Reading the Qur’an - II


Reading the Qur’an - II
I am going to present how I approach the Holy Qur’an in light of my own experiences and different readings.

First, the aesthetic side: i.e. how much the Quran and all other holy texts are expression of belief in power of the Word. It is sheer faith in the power of the Word that scriptures have carried from eons past the testament that the Word can guide in finding meaning, purpose and a moral compass. That scriptures and religions have been there since the dawn of civilization, or even since life with consciousness, and through the Word, point to the transcendent that appeals to the Word and that the Word appeals to. That transcendent part may very be part of the human life, psyche or just bare existence. You read scriptures and they are not a book. They are not a narrative, nor are they moral guidebooks or texts with a clear arc. They are none of these – and yet all of these. Scriptures transcend. They are a feeling. And often they can be felt when you engage through the whole self with them.

'An Old Man Reading the Quran' - Istanbul, 1843

Second, it is how a verse or part of the Qur’an needs to be approached. Reading scripture needs absorption of the whole and to read it as more than a text. In fact, reading scripture has its intricacies. It requires us to see it as a lived engagement and of reading the truth – metaphorical, factual, philosophical, rhetorical, mythical, allegorical, theological – contained in it as part of a whole but also as parts containing the whole: the whole being the context and pretext, not only of the text but of the religious experience which is a historical and social truth.

Third, and most importantly, how the context has to be engaged with. This I will demonstrate with my reading of Sura Nuh (Noah) – focusing on the embeddedness of the text of the Qur’an in the context. You can’t make a meaning or a narrative whole of the text, which often is fragments, if you don’t understand its relation to the context, i.e. to the whole phenomenon of Revelation. This chapter, and for that matter the whole Qur’an, doesn’t tell a narrative story in one go but takes fragments of the sacred-historical to draw emphasis to be on the right path, to invite people to the path of morality. Now, neither those textual fragments nor the moral calling can be understood without understanding the historical moment. I am always fascinated by how in order to understand the text, you have to come out of the text (to the context) and engage with the context and go back to the text so as to make meaning out of it.

Another thing that got my attention was that even in that fragment of narrative account, the methodology of the Qur’an can be followed. The methodology of the Qur’an is to call to the right path (not always specified but again it has to be understood in and through the context) through emphasis of different motifs. The first motif is to remind people of the wonders of nature. In case of Sura Nuh, the heavens, the moon and the ability of earth to produce is mentioned. Then the invitation to the right path is backed by a calling to reason over these wonders. Then, when in the narrative-story of the Surah, the prophet is frustrated at the wrongdoing of the people and prays for wrath of God on people, the text takes special care to mention that the wrath of God (azab) was sent after the people had come up with a final plan in their rebellion.
You read scriptures and they are not a book. They are not a narrative, nor are they moral guidebooks or texts with a clear arc. They are none of these – and yet all of these. Scriptures transcend

This calls attention to a few things. First the invitation to the right path is always through reason and also through the material benefits of this world. This is to say that the moral arc of text of Quran as well as all sacred traditions is bent toward this earth, this life. Second, Azab is the final act to preserve the order of the world. Third, the nature of prophetic mission is to make people think.

This also drew me to think over the decontextualized quoting of a verse or part of Qur’an and then rejecting the whole sacred tradition, religion and historical experience on the basis of that. This is done by critics while ignoring that even the narrative-particular of which the verse is a part can’t be understood without coming out of that particular narrative, Surah and going to the historical context as well as the historical experience of meaning-making by the Muslims in light of that.

The text, thus, is not a static thing but is embedded in the meaning-making projects of the whole historical community. And the meaning-making is part of the hermeneutics of the Quran. This unfortunately has become the standard practice of the so-called ‘rationalists’ who have taken it upon themselves to take a verse and then stress on its literalist meaning while ignoring and insisting on erasure and disregard of how the historical community has engaged with that verse or in what context. This fact alone makes the so-called rationalists (who also erase the whole rationalist-philosophical strain of Islam and its lived historical experience) a mirror-image of the literalists who want to see and consider legitimate only the literal meaning or out-of-context emphasis of the Qur’an and other textual sources.

What I mean from “meaning-making through hermeneutical engagement” can be explained from my reading of Surah Al-Hijr and the narrative motif of creation of humans in terms of worth and intrinsic value in terms of negation of self/ego – a theme that I find embedded in it.

“Your Lord said to the angels, ‘I will create a mortal out of dried clay, formed from dark mud. When I have fashioned him and breathed My spirit into him, bow down before him.’” Note that humans are made of dark mud but their value, their worth comes from God breathing in His spirit. In response, Iblis says, “I will not bow to a mortal You created from dark clay, from dark mud.” Note here the worshipping of one’s ego and the illusion that one is inherently superior to the other.
The text is not a static thing but is embedded in the meaning-making projects of the whole historical community

But it is God, according to this narrative metaphor and Islamic theology, who is the base of worth. And Humans having been ‘breathed in the spirit of the Lord’ are part of and in God. But Iblis didn’t see that. Iblis didn’t realize the God which was breathed into the human. He just saw reflection of his own ego and his own complex of intrinsic worth. But to see God we have to ‘unsee’ ourselves. We have to let go of the complex of intrinsic superiority (born out of any cross-section of social or otherwise identities) to see the God who was breathed into us and thus to see God. This is how the negation of self and the creation motif has been understood in Sufi-philosophical strain of historical Islam. And this is how we have seen God through each other. Scriptures are so multi-layered and thus so beautiful!

To further demonstrate the relevance of context in historical terms and how the community of Muslims through the leading lights of historical Islam has engaged with the text, one example of a totally contradictory interpretation to the literalist meaning can be cited. Ibn Arabi interpreted the Quranic verse: “Your Lord has determined that you will not worship other than He,” [Quran 17:23] as meaning that Allah in this verse is saying that no matter whomever or whatever you are worshipping, it is worshipping Allah. Even if you are worshipping an idol, it is necessarily directed at Him (Allah). This reading of the Quranic verse is counter-intuitive and against the common belief that in this verse God (Allah) has forbidden worshipping anyone other than Him. From Ibn Arabi flows the Sufism of Wahdat-ul-Wajood which along with Ishraqi philosophical-Sufi strain forms the two major expressions of Islamic Sufism. And this verse adds to the basis of the whole unity-in-existence of Sufi thought. Right here, it can be seen how counter-intuitive and ‘rational’ the embeddedness of the text was in thinking and life of the historical Muslim community, as opposed to what both the literalists and the secular ‘rationalists’ would want us to believe.

'Girl Reading the Quran' - painting by Osman Hamdi Bey, 1880

In conclusion, reading and engaging with the Qur’an is more than a simple reading that is done while ignoring the structure, meaning, purpose, method and context of  theQur’an and revelation as a whole. The claim is not about Truth per se but to take the claim to truth of the Qur’an (or any other scriptures) on its own terms. If we have to understand the historical community which came together, and still sees itself as part of a larger historical tradition, we have to engage with Qur’an as it has been engaged with throughout historically. Neither text nor tradition is a dead matter. The very fact that they survived across diverse geography and historical eons, makes tradition and text dynamic and capable of embedding the shifts and fissures of history.

More than ‘critical’ or ‘rationalist’ approach to the texts of scriptures, we need to have a historical context where the traditions around scriptures formed, changed and thrived, and were a source of meaning for hundreds of millions of people across diverse spatial-temporal divide. To understand Islam better and to locate the current moment and turn in the arc of historical continuation or rupture, one needs to have an empathetic engagement with the Qur’an: i.e. an engagement which is informed by historical meaning-making projects.