Absolutely frivolous”, that’s how the Supreme Court termed Waseem Rizvi’s petition to remove 26 verses of the Quran. While dismissing the petition, the Court also imposed a fine of Rs 50,000 on the petitioner. Rizvi had alleged that these verses promoted enmity and violence against non-Muslims.
Waseem Rizvi should have taken his case to where it belonged — the Islamic scholars, both traditional and modern, not the Supreme Court of India — for a reinterpretation, not deletion of the verses. A review of Islamic theology and shaping of a new mode of religious thinking is long overdue among Muslims.
The Quran needs a new meaning, and a new interpretive classicism, to carry forward the achievements of modernity and enlightenment, not a rehashing of antiquated commentaries.
But Waseem Rizvi has been a man in such hurry for political celebrity as not to pause and draft a legally sustainable and intellectually tenable case. So riddled has been his petition with such elementary mistakes as quoting chapters and verses that don’t even exist in the Quran, and building a case on the basis of pedestrian canards, sectarian stereotypes and motivated gossips that it had been really liberal of the Supreme Court to admit it.
That such a petition could be admitted has been a cause of consternation since the Supreme Court adjudicates matters pertaining to the Constitution, not scriptures. If one were to draw on Stephan Jay Gould’s schema of science and religion as Non-Overlapping Magisteria, the Constitution and the Quran — one being a rational human document and another a result of mystical inspiration — exist in their separate domains without impinging on the other.
Consolation, not law
Scriptures don’t change. Their readers do. With changing times and values, new insights are brought into the reading of scriptures, and ever new meanings are discovered in them. Islam’s doctor maximus, Ibn al-Arabi (d. 1240), insisted that every time a Muslim recited a verse from the Quran, it should mean something different to them.
Scriptural interpretation doesn’t seek to revive a mythical utopia. It reinvents the scripture to make it speak to our contemporary predicaments.
All religious scriptures have matters that don’t accord with modern sensibilities. Violence, misogyny and xenophobia are rife in them, yet they are considered sources of numinous elevation and consolation.
Most religious scriptures have once been a source of law. But their communities no longer regard them as such. Scriptures bring them intimations of the transcendent, not the legislation for the contemporary society.
Readers of other religions have stopped deriving law from scriptures and given it an interpretation that accords with contemporary sensibilities by ‘reading down’ the offensive parts. Similarly, Muslims can read modern values into Islam too.
Muslims, however, continue to regard the Quran as the supreme source of law. So, a conflict is created between the laws of the secular State and the idealised Shariah, which gets accentuated on issues such as the treatment of minorities, gender justice and the commitment to democracy and secularism.
Insofar as other communities don’t derive laws from their respective scriptures, don’t claim to be inspired by them in their worldly affairs, and don’t try to restore their utopian past, the anachronistic verses of their religious books are not dug out to make a case against them.
The Quran uses many self-descriptors for itself such as the Recitation, the Book, the Reminder, the Warner, and the Bearer of Glad Tidings, but nowhere does it use an epithet that could remotely be considered an equivalent of law.
The Quran, in its own words, is free from discrepancies (4:82, 39:23). But the reductionism involved in extracting laws for everyday life was bound to throw up myriad contradictions given the multitudinous diversity of human affairs.
Revelation and abrogation
The Fuqaha (Islamic jurists) were not equal to the spiritual and mystical dimensions of the Quran. Instead of reconciling these contradictions in the spirit of Coincidentia Oppositorum (the unity of opposites), they took an easy recourse to voiding those verses that didn’t fit in their juristic model. This methodology is known as Naskh (Abrogation), wherein one verse overrides another, effectively rendering it juristically and normatively redundant without actually expunging it.
A sunnat, an hadees, or the ijma (consensus of Islamic jurists) is also employed for reading down verses that don’t cohere with their jurisprudence. The famous jurist and exegete, Ibn al-Jawzi (d. 1201), named no less than 247 abrogated verses. On the lower side of the scale, Shah Waliullah of Delhi (d. 1762) kept the number to a meagre five. Naskh is the domain of Islamic theologians and jurists. The court of law of a secular State – such as the Supreme Court of India – is not the right forum for it.
Another hermeneutic and methodological tool of Islamic jurisprudence, theology and Quranic commentary is the concept of Sabab Nazul – the occasion or the context of the revelation of a particular verse. Besides shedding light on the historicity of a verse, it also weighs the rationale for its trans-contextual extrapolation. Thus, if a particular verse, such as the Sword Verse (9:5), could be understood only in its immediate context of revelation, its relevance would be purely historical and academic, not prescriptive and emulative.
The Quran is a book of some bulk consisting of as many as 6,236 verses. A few of them are taken out of their historical and textual context — in isolation from the preceding and succeeding verses — to impute malice to it. The blame for this disingenuous method, however, has to be placed on the shoulders of the conventional interpretive style that has been thriving on random quotation of a verse, or a part of it, to clinch an argument. Such has been the validity of this tradition that the ideological superstructure of the political Islam has been built — without this methodology being brought into question — with no more than 10-15 verses culled arbitrarily from here and there. So much so that the phrase, aqeem us-salat, whose standard translation is, “be constant in prayers”, was interpreted to mean a mandate for the establishment of an Islamic state. Such instrumental use of the Quran makes it vulnerable to a similar misuse by its detractors.
Till the time violence and obscurantism keep deriving legitimacy from the Quran and its classical interpretations, Islam will remain exposed to calumny. Mainstreaming a modern mode of Islamic thinking, an advance over the modern principles of liberty and justice, is an ineluctable exigency.
Najmul Hoda is an IPS officer. Views are personal.
(Edited by Neera Majumdar)