Quran verses being targeted by proposed ban need to be read in context to be wholly understood

Ex-chief of the UP Shia Waqf Board Wasim Rizvi's argument for banning 26 verses of the Quran is based on their 'extreme interpretation', which in itself is a very vague term

Tarushikha Sarvesh and Aftab Alam March 23, 2021 12:34:03 IST
Quran verses being targeted by proposed ban need to be read in context to be wholly understood

Representational image. Reuters

The ongoing debate triggered by the PIL filed in the Supreme Court of India suggesting a ban on 26 verses of the Quran, should be used as an opportunity to bridge the gap in knowledge and awareness of people at large. These 26 verses are taken from Quran, the most authentic and primary source of Islamic Law, and the English translation of the Quran by Dr Mustafa Khattab is also mentioned in the petition. We are using the same verses and the same translation mentioned in the petition to maintain consistency.

The 26 verses that are quoted as negative in the petition, along with the same translation, are used verbatim to clarify our intentions and avoid any further disruption while explaining the context in the subsequent paragraphs.

The two sects of Islam — Shia and Sunni — have some differences regarding the Caliphate and authenticity of some Hadith (sayings of Prophet Muhammad) but they are one and together in the fundamental principles of Islam. The Hadith are teachings and actions of the prophet while the Quran is considered the word of God (Allah). Verses or Aayats are part of the Quran. Therefore, there is no difference of opinion or belief between Shias and Sunnis regarding the verses of Quran.

The degree of authenticity of the Hadith depends upon its source and references as the Hadith are the source of Islamic law second to the Quran and the Hadith have to be interpreted in light of the Quran. The different cultural practices and procedures that exist between Shias and Sunnis are on the basis of their reliance on the sources of Hadith.

There are four sources of Islamic law: Quran, Hadith, Ijma and Qayas. Muslims believe that verses or Aayats in Quran provide reference points for all human circumstances and choices till eternity. Quoting them out of context can lead to grave misrepresentation of the community with the potential of causing animosity among different communities through miscommunication. This spreads cynicism in society and robs people of their ability to trust one another as trust comes when things are put in the right perspective when people have the right knowledge of each other’s “reference points”.

In the recent past the argument for banning certain verses of Quran is given by citing the possibilities of their extreme interpretation. Extreme interpretation is a very vague term in itself. Clarity is needed on the usage of the expression, “extreme interpretation”. An interpretation can either be right or wrong — meaning — contextual or out of context. If someone uses the verses out of context, it means that the person has either limited knowledge or ulterior motives. Even the best of suggestions and messages can be distorted or quoted out of context. This way any religious text is susceptible to misinterpretations against anyone for that matter.

On the same ground of “extremism” in 2011, a petition against a translated version of Bhagavad Gita was filed in a Russian court. It was compared with Hitler’s Mein Kampf, but the Russian court dismissed the call to ban the Bhagavad Gita. Even the provisions of Indian Penal Code can be said to promote murder in the name of self-defence if we go by the logic of extreme interpretation as killing in self-defence is not counted as murder by the IPC.

Similarly in the Quran, there are some verses, which are specific to war-like circumstances amounting to exceptions the way IPC gives general exceptions. None of the verses in Quran are contradictory to the overall message of peace and harmony rather they are complimentary if read together to understand the context and circumstances. Verses are revealed in two parts — some in Mecca and some in Medina.

Due to persecution in Mecca by the mercantile Arab tribe, Quraysh, whose members were polytheists, the prophet and his followers had to leave their homes and migrate (Hijrat) to Medina. Although the prophet himself belonged to the Quraysh tribe, he was being persecuted for preaching Allah’s message against the malpractices that existed in those days and also because he was following one God instead many. There were many malpractices among the Quraysh tribe against children, elderly, women, slaves and other exploited people. Although slavery existed among all tribes and communities, a change in attitude was being preached against exploitation.

It was being preached that freeing a slave would be highly rewarded by Allah as mentioned in Hadith Sahi Bukhari 6337 and in Surah Al-Balad of Quran: “But he has not broken through the difficult path, an what will make you know what is the difficult bath? It is the freeing of a slave” (90:11-13). The Quraysh saw it as interference with their trade and cultural practices. The tribe used to profit from polytheism as people visited holy places and made offerings, which contributed to the coffers of the Quraysh people. The Book History of Arabs by PK Hitti discusses many such practices. The idea of one and only God was seen by the leaders of Quraysh tribe as going against them and developed rivalry with Prophet Muhammad.

In the light of the above circumstances, Surah 9: Verse 37 says, “Reallocating the sanctity of ˹these˺ months is an increase in disbelief, by which the disbelievers are led ˹far˺ astray. They adjust the sanctity one year and uphold it in another, only to maintain the number of months sanctified by Allah, violating the very months Allah has made sacred. Their evil deeds have been made appealing to them. And Allah does not guide the disbelieving people” (by Dr Mustafa Khattab, The Clear Quran).

The above-mentioned verse is quoted as a negative verse in the recent petition, but the actual context is that the Quraysh people were in the habit of adjusting or changing the holy month according to favourable seasons and weather to make it convenient for people to visit so that their profit margin wasn't affected by harsh weather. This verse says people with such bad intentions would not get Allah’s support.

All such verses which are quoted as negative verses in the petition were specific instructions for specific people and not to be applied regardless of circumstances or in general. All the verses of the Quran are complementary to each other and to the overall message for life and behaviour communicated through the holy text. None of the verses are contradictory to each other or to the broad message of peace, harmony and a truthful life.

Similarly Surah 9: Verse 5 as quoted in the petition says, “But once the sacred months have passed, kill the polytheists ˹who violated their treaties˺ wherever you find them, capture them, besiege them, and lie in wait for them on every way. But if they repent, perform prayers, and pay alms-tax, then set them free. Indeed, Allah is All-Forgiving, Most Merciful” (by Dr Mustafa Khattab, The Clear Quran). This verse is also for specific people who had developed a rivalry against the monotheists/Muslims.

Those were the Mushrik (believer of more then one God) and Kafir (non-believer). The Mushrik and Kafir were harassing and breaching peace understanding with Muslims at the time and openly mocking their beliefs. Under these circumstances it was recommended in self-defence to fight the Mushrik and Kafirs but release them if they stopped fighting. It was more like a second strike capability and does not recommend the first strike approach to attack. Most of such verses in Quran are specifically against the troublemakers, under special circumstances and not people in general.

Surah 4: Verse 101 as quoted in the petition says, “When you travel through the land, it is permissible for you to shorten the prayer — ˹especially˺ if you fear an attack by the disbelievers. Indeed, the disbelievers are your sworn enemies” (by Dr Mustafa Khattab, The Clear Quran). This verse also takes into account the circumstances of an open rivalry between Quraysh leaders and other such tyrants. In case Muslims are attacked or there is a fear of such attack they can shorten their prayers and move away to protect themselves. These are the exceptions allowed to Muslims under life threat.

Surah 9: Verse 123 as mentioned in the petition says, “O believers! Fight the disbelievers around you and let them find firmness in you. And know that Allah is with those mindful 'of Him'” (by Dr Mustafa Khattab, The Clear Quran). This verse is also not a peacetime verse but a wartime verse when the non-believers had taken up a fight with Muslims and troubled them because of their beliefs. It does not recommend fighting in general but it says one should be firm enough to put up a strong front in the wake of a war or declared rivalry.

Surah 4: Verse 56 says, “Surely those who reject our signs, we will cast them into the Fire. Whenever their skin is burnt completely, we will replace it so they will ˹constantly˺ taste the punishment. Indeed, Allah is Almighty, All-Wise” (by Dr Mustafa Khattab, The Clear Quran). This is in context of treatment in Hell which can be inflicted on anyone who stops people from following Allah’s instructions. It is a form of deterrence against bad behaviour and misdeeds. It does not recommend that Muslims should burn people as such. Most of these verses are seen as a struggle for truth against falsity and even personal relations can be questioned on these grounds. It is beyond individuals and personal relations. Surah Luqman should be read alongside these verses, which says be grateful to me and your parents but if they pressurise you to start believing in something else in religious terms then don’t follow them but continue to live with them respectfully (Surah 31 Luqman, Verse 14).

Surah 5: Verse 57 says, “O believers! Do not seek the guardianship of those given the Scripture before you and the disbelievers who have made your faith a mockery and amusement. And be mindful of Allah if you are ˹truly˺ believers” (by Dr Mustafa Khattab, The Clear Quran). This verse talks about those Jews and Christians who try to befriend Muslims for trade and business but mock them behind their backs. This verse asks Muslims to be wary of such hypocrites (munaafik).

Surah 48: Verse 20 says “Allah has promised you ˹believers˺ abundant spoils, which you will gain, so He hastened this ˹truce˺ for you. And He has held people’s hands back from ˹harming˺ you, so it may be a sign for the believers, and so He may guide you along the Straight Path” (by Dr Mustafa Khattab, The Clear Quran). This verse is more like a morale booster in Surah al-Fatah so that the believers don’t feel weak in the wake of a war or dominance of disbelievers who specifically cause hindrance in the way of Allah’s worship and an obstacle in the struggle in propagating Allah’s words, and is seen as the greatest calamity for the believers.

All verses like Surah 5: Verse 51, Surah 9: Verse 29, Surah 4: Verse 89 and Surah 9: Verse 14 – are mostly in the context of “Zalim” (people in darkness who exploit and deprive people of their rights or don’t fulfil their obligations). In these verses, Muslims are instructed not to befriend such Zalims and not follow their paths. It is said that believers being more enlightened need not fear the numerical strength of non-believers who exploit others, as they are low on wisdom. Here non-believers are the ones who do not believe in instructions against exploitation and wrongdoings.

Surah 66: Verse 9 as quoted in the petition reads, “O Prophet! Struggle against the disbelievers and the hypocrites, and be firm with them. Hell will be their home. What an evil destination!” (by Dr Mustafa Khattab, The Clear Quran). This verse is an appeal to Prophet to save the people and punish the hypocrites. Without the context the verse loses its meaning.

Surah 3: verse 151 as quoted reads, “We will cast horror into the hearts of the disbelievers for associating ˹false gods˺ with Allah — a practice He has never authorised. The Fire will be their home — what an evil place for the wrongdoers to stay!” (by Dr Mustafa Khattab, The Clear Quran). This verse is in the context of Battle of Uhud that saw the Qurayshi Meccans commanded by Abu Sufiyan Ibn Harb attack Muhammad’s stronghold in Medina. Initially, the prophet's followers were winning, but later they had to withdraw. The Meccans also didn’t pursue the Muslims further but marched back to Mecca. Although they declared victory in Mecca, in Madina the battle is believed to have been equalised by Allah, as He put fear in the hearts of the disbelievers and as a result they went back to Mecca without further damage. Surah 3: Verse 151 is mentioned in this specific context in the Quran

It is believed that the prophet honoured peace over war and the reference is found in the nature of treaties he entered with the non-believers like the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah (Sulah Hudaybiyyah). It was agreed upon on unfair terms to Muslims, but the prophet still entered the treaty for the sake of peace. The Qurayshs laters breached the treaty and began their struggle. Later, instructions were given by the prophet to Muslims in self-defence as well as for boosting the morale of the Muslim community that had been wronged.

Any verse of the Quran or for that matter of any other religious text, if read or quoted out of context, without explaining the circumstances, can lead to serious misunderstandings. In fact, so that people can live in peace and harmony, more such discussions and clarifications should be brought to the fore and people should be encouraged to patiently listen to each other without cynicism.

Tarushikha Sarvesh is Assistant Professor of Sociology, Centre for Women’s Studies, Aligarh Muslim University; Aftab Alam is Assistant Professor, Department of Urdu at Aligarh Muslim University.

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