The Word and its meanings

Muslims can interpret the Quran without questioning its divine authorship

Written by A. Faizur Rahman | Updated: August 22, 2017 12:36:35 pm
islam reform, quran, west asia, muslims, christianity, cow protection, mob lynching, communal riots, india-china, dokalam, indian express Those initiated into the study of the Quran from its Arabic text would know that the aforementioned explanations are not “liberal apologetics” but the most probable interpretation in the light of its own lexicology. (Illustration by C R Sasikumar)

It may have been an attempt to take forward Ramesh Venkataraman’s debate on religious reforms (‘Let’s talk to the Book’, IE, July 15). But Javed Anand’s ‘Islam’s reform: Way to go’ (IE, July 19) reads more like an imploration to Muslims to start questioning the authorship of the Quran and their belief in its infallibility. This is evident from the question, “how do you ‘read past’ any verse of the Quran if as a believing Muslim for you it is an absolute article of faith that the Quran is the Word of Allah?”

The presumptions here are: Reform in Muslim societies is possible only if the Quran is not considered a divine book, and Islamic reform means a rejection of Quranic verses that are “bad”. The second presumption is, in fact, based on the premise that there are bad verses in the Quran.

A little reflection would reveal that scriptural content and its authorship are different issues. Belief in the divine authorship of books falls in the realm of dogma and, therefore, it would be pointless to challenge the notion unless one has the time for unending polemical parleys on what Richard Dawkins called “the spectrum of theistic probability”. On the other hand, the suitability of a religious text for modern times can be determined through objective analysis without reference to its author because identification of the author is not essential to such an investigation. The text can be anonymous for all it matters. Put differently, the reform of any religious dogma or practice can be undertaken without going into the provenance of the scripture that supposedly justifies it.

Anand’s arguments — which are based on the articles he has quoted — are nothing more than problematic interpretations of a few Quranic verses. He seems to think that there is no other way of understanding these verses and that wrong interpretations of the Quran negate its reliability as a source of divine guidance. If this method of reasoning were to be generalised, any person can be discredited by attributing to him a distorted version of his own statement. And this is exactly what some of the authors Anand approves of seem to have done unwittingly.

For instance, Farid Esack (quoted by Anand) problematises the concept of qiwaama mentioned in verse 4:34 saying it renders the wealthier gender superior. The idea of qiwaama, which is inherent in the word qawwamoon in 4:34, is derived from the root qaama whose meanings include; to stand up for, to manage, to conduct, or to make things straight. And “superiority” is not among its meanings in any Arabic lexicon. How did Esack miss this fact?

Anand is a victim of a similar misunderstanding in the case of zaraba too. The truth is that this controversial term in 4:34 continues to be wrongly translated to justify wife-beating. Out of the 50 times it occurs in the Quran, zaraba has been used 31 times to mean “to explain by giving an example”. It has been used only 10 times to mean “to strike” but mostly to describe the prophet Moses “striking the rock” or the sea, and angels “striking the faces” of sinners. As the context of 4:34 is spousal rapprochement, zaraba would take the meaning “explain to them” and not “beat them”.

Those initiated into the study of the Quran from its Arabic text would know that the aforementioned explanations are not “liberal apologetics” but the most probable interpretation in the light of its own lexicology.

Surprisingly, almost all the authors quoted by Anand, rather than conducting their own research, have relied on medieval commentators to conclude that “the Quran is far from the human rights or gender equality document that Muslim apologists make it out to be.” This is akin to Islamophobes asserting the correctness of the ISIS understanding of Islam to demonise Muslims. They seem to be oblivious to the fact that Muslims in the past did not suspend their belief in divine authorship of the Quran to interpret its verses.

The seeds of hermeneutic flexibility and interpretive freedom are within the Quran itself. Verse 39:18 states that those who “listen to the Word, and follow the best (meaning) in it” are “divinely guided” and “people of understanding”.

There is no reason for Muslims to accept that the Quran is not the Word of God, so as to “unashamedly cherry-pick from among the Quranic verses, accepting the good ones and rejecting the bad”. Why would Muslims do that when they know incorrect translations do not render the verses of any scripture bad or its divine authorship questionable?

The writer is an independent researcher and secretary general of the Chennai-based Islamic Forum for the Promotion of Moderate Thought

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