The Spirit of the Qur’an

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The Spirit of the Qur’an

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The Qur’an is the Word of God, revealed to the Prophet Muhammad through human language. No other sacred scripture has ever had a similarly immediate impact upon the lives of the people who first heard its message and, through them and the generations that followed them, on the entire course of civilization. The Qur’an comprehensively answers the question, “How shall I behave to achieve the good life in this world and happiness in the life to come?”

The Qur’an is an “open” book, a spiritual and moral resource that, properly understood, provides Muslims with helpful guidance through the complex maze of modern life. 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

The Qur’an is a compendium of admonitions, commandments, prescriptions, proscriptions, injunctions, edicts, and sermons. If the Qur’an is the divine word of guidance, the Prophet’s life is a model that transmuted its message into a persona. He was the Qur’anic figurehead who best expressed the ideals of the Islamic faith in human incarnation. He was sent with this Book to serve as an all-embracing code of ethics, morality, and religious duties that would last unto eternity. Just as the Qur’an embraces every facet of human life, so does the life of the Prophet to penetrate with exceptional versatility the domain of human experience, both public and private.

While there are several translations of the Qur’an in several languages, they cannot substitute the original Arabic, where we can see the real import of the verses through their application to our changing context. While every language has words and concepts which have no counterpart in others, oriental languages are saturated with words that are invested with meanings not recorded in dictionaries. I have always carried a conviction that English is not adequately equipped to convey the subtleties of an Eastern language like Arabic, whose individual words are laden with great luminosity. Finding an exact and concise equivalent in English for Arabic words is virtually impossible. Hence all translations of the Qur’an are, at best available translations. One of the most evident problems in the translation of any religious text is the differences between the culture of the original text and the new culture for which the text has been translated in cases where there are doctrinal differences among groups within the faith, competing translations of ambiguous passages tend to arise.

For too long, a group of narrow-minded elite religious clerics has usurped the power to interpret the Qur’an. It is time even ordinary Muslims get to be part of the process, whatever their background whatever their level of knowledge. Rather than being told by clerics what to think, Muslims everywhere must return to the religious duty of actively participating in interpretation – which can only come from a lively debate. The Muslim community is, fortunately, developing a new understanding of what it means to be a Muslim in the 21st century and understand the Qur’an from the Qur’an itself

It represents the ultimate manifestation of God’s grace to man, the eternal wisdom, and the most divine beauty of expression: The accurate word of God. The Qur’an is an “open” book a spiritual and moral resource that, if properly understood, provides Muslims with helpful guidance through the complexities of modern life. It 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 milieu of the Arabs of the Prophet’s time.

Westerners think of Islamic societies as backward-looking, oppressed by religion, and inhumanely governed, comparing them to their enlightened, secular democracies. But measuring the cultural distance between the West and Islam is a complex undertaking, and that distance is narrower than they assume. Islam is not just a religion, and indeed not just a fundamentalist political movement. It is a civilization and a way of life that varies from one Muslim country to another but is animated by a familiar spirit far more humane than most Westerners realize.

Sadly, even when Qur’an repeatedly urges every Muslim to use reason to ponder over the universe and recognize the bold signs of God’s presence, we have left no place for self-reflection. There is absolutely no place for individual conscience or intellectual engagement. The way Islam is presented makes it seem that belief doesn’t come from a personal path of inquiry and revelation but by accepting what others believe without challenging them by simply offering one’s mind as an empty receptacle.

The tragedy is best exemplified in the widely believed dictum that ‘religious scholars (the ulama) have solved all our problems. There is nothing more to do. An instrument from which traditionalists derive immense power is ritual. It is difficult to walk into a mosque, almost anywhere in the Muslim world, without someone scolding you for not performing the ablution correctly, praying in the wrong way or not on time, not having a beard, or not wearing clothes according to a particular code or not being pious enough. Traditionalists also have a knack for silencing arguments or dissent by quoting hadiths. Indeed, herds of traditionalists roam the streets checking people’s faith (iman) and beliefs (aqidah), ensuring that they perform their rituals according to their dictates and are appropriately dressed with the right facial furniture.

The reforms that took place in the early years of Islam are progressive, changing with the needs of society. However, the more detailed rules that the classical jurists laid out allowed many pre-Islamic customs to continue and also reflected the needs, traditions, and expectations of the society in which they lived instead of continuing the progressive reform that was started during the time of the Prophet. The trajectory of reform begun at the time of the Prophet was thus halted in the medieval period through further elaborating fiqh, which was then selectively codified in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The example of progressive reform from the beginning of Islam must be used to address the needs of the people today.

The regressive changes which devalued women were due more to ‘cultural’ or societal forces rather than religious factors. More specifically, with the onset of the Abbasid period, women’s autonomy and role in society became circumscribed as Arabs started adopting other cultures in their expansive domain. Even after the Prophet’s death, Muslim women who were active members of the society were notably absent from the community during this period and lived in seclusion and dependency. Consequently, the laws that were created during the Abbasid period and came to be part of the “orthodox texts” of Islam are contradictory to the Prophet’s teachings regarding equality and justice between genders. Women were conspicuous by their absence in the formulation of these rules.

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