32 of his well-known work, "The Meaning of the Glorious Quran").

B) Difference between my approach and that of others

We now come to the more crucial of the two questions posed by readers of my earlier writings: How exactly does my proposal on reform differ from that of previous reformers.

Muslim modernizers of the 19th and 20th centuries - Sir Saiyyid Ahmad Khan, Muhammad Iqbal and other like-minded scholars – based their reform proposals mainly on the interpretative device of 'ijtihad' ('independent interpretation' of the Quran) for which there is scriptural sanction. Moderate though these proposals were, they failed to secure, as we saw, the ulema's support. This is not surprising – for the following, among other, reasons:

Consensus on interpreting the Quran's verses on the basis of an individual's subjective judgment, no matter how scripturally valid, has little chance of getting ulema approval in Sunni Islam. Without such approval, there is little chance of getting the community's acceptance. Why? Because Sunnism, unlike Shiism, does not recognize an institutionalized priestly hierarchy with an authority at the apex ( e.g. Shiite's Chief Ayatollah or Imam) whose 'fatwas' on theological issues are final and binding on its followers. (And, remember, the Sunnis constitute 85-90 percent of the Muslim population worldwide).

The doctrine of 'ijtihad' itself had been in disuse from the 10th century onwards until the attempt by early Modernists to revive it. The ulema, fearful of losing control over their self-appropriated right to Quranic exegesis, had virtually killed it, replacing it with the twin conservative doctrines of 'closure of the gate of ijtihad' and 'blind imitation of the past' ('taqlid'). Since then, there has been a vacuum on the reform front.

It should be easy now for readers to appreciate how my approach differs from that of the early reformers. Pragmatists that they were and indeed wisely for their time, they took the piecemeal route to reform, addressing through the 'ijtihad' mechanism individual verses that needed fresh interpretation. My approach, on the other hand, insists on looking at the Quran as a whole. The time has come to stop taking recourse to a tinkering sort of solution to Islam's problem of 'unchangingness'. Islamic tradition is now so totally 'out of synch' with modern realities that to set it right calls for a bolder strategy.

Of interest in this regard may be the recent news story in which a Saudi Arabian court is reported to have delivered a verdict that orders the gouging of a criminal's eye as punishment for damaging the eye of his victim in a fight - a cruel parody of the old Mosaic law of 'an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth', carried over by medieval Islamic law.

But, there is reason for hope of change, reflected in the evidence of new thinking among Muslims, as the brief survey of recent radical writings by Muslim scholars from different countries in Andrew Rippin's book referred to above suggests. (See my essay, "Jihad in its many avatars" where his findings are paraphrased).

The 'created Quran' versus 'uncreated Quran' controversy

One clinching point that strengthens my case in for a radical reform. During the theological debates of the early centuries discussed above, the freethinking Mutazilites joined issue with their conservative rivals, the Asharites, on the Quran's status as scripture. Some of the points made in those exchanges have a resemblance to what we have been discussing in this note.

Unfortunately, reports of their exchanges are either too fragmentary or too obscure for one to reach a definitive conclusion. But scholars, working on the available material, have been able to reconstruct enough of the debates in their secondary writings on the subject.

Based on these, the Mutazilite position on the issue seems to have been as follows: The Quran is indubitably the Word of God. But from this fact alone, it cannot be deduced that it is timeless or eternal. Especially when there are such specific references in the Holy Book to the condemnation of an unkind uncle of the Prophet's (abu Lahab) who had tormented him during his preaching mission in Mecca, or to the fate that befell some of the earlier prophets like Noah, Saul and others.

The Mutazilite conclusion was that the Quran was scripture 'created in time' - not 'uncreated' or 'eternal' in the sense of existing since Eternity, as the Asharites believed. (Despite the difficulty of unravelling their arcane dialectics, I hope to make the early theological debates in Islam the core chapter of my book – one reason why I have had so much difficulty in completing it).

What is particularly noteworthy - and encouraging - is that even though the Mutazilites came close to committing what would now be considered 'heresy' by the ulema of Islam, a free and frank discussion between these two mainstream schools of theology went on unhindered for more than two centuries.

More reason to feel that Islam has an in-built capacity for change.

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