The Quran is not just about Muhammad, however. It also spells out the fundamentals of Islam, regarding which there is growing global interest as well as ongoing debate between the moderate and fundamentalist camps. This book assesses the competing claims by the two schools regarding religious tolerance and women's rights in the Quran, and then engages both on a more fundamental question.
The author was raised in the liberal tradition of Islam. He therefore found it difficult to come to terms, as do most moderate Muslims, with how a message of absolute peace and forgiveness could be so distorted by the militant fundamentalists. It was to counter views associated with the less tolerant schools of thought that he was first drawn into reading and understanding the Quran. This book is the outcome. It is, however, meant to let the Quran speak more generally and not just on issues that divide the moderates and the fundamentalists.
The author has chosen for the present to write under a penname, Seeker of the
Truth, but remains optimistic of disclosing his identity in the future. He also does not doubt that a vast majority of Muslims would allow him the license to express the views noted in this book, which of course are founded on the Quran.
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The Quran Speaks
Read in the name of your Lord Who created. Created man from a clot of congealed blood. (96:1–2)
These are the first verses of the Quran — placed in chapter 96, as the Quran is not arranged in chronological order. It seems fitting that we begin our journey with these same verses.
They inform us that man is created from a clot of congealed blood. This requires explanation, considering that a zygote, the earliest form of an embryo, actually results from the fertilization of the ovum by the sperm, neither of which involves blood. The zygote then goes through various stages, and even the point at which the embryo develops blood comes much later. The biological fact thus is that blood has little to do with conception or the phases that follow conception.
Could the Quran have got it wrong at the outset? One explanation could be that the above verses are referring to Adam — that he (not his progeny) was created from a clot of congealed blood. But that would contradict many other verses of the Quran that tell us that Allah created Adam from clay, and it therefore seems implausible.
The more plausible explanation is that the Quran did not mean to be scientifically accurate in this regard but only to communicate with its audience on the basis of what they happened to believe. Based on the fact that menses stops in pregnancy, or the fact that a miscarried embryo may give the appearance of "a clot of congealed blood" during certain phases of its development (though in the mother's womb, the embryo would not involve congealed blood), the Arabs may well have believed that there was some connection between blood and conception — along the same lines as Aristotle, who considered menstrual blood to be the "actual generative substance."
It is only recently, of course, that we have acquired the exact knowledge about conception and the phases that follow conception, which makes the first verses of the Quran (or their accepted translations, at least) seem a little odd. But that notwithstanding, the fact truly is that nearly a billion and a half people — almost 25% of the globe's population — firmly adhere to the Quran's message. Islam is not only the fastest growing religion but also possibly the one with the lowest exit rate.
This begs the question, what makes Islam so appealing to its adherents today? The "magnificence" of the Quran is one reason. Muslims believe that the Quran is at once a scientific miracle; a system of laws and justice par excellence; a comprehensive moral code that addresses complex situations in a simple, elegant, and balanced manner; and much more — all expressed in matchless literature so brilliant that it can only be the word of Allah and certainly beyond the abilities of an illiterate person!
The other factor that binds Muslims to their faith is the aura of Muhammad. Muslims believe that he was perfect, or very nearly so. They thus find it hard to believe that, when a man of his impeccable character certifies that he is Allah's Messenger and the Quran His book, doubts should still be expressed about his prophethood.
For Muslims, at least, the question is not whether the Quran is the word of Allah; it unquestionably is. For them, the task is to ascertain the Quran's true meaning. The initial expectation is that this should be straightforward. Allah's word cannot be unclear. This also happens to be the Quran's promise:
We have sent down to you Revelations that clearly expound the Truth, and none but the disobedient reject them. (2:99)
Alif Lam Ra. These are the verses of the Book that makes its object perfectly clear.(12:1)
What is surprising is that no one seems to understand the meaning of Alif Lam Ra (A.L.R) or similar prefixes such as Alif lam Mim found in many chapters of the Quran. We are told "these letters are one of the miracles of the Quran and none but Allah (alone) knows their meaning." Why, then, should these letters find mention in a verse that professes to make "its object perfectly clear"?
Before we seek the explanation in the Quran, let us note that the claim that the Quran makes "its object perfectly clear" is also tested by other verses, such as the following:
By the dawn, and the ten nights, and the even and the odd, and the night when it departs! Is there in it an oath for a man of sense? (89:1-5)
Even though the Quran is confident that the meaning of the above verses would be self-evident to a "man of sense," the reality as noted by Maududi is that there are no less than thirty-six interpretations of just one aspect of the above verses!
Much difference of opinion has been expressed by the commentators in the commentary of these verses, so much so that in respect of "the even and the odd" there are as many as 36 different views.
This brings us back to the question of how to reconcile the Quran's claim that it makes its "object perfectly clear" with verses like Alif Lam Ra and the above. The Quran explains:
There are two kinds of verses in this Book: muhkamat (which are precise in meaning) they are the essence of the Books and the other kind is mutashabihat (which are ambiguous). Those, who are perverse of heart, always go after the mutashabihat in pursuit of mischief and try to interpret them arbitrarily, whereas in fact, none save Allah knows their real meanings! (3:7)
Why were the mutashabihat (the ambiguous verses) revealed at all? Perhaps to identify the "perverse of heart," who would interpret them arbitrarily and would thus be exposed, but because the Quran does not exactly identify the verses about which "none save Allah knows their real meanings," it is possible that even the more steadfast believers may unknowingly focus on such ambiguous verses and end up in disputes regarding the interpretation of the Quran.
This explains the murder of Uthman, the Prophet's son-in-law and the Third Caliph, at the hands of Abu Bakr's son (Muhammad), on the charge that Uthman was deviating from the Quran! The resulting battle (known as the First Fitna) between Aisha (the Prophet's widow) and Ali, in which many believers were killed and which has contributed much to the Shia — Sunni schism, is also similarly explained. Neither conflict would have arisen if the protagonists, all dear associates of the Prophet, had focused instead on the muhkamat (the precise verses), such as the following:
And do not be like those, who became divided into sects and got involved in differences of opinion even after receiving clear teachings. (3:105)
In which category should one place the following verses, though?
O Believers, do not take the Jews nor the Christians as your friends: they are one another's friends only. If anyone of you takes them as friends, surely he shall be counted among them; indeed Allah deprives the wrong-doers of His Guidance. (5:51)
Let not the Believers make the disbelievers their friends and take them into their confidence in preference to the Believers. Whoever will do this shall have no relation left with Allah; however your show of friendship towards them will be pardonable, if you do so to guard against their tyranny. (3:28)
Many believers find these verses to be "precise in meaning" and decline to take Jews, Christians, and other disbelievers as friends — lest they be deprived of Allah's Guidance, or "shall have no relation left with Allah." This is problematic, as there are sizeable Muslim communities living amongst Christians, Jews, and other religious groups in different parts of the world who are prevented by the above verses from integrating. The worst manifestation, however, is the plight of minorities living in Muslim countries; they often live as humbled second-class citizens, as the Quran is understood by many of its adherents to dictate that the believers must not treat these people as friends.
Religious minorities, however, are not the only ones to feel uneasy in Muslim societies. In most non-Muslim countries, certain personal freedoms are now taken for granted, even if they are opposed to the religion of the majority. The underlying principle is that each person, man or woman, is entitled to equal respect, which means that the society must not interfere with his or her personal choices. The consensus is that each individual must be extended the maximum possible liberty compatible with equal liberty for others and that, so long as one stays within such confines, the society has no right to punish one's personal choices. On the basis again that all persons are equal, it is concluded that slavery is absolutely impermissible; there can be no discrimination on the basis of sex alone; each person is entitled to freedom of expression and freedom of religion and none can be punished for choosing or changing their religion; and so on. A corollary to the aforesaid is that there can be no limits on consenting adults freely associating with each other, particularly in the privacy of their homes.
The Quran, however, seems uncomfortable on some of these scores. As we shall discuss in later chapters, it does not always treat women as equal to men, it does not extend freedom of religion and expression of the kind that the above principle demands, and it makes the exercise of certain personal freedoms punishable, as evident from the following verse:
The woman and the man guilty of fornication, flog each one of them with a hundred stripes, and let not any pity for them restrain you in regard to a matter prescribed by Allah, if you believe in Allah and the Last Day, and let some of the believers witness the punishment inflicted on them. (24:2)
Does this suggest that Islam is out of touch with today's world? There is a level of incompatibility between Islam (as practiced) and modern thinking — this much is difficult to dispute. And because the Quran also commands that the "Guidance and the Right way" prescribed by it must "prevail over all other ways," it is felt by some that there are all the elements of a conflict — termed by Huntington "The Clash of Civilizations." Therefore, either the world must be transformed to fit the Islamic framework (the agenda of Islamic extremists as well as missionaries, though they adopt entirely different approaches) or a fresh interpretation is required to adapt the Quranic message to modern living (the approach adopted by moderate Muslims).
But as the extremists, the missionaries, and the moderates pursue their respective visions, it is imperative that we engage them all on a more fundamental question, too: Is the Quran the word of Allah? The question is of relevance not just to Muslims but to all those interested in Islam. This book explores the answer.
For a fair inquiry into this question, the source of information needs to be impeccable. We shall rely fundamentally on the Quran itself — what better choice! Whether or not one believes in the Quran's divine origin, it is generally accepted (by its followers at least) that the Quran is very nearly (if not entirely) in its original form. We shall therefore consult the Quran to test the claim that it is beyond human ability to have authored a book like this. We will also rely on the book to discover the truth about Muhammad. It is worth noting that although we know remarkably little about the Prophet prior to the advent of Islam, from that point onwards, all significant events in his life are documented in the Quran. The Quran thus provides a priceless opportunity to see Muhammad closely.
What translations should be used, though? In the Author's Note, we observed that each of the following translators is highly regarded in Islamic circles: Maududi, Yusuf Ali, Pickthall, and Hilali-Khan. This book will therefore engage them all, in the following manner: Maududi's translation will be the one generally quoted (as in this chapter), while Yusuf Ali's translation will be placed in the endnotes and at times even in the main discussion. The other two translations will also be included in the discussion from time to time but can otherwise be consulted in the appendix. The object is to present as fair an understanding of the Quran as possible, without placing excessive reliance on any one interpretation. What the reader may also discover upon consulting these translations is that, regarding a vast majority of issues taken up in this book, the conclusions are not affected by any particular translation, as all tend to agree.
With these observations, it is time that we let the Quran speak.
The Contradictions Challenge
Do they not ponder over the Quran? Had it been from any other than Allah, surely there would have been many contradictions in it. (4:82)
Allah's word cannot of course be contradictory, but, that said, it goes to the Quran's credit that it is not hesitant to embrace the above challenge.
To assess the claim, we shall split the discussion into three categories: internal inconsistencies, mathematical deficiencies, and scientific discrepancies. Absolutely none of these contradictions can be attributed to Allah. One therefore expects the Quran to clear the hurdle with ease.
Internal inconsistencies are particularly embarrassing, as they tend to show that the author has not presented his ideas coherently enough, or even that he lacks the ability. No such errors are expected from the Quran, but let us take some instances where it appears to come perilously close to crossing the line.
"A day with your Lord"
The Quran tells us:
He administers the affairs of the world from the heavens to the earth, and the report of this administration ascends (to be presented) before Him in a Day whose length, according to your reckoning, is a thousand years. (32:5) It seems surprising that the affairs of the world should take a thousand years to be presented to Allah,* but this timeframe is repeated (albeit in a different context) in the following verse:
These people are demanding of you to hasten the chastisement. Allah will never fail to fulfill His threat, but a day with your Lord is equal to a thousand years as you reckon. (22:47)
This verse was revealed in response to taunts by disbelievers who could not understand the delay in the punishment they were threatened with. They were informed that a day with Allah is equal to one thousand years and so they must wait! But what is perplexing is that this timeframe undergoes a dramatic change in the following verse:
A demander has demanded a torment (the torment) which must befall. It is for the disbelievers. There is none to avert it. It will come from that God who is the Owner of the Steps of Ascent. The angels and the Spirit ascend to His presence in a day whose measure is fifty thousand years. So have patience, O Prophet, a graceful patience. (70:1–5) Apart from having to reconcile the two divergent timeframes
disclosed by the Quran, the question also is: Why should it take the "angel and the Spirit" fifty thousand years "to ascend to His presence"? Particularly when the Quran also tells us:
And if My servants ask you, O Prophet, concerning Me, tell them that I am quite near to them. I hear and answer the prayers of the suppliant, when he calls to Me. (2:186)
Is this a contradiction, or is the Quran simply being playful?
Believers versus nonbelievers
The Quran expresses the confidence that just twenty believers with fortitude are sufficient to overcome two hundred nonbelievers and that a hundred of them will overpower a thousand:
O Prophet stir the believers to the fight. If there be twenty men among you who show fortitude, they will overcome two hundred men, and if there be a hundred such men of you, they will overcome a thousand of the deniers of the Truth, for they are a people who lack understanding. (8:65)
What is a little surprising, though, is that this ratio changes significantly in the very next verse:
Now that Allah has lightened your burden, He has noticed that you are still weak; so if there be a hundred steadfast men among you, they will overcome two hundred men and if there be a thousand such men, they will overcome two thousand by Allah's permission. But Allah is with those people alone who show fortitude. (8:66)
One may try to explain the apparent discrepancy on the basis of the words "Now that Allah has lightened your burden, He has noticed that you are still weak," but the fact is that both verses deal with the steadfast believers (i.e., those who have fortitude). Had verse 66 referred to the ordinary believers and verse 65 to the more steadfast believers, one may have more readily appreciated the significant imbalance.
It may be that the two verses were revealed on different occasions and put together at the time the Quran was compiled, on account of the fact that they cover the same subject. The Quran may not have come up with both in the same breath.
The Quran is not expected to address all situations regarding inheritance. It therefore focuses on only a few, which then form the cornerstones of the Islamic law on inheritance.
Excerpted from "The Quran Speaks"
Copyright © 2013 Bahis Sedq.
Excerpted by permission of Dog Ear Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1 The Quran Speaks,
2 The Contradictions Challenge,
3 Muhammad: The Last Prophet,
4 The Quran: A Scientific Miracle,
5 The Quran and Justice,
6 The Quran and Women,
7 The Sword Verses,
8 The Jews of Medina,
9 The Glorious Quran,
10 The "Satanic" Verses,
11 Undistracted by Religion,