THE PROBLEMS OF TAFSIR:
MISUNDERSTANDING, MISREPRESENTATION, AND DIFFICULTIES
IN CLASSICAL AND MODERN WORKS –
A SHORT NOTE
By: Kassim Ahmad
18 May, 2011
1. Is the Quran easy or difficult?
The Egyptian Muslim scholar, Dr. Rashad Khalifa, translated verse 17 of Surah 54 (Al-Qamar) as followes: “We have made the Quran easy to learn . Does anyone of you wish to learn?” (Quran: The Final Testament, 2000)
This verse is repeated four times time in this Surah, but it does not occur in any other Surah. Of course, there are many verses pointing to the straightforwardness and unimbiguity of the teachings of the Quran.
Other translators translate the same verse thus:-
“And We have indeed made the Quran easy to understand and remember ...” (Abdullah Yusof Ali: 1989).
“And in truth, We have made the Quran easy to remember ...”(Marmaduke Pickthall: The Meaning of the Glorious Quran: 1930).
“And certainly We have made the Quran easy to remember ...” (Maulana Muhammad Ali: The Holy Quran: 1st Ed. 1917: New 2002 Ed. revised).
“Hence, indeed, We have made this Quran easy to bear in mind ...” (Muhammad Asad: The Message of the Quran: 1980).
“And We have made the Quran easy to understand and to remember ...” (Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad: The Holy Quran: 1988 ).
“We have made the Quran easy to learn ...” (Edip Yuksel et all, Quran: A Reformist Traslation: 2007).
The Arabic word yassarna does mean “to make easy”, but the verb lilzikr means “to remember”, not “to learn”. Thus, one alternative is to conclude that the Quran is easy to remember (because of its style) , but not to learn (since it contains the profoundest thoughts). This understanding is in line with the meaning of verse 7 of Surah 3 (Ali-‘Imran) where the verse stipulates two types of verses: the muhkamat verses that are clear in themselves, and the mutasyabihat verses that are allegorical, whose meanings are known only to God and the experts, or the elect.
Yet, it stands to reason that the teachings of the Quran should be easily understood, as they are a guide to the whole of mankind.
Thus, we must conclude that the Quran is both easy and difficult to undersand. It is easy because it contains important teachings that must be accessible to all. It is also difficult because it also contains profound teachings that are inaccessible to the ordinary person. The attitude of the believer, as is stated in verse 7 of Surah 3, is that: “They say, ‘We believe in this – all of it comes from our Lord.’” The beliver or rather the Muslim submits to those teachins, although he is not able to logically reason them out.
Therefore, it must be concuded here that there is no a perfect translation of the Quran. It is not possible. It must be translated anew by every generation. Every generation must understand and interpret the Quran in terms of the available knowledge. Since knowledge increases with time, so will men’s understanding of the Quran. The Quran itself states that it contains 90% more content than previous scriptures.
2. Misrepresentation of its meanings
The best modern English translation is by the Egyption scholar, Dr Rashad Khalifa, that I have quoted above. Not only is the language modern and simple; the translation has many other merits absent from most traditional tafsir. He avoids putting his subjective arbitrary thoughts into the text, the most obvious example is verse 59 of Surah 4 where traditional tafsir states obedience to God means holding on to the Quran, while obedience to the messenger means holding on to the so-called Hadith/Sunnah. While the phrase “those in authority among you” is usually interepreted to mean obediece to a so-called clerical class (ulema) that actually does not exist in Islam. The bifurcation of knowledge into the so-called secular and religious came with the influence of Christianity.
Dr Khalifa’s researches also unveiled what has come to be known as Code 19. This Code has shown the awesome mathematical complexity of the composition of the Quran that puts its authorship to be beyond the ability of any human or group of humans.
There are many other firsts by Dr Khalifa. These are (a) the extremely important discovery of the Code 19 that I have mentioned above, (b) the correct translation of verse 87 of Surh 15 regarding the so-called “seven-oft-repeated verses” of traditional tafsir. Rashad correctly translated it as “the seven pairs and the great Qran.”, the “seven pairs referring to the 14 sets of muqattat letters standing at the head of several chapters in the Quran, and (c) the correct translation of the Quranic phase dabbat’ul min’al-ard (“a creature made of earthly materials”) and pointing to the creation of the computer. He also has 38 appendices that are informative and useful.
3. Errors in Rashad’s Translation
Having said these, the translation suffers from many errors. The most glaring is Rashad’s claim that verse 81 of Surah 3 on the “Messenger of the Covenant” refers to him. The word covenant (Ar. ‘ahdan or mithaq) refers to three types of covenants to God: by mankind as a whole, by prophets, and by believers. The verse in question (3: 81) refers to the covenant of the People of the Book, specifically the Jews and the Christians (for generally it includes all previous prophets), to believe in the last prophet, i.e. Muhammad. The advent of Prophet Muhammad is foretold in both the Old and the New Testmants, , in fact, in all previous scriptures.
Rashad’s argument that “The main function of God’s Messenger of the Covenant is to purify the scriptures and unify them into one universal message to this world from the Creator and Sustainer of this world.” cannot be accepted, simply because that has already been done, explicitly as well as implicitly (in the case of Code 19), by the Quran that Muhammad brought. As the Quran itself beautifully and succictly puts it, it “confirms and supersedes” all previous secriptures.
There is no doubt that Rashad’s discovery of Code 19 is a major breakthrough in the interpretation of the Quran. As I have stated above, the Quran has to be interpreted anew by every generation. As knowledge increases, every generation will increase its understanding of the Quran. After all, the Quran with its first command to mankind “to read in the name of the Lord, Who creates,” wrought a major revolution in man’s thinking. Before the Quran, men lived in a Pre-scientific Age – the Childhood of Mankind, we may say. After it, the Scientific Age began – the Adulthood of Mankind. Such is the revolution wrought by the Quran!
4. Two sources of authority
Rashad is responsible for the so-called “Quran Alone” movement because of his book debunking the totality of Hadith. While many hadiths are fabrications foisted on the great name of Prophet Muhammad, many are also in line with the teachings of the Quran. The word ‘hadith’ is used in the Quran to mean three things: (a) ‘news’ or ‘matter’, (b) ‘message’, and (c) ‘story’. In verse 3 of Surah 66, the Prophet trusted some of his wives with a matter (hadithan). The Prophet wrote the Median Charter, the Hudaibiyyah Agreement and many letters to Kings of that time. There were all done by him as leader of the then Muslim community.
Moreover, the Quran itself stipulates two sources in the famous verse 59 of Surah 4. It is strange that a man of Rashad’s intelligence should have missed this point!
5. The Quran has two contexts
The Quran has two contexts: historical and universal. This very important truth was discovered by the Sudanese founder of the Republican Brotherhood, Mahmood Mohamad Taha, (d. (executed) 1985), in his booklet, The Second Message of Islam, first published in 1967, and published in an English translation by Abdullahi An Na’im in 1987.
Actually, it is wrong to attribute two messages to the Quran. The Quran is a single unified scripture, but it has two contexts: the historical and the universal. Take this verse on punishment for thievery: “As for the man and the woman addicted to theft, cut of their hands as a punishment for what they have earned ... But whoever repents after his wrongdoing and reforms. Allah will turn to him (mercifully). Surely Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.” (5: 38-39). In all cultural areas of the world in those times, punishment was very severe. The verse immediately following indicate the universality of Islam when the principles of punishment are (a) justice, and (b) compassion.
It is strange that lawyers of those days failed to realize the significance of the verse immediately following. This has given rise to what is known as fixed (so-called had) punishments. There are no such thing as fixed punishments, as punishements must vary according te crimes as well as to times.
6. The question of the “end of the world”
Another doubtful thing about Rashad’s interpretation is his claim that the muqataat letters gave him the date for the “end of the world” in 2280 (1710 AH). This matter is connected to what is called the Resurrection. Is the word to be understood literally, or as a metaphor for a major change in the world system? Although God is Power Absolute, He does not act illogically. The literal physical rising of billions of individual humans from the graves is a messy thing that cannot be attributed to a Wise Creator. It is stated in the Quran that man will, at the right time, live in outer space, and that in Paradise , he will ascend yet higher and higher. Therefore, it is not likely that the world will end in 269 years’ time, counting from today (2011). Furthermore, accoding to the computation of scientists, the universe will last another 100 billion years from now.
The event called resurrection is closely connected to God’s judgement. The concept of God’s judgement is also referred to in the Quran as man’s own judgement of himself. Also the billions of individual men and women of the present, past and the future are actually of one self (Ar. nafsun wahidah), according to the Quran. Therefore, concepts of the “Last Day”, “Resurrection”, Divine judgement, “Hereafter” must be understood metaphorically, not literally. The “Last Day” or the “Hereafter” is the period after the present time (future generations), “Resurrection” is a new beginning, although continuous from the old being, and Divine judgement, as I have already stated, is men’s own judgement of themselves. Such an understanding of these related concepts would reveal their beauty, order and harmony, that can logically be attributed to the activity of an Ever-active and Perfect Creator.
7. The false doctrine of abrogation
It is not necessary to say much on the so-called doctrine of abrogation, when certain verses of the Quran are said to be abrogated by others. It is a misreading of the Arabic word ayat which here means ‘message’.
8. The missing ‘Basmallah’ in Surah 9
Dr Rashad Khalifa has given an excellent explanation of this strange phomenon of the missing ‘Basmallah’ in Surah 9. It is God’s sign that He witholds His authority for this Surah because it has been tempered with. This tempering is proved by many sources, including the hadith! Moreover, it proves that the Quran is forever divinely- protected from corruption by an inernal mechanism! It is truly awesome!
9. What is man?
Reflect on this verse: “How can you disbelieve in God when you were dead and He gave you life, then He puts you to death, then He brings you back to life, then to him you ultiimately return?” (2:28). A son ‘A’ was potential in a newly-married couple. The verse calls him “dead”. Then he came to life. Then he died. Then he came to life again (was resurrected). Finally, ‘A’ returned to God.
The Quran also likens death to sleep, when a man has no consciousness. He resurrects him when he wakes up. Thus life and death, death and life is the natural cycle of an ever-recurring event in the Universe. It does not stop until the Universe exhausts itself and collapses into ruin for loss of energy. At that time, in the far future, olny God remains.
It is clear that what returned to God is the spark of the Divine Spirit that was infused into the man when he was born, i.e. the min ruhi of the Quran. The life, the nafs of the Quran not only dies, but is a single one for the whole of humankind. Therefore, a human being is mortal, dying when his time comes, but humankind is immortal, partaking in the Divine Spirit. Therefore, the human being is simultaneously mortal and immortal.
Rashad also errs when he refers to God’s creation of the Homo sapiens, the khalifah of the Quran as a “temporary god”. The creation of this new being is described by on historian as a momentous event. It was strongly objected to by the angels, the angles’ knowledge being limited to animals. God’s reply to the angles was that He knows better. Of course, God knows better; He gave man the ability to know the Universe, and challenges the angels to prove that they have that ability. The angels’ failure prompted God to ask the angles to do what He prohibits all created orders from ever doing: bow down to other than to Him!
This beautiful allegory shows the All-Knowing nature of God, as well as man’s elevated position in the Universe. To this order of God, one of the angels disobeyed and that angle automatically became Satan, the Rebel-in-Chief! This shows that disobedience to God makes a disbeliver, bound for Hell. God put Adam and Eve in Paradise and warned them against going near the tree of moral knowlege. But they were duped by the devil to disobey God and God punished them by banishing them to the Earth, a temporary habitation for all human beings. The Tree of Moral Knowledge is dangerous because man may make the wrong choice, in which case he invites destruction upon himself. This is proved by the many wars that men have inflicted upon themselves, especially the two World Wars. God forbid a Third Word War! In this war, nuclear weapons would surely be used, inviting near-total destruction of modern civilization!
10. Was Abraham the original messenger of Islam?
I want to mention a last point regarding Rashad’s statement that Abraham was the original messenger of Islam. Is this true? What is clear is that all God’s messengers from the time of Adam through Idris (Enoch), Noah and others before Abraham brought to their national communities the religion of submission, i.e. Islam of that stage of human development. When Abraham came, God gave him the rituals of Islam (prayers, fasting, obligotary charity (zakat) and pilgrimage to Mecca). Abraham also prayed for the sending of Prophet Muhammad, the last prophet, to complete the message of Islam.
11. Man’s limited knowledge
within his potential ability to know the world
Although I consider Dr Rashad Khalifah as one of my many teachers, and a friend as well, I practise critical reading, in line with the divine command “to read in the name of your Lord who creates.” So I do not dismiss Rashad’s many contributions to tafsir just beacse he made one serious error about the Messenger of the Covenant.
As I said above, the Quran contains the most profound thoughts. None knows the meanings of the allegorical verses except God and those who have made a profound study of them. I have already pointed to some of Rashad’s erros in these matters. I shall go no further, except to state that there are many things in the Quran that we still do not understand or fully understand. God’s creativity is indescribably vast. It is limitless. The Quran states that if the oceans were ink, it would not be able to write down God’s words, even if the ink supply were doubled! We have to be patient; if we sincerely persevere to understand. God will surely help us. Moreover, the methodology of traditional tafsir (“the hadith interprets the Quran”) is neither adequate, nor logical. Muhammad’s mission was to receive and deliver the message to mankind. Its explanation is God’s task. We need a scientific methodology to interprete thew Quran. I have worked this out and submitted it for comment and criticism in my book, Hadis – Jawapan kepada Pengkritik.
Kassim Ahmad is a Malaysian author. His website is www.kassimahmad.blogspot.com