By Sultan Shahin, Founding Editor, New Age Islam
26 April 2019
Dear Ghulam Mohiyuddin Saheb,
A rather acrimonious debate has been going on for some time between you and Naseer Ahmad Saheb on your expression of a feeling that some verses, inconvenient to a modern rational mind, have probably been added in Quran and Muslims should disregard them. Naseer Saheb probably wants you to accept that this makes you an apostate. However, if apostasy were to be bestowed so liberally hardly any thinking Muslim would remain a Muslim.
This debate on distortions in Quran is not new. The controversy over tahreeff il Quran, deletions, additions, a variety of changes in the wordings or vowels of words used in of Quran, etc has raged in the past 1400 years of Islam. Even a brief glance at Allama Jalaluddin Suyuti’s authoritative book on the subject al-Itqan fi Uloom al-Quran, now easily available on the internet, will reveal that there is no distortion that has not been claimed, suggested and believed in by Muslims through the ages, beginning with the companions of the Prophet who had heard Quran from the Prophet himself and recorded its verses in their memory as well in writing then and there.
However, it is also necessary to underline that by and large there is not much of a controversy among Muslims about verses having been planted in the Holy Quran by later Muslims to serve their own ends. In general, all Muslims believe in all of Quran being the word of God as revealed through Prophet Mohammad (saw). If there is a controversy it is generated by some Hadith narrations that some verses have been left out or forgotten or caused by God to be forgotten. Surah Ahzab, for instance, is reported to have been originally double or triple its present size of 73 verses. Some Sahaba (companions of the Prophet) remember it as being almost the same size as Surah Baqra (286 verses).There is also a report of a whole Surah, as long and as severe as Surah Bara’at (better known as Surah Taubah) which has 129 verses having disappeared. One report claims that an object on which a Quranic verse about rajm(stoning to death) of adulterers was written was eaten up by a goat.
Throughout the ages some Muslims have found themselves at a loss to explain the presence of some verses as exhortations from God. As for war verses, not all of them are problematic. At one-point Muslims were allowed to defend themselves as they should have been. Even today defence is allowed, not only to established governments but even to individuals and families in certain situations. However, some verses do pose questions for Muslims living in the 21st century. For instance, verse 2-193 says:
“Fight them until there is no [more] fitnah and [until] worship is for Allah. But if they cease, then there is to be no aggression except against the oppressors.”
Here there can be no objection to the portion: “But if they cease, then there is to be no aggression except against the oppressors,” as it is clear that it is in the context of aggression and oppression which one has to fight in any age.However, the first portion is: “Fight them until there is no [more] fitnah and [until] worship is for Allah.” This becomes problematic, particularly as fitnah is translated by most acknowledged translators as “shirk” (polytheism, but in Prophet’s Mecca basically meant idol worship). Then “and [until] worship is for Allah,” seems to justify the translation of fitnah as shirk, and thus goes against a moderate Muslim’s mainstay “la ikraha fid Deen (Let there be on compulsion in religion, لاَ إِكْرَاهَ فِى الدِّينِ. 2-256)” and verse 18:29 wa man shaa’afalyomin, wamansha’afalyakfur. فَمَنۡ شَآءَ فَلۡيُؤۡمِنۡ وَّمَنۡ شَآءَ فَلۡيَكۡفُرۡ (“let him who please believe and let him who please disbelieve.”)
Then, of course, there are verses from Surah Tauba (9:5, 9:29, etc) that cause disquiet in the moderate Muslim mind. This sense of foreboding is particularly enhanced by a strong and repeatedly expressed opinion by classical Islamic theologians, followed generally by ulema of all sects, that peaceful and pluralistic verses from early Meccan Islam have all been abrogated by the so-called sword verse (9:5) alone.
But none of this has led to a discrediting of these verses as word of God. No one has said that these verses have been planted in Quran. Indeed, Hadith was created as a parallel scripture, and given in practice even greater importance than Quran in decades when virtual enemies of Islam were ruling the land of Islam in the name of Islam, mainly because it was not possible to plant things in Quran. So those who had subverted the Islamic democratic system and established monarchy used hadith narrations to plant new ideas. Muslims had written Quran down and also memorised it almost as soon as verses were revealed. Hadith started growing in a natural manner, as people recalled what the Prophet had told them all these years, but this was also used by the dictatorial kings to plant new ideas more suitable to their politics.
Different Muslims, uncomfortable with these violent verses in Quran have tried different ways of dealing with them. Some have rejected Islam as a divine religion and become and are now becoming in larger numbers ex-Muslims. Some have taken the instructions to heart and adopted radical extremism and terrorism, as a way of quick transition to Heaven through martyrdom. Others engage in what is called taaweelat or allegorical interpretations. Some Muslims try to change the very meaning of Arabic words used in these verses and say that Arabs have not understood Arabic of the Quran in all these centuries. The consensus theology is that it is every Muslim’s religious duty to help Islam conquer the world and extirpate all other religions, including those that were brought by previous prophets in whom all Muslims must believe to be a Muslim. Most mainstream Muslims accept the consensus theology but do nothing about achieving this religious goal. However, they do applaud, if not openly, at last in their hearts, when someone appears to be doing something about it.
You are alone Ghulam Mohiyuddin Saheb in feeling that these verses have been probably planted in Quran at some point. You use the expression “overinclusion while compiling.” The problem is GM Saheb, that Quran was revealed in the glare of history. Verses used to be revealed in the presence of katibs, usually several, and other sahaba (companions) of the prophet. They were almost immediately written down and memorised. Also, the verses in question are in the distinctive style of the Quran. However, you are not alone in feeling a disquiet about these and some other verses. There are many other Muslims who do not want to conquer the world and remove all other religions. Moreover, you are not alone in not being satisfied with all the taawilat and interpretations and discovery of new meanings of Arabic words by non-Arabs over 1400 years after they were revealed. Those who say no one has understood the meaning of Quran also claim to believe in Quran’s claim of it being The Clear Book (al-Kitab al-Mubeen).
My own understanding is that we cannot fully comprehend the circumstances in which it had become necessary for God to give these instructions, if we do not fully understand the events happening around us today in this age of communication. Probably half of America still believes that Saddam Hussain possessed weapons of mass destruction and was hands in gloves with Osama bin Laden. So, any claim to understand the circumstances that led to these Quranic revelations one and a half millennia ago will be presumptuous in the extreme. However, as that context is no longer present today and cannot be repeated in future too, so these instructions can no longer apply to us. Let us stop giving a variety of taawilaat and even seeking to understand their purpose. This only leads to further disquiet and newer taawilaat that have no meaning. In fact, there is no particular need for us either to try to fully understand things that happened in the hoary past.
We should focus on the core message of the Quran which is that all religions have been sent by God through a long series of messengers who brought essentially the same message, asking us to remember Him always in gratitude, do good deeds and live in harmony with other creations of God. Hoqooqullah and Hoqoqul-ibad. Let us just stick to that.
If illiterate and even ignorant Arab Bedouins, living in desert villages 1400 years ago, could understand Quran, we too should be able to understand it. Also, any eternal message is of necessity understood by different people of different intellectual levels and different eras differently. No one should be branded an apostate for doing that until he or she himself or herself declares that he has left Islam. We belong to a civilisation which did not brand apostate even someone who said:
'Mīr' Ke dīn-O-Mazhab ko Ab Pūchhte kyā Ho Un Ne To
Qashqa Khīñchā Dair Meñ Baithā Kab Kā Tark Islām Kiyā
(What can I tell you about Mir’s faith or belief? A tilak on his forehead in a temple he resides, having abandoned Islam long ago).