By Dr Tauseef Ahmad Parray
Scholarship on the Qur’an and Qura’nic Studies is an interesting and exciting academic discipline, spread over a number of branches, to which Muslims and non-Muslims have contributed extensively. Besides the Tafsir literature, ‘Ulum al-Qur’an’, translations of the Qur’an in various languages (especially English), and other inter-related aspects, there have emerged, from the last few decades, many new trends in this field—ranging from Qura’nic hermeneutics, Contextualist approach to Qur’an/ Qura’nic Text, thematic interpretations of Qur’an, Qur’an for daily recitation, to simple introductions to the Qur’an, and personal grapplings with the Sacred Text. The last category is a substantial one, and one recent exemplary addition in this category is Ziauddin Sardar’s, ‘ Reading the Qur’an: The Contemporary Relevance of the Sacred Text of Islam’ (first published in 2011, and now in paperback edition in 2015).
One of the present-day influential scholar-critic, Pakistani-born Ziauddin Sardar is an internationally renowned pioneering author (writing mostly on Islam and contemporary issues), broadcaster, and cultural-critic. He is the co-editor of the Critical Muslim, London—a quarterly magazine of ‘ideas and issues showcasing ground-breaking thinking on Islam and what it means to be a Muslim in a rapidly changing and increasingly interconnected world’.
Here I present as assessment of the 2015 edition of Sardar’s, ‘Reading the Qur’an’, by Reading, Un-Reading, and Re-Reading as well as Reflecting on it. Here I am more concerned to underline and underscore, very precisely, its subject-matter, Sardar’s approach and the conclusions he draws from his personal wrestling and engagement with the dynamic Text. And not to highlight either its merits, positive aspects or to praise it; or to focus on its demerits, negative aspects, or criticize it.
To begin with, Sardar writes and reflects on the Qur’an like every Muslim. Thinking in, and accumulating the scholarship produced in, Urdu and English, he builds on, and blends, the scholarship of scholars—from classical to contemporary era, both of the East and West. In the “Preface” and “Prologue” he writes: ‘Reading the Qur’an grew out of my ‘Blogging the Quran’ project for the British newspaper, ‘The Guardian’(p. xi); wherein he ‘attempted to read the Qur’an to uncover what the text communicates’ to him as an ordinary Muslim, and not as ‘a special reader’, or as a ‘hadifh’, an Imam, or an ‘alim’ (p. xiv). He also points out that he writes ‘as every Muslim’; that is, ‘as an individual trying to understand what the Qur’an means to me in the twenty-first century’, by identifying, combining, and exploring various ‘methodologies and approaches’ to show its relevance in the light of the ‘needs and requirements in contemporary times’ and of ‘changing circumstances’ (pp. xv, xviii, xix).
Sardar believes that the Qur’an is a ‘dynamic’ and inter-connected Text which: promotes ‘thinking and doing’ simultaneously (p. 11). He also believes that we should approach the Qura’nic Text with ‘fresh eyes’ to make an effort “to distinguish the possible and potential shades of meaning from the various interpretations that have accumulated over centuries”, and ‘to read the Qur’an on its own terms, to engage with its text unencumbered by prejudices and preconceived ideas, …, [so that] to understand, and encounter its words anew’ (p. xiv).
Sardar also believes that the Sacred Text ‘requires effort and is not easy’ and “demands an open mind and a modicum of effort”. Though, it “does not provide us with ready-made answers”, but it does guide us ‘towards a fresh understanding and appreciation of our eternal ethical and moral dilemmas and what it means to be human” (pp. xxi, xxii). Sardar believes, and applies the same in this work as well, in the thesis that ‘the Qur’an has to be interpreted from epoch to epoch, generation to generation’; and the ‘natural corollary of this thesis’, for Sardar, ‘is that it is legitimate for Muslims to reject, enhance, go beyond and differ significantly from the interpretations of earlier times’ (p. xx).
Adopting this approach, Reading the Qur’an is divided into four parts; viz. Overview; By Way of Tradition; Themes and Concepts; and Contemporary Issues, and includes, among others, a Preface, Prologue, and Epilogue. ‘Part One’ provides an overview, discussing the style, nature and structure of the Qur’an, how the Qur’an has been read and interpreted conventionally, problems and strengths of translations, and the burning question: who has the authority to interpret the Qur’an?
In the second part, ‘By Way of Tradition’, commentary on first two chapters of Qur’an—Surah al-Fatiha and al-Baqara—is provided: which are, respectively, ‘the summary of the Qur’an’, and the longest one in the Qur’an which provides ‘a compendium, or précis, of the themes and concepts of Qura’nic teachings’—ranging from basic beliefs, fundamental Islamic practices, to basic legal injunctions related to various aspects of human life—individual and collective (p. xx). A reading of these two chapters brings Sardar to conclude that ‘as summation and overview they communicate the essential message, illustrate the extraordinary nature of the text and the special character of the style’. Indeed Al-Baqara introduces and covers, he continues, ‘the gamut of the themes, injunctions and principles’ that he highlights and describes in the coming parts, whether themes, concepts, or contemporary issues/ topics (p. 211).
By looking at the noble and Holy Qur’an as a whole, an integrated Text, the major
‘Themes and Concepts’, explored in Part III, range from Prophets and Revelation, Time and History, Truth and Plurality, Humanity and Diversity, Individual and Community, to Reason and Knowledge, Crime and Punishment, Rights and Duties, Nature and Environment, Ethics and Morality, and Reading and Writing. These are the themes, in Sardar’s assertion, not normally addressed individually in conventional commentaries. Similarly, in part IV, ‘Contemporary Issues’, the issues and topics of highlighted are: the Shari’ah (Islamic Law), Power and Politics, Polygamy ad Domestic Violence, Sex and Society, Homosexuality, the Veil, Freedom of Expression, Suicide (and suicide bombing), Science and Technology, Evolution, and Art, Music, and Imagination. He has done this by bringing together verses from various parts of Qur’an, to explore ‘the position of the Qur’an and its possible potential meaning in relation to some of the pressing issues of our time’ (p. xxi). Parts I—III, each, are preceded by a brief Introduction as well.
Sardar maintains that every Muslim can ‘reel’, roll, and read out, ‘a string of commonly held attributes about the Quran’, and yet ‘they forget’ and overlook, ‘an obvious’ and multi-dimensional fact: Sacred Texts, by their very nature, are ‘complex, multi-layered, allegorical, metaphorical, and an embodiment of pluralistic meanings’. Thus, the ‘struggle to understand and interpret Scripture is perpetual’; because the. ‘Qur’an does not [and cannot] change’, but evidently the ‘potential’ of thought and action of human life, and the ‘circumstances’ and multifaceted ‘conditions’ one faces, do change—for they are ‘ever changing’, and always in move, movement, and modification (pp. 10-11).
Reading the Qur’an, in this approach and on these criteria, leads Sardar to conclude that the ‘Qur’an is a dynamic, interconnected text’ that ‘does not provide a static view of society; but actively encourages change, evolution, progress, and asks us constantly to adjust to change’. It also urges ‘to discover the underlying dynamics of the Qur’an’, by connecting ‘one segment of the text to the next, and many other segments throughout the Sacred Text. An ‘eternal’ and ‘religious text’, it is ‘a source of guidance for Muslims everywhere at all times’, inviting us ‘not to look backward but to see ahead’, to the future, so that ‘to change individual and social behavior and transform society—things that can only be accomplished in the future.
Looking at this Text with afresh, anew, and ‘with new determination’, leads one to realize, in Sardar’s terminology, that it is ‘not a one-dimensional, reductive act’ but is ‘a process, involving synthesis, looking for inter-connections, discovering context, wrestling with contradictions, and asking complex questions’ and above all, as an ‘eternal text’ which by definition, ‘is open to all methods of reading (pp. 369-74).
By reading any part, section and topic of Sardar’s work, one can get an idea of what he believes; and how he interprets the Qur’an and things Qura’nic, in this second decade of the third millennium. Though one cannot swallow and digest easily all what Sardar reads and understands from the Sacred Text, but, what is undeniable is that, it is a work to be read, re-read and worthy to reflect by every common Muslim, especially youngsters, and by those who have little or no knowledge of Arabic. Though one may disagree—and of course many will surely do so—with his interpretations of the Shari’ah (Islamic Law), suicide bombing, politics and democracy, freedom of expression, and the veil, and issues like plurality, homosexuality, suicide, terrorism, but one cannot, at the same time, stop appreciating his understanding and interpreting, in 21st century, the themes and concepts like time, history, ethics, modesty, knowledge, reason, science and technology, nature and the environment.
—Dr Tauseef Ahmad Parray is Assistant Professor, Islamic Studies, at GDC Pulwama, Kashmir. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org