A week with the Qur’an
Kashif Shahzada vs Madeleine Bunting
Excerpts from The Guardian Debate
MADELEINE BUNTING: I’m feeling a bit like a groupie. I watch the film, I write a blog, I chair a debate at the IslamExpo event last weekend: all on the Qur’an.
I thought the Channel 4 documentary, The Qur’an, was television at its old-fashioned best: meticulously balanced, profoundly thought provoking and beautifully filmed. The shots and commentary of the sharia court in Palestine was a wonderful way to subvert the anxiety and hysteria on the issue in the UK. The crowded shabby office and its handling of routine matters of family life illustrated how a lot of sharia in some countries is pretty mundane. No hand-chopping in sight.
But nor did the documentary avoid the really awful expressions of Islam which are chilling. The learned scholar who told us that more women should be genitally mutilated in the west so that there is less promiscuity. And there was footage of a terrified girl having the operation itself. It just is not enough for Ajmal Masroor in his otherwise very sensible and shrewd comments to conclude that genital mutilation is an African custom (he is, of course, not African).
Masroor’s comment provoked an issue which has been troubling me for a while. Every time something problematic crops up – such as genital mutilation or honour killing – Muslims have a tendency to dismiss it as non-Islamic and “cultural” or pre-Islamic. But my question is: many of these countries have experienced Islam for a millennium, how come the faith has failed to eradicate these brutal cultural traditions? Islam, we are told, gives women remarkable rights, but the reality is that across the Muslim world, women don’t experience precisely these rights. Why has Islam made such a bad job of eradicating that pre-Islamic past?
Now, on to the debate. Unlike many of the other sessions at IslamExpo, this was a very learned debate about spiritual faith, not about politics or power and foreign policy. The Guardian-sponsored debate was entitled “How to understand the Qur’an?” What was remarkable is how the vast hall was almost full – more than 1,000 people – to hear Tariq Ramadan, Sarah Joseph and Professor Abdel Haleem join Zia Sardar to discuss how people should read the Qur’an.
It is Professor Haleem’s translation that I am using so it was good to meet the great man himself. His message was clear: make sure you have the right translation. It was a point also made again and again in the television documentary. Some Saudi translations specify real intolerance for Islam and Judaism in a way unsupported by older translations and many other contemporary ones.
But it was Ramadan’s approach to the Qur’an which really helped clarify a few things. I will be offering only a rough paraphrase but Ramadan’s analysis broke down into three components. First, he said the Qur’an is a call. It is an invitation to a dialogue. Come, it is saying.
Second, it offers stories of the Qur’an and you project onto these stories your own experiences of life. It is your own emotional history and understanding which brings these stories to life – so it amounts to another form of dialogue.
Finally, it describes the way – the rules for life and society. But be wary, said Ramadan of making these up on your own. These require a lot of knowledge; they require caution and time and must be worked out collectively amongst those learned and skilled in such things.
So Ramadan seemed to offer a way of accommodating a very democratic – everyone read this book – approach with an emphasis on tradition in its interpretation of the rules by which people and societies should order their lives. These are issues we have looked at repeatedly in the last six months: who has the authority to interpet the Qur’an? Here was a complex answer: all believers can enter the dialogue, but the “way” is collective, a pooling of knowledge. Not the individual making it up as they go along.
Ms Bunting stated:
“…. But my question is: many of these countries have experienced Islam for a millennium, how come the faith has failed to eradicate these brutal cultural traditions?”
That these societies have experienced Islam (the true religion based on the Qur’an) is an assumption. One experiences Islam, not through cultural osmosis or by inherting the faith from ancestors, but through personal effort (see 29:69), thought and reflection (47:24), a personal study of the Qur’an (54:17)and a life of action based on its inspiration (6:19).
This is stated in not one, but numerous Qur’anic verses, and it is by passing through this very process that one truly experiences Islam. One is not a Muslim merely by being born or brought up in a community that labels itself as Islamic, but one attains the status of a Submitter (a Muslim) through conscious and willing submission to the Qur’an and a life of action based on its teachings (see 2:128).
Ms Bunting says that many of these countries have experienced Islam, but she didn’t identify which “Islam” have they experienced, or whether what these countries have experienced throughout these centuries really is Islam, or is something very different but using the label of Islam to justify itself.
When she really is able to prove that the socieites she is critical of have experienced Islam based on the Qur’an for a millenium and not an adulterated form of the faith, and yet remain unchanged, then her question would be valid. However, as she falls short of proving that these societies are truly Islamic i.e. based on Qur’an as supreme law and social order, her question ” how come the faith has failed to eradicate these brutal cultural traditions?” is out of mark.
Ms Bunting observed:
“So Ramadan seemed to offer a way of accommodating a very democratic – everyone read this book – approach with an emphasis on tradition in its interpretation …”
Did Ramadan cite any Qur’anic verses as evidence to back up his view or is this his personal opinion?
Does the Book say anywhere within its contents that it is in need of tradition for its interpretation? A book that claims perfection in need of material agreed upon as inconsistent by all? Ramadan’s offer of “…everyone read this book – approach with an emphasis on tradition in its interpretation..” is not at all democratic and accomodating because there is not single body of tradition which is common to all schools of thoughts, and if one chooses a particular version, imeediately he or she is at loggerheads with the version of the opposing sect. Not only that, tradition fails to amplify each and every verses of the Qur’an, for if that were the case, the commentators of numerous sects and scholls of thoughts would not have written their huge volumes of Qur’anic exegesis but would have found the tradition as a sufficient source of Qur’anic commentary.
The fact of the matter is that the Qur’an is not in need of either the tradition or the Judeo Christian texts for its exegesis, and I would turn the tables and put these texts BELOW the Qur’an and keep these AS SUBORDINATE to what Qur’an says. We have to study the Qur’an in the light of the Qur’an itself, and tradition/bible should be subjected to that Qur’anic understanding. If it is consistent to the Qur’an then we can accept it, but if it is not, then we reject the tradition and accept the Qur’an.
The Qur’an comes first and acts as its own commentary. No other book is an aid to or is equal to the Qur’an.
As a Muslim, I would consider the view that God’s book is in need of man’s book for its explanation otherwise it is redundant, to be blasphemy of the higest order.
Ms Bunting stresses:
“These are issues we have looked at repeatedly in the last six months: who has the authority to interpet the Qur’an? Here was a complex answer: all believers can enter the dialogue, but the “way” is collective, a pooling of knowledge. Not the individual making it up as they go along.”
Does the Book mention Who is its Teacher? Yes. It very well does:
“(God) Most Gracious. It is HE who teaches the Qur’an.” 55:1-2
“Nay! It is FOR US to explain it (the Qur’an).” 75:19
“Surely, it is UPON US to guide” 92:12
It is very clear in above and many other verses that GOD IS THE TEACHER of the Qur’an and ONLY HE has the authority to reveal and inspire it to whom HE wills.
People like Ramadan should be asked: Where exactly have you read within the pages of the Book that a committee of ‘specialists’ and ‘experts’ should pool knowledge and claim to be the authorities to interpret the text??
The Qur’an is meant for NAAS which is the Arabic word for HUMANKIND. And humanity is an all inclusive term and encompasses ALL and leaves NONE.
“Ramadan is the month in which the Qur’an was revealed, as GUIDANCE FOR HUMANKIND…” (2:185)
Every human being, whether black or white, rich or poor, scholar or layman, man or woman can understand, be inspired by and practice the Qur’an, but ONLY if he or she wants to.
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