Breaking down a wall of misunderstanding
Kashif Shahzada vs Madeleine Bunting
Excerpts from The Guardian Debate
They fall into a long tradition of western incomprehension at this holy book. In part this is because it is measured up against implicit assumptions about faith, sacred texts which are rooted – however distantly – in the familiar biblical tradition. My first tip to any western reader is forget characters, forget stories: the Bible may be full of them – Abraham, Isaac, Daniel, David, Joseph, Jesus, Mary – but the Qur’an is not. It is a detailed description of the nature of God alongside instructions for every aspect of human existence. To put it crudely, think self-help manual rather than an anthology of of short stories.
There are characters and stories in Islam – most obviously, the life of the prophet – but they are not in the Qur’an. They are in the sayings of the prophet (hadith) and his life story, both of which are much revered by Muslims.
There are other obviously intimidating characteristics. The book works on repetition, the structure is spiral rather than linear, and it takes a while to notice how material is repeated and juxtaposed to form different patterns – like a kaleidoscope. There are moments of poetry and rich imagery, but I still balked at the suggestion that this is the most beautifully written book of all time because it is the word of God.
But the incomprehension at this book runs even more deeply. Perhaps the hardest process of intercultural communication is in reading the sacred text of another culture; take a look at Buddhist scriptures, full of references to lotus flowers, and the enormity of the cultural leap required is also immediately apparent. It requires a teacher conversant with the etymology of the original language and the cultural traditions of the historical context to begin to make sense of them. And they have to be very patient with their audience who inevitably bring their own unspoken cultural assumptions with them. Another faith’s sacred text encapsulates a whole worldview – and that is the hardest thing for any outsider to grasp.
So it was a brave project for Ziauddin Sardar to take on. It was also honest of him to confess in his introduction, that neither was a he traditional scholar nor did he speak Arabic, the original language of the Qur’an. That prompted a fascinating exchange because as one contributor, Abdullah al-Hasan, made clear, he regarded Sardar as having no right or authority to explain his understanding of the Qur’an. Al-Hasan argued that without years of study in a recognised Islamic institution and a full training in classical Arabic, you could not venture to interpret this book. Sardar’s retort was sharp: to his mind, the Muslim world was crippled intellectually and politically by exactly this impasse over the Qur’an. Its interpretation was jealously guarded by a group of institutions with a mindset dating from the eighth century while millions of young Muslims with unprecedented access to education were cut off from debating and thinking about the book which determined so much of their lives.
The fallout from this global cultural war within Islam is that there are precious few Muslims who are familiar enough with a western mindset and confident of their Islamic credentials to explain their book. The nature of the Qur’an and how it is to be understood is the single biggest obstacle between the west and Islam. Muslims want the book to be given proper respect while westerners, at best, find it utterly baffling.
Sardar and those blogging have helped me understand several key things. The first is that the Qur’anic emphasis on pluralism is quite simply astonishing. The tolerance and respect for the monotheistic traditions of Judaism and Christianity was extraordinary for its day and in sharp contrast to the exclusive claims of both the Old and New Testaments. No wonder that modern translations of the Qur’an are busily re-writing or even cutting some of these verses – they would re-write the politics of the Middle East if they were taken literally.
Sardar argues that the Qur’an has to be reinterpreted for every generation. Every word of it may be timeless, eternal truth, he claims, but every verse must be analysed and scrutinised according to the times to yield the appropriate insight and wisdom; reason is a crucial tool with which to unlock the teachings of the Qur’an. It’s a defence of the Qur’an which provides for both the belief in the book as the literal word of God as well as a room for more liberal interpretations on issues such as homosexuality or the hijab. But it sometimes seemed like a high wire act as Sardar tried to explain certain verses.
Some of my concerns about the Qur’an remain, for example, the gender bias against women. I accept that Islam was well ahead of Christianity for centuries in terms of recognising women’s property rights and acknowledgment of women’s sexuality (such as the right to be sexually satisfied) but still the Qur’an seems to be framed in a patriarchal culture. This debate cropped up over a verse in which women were compared to fields; it seemed like a prescription for female passivity but our Muslim bloggers wouldn’t have it and the discussion rumbled on as they tried to explain to me the hidden wisdom of the analogy.
What it confirmed for me was that the Qur’an was a text of its time and reflected the cultural assumptions of seventh century Arabs. It also undoubtedly represents a breakthrough text in human ethical understanding – alongside those from other cultures. But for Muslims such a matter of fact assessment is inconceivable because it strikes at the heart of their belief that this is a book written by God for all time. I would hope one can agree to differ, but I now understand much better how very difficult that can be.
Madeline Bunting says that a cabinet minister and a senior economist had been horrified upon reading the Qur’an. What exactly was it that they found horrifying, she doesn’t say?
Was the minister uncomfortable with the exhortation to extend justice to all, even one’s own enemies (4:135, 5:8) that didn’t go down well with the a certain government policy of supporting dictatorial regimes and bombing civilian populations in foreign lands?
Or was it the injunction to ensure a just and equitable distribution of wealth, so that resources of the land “do not remain in the hands of only the wealthy among you…” (59:7), that horrified the senior economist, as it went against granting privileges to the rich at the expense of the poor? So what exactly was it?
She may be right in suggesting that many in the west (or even the east for that matter) are at loggerheads with Qur’anic values.
After all the Qur’an is calling them to change, to mend their ways, to give up racism and policies based around regional and national interests, to extend justice and equity to all, to keep a check on their personal and carnal pleasures and share their wealth with the unfortunate for the sake of God, all this is definitely what they don’t want to do.
So why wouldn’t they express their horror at such a text, which asks them to move out of their comfort zone. Why wouldn’t they treat it as a ‘summer read’, instead of a serious manual for life mandatory for a sincere quest for truth?
Ms Bunting is not correct in generalizing that there is a long tradition about western incomprehension of the Qur’an. I am sure she knows that there are many in the West who find the Qur’an perfectly comprehensible! I am not talking of immigrants or 2nd generation believers, but native, westerners, who have studied the book of their own accord and appreciate it on its own merit. E.g.
“Quran takes the responsibility of man prosperity alone. I hope it will not be too late that time which I can unite all the scholars of all the countries together and establish a monotone society based on principles of Quran only which will guide people to prosperity.” Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1721)
“Everything made so much sense. This is the beauty of the Qur’an; it asks you to reflect and reason… When I read the Qur’an further, it talked about prayer, kindness and charity. I was not a Muslim yet, but I felt the only answer for me was the Qur’an and Allah had sent it to me.” (Yusuf Islam [Cat Stevens], British pop star)
Does Ms Bunting consider such individuals as Westerners or does the ‘West’ consist only of those that she mentions?
She claims to balk at the suggestion that the Qur’an is the most beautifully written book of all time because it is the word of God. Well, if it is God’s handiwork, then it won’t be second best will it then? First believe that it is from God, then the appreciation to beauty will come naturally. But there are many non Muslim individuals, who although do not consider the Qur’an to be of divine origin, yet appreciate and wonder at its marvel.
She suggests that incomprehension at this book runs even more deeply and recommends qualifications in foreign culture and language for a better grasp of the text, but what will she say to the fact that many outsiders to the faith have very well grasped the essence of its message, and that too without the qualifications suggested by Ms Bunting. Is not the actual existence of such individuals and their growing number in the west a living rebuttal to the claim of Qur’an’s incomprehension??
She also makes the fantastic claim about omission of verses on tolerance:
“No wonder that modern translations of the Qur’an are busily re-writing or even cutting some of these verses – they would re-write the politics of the Middle East if they were taken literally.”
This is really news to me! What a strange comment. Which modern translation has omitted any verse or verses on tolerance or pluralism from the Book. Can Bunting give names / references of publishers? Such a fantastic claim warrants at least some evidence, but none is given! Her claim makes the impression as if some editing and cutting is being done in modern translations of the Qur’an, a phenomenon commonplace within the Judeo-Christian tradition whereby not just verses, but entire passages were omitted and deleted from the Bible! I believe, Ms Bunting owes it to her readers to supply at least any reference to omission of verses on tolerance with any modern Qur’an translation.
She expresses her concern about the Qur’an being in a frame of patriarchy but the culture and society in which Ms Bunting is resident at present, would she say that it is matriarchal? Regarding her understanding of the verse on fields, it is obvious that reading the verse in its entire context makes it abundantly clear that the subject matter relates to sexual encounter, and woman’s likeness to that of the field should be seen in sexual terms i.e. she is the source through which another human being comes into the world, just like a field is the source responsible for producing forth living organisms. It is highly unfortunate that Qur’anic reflection of this ever important and natural state for women is viewed by Bunting as a passive act, whereas it is actually active in every sense.
It is natural for women to bear children just like it is natural for a cultivated land to produce crop – whether anyone agrees or disagrees with this simple fact won’t change anything! Indeed the Qur’an is true in its statement that women are like a tilth, i.e. they have child bearing capacity. This is a fact, that can’t be denied at all.
She considers the Qur’an to be: “.. a text of its time”. Indeed the Qur’an is a text of its time, but its timeframe is not 7th century Arabia, but day one of human existence. Since ever humankind has existed or will exist, Qur’anic era is in place with its values providing the divine guiding light. The problem with most critics of the Qur’an is the very motivation with which they approach the book. What is the purpose? Why do they wish to study the text?
Is it to explore its truthfulness? Or is it to find a reflection of their own likes and dislikes? I think, the type of motivation one has, that type of results he or she will get in the end.
“..He causes many to err by it and many He leads aright by it! but He does not cause to err by it (any) except the transgressors…” 2:26