Monday, February 15, 2010, Safar 30, 1431 A.H   ISSN 1563-9479
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The News International Pakistan

 The Quran and the west: a rejoinder
By Ayesha Ijaz Khan
As an ardent supporter of the lawyers? movement since its inception, I was elated to be in Pakistan when chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry was restored and was keen to write about the positives that presage this auspicious and historic victory. Yet, a recent piece by Dr Muzaffar Iqbal entitled, ?The Quran and the west? (March 27) has prompted me to present an alternative view.

Dr Iqbal is perturbed by the increasing interest in the Quran by western academics and scholars and sees this as a new form of Orientalism. Although there may be that side to it, Dr Iqbal chooses to completely ignore the research that is being undertaken in the west by Islamic scholars, sometimes in collaboration with Christian academics, leading to greater knowledge and clarity on some verses of the Quran. If, in the west, Islamic scholars, both male and female, are granted the space to openly debate the dictates of Islam and there is sufficient interest in the subject?such that most western universities are bolstering their Islamic studies programmes so that non-Muslims are also encouraged to study the subject?we, as Muslims, should welcome this development, and not be apprehensive of it.

As an example, Verse 34 of surah 4 of the Quran has recently been retranslated by Laleh Bakhtiar, an American woman of part-Iranian origin, to provide greater clarity and conform more closely to the moral and legal principles of the Quran and Sunnah. Previously, most translators, including Muhammad Asad and Yusuf Ali, had translated the verse as granting men the authority to beat their disobedient wives after first warning them and then sending them to sleep in separate beds. According to Ms Bakhtiar?s translation, however, the Arabic word daraba (translated previously by men to mean ?beat them?) can also be translated as ?go away from them.? Though Ms Bakhtiar?s translation has been criticised by some as a ?modern-day revisionist report,? critics have been unable to refute the fact that the most common meaning for daraba in Arabic is to separate. Proponents of Ms Bakhtiar?s translation also point to the famous hadith recounted by Hazrat Ayesha in which the Prophet is reported to have said, ?The best of you is he who is best towards his wife.? Ms Bakhtiar?s translation has also been accepted by the Islamic Society of North America.

Contrast this interpretation of the Quran with Sheikh Syed Mahmud Allusi?s commentary in Ruhul Ma?ani, where he provides the following reasons for when a man may beat his wife, including her ?refusal to beautify herself for him,? refusing sex when he asks for it, refusing to pray or perform ritual ablutions, and ?if she goes out of the house without a valid excuse.? Sheikh Allusi follows up his reasoning with a set of hadiths of his own.

Wife-beating is a serious problem around the world, and far more prevalent in economically disadvantaged households. Pakistan is no exception, where according to reports from the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences, a very high percentage of married women report some form of violence. As a society, we must work towards ensuring that such violence directed against women does not have the sanction of the law, and as importantly, does not have the sanction of religion. Therefore, which interpretation of Islam we choose to follow as a society becomes directly relevant and affects societal norms greatly.

It is perhaps only in the west where, as a result of economic migration from far-flung and diverse lands, it is possible for disparate Muslim minds to be able to converge and freely discuss religion. In the Gulf countries, where Muslims from various different countries also converge, it is impossible to research Islam meaningfully due to the restrictions on free speech, and also due to the fact that the non-Arab is always looked upon as less knowledgeable than the Arab. It is only in the west, then, that the Ajami and the Arabi are truly on an equal footing and able to engage in thought-provoking debates about how Islam is practised in different parts of the globe, and how it is able to encompass so many different cultures in its fold.

While the Quran was revealed in poetic Arabic, in years to come, the most well-researched and easy to follow translations of the Quran will most likely be in English, which has for most purposes become the lingua franca of a global world. Simultaneously, more and more Muslims are looking into alternative interpretations that are better suited to the Internet age that we live in. As Mahathir Mohammed told fellow Muslim leaders at the Islamic summit, ?Islam is not just for the seventh century AD. Islam is for all times. And times have changed.?

It is therefore hardly a surprise that a recent translation of the Quran, which has emerged from the west, is the work of three translators, two men and a woman, coming from three diverse cultures, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United States. I often wondered why there wasn?t collaboration among scholars in translating the Quran. Given the enormity of the exercise, surely it would make sense to have the luxury of consensus when interpreting such a sensitive subject.

Although I have not yet gotten my hands on a copy, the website describes the new translation as using ?logic and the language of the Quran itself in determining likely meanings, rather than ancient scholarly interpretations rooted in patriarchal hierarchies.? The new translation has been described by Aisha Musa, Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies at Florida International University, as ?offering religious rather than secularist challenges to traditional understandings of Islam, whether Sunni, Shia, or academic, on a number of critical issues.?

When Muslim civilisation was at its zenith and Andalucia (in present-day Spain) was ruled by the Moors, it was the Christians who aspired for admission at universities in Muslim lands (as opposed to the reverse we see today). Muslims of that time were not insecure about the religion and nor were they hesitant to learn and adopt other cultures into the Islamic realm. There was free flow of information between the Islamic and non-Islamic worlds and a realisation that no race or gender has a monopoly on interpreting Islam.

In fact, according to one hadith, Judama bint Wahb al-Asadiyya related that she heard the Prophet say, ?I intended to prohibit cohabitation with nursing women until I considered that the Romans and the Persians do it without any injury being caused to their children thereby.? Thus, even the Prophet did not hesitate to learn and adopt from non-Muslims.

If Islam is a religion that is to span all continents and transcend the ages, it would make far more sense for it to be tolerant and accepting of varying cultures. If we believe as Muslims that Islam began with Abraham and was perfected along the years through various prophets and messengers of God until the word of God was crystallised in the Quran, then why the knee-jerk reaction of rejecting research simply because it may be emanating from the west?

For, as UCLA law professor Khaled Abou El Fadl states in Progressive Muslims, ?the emergence of ?supremist puritanism,? together with the arguments of Muslim apologists, have ?fossilised? Islam, turning it into an untouchable, but also entirely ineffective, beauty queen, simply to be admired and showcased as a symbol, but not to be critically engaged in in its full nuance and complexity.?

The writer is a London-based lawyer-turned-political commentator.

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