London, Asharq Al-Awsat- A group of Arab militants fly hijacked ‘planes into office buildings. A Kurdish immigrant cuts the throat of his “dishonored” daughter. An Iranian mullah issues a fatwa calling for the murder of a novelist he does not like.
Every one of those cases, and thousands of similar ones, are immediately followed by weeks, months and even years of controversy across the globe in which there is one central question: did Islam and its fundamental text, The Quran, sanction those deeds?
Debate and dispute over texts is as old as civilization itself. In fact, it is possible to argue that polemics is as old as the art of writing itself. Once noted down, whether on a clay tablet, as was the case in ancient Sumer, or on Egyptian papyrus or, these days, the web pages of the cyber-space, a thought becomes a challenge and an invitation. It challenges the unwritten versions of itself while inviting other thoughts to measure themselves against it.
However, a text could be truncated, twisted, turned upside down- in short, quoted out of context or misquoted. In such cases, it becomes a weapon in what we have learned to call “a clash of civilizations.”
Some of us might not think so, but the Islamic scholar Sayyed Zahoor Ahmad believes that we are experiencing such a clash. “There is, indeed, a clash of civilizations and cultures going on,” he says.
However, Ahmad makes it clear that this “clash” is multi-dimensional: it is not limited to one between Islam and non-Islam, so to speak. In many cases, it is also taking place within Islam itself.
Ahmad does not pretend that he wants to end the “clash” or lead it into any particular direction. These things must take their own course, which is never pre-determined. Ahmad’s ambition is at once more modest and more ambitious. It is more modest because he does not pretend to have discovered the terms of peace. But it is also more ambitious because he tries to restore the dignity of the text, allowing it to do its proper role as a general guide to believer and non-believer.
Ahmad’s offering comes in the form of a 300-plus pages book in which he makes a direct presentation of what the Quran says about nine fundamental issues. (Ahmad calls them “aspects” rather than themes.) His book “Aspects of the Quran” is scheduled for publication in the United States and Europe later this month.
The first three of these “aspects” offer a broad introduction to Islam as a faith. The fourth “aspects” deals with Islam’s relations with other religions, especially its Abrahamic kindred, Judaism and Christianity. Then we have two “aspects” dealing with the particularities of a Muslim society, and Islam’s understanding of “social justice” which, if we are not mistaken, is a recent and basically secular concept.
A stand-alone “aspect” is devoted to the status of women, always a controversial issue in every civilization but particularly so in Islam which is routinely accused of misogyny.
The two final “aspects” of Ahmad’s book deal with the “hard” issues of the current, real or imagined, “clash of civilizations”: Defining Jihad and its purpose, and Islam’s attitude towards terrorism.
Ahmad, scion of an old family of Islamic judges from Bangalore, India, manages something that few polemicists, whether religious or not, do these days. He does not fall into a Gaston and Alphonse routine of: the Quran said this- the Quran didn’t say!
In his introduction, he offers a few examples of this Gaston-Alphonse method, with devastating effect. He shows how one could obtain many different results through different methods of quoting the Quranic verses.
Ahmad’s book will not end the “clash”; nor will it iron out all misunderstandings, or provide a solution to our problems. But it gives us a quick thematic reference manual through which we could instantly check the full import of any quotation from the Quran.
The method is interesting because it helps create context out of the text and the subtext. No longer are we confronted with a single, often short and sharp declaration on a complex issue but with every single reference to it throughout the Divine Text. When quoted in stand-alone form, resembling bumper-sticker “philosophical” formulae, many of the positions attributed to Islam might appear bizarre, to say the least. However, when brought together, as in Ahmad’s analytical compilation, the many different pronouncements on the same subject sustain one another in the context of a coherent form that factors in its inevitable contradictions.
Ahmad’s book should not be taken as an apologia for “true Islam”, whatever that means. We already have too many of those, and too many people who pretend that their understanding of Islam alone is valid.
Ahmad’s “humble attempt” is valuable because it does not pretend to be anything more than a directory of Islamic positions. The way you read the texts offered, and, more importantly, the way you judge them is up to you.