This work entitled Reading the Quran by Ziauddin Sardar covers the area of work being done on the frontiers of Islamic Studies. There has been a flood of works of this genre and this is a very good example. But our regret is that very little work of this genre is being done in India. This book has been published by Hachette India in 2011. (374 pages, price Rs. 550). We bought it from Flipkart at their usual lower price.
Basically Ziauddin Sardar has, in his inimitable way taken up the story of Surah Al-Fatihaa and Al-Baqra (surah 1 and 2) in 52 brief but breezy chapters, each dealing with a particular theme. It is marvelously thought-provoking read through and through. A usual review of the work could hardly do justice to this Book. So, the Islamic Voice has opted to place before our readers two chapters of this work to whet the appetite of our readers. (It will come out in two installments). If keen interest is shown by our readers, we may bring out some more chapters. Please do give us your reaction by email on: firstname.lastname@example.org. Here we present the Introduction to the Chapter 41 of the Book dealing with Themes and Concepts from the author. (Editor)
Themes and Concepts
Reading the Quran thematically has enabled us to connect various verses in different parts of the Quran and see the text in much more holistic terms as interconnected, bound together by the interrelationships of what it is saying. I would not suggest the connections to each theme were exhaustive, but most certainly they allowed us to draw more general conclusions when compared to verse by verse analysis. Moreover, a thematic reading also allowed us to use tools of critical analysis, ranging from semantics, hermeneutics and cultural theory to contextual analysis and old-fashioned intellectual (Socratic) questioning. In the process, I hope we have seen that the whole can sometimes produce a bigger, more nuanced and hence more moral picture than the parts. Anyway, there are two conclusions that I would like to draw, both of which go against the grain.
The ultimate goal of the Sacred Text is to provide moral and ethnical guidance. But morality does not end with the Quran—a common assumption amongst most Muslims. Morality begins with the Quran. The Quran paints the boundaries of the moral universe in broad brush strokes, points to the outer limits, and illuminates universal precepts. After that, it asks believers to explore, enhance, expand and develop their own understanding of morality and ethics according to their own context and times. This is what being a trustee of God is all about.
We can say the same about knowledge. The Quran is undoubtedly a book of knowledge. But all knowledge does not converge into the Quran—it is nor the sum of all knowledge, a common Muslim fallacy. On the contrary, knowledge diverges from the Quran: its emphasis on reasoning, criticism, reading, writing, observation, accuracy and travel are impetuses for the general pursuit of knowledge; the Quran presents knowledge as cumulative, something that builds up over time.
And so to a frequently asked question: why are Muslims so far removed from the enlightened teachings of the Quran?
My answer is that this is largely due to three category mistakes. Most Muslims think that the only valid interpretation of the Quran is the one made in history, particularly by the first generation of Muslims. This, in my opinion, is a theory of decline: no progress is possible if all progress has already been made in history, over 1,400 years ago. In addition, moral evolution comes to a grinding halt if you think that all morality ends with the Quran, and we, our conscience and modern knowledge have nothing to do with expanding or discovering contemporary moral insights based on the principles of the Quran. Finally, your fate is really sealed if you believe that the Quran is a repository of all knowledge and there is nothing for you to discover. These three category mistakes undermine the ethos of the Quran and are the main causes of the degeneration, discord and current impasse in Muslims societies.
This is a failure of Muslim reasoning. As a result many Muslims are quite incapable of articulating moral positions on contemporary issues. Or perhaps one should say that their approach to answering the moral dilemmas of contemporary times does not take the present, its knowledge and complexity seriously, preferring comparisons with the world as it was centuries ago. Such dedication to historical interpretations far too often ends up justifying the unjustifiable with outmoded quotes and slogans.
The discrepancy between theory and practice, I fear, becomes even more evident when we look at some of the burning issues of our time, such as the veil, treatment of women, sexuality, politics and freedom of expression. The Quran’s position on such issues cannot be stated simply by lifting individual verses out of context and interpreting them on their own as ‘the final work’ of God. Rather as in the thematic sections, we need to make connections with other verses of the Quran, elsewhere in the text, examine the context, and tease out what the Quran is saying to us in our time. The purpose of the exercise is not to discover some sort of ‘absolute truth’, which is known only to God, but to get a more holistic and nuanced picture.