Rabat - Those readers not using the original Arabic text of the Koran, I recommend that they consult more than one translation and, when possible, translations into different languages.
Rabat – Those readers not using the original Arabic text of the Koran, I recommend that they consult more than one translation and, when possible, translations into different languages.
One way to read the Koran is from within its own perceived coherence, logic and legitimacy, which all call for deference, but also for true tolerance for the kind of difference that results from the evolution of the real living conditions of people and the changes that ensue from it. One critical reason for doing this is that the Koran stipulates that some of it explains the rest of it. This means that the first attempt of reading the Koran should be an effort of seeking meanings within it first before moving to Hadith.
Just like science and the various discourses that support it, dogma, religion and the texts they are founded on are constructs through which humans find, or think they can find, ways to penetrate the secrets of life, its origin(s), what it is made up of, why it is there at all and what will happen to it after it ceases. The feeling of having penetrated these secrets is, however, continually frustrated as new breakthroughs in science and knowledge challenge formerly held convictions and make of all knowledge, and therefore also the roots of faith, provisional and temporary values, and matters of continuous change. Ideas held by seventh century people around the world cannot be like the ones 21st century people have because the observation instruments, not to speak of analytical and computational powers, that people have now were not available then.
For a methodology of reading the Koran to be valid, it has to be sensitive to its specificity and to its conceptual framework, as well as to its terminology and its discursive constructs, to be able to take account of the necessary changes that arise with evolutions in knowledge and that have consequences on the living conditions of people as well as in their cognitive assets.
Furthermore, analytical efforts being either communication discourses or preliminaries to communication, which have intentions and purposes, cannot ignore the profile of the addressees, their reading readiness, their interpretive competencies and their socio-cultural characteristics and choices. Many texts presenting Islam and the Koran to the layman have, in fact, been extremely summative and too snappy not to be reductive. Many have also been too esoteric even for the initiated to make sense of, or too remote from cultural acceptability standards not to be alienating to populations.
Like all humans who are inhabited by attempts to imagine and negotiate opinions of what morality is or should be, students of the Koran have often found themselves oscillating alternatively between some accommodation of science and religious references, or holding exclusively onto the one and rejecting the other. In both cases, however, understanding the underpinnings of either choice has always been and will remain an effort of the independent human mind.
The Koran is about knowledge. While there is hardly any disagreement about this statement, there is not as much consensus on what knowledge is or should be. In fact, knowledge does not accept the same definition across communities, nor does it accept the same paths to it or the same investigatory methods to validate it. The issue of whether knowledge has to be exclusively of a quantitative origin and of an objective nature to have validity or that it can have currency if it is reached through qualitative approaches or based on conviction is still at the core of intellectual and dogmatic disputes among readers of the Koran. For one, the ancient question of whether or not the real corresponds to the rational, and either or both to the empirical, has underpinned debates since the advent of the Koran, and is still central to major opposing reading theories. This conceptual divergence has framed the cognitive frameworks of the communities and cultures that have accepted Islam and the Koran, as well as those communities studying either. Attaching a value judgment to any of these stances will, however, exclude the others from the search for a comprehensive approach and widen the gap between appreciation aptitudes while a synthesis of all could perhaps be a more appropriate attitude. The coherence of such a complex text as the Koran is, however, not an issue of compromise. Furthermore, the Koran can barely be perceived from a single angle or from completely outside the text itself and without the analytical instruments it provides for the purpose.
In the following Ayat, it is explicitly stated that God has chosen to create humans in different communities and that it was not His will to make them all belong to the same one. He has also chosen to prescribe to each community its own Law and enjoins each to comply with its own. He also demands that his messenger enforce on each community its own Law. Although all the Scriptures confirm each other and are equally a source of guidance and light despite the fact that the destiny is one for all, a different law is prescribed to every community. The same Scripture does not apply to all communities, but all provide the same guidance and are a source of the same light and a resolution. The last of them all, the Koran, dissipates of all misunderstandings. The principle here is that “the creed is one, but the laws differ.”
Al Maida: 46 – 48: “And We sent, following in their footsteps, Jesus, the son of Mary, confirming that which came before him in the Torah; and We gave him the Gospel, in which was guidance and light and confirming that which preceded it of the Torah as guidance and instruction for the righteous. And let the People of the Gospel judge by what Allah has revealed therein. And whoever does not judge by what Allah has revealed – then it is those who are the defiantly disobedient (fassiqin, licentious, libertarian). To thee We sent the Scripture in truth, confirming the Scripture that came before it, and guarding it in safety: so judge between them by what Allah has revealed, and follow not their vain desires, diverging from the Truth that has come to thee. To each among you have We prescribed a Law and an Open Way. If Allah had so willed, He would have made you a single People, but (His plan is) to test you in what He has given you; so strive as in a race in all virtues. The goal of you all is to Allah; it is He that will show you the truth of the matters in which you dispute.”
The Scriptures sent to all messengers are therefore the same text adjusted to the community it was sent to. The essential, the light and guidance to God, is permanent, but enforcement particularities of the Law depend on whom a version is prescribed. This confirms and is confirmed by the concept of a Master Origin of all Scriptures and Books, which is “ummu al kitab,” literally the core of the book and the origin of the Book to which God alone has access. For a reading approach to take one closer to the intentions of a given Book, it has to be able to cover all the manifestations of the Scripture available and to encompass clues about as many variations of it as is feasible; a huge archeological work that has hardly started yet.
For the reader of the Koran, this discussion means that they have to be aware of and accept the fact that their understanding at any point of time is liable to be modified, that is what the text will reveal to them will change as a result of the advancement of their search for the ideal meanings that lie in ummu al kitab and of their investigation of other Books. One example of the critical relevance of this consideration is what Muslim students of the Koran have called asbab annuzul, literally the causes or reasons of descent and which can also be translated into the Muslim concept of causes of revelation.
This concept which is expressed in historical investigations to elucidate the immediate causes that called for the intervention of revelation to answer a specific question the prophet or someone else had and which the Koran had not addressed, to settle an issue as was the case with the Ifk episode, which refers to the accusation of Prophet’s wife Aïcha of adultery, to rebuke the prophet and remind him of his limits, or to legislate following an event as was the case with the gradual limitation of drinking alcohol, etc. In fact, without accurate and comprehensive historical accounts of the events that called for a given revelation, the Ayat referring to it would be impossible to make sense of. The implication is that every new discovery as a result of historical and archeological investigations is a possible reason for a change in the understanding of the text as a whole and of specific statements it makes. This is perhaps why the gatekeepers of reading the Koran have decided that the time for such studies has expired and that none can be undertaken anymore. Perhaps that is also why many sensitive sites of the History of Islam and of Muslims have been and are still being destroyed and sepultures dug up and remains removed.
Just as the concept of causes of revelation is relevant to the reading of specific Ayat of the Koran, it would seem that it would also be relevant not only to the study of verses and passages of other Books but also to the advent of messengers and of the Scriptures they brought with them themselves. The question would be what makes a time right for God to send a messenger and to reveal a message to him. For some, these questions would be irrelevant, or even blasphemous, but they are important for the reader of the Koran so that they know what exactly every new message seeks to change, when some Laws cease to be binding to a community, when it becomes legitimate for them to supersede others, and when to expect and how to recognize the reformers of religion that are announced in the tradition. If one, for example, can establish that some of the intentions of a Law were not all expressed explicitly because of unripe social or economic conditions, one could move ahead and amend them when the conditions are ripe. One illustration is the debate about slavery which many students of the Koran and Islam suggest that although it was not explicitly prohibited by the Koran, the intention of prohibiting it can be deduced from some religious and social practices which the Koran and Islam encouraged at the time. The case of prohibiting consumption of alcohol is another example.
To conclude this discussion, every new piece of information about the context in which Scriptures and every new insight on the purposes and intentions for their revelation, will inexorably modify their reading and should result in modifying the perception of the texts and contribute to accommodating them to their respective situations and/or to their readers.
A paradox inherent in attempts to reading and interpreting texts in defiance of the objective conditions of historical constraints for ideological reasons is to go beyond what the original could actually bear and envisage and to invest it with meanings and values that it could not have conveyed even if it did imagine them simply because the original recipient would have been unable to relate to them. This is the case of interpretations that claim to prove everything science shows or discovers by reference to the Koran. The problem, however, is that while science acknowledges relativity of knowledge and has therefore no problem with changing its analyses and findings, religious thought is absolute and is built on conviction that cannot be criticized or changed once. As a result, many readers end up defending absurdity; such as the case of those dating creation to a few thousands of years ago, and those who still maintain that the Earth is flat and does not rotate. Another absurdity is the attempt to find explanations to every new discovery in the Holy Texts.
The difficulty with these types of reading starts with the assumption and the conviction that universality means one-to-one correspondence of every single item in the text, not only with every single bit of knowledge possible, but also with truths that have not yet been discovered. In the Koran, this reading has been justified by two Ayat. The first (Al ana’am 38) stipulates that God has left nothing out of the Book, which many have read as the Koran. The meaning of Book in Arabic, however, in its actual use in the Koran, is not limited to that of simply a book. It has been used, among many other meanings, with those of Law (annissae 24), of deadline for the end of life (Arroum 56), of the secrets of the universes (Al anaam 59), social and economic order (annissae 24), Destiny, Torah and Koran (respectively in Al Aâra 37, 169 and 195-196) and Bible (Al qassas 52-55). Furthermore, the word kitab has been used to refer to other Scriptures given other messengers as well as to ummu al Kitab, the Master Book from which all books derive. Seeking explanations of everything observable and that science has or has not proven in the Koran, based on the reading that Kitab means Koran, is an obvious reading failure.
The same argument is usually supported by Aya 89 in Surah 16 in which it is stated that God has revealed to His messenger the best explanation of everything he needed explained. As in previous cases, I will quote the Aya in its original context to show that it deals only with issues related to religion and to people’s attitudes towards the creed and faith. In fact, nowhere in the environment of this Aya is there a reference to all the secrets of the universe. The context of the occurrence of this Aya does not authorize extending its meaning to explaining all natural phenomena, but is limited to understanding what those who do not believe should expect on the Last Day.
[16.84] And on the day when We will raise up a witness out of every nation, then shall no permission be given to those who disbelieve, nor shall they be made to solicit favor.
[16.85] And when those who are unjust shall see the chastisement, it shall not be lightened for them, nor shall they be respited. .
[16.86] And when those who associate (others with Allah) shall see their associate-gods, they shall say: Our Lord, these are our associate-gods on whom we called besides Thee. But they will give them back the reply: Most surely you are liars.
[16.87] And they shall tender submission to Allah on that day; and what they used to forge shall depart from them.
[16.88] (As for) those who disbelieve and turn away from Allah’s way, We will add chastisement to their chastisement because they made mischief.
[16.89] And on the day when We will raise up in every people a witness against them from among themselves, and bring you as a witness against these– and We have revealed the Book to you explaining clearly everything, and a guidance and mercy and good news for those who submit.
[16.90] Surely Allah enjoins the doing of justice and the doing of good (to others) and the giving to the kindred, and He forbids indecency and evil and rebellion; He admonishes you that you may be mindful.
[16.91] And fulfill the covenant of Allah when you have made a covenant, and do not break the oaths after making them fast, and you have indeed made Allah a surety for you; surely Allah I . knows what you do.
Expecting the Koran to have addressed all natural phenomena with the purpose of explaining them pertains to the issue of whether it is legitimate or relevant to raise questions to an audience that can neither relate to them nor answer them. The fact that the Koran, or any other Holy Book, has mentioned some historical events and natural phenomena makes of them neither volumes of history nor reference books of natural science. While this argument has been made and documented by many scholars, the gatekeepers of dominant Islamist ideologies are still ignoring it.
The analysis, meaning assignment processes and understanding of the Koran require therefore framing questions in such ways not as they can be answered by the Koran itself but within the possible and potential internal coherence of the cognitive and intellectual frameworks of reference of its targeted audiences. For the Koran, at least, the concept of coherence will be dynamic and both synchronic and diachronic, as it will involve the interaction operations of the readers with the text and their own environment. This means that what was coherent at a certain time and in a certain space may not be so in other ones. An illustration of this necessary requirement is the case of a person who has to fast in an area of the globe, or in another planet for that matter, in which the day would be too long or too tough for humans to fast from daybreak to sunset. One could even imagine the hypothetical situation of living on a planet from which the moon is not visible. The coherence of the text in such cases would be measured by the extent to which reading can be adjusted to reasonable behavior in real situations, which may have been addressed neither in the Koran nor in the Hadith. In Islamic terminology, coherence should provide for Ijtihad without necessarily falling in contradictions with the intentions of the founding texts.
Reading the Koran, one must also take consideration of the fact that the Text is a compilation of the revelation, performed neither on chronological order nor a thematic basis. Actually, except from some Ayat which the prophet had read in a given order or for which he had indicated a given position among others, the rest of the Ayat were compiled and ordered after his death by companions. The compilation was performed according to a procedure that sought to verify that all and only authentic Ayat were compiled. Several contemporary scholars, among whom Al Jabri have attempted to reorganize the order of the Ayat according to various criteria, such as revelation and theme. Their argument is two fold. On the one hand, the internal organization of Ayat and their distribution in Surat is not part of revelation and is therefore open to human effort. On the other hand, reading the Koran, especially by the non-specialist and to readers used to thematic unity and chronological organization, would be smoother and more effective. In other words, they attempted to create new types of internal coherence for the Koran that would, according to them, correspond to the expectations of the readers of their time. Traditionalist gatekeepers of Islamic tradition have not welcomed their attempts.
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