Muslims Debate

Reza Varjavand   |   26 Aug 2011
Quran Misconstrued

Quran is one of the holy scriptures that has been dragged relentlessly into the forum of public opinion by the media and more intensely scrutinized, sometimes unscrupulously, by Western non-Muslim scholars. Westerners began to be more inquisitive about this book after 1979 and the inauguration of an Islamic government in Iran (IRI) and particularly throughout post 9/11 years. Many contemporary Western religious scholars seem to believe that Islamic radicalism is rooted in the teachings of Quran and the egoistic interpretations of some of its verses. However, what they overlook is that Quran is basically different from other holy books they are familiar with, namely the Bible. Modern scholarly interpretations of Quran, unlike that of the Bible, have been really slow to address situations in the contemporary environment. Ironically, Quran has been unfairly denied flexibility by Muslims who believe it is the miracle of Prophet Mohammad and the sacred words of God, and thus none of its verses (ayah) can be altered, invalidated, or be revoked. However, the generalities, piecemeal approaches, ambiguities, and frequent abrupt shifts in the themes of Quran have given rise to a diverse assortment of interpretations of some of its verses by both Sunni and Shia interpreters. They interpret the Quranic verses based on their theological persuasions and the kind of hadiths (sayings, practices, and traditions of Prophet Mohammed) they can find. The intention is to build up support for their beliefs.   

Some Islamic interpreters have tried unapologetically to come up with eccentric explanations of some verses viewed by many progressive scholars as outdated because they are realistically unsuitable to modern world or they seem to instigate violence. Repeatedly, the reemerging Muslim fanatics, who commit violent acts in the name of Islam, sift through the Quranic verses, medieval Islamic texts, and hadiths to muster validation for their dreadful ideology or find excuses for their transgressions. It is really hard to fathom why they dig so deeply into holy scriptures, often cynically, in search of ambiguities, loopholes or take them out of context to support something that is incompatible with core modern moral values and with the essence of human dignity.  They claim that they have a better understanding of Quran and have a monopoly right to interpret its verses despite the fact that Quran is simple and, according to its own declaration, it is written in an easy-to-understand language because it always addresses the ordinary people.

When we read Quran carefully, you do occasionally come across statements, injunctions, and ancient stories that may not conform to our conventional wisdom or to our definition of morality or fairness. However, to generation after generations of ordinary believers such stories are morally inspiring and, much to my chagrin, many act upon them and one wonders why. I suppose perhaps some Muslims are the bearers of unbending traditions and are conditioned to look at Quran as a whole through the eye of faith and not necessarily reason. Muslims are told that they should accentuate its overall moral messages and should not care about non-literal translation for such a translation may distort the meaning of the scripture. It is recommended that Quran be recited for the soothing power of its verses, poetic sound, and the tranquility of its rhythms. There are wide-spread Quran recitation contests, American Idol style, in some Muslim countries. In Iran, they have even invented a quartet-like Quran recitation band whose members recite verses of Quran in harmony as if they were the lyrics of a popular song. Muslims are told it is blissful to keep a copy of Quran at home and to recite it as often as they can. But for non-Arabic speaking Muslims, what is the point of this admonition to read Quran only in Arabic if they don’t understand its meaning?  

According to Islamic narratives, Quran was put together years after the passing of the Prophet Mohammed. It existed mainly in oral form during his life and preserved via public recitation of its verses by some of his closest devotees. It was composed and complied into written form by Othman, one of the successors to Prophet Mohammad,  several years after the his passing, twenty years according to some Islamic sources. It is a collection of his teachings and public declarations during the last twenty years of his life and consists mostly of moral/ethical advice, known ancient stories, legal injunctions, and simple civic, judiciary, and family rules and guidance. It has many distinctive attributes however, unlike an ordinary book, it lacks coherency; it is not chronological; it does not follow a persistent theme; and its tone is authoritative. Occasional abrupt swings from one subject to another may sometimes confuse the naïve readers who may not understand the rationale behind them. To many, such shifts may engender contradictions and convey ambiguous messages. Nonetheless, Muslims believe there is an unknown divine mystery hidden in every verse and argument in Quran. No one can dispute the fact that Quran is based on the public preaching of Mohammed, but given the fact that its final version was put together so many years of his death, it was unlikely to preserve everything he uttered precisely. The probability of misquote, misrepresentation, and inaccuracy is significant. It is also unclear who had the authority to decide which ones of the many preserved fragments, oral and otherwise, are the exact utterances of the Prophet Mohammed, and who decided what should be included in Quran, and what should not, and how such decisions were made.

Reading different Suras (chapters ) of Quran often feels like navigating through the life and the career of Prophet Mohammed and his quest to spread his monotheistic messages. This is especially true when tracing his strategic transitions as visibly depicted by many verses in Quran. The reader can follow his journey from being a morality teacher and a compassionate personality in Mecca to being a statesman, ruler, and conquering leader in Medina where he established the first Islamic government. One thing that is undeniably discernable is that the real life situations at the time persistently dictate the tone and the premise of Mohammed’s proclamations. In other words, the correlation between the tone of his statements and the situations he encountered is undoubtedly detectable. We should be mindful of this fact when reading Quran and trying to understand the intended denotation of many verses, especially the ones that appear to espouse violence or allow retributive justice. For instance, the Quranic verses advocating intolerance and authorizing the use of force were revealed in fact as self defense responses to the harassing behavior of non-believers at the time of Mohammed. Some Islamic clerics, however, claim that all the Quranic verses, even those recommending use of force, Jihad, are the words of God and eternally valid. They can, therefore, be invoked anytime to wage war or to punish so-called infidels, the enemies of the faith [whatever that means] at any time.  

Generally speaking, it seems that religious pundits have an explanation for almost every conceivable anomaly and Islamic experts, mullahs in particular, are no exception. They offer plenty of rhetorical claims when it comes to exploiting Quranic verses. This is, I guess, a sly ploy especially by fanatic Shia mullahs who even detest Othman - the man who is credited for putting together the final version of Quran – They consider him an illegitimate successor to the Prophet Mohammed and a usurper. Nonetheless, relying on the verses of Quran, or more commonly on hadiths, they often tender weird explanations for the claims they make, especially for the ones they cannot substantiate. Throughout the centuries they have concocted hundreds of thousands of hadiths to bolster their arguments especially when they could not find any reference in Quran to prove their case.  

They firmly cling to their claim that Quran represents the unadulterated words of God revealed to Mohammed and as such its edicts are eternal. Quran can be invoked at any time, if deemed warranted, by religious authorities who consider themselves to be the guardians of umma (Muslim community). Because there is no scientific proof for what they claim, it is likely that it might have been Mohammed himself who composed the Quranic verses because many of them are tailored to the specific situation(s) he was confronting and the issues he had to deal with. Therefore, he may in fact be the bona fide author of this holy book. Mullahs may have vital interests to deny his authorship. To my mind, it is a diminution of Mohammed’s stature if we believe that he was only an instrument for passing on God’s messages to the people of Arabia without any of his own input.  Discernibly, to maintain power and to attract dutiful followers, all prophets, needed that monopoly access to a supernatural source and the holy scriptures are the normal outgrowth of that exclusive access.   

To me, the important issue is Quran’s content and how it inspires Muslims to conduct themselves and how they are viewed by others, especially by non-Muslims. Linking Quran to mundane sources not only does not diminish its standing and its sanctity, it is indeed an advisable move that enhances its desired flexibility and its applicability for more liberal adaptation of its injunctions and thus elevates its proper place in the modern world.  Quran can become more illuminating and inspiring for many present-day Muslims who are often mired in its many impractical and antiquated rules. The rigid-minded mullahs who believe that Quranic rules are the irrefutable words of God should not keep modern Muslims from open-minded inquiry into their religion and its holy book.  

Finally, regardless of the source of its revelation, Quran should be revered by Muslims and be interpreted by unbiased open-minded scholars in a positive and constructive way for the betterment of all Muslims. I find it ironic that some demagogues try to apply medieval rules to modern time and spread their gloomy version of Islam through the use of state of the art information equipment such as computers, wireless electronics, the Internet, and the social media. One would think they would prefer to utilize medieval modes of communication to promote their medieval ideas and to underscore their rejection of modernity.

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