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Opening the Book

The Quran, like any other text, is open to interpretations — and misinterpretations. A textual deconstruction of the most controversial words on Earth, writes Renuka Narayanan.

india Updated: Apr 02, 2009 14:49 IST
Renuka Narayanan

Tere zameer pe jab tak na ho nuzool-e-kitab Girah kusha hai na Razi na sahebe Kashshaf

(Until this Book has revealed itself to your heart, Not even Razi or Kashshaf [the first two commentators of the Quran] can make you understand) — Allama Iqbal.

Terms like kafir (unbeliever), mushrik (idol-worshipper), jihad (to strive) and qital (killing in war), cited by several medieval invaders, buried the fact that well before their invasions, Arab Muslims had peaceful trade contacts with India’s long coasts. Jains and Hindus reportedly even built mosques for them. Today, when these words, through the acts perpetrated in their name, have demonised Islam worldwide, peaceful and learned Muslim clerics and commentators keep trying to explain that jihad signifies ‘striving’ to become a good human being.

To try and understand what the Holy Quran actually means by these terms, I consulted Sadaquat Hussain Qasmi, a scholar in classical Arabic, graduate of the Falahi Madrasa in Azamgarh, UP, and of the universities of Dar-ul-Uloom in Deoband and Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi. (Qasmi, 35, has worked as a TV producer and film director for the last 10 years).

Qital: The Holy Quran has Makkah Verses, spanning the first 13 years of the Messenger of Allah’s prophecy and Medina Verses spanning the next ten years, after the Hegira (departure to Medina in 622 CE). Many of the so-called jihad verses cited are from the Medina section. But, says Qasmi, such verses are about qital (literally fighting only in the course of war, moreover, war between two rulers/States/establishments) and not about jihad (which is ‘struggle’, an evolutionary journey that even incudes qital when required).

However, no individual or private group is authorised by the Quran to commit acts of violence or war even against those who have harmed them directly or indirectly. Yes, Surah Tauba 9:13 says: Ala tuqatiluna qauman nakasu Aimaanahum… (Will ye not fight people Who violated their oaths…) Says part of footnote 1261 in a Mecca edition of the Quran:

‘An appeal is made to the Muslims on various grounds: 1. The shameless disregard of treaties by the enemy.

2. The underhand plots to discredit the Holy Prophet, and turn him out of Medina as he had been turned out of Makkah. 3. The aggressive taken by the Quraish and their confederates in Medina after the Treaty of Hudaibia (February 628 CE).’ 9:14 says next: But fight them, And Allah will punish them By your hands And disgrace them, Help you to victory over them and Heal the breasts of Believers. Footnote 1262 says: “Heal the breasts of Believers: wounds that they may have sustained from the assaults, taunts and cruelty of the enemy.”

Both these ayats (Quranic verses) and their footnotes refer to history as it happened to the Prophet’s followers in the Prophet’s lifetime. Long-term, they specify qital as a process of war between two declared enemies who have even signed a political treaty. Qatilu here signifies hostile Makkans and the Munafiqin, the Hypocrites of Medina, who pretended friendship with the Prophet’s followers but were secretly allied with the (then) enemy Makkans.

Whereas in the Quran they express God’s anger with those people, unfortunately, these verses are used to inspire terrorists today.

Ayat 16 of the same surah and Surah al-Ankabut (The Spider) 29:1-2 reinforce this point. n Jihad: Says Surah Al-Furqan 25:51-52: Had it been our will We could have sent a warner to every town Therefore, listen not To the Unbelievers, but strive Against them with the utmost Strenuousness (with the Quran)/ Wa jahid hum bihi jihadan kabira

This is where the first mention of jihad appears in the Quran, now cited by militants as a Divine commandment. But having sent His prophet with His message, God says, now spread My message through peaceful and exemplary conduct. It was through this attitude that the Makkan enemies of the Prophet were won over. “Islam’s decline really began when some Muslims mistook the pristine meaning of the Quran’s revelation and used its words to conquer lands instead of hearts as the Prophet had done with the Makkans,” says Qasmi.

Kafir: In Arabic, kufr, meaning ‘to conceal the truth’, is used for a farmer who ‘hides’ seeds in the ground. Also look at Surah al Baqarah 2:146. It refers to those Arabs who knew the Prophet and his message as well as they knew their own sons but concealed the fact that they knew, because it did not suit their commercial or political interests in those times to honourably acknowledge him. ‘Unbelievers’ does not mean Hindus, declares Qasmi.

Surah Insaan or Dahr (Time) 76:3 says: Inna hadaina hu-s-sabeela Imma shaakiraun wa’imma kafura (We showed him the way Whether he be grateful Or ungrateful).

The meaning of kafir is made clear here: those ungrateful for God’s gifts. By this ayat, no one is a believer or unbeliever by birth. Kafir is an adjective, denoting the nature of a person. “Even an outwardly practising Muslim who is ungrateful is technically a kafir in the Quranic sense,” says Qasmi, for this deep adjectival import of kafura is often not fully understood.

Hindus are not Mushrikeen: Surah Tauba 9:5 says: But when the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the pagans wherever ye find them and seize them, beleaguer them and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war).

The context: Makkah is won, with a peaceful entry accorded to the Prophet and his followers. But there remain some antagonistic Arabs who are still idol-worshippers in the 7th century CE Arab sense (also see Surah Zumar 39:3). But these ‘Mushrikeen-e-Arab’ had no revealed text, like Hindus have the Vedas, that sees God as the One Truth (Satyam, meaning al Haq, one of the 99 Names of Allah). Muslims in general don’t know this vital difference, nor is it understood and explained by many Muslims clerics, says Qasmi, whereas this realisation would help many.