Qur'an Studies - Lesson 3
LESSON THREE: APPRECIATION OF THE QUR’AN
There is a mistake done by some too rational, too intellectual people who read the Qur’an as if it was a legal document or an account of some historical events and also as book on some aspects of cosmology and its future. Although the Qur’an speaks about all these in an ultimate as well as technical sense it is none of these but an incomparably gigantic moral and spiritual appeal to mankind whom it seeks to improve primarily in a moral and spiritual sense.
This of course does not mean that its legal prescriptions are not binding, its rational appeal is to be ignored or its intellectual power has nothing to do with its great effect on its readers or listeners. All of these three are to be recognised and appreciated.
Similarly its cosmic descriptions like the formation and the structure of the universe and the past and future of both the universe and man as its apparently most developed visible inhabitant are to be taken seriously and parallels from modern cosmology where they seem to exist are to be taken up and elaborated upon. But all these should be seen as tentative and speculative enterprises since science is an ever-advancing and changing set of theories whose relation to the Qur’anic statements about similar subjects must also change. In our own translation of the verses of the Qur’an we also explored some correspondences between the statements of the Qur’an about matters which also science speaks about and these also are speculative and made in good faith. They have the good intention of satisfying the heart and the mind to any possible extent and whatever their merits in an ultimate sense we hope that Allah in His Kindness forgives any errors and rewards the good will. Having said this we can only add: What should never be lost sight of is the mission of the Qur’an which Allah the Most High summarises in Surat Ya Sin, verses 69- 70:
“We have not taught him (the Prophet sws) poetry (as you ignorant unbelievers claim and disdain), nor it befits his dignity. This is nothing else than a Reminder and a Plain Lecture (Qur’an) in order to warn whosoever lives and that the Word/Promise (of retribution) against the unbelievers becomes deserved (by them)”
Which means, the Qur’an is a warning correspondence from our Creator Who naturally speaks through our deepmost heart, I mean real deep, so deep as to lie at the foundation of our psyche to where our consciousness can never descend. The Qur’an is as much a Cry of Loving Mercy (Rahmat) as a Lecture; that is why it begins with BismillahirRahmanirRahim, i.e., “In the Name of Allah the All-Caring the Mercifully Forgiving” and repeats it 114 times in its run. That is why it hits the most gracious and merciful persons hardest and send them into a life-long pursuit of moral self-perfection and spiritual elevation which two things they also try to impart to others. Some other ‘believers’ fail to appreciate this moral and spiritual basis and aim of the Qur’an, get stuck with its formal prescriptions and are more motivated by its threats which they like to pass to others than its promises which they more want for themselves than others whose destruction they expect with more relish than regret. It is these types who preach hatred towards most others and look for opportunities to punish as many people as they can find. They are scrupulous to a fault in Islam’s formalities and and equally unscrupulous in diagnosing others as unbelievers despite many appearances to the contrary and punishing them in any way possible to any extent possible. It is this demonic attitude which lies behind all religious persecution among the members of the same religion as well as of different religions and all the abominations and atrocities going with such persecution.
The cure, if a cure is sought and will be adopted, is seeing the fundamentally moral and spiritual purpose of the Qur’an and dwell on it more than any other aspect. Incidentally, we must see that the moral and the spiritual have nothing to do with logic and science but everything to do with personal grace, that is to say, psychological maturity and refinement. Science and religion are two entirely separate realities demanding two entirely separate sets of concerns and priorities as well as two entirely separate fields of action. The ages-old debate about whether one or the other should show us the way forward is an invalid idea; each can and must show us the way forward in their respective and totally different ways.
This does not mean that we should not recognise the great possibility and risk involved in preferring a religious-based course of action to a science-based one when the latter is vindicated by experience while the former is not. What is more, almost all religions outside Islam frequently advise courses of action which fly in the face of scientific facts and sometimes even human common sense and human common decency. For example, doctors may say from reliable experience that a pregnancy should better be terminated or a blood transfusion needs be given to a patient to save the pregnant woman or the patient’s life. In comes than a religious opinion that the safety of both patients should be entrusted to God or gods or to self-styled godmen and that medical intervention would be an inadmissible sacrilege and what is even worse, the patients and their guardians may agree and prefer going through all the agonies of a protracted death rather than live or let live. It is in such matters that the Qur’an stands out as the champion of reason, experience and decency. The Qur’an explicitly allows its metaphorical interpretation so that if any experimental, repeat experimental scientific discovery describes something in one way and the Qur’an in another the allows itself to be metaphorically interpreted and the scientific version accepted in practice. For example, the Qur’an says “He (Allah) created him (man) from ‘alaq’, a word which means a blood clot but may also mean a mass clinging on to something, for example like a leech. Modern embryology discovered that man is created from a fertilised human egg, fertilised by a human spermatozoon. But soon after this fertilisation the fertilised egg descends into the womb and just like a leech attaches itself to the womb wall and accesses the local blood vessels from which it sucks its nutrients and all other including the oxygen. From outside a very young embryo looks like a blood clot because it is so red with the rich blood flow through it. Now it is not the duty of the Qur’an to describe anything in any then modern or futuristic detail but make do with simplest possible descriptions which any man however humble can make sense of while more knowledgeable others can see the basic justification behind the simplified description. As a result it would be foolish for a religious man deny embryological descriptions and insist that a foetus is just a blood clot, nothing more, nothing less, because God (seemingly) says so! Another example is the old argument whether the earth is flat or round. Medieval Christians fought over this point most bitterly and killed for it until all had eventually to admit that it was round after all. In Islam such arguments were not popular nor did they occupy many but even until a decade ago or so the news was that an extreme Hanbali scholar was claiming that the earth was flat because Allah said about it “It is He Who made the earth a bed for you and opened pathways for you in it” (20: 53). As everybody knows a bed can only be a flat surface. This despite the fact that Medieval Muslim scholars were inheritors to all the best Greek and Asian science and not only knew that the earth was round but could also calculate its diameter correctly! For all reasonable scholars in Islam science never posed a problem, it was avidly pursued and scientific exploration, experiments and discoveries were much valued and pursued. A lot of technological advances were made through them from quite original chemical discoveries and technologies to the mechanical and weaponry powered by explosive propulsion.
So, we have to keep science and religion separate, pursue each path separately and also in parallel and derive the benefits from each according to its application and jurisdiction
Since the Qur’an is the foundation of Islam and religion’s mission is moral and spiritual advancement and refinement we should study, understand and apply the Qur’an more in moral and spiritual terms, that is to say in higher human values terms than anything else. These higher human values are made of understanding, accepting, loving, pitying and serving the best interest of human beings and all these are heavily emotional issues.
Having noted all above we may thus describe the way to or the way of appreciating the Qur’an: It should cultivate and develop our nobler emotions more than anything else and not be abused in other directions like creating storms in a cupful of water for issues which are more in the field of science or crass politics. True, Muslims should try to bring decency to politics and decent order to their society but the issues in both are so complicated by so many factors that there is so much one can do and again so much when one is given power to do. Even our Prophet sws could not found an ideal society, died with many sorrows in his heart and the society he left behind became unrecognisable by its own already imperfect standards within a few decades. That is because this world has never been and shall never be a perfect place simply because it is already perfect in the sense that it was meant and created for moral imperfections to plague its human inhabitants simply because it has been designed as a test laboratory for each and every one of us and tests by nature must be hard enough for people to strain themselves hard enough and gain big enough merits in case they succeed. We should therefore pity our fellow men in a thousand ways so that they and overall our Creator pity us back as well. Amen.
Let us then study the Qur’an mostly with a view to refine and ennoble ourselves and let us make this our yardstick to measure our success with the Qur’an.