Towards Multiple Understandings of the Qur’an

Inner Stability that Accomodates Change: Towards Multiple Understandings of the Qur’an


By Asghar Ali Engineer

Generally it is believed by many, if not all, Muslims that there is one authentic interpretation of the Qur’an. It is far from true. Even the closest companions of the Prophet (PBUH) differed from each other in understanding various verses. Also, in Islam, since there is no concept of official church, no one interpretation can command following of a majority of Muslims, let alone all Muslims. There is hardly any major issue on which Muslim ‘ulama do not differ. These differences, more often than not, are due to different interpretations of the Qur’anic text.

It is because of this that every sect or school of thought has its own orthodox and liberal followers. There is Shi’ah orthodoxy or Sunni orthodoxy, Isma’ili orthodoxy or Bohra orthodoxy, Hanafi orthodoxy or Shafi’i orthodoxy and so on. But that’s not all?now there are scholars with modern and liberal thinking that are looking at the Qur’anic text from modern and liberal perspectives. And some feminists or those working for empowerment of women read the Qur’an from feminist points of view.

There are various reasons for this. Firstly, the Qur’anic text is very rich and can be understood in many ways. Secondly, its language often tends to be symbolic or allegorical, and hence these symbols and allegories carry rich social and cultural meanings, and its shades of meaning can change with different socio-cultural backgrounds. Thus often social and cultural factors can play an important role in the understanding of the Qur’anic text. Those scholars who have been brought up in modern societies with their own intellectual traditions tend to understand the text differently from those who studied the text under medieval ethos.

Now the orthodox ‘ulama of course insist on a medieval understanding of the text as final and irrevocable, whereas modern scholars, of no less intellectual integrity and knowledge, insist that there can be multiple understandings of the holy text. Today, this debate between orthodox and modern scholars is going on in practically every Muslim country. Also, new issues and questions are emerging which cannot be answered with medieval understandings of the text. Breathtaking discoveries and changes have taken place in the last two centuries, and these revolutionary changes cannot be ignored if the Qur’an is to play any role for Muslims in modern society.

The fear of the orthodox ‘ulama that any change in understanding of the text will in some way change the importance of the divine text is totally misplaced. In fact it demonstrates greater richness and several levels of meaning hidden in the text. If anything, it enhances the significance of the divine word. However, it is possible that their fear that if new interpretations are accepted then they (i.e. the ‘ulama) would lose their importance may be justified because they are not intellectually equipped to accept the change. Grasping modern changes requires an altogether new intellectual orientation.

However, in my opinion, even this fear should not be stretched too far, at least in the short term. The Muslim world as a whole is not well equipped for understanding the Qur’anic text de novo. The vast masses of Muslims in most countries, due to rampant illiteracy, will continue to require orthodox interpretations for quite some time to come. Muslim countries still live intellectually in medieval times though physically they are now in the 21st century. It is quite a task to usher them into the 21st century in an intellectual sense. Thus the orthodox ‘ulama continue to have their own relevance, perhaps for many decades to come.

In turn, the two traditions?the orthodox and the modern?will have to co-exist in the Muslim world in the coming years, and there is urgent need for dialogue between the two traditions. Such a dialogue can remove many misunderstandings on both sides. Today there is an air of hostility. What is worse is that the ‘ulama are getting politicized, and religious orthodoxy translates into political power due to more and more involvement of masses into politics.

Due to widespread illiteracy and intellectual backwardness, democratization will necessarily mean increased influence of the traditional ‘ulama. And greater influence of traditional ‘ulama will mean greater resistance to change and longer persistence of religious orthodoxy.

Most Muslim countries are undergoing complex changes, and democratization, though highly desirable, poses difficult challenges. The authoritarian rulers are more westernized and elite in terms of class origin and often support modernization projects. There is a long history of this in the Muslim world. King Amanullah of Afghanistan in the thirties of the last century tried to impose modernization and got deposed since most people were not prepared for it.

In Algeria too, the military rulers were Francophile and quite westernized, and the elite Muslims supported them. When in an election the radical Islamists won, the fear was that they will impose orthodox Shari’ah law. The modernized and westernized middle and upper middle classes preferred authoritarian military rule to democratic rule by Islamist forces. They feared that radical Islamists will do away with the modernization projects of the military rulers.

It was not much different in Iran. The Shah of Iran was imposing modernization from above. There was mass agitation against him, and he was overthrown (though the reasons for revolutionary change in Iran are admittedly more complex). The masses supported Islamic revolution, which was not to the liking of the modernized elite. This dilemma has to be faced in the Muslim world today. You cannot have democratization and modernization together. Democratization, more often than not, might bring forces of Islamic orthodoxy to the fore.

In the Islamic world there is hardly full and uncontrolled democracy in any country. It is either authoritarian rule or controlled democracy, as in Egypt, Pakistan, or Malaysia. There is authoritarian rule in most of the Arab countries and greater democracy in Bangladesh and Indonesia. In Bangladesh too, forces of Islamic orthodoxy are emerging stronger and stronger. Today the Jamat-e-Islami, which had collaborated with Pakistani rulers in crushing the Bangladesh movement, has become part of the ruling alliance and is trying to impose Islamic orthodoxy.

Even in highly advanced countries like the United States, the religious right has emerged as a strong factor in American politics. President Bush is their representative, and he is doing everything to appease the Christian right. And in India, a comparatively advanced country, the Hindu right, which ruled for six years, is still a strong force in domestic politics.

So religion is a serious force in politics everywhere today and has to be creatively used as an option for modernization, change, and liberation of the poor masses in the third world. This is again easier said than done. The challenge is extremely complex. It is one thing to contend with rigid orthodoxy, and quite something else to take on the powerful vested interests.

The problem is not orthodoxy. Dialoguing with it, as pointed out above, can serve a useful purpose. But the real problem is the politicization of religion. Once religious authorities taste power, it becomes an end, and religion becomes only a means to that end. In such a situation, neither multiple readings of the text nor creative use of religious teachings can help. This has to be fought only politically. And in such a situation, democracy can greatly help. The forces of the Hindu right could only be fought in India democratically, and the Christian right in the US can only be defeated through the involvement of more people in electoral politics.

However, in Muslim countries the situation is more complicated. In India and the US, there is a basic secular and democratic orientation of politics, and this has been so for quite some time. In Muslim countries, there is not only an absence of secularism, but also of democracy. Islamic influence on political culture is very strong, and one cannot imagine, as of now, the emergence of a secular polity. However, one can think of an alternative political culture, still based on religion but with liberationist and change-oriented components.

And here one has to understand the multiple readings of the Qur’an from new perspectives. Such perspectives are emerging in different Muslim countries, though they are not yet influential enough. In some countries, multiple readings of the Qur’anic text are rejected and even punished.

Professor Fazlur Rahman, a profound scholar of Islam, had to leave Pakistan as the orthodox ‘ulama vehemently opposed his understanding of the Qur’an. Nasr Abu Zaid of Egypt was declared by a lower court as a heretic and his marriage was declared dissolved. He had to escape to the Netherlands. There are certainly many other examples. But what is important is that such voices are being heard from these Muslim countries. They are even respected by some, though not accepted by a majority. The forces of orthodoxy are yet too strong to make these alternate voices viable.

It is important to note that in 19th century, the beginning of the colonial period in most Muslim countries, there seemed to be greater space for modern understandings of the Qur’an than today. There was no such fierce opposition, though it was not altogether absent, to Jamal al-Din Afghani and Muhammad Abduh as they advocated modern ideas. Muhammad Abduh even reached the position of grand Mufti of Egypt despite his modern approach.

In the Indian subcontinent, a crop of modernists led by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan advocated modernity, and despite some opposition from orthodox ‘ulama, this was accepted by Muslims by and large. There was no fierce opposition. Maulavi Mumtaz Ali Khan, Maulavi Chiragh Ali, Justice Ameer Ali, Nawab Mohsinul Mulk and several others supported modern reforms. Maulavi Mumtaz Ali Khan wrote a book, Huququn Niswan (Rights of women), in which his interpretation of Qur’anic verses was refreshingly modern. He advocated equal rights for women and men by suitably re-interpreting relevant verses of the Qur’an and challenging traditional understandings. Thus we see that multiple readings of the Qur’an were much more acceptable in the 19th century than in twenty first century.

The reasons are not difficult to understand. In the 19th century, Muslim intellectuals were trying to show that Islamic teachings were quite in keeping with modernity and modern science. It helped them in overcoming the sense of inferiority which they had developed due to superior technology of the colonial powers. It gave them great intellectual satisfaction.

However, today the situation is very different. During the colonial period one not only had to feel intellectual parity with colonial powers, but also to struggle against them for political freedom. In several Muslim countries, the ‘ulama were engaged in liberation movements, and religion was a great mobilizing force for liberation. Thus religion, in that situation, was a liberating rather than a restrictive force. The Deobandi ‘ulama in India and the Nahdatul ‘Ulama in Indonesia, for example, played such a liberating role in the political sense.

But today, the ‘ulama have developed political aspirations and use religion as a conservative force to capture political power. Of course there are a host of other factors which must be taken into account and without which our understanding of the complex situation will remain incomplete.

Although colonialism is no longer a factor today, neo-colonialism is. The American and Israeli policies in the Middle East are greatly influencing the resurgence of Islamic orthodoxy. Iran is a case in point. While acting as an American gendarme to enhance American influence in the region, the Shah of Iran also tried to enforce modernization on the Iranian people. This coupled with economic polices that generated lots of misery and unemployment and the persecution of Ayatollah Khomeini completed the scenario for Islamic resurgence under the leadership of Muslim clerics.

The US media then started condemning the Islamic resurgence, since it went against the interests of US ruling interests. The word ‘fundamentalism’ was also coined by the US media in the late seventies. It began to be used then throughout the world in a pejorative sense. Though the Christian right was quite active in American politics, it was conveniently ignored, and only Islamic intervention was considered harmful.

It is important to note that religion can?or can be made to?play different roles in a society, and its role should not be stereotyped. Firstly, religion is understood differently by different sections of society. At its lowest level it becomes mere superstition, and at its highest, it assumes the role of spiritual and philosophical sublimation. It plays a politically mobilizing role at one level and a spiritually liberating role on another. It might become opium at one level and an active agent of change on the other. It should be understood in its entirety rather than in a monolithic sense.

With increasing democratization, religious leaders seeking an active political role view the popularity of orthodoxy among the masses of people as a clear advantage for fulfilling their own aspirations. It is also important to note that the human mind, when it perceives something as “sacred,” it prefers to see it as “unchangeable.” Sanctity and change cannot go together. The process of change can rob it of sanctity. Either it is sacred and unchangeable or changeable without having an aura of sanctity. And unlike science, religion, for most people, falls within the halo of sanctity, with the ‘ulama being seen as upholders of this sanctity.

These ‘ulama either play a direct role in politics or they toe the line of certain politicians or political parties who exploit this so called “halo.” Thus religion in the hands of these ‘ulama who align with certain political parties (or who form their own parties, as in Pakistan and many other Muslim countries) plays an exploitative rather than liberating role.

But a certain reading of the Qur’an certainly makes it possible to render Islam as a powerful liberationist force. In Iran, Islam did initially succeed in liberating Iran from the exploitative clutches of the Shah and American imperialism. However, subsequently as is often the case with revolutions, the Islamic revolution in Iran fell into the hands of conservative clergy and lost its earlier revolutionary spirit and dynamism. In other words it was hijacked by conservative ‘ulama, and the revolutionary ‘ulama were eliminated.

It is also necessary to emphasize that, while it is possible to circumscribe its political role, it is impossible to eliminate religion from the socio-cultural arena. And as long as it remains a socio-cultural force, its potential for political exploitation will always remain. Thus it is necessary to promote liberationist scriptural interpretations as much as possible. Since religion plays multiple roles in one’s life?social, cultural, exploitative, liberationist, providing inner solace and peace?one has to choose the most beneficial roles.

But we should not ignore the challenges to be faced. The powers that be and the status quo forces will resist these attempts. Even secular liberationist or pro-poor politics is challenged by these powerful vested interests. In Latin America, many Christian priests who upheld liberation theology were murdered by these vested interests.

In fact, it is not only orthodox ‘ulama who resist change and uphold medieval interpretations of the Qur’anic text; these vested interests too, otherwise quite indifferent to religion, strongly resist, through such orthodox ‘ulama, any multiple interpretations of the Qur’an. The ‘ulama might collaborate with these forces for their own reasons or for their own benefits. A segment of the ‘ulama have always collaborated with rulers throughout the history of Islam and continue to do so today.

Though the majority of the ‘ulama might go that way, we will always find those who rise above vested interests and take liberationist position and are ready to make great sacrifices. The role of Ayatollah Khomeini should not be stereotyped and is, in fact, quite complex. It was quite liberationist in one context and conservative in another. His interpretation of the Qur’an in terms of struggle between mustad’afun (oppressed, or weaker sections of society) and mustakbirun (oppressors, or the ruling classes) was quite liberationist in its main thrust.

In a way, his interpretation of the Qur’an was quite liberationist until sometime after the revolution. However, with the changed context and emerging struggle for power in post-revolutionary Iran, Khomeini’s position tended to be more conservative.

Religion has a great psychological role to play in modern social life too. Human beings face very complex challenges at various levels in their life, and often religion (in the spiritual sense) provides inner solace and enables them to enjoy mental peace. In Muslim countries, a vast majority of people find the very meaning and direction of life through Islam. One cannot rob them of this meaning and direction of life. For them nothing else can provide a better alternative. We must understand this psychological need of a vast majority of people. Thus for many, Sufi Islam is far more effective in this sense than the formal doctrinal Islam advocated by the ‘ulama.

In this way, the interpretation of Islam put forward by mystics like Ibn Arabi and Jalaluddin Rumi can play a very creative and accommodative role in their life. Among multiple interpretations, Rumi’s understanding of Islam is far more relevant to a modern complex world. It gives not only a message of love and peace, but also rejects doctrinaire rigidity. One needs such interpretations in this fast changing and challenging world. Inner stability that accommodates change is highly necessary. Globalization and the ensuing fusing of totally different cultures have created mental confusion leading to turmoil.

Since we can’t avoid change, nor can we live without moorings, can’t a positive spiritual interpretation of religion fit the bill?

Asghar Ali Engineer is the founder the Institute of Islamic Studies and the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism in Mumbai, India http://www.csss-isla.com/index.php  .  Article originally published in Islam and Modern Age, September 2004 and sent to us by Dr. Engineer.

 


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