Leading PostsSeptember October 2005

Islam Needs New Interpreters

Rashid Shaz

The edict issued by Darul Uloom, Deoband, on the Imrana episode and its subsequent endorsement by Muslim Personal Law Board has proved beyond doubt that our religious institutions are not only unaware of contemporary realities, but that the luminaries at the helm of affairs in these institutions have no proper understanding of the Qur'an as well. The Quranic verse on which this edict has been based is quite simple and transparent, free from any kind of ambiguity. The meaning of the verse, لا تنكحوا ما نكح آبائكم  is – “Do not enter into marriage contract with those women whom your fathers happened to marry.” That is to say, if any woman, at any point of time, happened to be married to someone’s father, then subsequently, in the event of their divorce or the death of the father, it will not be permissible for the son to enter into marriage with that woman. Whoever reads this verse without any preconceived notion would not think even in his wildest imagination of the complicated interpretive views of jurisprudents on this episode, that have resulted in the issue of conflicting and contradictory statements on the Imrana affair.

The current state of affairs has compelled the thinking sections among the Muslim community to ponder whether the future of the community will be safe in the hands of these traditional institutions and the ulema who run them. Indian Muslims have always displayed extraordinary sensitivity and a cautious attitude towards their religion. They have spearheaded quite a few organised movements for the sake of their religion and the sharia, and made great sacrifices for them. They have always thought that the religious madarsas are the fortresses of Islam where it would remain fortified from all kinds of interference from outside. And they have considered it their religious duty to save these fortresses from external aggression. However, the irony of the situation is that the kind of interpretations and comments regarding Islam emanating currently from these institutions run counter to both the Qur'an and rational thinking. If Islam is left entirely in the hands of these ill-informed and ill-advised ulema, then the fear looms large that they, like the Jewish Rabbi, would turn it into a complex and convoluted phenomenon, beyond the reach or accessibility of common Muslims.

Islam did not allow any group of ulema or any religious faction or clergy to claim leadership in religious or spiritual affairs. The venerable ulema know it very well that the position of leadership that they have occupied on the pretext of the verse, Fas’alu ahl al-zikr, is untenable in the light of the above Quranic verse. It is regrettable that they have alienated the verse from its original meaning and context, and are using it to justify the continuance of their self-styled leadership in matters of religion. The religious scholars who have issued the edict that Imrana has ceased to be the wife of her husband, and that she has become haram to him, felt it necessary to adduce arguments from such books as Fatawa Al-Hindiya, Radd Al-Mukhtar and Bahr Al-Ra’iq. It would have been far better if they chose to refer themselves to the Book of God and read the verse in its proper context, and not depend on books written by human beings which are riddled with contradictions. If they did so, they would have come to know of the mistakes committed by the Hanefite jurisprudents while expressing their views on the issue. This is as far as Islamic jurisprudence is concerned and the information contained in the corpus. Apart from jurisprudence, if these gentlemen had exercised their intellect and common sense, they would have understood that the Book that unequivocally asserts that everyone will get his deserts, where verses such as – كل نفس بما كسبت رهينة and ولاتزر وازرة وزر أخري – remind us again and again that every individual will be responsible for his own actions, can never approve of the view that the son should be punished for his father’s action, to the extent that his entire family life falls into disarray. The view expressed by the jurisprudents that having committed adultery with her father-in-law, the woman has become like a mother to her husband, points to the kind of specious arguments and hair splitting for which the Jewish Rabbies were famous. It is a matter of great regret that we have left even the Jews religious scholars far behind in this regard. Like them (Jews scholars), our religious scholars too, show little inclination to reflect on the Divine Words on their own and rely more on the statements and interpretations of their predecessors for resolving any issue. Well, how can those who style themselves as inveterate Hanefites deviate from the views of Abu Hanifa! Of course, it is quite possible for them to ignore the just scheme of things enjoined upon us by the Qur'an or the simple and transparent meaning of a Quranic verse simply because the Hanefite scholars of a by-gone era read and understood it differently.

As for the moderate Islamic scholars, their attitude is also noteworthy. When they find the finer points of Hanefite jurisprudence and the views of the predecessors coming in the way of resolving an issue, to get out of the impasse they take recourse to either the Shafi'ite, or the Malekite or the Hanbalite jurisprudence. They also seem to lack courage to seek direct guidance from the Book of God. In the Imrana affair, some moderate Islamic scholars have tried to take recourse to the Shafi'ite jurisprudence and expressed the view that an impermissible (haram) act cannot abrogate a permissible (halal) act (in the present case, a relationship). Thus, even after becoming the victim of her father-in-law’s sexual lust, Imrana’s relationship with her husband would remain intact. Ostensibly, this seems to be a moderate view based on reason and common sense, but even this view too takes its sustenance from the opinions of earlier scholars, and does not present the true picture of Islam in the light of the Qur'an.

I maintain the view that the fundamental cause for the deviation from Islam and the consequent decline of the Muslim community is that we have built a hedge of interpretive literature around the Qur'an. We do not allow the Qur'an to play a decisive role. On the contrary, when faced with an issue, we immediately begin to look for the views of the jurisprudents belonging to our sect. As for those issues that do not find mention in these books, it is customary for us to condemn anything new, till the time this new thing becomes an inalienable part of our life and takes us firmly in its grip. From the use of loudspeaker to the slaughter of animals and birds by machine, our religious scholars declared all of them to be impermissible in the beginning, but gradually this impermissible apparatus became such a favourite with them that no maulvi likes to address his audience without using microphone. The truth of the matter is – Allah has not given human beings the right to declare things permissible or impermissible. All actions falling under these categories have been clearly defined in the Qur'an. This is why we must give up the notion that the right to interpret or explicate Islam has been given to any particular class or group of people. To speak the truth, Islam came to do away with this class of people who stand between human beings and God. All the Prophets that came to the world declared that their mission on earth was to establish direct connection between Allah and His creation. No church or group of maulvis should be allowed to stand in between. To leave aside the Book of Allah and look for guidance from the ulema, and scour the books of ancient jurisprudents for their statements and views, is an act greatly disliked by Allah. The Qur'an characterises such an act as follows: اتخذوا أحبارهم و رهبانهم أربابا من دون الله.

The thoughtful among the Muslims must realise that Allah revealed the Qur'an on the last Prophet, which is not subject to the interpretation of the four principal jurisprudents. The ancient jurisprudents were also human beings like us, liable to error. We are not bound to carry on the burden of the mistakes committed by them on our weak shoulders. For us, our own errors of omission and commission are enough. Moreover, why only the books handed down by the four principal jurisprudents are consulted on a controversial issue? From Abu Hanifa to Hanbal, at least thirty nine imams find mention in the books of history, and all of them enjoyed more or less equal status as far as their learning and erudition was concerned. The books left by most of them have been lost to oblivion, and this loss has not resulted in any inadequacy in understanding the Faith. Then, will people’s understanding of the Faith remain incomplete without the writings of the four imams? This is a question that thinking Muslims must address themselves to. It should also be made clear that the four imams did not come to earth as the representative of Allah, nor does the Qur'an exhort us to follow anyone in Toto after the demise of the Prophet. Those who have complaints against the Muslim Personal Law Board or Daar al-Iftah of Deobond for not responding to the Imrana affair in a commonsensical way, and with a sense of fairness and justice, and those who are incensed by the fact that our religious institutions that have been established to understand and teach the Qur'an, do not display the courage to access the Qur'an directly, should realise the fact that the way the system under which they have been taught and trained did not accord the same central position to the Qur'an that we expect from it. If you take a look at the syllabi of the madarsas it will tell you how many hours are devoted to the study of the Qur'an, and how much of it is included in the syllabi. It can be said that other subjects (apart from the Qur'an) that are taught do help in a better understanding of the Qur'an. If it is true, and if the ancient social sciences can help us in understanding the Qur'an better, then why the older generation of Muslim scholars are bent upon excluding the new social sciences from the syllabi?

Will Imrana get justice through the understanding of jurisprudence by the traditional Muslim scholars or through the system of criminal justice administered by the state? This is certainly an important question that will engage people’s attention. A more vital aspect of the episode, however, is the big question mark it has raised about the adequacy of the muftis and the Quranic understanding of our ulema. Those who, according to the Hanefite view, want to rob Imrana of her husband because of the crime committed by her father-in-law, and those who characterise this view of jurisprudence as the Divine sharia and align it to the rights of Muslims given under personal law, are resigned to the idea of putting the raping father-in-law under the criminal justice system administered by the state because the Islamic law is not operative here, and hence he cannot be stoned to death. What sort of strange interpretation of law is this that while you insist so much to impose the sharia on one party that you make it out to be a question of Faith and imaan, but you allow the other party to escape the injunction of sharia on the plea that Islamic law cannot be implemented here. It is another matter that just as efforts are being made to abrogate Imrana’s marriage on non-Quranic bases, in the same way the proposed stoning of death of the father-in-law is also anti-Quranic, because the punishment for a rapist is caning and not stoning to death, as stipulated in Surah “Nur”. But those who accord greater importance to the statements and sayings of jurisprudents than the Qur'an will not desist from offering the hypothesis that that ayah rajm was present in the Qur'an, which was either lost or taken away, but its injunction (hukm) still remains. It is a matter of regret that those who say such things do not realise how faudaciously they are violating the sanctity of the Qur'an.

As long as the thinking Muslims do not make any organised effort to wrest the right to explain and interpret Islam from the muftis with half-baked knowledge of the Qur’an and the dim-witted maulvis, no improvement in the situation can be expected. Instead of depending on a faction of ulema, Muslims should rely on the Qur'an. Moreover, it should be imprinted on the mind and heart of common Muslims that in Islam there is neither any scope for primacy for a particular section of the ulema, nor is there any validity of the notion of spiritual leadership by any faction. As long as this does not happen it will be possible for the enemies of Islam to cast aspersion on it and draw a ludicrous picture of it. The twenty five crores of Indian Muslims should realise by now that it is not advisable to depend on hospices or madarsas for the protection of the Faith. They should themselves come forward and hold Allah’s Book in their own hands, and hold on to it forever.

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