There comes a point after reading the first few lines of Abdel Haleem’s ‘Understanding The Qur’an‘ in which you become very aware that you’re simply reading one man’s interpretation of Islamic scripture, as if it’s definitive. He takes a line of scripture, and builds a narrative around it. It isn’t ‘Understanding the Qur’an‘, it is ‘Understanding how the Qur’an as applied to the prejudices and experiences of Abdel Haleem‘. I was hoping for a contextual approach; what exactly do we know was happening in the life of Muhammad at the point of each ‘revelation‘ (as an atheist, this helps us construct a history that doesn’t rely on the supernatural) but instead found one man’s interpretation presented as if unquestionable. In her book ‘Allah, Liberty, and Love‘ Irshad Manji presents a 21st century Islam that suffers from such a way of presenting the faith; interpretative dogma of very few people, accompanied by dangerously repressive cultural norms that masquerades as definitive truth. She argues for reform that aims toward individual interpretations of faith free from coercion of others, beginning with the family unit, wrestling faith from the firm grip of the conservatives who dominate its discourse. She argues that individual integrity and liberty to think for oneself, to question, and to express, is far more in keeping with Islam’s principles, than acquiescing to cultural pressures. She presents Islam as an individual’s quest for personal truth, and makes the distinction between this form of faith, and institutional religious demands that come from other human beings.
I found ‘Allah, Liberty, and Love‘ to be an eye-opener for myself. Whilst Mustafa Akyol’s ‘Islam Without Extremes‘ was a good attempt, it left me feeling less inclined to accept that Islam and liberty are fundamentally compatible, and I was left with the impression that Akyol’s Islam is less illiberal than the impression given by groups like Hizb, but still illiberal nonetheless. With ‘Allah, Liberty, & Love‘, I came away with the opposite feeling, a sense that individual faith could be separated from organised religion (though not entirely convinced it can be separated from cultural dogmas and demands). I did however find several issues & implications with some of what Irshad presents, one of which I wanted to touch upon in this article. Admittedly, you might agree that I may be nit-picking an otherwise excellent book, but when I notice something – however small – that I question, it tends to stick until I write it down, hence, this article.
When states enshrine religious privileges and values, those in positions of power tend to dictate what is to be considered the correct interpretation of that religion, which in turn tends to give the false impression that the religion is whatever those in positions of power insist that it must be. Only when power is far more dispersed, do we notice that the religion isn’t at all what one or two of those who shout the loudest claim that it is. But whilst it is true that Islam suffers from a very limited number of out-in-the-open culturally-based interpretations (usually patriarchal, homophobic, and supremacist in nature) that does not mean that we can completely separate Islam from the problem of moral dogma anchored to the cultural and historical backdrop from which it first sprang. In chapter 3 of her book, Manji highlights Chapter 3 Verse 7 of the Qur’an and its significance for individual interpretations rather than static dogma:
“Educate them about what this passage transparently says – that some verses are precise and others are ambiguous, but it’s men and women with disbelief in their hearts who prey on the ambiguities so they can decree particular interpretations. The verse ends by cautioning us that God alone knows the meaning of His words.”
– Indeed, Chapter 3 Verse 7 of the Qur’an appears to suggest that some verses are precise, whilst the ambiguous verses are to be interpreted by God alone, and that no human being gets to play God:
“It is He who has sent down to you, [O Muhammad], the Book; in it are verses [that are] precise – they are the foundation of the Book – and others unspecific. As for those in whose hearts is deviation [from truth], they will follow that of it which is unspecific, seeking discord and seeking an interpretation [suitable to them]. And no one knows its [true] interpretation except Allah . But those firm in knowledge say, “We believe in it. All [of it] is from our Lord.” And no one will be reminded except those of understanding.”
– But this has implications, not just about how to interpret scripture, but also about the nature of God. Far from being a positive verse on liberty, I find this verse to show either the limitations on God’s presumed power, his vindictiveness, his tacit approval of the way the religion has been used, or his unwillingness to correct his own incompetent mistakes. It also seems to suggest that those in ‘deviation’ are the ones who misinterpret for their own ends. But what then is to be considered a misinterpretation, and what is to be considered the correct interpretation? Who are those who have ‘deviated’, who gets to judge who those people are? It seems to me a case of “they’re not true Muslims!” which is used by liberals to condemn fundamentalists, and fundamentalists to condemn liberals. Indeed, Qur’an 3:7 itself is discussed differently, by different commentators. For example:
“… And no one knows its true interpretation except Allah.”
– I interpret this line as no human being could possibly know the actual meaning of specific verses. They can’t even guess right. It is simply beyond human capability. All the possible explanations we have for specific verses, are in fact wrong. But this is not how quran-islam.org interprets the above:
“For the human being, there will always be an element of doubt in all matters but for God there is zero doubt and 100% certainty (yaqeen).”
– This suggests that you might guess correctly the true interpretation, but there will be an element of doubt. But that in itself is also problematic. To begin with, in the absence of a clear and definitive list of which precise verses God considers to be ambiguous, and which he considers clear, it is left to either ‘scholars‘ (someone else; usually in positions of power), or individuals to decide (preferable, though still problematic), which means ambiguous passages can be considered clear according to the conscience of the individual believer.
I thought I’d highlight this by pointing to Manji’s example of the story of Sodom. Here she suggests that its ambiguity means that only God has the true meaning. Given that there is no ‘objective‘ disclaimer from God that this story is to be considered ambiguous, we simply rely on Manji insisting that it is from her own perspective. But if faith is a search for truth, then by implication, those whose search led them to their truth that the story of Sodom is a clear call to oppress homosexuality (which, when I read the Qur’an & Hadith, I come away with the clear sense that it condemns homosexuality in several places), necessarily believe the passage to be clear rather than ambiguous. Those who insist that certain passages are clear, have their own truth. This is the problem of religious dogma anchored to the historical context (the context of chapter 3 involves Muhammad debating with Yemeni Christians). The one claiming a particular verse is an ambiguous verse will have to convince the one claiming it is a clear verse that they are wrong. But the one claiming it gives free reign to oppress LGBT folk need convince no-one, since they’ve been given their green light to oppress from what they presume is the divine creator. They have no basis in individual liberty. Indeed, If one reads the story and decides for themselves that God is condemning homosexuality, that it isn’t at all ambiguous, they would surely feel they are betraying God’s moral structure by tacitly accepting equal rights for people who God has decided aren’t equal.
Secondly, it would seem self evident to me, that a God whose attributes include complete knowledge, must have complete and perfect awareness of the future implications of his guidelines, before he’s even created the Earth. Before he’s even thought about creating humankind. He therefore knew long before the universe existed, that his story of Sodom would be used to harm the gay community for centuries, and he did not bother to correct this before passing down the passages to a largely illiterate global community who had no understanding of human sexuality. If though he did not have perfect awareness of the implications of his guidelines, then he is limited. If he is limited, he is subject to laws of nature that he didn’t create. Which suggests he isn’t God.
Perhaps it’s humanity’s fault for not understanding correctly the passages passed down, I hear you say! I find this to be an over-used cop out. Since the argument rests of the premise that God created us in the first place, we’re now asked to take full responsibility for the flaws that make us human when we struggle to comprehend his purposely confusing messages. It again means that God created us so flawed as to easily misinterpret his commands, watched as we used them to kill each other, and then sat back and blamed us for it. To blame humanity would require stripping God of his ability to foresee the consequences of all actions, words, and deeds including his own.
If he in fact can see the future and the past set out like a tapestry in front of him, he was fully aware that sending ambiguous passages to a flawed species, without mentioning which are and aren’t to be considered ambiguous, and threatening hell for disbelief, was going to lead to oppression. It’s like placing a biscuit in front of a dog that hasn’t been taught restraint, and then blaming the dog when it eats the biscuit, rather than taking responsibility for irrelevantly placing the biscuit there in the first place. Far from being off the hook, God is placed directly on the hook for having complete knowledge of how his words would be taken, and not working to put it right. This is either pure vindictiveness, in proceeding with a policy knowing exactly where it leads, or – given the infinite set of outcomes he had available prior to sending down his final message – this is exactly what he wanted, in which case, a lot of people have suffered and continue to suffer for this game he appears to be playing. Why include passages that can only possibly be understood by God himself, knowing it will cause violence and oppression on earth? For doing so, he is at the very least complicit in the oppression that follows, but I would go further and insist that he is entirely responsible for it. Some say it’s a “test” for the believer, which is no consolation to those who suffer at the hands of those undergoing the “test“. I suspect the answer to this clear contradiction lies not with an all powerful God (whom I’m convinced doesn’t exist), but with Muhammad’s desire to win an argument with the Christian delegation of Najran, over their belief in the divinity of Jesus. But that’s another story.
Chapter 3 verse 7 does not solve the problem of oppressive interpretations. That requires God to definitively set out the passages that are to be taken as clear and unambiguous. Chapter 3 verse 7 also highlights the problem of foresight in that God’s ability to view the consequences of his words in full perfection, and his nature must be taken into consideration when reading his words. Had he disapproved of the misery that would be inflicted for centuries by the interpretations of stories like Sodom, we might expect verses – of the unlimited verses he had the ability to give – to be less ambiguous, and more specifically based in liberty, to ensure that innocent people were not harmed. At the very least, we might expect the grand overlord to take note of human flaws, and limitations when carefully crafting his final message to all mankind.
Whilst it is true that cultural demands and repression might be to some degree the responsibility of the conservative wing of Islam at the moment, making inside critique difficult through fear of the consequences of offending group honour, and whilst it is true that geo-politics also plays its role in perpetuating extreme narratives, we must not be so quick to dismiss the doctrines themselves – anchored as they are to a very specific cultural context – as not problematic in themselves. Irshad Manji opens up the debate surrounding reform in Islam (at a time when so many Muslims and non-Muslims insist that it is unnecessary, colonial, racist, bigoted to suggest reform is needed). But I think a wider discussion on the problem of religious doctrine – the rooting of morality to a single time and place – needs to be had also. Like I said, I may be nit-picking, but I find it incredibly important to be clear in our criticisms of illiberal passages that we find in Holy texts, and their implications, rather than simply dismissing those passages as ‘misinterpreted’.