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Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Quran and the West - A history of prejudice.

When UKIP’s Lord Pearson says that Muslims should address the violence in the Quran, he is most definitely not pretending to be ignorant. He should know that there is a counter narrative available for those who wish to listen; that of a peaceful, non-political Islam in which Quran and the Sunnah (conduct of the Prophet of Islam) still hold a central, fundamental position.

Even Lord Pearson’s critics can’t help but defend his ‘intellectual’ message.

Andrew Brown says that in a ‘literal sense’ the Quran does contain an ‘unpleasant and violent political message’. I wonder what exactly he means by the phrase ‘in a literal sense’. What is literal? Is it ‘taking words in their usual or most basic sense without metaphor or exaggeration.’ as Google informs us?

Or in the case of the Quran it must mean contextomizing the text?. i.e., the literal reading of the Quran which teaches its readers a violent political message can only be done if each ‘problem’ verse is read in its usual and most basic sense… without any context: Both historic and textual.

Let us discuss a bit of historic context.

The first contact of the Muslims with the West was a hostile one. The Byzantine Empire shrank and eventually retreated under the onslaught of Muslim armies from the time of Umar, the second Caliph. Since then, misrepresenting Islam has become an age old western tradition.

We have a Greek-Syriac text from the time of Umar which informs its readers of a ‘false prophet of the Saracens’ whose armies have invaded Palestine.

That was an inevitable, unavoidable war. Empires did not suffer barbarian tribes for too long before sending armies to neutralize them. But these were no barbarians. They were a society of converts to a religion which taught morality and required its followers to proselytize it to the world. A clash was inevitable. And for the Byzantines, it resulted in a defeat.

By now you must be wondering why I am digressing from the issue of context to the problematic Quranic verses. If you want that discussion, pick up a copy of the Quran and a book on the Sira of the Prophet.

I want to discuss the historical context of these periodic statements put out by politicians and academics about revising the Quran, discarding some of it, denouncing it, even banning it. That is the real problem here.

So where were we? Yes, Islam’s encounters with the Byzantine empire...

Centuries later, by the time Islamic civilization was in decline, Orientalist missionaries started producing literature on Islam. They belonged to many denominations of the Christian faith, but had one thing in common. They could not bear to accept any virtues in the Holy Prophet or his message.

According to them the rise of Islam had nothing to do with the actual message of the Quran. Socio-economically speaking, Islam was a product of an Arab renaissance of sorts. With a culture in love with its language and tribes taking pride in their poets – A nation was aching to unite under a cause to challenge the Byzantine and Persian Empires who had dismissed them as illiterate nomads for too long.

Add to the mix a poet who aspired to be a prophet the same as those who came to the Israelites.

D C MacDonald writes about how Quran came into being;

‘Muhammad’s brain had for long been treasuring up such things (sic. segments of Old Testament); but treasuring them up with the most singular, most unparalleled inaccuracy; and then making them over with the utmost freedom of imagination.’

Take SW Koelle for example, another 19th century Orientalist who faithfully reproduces passage after passage from Ibn e Ishaq’s Sira while commenting on the person of the Prophet with the aim to negate any heroic quality that was apparent or implied in those writings.

In the 17th Century, George Sale translated the Quran into English and in his opening notes introduced it as ‘the Book what that false prophet very grosly invented’.

Title page of Sale's translation of the Quran

With such a rich history of academic prejudice, no wonder that the western scholarship never could look at the Quran in a neutral light. They hated and feared both the book and its bearers.

The same thought process has been inherited by the present day Orientalist-Historians. No longer burdened by Christian faith, they do not want to glorify Christ the Saviour and demean all the false prophets who came after him. But because Islam challenges the perceived notions of those who research it with an open mind, it does take a lot of effort to oppose it.

The first reaction is to reject the text as a forgery; something post-scripted to fit a changing geo-political landscape of Arabia. Any parallels with the older scriptures are considered plagiarisms and interpolations by unknown editors of the Quran. Any departures from the Bibilical narratives are just mistakes and evidence that the author of the Quran must have taken any apocryphal stories and adopted them for their new book.

Patricia Crone accepts that the Quran was indeed uttered by a person called Muhammad, but she is not convinced if Mecca ever existed. Similar doubts have been raised by Tom Holland in his recent work. Another attempt to discredit the Quran was made by Luxenberg,who thinks that it originated as a Syriac text outside of Arabia and transformed into classic Arabic over a period of time.

One of the new theories states that Islam was in fact a doomsday cult which just carried on growing. Early Muslims were awaiting the Armageddon imminently. Maybe this explains the fanaticism of the Muslim armies who conquered the world.

However, the message of the Quran, its conviction on absolute justice, equality of human kind, rights of women and social justice, has all been ignored due to prejudice. Muslims did not come out of Arabia with a nationalist cause; they came out because they had something to share with the world. And they made sure the world knew of this treasure - the Quran.

We cannot deny that there is a problem with the Muslim world today. It is a problem of literal reading: but not of the Quran itself. It is of the disparate Hadith texts which require even more context and validations than the Quran. The creed of Salafis and Wahabis, the two factions of Sunni Islam providing almost all the fighters in ISIS and Al-Qaeda, are Hadith-centric. i.e. They believe the Quran to be the word of God, but they dare not understand its words without a Hadith reference. This means that if a verse’s explanation is not accompanied by an alleged explanation by the prophet himself or his esteemed companions, or those who came immediately after them - it is not a valid interpretation.

In fact, in Orthodox Sunni Islam, the Quran has been the secondary source of doctrinal authority for many centuries.

This approach restricts the understanding of the Quran to a particular era of history which is only remembered for its violence. Nations were at war with each other, slavery was still a common practice and society was still being ruled by very tribal traditions. The ideas of citizenship, loyalty and national identities were very different then.
In fact it was the Quran which spurred on the Muslim civilizations around the world to take huge leaps in philosophy, science, arts and culture which benefited the whole of mankind.

How strange it must be to live in the 21st century; in the era of the Internet and smartphones and idealizing a medieval lifestyle at the same time.

So the next time someone blames Quran for the punishment of beheadings and hanging for apostasy, blasphemy and heresy, or stoning to death for adultery or homosexuality, please remember that Quran does not prescribe such punishments at all.

This debate on how to interpret Quran has been going on among theMuslims for many centuries, and it will continue for the time to come. But if history has taught us anything, it is that reform is an ongoing process which may take centuries.

The problem is not the Quran, it never has been. The problem has been those who twisted the meanings of the Quran to create suspicions, and those who ignored its message. And above all, those Muslims who were given this gift and they chose to replace it with the opinions of men.

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