|On Understanding the Qur'an|
|Published by tislam|
|Sunday, 26 June 2011 14:45|
Asghar Ali Engineer
How much do we know about Qur'an? Is it enough to quote a verse from here or there and claim that we know Qur'an? This is what is generally being done even by Islamic scholars. This half-baked knowledge creates a great deal of misunderstanding and often goes against the very spirit of the Qur'an. Qur'an is a divine scripture and can never be understood by quoting piecemeal verses. When the Prophet (PBUH) was alive Muslims would ask him the meaning of various verses from the Qur'an. Whatever he said was collected in the form of ahadith. The commentators after the death of the Holy Prophet quoted these ahadith to explain the meaning of the verses. Thus, came into existence the vast tafasir literature. The later commentators simply repeated the earlier tafasir i.e., commentaries hardly adding anything.
It is important to note that Qur'an has to be understood not only in the context in which the verses were revealed but also at different levels when these were expressed. The Qur'an deals with number of subjects at social, cultural, spiritual and moral levels. It deals with subjects not only at the given social level but also at moral levels, thus, adding transcendent dimension to it. In brief, Qur'an deals with a subject not only at one but at multiple levels. One cannot do justice to Qur'anic injunctions without understanding them at different levels.
The compilers of the Shari'ah laws adopted mono-level approach and, thus, created problems difficult to tackle. What is worse, the followers of these laws adopt very rigid approach and consider earlier formulations by great Imams as immutable thus injuring the very spirit of the Qur'an. It not only freezes Qur'an at a given period of time but also creates problems for its followers. It is, therefore, necessary to understand Qur'an at different levels even while making laws on the basis of divine injunctions.
Let us take the concept of qisas as described in the Qur'an. It is on this basis that the Shari'ah law provided for eye for eye, nose for nose and ear for ear approach. If seen on moral level, Qur'an considers pardoning the offender morally higher than seeking retaliation. Sometimes realistic dimension and moral dimension are contained in the same verse and sometimes in different verses.
Let us examine the verse (2:278) about qisas in matters of murder (qatat). The verse runs as under: "0 you who believe, retaliation is prescribed for you in the matter of the slain: the free for free, and the slave for slave, and the female for female. But if remission is made to one by his aggrieved brother, prosecution (for blood-wit) should be according to usage and payment to him in a good manner. This is alleviation from your Lord and a mercy. Whosoever exceeds limit after this, will have a painful chastisement."
If we analyse the above verse first we observe that the Qur'an keeps in mind the tribal mores of time. In fact, qisas was a tribal practice and tribal way of doing justice to the aggrieved. The Qur'an takes realistic as well as moral view of such practices. On realistic level, it retains the tribal practice, of course by reforming it to make it rigorously just, and then treats it at moral level by invoking higher moral values.
While accepting tribal practice of retaliation reforms, Qur'an reforms it further by making it free for free and slave for slave and woman for woman. Often tribals saved the life of a free man by offering life of a slave, but Qur'an makes it necessary to kill a free man for free and a slave for slave. It goes further and invokes moral value by proposing blood money if the aggrieved pardoned the murderer and accepted blood money. This is certainly morally higher than seeking retaliation and it is described as mercy from the Lord. But at the same time it warns that "whosoever exceeds limit after this, will have a painful chastisement."
Thus, Qur'an treats the matter on three levels, namely, realistic level with added dimension of reform, moral level by invoking the higher moral value of mercy and painful punishment if one exceeds limits after all this. Thus, it is not proper to rigidly follow anyone level, ignoring rigidly all others. Thus, the Qur'an advocates realistic, reformative and moral approach, whatever suits the context.
Generally, Muslims do not follow this methodology of the Qur'an and get stuck at one level thus inviting criticism from those who are inimical to Islam. Framing laws is a socially responsible job and has to be done with awareness of this responsibility. Also, laws should not be rigid and no law can serve for all the times to come, however carefully it may have been formulated. The objective conditions keep on changing and law must keep pace with the changing conditions.
Also, it is important to note that while values are immutable, laws based on those values, can never be permanent. Unfortunately, Muslim scholars or traditional Ulama do not understand
the difference between values and laws based on those values. Values are goals while laws are tools to reach the intended goal. The tools can and should change from time to time. If we can reach our destination say by horse today, we will not hesitate to reach it by train or plane next day. Destination will remain the same but tools to get to the destination may change. Law cannot remain unchanged, and if it does despite changing conditions, it will defeat the very purpose of the law. A law maker has to be aware of this and examine objective conditions and see if it is fulfilling the conditions for which it was made.
In case of Shari'ah law, this is what is lacking. Our Ulama argue that law is immutable for its divine character. They forget that the early jurists who formulated laws on the basis of Qur'anic injunctions were human beings and no human being can be above human limitations. Thus, Shari'ah law is nothing but sincere human approach to divine injunctions as contained in the Qur'an. It is only modern times that enable us to understand this. One has to take religion on different levels-sociological, moral and transcendent. Sociological approach to religion is as important as moral. Moral does not operate in vacuum; it operates in concrete social conditions. It is for this reason that the Islamic jurists accepted the concept of 'adaat i.e., customary law of given society in which Shari'ah law operates. Thus, in many cases the customary law can prevail.
But since the customary law is inherited from the past, it is static. Today, neither the customary law inherited from past customs nor Shari'ah law as formulated in early Islamic society, can suffice. We have to re-think legal issues that are continuously changing. However, this re-thinking cannot be arbitrary or contrary to the Qur'anic values. Changes have to be accommodated while keeping the very foundation in tact. Values are the basis ofthe foundation, which have to be made stronger so that the super-structure can persist longer. For example, justice is foundation and laws of marriage, divorce etc., can be changed to make them more just. We often confuse priorities. For us, super-structure becomes more important than the foundation.
Polygamy has become more important than justice in Islamic world. Multiple wives are justified even if it violates the concept of justice. The gender relations in medieval ages were very different from what they are today. The Shari'ah laws formulated in those days were based more on the prevailing gender relations than on the basis of transcendent concept of gender relations in Qur'an. Like other questions, the gender question is also treated on different levels in Qur'an. The Qur'an, in its divine wisdom, could not have ignored gender relations obtaining in those days. Thus, it treated gender question on realistic level and then on moral and transcendent level. Let us take the example of marriage and divorce in Qur'an.
According to Qur'an, marriage is a contract between husband and wife. Qur'an greatly improved upon the tribal customary law while adopting it on realistic ground. In tribal customary law, law of marriage was heavily weighted against woman. She could not negotiate her own marriage except through the agency of her marriage guardian who happened to be her father or grand father or elder brother or uncle in the absence of her father. In Qur'an, there is no mention of the institution of marriage guardian. It gives the right to negotiate one's marriage directly to woman. Also, mehr (dower) amount in the customary law used to be negotiated by the guardian. Qur'an gives this right too to woman and, according to it, it is the woman who is entitled to mehr and not her marriage guardian. Thus, this was an important reform to make the law of marriage more just.
Also, Qur'an elevates marriage to a higher moral plane despite its basic contractual nature by invoking moral values such as love and ihsan. In verse (7: 189) we find the following: "It is He Who created you from a single soul and of the same did He make His mate that He might find comfort in her." Thus, husband finds comfort in his wife and further the verse goes on to say, "So when he covers her she bears a light burden, then moves about with it. Then when it grows heavy, they both call upon Allah, their Lord: if Thou givest us a good one, we shall certainly be of the grateful."
This clearly refers to woman getting pregnant and then both praying to Allah to give them a good child (salih). Thus, marriage is lifted to a moral plane and made to develop firm bonds so that husband can find solace in wife and together create good children to perpetuate human progeny. Marriage is thus not merely for satisfying sexual urge but much more than that-a bond of love and an instrument for perpetuating human progeny. Thus marriage, according to the Qur'an, is both a contract and a moral bond. It says in (30:21), "And of His signs is this, that He created mates for you from yourselves that you might find quiet of mind in them, and He put between you love and compassion."
Marriage without love and compassion cannot be a lasting bond between husband and wife. However, Qur'an does not overlook the situation in which man and woman can no longer carry on with each other and divorce becomes necessary. Hence, it approves of divorce in such situations, and here contractual nature of marriage comes in handy. In some religions marriage is treated as sacramental. Since the bond can never be broken, it makes lives of both partners hell.
The Qur'an while permitting divorce, also ensures that it does not become a bitter rupture between husband and wife and advises man to live with her in ma'ruf(kindness) or leave her with kindness. Thus, whatever meher or gifts he has given to her should not be taken back. Verse (2:231) says, "And when you divorce women and they reach their prescribed time, then retain them with kindness or set them free with kindness and retain them not for injury."
Thus, we see the moral plane to which marriage and divorce have been lifted by the Qur'an. However, the Muslim jurists overlook this moral aspect of marriage and divorce and allow marriages to be broken by pronouncing three words of talaq, even in anger and bitterness. Thus, if we see the moral nature of divorce in Qur'an triple divorce has no place at all. The Qur'an also instituted the institution of arbitrator to make living together or separation easy. Arbitrators look into issues from man's and woman's side. Thus, in verse (4:35) it is said, "And if you fear a breach between the two, appoint an arbiter from his people and an arbiter from her people. If they both desire agreement, Allah will effect harmony between them." Thus, the Qur'an is not in favour of a sudden rupture of relationship between husband and wife in a state of anger. Divorce should not be seen merely as a breaking of contract in an arbitrary fashion, but as a last measure after all efforts to bring about harmony between the two have exhausted. Thus, any law of divorce should be based on moral approach of the Qur'an. This moral approach becomes even more clear from the verse (2:229)wherein Qur'an states that, divorce may be (pronounced) twice; "Then keep (them) in good fellowship or let (them) go with kindness. And it is not lawful for you to take any part of what you have given them, unless both fear that they cannot keep within the limits of Allah. Then if you fear that they cannot keep within the limits of Allah there is no blame on them for what she gives up to become free thereby. These are the limits of Allah, so exceed them not; and whoever exceeds the limits of Allah these are the wrong doers."
Thus, basic thing is limits of Allah and what are the limits (hudud) of Allah are the limits of morality? Hence, marriage and divorce should not be treated merely as legal contract to be entered into and broken at will without any regards to moral values involved in these acts. Unfortunately, our jurists treat marriage and divorce as strictly legal devoid of moral values and that is why arbitrary divorce or taking up multiple wives at a time is permitted strictly on legal grounds.
Similarly, Qur'an treats gender question not merely as of man and woman but of deeper human and spiritual one. Functionally and at realistic level, it describes it in the verse (4:34). This verse has been extensively quoted by jurists to prove that a woman is subordinate to man. But as pointed out Qur'an treats such important questions at different levels and no final conclusion can be drawn simply by reading this verse.
At deeper and spiritual level, gender relationship is described further in the verse (33:35). This verse treating the question at spiritual level says, "Surely men who submit and the women who submit, and the believing men and believing women, and obeying men and obeying women, and the truthful men and truthful women, and the patient men and patient women, and the humble men and the humble women, and the charitable men and the charitable women, and the fasting men and fasting women, and the men who guard their chastity and the women who guard, and the men who remember Allah much and women who remember-Allah has prepared for them forgiveness and a mighty reward." Thus, gender relationship on spiritual level is quite equal and without any discrimination. The nature of relationship in the verse (4:34) is purely functional and, therefore, not applicable permanently. It will change with the function, but the relationship described in (33:35) is on an elevated and spiritual level and, therefore, permanent. Thus, men and women are equal in every respect in the eyes of the Qur'an. Her humanity and human dignity in no sense is lesser than that of man.
The Islamic jurists treat women as unequal on the basis of certain verses like she being half witness or she receiving half the share in inheritance etc. Such verses in no way prove her inferior to man as far as her human dignity is concerned. There is great misunderstanding about these verses also. It is wrong to designate her as half witness as the verses pertained to only financial matters. This too was because she normally would have no financial experience. Today, women are financial experts and head even banks. How can then she be treated as half witness in financial matters? The verse was of recommendatory nature in conditions of those times. In no way can it be cited to prove her inferiority.
Even portion in inheritance is no proof of her inferiority, as it too had to do with her being non-earning member in those days. Due to her dependence on father and on husband after marriage, Qur'an made her maintenance obligatory on her father before marriage, on her husband after marriage and on her sons after death of her husband, if she had grown up children. It has nothing to do with her being a woman. Today, in most of the cases she earns herself and contributes to the family wealth, and there is no sin in revising her portion of inheritance.
The Qur'an created for women right to inheritance in three capacities: As daughter, as wife and as mother. Before Islam she could not inherit at all. In those days she was not contributing to the family wealth and was merely dependent on male members of the family. This (i.e., creation of right to inheritance in three capacities) itself was a revolutionary step. This right could be further advanced today in the changed scenario. It will in no way injure the spirit of the Qur'an; on the contrary, it will enrich it.
The Qur'an gave values to humanity, which did not exist in Arabian desert before Islam. The only value which existed was muruwwah, derived from the word mara i.e., man. Thus, muruwwah meant manly qualities like bravery and generosity. Other value were not recognised. While, women had no place as far as these values were concerned.
It was Qur'an that gave the mankind the values such as equality, justice, benevolence, compassion, wisdom, tolerance towards other faiths, human dignity, love and truth. These values were meant to elevate human behaviour to a much higher moral plane. It strongly attacked negative virtues like arrogance, tyranny and sense of superiority over others. These negative virtues were widely prevalent among Arabs.
The punishments such as cutting of hands or flogging for rape too miss out on the moral spirit of Qur'an and have been treated mechanically. These punishments also, like other things, should be treated at different levels. Basically, the Qur'an talks about moral reforms of the offender rather than punishment. Punishment, however, is necessary if the offender refuses to reform and continues to commit offence. Thus, the verse (5:38) should be read in conjunction with verse (5:39). The latter says clearly,
"But whoever repents after his wrongdoing and reforms, Allah will turn to him (mercifully). Surely, Allah is Forgiving, Merciful."Thus, emphasis is on reform and repentance than on punishment. The Prophet (PBUH) always gave the offender a chance to reform and repent, before punishing him/her. However, this spirit was subsequently lost and emphasis came to be on punishments. The verses on rape and adultery or false accusation against chaste women from 4:2 to 4:9 should also be read along with 4: 10 which talks about Allah's mercy and wisdom”.
Throughout Islamic history Shari'ah occupied central role. It is sufis who laid more emphasis on moral values than the 'Ulama who exhibited their power through Shari'ah. What is central to the Qur'an is prevention than punishment. Punishment is the last resort.