November 18, 2013 By Shameer KS

Quran: An Argumentative Reader

reading-the-quran-in-a-week-day-sixGenerally speaking two types of reading of a text are possible: one, to fall in love with the text and, two, to come out of its allure and resist its temptation with the anxiety of influence[i] one can muster.  Commenting on ED Hirsh, Edward Said says that criticism is divided into ‘two moments, of which the first is intuitive and deeply sympathetic, the second reflexive and logical.[ii]

While reading Ziauddin Sardar’s Reading the Quran I have gone through these moments. In fact, Zia himself encounters these moments in his reading of the Quran. On the one hand he is sympathetic to the text as a believer should be, while on the other he is reflexive and logical as he aims to derive its values and fundamentals and to resist the temptations and influences of the much revered classical tradition. Zia is concerned about the appropriation of the Quran by the scholarly lovers[iii] and confessional interpreters as well as by voyeurs to justify their vested ideological interests. (Page 21). Zia introduces himself as an argumentative lover who approaches the Quran through questions and arguments. His reading is ‘not just artistic but also scientific.’[iv] He justifies such a reading as something demanded by the text itself: ‘The Quran is full of questions-how can you worship something other than God? How did this happen? And it’s jam-packed with debates in particularly long suras.’ (P 22)

It is not difficult for a discerning reader to see that Zia has taken the baton passed by Fazlur Rahman, his countryman, whose Major Themes of the Quran was an attempt to bring to us the Quranic weltanschauung (cohesive outlook of life) and to release us from the yoke of atomism (picking verses from out of context and citing it for substantiating a viewpoint) which was caused by verse-by-verse commentaries. (p 27). In the third part of Reading the Quran, which discusses Themes and Concepts in the Quran, Zia has adopted some of Fazlur Rahman’s interpretations to approach certain problematic concepts, i.e. to explain why Prophet Muhammad is the last Prophet (P 219), the doctrine of isma (221), the idea of measuring or Qadr (265), and polygamy (306). But he has anxiety of influence to resist his predecessor when the latter’s thoughts don’t fit into Zia’s arguments. He supports Fazlur Rahman’s argument that the need for further revelations is superfluous.  But he is slightly suspicious where Rahman stresses the fact that man is so plagued by moral confusion that he has not become mature in the sense that he can dispense with the divine guidance.’ Zia asks: ‘Should our moral maturity be defined solely in terms of Divine guidance?’ He says: ‘We may be mature in relation to some issues; and not so mature in relation to other new, emerging and more complex issues. Either way, the responsibility for resolving our moral and ethical dilemmas rests squarely on our shoulders. There will not be a new Moses to lead us to the Promised Land, a new Jesus to save our souls; or, indeed a new Muhammad to establish a just social order.’ (P 220)

Whereas Fazlur Rahman’s book is purely academic and dry (though more solemn and weightier in arguments), Zia’s prose rather engages us. But the more marked difference between the two is the sheer contemporaneity of Zia’s book (his zest to debate the new, emerging and more complex issues). So, the fourth part of the book titled contemporary topics is more important than the rest, where he discusses the sharia; power and politics; polygamy and domestic violence; sex and society; homosexuality; the veil; freedom of expression; suicide; science and technology; evolution and art, music and imagination, the topics that the critics use to justify ‘the barbarism’ of Muslims. With the insights from sociology and anthropology, Zia argues that the ideals and values set by the Quran are violated by the fossilized approach of some Muslims to these issues. But Zia has taken so much care as to keep himself away from the danger of uncritical acceptance of contemporary discourses. While he stresses the point that there is no homophobia in the Quran and that a discerning reader of the Quran can live together with the homosexual believers, he is a strong critic of the contemporary gay and lesbian behavior in western societies ‘with lavishing attention on looks, clothes, certain kinds of pop music and promiscuity’ which echoes the excesses of Lot’s people and which is aped blindly in Muslim societies.’ (Page 328). While he questions the sexual norms and ethics prevalent in Muslim societies, he is careful in attacking the obsession with sex and the sexual display of body (Page 317).

The book does have some glitches here and there. His argument that the Quran marks the beginning of morality (pp XX) as against the belief of most Muslims that morality ends with the Quran does preclude our reflections on timeless moral values and ethics (with which Prophets from Adam to Muhammad were sent and which all societies must discover and rediscover for our lives that are contingent on time and spaces through interpretations). Were not pre-Quranic societies moral? The concept of timeless moral values is relevant to the cause of pluralism and diversity that Zia advances in the book. Also he is rather dismissive of the philosophical discourses in the Islamic tradition, while he minces no words to extol its scientific and civilizational feats.  He is hostile to the question of creation and non-creation of the Quran and dismisses it as insignificant in a world of climate change, deep social inequalities, gender bias etc. (page 36). But the very same question is the hermeneutic foundation of many schools of thought in the Islamic tradition. The position of Muatazlis that the Quran is created has enriched its hermeneutic tradition, as it could explore the uncreated divine values and ethics prior to the text. The question is particularly relevant in exploring the Quranic morals and ethics beyond the sanctity of the created text for a world of deep social inequalities. Also he sprinkles his discussion of the concepts like truth and pluralism with a staunch attack on the Muslim fundamentalism. But fundamentalism is a notable aspect in all traditions-both religious and secular. His selective criticism makes it appear that he has written the book solely for Muslims and that the Quran addresses the Muslims alone. Also, a chapter like power and politics criticizes the arguments for Islamic states. Alongside such a criticism, which it must, one expects the critique of a unipolar world order pursued by the US and its allies. A critique of political imperialism is conspicuous by its absence and is not supplemented by his critique of the culture of modernity and consumerism.

But as true to the role of interpreter he advances in the book, Zia admits that his book is not free from flaws and is final. While it demands our praise for being the most contemporary exposition of the Quranic ethics, it leaves space for us to be reflexive and logical.  It’s a daring invitation to become an argumentative reader of the Quran

Book Description

Reading the Quran
Ziauddin Sardar
Hurst and Company, London
ISBN 978-1-84904-107-2



[i]  Anxiety of Influence: “Strong poets” are those “major figures with the persistence to wrestle with their strong precursors, even to the death. Weaker talents idealize; figures of capable imagination appropriate for themselves. But nothing is got for nothing, and self-appropriation involves the immense anxieties of indebtedness, for what strong maker desires the realisation that he has failed to create himself?” Harold Bloom, Anxiety of Influence, (page 5), Oxford University Press.

[ii] Edward W Said, Reflections on Exile and Other Literary and Cultural Essays, Penguin Books, page 15

[iii] Zia takes recourse to Farid Essack’s classification of the Quranic readers into uncritical lover (eg: Ibn Arabi), scholarly lover (Mawdoodi, Jalaluddin Suyuti), critical lover (Fazlur Rahman, Montgomery Watt) and Voyeurs (a string of scholars who are hostile to the Quran)

[iv] Edward Said, Reflections on Exile and Other Literary and Cultural Essays, Penguin Books, Page 16

Posted in: Books