November 23, 2005

The Qur'an...A Way of Life

MENJ has a good post with 60 rules of behavior derived from the Qur'an. Please see: The Qur'an...A Way of Life.

November 16, 2005

Inside the Muslim Mind and the Qur'an

Below is most of a short interview with Michael Sells, Professor of Islamic History at the University of Chicago, and author of the book, "Approaching the Qur'an" (think "Controversy in 2002 at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill"). The interview appeared in the Minneapolis-St. Paul StarTribune.

Q Some Americans would see the title of your lecture, "The Politics of the Qur'an," as synonymous with the politics of terrorism. How do you respond?

A: One of the big problems in the American society is that people do not have a sense of what the Qur'an is. So when someone commits an act of violence and cites a verse from the Qur'an, which seems to justify violence, then it's easy for people to make the assumption that the Qur'an is a document of violence. So one thing that needs to happen is for people to have a general sense of the sacred texts of religious traditions and to see that there is violence and peace in all of the sacred texts and that people have justified violence by quoting all of the sacred texts.

Q Is there a fundamental gap in understanding between Islam and the West?

A: There are translation gaps. Muslims approach the Qur'an primarily through hearing it in Arabic. It's a very different experience than reading the Bible, and it makes it very difficult for people, when they pick up a Qur'an and read it, to understand the spirituality that Muslims feel and sense when they hear the Qur'an.

Q Does that translate into anything practical in terms of our understanding of the Muslim world?

A: What's often lost are the deeper feelings of tenderness, of solidarity with other human beings, of subtlety, of the ability to have many interpretations. All of these things when they are lost lead then to a very stereotypical sense ... a narrow, more rigid sense of what the tradition is.

Q There was lively controversy after the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill assigned students in 2002 to read your book, "Approaching the Qur'an." Critics said you sanitized Islam by leaving out passages commanding violent behavior in jihad. How do you respond?

A: It's a category mistake. If someone were presenting to Muslims aspects of the Bible that most Christians and Jews find deeply personal in their private religious lives, ... you would probably present something like the Book of Genesis. ... You probably would not present the Book of Joshua, in which God requires his people to exterminate all of the people of the Palestine area. ... I took the part of the Qur'an that Muslims learn first, that they memorize most often, and I translated that.

November 09, 2005

The Beauty of the Qur'an

Question: How do you explain the beauty of the Qur'an?

Answer: Saidina Ali k.w. pointed out that:

"Al-Qur'an presents to you in the way that you approach it."

If one approaches the Qur'an with evil and ugly intentions, closed paradigms and limited understanding, he will understand the Qur'an with his limited, ugly understandings. If one approaches the Qur'an with love and mercy, the Qur'an will build upon them castles of mercy and compassion.
--Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl, Interview with the Editors of "Inabah" magazine, p. 5

Comment: After reading this answer, the image I got was of the Qur'an as a mirror. The Qur'an is certainly more than just a book; likewise, our relationship with the Qur'an is not one-way, but two-way. The Qur'an not only provides us guidance generally, in the form of various rules and legislation, but also seems to provide individual guidance, in part through its ability to "read the reader." ("There comes a moment in the reading of the Qur'an, as for example in personal study focused on understanding the meaning, whether reciting out loud or reading it silently, when readers start feeling an uncanny, sometimes frightening presence. Instead of reading the Qur'an, the reader begins feeling the Qur'an is 'reading' the reader! This is a wonderfully disturbing experience, by no means requiring a person to be a Muslim before it can be felt." -- Fredrick Denny, Islam, p. 88)

But everyone is not able to partake of the Qur'an's wisdom. I have come across many people online who have demonstrated their inability to grasp all or a part of the Qur'an due to their mindset. And this metaphor, of the Qur'an as a mirror to one's soul, strikes me as particularly apt. The mind that is clouded and opaque has no ability to see the Qur'an's beauty. That soul, as Dr. Khaled pointed out, will have nothing more than "limited, ugly understandings." However, if one's mind is the least bit transparent, then the Qur'an will reflect back its beauty upon that person's soul. Insha'allah, the soul will continue to grow and become more beautiful the more it reads the Qur'an.

November 04, 2005

The Jizya or Poll Tax

Here is another excerpt from Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl's writings, this being on the topic of the jizya or poll tax. In 9:29, the Qur'an says:

"Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the religion of Truth, (even if they are) of the People of the Book, until they pay the Jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued."

This is one verse hostile non-Muslims like to point out, whining that we Muslims would inflict upon them the jizya if we were able. (Hey, everyone's gotta pay their taxes, ya know? ;) )

On page 27, Dr. Khaled addressed this topic in his article, The Place of Tolerance in Islam." (To read the entire article, click on the Inabah button at the top of Masjid Khadijah's website, then click on the Issue 21 icon. The article, in PDF format, is on pp. 21-27 (pp. 19-25 on Adobe Reader). This excerpt is another good reason why everyone (Muslims and non-Muslims) need to understand the historical context underlying the revelation of the Qur'an.

The other major issue on the point of tolerance in Islam is that of the poll tax (jizyah) imposed on the People of the Book (Christians and Jews) who live in Muslim territory. When the Qur'an was revealed it was common inside and outside of Arabia to levy poll taxes against alien groups. Building upon the historical practice, classical Muslim jurists argued that the poll tax is money collected by the Islamic polity from non-Muslims in return for the protection of the Muslim state. If the Muslim state was incapable of extending such protection to non-Muslims, it was not supposed to levy a poll tax. In fact, 'Umar, the second Rightly Guided Caliph and close companion of the Prophet, returned the poll tax to an Arab Christian tribe that he was incapable of protecting from Byzantine aggression.

Aside from the juristic theory justifying the poll tax, the Qur'an does not, however, pronounce an absolute and unwavering rule in favor of such an institution. Once more, attention to historical circumstance is essential. The Qur'an endorsed a poll tax as a response to particular groups in Arabia who were persistently hostile to the early Muslims. Importantly, the Prophet did not collect a poll tax from every non-Muslim tribe that submitted to Muslim sovereignty, and in fact, in the case of a large number of non-Muslim but non-hostile tribes, he paid them a periodic sum of money or goods. These tribes were known as "those whose hearts have been reconciled." Furthermore, 'Umar entered into a peace settlement with Arab Christian tribes pursuant to which these tribes were obligated to pay the Islamic annual tax known as the zakah and not the poll tax. Reportedly, although they refused to convert to Islam the Christian tribes contended that paying the jizyah (poll tax) was degrading and, instead, asked to pay the zakah, and 'Umar accomodated their request.

In short, there are various indicators that the poll tax is not a theologically mandated practice but a functional solution that was adopted in response to a specific set of historical circumstances. Only an entirely ahistorical reading of the text could conclude that it is an essential element in a Divinely-sanctioned program of subordinating the non-believer.