Outline of Politics, Patriarchy and Power: When the Word of God Goes Wrong, a presentation by Raheel Raza, President of Muslims Facing Tomorrow, at the Westar Institute national meeting November 23, 2014.
Islam today is in the spotlight—like a deer frozen in the car’s headlights. After 9/11 there has been no stone unturned in scrutinizing each aspect of the faith by experts and pseudo-experts. My take on the issues today is from the perspective of an observant/practicing Muslim who takes my cue from the Quran, which is the holy book of 1.6 billion Muslims. I should clarify here that I’m not an academic or a scholar so you will find my terminology and presentation very grass roots—but this may come as a change for you.
Let me begin with what the Quran is.
Islam’s holy text—as the Quran repeatedly reminds Muslims and others who may read the text—shows that Islam is not a new religion but the elemental faith of man, the belief and witness to the reality of One God as the source and origin of all things in the universe. This primal faith gets repeatedly corrupted, yet God sends prophets and messengers to reform the corrupted faith and remind people how their sorrow in this world is a product of their corruption born as they deliberately or mistakenly, wander away from the path prescribed.
Dr. Karen Armstrong, a theologian who has written extensively about faith, speaks to this conundrum. She says that each faith tradition represents a constant dialogue between a timeless, transcendent, or sacred reality and the constantly changing circumstances of life here on earth. We all have to struggle to make our scriptures and the insights of our tradition speak to the circumstances we find ourselves in.
When the Quran was revealed as a message to Mohammad, he was living in a society that was pluralistic, so the Quran addresses diversity calling it a blessing from the creator. The Quran, a word that means “The Reading” is not just a book of laws but is more of a moral and ethical guide with some beautifully spiritual and uplifting passages if only we would comprehend, for instance the Quran 24:35, al ‘nuur, the light:
God is the light of the heavens and the earth.
The smile of God’s light is like a niche in which is a lamp,
the lamp in a globe of glass,
the globe of glass as if it were a shining star,
lit from a blessed olive tree
neither of the East nor of the West,
its light nearly luminous
even if fire did not touch it.
Light upon light!
The Quran also clearly elucidates that this is not a stand-alone message but has to be practiced in conjunction with the teachings of the messages that came before, that is, Judaism and Christianity, being closest as Abrahamic faiths. The striking fact on a first reading of the Quran is how much of its message is Jewish and Christian. The Quran tells the story of Jews, of Abraham and Moses, of Jesus and Mary among others. There is an entire chapter titled Maryam or Mary which tells the story of the virgin birth. It’s also remarkable how Muslims, despite their daily readings of the Quran, tend to obscure the fact that we send blessings on the progeny of Abraham five times a day in our daily prayers.
The historian Max Dimont captured succinctly the meaning of the new history which erupted from the sandy waste of seventh century Arabia following the descent of heavenly message to a man born among pagan Arabs. Dimont wrote:
In the same way as the Septuagint prepared the way for the teachings of Paul among the pagans in the Roman Empire, so a general knowledge of the Old Testament among the Arabs helped prepare the way for the coming of Islam.
No one would claim that the Quran is an easy text, even in translation. It was revealed over the period of 23 years and compiled in book form about 100 years after the death of the Messenger who received the messages. At first reading, the western reader familiar with biblical narratives may be inclined to agree with Thomas Carlyle on reading George Sale’s English translation of 1734 that the book is a “wearisome confused jumble, crude, incondite; endless iterations, long-windedness, entanglement . . . insupportable stupidity, in short!”
One reason for this is that the Quran as we see it today was compiled not in chronological order but from longest to shortest verse. So every commentary of the Qur’an must be read as a subjective and ideological interpretation. British Muslim scholar Ziauddin Sardar explains, what the Qur’an actually says is shrouded in veils of assumptions and received opinions: among Muslims the text is invoked to support directly contradictory positions. A majority insists it is a book of peace, while extremists use it to legitimize mass murder.
We fortunately have the advantage of the fine poetic rendering by the Palestinian scholar Tarif Khalidi, who arrives at similar progressive readings on such controversial contemporary issues as homosexuality and the Qur’anic punishment of amputation for theft. The interpretation of specificities must depend on the historic context. In 7th-century Arabia, where Muhammad dictated the revelations “sent down” to him by God, there were no prisons. Today, circumstances are different. He insists on the need to approach the text with fresh eyes, both by Muslims and non-Muslims, most of whom come to it with very wrong preconceived ideas, either due to their political standpoints or their religious backgrounds (the style and content of the Qur’an being so different from that of the Bible). He also stresses the need for Muslims to perform a personal reading and understanding of the Book, keeping “authority” at arm’s length.
In a chapter titled “Limits of Translations”, Sardar explicitly shows a number of cases where the translation of the Qur’an was used for reprehensible ideological purposes. One of the main cases is N. J. Dawood’s 1956 ‘Penguin classic’ translation still widely consulted today, where as Sardar points out, “often Dawood mistranslates a single word in a verse to give it totally the opposite meaning.” He adds: “Dawood’s translation is the one that most non-Muslims cite when they accuse the Qur’an or Islam or Muslims, often with great conviction, of having no option but to be fanatical, violent, and depraved.” Another very important case is the widely used version by Yusuf Ali, which “has been subjected to change by Saudi revision e.g. the Fateha, or opening prayer, which refers to the mystical meaning of God as Creator, had been changed to add Jews and Christians as having strayed. In this version, views on jihad, sex in heaven, and resurrection are totally changed.
My friend David Galston has often challenged me about the prohibition of alcohol in the Quran (that’s because he loves wine!) so lets take a look. First, people were told inebriants are bad but may have some benefit, as in the verse (which means): “They ask you (O Muhammad ) about wine and gambling. Say, ‘In them is great sin and [yet, some] benefit for people’” (Quran 2:219). Then they were told not to drink before ritual prayer, through the verse (which means): “O you who have believed, do not approach prayer while you are intoxicated …” (Quran 4:43) And later inebriants were prohibited altogether, through the verse (which means): “O you who have believed, indeed, intoxicants, gambling, [sacrificing on] stone alters [to other than Allaah], and divining arrows are but defilement from the work of Satan, so avoid it that you may be successful” (Quran 5:90). Obviously the way the legislation considered the fact that drinking was a major solid part of the Arabs’ social life.
“Struggle against oppression, terrorism and tyranny” in the Arabic language, is called, “Jihad.” Scholars of Qur’an tell us the verses dealing with this topic are specific and not intended to imply a general meaning for just anyone to decide to go around combating non-Muslims. As a matter of fact, the Qur’an addresses Jews and Christians as people of the book and makes reference to them many times. In some places God chastises the Jews for leaving the Sabbath and Christians for taking Jesus as the son of God while affirming that he is indeed a Prophet in a line of Prophets – Jesus mentioned in the Quran more times than Mohammad.
In terms of how people like ISIS today kill people they call infidels, there is no injunction in the Quran to kill others. Where killing is mentioned, there is a historical context. The early Muslims had been driven out of their homes and turned out into the desert to starve. After finally, relocating in Medina, verses came in Quran instructing them to make hajj (pilgrimage) back to Makkah. Finding their way blocked and after several years of making agreements and treaties that the others continually broke, the Muslims were at last, told they could now fight in combat against the tyrants who had so horribly mistreated and abused them in the past. However, this would only be acceptable to Allah if they remained within very specific limitations.
Rules of war are clearly indicated in the Quran – not to harm non-combatants, people in worship, places of worship, women and children, the environment. However extremists don’t relate to the entire topic but just use one line out of context. The word “Qital” in Arabic in this instance refers to “combat” rather than what some have used “kill” because the word “kill” is far to general, while the word “combat” appropriately describes what is intended by the usage in this passage.
Those who misuse the word Jihad ignore the Qur’an, Surah v:27-35. “Because of this, we decreed for the Children of Israel that any one who murders any person who had not committed murder or horrendous crimes, it shall be as if he murdered all the people…” One reason for the misinterpretation of the Quran is because the early rulers, after death of the Prophet, politicized the faith and used carefully chosen verses to promote their own political agendas. As this politicization grew, the spiritual message of the faith declined and lead to what we see today – an attempt to promote 7th-century laws in the 21st century – this does not work just like IBM’s first computer would not be compatible today.
Obviously we need a reform just like the Christians but we have no Martin Luther King to lead us. Plus this reform has to come from the scholars and clerics – all we can do is light a fire under their feet to enable them to act. More importantly we have to learn self- critique and laugh at ourselves.
One of the warning signs of fundamentalism has been identified by the international organization Women Living Under Muslim Laws as anti-women policies. Whether it’s attacks on freedom of movement, the rights to education and work under authoritarian and theocratic regimes, or imposition of unjust laws – all these are challenges for women to get equal status and justice. Much of this is misuse of scripture to oppress women. I would say that as girls were buried alive before the advent of Islam more than 1400 years ago, they have been systematically and metaphorically buried alive again.
In the Muslim and Arab world today, when a Muslim woman speaks out or is qualified to take a leadership role, she is called militant. If she speaks in ways expected of women, she is seen as an inadequate leader. If she speaks in ways expected of leaders, she is seen as an inadequate woman. Iranian-American translator Laleh Bakhtiar explains that, for the Muslim, the Quran is the Word (Logos) of God much as Jesus is the Word of God for Christians. Just as a Christian believer wants to learn as much as possible about the life of Jesus, so the Muslim wants to know more about each word that God chose for His revelation through the Quran. This realization, in turn, prompted Bakhtiar’s translation, an attempt to give the sense of unity within the revelation to a non-Arabic speaking reader. She found a lack of internal consistency in previous English translations, and also found that little attention had been given to the woman’s point of view.
The Qur’an (2:228) states, “And for women are rights over men similar to those of men over women.” The Qur’an, in addressing the believers, often uses the expression, ‘believing men and women’ to emphasize the equality of men and women in regard to their respective duties, rights, virtues and merits.
On another highly controversial rubric, allowing (or urging) men to beat recalcitrant wives, Bakhtiar finds a different meaning – “go away from” – for the word usually translated as “smack” or “strike”. This interpretation could even suggest a sensible anger-management approach to domestic strife.
What about the issue of head coverings? The starting point for this inquiry is to address the following questions:
- Do we see the Arabic words ‘shaar’ (hair) or ‘raas’ (head) in 24:31? The answer is no.
- Are there any words in 24:31, or anywhere in the Quran, which address women and which say in plain words “cover your shaar (hair) or raas (head)?” The answer once again is no.
However, traditional scholars and Imams insist that God issued such a command for women to cover their hair and they refer to 24:31 to make such claim. The fact that the words ‘hair’ and ‘head’ are not found in 24:31 should be sufficient for any unbiased reader to conclude that there cannot be a command to cover parts of the body if these parts are not mentioned in the first place. Nevertheless, traditional Muslim scholars manipulated the words in 24:31 in order to enforce the covering of the hair on women, but in reality they are enforcing their culture on people and claiming is it Islamic! In the light of the Quran it can be shown that their claims are all based on manipulated interpretations of the text in 24:31.
The Reformist Translation of the Quran offers a non-sexist and non-sectarian understanding of the divine text; it is the result of collaboration between three translators, two men and a woman. [It explicitly rejects the authority of the clergy to determine the likely meaning of disputed passages. [It uses logic and the language of the Quran itself as the ultimate authority in determining likely meanings, rather than ancient scholarly interpretations rooted in patriarchal hierarchies. [It offers extensive cross-referencing to the Bible and provides arguments on numerous philosophical and scientific issues. [It is God’s message for those who prefer reason over blind faith, for those who seek peace and ultimate freedom by submitting themselves to the Truth alone.
Laleh Bakhtiar’s translation, The Sublime Quran, reverts 4:34 and “to beat” back to its original interpretation meaning “to go away.” With the blessings of God, this is the first complete English translation of the Quran that uses the original meaning of “to beat” in 4:34 which was “to go away.” The translator gives three arguments for why this is so:
- The words “beat them” in 4:34 are a command, an imperative form of the verb. Yet the Prophet, peace and the mercy of God be upon him, never carried out this command. Even if one were to say that just because a word in the Quran is grammatically a command does not mean that the Prophet had to carry it out; it means it is permissible for him to do or not to do. The retort: He chose not to do it. Therefore, whoever follows the Sunnah of the Prophet should also choose not to do it.
- The word interpreted as “to beat” for over 1400 years in the Islamic world has over 25 meanings. Why choose a meaning that goes against both the legal and moral principles of the Quran and the Sunnah of the Prophet?
- The strongest argument for why the Arabic word does not mean “to beat” but rather means “to go away” is because interpreting the Arabic word as “to beat” contradicts another verse in the Quran (discussed further below).
Again, we start with a common premise: Islam encourages marriage and while divorce is allowed, it is discouraged. The Prophet said: Marriage is half of faith. He also said: Divorce is deplorable. In 2:231 the Quran says as translated in the Sublime Quran: “When you divorce wives, and they are about to reach their term, then hold them back honorably or set them free honorably; and hold them not back by injuring them so that you commit aggression, and whoever commits that, then indeed he does wrong to himself; and take not the Signs of God to yourselves in mockery; remember the divine blessing of God on you and what He sent forth to you of the Book and wisdom; He admonishes you with it; and be Godfearing of God and know that God is knowing of everything.”
All English translations translate this verse in a similar way. That is, a husband may not hold back his wife from divorce by hurting, harming, injuring her or using force against her. Reading this verse as if for the first time, it suddenly occurred to the translator that what the Quran says in 2:231 contradicts the way 4:34 has been interpreted over the centuries by everyone except the blessed Prophet. The translation in the Sublime Quran of 4:34 reflects the interpretation as the blessed Prophet understood it: “Men are supporters of wives because God has given some of them an advantage over others and because they spend of their wealth. So the ones who are in accord with morality are the ones who are morally obligated, the ones who guard the unseen of what God has kept safe. But those whose resistance you fear, then admonish them and abandon them in their sleeping place, then go away from them; and if they obey you, surely look not for any way against them; truly God is Lofty, Great.”
Ibn Warraq in a new book Christmas in the Koran: : Luxenberg, Syriac, and the Near Eastern and Judeo-Christian Background of Islam focuses on the pioneering work in Syriac and Arabic linguistics of Christoph Luxenberg, a native speaker of Arabic who lives in the West and writes under a pseudonym. Luxenberg’s careful studies of the Koran are significant for many reasons. First, he has clarified numerous obscurities in the Koran by treating the confusing passages as poor translations into Arabic of original Syriac texts. He demonstrates that when one translates the difficult Arabic words back into Syriac, the meaning becomes clear. Beyond textual clarity, Luxenberg’s scholarship provides ample evidence that the Koran developed from a Judeo-Christian background, since Syriac (a dialect of Aramaic) was the main language of both Jews and Christians in the Middle East before the advent of Islam.