This is a weekly post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah and is the author of Islam's Quantum Question: Reconciling Muslim Tradition and Modern Science.
Zia Sardar, whom Salman and I have mentioned a few times in recent posts (see here and here) in connection with the Sharjah conference, has a new book out, one that should produce quite a bit of discussion. Published by Hurst and Co (London) and Oxford University Press (New York), it is titled ‘Reading the Qur’an’. According to the book’s webpage, it intends to “offer a fresh interpretation of the Qur’an with emphasis on context as well as on plurality and inclusiveness.” The webpage also tells us that the book covers a series of controversial issues, including the rights of women, suicide, domestic violence, sex, homosexuality, the veil, to freedom of expression, science and evolution.
Zia gave me a copy of his book, and I started reading it about a week ago. So far, I’ve only covered about a quarter of it, which includes Part 1 (Overview) and the chapters dealing with the Opening (Fatiha) chapter of the Qur’an, so I have a good idea of Sardar’s approach to the Book. I have not yet gotten to the controversial stuff, i.e. homosexuality and such, not even to evolution and science. Knowing Zia, I am sure the opinions he offers are very “progressive” (he prefers this adjective to “liberal”). But we’ll see; I’ll have to come back to this part later. But what I’ve read is already quite interesting.
And, not surprisingly since the book was published in May, this past Friday, The Guardian published a review of it by Malise Ruthven, a specialist of religion, Islamic affairs, and the Middle East. Ruthven lauds Sardar for “opening the doors” to a text which “celebrates the divine in nature and emphasises social justice, human responsibility and the wholehearted pursuit of knowledge”, and for his “efforts to dispose of problematic issues such as intolerance and gender inequality”, even though these efforts “will not satisfy everyone”. He strongly faults him, however, for ignoring the “recent revisionist views” on the Qur’an’s origins.
From the chapters that I have read, I would like to note several interesting ideas:
· Sardar adopts a highly personal style, oftentimes it is even autobiographical in presenting his own relation to the Book (Chapter 1 is titled “The Qur’an and me”); and though he does not speak Arabic but can understand many phrases (Arabic being close to Urdu), his love for the Book and its verses is evident on every page.
· He insists on the need to approach the Text with fresh eyes, both by Muslims and non-Muslims, most of whom come to it with very wrong preconceived ideas, either due to their political standpoints or their religious backgrounds (the style and content of the Qur’an being so different from that of the Bible). He also stresses the need for Muslims to perform a personal reading and understanding of the Book, keeping “authority” at arm’s length.
· Briefly reviewing the classical and contemporary scholarship of exegesis, he insists that every commentary of the Qur’an must be read as a subjective and ideological interpretation (and of course, Sardar’s must also be viewed as such).
· So far, the most interesting chapter has been the one titled “Limits of Translations”, where Sardar explicitly shows a number of cases where the translation of the Qur’an was used for reprehensible ideological purposes. One of the main cases is N. J. Dawood’s 1956 ‘Penguin classic’ translation still widely consulted today, where as Sardar points out, “often Dawood mistranslates a single word in a verse to give it totally the opposite meaning.” He adds: “Dawood’s translation is the one that most non-Muslims cite when they accuse the Qur’an or Islam or Muslims, often with great conviction, of having no option but to be fanatical, violent, and depraved.” Another very important case is the widely used version by Yusuf Ali, which “has been subjected to what can only be described as a truly nefarious onslaught of revisions… brought out by Amana Publications, an American conservative publisher, and the Saudi Arabian religious propaganda organization, ‘The Presidency of Islamic Researches Call and Guidance’… His symbolic explanation of Muslim prayer, his references to the mystical meaning of love, indeed anything that smells of allegory or metaphors has been ruthlessly expunged. And his views on jihad, sex in heaven, and resurrection are totally changed.”And we haven’t even gotten to the “controversial” topics…