On reading vs reading into

How not to benefit from the Quran

In an article that appeared some months ago in these pages, I lamented the fact that a big chunk of Muslims was content to ‘revere’ the Quran instead of understanding it with a view to implementing it in their lives. So that all but a small minority makes it a point to enthusiastically recite the Quran (for ‘blessings’) without ever feeling the need to read a word of it. Although that is sadly the case, it is not that the average Muslim (even if he does not know any Arabic) is completely unaware of the contents of the Quran. The Quran is ubiquitous in all Muslim societies, and one cannot help catching the translation of this fragment here and that fragment there. The question I propose to explore today is this: Despite knowing in varying degrees the contents of the Quran (albeit in bits and pieces), how come so many of the Muslims succeed in paying no heed to it whatsoever? By paying heed to the Quran, I mean adapting their lives to its teachings.

The major stumbling block when it comes to receiving guidance from the Quran is the failure to surrender one’s ego. For if one is merely looking to rationalize one’s preconceived notions, then one is certain to find plenty of material in the Quran– one can find that kind of support from any book drawn at random from the bookshelf. If, on the other hand, one is sincerely looking for guidance, it is imperative to leave one’s ego at the door so to speak. If one fails to do that (and way too many Muslims are guilty of it), then any part of the Quran that is brought to one’s notice is apt to only reinforce one’s delusions and wishful thoughts.

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A more subtle problem concerns the question of who exactly does any given part of the book address. Failing to get it right in either direction yields some very unfortunate results. We are all too familiar with the enthusiasts who mistake a specific instruction for a general one, and consequently are only too eager to, say, take up arms in their private capacity when the instruction is meant for the state and not the individual or the group. This sort of error is well documented, and it is not my subject today. I will focus here on the opposite error of mistaking a general instruction or criticism for a specific one. One comes across a verse that says, ‘O Prophet…’ (peace be upon him) or ‘O People of the Book…’ or ‘O Children of Israel…’ and it is very tempting to think that the verse is addressed specifically to the Prophet, to Christians and/or the Jews and has therefore nothing to do with the Muslim reader. Often, it is a mistake.

Indeed, there are cases where a verse is specific to a certain time and place, but very often that is not the case. And it is not a riddle, provided one takes the trouble to examine the context. For example, on more than one instance the Quran censures the idolaters for trying to justify certain silly acts by claiming that their ancestors did the same. Now it may be tempting to think that since the verse refers to the idolaters of the Quraish, it is not relevant to us Muslims. It never occurs to most of us that we extend the very same justification for some dubious habits of our own. Similarly, the Quran makes it clear that the belief that only Jews (and nobody else) will enter Paradise is nothing more than a fantasy. Many Muslims, who have the same belief (just replace the word ‘Jew’ by ‘Muslim’), nod their heads in agreement when they hear the verse. It never occurs to them that they are guilty of the exact same crime and that the verse could not be more relevant to them. Such verses are not addressed ‘O you who believe…’ but surely, what is unacceptable from idolaters (or the People of the Book) cannot possibly be kosher behaviour on the part of a Muslim.

It is a matter of common observation that the death of a close relation, which is supposed to refresh the consciousness of one’s own mortality, oft-times is a reminder of everybody else’s mortality. In a similar fashion, many people read the Quran and nod approvingly at the accounts of destruction of past civilizations and the demise of eminent men and kings and feel no small amount of satisfaction on reflecting that people whose guts they hate will die too, hopefully sooner rather than later. It never occurs to them that it was supposed to remind them, before anything else, of their own mortality. The Quran has a great deal to offer provided it is read; not if one insists on reading one’s preferred meanings into it.

With this self-righteous frame of mind, a big part of the Quran can be dismissed as talking to this group or that, or delineating events of a distant past, stories that are not relevant to today’s reader. Even when a certain verse cannot so easily be dismissed, the weakness or vice it refers to belongs to other people (of course) and not to oneself (God forbid!). For example, when the Quran says: ‘Rivalry in worldly increase distracts you till you visit your graves’, surely it can only be referring to one’s rivals. The good old ego sees to it that no uncomfortable lesson is learnt from the Quran.

Death happens to be one of the major themes of the Quran. But way too often, this reminder falls on deaf ears. It is a matter of common observation that the death of a close relation, which is supposed to refresh the consciousness of one’s own mortality, oft-times is a reminder of everybody else’s mortality. In a similar fashion, many people read the Quran and nod approvingly at the accounts of destruction of past civilizations and the demise of eminent men and kings and feel no small amount of satisfaction on reflecting that people whose guts they hate will die too, hopefully sooner rather than later. It never occurs to them that it was supposed to remind them, before anything else, of their own mortality. The Quran has a great deal to offer provided it is read; not if one insists on reading one’s preferred meanings into it.

Hasan Aftab Saeed
The author is a connoisseur of music, literature, and food (but not drinks). He can be reached at www.facebook.com/hasanaftabsaeed

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