How to read, and not misread, the Quran

How to read, and not misread, the Quran

The mind needs to be a clean slate and directed towards the goal of seeking education, enlightenment and upliftment of the soul. Then, one may for sure find the text revealing its essence

Of late there was some controversy regarding some ayat of the Quran caused by a statement by Wasim Rizwi and his petition in the Supreme Court of India that some twenty-six ayats be removed from the Quran as according to him they promote hatred against other communities and also cause a war-mongering mindset among Muslim youth. The petition was rejected by the Supreme Court, however, but there was a massive reaction across different schools of thought among Muslims. The question that this column is going to raise is that those people who find certain ayats of the Quran “objectionable” should first of all train themselves in the methodology of reading the Quran, so that their ‘objections’ are answered by the Quran itself. If at all there remains any doubt, that too can be addressed by the reading of the Quran only.
In this context, a few submissions are being made in this column with regard to the subject of methodology so that the debate is carried further for the resolution of all tensions.
First of all, the Quran is a book (a complete discourse) revealed upon Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) over twenty-three years. This is not only a historical truth but also a belief that Muslims across the world hold dearer than their lives. Moreover, it is one of the fundamental beliefs of Muslims across the world that the Quranic ayats are well protected and what we read today is exactly what had been revealed upon the Prophet. In view of this fact, it would be only a mischief on part of somebody who advocates the removal or abrogation of any of the ayats of this Book.
Secondly, those who want the removal of some twenty-six ayats of the Quran contend that these ayats promote hatred and war against those who do not believe in the Quran. Such an objection could be either because they are unaware of the Quranic text and the different contexts in which it was revealed upon the Prophet or it is because they have some deep-rooted malice against the Quran and its Prophet. It is in this context that I am making a humble effort today to propose a method of reading that will clear all the doubts about the ayats or parts of the Quran that some Orientalists or some people within the Muslim community find objectionable.
In this regard, what a beginner to the Quran or somebody who has been reading it but not seriously thinking about it is supposed to do is to tell himself that the Quran is not an assemblage of disjointed ayats but rather a book having more than six-thousand ayats which have both cohesion and coherence. In other words, readers of the Quran have to familiarise themselves with the linguistic concept of coherence and cohesion as it would help them in reading the Quran as a complete text having ayats (signs) which are related to each other and chapters which again are related to each other. And finally, all the ayats and chapters of the Quran are semantically subservient to the central themes of the Quran.
Having this idea in itself would prove beneficial for Muslim readers as well as non-Muslim readers of the Quran. Such an idea would definitely tell the reader not to read the ayats of the Quran in isolation but to go on developing correlations and interrelations among them for reaching the essence that they communicate. Needless to mention, the literal reading should, after more than three readings, help a reader to go beyond the lines in order to unearth the essence or the spirit of the Quran.
A lot of literature is already available on the subject. In the South Asian context, works of Hamid ud Din Farahi may help the modern reader in reading the Quran as a complete discourse with due regard to its coherence and cohesion, as the same ultimately guides the reader towards the resolution of all the surface-level tensions and discords about the text of the Quran.
Those ayats of the Quran which some people do quote out of context while objecting against the same are generally read in isolation with no mention of their pretext, context and post-text. If Surat ul Anfal and some ayat of Surat ul Barat talk about war and strong action against the enemies of Islam, any reader of the twentieth century has to familiarise himself/herself with the context in which they were revealed upon the Prophet. Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) and his companions were facing an existential threat at the hands of his enemies; therefore, an action is being suggested which is carried out as directed by God. What, however, those who object forget to see or deliberately do so is that these ayats of the Quran are time and again followed immediately by the spirit and essence of the Quran which is Allah’s mercy, forgiveness, peace and salvation for those who do not transgress and cross the line. A close reading of Surat ul Anfal and Surat ul Barat reveals upon any sincere and intelligent reader that the Quran does not promote war as an end but time and again it is peace, stability, justice, fraternity and mercy for all that are being promoted as the ultimate goal of the Quran. Anarchy, disorder and injustice, etc, have been declared as worse than murder.
Going by one of the essences of the Quranic message, it has been very forcefully asserted that “the one who murders a human being without any proper justification has as if murdered the whole mankind; and, the one who saves a human being has as if saved the whole mankind”.
In view of this fact, what the readers of the Quran (Muslim as well as non-Muslim) are supposed to do, in order to read the Quran with a method, is that the ayats of the Quran should not be read in isolation; rather, they must be read 1) in their context and 2) they must be correlated and interrelated for developing a holistic understanding. Moreover, in every situation that the Quran discusses or describes (from History) or anything else, the reader must always wait for what is the core message that is going to follow in the context immediately after the end of that description or somewhere else in a similar context.
Third, while emphasising on having a method for the reading of the Quran, what is very important for a non-Arab reader of the Quran is the language of the Quran and the culture in which it was revealed upon the Prophet. It necessitates that a twentieth-century reader must at least familiarise himself with some basics of Arabic language and Arabic culture of the 5th century AD. The Quran was revealed upon the Prophet in the Arabic language and so it was very easy for the Arabs of the time to understand its core message and the kernel of its discourse; however, non-Arab readers are supposed to develop a method for understanding its language and the core message of the Quranic discourse. Why even South-Asian Muslims have problems in reading the Quran (by reading I mean reading with comprehension) is because they do not try to understand the linguistic framework of its discourse and the culture that it structures through language. We most of the times rely on Urdu or English translations which could be misleading, as a translator most of the times attempts a literal translation as he/she is unable to express in his/her language the core message of a foreign text.
As people across the world find it very difficult to translate a text of poetry, it is far more difficult for a non-native speaker to attempt an exact translation of a spiritual text like the holy Quran. The same is true about other classics like the Bible, the Bhagvat Gita, the Guru Granths or the Vedas.
Fourth, an important thing that one can keep in mind while attempting a serious study of the Quran is that while a linear reading of its ayats is alright if it is being recited only for seeking the blessings of Allah, what, however, should be attempted at it is the circular reading of the Quran for a deep understanding and contemplation on its ayats. The circular reading would demand developing connections among different ayats having similar themes, finding one’s way around looking for the essence of all that is being said in a context, and turning around for what is manifest and latent. If the surface structure is asking for war, the reader must immediately seek to understand the context and then look for the deep structure and the core message thereof, which must be the disclosure of Allah’s mercy, education for a purpose, the common good for the whole mankind and the dominance of khair over shar. Such revelations could be possible when circular reading is attempted and when the reader is determined to look for the priceless diamonds that lie hidden in the deeper layers of its oceanic depths.
Fifth, the Quran has itself said that “we have made it easy for remembrance” which means those who want to come out of darkness with the help of the signs that Allah reveals in the Quran would definitely be able to enlighten themselves by the Quran and liberate themselves from all sorts of false consciousness; however, those who just want to find faults with the Quran would not only find issues and problems but they would actually find their hearts and minds closed enough to absorb the light of the Quran. The fault is, therefore, with them and not with the Quran. They are actually blind but they go on blaming the sun. Going by this very important principle, it is mandatory for all the readers of the Quran to approach the holy Quran with the intention of education of the soul through its ayats and not counting the faults that actually are in his/her own mind.
It so happens that most of the readers read in a text what actually is on their own mind and they impose it on the text. The mind, therefore, needs to be a clean slate and directed towards the goal of seeking education, enlightenment and upliftment of the soul. Going by this method, one may for sure find the text revealing its essences and spirit to the reader in question.
Sixth, as individual ayats and suras of the Quran point to/ reflect on a theme, so does the Quran as a whole reflect on and educate about some of the central and core themes, which if a reader misses will land him/her in trouble with the Quran. Whether it be the oneness/singularity of God or the messengerhood of Prophets or the impending end of this world, all these central themes are to be read in association with the themes of justice, mercy, forgiveness, reformation and the collective education and emancipation of mankind. Any attempt at disassociation would be detrimental to the understanding of the text.
Seventh, there are ayats in the Quran which are universal and would be relevant in the East or the West and in any time one reads them; however, it doesn’t mean that other ayats which apparently are historical in nature cease to have any relevance. History when narrated in distant times is narrated with the purpose to warn mankind to not to repeat the mistakes which actually doomed a people long back. If a reader is aware of such a thing, he/she would have hardly any problem with the historical/ contextual issues being discussed anywhere in the Quran.
Last but not the least, the Quran does indeed talk in terms of binaries like Good vs Bad, Light vs Darkness, Kufr vs Shirk and Justice vs Injustice and so on. There is no need to be worried about it. All the tensions with regard to this binary language would be resolved if only the reader is 1) familiar with the terminology being used differently in different contexts and 2) is ready to move beyond the binaries and look for the singularity/ synthesis that can be achieved if only the reader opens his/her mind and heart for the light of the ayats which aim at the liberation and emancipation of the human soul. The reader just needs to wait and internalise the core meaning and patiently wait for the moment when the apparently binary language of the Quran actually becomes a synthesis and an epiphany.
Concluding, a twenty-first century reader of the Quran needs to familiarise himself with Arabic language and the system of systems that it has in a spiritual text like the Quran, which directs all its messages very precisely and effectively through a highly sophisticated language. Imposing on the Quran one’s own meanings would be an injustice with the Quran; it would be better to allow oneself to enter into the world the text of the Quran creates within itself. A reader has to consciously look for the spirit of the Quran which can be possible only when one goes beyond the literal aspects of the Quran.

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