Every Muslim will tell you the Qur’an is eternal. It is timeless, its words unchanged. It is ever-present. The Qur’an itself says: “And if all the trees on earth were pens and the ocean (were ink), with seven seas behind it to add to its (supply), yet would not the words of Allah be exhausted (in writing): for Allah is Exalted in Power, full of Wisdom” (Q31:27). We call it Holy Quran, Noble Quran, Glorious Quran, Al-Furqaan, Al-Kitaab, Al-Zikr, Al-Noor, Al-Huda.
To Muslims, the sacredness of the Quran is expressed even in their relationship to its physical presence. Islamic teaching spells out that Muslims must not touch the Quran without first undergoing a ritual handwashing called ghusl, which places them in a state of ritual purity. I still remember my childhood days when the Qur’an used to be wrapped in a specially stitched satin or velvet cover. We could not dare to access the Qur’an; our Qur’anic recitation and learning came from the Qur’an primers. The Qur’an and the primers were placed on the head of a tall shelf to be absolutely out of reach of teenagers. The entire Qur’an was spread over thirty such primers called a juz. If these primers fell to the ground, they had to be hastily priced up, kissed, and placed against our forehead to renew our commitment to their sanctity. A stern reprimand was never out of place. Our teacher used to tell us to give out a Kaffara (an equal amount of food grain as a charity) to atone for this sin
We studied the Qur’an with the aid of several classical and contemporary commentaries under the guidance of a cleric. As my career developed, I attended innumerable conferences and met many people who argued about the meanings of sacred texts. The more I learned about the Qur’an and engaged with it, the more intense my struggle became. The more I learned about Muslims’ intellectual history and thought about the differences and distinctions, as well as similarities, between classical and modern scholars, the more I had to struggle with what Muslims throughout their history have made of Islam.
We now live when confronted with baffling and multiple problems on almost all fronts, even as revolutionary developments in science and technology have redefined civilization and ushered enormous progress in diverse fields. Most of these problems defy human answers. Finding common ground can help us at a time when unified action is more crucial than ever. As a species, we must embrace the oneness of humanity as we face global issues like pandemics, economic crises, and ecological disasters. There are many more critical issues (guns, terrorism, climate change, labour, immigration, globalization, infrastructure, defense, investment, taxation, healthcare, education, and research) that challenge us and require the synergy of intellectual forces –irrespective of their diverse hues – to come out with solvable answers and doable solutions.
At no time in world civilization have we required a great spiritual revolution, and tragically we have been ignoring the power of spiritual values when they need them most. It requires a very pure intention, as well as great spiritual discernment, to repel these evil promptings and return to the source of all: the Prime Cause of all that exists, that “no human vision can encompass Him” (verse 103), either physically or conceptually: and, therefore, “He is sublimely exalted above anything that men may devise by way of definition.’
We need to realize that our first identity is the vicegerent of the Almighty, and our first allegiance is to the One God, our Nourisher and Sustainer. It is finally for God to revive the weakening spiritual currents, but we also owe a responsibility to reinforce our faith. Faced with the challenge of modernity, many Muslims today, rather than accommodate themselves to the age-old fudges that have prevailed in so many Muslim societies, have resorted instead to a kind of textual Puritanism. Instead of referring to how things were done in colonial Morocco, Ottoman Turkey, or, much further back, under the Abbasid caliphs, they prefer to return to the ‘simple truths’ of the Qur’an. The Qur’an, however, is not simple. In many centres in Britain, Pakistan, and elsewhere, the standard of training in the basic tenets of Islam, including the meaning and context of the Qur’an, is staggeringly poor.
The field of Qur’anic studies is currently witnessing a vogue among scholars. This proliferation of scholarship is taking place at a time when no consensus exists on a central core of works to define the field, let alone on a program to train future scholars
The Qur’an came to speak to all of humanity. However, it came to say not in a vacuum but within a historical context. Hence, its immediate objective was the moral and religious situation of the Arabs of the Prophet’s time. Therefore, we must recognize that although we can always hear the Qur’an speaking anew to our particular case, its historical context must not be obscured behind its universal and timeless dimension.
Through the science of explanation, in every age and all Islamic languages, the Qur’an is kept alive as a force in the lives and cultures of Muslims everywhere. It remains relevant to every age through commentaries no longer limited to Arabic or other Islamic languages. Indeed, critical Qur’anic commentaries have also appeared in English and other European languages are spoken by European Muslims. English in particular, is fast becoming a significant Islamic language, and the Islamic literature in English is growing exponentially.
It is also a fact that words in the translated language are understood through a cultural history that may or may not be totally in sync with the Qur’anic setting. For example, when the Qur’an chides the kaafir, this can be translated as “infidel,” “one who rejects faith,” or simply “disbeliever” –to mention some of the standard translations of the word. Each translation implies something significantly different based on how we, as English speakers, understand these words with our particular historical baggage.
More and more Muslims, with better literacy and education than their grandparents often had, are returning to the primary texts and chipping at the cultural layers that have accumulated over the years. Challenging the old authorities has produced a range of new voices, from violent extremists to feminists. Many have found effective and satisfactory solutions to present-day realities in the original introductory text. There is a reasoned argument that Islamic jurisprudence has become an unmanageable creature.
The Qur’an enshrined a new status for women and gave them rights that they could have only dreamed of before in Arabia, so why the seeming disparity between what once was and what now appears to be? The answer lies in the deterioration of primary Islamic education that occurred in the Muslim world after the disasters of the Mongol invasions and the Crusades in the eleventh through thirteenth centuries. The patrilineal traditions in the Middle East that preceded Islam both improved and curtailed women’s freedoms in its earliest days. Much of the blame for the most constrictive interpretations of Islam is placed on the Abbasid dynasty, which ruled from the mid-eighth century onward and interpreted Islam in a legalistic and rigid manner designed to serve state interests, thereby sacrificing much of the ethical, normative thrust of the religion as practised in the days of Prophet Muhammad.
Cultures that arose since then have been characterized more by local customs and cultural leanings than by genuine Islamic values. The lives of the first Muslim women represent valuable models transcending time and physical boundaries. These Islamic models can serve as powerful, culturally authentic tools in advancing the human rights agenda for appropriate female empowerment in Muslim societies’ political, social and economic spheres. The contributions of these women to Islamic civilization and culture are not just undeniable but extraordinary. To many they may even appear almost mythical.