BOOK REVIEW

Published:  07:42 PM, 29 November 2020 Last Update: 07:53 PM, 29 November 2020

The glass like a shimmering star

The glass like a shimmering star


-Syed Badrul Ahsan


The Quran is not to be taken lightly. That essentially means that those who read it, or study it, must bring into the act an understanding of faith that will do justice not merely to the religion of Islam but also to an interpretation of the holy book. 

Ziauddin Sardar argues, with a good deal of persuasiveness, that the Quran is in effect a holy work for those who can think, who can doubt and in the end who can observe its relevance to a world far removed from the one in which it first manifested itself.

Sardar, a leading exponent of Islamic thought in the West at this point in time, has little patience with those who in recent years have taken portions of the Quran out of context either to add substance to their so-called jihad against those they perceive as infidels or to impose their own fanatical ideas of faith on a community which has consistently seen in Islam a framework of some of the most liberal positions relating to man in terms of his links with the Almighty.

A basic difficulty with any reading of the Quran comes through the fact that a vast majority of Muslims around the world do not have Arabic as their native language. And yet they read it or, more precisely, memorize it through the sheer power of belief. Even so, the lofty range of Arabic which has gone into Islam’s holy book is not exactly the sort of Arabic people in the Middle East employ in their quotidian existence.

The Quran, in Sardar’s view, is a matter of sound and image. It is to be likened to a symphony, which raises a song as it is compiled in words and phrases to heights of grandeur approximating the Olympian. From such a perspective, the Quran, more than being a written work enunciating Allah’s instructions to mankind, is heavenly music which comes through in deep recitation. 

Think of the adhaan, the call to prayer. It links the Creator with His creation. And yet the sweetness or melody involved in the adhaan, in order for it to come across as a sign of the divinity in its fullness of depth, relies on the quality of the muezzin calling the faithful to worship of God.

On the matter of the Quran being a coming together of profound sounds, there arises the question of how often it is either misinterpreted or misrepresented both by Muslims and non-Muslims. Ziauddin Sardar gives the nature of the problem to you to think through. The Quran, he says as much, has not been read for what it truly is by many because of the plethora of translations which have been made of it, basically in the English language.

Obviously, there have been the good translations, such as Mohammad Marmaduke Pickthall’s. But do not forget, before you go headlong into this translation question, that there have always been Muslims who have consistently decried translations, their argument being that the Quran must be read in the language it came in. 

The problem, though, is that sheer large numbers of Muslims, despite reading the Quran and committing it to memory, are constrained by a lack of understanding of Arabic from feeling the fullness of its essence and meaning.

Thus when Imam Abu Hanifa (699-765), of Persian origin and reputed as the founder of the Hanafi School of Thought, took the radical step of suggesting that the Quran could both be translated into Persian and read in Persian, a new world of interpretation opened up for Muslims. Of course, Hanifa ran into severe criticism. The three other Schools of Thought --- led by Imam Malik (711-795), Imam As Shafi (767-820) and Imam Hanbal (780-855) --- registered their absolute disapproval of the Hanafi view of translation.

Sardar notes with dismay the reluctance of the traditional scholars of Islam to accept any translation of the Quran. The reason, in most instances, was the belief among such classical scholars in the superiority, as they saw it, of the Arabic language. Sardar comes down hard on such parochial approaches to the study of the Quran. 

Observe his emphatic point of view: ‘An Islam that can only be understood through a single language is not only diminished but has a limited future: monochromatic understanding and outlooks are as doomed as monocultures in nature.’

The Quran is not an invitation to a practice of blind faith. A most appealing aspect of the holy book is the freedom it allows individuals to read of the glories of Allah, to comprehend them through reason and argument and then reach a conclusion. Again, the Quran is at once a book which highlights the spirituality involved in Creation and determines the nature of life as it is lived on the foundations of mundane reality.

The question, in the main, for Muslims, indeed for anyone intrigued by the nature and working of Islam, is one of how deeply and sombrely they can engage with the Quran. Fundamental questions of life and death are handled assiduously in the holy book. 

The problem, though, arises with those Muslims who are inclined to take its passages out of context, through severing part of a verse from the whole and trying to disseminate it as the ultimate truth.

In recent years, young Muslims driven by fundamentalist zeal have done grave damage to Islam through employing part of Sura Baqara in their so-called jihad:

‘Slay them wherever you may come upon them, and expel them from where they had expelled you; for oppression (persecution) is worse than slaughter . . .’
The beginning of the verse or sura is conveniently ignored. And what is the beginning? ‘Fight in the cause of God those who fight you, but do not commit aggression: God loves not the aggressors.’

The Quran, with its reasoned deliberations on life and the various aspects attendant on it, makes for a comprehensive understanding of religion and morality. In these days when large numbers of Muslims happen to be bringing a version, their own, of political Islam into the public domain, it is important to remember the Quranic declaration on the nature of leadership as it ought to be.

The holy book makes it clear that people should put their trust in those who are worthy of such trust, those who are capable of delivering the goods. The ultimate function of power, in terms of a Quranic pronouncement of it --- notes Sardar --- is to free the world of oppression and strife and bring it, as it were, ‘back to life’.

A grave problem with an understanding of the Quran is the tendency among orthodox Muslims to take its words and exhortations in the literal sense of the meaning. That the Quran comes in figurative streams of thought, that it expresses itself in metaphors and thereby speaks to people across the centuries is often lost on those whose otherwise admirable goal remains a projection of the glory of Islam. There is no compulsion in faith, notes the Quran.

And therein lies its power to move people. Ziauddin Sardar puts it all in perspective. ‘It is a tranquil heart’, says he, ‘that engenders sincerity, humility, respect, courage and all the other virtues necessary for the exercise of power.’

An engagement with the Quran involves solely the individual, for it is the individual who, putting aside others’ interpretations of it, casting aside the many dubious explanations of it by men of fanatical zeal, must approach it on his own.

To read the Quran, as the author of this revealing work puts it, is to unleash one’s imagination, to be surrounded by its sounds and imagery, to lose one’s self in the Infinite. Peruse the ‘Verse of Light’ (24:35) to get a feel of God:

‘God is the light of the heavens and the earth.
The simile of God’s light is like a niche in which is a lamp,
The lamp in a glass,
The glass like a shimmering star,
Kindled from a blessed tree,
An olive, neither of the East nor of the West,
Its oil almost aglow, though untouched by fire.
Light upon light.’

Reading The Quran, Author: Ziauddin Sardar, Publisher: Hurst & Company, London

-The writer is Editor-in-Charge of The Asian Age


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