Shaykh Atabek Shukurov
The recent controversy over the release of ‘The Study Quran’ by Sayed Hossein Nasr and his team has really shown Muslims at their worst – both in their academic incompetence and in their readiness to anathematise and declare Nasr and others heretics and unbelievers based on the flimsiest, or rather no, evidence – a Godsend to Islamophobes who wish to prove that Muslims as a whole are violent and intolerant. Though legal restraints in the West have prevented Muslim groups and scholars from complementing their open or veiled declarations that Nasr is an apostate or non-believer with the violence that they would prefer to be visited upon him, it is ever present in the background of their vile ejaculations.
Perhaps even more repugnantly, many of those who have spoken on the issue or previously endorsed the book, have used the controversy and the rabid reaction of many in the Salafist establishment which is acting as a financial and ideological hydra in Islamic circles, to pose as ‘arbiters’ or ‘impartial’ judges while in fact using the issue to gain exposure and to ‘play both sides’. Numerous well-known scholars have on the one hand played to the heresy hunting gallery by claiming that the book ‘kind of, may be’ questionable or by couching their endorsements and comments in such politically expedient language that it would make most Republican Presidential candidates blush, and on the other benefited from the exposure the ‘Study Quran’ has received and tried to bask in its glow. Some of the endorsers have claimed that they were merely given ‘samples’, so didn’t in fact know what they were endorsing and any critique of the book by them would be a worthless endeavour ‘as they would never place it on the book jacket.’ The Muslim laity and intelligentsia alike have reflexly made use of phrases such as ‘perennialist’ to impugn the most outrageous enormities upon Nasr and his cohorts while at the same time never taking the trouble to define this term, except by their own unverifiable ‘definitions’, but then, who doesn’t want to argue their opponents case as well as their own, all the better to expedite victory. Thank goodness the criminal justice system doesn’t proceed in a like manner – although it in fact does in those countries or rather monarchies from whence many of these people receive or hope to receive patronage.
Neither have these individuals taken the time, nor do they seem to possess the expertise, to compare the purported errors of Nasr and his teams tafsir (commentary of the Quran) with those which one can find with ease in many of the so-called ‘authentic’ or classical ones. As a further unacademic and reactionary failsafe, they simply brand any dissenters also as ‘perennialists’ (one slur fits all in Muslim discourse nowadays) and heretics, again, never having to trouble themselves with a definition nor engagement with perennialists themselves. Examples of this can be seen in this Facebook post made on behalf of a notable scholar:
As well as this vile, ranting takfir, based on the solitary ’evidence’ of the commentators from ‘The Study Quran’ merely stating that some people (not even necessarily them) hold a controversial opinion: http://mahdinnm.blogspot.com/2016/01/the-accommodation-and-promotion-of.html.
This level of ‘academia’ will no doubt delight Islamophobes and the enemies of religion in general: merely stating that there is a view held by some, without even endorsing it, is enough for Muslims to become a lynch mob. The ease with which Muslims and their erstwhile ‘scholarly’ interlocutors declare people to be unbelievers and targets will likewise delight this contingent. Sadly they are right: the entire ‘Study Quran’ incident showed at the outset, and continues to show the lax, authoritarian, sectarian and self-interested way that Muslim discourse is conducted. It is very obviously academically degenerate and based on considerations far removed from truth and beauty of any sort.
My aim in this series of articles is to highlight the inconsistencies and errors brought to the fore by, but not limited to, the response to ‘The Study Quran’ in a way which I feel more befits the heritage of Classical Islam, which today is sold for the cheap price of endowments and chairs funded by petro- dollars or for the interests of sectarian partisans.
I make no apologies for naming offenders – just as they have made no apology for the affronts to Nasr and his faith nor for the confusion and discord they have sown amongst Muslims and non-Muslims alike. It goes without saying that I am neither particularly a supporter of Nasr nor a perennialist nor even a ‘Traditionist’ – before this incident I hardly knew who they were. But unlike the vast majority of Muslim scholars purporting to ‘refute’ them, I at least bothered to look up who they were before spewing hatred. ‘The Study Quran’, like any work of man, also contains errors. So do many of the famous commentaries of the Quran (see below) that get a ‘free pass’ from the same people who pour bile on Nasr and company, such as ‘Tafseer Ibn Katheer’ or ‘Tafsir Qurtubi’ because they serve these groups anti-rational, sectarian and authoritarian agenda. Throughout these articles, I will also endeavour to speak of the ease with which Muslims call for killing and anathematisation (which sadly are very closely related concepts in the Salafist influenced ‘mainstream’ Islam of today) and try to illustrate this with easily apprehended and contemporary examples.
You can read my students article on the ‘Study Quran’ here: https://sulaimanahmed.com/2015/11/29/the-study-quran-and-muslim-intellectualism/. Since it proved insufficient to restrain the ramblings of bloggers, scholars and organisations alike, I must endeavour to elaborate.
The Quran to Muslims is the very word of God and thus in Islam it has the foremost importance. Yet it seems that amongst Muslims today it is the least appreciated source of knowledge. The Quran has become effectively a secondary or tertiary source within the religion, easily side-lined either by the statements of scholars who state that the Hadith literature (sayings and acts attributed to the Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ)) can ‘abrogate’ the Quran, or more subtly when people take the statements of scholars, the Hadith or tafseer (exegesis or commentaries) over and above the Quran.
In the very first instance, one must realise that there are different levels within the mufasireen (Quranic commentators). Thus Imams such as Shaykh Abu Mansoor al-Maturidi and Imam Jassas were Mujtahid (of the highest rank or learning) Mufasir scholars. Then we had people who were muqalid mufasireen (scholars not qualified to set up principles but rather those who follow the Mujtahids – at least in theory). It may surprise readers to know that even famous Imams such as Qurtubi and Ibn Kathir fall into this category. Then we have those who wrote tafseer but in fact their expertise did not lie within this field, such as the widely translated and published (especially by Salafis) Ibn Kathir. Even after all of this, a Mufassir is just a human and humans can be right or wrong about any particular matter. No one should make the monumental error, sadly widespread amongst Muslims today, of thinking that the Book of God is understood by only a few people from the past or that after this period one cannot be inspired to gain understanding from the Quran. The wisdom of the Quran is not limited to the understanding of a few scholars. Therefore having a few opinions from the scholars of the past does not exclude the possibility of them being wrong or incomplete and thus it should never block further research.
Furthermore, in many cases we may only have one opinion which has been translated into contemporary languages, but there are in reality many other opinions too, equally authoritative and equally ‘classical’ which have not been translated, or have been accidentally or deliberately ignored or have not been ‘discovered’ as they remain in manuscript form. The much berated ‘Study Quran’ was at pains to plead for this manuscript research and translation. Sadly, most Muslims are very aware of the sectarian interests and ‘state sponsored’ translation and publication that afflicts Muslim works.
Another aspect that must not be overlooked is that there are many factors that affect the statements of any scholar and human being – and make no mistake, despite the pseudo-infallibility attributed to their favourites by most Muslim groups today, scholars most avowedly are both humanly frail and fallible – and scholars were affected by things such as the political, social and economic landscape of his time, his psychological condition, his academic standard, his hidden tendencies which he may occult due to fear of punishment or death from the ruling class or the possibility that he may want to please the ruling class by providing interpretations that may support their political or social agenda. Most of us today are taught that our favourite scholars were above such considerations, but even a cursory glance at much of their output establishes otherwise – and in any case, being completely above such considerations is the province of Prophets or angels. God provided no such assurance for the scholars, not that this has stopped Muslims furnishing it regardless.
Therefore the Quran is very obviously there for humans to contemplate today as always. They will continue to reach conclusions of various degrees of veracity and utility.
Furthermore, I in no way agree with the common (mis) understanding amongst many today that the entire religion of Islam will be ‘preserved’. Rather it is the Quran alone which will be preserved because it was this and not the ‘religion’ that God assured us would be guarded against corruption. Yes, I do agree that throughout time at least some of the scholars will get issues right, but that does not mean that the opinion of that scholar will necessarily be preserved for posterity. It could have been lost, destroyed or the scholar was killed (as was the fate of many of the greatest Islamic luminaries such as Abu Hanifa and Imam Razi at the hands of their ideological enemies). So it is entirely plausible that there was disagreement between scholars, and a thousand of them stated one thing and this position was only opposed by one person and yet in fact he alone was in the right – but we do not have his book and his explanation was not preserved.
A good example of this is theological issue regarding whether practicing the religion is a part of belief. Imam Abu Hanifa was alone in opposing thousands of scholars in saying ‘no it isn’t’ and he was right. We are lucky that his opinion was preserved. Yet it is entirely possible that under different circumstances his opinion may not have reached us. This is how it is possible that there were many great scholars who we do not know of because their enemies burnt their books and erased them from history.
Consider that many scholars were killed and imprisoned, their books destroyed. We no longer have the book of Eisaa ibn Abaan on Usul (epistemic principles), though we have people such as Imam Jassas quoting from his book but the book itself has been destroyed – not lost, but destroyed. The reason for this is obvious – those in power wanted to destroy all of his works and diminish any influence his ideas and opinions had on the general public. Therefore, often, the ‘Islam’ that was preserved was that which had the backing and support of the political elite.
Today Imam Al Ghazali is famous amongst most Muslims and Orientalists, but what of the ruling made by Qadi Iyaad and his teacher Qadi Mazari which can be found in their books such as ‘The refutation of Al Ghazali’ – both widely venerated and used as ‘unimpeachable’ proofs by Muslims on issues such as the alleged necessity of killing ‘apostates’ and those who insult the Prophet (ﷺ) – that all of Ghazali’s books especially his iconic ‘Ihyaa’ be destroyed as it propagated heresy and kufr (disbelief)? Now if it had not been for the popularity, influence and following of Imam Ghazali his books may also have not been preserved. This is further compounded by the fact that we have a large number of manuscripts of the works of Ibn Taymiyyah such as his erratic and violent work ‘Majmu’ al-Fatawa’, yet we are hard pressed to find the same for people such as Imam Abu Hanifa, Eisaa ibn Abban and Shaykh Abu Mansoor al-Maturidi.
Let’s look at a classical text and verdict from the time of the ‘Salaf’ in ‘Muheet al-Burhani’ a foundational text in the Hanafi school, which establishes the aforementioned principle, today widely ignored, which states that a solitary scholar may be the only correct opinion and likewise, proof is based on academic rigor and not majority or a ’head count’: Volume 6, page14:
This is well known by genuine scholars but kept from the laity by Salafists – Imam Abu Hanifa holds the position that opinion of the majority of Muslims is not superior to the opinion of one person. Rather the most important determining factor in one opinion being accepted over another is the strength of the proof for the position that is held. His student Imam Muhammad disagrees and states that as long as both sides have some evidence then the opinion of the majority is taken.
This brings me nicely to the particular verse that we will be analysing as an example of what has gone before. The ultimate irony here is that this is one of verses which demands peace…and has instead somehow been used by people, including senior scholars, to support their commitment to bloodshed and war. We are seeing the regretful continuation of this wilful manipulation and exploitation of the Quran to this day.
In this verse, used to ‘refute’ Nasr and ‘perennialists’ as well as by extremists, God says;
يَـٰٓأَيُّهَا ٱلَّذِينَ ءَامَنُواْ ٱدۡخُلُواْ فِى ٱلسِّلۡمِ ڪَآفَّةً۬ وَلَا تَتَّبِعُواْ خُطُوَٲتِ ٱلشَّيۡطَـٰنِۚ إِنَّهُ ۥ لَڪُمۡ عَدُوٌّ۬ مُّبِينٌ۬
“O the ones who have believed! All of you! Enter into a treaty of peace! Do not follow the footsteps of Satan! Indeed he is an obvious enemy of yours.’’ (2:208)
The word ”Silm” here is ‘translated’ by many people, including early ones such as Ikrima, Mujahid and others as ”Islam”. They attribute this position to the companion of the Prophet (ﷺ) Ibn Abbas, therefore making their position seem stronger. Most of the Sunni Mufassireen in fact also took this position and ignored the understanding based on Arabic language – the language of the Quranic revelation. But in reality this order is basically forbidding any type of anarchy and bloodshed, be it rebellion or military methods of resolving issues between nations, tribes or families.
So on the one hand we have an understanding that says that people must enter into ‘Islam’, i.e change their religion or become Muslims. This is understandably a favourite ayat of Islamophobes and orientalists of a certain bent to try and prove that Islam demands conversion ‘by the sword’. Many Muslims backed this understanding too or provided various glosses. But linguistically none of this is called for in the very first place, since it means not ‘enter into Islam’ but ‘enter into a treaty of peace’. The difference is important, as we shall see.
The word used in this passage of the Quran ”Kaaffah” is very strong. It could be used as a Haal (description) of a command, or as a description of the ones commanded. In the first case it will mean ”Peace in all aspects”, in the second ”everyone accepting it”. There are no other licit options in the Arabic language of the Quran.
In my opinion it is the first one, because linguistically the second is mentioned by the pronoun of the command. So in the first case there is no repetition. But in the second case it will be ”Tawkeed” (emphasising) which means repeating. Those who have studied even basic Arabic grammar will know that if we have an option of repeating and not repeating, we take the first as it is the ‘Asl’ (initial condition). Thus, God is ordering the ”ones who have believed” to accept peace ”kaaffah” from all of its angles. ”All of its angles” means:
- Peace with other nations
- Peace with other races
- Peace with the members of other religions
- Peace with the people from other countries
- Peace between the citizens and government
- Peace between heads of the country and parliament
- Peace with the members of other schools of thought
- Peace with the followers of other scholars
- Peace between committee members and lay people.
- Peace with neighbours
- Peace with relatives
- Peace between parents and children
- Peace with your teachers
- Peace with your students
- Peace between the doctors and patients
- Peace between buyers and sellers
- Peace with yourself
- Peace between the brain and heart
- Peace between the intellect and emotions
And so on…
Yet God doesn’t stop on this order, but goes even further by saying: ”And do not follow the footsteps of Satan!” The reasoning which comes after the order given means that one is connected to the other by one of the means (basic level of grammar). Therefore it means that either accept peace…or you are a follower of Satan.
There is even another critical point pertaining to this verse, namely that God is attaching this order with belief. It therefore means that it has been given the utmost level of importance – according to Quranic terminology it is one of the pillars (faraidh) of Iman (belief).
Irrespective of what people may claim in Islam or any other system of thought or belief, ultimately what you choose to believe is your choice alone. Many people have clearly chosen to, as God puts it, ‘follow the footsteps of Satan’ by abusing this verse to propagate bloodshed. So Satan actually has a huge number of people who followed him, and one does not need to increase this number by causing yet more bloodshed on the Earth. My question is; where are the ‘People of God’, since the Prophet (ﷺ) said: “The People of God are the People of the Quran!’’ We have ended up in the current situation as Islam has mainly been presented by people who are not qualified. Be it so – called Sufis, hadith-hurling ‘narrators’, isolationists, haters of ‘philosophy’ or mediocre Humanities graduates who have taken their entirety of their knowledge from newspapers such as “The Guardian’’ and plagiarise the Far Left and anarchists while claiming to establish a ‘Khilafa’, the most important point is that none of them are suitably qualified. As a result they will damage the real meaning of the Quran and produce a totally different religion.
To continue with the above verse and the linguistic vs. sectarian understanding of it:
According to the famous ‘Tafsir i Jalalayn’, one of the few Quranic commentaries translated into English, the following verse was revealed regarding ‘Abd Allāh b. Salām and his companions, who after converting to Islam from Judaism allegedly still observed the Sabbath with reverence and were averse to the consumption of camels:
‘’O you who believe, come, all of you, into submission [read al-salm or al-silm, that is, Islam; kāffatan is a circumstantial qualifier referring to al-silm, meaning, ‘into all of its precepts’] and follow not the steps, (the ways), of Satan, (that is, his temptations to you by way of creating divisions), he is a manifest foe to you, (one whose enmity is obvious)’’
The fabrication of this narration explaining the verse is obvious from its silly content. Apparently one of these ‘sahaba’ who wanted to continue celebrating the Sabbath was Abdullah bin Sallama, a former Rabbi. Even a muhadditheen partisan Ibn Kathir did not accept this interpretation due to the defamation attributed to this companion of the Prophet (ﷺ).
‘Silm’ and ‘Salm’ mean exactly the same thing – which is peace. One merely needs to look at the context. Sadly it was one of the interpretations of the verse which the scholars of the Umayyad Empire presented to the Umayyads so that they were given legislative permission to kill anyone and everyone they wanted to (and they wanted to kill a lot of people). During my research I checked many tafseers such as Tabari who translate ‘silm’ as Islam. But the meaning of the word never meant ‘Islam’. Can someone bring me any verse or a poem from pre-Islamic Arabia where ‘silm’ means ‘Islam’? One merely needs to read the five verses before after this verse and the meaning and context of the verse is very obvious.
Some may ask how does this differ with verse 131 in Surah Baqarah.
إِذۡ قَالَ لَهُ ۥ رَبُّهُ ۥۤ أَسۡلِمۡۖ قَالَ أَسۡلَمۡتُ لِرَبِّ ٱلۡعَـٰلَمِينَ
‘’When his Lord said unto him: Surrender! He said: I have surrendered to the Lord of the Worlds’’. (2:131)
“Aslim” is the word in the form of a verb whose noun is “al-islam“. It means ‘submitting’, but it is not referring to the theological meaning of ‘Islam’. In clear contrast, Verse 208 of Surah Baqarah is speaking about the noun “al-silm” whose verb is “salima” and “saalama” (which is derived from analogical reasoning – qiyaas) which means ‘peace through safety’ and ‘peace treaty’.
Monopolies in Islam and ‘Quran-splaining’
Unfortunately, most Muslims seem to believe that there is a ‘monopoly’ in all Islamic subjects beginning with grammar through theology through to fiqh (jurisprudence) and the many other Islamic sciences, restricted to their favourite scholars or group of scholars – almost invariably today those who are particular to a certain ‘Salafi friendly’ hadith methodology of rather late providence. So people will bizarrely insist that maters of law and creed should be settled by hadith scholars or matters of war or killing settled again by people who are hadith experts as opposed to legists etc. This is akin to giving historians a monopoly on law, theology and metaphysics, along with language, grammar and anything else you could think of. This sort of unilateral ‘omni-competance’ and monopoly has never existed and would be laughed at in today’s academic institutions. We have discussed many such issues in Islam in the past and have been able to prove that no such monopoly exists. Here I wish to display another example using the books of Tafseer.
The following text is from ‘Tafseer Nasafi’ written by Imam Nasafi, a Hanafi Maturidi Scholar born in the middle of the eleventh century.
- (O the ones who have believed, enter in al-Silm) it is read by fathah [al-Salm] by the Hijazis and Ali (RA), it means to surrender and obey, i.e. Surrender to God and obey him.
- Or it could mean Islam, then this verse will be addressed to Ahle Kitab (people of the book), because they have believed in their Prophet and book.
- Or it addresses the hypocrites because they have believed by their tongue but not their hearts.
So Imam Nasafi gave three possible meanings for the word ‘al-Silm’ which are ‘surrender’, ‘obedience’ and ‘Islam’. The question that is brought to the fore is that if the meaning of this word contained within these three possible meanings, then is it permissible to leave two of the possible meanings? Is it possible that scholars have given even more alternative meanings? We are going to see many other interpretations when we look at the tafseer of Razi, Asbahani, Baidhawi and the many others.
The following is a text from Imam Ibn Aashur, a Maliki Ashari scholar born in the middle of the nineteenth century.
“(al-Salm) Read by Fatha on Seen and Kasrah too, by sukoon of Lam…The real meaning of al-Silm is “not fighting”, as Abbas bin Mirdaas [poet] said. The word [Silm] with kasrah and its other varieties mean “safety” from pain or being hurt or stubbornness…”
Ibn Aashur continues on the next page;
‘This is why the Imams of the Arabic Language said that all of the forms of Al-Silm – regardless if it is with fatha or kasra with sukoon of Lam or its harakah – all of them are synonymous. Some of them said that all of three forms are used for ‘Islam’ and they have attributed it to Ibn Abbas, Mujahid and Qatadah. They supported their position with the poem of Imri’ Qays….’’
But this meaning of the word is supported only by the writers of the books of tafseer. But Raghib and Zamakhshari and Ibn Manzoor did not even mention this. That is why this meaning is in fact not reliable.
It is easy for a layman to become confused – not knowing of the sectarian wrangling that took place between the grammarians and linguists of the Arabic language and the partisans of hadith. The hadith scholars jealously and violently [see the famous hadith scholar Ibn Hajar Haythami’s ‘Fatwaa’ p207 onwards] tried to proscribe analysis of the Quran as per the linguistic requirements of Arabic pre-Islamic poetry (as is in fact mandated by reason – since the Quran was revealed to non-Muslims who did not have a ready-made ‘glossary’ of novel Islamic terms – they understood words like ‘al Silm’ in the way that they used them before Islam. Otherwise we are faced with the bizarre scenario that the Prophet (ﷺ) had to teach the Arabs the Quran and Arabic too, which no doubt silly people will nonetheless assert).
Therefore ’Al-Silm’ is one of the words that is used for ‘Peace Treaty’ by the consensus of the Imams of Arabic – in contrast to Quranic exegetes. ‘Peace treaty’ is in fact what this verse is talking about – without any other option. As for the possibility of this word meaning ‘Islam’, if that is authentic we can consider it too: it will then have to be used as a Mushtarak (a homonym) with two meanings – which means ‘Islam’ is used to mean ‘peace treaty’ – which would be most strange!
Based on this – al-Silm meaning a peace treaty, the Arabic language necessitates that this verse means; ‘O the ones who have believed, meaning Muslims, go for peace and not for fighting’…and as I (and the consensus of the Imams of Arabic language) stated, this meaning is necessitated by the context.
Hopefully, as you can see, the most authentic position is that the meaning of the word is “peace”. But if you use it to mean “Islam” then you have to accept that “Islam” has two meanings; namely “religion” and “peace”. And therefore it is still used in this verse to mean ‘Peace’. This is according to Ibn Aashur. You also saw that Imam Nasafi gave three meanings for the word of ‘Al-Silm’, but he supported the meaning of ‘surrender’. According to both of these scholars though, the strongest opinion is that ‘al-silm’ does not mean ‘Islam’.
The following text is from Ibn Kathir, the aforementioned Shafi scholar born in the fourteenth century.
In the first and second paragraphs he supports the opinion that it means ‘Islam’. He mentions that it is narrated from several Tabein such as Ikrima, Qatada, Mujahid and Ibn Abbas. In the third paragraph he mentions a second meaning which is ‘obedience’’ and said that it is [narrated] from Dhahhak, Ibn Abbas, Abu Aaliya, and Rabea. He then mentions a third possible meaning from Qatadah where he states that it means ‘peace treaty’. In the last paragraph he mentions that a group of ex-Jewish sahabah asked the Prophet (ﷺ) if they can continue practising their Jewish rituals (as ‘Tafsir Jalalayn stated). But on the next page he emphatically states that it is not possible that Abdullah bin Sallam would make such a request.
Even those scholars such as Ibn Kathir who are ‘super followers’ of hadith narrations mentioned three possible meanings of the word ‘al-silm’ – and even they did not accept the narration about the reason of revelation of being due to the Sahabah wanting to continue their Jewish rituals. Ibn Kathir supporting the meaning of ‘Islam’ is his personal opinion. His approach is from the context of deference to Hadeeth narrations, this is why his opinion is based on the narrations, as opposed to the rules of Arabic language, which hadith scholars are wont to overrule in favour of ahad hadith. We have narrations from several Tabein (people after the time of the companions of the Prophet (ﷺ)) that it means ‘Islam’, so he took the side of the majority of narrators as opposed to the Arabic language experts. However, we know with certainty that the tabein mentioned are not in fact the ‘sources’ of Arabic language – rather this is taken from Imams who are the specific experts of Arabic language.
Ibn Manzoor, born in the thirteenth century, was a lexicographer of the Arabic language and the author of the famous Arabic dictionary called ‘Lisan al-Arab’. He therefore was an expert of Arabic language.
He confirms that ‘Silm’, ‘Salm’ and ‘Salam’ all mean ‘peace’, ‘peace treaty’ and ‘safety’. He also mentions the incident of Hudaibiya (where a treaty was signed between the Prophet (ﷺ) and the pagans) where this word is used to mean ‘Peace treaty’. This opinion is also supported by Ibn Atheer, an Asharite scholar from the thirteenth century.
Baidawi, another Shafi Ashari scholar from the thirteenth century, confirms that both ‘Silm’ and ‘Salm’ mean ‘surrender’ and ‘obedience’, which is why it is used for ‘peace treaty’ and ‘Islam’. Then he gave several possible meanings of the verse.
Imam Zamakhshari a scholar from the eleventh century supports the meaning of ‘surrender’ and mentions the meaning ‘Islam’ as being a weak opinion.
Imam Razi, who came five centuries after the time of revelation gave many more possible meanings which the previous Mufassirs did not even mention (of course, he is derided and insulted by the Salafis and Muhaditheen – who may have been responsible for his assassination, as the Hanbali mob of Bagdad and elsewhere where was well known for its violence – see in English for example ‘The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in A World Civilization’, Hodgson, Marshall GS (Volume 1 Page 386-9).
Asbahani a Shafi scholar from the eleventh century confirms that ‘Silm’, ‘Salm’ mean peace:
This proves that one should not insist on the approach that we can only take what was mentioned before, that we should just follow the salaf, or that the earlier scholars did not leave any room for us to contemplate and reflect on the Quran, or that it is not permissible to bring new interpretations and understandings and the many other ‘Bedouin type’ statements that are made on behalf of Islam and the Quran nowadays.
As you can see, it is a narrow minded understanding to insist that it means ‘Islam’. To restrict your understanding only to what the muhaditheen (hadith scholars) mentioned and rejecting all other possible meanings means ignoring important Islamic sciences, in this case the Arabic language. It demonstrates a lack of academia to hold the position that there is only one legitimate ‘translation’ of Quran and to think that this contains all possible meanings and understandings.
This verse has been used to kill many people in order to make them to ‘enter into Islam’. Extremists have used the word ”Kaffah” and tried to convince everyone that it means; “O you mankind, enter in Islam, all of you” and that Muslims are responsible for the practical implementation of this verse by the sword. This interpretation is also beloved of Islamophobes. But as you see this verse is actually speaking about doing the opposite of killing or coercing, which is entering into a treaty of peace. To be clear: this verse does not mean that all people should forcibly enter the religion of Islam. This verse also is not proof for those who use it as a method of refuting the so – called ‘perennialists’. Sadly the monopoly of Islamic understanding is given to a few individuals and the scholars who come after these merely copy them. Salafis, Hanafis, Shafis, Malikis, Hanbalis and Shia give this right to a few scholars within their own school. So I have tried to give holistic examples where many renowned later scholars were able to conduct their own research.
The word of ”Islam” has two meanings, it has a linguistic definition and then a theological understanding. The Quran never uses the word ”Islam” with the second meaning – it only uses the linguistic definition. Sadly, some people who understand it to be the second meaning cannot even imagine that it could have any other. This verse has been abused by schools of thought and sects. What I mean by this is that if anyone does not agree with you then he is classed as an ‘innovator’ and this innovator is not obeying this verse because it says “kaaffah’ which according to them means that you must agree with them in each and every issue because of this word “kaaffah”. So extremists claim they are therefore responsible to apply the punishment of God on that person. The question is that opposing whom is classed as ‘innovation’? And who is responsible to apply this punishment? The answer to this question is almost always the sect or group of ‘scholars’ who are attached to the people in power. So disagreement with those in power is ‘innovation’ and ‘heresy’ and they can and will punish you for not following the scholars endorsed by the rulers.
For example, Imam Abu Hanifa was considered an innovator and ‘heretic’ when his opponents were in power. Then the Mu’tazila took power so the others became known as ‘heretics’, and then they took power back…and so on…But genuine people seeking knowledge and truth do not get distracted by such things.
My position is quite clear, analyse all verses of Quran without any preconceived prejudices. I find it immature that many people are taking two extremes, one is to assume that all classical tafseers are infallible and therefore one should follow them blindly or they tell people not to read certain works as they do not agree with certain aspects of that tafseer. Let me be clear, one would find it difficult to find any tafseer that does not contain monumental theological errors – i.e the most serious kind of error. Most of the time, these ‘scholars’ who issue dire warnings and declare people such as Nasr and Co. disbelievers and heretics are not able to differentiate between what is a theological error and what fits into the differing orthodox Sunni theological schools of the Maturidis and Asharis. And yet these same people are advising others not to read certain tafseers of the Quran.
So my question is: how come Nasr deserves such censure and a torrent of internet abuse but the errors of the previous mufasireen deserve such impunity? And is encouraging forced conversion or violence somehow more palatable than Nasr’s purported ‘deviations’? Isn’t it just sectarian insistence on turning a blind eye to the errors of our preferred authorities and reserving all of our bile for Nasr and others that we don’t ‘like’?
I don’t have a problem with ‘robust’ criticism, but the attacks on Nasr as we can all see above, go well beyond that. How would Salafis and the aforementioned scholars bathing in the limelight at the expense of Nasr react to a similarly ‘robust’ criticism of the inevitable (and serious) errors of their favourites such as Ibn Kathir, and Ibn Taymiyya – not to mention their own error-ridden publications and pronouncements? ‘Tafsir Ibn Kathir’ which has some theological issues contained within it has been translated into English and mass produced (by the Saudi Government). Do we have the same level of condemnation or warnings about mistakes contained within it? Is it that these scholars are not aware or are there other reasons for them speaking about certain tafseers in a negative manner whilst remaining quite about others?
An example of this is the story of ‘Harut and Marut’. It is found in the Quran 2:103. Here God speaks about the false accusations levelled against Solomon (who amongst other things, is accused of being an occultist). It mentions that two angels taught men dark arts or sorcery along with the warning that these arts were prohibited by God. People nonetheless paid no heed to their warnings and indulged in them. There is no mention of ‘fallen angels’ like the Bible (2 Peter 2:4 and Jude 1:6) or any mention of angels sinning or having sex etc in the Quran whatsoever.
In the ‘Tafsir’ of Ibn Kathir however, he says God sent them to earth after commanding them to avoid wine, idolatry, fornication and murder. Harut and Marut eventually succumbed to their human lusts (despite not being human) and fell into the sins of fornication, murder and even associating partners with God (very similar to the Bible, from where many Quranic exegetes would borrow egregiously and without concern for the Quran’s major differences with that book). Ibn Kathir argues that committing sins does not conflict with the infallibility of angels because the both of them were exempt from that general ruling (which begs the question of why God warned them off the sins in the first place and how come angels don’t understand theology). In one place he mentions that the relevant narrations are from Ka’b and senior sahaba such as Ali, Ibn Umar and others in authentic and inauthentic chains and confirms it, but in other places he mentions many Tabein narrated extra details which are taken from Isrealiyaat (essentially plagiarised narrations from Christians and Jews or the Bible). So Ibn Kathir does not question the so called ‘authentic’ narrations attributed to the sahabah but he does question the extra details mentioned by the Tabein. I don’t need to point out the glaring error of saying that murder and associating partners with God does nothing to scratch ones ‘infallibility’, and this is a good illustration of the kinds of contradictions a militant approach to following each and every hadith or narration can lead one into.
Other issues mentioned in Tafsir Ibn Kathir are the narration that the Earth is on the back of a whale (I am told that the Saudi publication of his works in English has curiously left this out. Let’s hope the atheists don’t notice eh?) – he narrates it from the Prophet (ﷺ) and Ibn Abbas and confirms its authenticity.
He further narrates from the scholars of Tafsir that the Earth is on top of a herd of bulls who have thousands of horns. And that these bulls are standing on top of a whale.
The reason for relaying this is not to disparage scholars such as Ibn Kathir but it is to demonstrate the double standards of contemporary scholars.
It is one of life’s great ironies that it is usually the most puritanical who usually are the most lenient when it comes to their own partisans.
Another issue that was presented to me was that some scholars illustrated mistakes within the fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) that was presented in the ‘Study Quran’. Again, if the litmus test is a ‘mistake’ within a tafseer for a work to be thrown out then this means all tafseer books should be banned – never mind the more important theological mistakes that are contained within the tafseer collections. If the fall-back position is that only ‘scholars’ should have access to these tafseers, then who is categorised as a scholar? Are many of them able to ascertain mistakes made within these collections?
Recently my student presented a theological mistake in ‘Tafseer Qurtubi’, where Qurtubi (image can be found at the end of the post) attributes direction to God and then states that this was the position held by the Salaf, but some of the scholars, and others who can speak Arabic nonetheless did not have the requisite grammar skills to be able to determine the mistake and in fact were presenting the issue opposite to what was mentioned in the tafseer of Qurtubi. Each topic requires an understanding of the terminologies contained within the subject, sadly most contemporary scholars have shown a lack of ability in understanding the source texts. So does this mean only one or two people should have access to any tafseer or is it that this information should be open to all, so that there is open debate and discussion about the issues presented and strong analyses of the ideas?
It seems hypocritical to change ones principles based on whether or not we agree with a certain book of tafseer.
We have seen in the verse above how the meaning of ‘peace’ was used for the slaughter and death of many Muslims. So a person should not blindly trust any tafseer or any scholar. We have seen very clearly with the ‘Study Quran’ episode that scholars too are a sectarian and self-interested group. There are levels of survival a self-interested religious elite is prepared to accept which would nonetheless be profoundly harmful for the masses. Essentially, many scholars from all religions have a myopic and career-minded approach, which the response to Nasr brought to the fore – as long as they have someone to listen to them, pay and attend for courses, they do not really care, beyond the necessary lip service, about the wider doubts and concerns of Muslims nor the general reverses suffered by religion. We can see this with the Salafi movement in the West, which has gone from publically debating atheists and doing ‘dawah’ by using ‘science and the Quran’, into virtual hiding after suffering some embarrassing reverses, with their own little clique of fans that they have attracted. Having grabbed some supporters and subscribers, they are happy to run back to their little isolationist corner of the world or internet.
They are much like those Midwestern Preachers in the US, who are completely ignorant of having lost the ‘Culture Wars’ and in fact don’t really care – just as long as they can fill out a hall or a prayer revival. But what of wider society? The job of the Muslim scholars and intelligentsia is the service of the people, not just some of the people.
I would suggest that one should be able to read all tafseer and then use one’s God given intellect to analyse and deduce the correct understanding of the issue as best as one can. One should learn what the various theological schools mention about a particular issue and then make a judgement. All issues should be analysed based on their own merit. The Quran is a source of enlightenment. People who are misguided by it, are only so due to their own egos and their own ideology which they force into the understanding of the Quran, and as such ‘PEACE’ turns into bloodshed.