Review on Reading the Qu’ran: The Contemporary Relevance of the Sacred Text of Islam by Meenakshi Chawla
We live in an unsettled and unsettling world. Religion is at once a personal value and a public stance – it is at an uncertain juncture in these unsettled times. At the heart of present uncertainties and perceived future impossibilities is a book - the Qu’ran, the Sacred Text of Islam. What is read as the Qu’ran and how it is interpreted by people, both Muslims and non-Muslims, contributes to contemporary debates, positions, arguments and fears. To that end, this book by Ziauddin Sardar is an invaluable resource. Written with conviction, and a humility born of study and reflection, the book attempts to demystify the message of the Qu’ran and its significance today.
Ziauddin Sardar brings forth a certain facet of the Sacred Text again and again in different ways, and that is ‘the “Word of God” is not beyond question; only through questioning the text can we tease out possible answers to our moral dilemmas.
This is precisely why one of the most insistent commands in the Qu’ran is to think and reflect’. Sardar lays before the reader, perhaps here he targets primarily the non-Muslim reader, the structural beauty of the Qu’ran, its lack of a strict chronology, and the importance of sound, or a ‘musical symphony’. It is illuminating that the first word of the revelation was ‘Iqra’ (‘Read’), to which the Prophet replied ‘I cannot’. But the Prophet repeated orally each revelation to his growing tribe of followers and recited it in prayers. The innate beauty of the language enabled the community to memorise the sounds, and to this day, millions of devout Muslims commit the Qu’ran to memory. The Qu’ran was revealed in installments over 23 years from 610 to 632. For non-Muslims engaging with the text of the Qu’ran, the changing voice is equally a concern. The speaker is God – but it confuses readers when the speaker changes from ‘I’ to ‘We’ to ‘He’. Why? How? The author explains these apparent ‘aberrations’ as also the fact that there is an internal logic to the Qu’ran, a higher logic than the Aristotelian logic the West has propagated and that we are familiar, indeed comfortable, with.
As just another ordinary reader completely unfamiliar with the text of the Qu’ran, I found it helpful that Sardar draws upon other scholars’ views through their translations and interpretations. He has drawn upon the earliest translations, for instance, The Alcoran of Mahomet (Alexander Ross, 1649); The Koran: Commonly called the Alkoran of Mohammed (George Sale, 1734) to more recent ones like The Koran (N. J. Dawood, 1956) of which Sardar disapproves because he believes the translation ‘projects the Qu’ran as a violent and sexist text’ and The Holy Qu’ran: Translation and Commentary (Yusuf Ali, 1934-37). This engagement with various interpretations and translations makes the Sacred Text come alive to the needs of a changing world, a world woefully short of spiritual capital, a world fast losing its ethical moorings in the face of multi-hued adversities. That is the true power of the word of God.
For this work, the author synthesizes a number of translations and picks the translation that has the ‘most lucid language, shorn of archaic form’ to convey the sense of the verse under discussion. The author also does not adhere to the traditional method of interpreting the Qu’ran verse by verse, and ‘atomise the Sacred Text’. He examines the verses in the context of the whole, ‘questioning the interrelationship within and between the verses’ and thus embarking on a ‘deeper understanding of the logic behind the structure of the text’.
Part One: Overview provides the framework within which the remaining sections unfold as well as the historical backdrop of the revelation of the Book. Part Two: By Way of Tradition goes through the al-Fatiha and Al-Baqara. The opening sura, al-Fatiha, is known to Muslims as Umm al Kitab, ‘Mother of the Book’. Al-Baqara is the longest chapter in the Holy Book and covers a wide range of subjects that Sardar takes up in separate chapters (for instance, Paradise, Children of Israel, Law of Equity, War and Peace, Arguing with God and more). It provides an overview of what the Qu’ran means as a spiritual and practical guide to humankind. The author describes it as a seeker: ‘…to read each verse, each passage in relation to each other and in the context of the whole, to remember at each instant, with each word, that there is nothing in isolation and that everything that is being said is constantly referring to past, present and future.’ The sura ends with a prayer that emphasizes human frailties – forgetfulness, erroneous judgement and unintentional error. The Holy Book promises hope – there is always hope of forgiveness and God’s mercy and guidance.
In Part Three: Themes and Concepts, the author employs substantial dexterity of analysis and thought to present the teachings of the Holy Book in context, since the ‘multiple distinct contexts the Qu’ran addresses’ escape the average reader. Each verse, the author argues, must be read in its context – a verse cannot be divorced from its context, to grasp its meaning and true significance. Thereafter interpretation is a singularly individual effort and again, as a general reader, I found Sardar’s interpretation most enlightening and enriching. The thirteen chapters in this section of the book range from Prophets and Revelation, Truth and Plurality, Reason and Knowledge to Reading and Writing. The ideas put forth are powerful and stir the intellect to reach further than it can see. In the chapter on ethics and morality, the author discusses human virtues of patience, humility and moderation – universal qualities that most of us were taught by our parents and that we have discarded as incongruous with a life of competitive materialistic appropriation and advancement. The ideas themselves are deceptively simple, but ‘reading’ them with Sardar as it were, rejuvenates a fraying moral fabric and revives faith in simple things.
The most important concept in the Qu’ran is tawheed, or the unity of God. ‘God according to the Qu’ran is One and the absolute possessor of the universe.’ The idea of tawheed extends to nature – there is Divine purpose in its creation. Thus the Qu’ranic term for nature is ‘created order’; all nature is a ‘sign’ of God and thus, sacred.
Part Four: Contemporary Topics engages with subjects and views that are highly divisive and arouse passions around the world – homosexuality, the veil, suicide and the Shari‘a. So, is the veil sanctioned by the Qu’ran? The author explains that the term associated with the veil is hijab meaning a curtain, screen or partition, and occurs eight times in the Sacred Text. The author further explains that in none of the verses is hijab used in quite the way as understood by modern societies around the world - the Middle East, Indian subcontinent or Arabia. In the Qu’ran, the word is used as ‘raiment of righteousness’ (as in the Yusuf Ali translation). Sardar elaborates: ‘This raiment of righteousness, counterposed to any actual garments one wears, is a moral condition, a state of mind and of being.’
On suicide, assisted or otherwise, the author categorically states that ‘life is sacred; so it cannot be ranked. All life, whatever its quality, according to the Qu’ran, is equally valid and valuable. …it is a journey that must reach its natural conclusion.’ And this brings the reader face to face with the suicide bomber and his abhorrent act. Sardar is scathing in his criticism of ‘suicide bombing’, and reaffirms that ‘the notion that the bomber is heading straight for paradise is perverse.’
Reviewer’s Bio: Meenakshi Chawla is a Delhi-based writer.
Book Title: Reading the Qu’ran: The Contemporary Relevance of the Sacred Text of Islam
Author: Ziauddin Sardar
Publisher: Hachette India 2011
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