Monday, November 13, 2006
By A.G. Noorani - Frontline - India
Book Reviews -Issue 13 - 1-14 July, 2006
Verily never will God change the condition of a people until they change it themselves" — Koran (13;11).
THE Koran is the Word of God. But it is read and understood by man, limited in insights and intelligence. It is meant, alike, for the lay person, for the erudite and the mystic. The legendary scholar Annemarie Schimmel noted in her work of encyclopaedic range Mystical Dimensions of Islam that "Sufism traces its origins back to the Prophet of Islam [Mohammad] and takes inspiration from the divine word as revealed through him in the Quran".
It has verses of explicit mystic significance: "And certainly we created man, and we know what his mind suggests to him - and we are nearer to him than his jugular vein" (50:16); "Wherever you turn, there is His Face" (2:115); and, God put signs of His existence into nature and into the human soul "can you not, then, see?" (51:21). The Sufi's quest is to read those signs within himself and outside.
Professor Kristin Zahra Sands of Sarah Lawrence College specialises in Sufism, Koranic exegesis and Islam and media. Her work, one of the several in the Routledge Studies in the Quran, is a model of erudition expressed in lucid style. She is keenly aware of the problem.
"The Quran, for Muslims, represents the word of God revealed to Muhammad. Its interpretation, then, requires a certain audacity. How can one begin to say what God `meant' by His revelation? How does one balance the praiseworthy desire to understand the meanings of the Quran with the realistic fear of reducing it to the merely human and individualistic? Is interpretation an art, a science, an inspired act, or all of these? Sufi commentators living in the classical time period of Islam from the tenth to the fifteenth centuries answered these questions in their own unique way, based on their assumptions regarding the nature of the Quranic text, the source of knowledge considered necessary for its interpretation, and the nature of the self seeking this knowledge. The commentaries they wrote are distinct from other types of Quranic commentaries both in terms of content, which reflects Sufi ideas and concepts, and the variety of styles ranging from philosophical musings to popular preaching to literary narrative and poetry."
Her book seeks to study the relationship of Sufis to the Koran comprehensively. Part I of the study concerns Sufi "hermeneutics", a word used to refer to the way in which Sufis described the nature of the Koranic text and the types of knowledge and methods needed to understand it. The basic question is how best to approach the Koran in order to discover its richness and transforming possibilities.
The fourth Caliph, Ali, put it succinctly: "Every verse of the Koran has four kinds of meaning: an exoteric sense (zahir), an inner sense (batin), a limit (hadd), and a lookout point (muttala). The exoteric sense is the recitation (tilawa), the inner sense is understanding (fahm), the limit (hadd) is the rulings of what is permitted and prohibited, and the lookout point (muttala) is what is meant by God for the servant by (the verse). It is said that the Quran is a clear expression (ibara), an allusion (ishara), subtleties (lata'if) and realities (haqa'iq) so that the clear expression is for hearing, the allusion is for the intellect ('aql); the subtleties are for witnessing (mushahada) and the realities are for self-surrender (istislam). There is no good in an act of worship without comprehension, nor in a recitation without pondering."
For the Sufi, knowledge cannot be separated from spiritual practice nor scholarship from personal behaviour. The Koran must be read with the heart as well as the head; indeed, with the soul itself. The book takes the reader through the various methods of interpretation by great Sufi commentators on the Koran, one by one. Particularly enlightening are chapters discussing commentaries on some verses of the Koran that are of deep mystic significance.
"The most important and difficult kind of knowledge to obtain, for the Sufis is a kind of knowledge that comes not from the strivings of the intellect but, rather, as the result of God's grace and a deeper kind of struggle within man. In his Kitab al-luma Abu Nasr al-Sarraj characterises this struggle in a corporeal way as the sacrifice of one's very lifeblood."
All this is far, far removed from the Koran as interpreted by the fundamentalist, the ignorant mullah and thanks to centuries of indoctrination, by the ordinary person, Muslim or non-Muslim.
Mohamed Charfi's book is one of the most incisive analyses of the historical misunderstanding of Islam by Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Professor of Law in Tunis, he helped to float Perspectives, a progressive democratic Opposition group, and was sentenced to two years' imprisonment. He served as a reformist Minister for Education but resigned in protest against the excesses of security forces against opposition to the reforms he had introduced. In Tunisia, scholars like Bayram in the 19th century have blazed the trail for reform. The erudition and rigorous analysis packed into his slim volume is amazing. Written in French, it was translated into the English by Patrick Camiller. The work draws heavily on writings in French by Arab and European scholars, which are not cited in English books. One hopes it is translated into Urdu and distributed widely in India and Pakistan. The author's analyses are based on the Koran.
The problem is faced boldly at the very outset. "Islam is no less capable of evolution than Christianity or Judaism. But whereas, over the past few centuries, Europeans have undergone profound technological, economic, cultural and political changes, often amid considerable suffering and with major ebbs and flows, the Muslim peoples have fallen greatly behind in all spheres. This is not a fate to which they are doomed for ever; it is possible for them to close the gap."
In truth, intellectual stagnation in the Islamic world long preceded revivalism and its hideous offshoot, fundamentalism. Western imperialism inspired revivalism. Its opportunism aided fundamentalism (witness: Afghanistan and Somalia).
"Year after year the gulf has been widening between an idealised ancestral system, which is held sacred and disseminated through school, and a new system that is ever more widely regarded as an alien import contrary to Islam. This is a grave discrepancy that tears people apart and brings them to the verge of schizophrenia. For they do not wish to sacrifice either Islam or modernity. They are as attached to the Islamic religion as they are to the structure of the modern state, which they insist should be genuinely democratic and representative" (emphasis added throughout).
The political Islamist wants an imagined historical Islam to prevail over modernity. The modernist seldom rises to the intellectual challenge of understanding Islam as well as modernity. "There is no credible counter-discourse", especially among Muslims of the subcontinent. Most of them think in stereotypes. For the lay Muslim, the disconnect between the faith he learns at home and the rationalism and knowledge he acquires at school and in college is painful. He wants to be a good Muslim; yet finds the Islam preached from the pulpit strange, almost irrelevant. It need not be. Forty years ago the writer heard an inspiring sermon one Friday at the Islamic Centre in Washington, D.C.; less so, was the one he heard next Friday at a London mosque. The sermon at a mosque near the High Court in Mumbai was pathetic.
If in Muslim countries the authoritarian state stifles free debate, the same job is undertaken in countries where Muslims are a minority by the bigoted, ignorant mullah in complicity with Muslim politicians. Without free thought and free discourse, Muslim society stagnates intellectually and morally; even if Muslims prosper economically. What have Indian mullahs to offer to young Muslims? Except the warning that Islam and modernity are incompatible? Muslims are riven by what they feel is an elemental contradiction. "They have a kind of guilty conscience that they are both Muslim and modern; this prevents them from clarifying their discourse, defending their policies and adopting a more consistent standpoint. It is the duty of Muslim intellectuals to perform this necessary, if arduous task. In this, they have failed."
Like Tariq Ramadan, Mohamed Charfi is committed to the faith of Islam, erudite and intellectually honest and courageous. Colonial rule is condemnable. But the Third World tends to forget that it had made itself colonisable by its internal feuds and backwardness. Refusal to learn foreign languages, science and technology ensured backwardness. European Renaissance owed a lot to Arabs who had translated and enriched Greek philosophy and science which were lost. Arabic numerals were introduced into Europe in the 10th century by Sylvester II, the first French Pope and an "admirer of Arab-Islamic civilisation".
During the hour of trial, while a few ulema (Muslim clergy) opposed imperialism, a good many collaborated - from India to Tunisia. Obliging fatwas (edicts) followed freely in return for official favours. The foremost fundamentalist Abul Ala Maudoodi, who migrated from India to Pakistan to play havoc there, is lauded for, of all things, learning. He buttressed Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq's rule. Sample his lament that after the first four Caliphs who governed following the death of Prophet Mohammad, "the land of Islam saw the introduction of a mixture of philosophy, literature and sciences from Greece, Iran and India. This brought into being Mutazilite conceptions, currents tending to foster doubt and atheism... and therefore discord and factions, as well as the non-Islamic arts of dance, music and painting, which were encouraged by those to whom it was forbidden to engage in these vile arts."
Charfi rightly remarks that this "dismissal of everything produced by the human mind outside the sphere of Islam, and even of any elements within it later than the age of the Prophet and the four wise Caliphs, leads to a rejection of democracy and democratic attitudes".
Charfi holds that "there is nothing inevitable about fundamentalism, that what is involved is not a matter of religion but a problem of culture and education. In fact, we must distinguish between Muslims and Islamists". The fundamentalist presumes to direct Muslims "to do right and forbear from doing evil". Under this slogan he usurps extra-statal power. But he has no genuine interest in the faith; for, the Koran clearly says: "Each man shall reap the fruits of his own deeds; no soul shall bear another's burden. In the end to your Lord shall you return, and He will resolve your disputes for you" (6:158).
If highly relevant to India is the Chapter on Islam and Law, relevant to Pakistan is the one on Islam and the state. Together they constitute the core of the work; irrefutable in documentation and devastating in refutation of dogma. The gravest, most fateful, mistake by Muslims over the centuries is a palpable, wilful misconstruction of Koranic messages on marriage. This is a scripture, not a statute.
As Karen Armstrong writes, "We have to know how to read our scriptures. They demand an imaginative effort... A true meaning of scripture can never be wholly comprised in a literal reading of the text, since that text points beyond itself to a reality which cannot adequately be expressed in words and concepts... " (In the Beginning: A New Interpretation of Genesis; page 5).
Judges say that the worst way to read a Constitution is to read it literally and that every document must be read as a whole. Now read the Koranic verses for yourself in the Fourth Surah (chapter) on Women. The second verse in this Surah enjoins: "render unto the orphans their possessions... ". The third says: "If you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with the orphans, marry women of your choice, two or three or four: But if you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly [with them], then only one... That will be more suitable, to prevent you from doing injustice."
The first verse is clearly illustrative, not mandatory. Honestly read, monogamy is what it enjoins; polygamy is permitted in that given situation and subject strictly to the overriding condition of equal treatment. But, wait. Later on, another verse (129) in the same Surah says in categorical terms: "And you cannot do justice between wives, even though you [wish it]."
There is not a single verse in the Koran which sanctions punishment for apostasy; a good few to forbid that. "Had your Lord pleased, all the people of the earth would have believed in one and all. Would you then force people to have faith?" (10:99).
Mullahs traced the law on apostasy to a hadith and a source of law. But the man who reported it was 13 at the time of the Prophet's death. "Throughout the early centuries of Islam, religion was used as a cover for authoritarian policies involving the murder of opponents. The ulema always identified ridda (apostasy) with al-baghi (violent or ideological opposition to the Islamic regime in place). This is how they justified the crushing of popular revolts such as that of the Zanj or black slaves, a super-exploited sub proletariat which rose up between 869 and 883 CE [Christian Era]. It is also how they justified the execution of the great Sufi thinker Al Hallaj (in 922) or of Zanadika (free-thinkers) such as the celebrated writer of Persian origin lbn Elmokaffa, who translated into Arabic a number of literary works from the Indian and Iranian civilisations and was put to death in 757, at the age of thirty-six. Such practices later died down. Perhaps - and this was certainly one of the causes that precipitated the decline of the Muslim world - the ever more violent repression discouraged and eventually stifled any attempt at reflection or innovation."
On January 18, 1985, Mahmud Mohammed Taha was sentenced to death, under the Gaafar Nimeiri regime in Sudan, which had Hassan al Turabi as Justice Minister. Taha's interpretation of the Koran, with which Charfi disagrees, was held to amount to apostasy. Al Azhar University at Cairo and the League of the Muslim World, based in Mecca, lauded the sentence.
"Whereas the general philosophy of Islam - its broad orientation and fundamental principles - is absolutely valid and cannot change in time or place, the specific rules and applications adopted during or immediately after the Prophet's lifetime were geared to the prevailing circumstances and should change to reflect different circumstances. We must therefore distinguish between Islam, which is immutable and eternal, and sharia law, which should be amended or abolished. Islamists maintain that, on the contrary, nothing has changed since the age of the Prophet. And they do not like it when the incompatibility between sharia law and human rights is pointed out to them."
When the Koran says (2:1185): "Whoever of you sees with his eyes the new moon let him fast in that month", it is addressing the tribes of Arabia which had no precise calendar and adopted lunar months beginning from the moment when they "saw with their eyes" the crescent of the new moon. But in a literal reading of the sacred text, the Muslim world still suffers from the impreciseness of its calendar. People know the fast days or the beginning and end of the month of Ramadan only a few hours in advance - as if it were still impossible for Muslims to calculate the days and hours of the conjunction of the sun and the moon, while "others" are able to send space probes around Jupiter or Saturn.
There are three legacies from the past which Muslims must discard - the ossified sharia which conflicts with the Koran; the notion of the "Islamic state" which the Koran does not support and which never existed in history; jehad, which is a perversion of the concept as propounded in the Koran.
Any reform in the Islamic world must grapple honestly with four related tasks: (1) Interpretation of some Koranic verses in the light of the times, as against others which are of enduring relevance for all time. (2) Weeding out hadith (compilation of the Prophet's sayings) of dubious credibility. (3) Rejection of the authority of the ulema (clerics). (4) A sound appreciation of Islam in history, especially the role of the first four Caliphs, as distinct from Islam in the Koran.