Why the PIL for Removal of Verses From Quran is So Fundamentally Wrong

The petitioner displays both an ignorance of the critical scholarship that has engaged with the text for centuries, and of social structures in which dogma develops.

In the film Jojo Rabbit, what does the rabbit symbolise?

The film is about 10-year-old Johannes “Jojo” Betzler, who is a member of ‘Hitler Youth’. Once when Jojo is at Nazi camp, he is encouraged to kill a rabbit by some older boys to prove that he is ‘brave’ like a good Nazi ought to be. Thus, in that moment, the rabbit starts to signify all the many demands that would be made on Jojo’s intellect by his fascist friends. It also comes to signify his own cowardice.

A public interest petition has been filed in the Supreme Court asking that 26 verses of the Quran, which the petitioner finds predisposed towards inciting violence amongst believers, must be so assessed and “removed”. A similar writ that had been filed before the Calcutta high court in 1985 demanding a ban on the holy book for allegedly promoting ‘disharmony between communities’ was dismissed in the same year.

The writ of 1985 sought a ban on written copies of the Quran, even though there has always been a preponderance of the oral tradition, of memorising and reciting the Quran, and passing it on from one generation to another. The present writ, in any case, encourages a ‘re-moulding’, to be carried out by the Supreme Court, such that we might have a ‘new Quran’ at the end of the exercise.

The petition that the canonical text be assessed for propriety and accordingly changed by an independent arbiter is made more to debase believers, than in any spirit of engagement with the canon. Evidently, the petitioner has very little sense of the critical scholarship on the Quran, or of different socio-political contexts in which dogma has developed, or even of the constantly shifting meanings that the Quran takes in the lives of Muslims across the world: from scholarly canon to amulet.

Farid Esack, anti-apartheid activist, theologian and professor of religion says in his book Quran: A User’s Guide, “…from scholar to Sufi, from the homemaker desiring to stretch a meal to feed an extra mouth, to the terrified child confronting an approaching dog, from the liberal modernist scholar, or a radical revolutionary, from the laid back traditionalist cleric to the Kalashnikov toting Afghan tribalist, the Quran provides [different] meanings.”

Also read: The Lessons of Ali Shariati Are As Relevant For Shias Today as They Were In His Lifetime

For Muslims, the Quran is the divine word of Allah that was revealed to his prophet. Sometimes, the revelations were orally recited. “The angel Jibril (Gabriel) is believed to have uttered the direct words of God into Muhammad’s ear and/ heart.” At other times, they took the form of textual visions.

Each revelatory episode was reportedly, physically and emotionally, agonising for the prophet. “Never once did I receive a revelation without thinking that my soul had been torn away from me.” The nature and modes of revelation, its authenticity, as that of its recipient have all been critically examined during the long history of Islam. Muslims maintain that Muhammad always made a clear distinction between his own speech and that which he claimed to receive from God.

However, Esack speaks of two other views, which he describes as differing from the mainstream Muslim one: “that the Quran is the product of some part of Muhammad’s personality other than the conscious mind, and that it is the work of the divine personality but produced through the personality of Muhammad in such a way that certain features of the Quran are to be ascribed primarily to the humanity of Muhammad.”

The revelations continued over a long period of time (between 610 and 632 AD), sometimes in response to immediate crises, and at other times a more general ethical discourse on the social, political life of the community. Esack also describes the ‘complaint of Umm Salamah’, one of the wives of the prophet, to suggest that ‘the Quran is also a [two-way] conversation with the believers’. Umm Salamah’s account states that she told the prophet: “I see that God mentions men but omits women.” According to her, in response to ‘the complaint’, several verses were revealed that directly addressed women.

Esack even now treats his engagement with the Quran as an intense conversation, where he treats the text not as abstract ethics, but something that must speak to his lived realities (but of that later).

Farid Esack writes that the word “Quran” is derived from the Arabic word Qara’a (to read), but also from Qarana (to gather or collect). The word “Quran” is mentioned in several verses of the Qur’an in the sense of a ‘fundamentally oral and certainly an ongoing reality’. The second form of “Quran” on the other hand, refers to the ‘written and closed codex, as was later represented by the written codex’.

During the reign of the third Caliph, Usman (644-656), as time moved on after the Prophet’s demise and also as the Muslim empire began to spread, there were concerns about authentic renderings of the divine word. The third Caliph undertook the collection of existing suhuf (parchments of writings that recorded parts of the Quran), its editing and arrangement into a complete codex. Apart from some early extremist Shi’a groups, there is consensus on the authenticity of the Usmanic codex.

Even within Muslims theologians who absolutely believed that the text was the work of divine personality, there still existed some differences about the nature of the text itself. The Mu’tazilites, for instance, believed that ‘God’s immutability was such that to suggest that even divine revelations shared in His attributes would detract from God’s utter beyondness.’

The ensuing theological debate mirrored the tension between the idea of a text, which has always existed outside history, with that which sees a tangible relationship between the text and the “personality unto whom it was revealed”. Esack says that there had existed a rarified debate on whether the Quran was makhluq (created), or ‘laysa bi makhluq’ (not really created).

However, in the first half of the ninth century, the somewhat non-assertive “not really created” was replaced by a more definitive “ghair makhluq” (uncreated). It was a theoretical debate ‘until the state under Abbasid Caliphs began to take an interest in the question. During the reign of al-Mamun (833 AD), the Mihnah (inquisition) was established wherein prominent personalities were forced to profess the “createdness” of the Quran.

The repression unleashed during the Mihnah polarised the debate to a hitherto unknown degree and the new ‘orthodox’ Islam asserted its ideas with rigidity that was alien to the Muslims preceding the Mihnah. Esack argues that there is a definite connection in the way that dogma develops and the socio-political environment wherein it develops.

Although I have only cited an example from 833 AD above, theological debates on rather controversial issues have continued through the history of Islam. In modern times, the work of Ali Shariati who famously said: “It is not enough to say we must return to Islam. We must specify which Islam: that of Abu Zarr or that of Marwan the Ruler. Both are called Islamic, but there is a huge difference between them. One is the Islam of the caliphate, of the palace and of the rulers. The other is the Islam of the people, of the exploited and of the poor. Moreover, it is not good enough to say that one should be “concerned” about the poor. The corrupt caliphs said the same. True Islam is more than “concerned.” It instructs the believer to fight for justice, equality and elimination of poverty.”

A shot of the holy Quran in a mosque in Cairo. Photo: Al Hussainy MohamedFlickr, CC BY 2.0

The present sense of siege, and subsequent hurt and humiliation (and resentment) felt by Muslims with regard to any discussion about Islam is thus not on account of any intrinsic incapability to critically debate dogma, but rather more due to the exercise of power on their intellectual, emotional and physical selves.

In contrast to ‘Muslim religious space’, the Supreme Court has naturally no experience of theological debates. Talal Asad has said that it is the ‘secular paradox’ that each time a secular institution is called upon to delineate the domain of the secular from that of the religious, it has to perform a quasi-religious role in determining what is truly religious. Here too, the Supreme Court is being called upon to perform an essentially theological function in interpreting verses of the Quran.

Also read: ‘Nikah Halala’ Review: A Scathing Indictment of a Practice That Has No Quranic Sanction

Text and context

In rabbit world, there is an odd idea that sees individual minds as being highly suggestible, and without any ability to critically think through discourses that they encounter. The authoritarian state therefore tends to panic at any kind of public dissent and treats it like a very infectious disease. The petitioner’s concerns about the effect of certain verses on Muslim minds paints them in the same vein – as blank receptacles, without much aptitude for context and comprehension.

Such an attitude is also instructive since the petitioner (although now disowned) has in the past represented ‘Muslim institutional space’ in India. Ironically, while claiming to ‘protect’ Muslim religious cultural traditions, such spaces have not produced any critical engagement with religion or with culture.

Esack’s other works Quran, Liberation and Pluralism and On Being a Muslim discuss the successful attempt by South African Muslim youth, during apartheid, to escape fossilised engagements with the Quran. “More than 14 centuries after the revelation of the Quran, in a far southern corner of Africa, believers in the Quran have opened their lives and struggles to the meaning of its message. They have asked the text to enter their context of oppression and struggle for freedom.”

In order to relate Quranic meaning to the South African struggle, the progressive Islamists introduced the idea of the “historical moment”. This approach enabled many a progressive Islamist in South Africa to resist the apartheid regime in complete solidarity with black and Christian anti-apartheid activists, emotionally inhabit churches, etc. “despite the Quranic warning to those of faith against ‘taking the Christians and Jews as their awliya (friends/allies/supporters).”

The progressive Islamists also emphasised the Quranic invocation to always support the mustad’afun (the oppressed), whether they are Muslim or not. “The engaged interpreter approached the text with a conscious decision to search for meaning, which responds creatively to the suffering of the mustad’afun and holds out the most promise for liberation and justice […] If a single concept could be said to have been the axis around which Muslim resistance to apartheid rotated, it was that of justice for the oppressed and marginalised. Verses from the Quran denouncing injustice and demanding justice were tirelessly invoked. Over time, the idea of justice progressed beyond racial equality, to distribute justice and also to socio-religious liberation of women.”

In conclusion, there are all these possibilities in a participatory and liberatory approach to religion. However, it involves more access and critical engagement with text, rather than calls for hiding it away from believers, or from choosing to ignore the socio-economic and political structures within which they exist.

Shahrukh Alam is a lawyer practising in New Delhi.