We now live in times when we are confronted with baffling and multiple problems on almost all fronts even as revolutionary developments in science and technology have redefined civilization and ushered enormous progress in diverse fields. Most of these problems defy human answers. Finding common ground can help us at a time when unified action is more crucial than ever. As a species, we must embrace the oneness of humanity as we face global issues like pandemics, economic crises and ecological disaster. There are many more important issues (guns, terrorism, climate change, labor, immigration, globalization, infrastructure, defense, investment, taxation, healthcare, education, research) that challenge us and require synergy of intellectual forces –irrespective of their diverse hues – to come out with solvable answers and doable solutions.
At no time in world civilization we were in need of a great spiritual revolution, and tragically we have been ignoring the power of spiritual values when they need them most. It needs a very pure intention, as well as great spiritual discernment to repel these evil promptings sand return to the source of all: the Prime Cause of all that exists, that "no human vision can encompass Him" (verse 103), either physically or conceptually: and, therefore, "He is sublimely exalted above anything that men may devise by way of definition.’
We need to realize that our first identity is the vicegerent of the Almighty and our first allegiance is to the One God who is our Nourisher and Sustainer. It is finally for God to revive the weakening spiritual currents ; but we also owe a responsibility reinforce our faith. Faced with the challenge of modernity, many Muslims today, rather than accommodate themselves to the age-old fudges that have prevailed in so many Muslim societies, have resorted instead to a kind of textual Puritanism. Instead of referring to the way things were done in, say, colonial Morocco, or Ottoman Turkey, or, much further back, under the Abbasid caliphs, they prefer to return to the ‘simple truths’ of the Qur’an. The Qur’an, however, is not simple, and in many centres in Britain, Pakistan and elsewhere the standard of training in the basic tenets of Islam, including the meaning and context of the Qur’an, is staggeringly poor.
The tragedy is that the Quran is still inaccessible to the majority of Muslims either on account of illiteracy or they resorting to self exclusion harboring a notion that the Qur’an can be handled only by specialists. Most Muslims today know the message of the Qur’an from secondary sources which may not be totally reliable. The Qur’an addresses us directly. One of the most insistent commands in the Qur’an is: Think! Reflect! So the struggle to understand and interpret is our eternal challenge. There is no getting away from it. The field of Qur’anic studies is currently witnessing a vogue among scholars. This proliferation of scholarship is taking place at a time when no consensus exists on a central core of works to define the field let alone on a program to train future scholars
The Qur’an came to speak to all of humanity. However, it came to speak not in a vacuum, but within a historical context. Hence, its immediate objective was the moral and religious situation of the Arabs of the Prophet’s time. We must therefore recognize that although we can always hear the Qur’an speaking anew to our own particular situation, its own historical context must not be obscured behind its universal and timeless dimension.
Through the science of exegesis, in every age and in all Islamic languages, the Qur’an is kept alive as a force in the lives and cultures of Muslims everywhere. It remains relevant to every age through commentaries that are no longer limited to Arabic, or even other Islamic languages. Indeed, important Qur’anic commentaries have appeared in English and other European languages spoken by European Muslims as well. English in particular is fast becoming a significant Islamic language and the isamic literature in English is growing at an exponential pace.
It is also a fact that words in the translated language are understood through a cultural history that may or may not totally in sync with the Qur’anic setting. For example, when the Qur’an chides the kaafir this can be translated as “infidel,” “one who rejects faith,” or simply “disbeliever” – just to mention some of the common translations of the word. Each translation implies something significantly different based on how we as English speakers understand these words with our own particular historical baggage.
More and more Muslims, with better literacy and education than their grandparents often had, are going back to the basic texts, and chipping at the cultural layers that have accumulated over the years. That process of challenging the old authorities has produced a whole range of new voices, from violent extremists to feminists. Many have found in the original basic text convincing and satisfactory solutions to present day realities. In fact there is a reasoned argument that Islamic jurisprudence has become an unmanageable creature .
Westerners tend to think of Islamic societies as backward- looking, oppressed by religion, and inhumanely governed, comparing them to their own enlightened, secular democracies. But measurement of the cultural distance between the West and Islam is a complex undertaking, and that distance is narrower than they assume. Islam is not just a religion, and certainly not just a fundamentalist political movement. It is a civilization, and a way of life that varies from one Muslim country to another but is animated by a common spirit far more humane than most Westerners realize.
Because the Qur’an is not a free-standing text, a great deal of glossing and contextual knowledge is required, and this is as true for Muslims as for non-Muslims. Over the centuries, exegetes have produced vast and detailed commentaries, setting out the context, explaining obscure words, adjudicating between divergent readings and determining which verses abrogate others in cases of apparent conflict. Even so, mysteries remain.
It is sad that even when Quran repeatedly exhorts every Muslim to use reason to ponder over the universe and recognize the bold signs of God’s presence we have left no place for self reflection. . There is absolutely no place for individual conscience or intellectual engagement. The way that Islam is presented makes it seem that belief doesn't come from a personal path of inquiry and revelation, but by accepting what others believe without challenging them — by simply offering one’s mind as an empty receptacle.
The tragedy is best exemplified in the widely believed dictum that ‘religious scholars (the ulama) have solved all our problems. There is nothing more to do. An instrument from which traditionalists derive immense power is ritual. It is difficult to walk into a mosque, almost anywhere in the Muslim world, without someone chiding you for not performing the ablution correctly, or praying in the wrong way or not on time, or not having a beard, or not wearing clothes according to a particular code or not being pious enough. Indeed, herds of traditionalists roam the streets checking people’s faith (iman) and beliefs (aqidah), ensuring that they are performing their rituals according to their dictates, and are dressed properly with the correct facial furniture.
A person endowed with a right perception “fears nothing but God” i.e., he is not afraid of losing anything except God’s support. His personality becomes so fortified that it is immune to any assailant . God is his only helper, the sole refuge, all other imagined havens are hopeless.
A very significant development is that the youth today embody a spirit of critical enquiry and do not hesitate to raise questions about Islam which their predecessors used to shudder to ask. Social networking has given them a collective identity and they now have a transnational network. Critical questions raised in one corner are creating ripples across the world. The Qur’an is now no longer perceived to be a scripture to be touched and read by the sanctified few. Today it has become a permanent book of guidance for every Muslim individual. There is a significant group of Muslims who feel that tradition bound preachers and religious hierarchies have handed them a brand of Islam that does not speak to them. These same authorities have also denied them the critical thinking tools and religious space to imagine new interpretations. They are slowly freeing themselves from the tyranny of self-appointed Islamist authoritarians telling them what Islam is.
Now that the Internet has created free, safe, alternative spaces and platforms to discuss these issues, outside the mosques and government-owned media, this war of ideas is on. Although it provides some ideas within which a rethinking can take place, it nevertheless should be considered as one part of a larger picture. Most commentaries are still modelled on traditionalist lines. For the great majority of the scholars writing commentaries today, the imperative is to be faithful to the tradition, while practising Islam in the modern world.
When circumstances change, certain aspects of the meanings that we attribute to the text should also change, at least in their emphases. In other words, we are talking about the openness of the text to contemporary reality. We cant remain permanent prisoners of the dogmas that have been handed down for centuries by fallible human beings.
If meaning is fluid and susceptible to change, that is, it is dependent on time, linguistic context and socio-historical circumstances, then that it must be taken into account while reexamining the text .
Unlike the great scholars of the past, who valued criticism, traditionally educated alims - who are the imams of mosques around the world and judges in Shariah courts - lack the tools of contemporary critical scholarship and exposure to its various disciplines. They are used to valuing received outmoded opinion, exist in hermetically-sealed religious and cultural capsules, and spout little more than slogans that are dangerously obsolete. They tell Muslims what to think rather than debate with the community and engage with its day-to-day concerns. The great challenge of contemporary times is for Muslims to be liberated from their clutches.
The traditional scholars reduced the Qur'anic concept of ilm, which refers to all kinds of knowledge, to restrict it only to religious knowledge; and then went on to suggest that those with religious knowledge are morally superior to those who do not have religious knowledge. It was these same ulama who reduced the Islamic concept of ijma, which means consensus of all people, to mean only the consensus of a few privileged religious scholars - the consequences of this for democracy in the Muslim world are all evident. Such techniques have been used to encourage Muslims to shut up rather than stand up and be counted.
For too long, a group of narrow-minded elite of religious clerics have usurped the power to comment on the Qur'an . It is time ordinary Muslims took this power back to where it belongs: with all Muslims, whatever their background, whatever their state of knowledge. Rather than being told by clerics what to think, Muslims everywhere need to get back to the religious duty of actively participating in interpretation - which can only come from lively debate .The Muslim ummah is fortunately developing a new understanding of what it means to be a Muslim in the 21st century: understand the Quran under the umbrella of Divine Guidance.
We have to encourage people to read and understand the Quran and not reduce it to a sanctified monument
As an ornament do they adorn me
Yet they keep me and sometimes kiss me.
In their celebrations they recite me. In disputes they swear by me.
On shelves do they securely keep me
Till another celebration or dispute, when they need me.
Yes, they read and memorize me,
Yet only an ornament am I.
My message lies neglected, my treasure untouched,
The field lies bare, where blossomed once true glory.
Wrong is the treatment that I receive
So much to give have I, but none is there to perceive.
- Lament of the Qur’an -Mahir-ul-Qadri
[Moin Qazi is the author of the bestselling book, Village Diary of a Heretic Banker. He has worked in the development finance sector for almost four decades. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.]