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The Qur’an is the word of God, revealed to Prophet Muhammad through the medium of a 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 provides a comprehensive answer to the question, “How shall I behave in order to achieve the good life in this world and happiness in the life to come?”
It represents the ultimate manifestation of God’s grace to man, the eternal wisdom, and the most exalted beauty of expression: In short, the true word of God. The Qur’an is an “open” book—a spiritual and moral resource that, if properly understood, provides Muslims with useful guidance through the complexities of modern life. It came to speak to all of humanity. However, it came to speak 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.
The Qur’an is basically 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 Quranic figurehead, an individual who expressed best the ideals of Islamic faith in human incarnation. He was sent with an all-embracing code of ethics, morality and religious duties that were to last unto eternity. Just as the Qur’an embraces every facet of human life, it was through the life of the Prophet that God exemplified the entire domain of human experience, both public and private.
It is a tragedy that the present community of Muslims has divinized the physical personality of the Prophet and emptied it of its moral soul. Much of his human qualities have been evaporated. The Grand Mufti of Egypt, Muhammad Abduh, who is considered Islamic modernism’s most important early representative, argued until his death in 1905: “Most of what goes today under the name of Islam is not Islam at all. It may only have preserved the outer shell of the Islamic ritual of prayer, fasting, and pilgrimage, as well as some sayings, which have, however, been perverted by allegorical interpretations. These sinister accretions and superstitions found their way into Islam and brought about the stagnation that now passes under the name of religion”.
The basic feature of the Qur’an is that it is a coherent text where each verse amplifies the other. Reading or quoting isolated verses can confuse and confound the reader. The Qur’an requires that you read it in full. There is no such thing as “cafeteria Qur’an” here. As Qur’an 3:8 says, “We believe in it, the whole is from our Lord.” The Qur’an 3:8 pre-emptively calls out people who cherry pick as “perverse” people, declaring, “…those in whose hearts is perversity seek discord and wrong interpretation of [the Qur’an].” In fact, much of the distortions in understating the Qur’an are because of the cherry-picking of verses to suit one’s ideology. We cannot grasp the deeper import of the verses of the Qur’an except in the light of the overall moral thrust of the Quranic message. The religious text will morally enrich the reader, but only if the reader will morally enrich the text.
The Qur’an must not be viewed as a compilation of individual conjunctions and exhortations but as one integral whole. It is an exposition of an ethical doctrine in which every verse and sentence has an intimate bearing on other verses and in amplifying one another. Consequently, its real meaning can be grasped only if we correlate every one of its statement with what has been stated elsewhere in its pages. We can try to explain its ideas by means of frequent cross-references. Whenever this rule is faithfully followed, we realize the Qur’an is—in the words of Imam Muhammad Abduh—“its own best commentary”. By emptying the Qur’an both of its historical and moral contexts, the puritan trend ends up transforming the text into a long list of legal prescriptions.
The Qur’an continuously invites its readers to ponder and reflect. Hence the recurring Qur’anic invitations and exhortations, “Do you reflect”, “Do you think?”, and “Do you not take heed?” The tragedy is that the Qur’an is still inaccessible to the majority of Muslims either on account of illiteracy or them resorting to self-exclusion harbouring a notion that the Qur’an can be handled only by specialists.
Despite the claim of the traditionalists that full understanding of the Qur’an must pass through their scholarly portals, it was recognized from a very early period that the Qur’an was hammaluawjuhin (a bearer of diverse interpretations).The Qur’an explicitly recognizes the danger of a wilfully perverted reading of the text, but if approached in a pious frame of mind or what we might call sympathy, interpretation must, in theory, be limitless, since God alone is its perfect interpreter (Q3:17). Thus, of all sacred texts, the Qur’an is perhaps the one that most self-consciously invites its readers to engage with it exegetically, and with the purest mind and heart.
Through the science of exegesis (tafsir), 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 that are no longer limited to Arabic. Unlike the great scholars of the past, who valued criticism, traditionally educated alims—who are the imams of mosques around the world—lack the tools of contemporary critical scholarship. They are used to valuing the outmoded opinion that has emerged over the centuries and has actually lost relevance for our times. A tafsir must have a freshness and use the Quranic wisdom to grapple with the day to day complexities of life.The commentator should correlate and apply Qur’anic learning to issues of day-to-day concerns. Thus, he should approach it with the lenses of modern socio-cultural context.
While there are several translations of the Qur’an in several languages, they cannot substitute regular commentaries where we can actually see the real import of the verses through their application to our present times. While every language has words and concepts which have no counterpart in others, oriental languages are suffused with words that are invested with meanings not recorded in dictionaries. English is certainly not adequately equipped to convey the subtleties of an eastern language like Arabic whose individual words are laden with great luminosity. It is virtually impossible to find an accurate and succinct equivalent in English for every Arabic word. Hence, all translations of the Qur’an are at best functional translations.
For too long, a group of narrow-minded elite of religious clerics has usurped the power to comment on the Qur’an. It is time ordinary Muslims took this power back to where it belongs: With all Muslims, whatever their background, whatever their level of knowledge. Rather than being told by clerics what to think, Muslims everywhere need to get back to the religious duty of actively participating in interpretation—which can only come from lively debate. The Qur’an is a vibrant book; it can’t be frozen in eternal time. It is immutable but its relevance, applicability, and guidance were meant for eternal time. The Muslim community (ummah) is, fortunately, developing a new understanding of what it means to be a Muslim in the 21st century: Understand the Qur’an from the Qur’an itself.
(The author is a regular contributor to this newspaper and can be reached at: [email protected])