Postmodernism And The Quran

A general perception in the West is that Quranic teachings discourage progress and are incompatible with a modern way of life. Those who hold this view fall in three groups: anti-Islam elements; atheists who are opposed to all religion and spirituality; and rationalists, who consider religious teachings irrational.

We do not want to discuss here the case of anti-Islamic elements as they have their own politics and cannot be expected to examine Islamic teachings dispassionately and rationally. However, the case of atheists and rationalists is a little different. They are not necessarily anti-Islam but opposed to religion in general.

Many become victims of cultural and linguistic confusion, besides practices which can be ascribed to customs and traditions rather than religion, and instead of understanding the complex relationship involving religion, culture, language customs and traditions, they damn religion straightaway. To say the least, their reading of the Quran is not only partial, it is selective and thus prejudiced and hostile. One must study their writings and reply point by point with in-depth scholarship and patience. Condemnation alone will not do.

I have been studying the Quran for the last 40 years and also have actively engaged socially to bring about reform and change for which I studied various reformist as well as revolutionary movements and also the implications of modernity and post-modernity. I have found that the Quran, if studied from modern and postmodern perspectives, helps us cope with both.

What have been the characteristics of modernity? Freedom of conscience, individual and human dignity, democracy, gender equality and a scientific outlook. The Quran lays stress on freedom of conscience (2:256); democratic and collective decision-making (42:38); dignity of human beings (17:70); gender equality (2:228; 33:35). Numerous other verses urge one to reflect on the creation of the universe, the creation of human beings, animals and so on to encourage a scientific outlook through inductive reasoning.

No wonder, then, that physics, mathematics, optics, chemistry and rational philosophy prospered during the first four centuries of Islam and became source material for European universities and subsequent scientific developments. This has been acknowledged by various European scholars and historians.

However, a decline began to set in when for various political and other reasons (including the traditionalists’ reaction to excessive importance being given to rational sciences by philosophers and scientists), traditionalists and conservatives became a dominant force. They in a way hijacked Islamic teachings, making Arab traditions instead of Quranic values central to temporal problem-solving and formulating Sharia laws.

I would also like to assert here that the Quran is no less compatible with post-modernity thinking; in fact, it is most compatible with it because it makes religious pluralism and multiculturalism the very basis of creation (5:48 and several other verses). It exhorts Muslims to show equal respect for others’ prophets (biblical and others), as all were sent by Allah in different cultures, with teachings handed out in different languages. The Quran is in Arabic only because it addressed the Arabs primarily and others through them. Quranic teachings clearly assert that the existence of different tribes, races, people of different colours and speakers of different languages is acknowledged and owned in deference to the respective people’s identities; there is no room here to establish any superiority; no religion, language or culture has hegemony over others.

Also, another characteristic of post-modernity is to negate absolute hegemony of reason, while modernity tends to be quite intolerant in its rejection of everything extra-rational. Postmodern thinking, like Islam, admits faith and spirituality besides reason as being fundamental to meaningful human existence.

Thus, the Quran, while accepting the importance of material existence and worldly human needs, does not neglect, as modernists do, the forces of faith, tradition and culture. However, it is highly regrettable that our traditionalist ulema, immersed in their customary learning, have lost sight of these important insights of the Quran, and that they rely only on narratives developed in the medieval age to pass rulings on contemporary issues.

It is only a few ulema, well-versed in traditional Islamic learning and in modern and postmodern social, political and economic movements, who can understand universal Quranic insights and project Islam in the right perspective. Most of the existing ulema cadre has unfortunately become reactive and defensive. This has resulted in a loss of original thinking and reflection which the Quran encourages. It is tafakkur (reflection) on the universe which will help Muslims progress, and not defending medieval traditions. The sooner we realise this the better for us.

The writer is an Islamic scholar who also heads the Centre for Study of Society & Secularism, Mumbai.

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The Pluralistic Message Of The Quran

By Sadia Dehlvi,

I am passionate about the Quran, love swimming in the scriptures and begin each morning reading verses from the Book Muslims believe to be the word of Allah. The Quran is not an intellectual or political document but a call to recognise the Lord and submit to Him. It drives towards purification of the heart, mind, body and soul. Sadly, I find many people with negative stereotype perceptions of Muslim Scripture.

Surely, the problems are on the side of the reader, not the Book. The revelations to prophet Muhammad began in the year 610 AD and were completed over a period of 23 years. The Quran is an extraordinary powerful text divided into 114 surah, chapters of unequal length that contain 6,236 verses, each called an ‘ayat’, literally meaning signs.

Quran require both understanding and response for simply believing in God is not enough. Muslims have to translate the meaning of the Book into prayer, righteous intent and behaviour, without which God remains an abstract idea. Prophet Muhammad provided detailed interpretations of the Message, after which countless sages, scholars, theologians and jurists through the centuries have interpreted the Quran, keeping in mind the requirement of the time. Muhammad’s words, “The difference of opinion amongst scholars is a blessing”, establishes that Islam requires unity of form but encourages diversity of creative religious expression.

The Quran describes itself as a book of wisdom and guidance for the pious. With its all-inclusive vision, it attempts to build a global community. One cannot be a Muslim without affirming all the prophets who came before Muhammad. Islamic traditions believe that around 1, 24,000 prophets were sent to planet earth. The Quran informs that there has never been a time when God did not send Messengers who did not speak the language of the people. ‘To every people was sent an apostle’.

The tale of the Miraj, Ascension of prophet Muhammad to the Heavens has become a paradigm of Muslim spirituality; for we all have to follow him in making that ascension. It is a story of pluralism, where the prophet journeyed to the heart of the older Semitic traditions, the Temple of the Mount in Jerusalem. Here, Muhammad led all the previous prophets in prayer and then journeyed on Al Buraq, the Heavenly steed, to meet the Lord. On the different layers of Heaven, he encounters Abraham, Jesus, Moses and some other prophets. They shared their stories, insights and concerns for humanity.

There is a wonderful story of Omar, the second caliph that illustrates the Islamic principles of tolerance, appreciation, justice and compassion. After conquering the city of Jerusalem in 638 Ad, Omar was escorted by the Greek patriarch to the main church of the city. It was time for Muslim prayer so the patriarch invited Omar to pray right beside the tomb of Christ. The caliph declined, walked across and prayed on the street. Omar explained that if he prayed inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, some misguided Muslims attempting to celebrate the first Muslim prayer in Jerusalem, might convert the church into a mosque and that should never happen. A small mosque was later built and exists across the church, where Omar prayed. The caliph signed an edict allowing the Christians to keep their churches in the best part of town.

Omar then asked the whereabouts of the great mosque of Prophet Solomon, mentioned in the Quran. The Christians got nervous for they had burnt down the Jewish temple.

The Christians had left the ruins to show the subjugation of Judaism. To Omar’s horror, he discovered the Byzantines using it as a garbage dump. The Muslims cleared the rubble, sprinkled rose water, helped restore the place of worship and asked the Jews who had fled to return to the city. Some 70 Jewish families were invited to settle in Jerusalem, living side by side with the Muslims. Jersualem is the third holiest city for Muslims after Makkah and Madinah.

Islam is at home anywhere in the world where there is excellence and a willingness to surrender ones being to the Divine. In these difficult times, Muslims need to reclaim their intellectual heritage and become good ambassadors of the Message of the Quran.

Modernity, Its Discontent And Religion

Glass Panels, PhiladelphiaModernity was greatly celebrated during colonial days of 19th century throughout the world, especially in African and Asian countries colonized by European countries. It was hallmark of superiority of west over east. West was considered most modern, rational in its approach and technologically far more superior whereas Asian and African countries superstitious, irrational and ignorant and backward. Continue reading Modernity, Its Discontent And Religion

Compassion In Islam – Theology And History

ama Masjid, New DelhiIslam is generally associated with Jihad. But it is more due to its history than its theology. It is interesting to note that while jihad in Islam is more historical than theological, compassion, on the other hand, is more theological than historical. The very opening of Qur’an, the holy book of Islam is with Bism Allahir Rahmanir Rahim i.e. I begin in the name of Allah who is Compassionate and Merciful. Continue reading Compassion In Islam – Theology And History

Islam And Compassion – An Scriptural, Historical And Contemporary Perspective

A Muslim Offering PrayerIslam is generally associated with Jihad popularly interpreted as war. But the fact is that a careful understanding of the Qur’an in its totality clearly establishes that mercy, compassion and peace are the predominant values. There are few verses in Qur’an on war and killing. These verses have been given more importance both by some Muslims as well as antagonistic non-Muslims. Continue reading Islam And Compassion – An Scriptural, Historical And Contemporary Perspective

Taqlid, Ijtihad And Democracy

Quran This is a translation of a portion done by Yoginder Sikand from a chapter titled Taqlid Aur Ijtihad in Maulana Wahiduddin Khan’s book Din-o-Shariat: Din-e Islam Ka Ek Fikri Muta’ala [Goodword Books, New Delhi, 2003, pp.224-228].

In the wake of the industrial Revolution in Europe, Western countries established their political and cultural domination over much of the rest of the world, leading to the establishment of European colonial empires. This posed a new and major challenge for Muslims. Continue reading Taqlid, Ijtihad And Democracy

Taqlidi Versus Ijtihadi Approaches

QuranThis is a translation of a portion done by Yoginder Sikand from a chapter titled Taqlid Aur Ijtihad in Maulana Wahiduddin Khan’s book Din-o-Shariat: Din-e Islam Ka Ek Fikri Muta’ala [Goodword Books, New Delhi, 2003, pp.204-214].

Human minds can be categorised into two types: taqlidi (stagnant and imitative of past precedent) and ijtihadi (dynamic and creative). The former denotes closed mindedness; the latter is its opposite, open mindedness. The taqlidi mind attains a certain level and then stagnates, while the ijtihadi mind keeps travelling ahead, stopping only at death. Continue reading Taqlidi Versus Ijtihadi Approaches

Madrasas And Sectarian Conflict

Muslim Madrasa GirlsThis is a translation of a chapter by Maulana Waris Mazhari titled ‘Maslaki Kashmakash Aur Dini Madaris’ in Yoginder Sikand & Waris Mazhari (ed.) Dini Madaris Aur Dahshatgardi: Ilzam Aur Haqiqat (‘Madrasas And Terrorism: Accusations and Realities’), Global Media Publications, New Delhi, 2008, pp. 143-50.

Among the various internal challenges facing madrasas today is the pressing problem of sectarianism and sectarian conflict. Some people claim that in the last ten or fifteen years there has been a decline in the sectarianism actively promoted by madrasas. Continue reading Madrasas And Sectarian Conflict

Jihad? But What About Other Verses In Qur’an?

Quran PageThe terror attacks in India as well as abroad has created an impression as if jihad is central to Qur’anic teaching. First of all, as we have asserted repeatedly, jihad does not mean war in Qur’an as there are other words for it like qital and harb for war. Jihad has been used in Qur’an in its root meaning i.e. to strive and to strive for betterment of society, to spread goodness (ma’ruf) and contain evil (munkar). Continue reading Jihad? But What About Other Verses In Qur’an?

The Concept Of Jihad In Islam

Muslims praying during Shab-e-QadrMaulana Wahiduddin Khan
(Translated from Urdu by Yoginder Sikand)*

The word ‘jihad’ is derived from the root juhd, which means ‘to strive’ or ‘to struggle’. It denotes the exertion of oneself to the utmost, to the limits of one’s capacity, in some activity or for some purpose. This is how the word is understood in Arabic grammar. Continue reading The Concept Of Jihad In Islam