Akbar Ganji

Iranian journalist and human rights activist 

The Quran of Pacifists and the Quran of Warmongers

Posted: 01/23/2014 9:35 am

Shiites believe that this year the birthday of Prophet Muhammad falls on January 19, while the Sunnis believe that the actual birthday is on January 26. Thus, it may be the right occasion to discuss what the Muslims have done with the Quran, the Holy Nook of Islam, which is the basis for all Islamic teachings, not the Prophet himself, as some Muslims believe.

Using a discredited interpretation of the Holy Quran, the fundamentalist "Islamic" terrorists have transformed the Holy Book into a manifesto for war and terrorism. Thus, they have begun a war between the believers and non-believers, Muslims and non-Muslims, the Shiites and the Sunnis, war among the Shiites, war among the Sunnis, etc. Their God is a warrior who orders nothing but war, massacre and terrorism. Acting upon such incorrect interpretation of the Quran has not only led to many bloodbaths, but has also presented to the world violent images of Islam and Muslims. Such distorted images must be corrected.

The Quran is not a book of laws

Human beings are not passive when it comes to understanding a text. Understanding and interpreting a text is the fruit of a debate between the reader and the text. Neither the text is silent so that the reader can give it any voice (s)he wants, nor is the reader's mind solely a mirror that reflects the text and only the text. No text, including religious ones, can be understood without any human assumptions and judgments, as the two play a fundamental role in understanding and interpreting a text.

Islamic fundamentalists, non-Muslims, and those who oppose Islam consider the Quran a book of laws. This is incorrect. The Quran has 6,236 verses, but according to the commonly-held view, including those of many well-known theologians, including Abu Hamid Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Ghazālī (1058-1111) and Imam FakhruddinRazi (1149-1209), there are only about 500 judicial verses regarding the Quranic rulings. That is less than one-twelfth of the Quran.

The Quranic rulings are divided into worship and non-worship types. The non-worship rulings are about individual affairs, family affairs, assets, judicial affairs, etc. The word jihad and its derivatives, which are repeatedly invoked and used by those who are opposed to Islam and Muslims, are mentioned 32 times in the Quran. According to one accepted view most of the verses about jihad are meant to be about defending people, and according to another view all of them are. At the same time the following two verses supersede all other verses about jihad:

Allah does not forbid you having relationship with those who have not fought you on the account of religion and have not driven you out of your homeland and he does not forbid you from doing good and regarding justice to them: verily, Allah likes those who consider justice towards other people. But, Allah forbids you from having friendship with those who fought you on the account of religion and drove you out of your homeland; and helped one another in driving you out; you are forbidden to have friendly relation with them; and whoever among you does so, then he is regarded as one of the disbelievers. (al-Mumtahanah, 8 and 9).

99 percent of the Islamic rulings are ratified

Shiite and Sunni theologians have divided the Quran's rulings into two groups. One group consists of initiatory rulings, which are those that were taught by Prophet Muhammad. The second group is made of the appropriative rulings, which were the common laws and traditions that existed before the Prophet that he ratified with no change or perhaps with minor modifications. According to religious scholars, such as Dr. Jawad Ali in his book, History of Pre-Islamic Arabs in Detail, 99 percent of all the Quranic rulings are of the appropriative type. After stating in his book, Hujjatullah-hil-Balighah (The Conclusive Argument of God) that the entire Quranic rulings are of the appropriative type, Islamicscholar Shah Wali-ullahDehlavi (1703-1762) adds, "The prophets did not bring any worshiping rules that did not already exist among their own people."

Thus, Prophet Muhammad emphasized the common laws and traditions before him and, with some reforms, made them more just, except that the justice that we are talking about must be considered in the context of the Prophet's era. Expecting, for example, that the Quran support the feminism of the past two centuries is inappropriate.

One can give another interpretation of the above discussions. The society in which Muhammad was God's Prophet provided the "text," while the Prophet added "footnotes"to that text. Slavery, stoning, capital punishment, and many other unjust traditions existed in that society or text. The Prophet's footnotes modified and reformed the text. He could not abolish slavery altogether, as it was a pillar of that text. But, the Prophet's footnotes moderated the practice. The concept of Allah existed in the Arab society of that era. Allah was "the dignified, highly dignified" God that was very difficult to reach. He was "Gods' God." By adding the footnotes to the text, the Prophet brought Allah to the center of the text and made it its pillar, and used it 980 times in the Quran.

The prophet of grace

This is how the Quran describes the Prophet as the symbol of grace and gentleness: "Thus, it is a grace of Allah that you were gentle to those [who disobeyed in Uhud]; had you been tough or hard-hearted, they would have surely dispersed away from you" (al-e-Imran, 159); "There has come to you a Messenger from among yourself; your suffering grieves him. He is full of concern for your guidance and he is kind and compassionate to the believers" (al-Taubeh, 128), and "You are a man with high level of character." (al-Qalam, 4)

The Prophet's grace is not just for the Muslims and the pious, but for the people of the world: "We did not send you but as a grace to the human society for their guidance" (al-Anbiyaa, 107). Can one transform the Book of such a Prophet to a manifesto for the terrorists and guideline for the warmongering generals? No.

The Prophet as an exemplar for Muslims

The Quran introduces the Prophet as an exemplar that Muslims should follow ("Indeed the Messenger of Allah is an outstanding Exemplar for those who have hope in Allah's grace and in the Last Day and who keep on saying Allah's remembrance," al-Ahzab, 21). What does it mean to follow the Prophet as an exemplar in the 21st century? The Prophet ratified the common laws and traditions of the people before him. Thus, what should be the exemplar now? Islamic fundamentalists claim that what existed in the Arabian Peninsula before the Prophet should be used as an exemplar for our era, whereas they were suitable for the culture and knowledge of their time. The prophecy of the Prophet was not contingent upon changing all the traditions of his time. He spoke the language (culture) of his people ("And We did not send a Messenger save with the language of his people so that he be able to explain the Revelations to them," Ibrahim, 4) and had to speak at a level that they could understand ("Taking our cue from the prophets, we speak with the people in terms of their intellect"). He was gentle, kind and moral, and had to consult with the people ("Therefore, forgive them and seek pardon for them from Allah; and consult them in their affairs," al-Imran, 159). Interpreting the same verse in his book about consulting with people, Mafatih al-Ghayb (also known as Tafsir al-Kabir, or the Great Commentary), Imam Fakhruddin Razi quotes the Prophet: "You know your life's affairs and I know your religious affairs." Thus, the magnanimous Prophet acknowledged that the people knew the affairs of their lives better, and ratified their common laws.

As I understand it, ratifying the common laws and traditions of the "learned people of our era" is the true exemplar. Democracy, respect for human rights and freedom are the foundations of the modern times. If the Prophet had been sent to us today, or is sent to us today, he would ratify democracy, freedom, respect for human rights, pluralism, and elimination of discrimination against women as the common laws and traditions of our era.

Human dignity and peace

Thus, the Quran must not be read as a book of laws. Interpretation of and commentary on the Quranic rulings by many Islamic scholars and theologians confirm this and block a reductionist approach to them.

The Quran has emphasized the rights and dignity of the people ("Indeed we honored the Children of Adam; provided them with means of transportation on land and sea; and also provided them lawful and pure sustenance and bestowed them priority above many of our creatures," al-Israa, 70). It has emphasized justice many times (see Surahs al-Hadid, 25; ash-Shura, 15; al-Nissaaa, 58 and 135; al-Maidah, 8; al-Hujurat, 9, and al-An'am, 152). But the meanings of justice in the 7th and 21st centuries are not the same. In modern times justice means equality and elimination of discriminations. Equality is the common basis for democracy, human rights and feminism. That is why the trio is the most just foundations for modern societies.

Peace is also a moral order of the Quran. The Holy Book states, "Making peace is better" (an-Nissaaa, 128), and, "Fear from the disobedience of Allah's commands and set things straight [without war] among yourselves" (al-Anfal, 1). It also says, "Do not make Allah's [name] an excuse in your oaths for not doing good and acting piously or making peace among mankind" (al-Baqarah, 224).

The fundamentalists have transformed the Quran to a book for war and terrorism. But, the pacifists and those who love peace invoke human dignity, peace, justice, and the Prophet as an exemplar of grace, and present a peace-loving interpretation of the Quran. To the pacifists believing in the Prophet implies ratifying the modern traditions and common laws, namely, democracy, respect for human rights, and feminism. From a hermeneutic point of view, such an understanding of the Quran is valid if, based on incorrect pre-judgments, we do not consider the Quran as a book of laws, and recognize that the Prophet of Islam ratified the common laws and traditions of the learned people before him, so that his followers in the future generations do the same and ratify the common laws of their own time devised by their own scholars. It is only by doing so that the true Islamic identity will be preserved.