Iqra bismi Rababikal-ladhi khalaq
Khalaqal- Insana min alaq.
Iqra wa Rabbukal-Akram.
Alladhi allama bilqalam.
Allamal-Insana ma lam ya’lam.
Kallaa innal-Insana layatghaa,
Ar-ra ‘ahus taghna.
Inna ila Rabbikar-ruj’a. [96:1-8]
Read, in the name of thy Sustainer, who has created
Created humans out of a germ-cell.
Read – for thy Sustainer is the Most Bountiful One
Who has taught humakinds the use of the pen
Taught humans what they did not know!
Truly, humans become grossly presumptuous
Whenever they believe themselves to be self-suficient:
For behold, unto thy Sustainer all must return.
What is happening to Islam in America? My husband and I have been reading as much as we can, as have many others, about the quest by contemporary Muslims to find meaning in our faith. We have also been seriously studying the Quran and Seerah and Hadith. We have come to the point where we feel pretty confident about at least one thing. The Quran is not a book of instructions revealed to a privileged people in a privileged language for the rest of humanity to follow. We have come to understand the Quranic phenomenon in a different light. And we have found that this understanding has strengthened our faith.
The foundation of our faith is like no other text in human history. Quran is the transcription of 23 years of revelations we take as divine, to a man we take as our Prophet, Muhammad, pbuh. The revelations themselves, the life of the Prophet, and the faithful documentation of both, changed the course of human history. There has never been a life as studied and meticulously recorded. The volume and breadth of scholarship that followed him is nothing short of astounding. We, as Muslims, have quite a legacy.
And yet, today in America, in the 21st century, we struggle mightily with that legacy. We struggle with the language and structure of Quran, because it addresses a 7th century man in a language that most Muslims (including native Arabic speakers) do not know well, if at all. Much of Quran is sublime and beautiful and inspires us at times to tears – verses that describe Allah’s creation, human nature, and Allah’s transcendent nature. But we struggle with other parts of the content. As examples, I will focus on a few ayat related to three especially problematic issues: women, punishment, and Jews.
The first ayah concerns the terms of divorce. Ayah 4 from Surah 65, At-Talaq addresses the issue of the period of time required between deciding to divorce and completing the divorce. The ayah contains the following phrase:
Wal-laa’i ya isna minal-mahhidi min-nisaa ikum inir-tabtum fa’iddatuhunna thalathatu ashhurinw-wal-laa’i lam yahidn. [65:4]
Laleh Bakhtiar provides an accurate translation:
“As for those who give up hope of menstruation among your women, if you are in doubt, their waiting period is three months, as well as for those who have not yet menstruated. As for those who are pregnant, their waiting period is until they bring forth a baby…”
We all know the debate about Aisha’s age at her marriage to the Prophet. Books of Seerah record that Aisha was nine years old, which she confirmed herself in a Hadith (Muslim, #1422). It is understandable that many faithful Muslims today have a hard time with the notion that our beloved Prophet would have married a nine year old, especially when he was by then in his fifties. Now that is illegal in most countries. And yet, here is a verse in Quran that says that women who have not yet had their period must also wait three months before getting divorced. Girls who had not yet menstruated were married in the Prophet’s time, and this is referenced in Quran without condemnation.
The second issue in my Quranic reference concerns the specificities of hudud punishments. The punishment for waging war against the faith is spelled out in Ayah 33 of Surah Al-Maa’idah (5), in detail:
Innama jazaa ‘ul-ladhina yuharibunal-laha wa Rasulahu wa yas’awna fil-ardi fasadan ‘any-yuqattaluu aw yusallabuu aw tuqatta’a aydihim wa arjuluhum-min khilafin aw yunfaw minal-ard. Dhalika lahum khizyun-fid-dunya wa lahum fil-Akhirati adhabun azim. [5:33]
Yusuf Ali translates this as
The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger, and strive with might and main for mischief through the land is: execution, or crucifixion, or the cutting off of hands and feet from opposite sides, or exile from the land: that is their disgrace in this world, and a heavy punishment is theirs in the hereafter.
This is only one of many verses that describe punishments that today we find inhumane. I point this out for the simple reason that some militant groups commit their excesses with selective and literal reference to verses like these, taken out of context.
The final ayah I reference here concerns the Jews. We have all probably heard of the ayah from Surah Al-Baqarah [2:65], and Surah Al-A’raf [7:166] where God explains having told the Jews who had disobeyed and violated the Sabbath, “Be as apes, despicable!”
But perhaps you are not familiar with Ayah 5 from Surah 62, Al-Jumu’ah.
Mathalul-ladhina hummilut-Tawrata thumma lam yahmiluha kamathalil-himari yahmilu asfara. Bi’sa mathalul-qawmil-ladhina kadhdhabu bi’Ayatil-lah. Wal-lahu la yahdil-qaw-maz-zalimin. [62:5]
The parable of those who were graced with the burden of the Torah, and thereafter failed to bear this burden, is that of a donkey that carries a load of books. Calamitous is the parable of people who are bent on giving the lie to God’s messages – for God does not bestow His guidance on such evildoing folk!
Try using that one in an interfaith dialogue! How do we explain that ayah to our Jewish friends? How do we explain any of these ayat to ourselves?
How can we understand the ayat from Quran, these and many others, that we cannot possibly apply to our lives today, but that we also cannot dismiss or ignore?
There are two ways we can put the heritage of our faith in perspective. First is to return to the sources – the original sources – to learn the stories about the revelations that comprise the Quran. Those stories help us put the revelations in their proper context – historically and culturally. Second, we mine the text for its essential messages - what Abou El Fadl calls “the moral trajectory or objective of the text.” In fact, we do this all the time, but we sometimes lack confidence in our own insights.
When we read the stories from Seerah and Hadith in their original form, we get a picture of the Prophet and his companions, in all their humanity. The early scholars gave us the tremendous gift of recording, as accurately as they could, the stories told by those who lived with Prophet Muhammad, pbuh. In fact, the amount of material collected was so overwhelming that over the years subsequent scholars developed a whole science of verification, and condensed it into more easily manageable guides that could be referenced and applied. Those references came to be followed as law by subsequent scholars, but they also reflect the cultural norms of their writers, and should be studied with that in mind. None of the founders of madhabs believed that their opinions should stand for all time, without review.
Prophet Muhammad was, above all, a man, a fallible human being. Marvelous as he was, revelations sometimes came to correct mistakes he had made, or to reassure him when he had doubts. His community was also comprised of fallible individuals. The Quran, Seerah, and Hadith tell the remarkable story of how the phenomenon of revelation came and guided the Prophet, and answered many of the questions that were raised by the Muslims themselves, women and men. Revelation was an interactive process, and the messages were perfectly calibrated to respond to the needs, the cognitive abilities and the cultural imperatives of the Prophet and his followers.
We know from Ayah 65:4 and from Aisha’s narrative in Hadith that in 7th century Arabia grown men, even old men, married young girls. That was the cultural norm of the time. Revelation acknowledged that culture, in order to communicate an essential message – to protect vulnerable women and unborn children – and gave the community tools that they could actually implement to help achieve that goal – a three-month waiting period to validate paternity. The Quranic revelations, especially those that came in the years the community was creating a new society in Madinah, were eminently practical for that time. They were not designed to be eminently practical for us.
In looking at Ayah 5:33 about punishment for a hudud, we also need to understand the context of the revelation. Surah Al-Maa’idah was revealed toward the end of the Madinah period, around year 10 AH. The Muslims in Madinah had enemies not only plotting attacks from without, but hypocrites betraying them from within, forming secret alliances with their enemies. The survival of the community was at stake, but most important was the need to protect the fundamental right to follow the Prophet’s message. During that time, revelation served to inspire and reinforce the Muslim community, and to provide needed rules for the conduct of social, economic and military affairs. The punishments listed in Quran sound harsh and unreasonable to us today, but we should keep several things in mind. First, in practice they served primarily as deterrents. The Arabs were used to war and living in a harsh environment. Potential punishments had to be harsh or they would not have had a deterrent effect. Second, the punishments prescribed were always followed by an injunction to pardon those who ask forgiveness. Third, we must consider the realities of life in the Arabian peninsula in the 7th century AD. There were no prisons. Physical punishments and banishment were the punitive norm at the time. The essence of Ayah 5:33 is that belief in God is a fundamental right that merits whatever defense is necessary.
The last ayah I referenced, Ayah 5 from Surah 62, Al-Jumu’a, was revealed in the early part of the Madinah period. The Muslims had recently migrated to the city that was home to many Jewish tribes. Prophet Muhammad expected that since his message followed the chain of prophecy that began with Abraham, the Jews would naturally understand it. Stories in Quran about the Children of Israel illustrate what had happened before when people were given revelation by a prophet and then ignored it. But most of the Jews did not accept Muhammad’s prophecy, and some of them actively betrayed him to his enemies. Quran condemned them harshly for this. We can understand that condemnation as contextual to the time and circumstance. We cannot use it as an excuse to demonize an entire faith community. The only way for us as Muslims in America to relate to this ayah is to put it in its historical context, as condemning enemies of the state who happened to be of the Jewish faith who lived in Madinah 1400 years ago, who battled the Prophet, pbuh.
We Muslims need to rediscover and reconnect with the empowering and liberating awareness of our Islamic heritage. We need to learn how to put our incredible legacy of Islamic scholarship and teaching into context and perspective, so that we can really engage with it. We need to revere scholarship, but not worship scholars. The past is a challenge to which we must rise, not a chain to enslave us.
My husband Osama went with his sister Nagwa to a bookstore in Cairo in January 2014, to buy copies of the original works of the classical scholars - The Interpretation of Quran by Tabari, Al Bukhari, Muslim, Seerat Ibn Hisham, and books about the lives and fiqh of the four scholars – Abu Hanifa, Malik, As Shafie, and Ibn Hanbal. Nagwa is a devout Muslim and a relentless intellectual. She had demonstrated during the Egyptian revolution, and was then shocked by the positions taken by the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis. She supported Sisi’s coup against them, and then began to question her faith. She wondered why Osama was not looking for contemporary writers about Islam. Why go back to these ancient sources? Because, he told her, we need to read the original sources in order to get beyond the filters that subsequent writers brought into to their work. She was not really convinced that would be helpful.
This September, Osama went back to Egypt. Nagwa went with him again to look for more of these books. But this time she told him, this is exactly what we need to do, because people are lost. They no longer trust the messages coming from Al Azhar, and they don’t know where to turn.
We are in a unique position, we Muslims in America. We have the good fortune and the luxury to be able to critically and analytically engage with our faith tradition – really for the first time in the history of Islam. Even the reformers who have been part of Islamic history since the beginning, and especially in the age of modernity – even Mohammed Abdu, and Rashid Rida, even the great Ali Shariati - none of them has been able to engage our faith tradition with a critical and analytical mind. The best they have been able to offer is reform around the edges – accommodations that attempt to make our custom and tradition more palatable in the modern world. Constructive criticism requires a mindset that they simply did not have. They also did not have the luxury of living in a political and economic system that empowers true freedom of exploration. We do.
In fact, many Muslims have already committed themselves to the challenge. We don’t have to be scholars of Arabic – I am the first example. We have a wealth of resources available to us now in English. Original sources are increasingly being translated and are available online and in print. But our greatest resource is thoughtful, critical analysis and common sense, combined with faith, and the conviction that if something doesn’t make sense to us, we have to keep searching until it does, and that an answer is there to be found.
May God give us the strength to rise to the challenge, and may God forgive us our mistakes, and forgive us if we do not try.
Qul a’udhu biRabbin-nas.
Alladhi yuwaswisu fi sudurin-nas.
Minal-Jinnati wan-nas. [114:1-6]
In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful
Say: I seek refuge with the Sustainer of humankind,
The Sovereign of humankind,
From the evil of the whispering, elusive tempter who whispers in the hearts of people,
From all invisible forces as well as humankind.