You know, it’s funny. I have been told, several times, that I am “not qualified” to make the statements I make about various verses and passages of the Qur’an. I am “not qualified” to do so. Why? What are the qualifications to read the Qur’an? What credentials do I need to possess to make me a “bona fide” certified reader of the Qur’an?
Now, I am not talking about making Qur’anic exegesis, or “tafsir.” This is an academic discipline in and of itself. It requires ample knowledge of the Arabic language, not just modern Arabic, but classical Arabic, the language used at the time of the revelation of the Qur’an. It also requires understanding the reasons of revelation, or “asbab ul nuzul.” One must also know proper Arabic grammar. Moreover, one has to know the various relevant Prophetic traditions that may surround a particular verse in the Qur’an.
No. I am talking about the reflection of a believer on what a verse of the Qur’an means to him or her. What sort of qualifications does one need to do this? Why do so many Muslims immediately jump to what shaikh so-and-so has said about a verse of the Qur’an before thinking about the verse beforehand?
I mean, did not the Qur’an clearly ask the question: “Will they not, then, ponder over this Qur’an? Or are there locks upon heir hearts?” (47:24)?
In so many places in the Qur’an, God appeals to the intellect of the human being. He wants the believer to think for himself. Take these verses:
“Verily, in the creation of the heavens and the earth, and in the succession of night and day, there are indeed messages for all who are endowed with insight [and] who remember God when they stand, and when they sit, and when they lie down to sleep, and [thus] reflect on the creation of the heavens and the earth: ‘O our Sustainer! Thou hast not created [aught of] this without meaning and purpose. Limitless art Thou in Thy glory! Keep us safe, then, from suffering through fire!” (3:190-191)
“…Tell [them], then, this story, so that they might take thought.” (7:176)
“…Thus clearly do We spell out these messages unto people who think!” (10:24)
“…in this, behold, there is a message indeed for people who think!” (16:11)
“…so that thou might make clear unto mankind all that has ever been thus bestowed upon them, and that they might take thought.” (16:44)
“…In all this, behold, there is a message indeed for people who think!” (16:69)
“…In [all] this, behold, there are messages indeed for people who think!” (39:42)
“…And He has made subservient to you, [as a gift] from Himself, all that is in the heavens and on earth: in this, behold, there are messages indeed for people who think!” (45:13)
“…And [all] such parables We propound unto men, so that they might [learn to] think.” (59:21)
These are only a portion of the verses that speak about those who think, those who reflect, those who are endowed with insight, those who ponder, and so on. All these verses point to a theme: that God wants the human being to think and ponder. Why can’t we take this theme to the verses of the Qur’an itself?
Why can’t we – before consulting a scholar – think about what a particular verse means to ourselves? If we don’t understand something after we have reflected upon it ourselves, then we consult those who are more knowledgeable. It seems that many Muslims today have abandoned the first part of this interaction with the Qur’an.
For example, I remember listening to a lecture and hearing the story of Mu’awiyah (r) asking Abdullah ibn ‘Abbas (r), the Prophet’s (pbuh) cousin, about this verse of the Qur’an:
“And [remember] him of the great fish [Jonah], when he went off in wrath, thinking that We had no power over him! But then heeded out in the deep darkness [of his distress]: “There is no deity save Thee! Limit less art Thou in Thy glory! Verily, I have done wrong!” (21:87)
Mu’awiyah (r) told Ibn ‘Abbas (r) that he kept thinking about this verse for a long time before coming to him and asking how Jonah, a Prophet of God, could think that God has no power over him. Ibn ‘Abbas (r) told him that the word “yaqdiru” here means “punishment.” Yet, the point of this story is that Mu’awiyah (r) reflected on the verse by himself first, then he asked the scholar.
Why can’t we do the same thing?
As another example, at the time of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), ‘Amr ibn Al ‘As (r) – who was a new Muslim at the time – made ablution with sand instead of water. Typically, a Muslim can make the ritual ablution before prayer with sand or earth if there is no water available. Yet, in this instance, there was water available. People took ‘Amr (r) to task for this, including one of the Prophet’s (pbuh) closest companions ‘Umar ibn Al Khattab (r). When the Prophet (pbuh) later asked him why he did that, ‘Amr (r) answered:
“Messenger of God, God said, ‘let not your own hands throw you into destruction.’ If I had made ablution with water on that cold night, I would have died. Thus, I made ‘tayammum,’ or ablution with sand.” The Prophet (pbuh) accepted his understanding of this verse.
Now, I looked up the whole verse, and I realized that it is talking about spending in God’s cause: “And spend [freely] in God’s cause, and let not your own hands throw you into destruction, and persevere in doing good: behold, God loves the doers of good.” (2:195)
Reading the verse on its surface, I would not think it would have anything to do with making ablution with water on a cold night. Nevertheless, ‘Amr ibn Al ‘As (r) – again, a new Muslim at the time – read the verse and applied his own understanding, and the Prophet (pbuh) did not correct or rebuke him. ‘Amr (r) reflected on the verse on his own.
Why can’t we do the same thing? I believe we can.
Now, there are several caveats to my contention. First of all, I am not saying that we should never consult the scholars on the verses of the Qur’an. No. The scholars of Islam – past and present – have dedicated their lives to the study of our faith, and they deserve our admiration and respect. There are many times I have asked scholars about various verses of the Qur’an myself.
In fact, a wholesale abandonment of the scholars may lead to manifestly incorrect religious understanding. For example, one could “reflect” upon this verse of the Qur’an – “O you who have attained to faith! Do not attempt to pray while you are in a state of drunkenness, [but wait] until you know what you are saying…” (4:43) – and conclude that it is allowed to consume alcohol.
Yet, it is well known that this verse was revealed early in the history of Islam. Later on, when the Islamic community was firmly established, alcohol was formally banned for all time: “O you who have attained to faith! Intoxicants, games of chance, idolatrous practices, and the divining of the future are but a loathsome evil of Satan’s doing: shun it, then, so that you might attain to a happy state.” (5:90). We would not properly understand this without input from the scholars.
Indeed, I myself rely heavily on Muhammad Asad’s explanation of the Qur’an, who quotes from various classical commentators of the Qur’an. Yet, still, what is wrong with reflecting over the meaning of the Qur’an before consulting the scholars? I mean, we have been endowed with an intellect by God, and He has clearly said in His sacred text that we should use what He has given us. Despite this, so many Muslims rush to read what various scholars have said about verses of the Qur’an without first reflecting on what the verse means to themselves.
Furthermore, they hold the opinions of various scholars on Qur’anic verses as sacrosanct, beyond all questioning and reproach. Why? Why can’t we question the opinion of a scholar? Are these scholars God Himself?
I mean, the whole killing of apostates issue is a perfect example. Like I said before, the Qur’an could not be any clearer freedom of religion and conscience, but still so many Muslims claim that the verse, “Let there be no compulsion in matters of faith.” (2:256), is a “one-way door” into the House of Islam. You are free to not come inside the House. But once you come inside, you are stuck there under pain of death. And to prove this, they quote the opinions of various – respected, no doubt – scholars.
Yet, when you simply reflect over the meaning of “Let there be no compulsion in matters of faith,” the opinions of those scholars – may God bless them – just make no sense. Why am I “not qualified” to make such a reflection?
Yet, almost without fail, whenever I raise the question of why we Muslims are not allowed to reflect upon the verses of the Qur’an for ourselves, I am rebutted with the analogy of the medical profession: “Can you simply read a medical text book,” I am asked, “and then start to practice medicine on your own?”
“No, of course not,” I answer.
“Well, the same is true with the Qur’an.”
This analogy is fallacious. Medicine – just like Engineering, or Computer Science, or Architecture – is a profession. It has a compendium of knowledge that must be mastered, and after this compendium has been mastered, the newly-graduated doctor of medicine must undergo a 3-7 year apprenticeship, during which he or she practices the trade under the supervision of more experienced physicians. Once this is completed, then, and only then, can one practice medicine on their own.
Is Islam a profession such as this? If someone wants to become a Muslim, is her or she required to go to college for four years, then four years of “Islamic school,” then complete a 3-7 year “Islamic residency” in order to be a “board-certified Muslim”? No. We Muslims, in fact, brag about how easy it is to become a Muslim: simply declare “There is nothing worthy of worship except God, and Muhammad is His Messenger.”
Yet, after one becomes a Muslim, he or she cannot read the Qur’an and reflect about what the verses mean to him or her. No. This is akin to picking up a pair of scissors and performing coronary bypass surgery after reading a surgical textbook. Does this make any inkling of sense?
The Qur’an, speaking about itself, says: This divine writ – let there be no doubt about it – is [meant to be] a guidance for all the God-conscious (2:2). Who are these “God-conscious”? The Qur’an continues:
Who believe in [the existence] of that which is beyond the reach of human perception, and are constant in prayer, and spend on others out of what We provide for them as sustenance; And who believe in that which has been bestowed from on high upon thee, [O Prophet], as well as in that which was bestowed before they time: for it is they who in their innermost are certain of the life to come! It is they who follow the guidance which comes from their Sustainer; and it is they who shall attain to a happy state! (2:3-5)
These verses seem to tell me that the guidance of the Qur’an is open to any and everyone. All I have to do is open the book and read it. Yet, if I do so, I am told, it is akin to reading a medical textbook and opening a medical practice. Does this make any inkling of sense?
Now, Qur’anic tafsir, or exegesis, is a profession such as medicine. If I, after reading various translations of the Holy Scripture, turned around and published a book of Qur’anic exegesis, then the medicine analogy would make complete sense. Yet, this is not what I do. None of the reflections I have made about various verses of the Qur’an was ever intended to be the ” tafsir according to Dr. Hesham A. Hassaballa.” As I said above, whenever I speak about various verses of the Qur’an in my writings, I always first consult the explanation of the Qur’an made by Muhammad Asad. I do this because, as correctly pointed out by so many, I am not a scholar of the Qur’an.
But the Qur’an is not the property of the scholars alone. The Qur’an is a book of guidance for all. How could reflecting on a verse of the Qur’an on my own be akin to reading a medical textbook and then practicing medicine? Islam – unlike medicine – is not a profession.
What’s more, we Muslims brag that our connection with God is direct, that we Muslims have no priesthood, that there is no intermediary between us and our Creator. Shouldn’t this also apply to the Word of our Creator? If we cannot reflect on the Word of God on our own – because we are not scholars – then how is this different from having a priesthood? I remember being told that – before Vatican II – Catholics could not study the Bible without a priest present. Is the same thing occurring with Islam and the Qur’an?
Yet, I must reiterate that I do not advocate a wholesale abandonment of the scholars. They deserve our respect and admiration. What must be remembered, however, is that these scholars are human beings with a ethnic, cultural, social, and political context. This context must be taken into account when analyzing a scholar’s opinion about a certain verse of the Qur’an. And the opinion of a scholar must never be confused for the Word of God itself. Moreover, we must make a distinction between making a legal ruling based on the Qur’an and reading and reflecting on the Qur’an, which is something God commands us to do.
So, please, don’t tell me that reading the Qur’an and reflecting over what the verses mean to you or me is the same as opening a medical practice after reading a medical textbook. Reading and reflecting over the Qur’an – unlike medicine – is not a profession that requires training. It is obedience to God’s command: Will they not, then, ponder over this Qur’an? Or are there locks upon heir hearts?
Hesham A. Hassaballa is a Chicago physician and writer. He is the co-author of “The Beliefnet Guide to Islam,” published by Doubleday in 2006. His blog is at godfaithpen.com.