Many people think reciting the Arabic letters of the Quran (without knowing their meaning) is akin to ‘reading the Quran’. Some even think they are reading the Quran simply by reciting its translation. Though the aforementioned may be necessary as a preparation, READing the Quran is much beyond this.
Reading the Quran is like reading the system. It's about grasping the spirit of its message.
But how can one understand the spirit of the Quran?
For which purpose has the Quran been revealed?
What does the Quran aim to make people gain?
What kind of a life has the Quran been disclosed to prepare humanity for?
Which of the qualities of mankind does the Quran reveal?
Has the Quran been revealed to force and confine humans into a restricted lifestyle and shield them from progress, or has it come to show them the path to continual growth and development, to awaken them to their rights which have been ripped away from them, and to inform, both men and women, of the way to realizing their inherent divinity?
Does the Quran aim to enable people to live in mutual respect and harmony, in continual growth and development, or to regress them back to the old?
If we can answer these questions we may begin to understand the spirit of the Quran and the gate to READing the Quran will be unlocked.
On the contrary, when people fail to do this they ask:
“Muhammad came as a Rasul 1400 years ago to a tribal community of approximately 5000 people, most of whom were very extremely primitive in thought. They buried their daughters alive, out of fear they would shame and dishonor them, and bought and sold their women, regarding them more as a commodity than humans! Surely then, it was the issues that arose in that community and that time and their respective solutions that which have shaped the Quran. Had Muhammad inhabited another area, say the North Pole rather than the Arabian Peninsula, the book he disclosed would have been in relation to the eskimos and their environmental conditions, traditions, issues, culture, etc.
So how can modern man be governed by the laws contained in this ancient book, which has obviously been disclosed according to the intellectual level of that time and age? Let alone addressing future generations, these outdated laws would have rendered the book obsolete along time ago. How can the innumerous nations of the modern world be addressed by a book that was written according to the understanding of 1400 years ago? Is the Quran trying to lead the people to paradise by taking them back 1400 years?”
Thus is the ‘intellectual objection’ of the atheists of late.
My answer is:
As long as humanity exists the knowledge contained in the Quran will continue to shed light to humanity and enable them bliss in their eternal life if and only if the spirit of the Quran is understood!
To clarify this with an example:
The core reason that underlies the drafting of a new law is in fact the ‘spirit’ of that law. Appropriate wording will be drafted to correctly reflect that ‘spirit’ and thus the law will be passed. When a judge sets out to enforce that law, s/he evaluates cases based on the motive driving the case and its connection to that particular law.
When a judge evaluates a case based on the letter of the law rather than its ‘spirit’, s/he will often be misled – as understanding the motive of the law is essential to its application.
Laws should be applied based on their spirit, their motive, rather than their literal sense, lest deviations occur. The conscience of the judge exists for the purpose of acting based on the spirit of the law.
The same principle applies for the Quran. One must consider the motive behind the revelation of a particular verse, who it addresses, and to which event it is a reference.
It is due to our misunderstanding that we have lost the message of the Quran, and turned it into the ‘sacred book of centuries’. Yet in terms of its spirit and purpose the Quran comprises qualities that can shed light on humanity for as long as it exists; it is a timeless book!
For the most part, the Quran reveals significant beneficial information about the states of life referred to as Paradise and Hell and their conditions and necessities. Secondly, it explains the reality of man and the One referenced as ‘Allah’!
In my previous writings I had talked about the two sources of the knowledge contained in the Quran, namely Nubuwwah and Risalah and that the knowledge sourced from Risalah preserves its validity throughout all times and continues to provide new insight to humanity. The chapters al-Ikhlas and al-Fatiha are examples of Risalah based knowledge.
Topics sourced from Nubuwwah on the other hand pertain more to environmental and behavioral issues and are associated to worldly affairs such as marriage, inheritance, testimony and retribution - laws that are only valid during one's life on earth and invalid once the person passes on.
So let us now try to understand the ‘spirit’ of the Quran...
Has the Quran been disclosed to us to make us return to an outdated primitive state of life, or to encourage and prepare us for what is to come by showing us the ways of spiritual development and perfection?
Hadhrat Ali (ra), whom I believe is one of those who best understand the Quran, says the following:
“Raise your children not according to your current time but according to the time in which they are to live!”
This is the vision of the person who spent his childhood and youth with Muhammad (saw) and who acquired the ‘spirit’ of the Quran directly from him...
As for the laws originating from the source of Nubuwwah, it is evident that the primary motive, more than anything, is to establish women's rights among a people who hardly regarded them to be human but used them more as sexual merchandise! The Nubuwwah-based laws prohibited all forms of assault and exploitation of women, and instead enabled them the right to be ‘partners’ to men, gave them rights of testimony where previously they had no say in any legal matters, and empowered them with the right of inheritance.
The Quran, is prevention of backwardness, termination of injustice, and encouragement of continual development! For those that attempt to discern its spirit that is...
The Quran does not present these laws as a definitive measure, but rather as the formula for further development according to changing times and conditions. For example, by limiting men's right to be wed to ‘limitless partners’ to only 4 partners in marriage, the Quran has established the initial stage of the process towards single partnered marriages. By relaying the benefits of having a ‘single partner’ the Quran has shown this as the target for the evolved man.
Another example is almsgiving (zakah). While a particular amount is advised as the minimum amount of payable zakah, the verses about charity encourage the giving of one's possessions without limit.
In short, the rights given to women in the Quran are not fixed and absolute; but act rather as the foundation of a ‘legal system of rights’ that is open to be developed according to changing times and conditions.
If a woman, who previously had no legal say, was given the right to testify as ‘one of two women’ (i.e. the testimony of two women being held equivalent to the testimony of one man), this, according to my understanding, was not advised as a definitive measure but one that can be updated as women and the community in general developed themselves.
Giving some right to testimony as opposed to no right was still an enormous reform in such a primitive community. By laying this foundation the Quran was implicitly saying, “When you begin to understand and appreciate the value of women and recognize that they are also servants of Allah like yourselves and that they are also humans and vicegerents on earth, do not prevent them from having the same rights as men.”
If any community or nation gives equal rights to men and women this does not in any way go against the spirit of the Quran according to my understanding, if anything, this is what is preferred.
That women were given half of the rights of men to inherit in those days, when previously they had no right to inherit, does not in any way mean they should not be given any more right in later times. On the contrary, a community, which gives equal rights to men and women, reflects the level of their development in line with the Quran.
As such, by not limiting the rights he brought to humans and leaving it open for further development, Muhammad (saw) has evidently established the fact that there is no need for another book after the Quran and thus another Nabi. Thereby ascertaining he is the last of Nabis.
To conclude, in terms of its Risalah-based verses the Quran has brought valuable information about life after death and the path to knowing Allah. In terms of its Nubuwwah based verses the Quran developed and updated human rights to the maximum extent according to that time and age, yet defined this as the threshold, without limiting the potential for development.
This primary principle, according to my understanding, is the spirit of the Quran, as it confirms the infinite validity of the ‘Book’ and the indubitable fact that there is no need for another book.
To confine the message of the Quran to the reforms it made addressing the communities of the time of its disclosure thus limiting its benefits by claiming that it in fact belongs to that time, is a grave misconception. This is the direct result of not understanding the spirit of the Quran and thus not being able to read it.
While the Quran says to give one fortieth of one's possessions as alms it does not forbid giving one twentieth! This figure is only a threshold – a minimum.
Enabling women the right to inherit half a share when previously they had none, does not in anyway mean they cannot be given more. Again, this is merely the minimum. Giving equal share to both men and women does not go against the spirit of the Quran, in fact, it is what the spirit of the Quran advises!
In short, the rights that are defined in the Quran constitute a starting point; with no verse or hadith claiming they cannot be increased.
When we fail to perceive the spirit of the Quran we fail to correctly READ it, and thus get we stuck on the literal meanings of its verses and fail to recognize its actual message.
And then, with this congested perception, we claim the Quran is outdated and not in line with the current times!
To construe the verses that claim freeing a slave is the biggest worship –keeping in mind enslavement was an established cultural practice in those communities- as ‘Islam gives consent to enslavement’ can be nothing but perversion of the truth driven by ulterior motives.
To claim Islam is a compulsive and suppressive religion when Islam does not accept any form of compulsion and even warns the Rasul, “You are not an enforcer upon them”, is a great injustice and a clear representation of the failure to grasp the spirit of the Quran.
Democracy in its widest sense is contained only in the principles of Islam, for the Quran does not impose any form of enforcement upon anyone.
The Quran only makes suggestions to enable bliss and tranquility to people's lives, it tells them those who apply these suggestions will benefit while those who do not will incur a loss that cannot be compensated...
Apart of these suggestions, neither individuals nor any government has any right to enforce its application upon anyone according to the spirit of the religion of Islam. Each person is liable to evaluate these suggestions with their own logic and intellect, to act without being under the force or suppression of anyone, and face the consequences alone.
The incorrect judgments of the ignorant and heedless due to incorrectly reading the spirit of the Quran are not binding upon anyone. On the other hand, staying away from Islam and the Quran because of these misconceptions is not an excuse.
The responsibility to read the Quran and learn the religion of Islam lies with the individual. The path to learning Islam is through the Quran, not through the actions and words of ‘Muslims’. Therefore the consequences of incorrectly interpreting Islam is binding upon the individual.
So if the Quran has come to make men and women recognize their vicegerency potential and teach them how to fulfill its necessity, and to inform them about the conditions of the eternal life and how best to prepare for it, then most assuredly, to read and correctly evaluate the Quran is one of the most beneficial things one can do. He who does so will reap its benefits, he who doesn't, will live its consequences.
Neither the One referenced with the name Allah, nor the Rasul of Allah, Muhammad (saw), need our faith or deeds. Everything we do is for our own lives, both current and future.
Blessed are those who ‘READ’ the Quran and live their lives accordingly...
27 September 1998