There are numerous ways one can misunderstand and consequently misrepresent the Quran. In the ultimate analysis, all these are attributable, in varying degrees, to a lack of reflection and thoughtfulness on the part of the reader, despite the fact that exhortation to use one’s intellect happens to be one of the major themes of the book.
There is one source of error however that, when not consciously guarded against, has caused some of the most honest, cautious and intelligent scholars to err, and err with some extremely unfortunate consequences. The source of this particular error lies in the fact that unlike books men are familiar with, the Quran is not structured neatly into encyclopaedia-type entries, or even into chapter, section and sub-section classifications we are accustomed to finding in the books they usually come across. Therefore, it is not the kind of book that, if an individual needs to look up information on a particular topic, all he needs to do is consult its table of contents or the index, and go to the relevant section to see what it has to say on the subject. There has been no end to the confusion that ensued whenever people have tried this index-based approach.
For instance, when the Quran talks about what happens to people after they die, it says that death is like sleep. It quotes people waking up on the Judgment Day for their trial exclaiming: ‘Who roused us from our slumber?’ So far so good. But then, in other places it describes those who start enjoying the bliss of the Afterlife from the moment they die; and in still other places, those who start receiving some of the comeuppance for their evil deeds as soon as they die. This has caused many readers no end of confusion regarding the so-called problem of the torment-of-the-grave. For unlike the books that they are familiar with, the Quran does not first say, ‘There are three categories of men’ (or words to that effect) before listing the three groups in the form of bullet points or under headings. It expects its reader to join the dots himself. Those who have failed to appreciate this have had grave doubts about the coherence of the Quran; and some of them have ‘solved’ the problem by concluding that the prophetic narrations overrule the Quran, which in turn has triggered a new sequence of unfortunate consequences.
By way of another example, consider what the Quran has to say on the subject of dawah (enjoining good and forbidding evil). Without stating it explicitly, it covers – in different places – the duty of the ordinary man, the government, religious scholars and the messengers of God in this regard. Taking each such verse in its proper context makes it clear which instruction is meant for whom; but a failure to do that results in the hotchpotch we are all too familiar with, which has created the long and painful history of atrocities individuals and groups have been committing worldwide in the name of Jehad, justifying their heinous acts by quoting – of all things! – verses of the Quran; the unfortunate attempts of groups in this very country to implement ‘Islamic’ punishments on their own; private groups armed with batons (or worse) hell-bent on enforcing morality on the society at large; use of the Friday pulpit to incite the public to hatred and violence… the list goes on and on.
Lest it be thought that the way the Quran expresses itself in its characteristic manner is a shortcoming on its part, let there be no doubt that the Quran conveys all the information about which individual, group or community any or a group of its verses is addressed to or refers to. However, because it was revealed piecemeal as per the requirement of the occasion over a period of more than two decades, and because it maintains its inimitable literary standard throughout, this information cannot simply be found under the appropriate ‘headings’, since there are none.
The vital information is there all right, but is assessable only to those who think hard and holistically about what they read (hence the constant exhortation in the book to ponder on its verses) and those with an unfaltering consciousness of this aspect of the problem. The correct determination of the context therefore is paramount; and this requires rigorous application of the reader’s intellect. Alas, this has for a long time proved to be the Achilles heel of the community.
It has been mentioned that some of the most meticulous of scholars have been prone to this sort of error. As for the laymen, most of them read the Quran (if at all) only for the blessings (whatever those are!), relying for the philosophical as well as the practical aspects of their religion to the whims of the mullah, who typically is scarcely better in terms of his understanding of the book. Others are unconvinced about the significance of the context in the first place, believing every verse to be stand-alone and applicable at all times to every conceivable group. Still others are content with a superficial reading, opting to provide the context to its verses from extra-Quranic sources such as historical accounts or reports of sayings of the prophet (peace be upon him) and his companions. This last group, instead of reading context of a verse or a group of verses from the Quran opts to read it into the Quran. Because it is convinced (often sincerely so) that it has done justice to the act of reading the Quran, it is especially hard to point out its error to this group.
Many people are averse to consideration of context because they are under the impression that that would limit the applicability of the Quran and would in turn diminish its universality. These are well-meaning folks but their concern could not be more misplaced because their reasoning could not be faultier. No doubt many of the Quranic injunctions have universal and timeless relevance, but not everything answers to this description. There is no escaping the fact that each verse of the Quran addresses or refers to specific individuals or groups. It may well be that the nature of the issue at hand is such that it has universal and perennial application (and there are many such issues); but in the first instance each verse must be understood in its narrow context, that is, in terms of the speaker, the audience, the characters, the time and the location. Failure to grasp this has caused a lot of damage in the past. The prognosis too is far from promising.