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1. Allah says in the Qur’an about the Qur’an, that it is a self-consistent, coherent message from the Creator to the most favoured among His creatures. He also says of it that it is the final revelation of His will and purpose for mankind, the completion and perfection of what He has sent down for our guidance. And He says that we need this guidance in order to prepare for accountability to Him hereafter. This means that all other life-ways or religions (whether older or newer than the din established by the Qur’an) are subject to a test of coherence with the Qur’an. The teaching in them is useful and valid for our preparation for the accounting hereafter only insofar as it passes such application of the Qur’an as criterion. (This applies to human derivations from the Qur’an such as fiqh and historical developments and geographical variations in Islamic culture: see 3e.)
2. It follows from that fundamental principle – the self-consistency, coherence and sufficiency of the Qur’an – that the Qur’an’s descriptions of its functions are also to be understood as consistent, coherent and sufficient. Among those descriptions, the most familiar are:
a it is guidance, and mercy and healing;
b it is hope and warning, promise and threat;
c it is writ (kitab), secure point of reference and criterion (furqan);
d it is recitation (qur’an), in particular recitation in Arabic.
3. Those descriptions of its functions are necessarily coherent with the descriptions of its form, the how those functions are conveyed and realised:
a The Qur’an is unique and inimitable, though conveyed in a still living human language subject to the variations that come with the varied historical experience of that language’s community of users. The like of even a portion of it has never been and can never be reproduced by any human effort, individual or collective, not even if aided by collaboration with the jinn.
b The Qur’an is coherent and consistent because it is the discourse of the One God, the Beneficent and Merciful, and has never been deviated (as we find with other religious writings) by the human need to construct authority around a theological or philosophical concept, or the human need for a foundation story, a drama around a particular heroic founding figure, or heroic people, or heroic epoch or location.
c The Qur’an is beautiful, so that (in addition to the comfort of being certain it is from Allah), the hearing and reciting of it pleases and comforts the believer’s soul. This pleasure and comfort are signs of what it will be like to be near Allah when the hope (or need) is strongest of His forgiveness at the accounting. That is the reason why a believer hearing or reciting the Qur’an alone is often overwhelmed by trembling and tears.
d The Qur’an speaks always with the majesty and authority of Allah. It is accordingly free not only of the biases and narrowness of human intention and attention, but free also of the limitations of human feeling: it does not use the hateful, vehement language of those whose will and purpose have been frustrated. (Examples of such language attributed to God abound in other religious writings; the only examples of that sort of speech within the Qur’an are presented as the utterance of frustrated, defeated tyrants like the Pharaoh, and those who mock and persecute the believers).
e The Qur’an is the discourse of Allah. Its guidance is accordingly not subject to any sort of literary or philosophical “development”: in contrast to other religious writings (in the form in which they have been preserved to our time) there is in the Qur’an no “maturing” or “evolving” in the conception of the Divine, or of the relation between the human and the Divine, or of the relation between “nature” and the Divine. (The reason that some sort of “maturing” is found, and indeed to be expected, in scriptures other than the Qur’an is that the texts of these scriptures have, to different degrees, been edited – perhaps spoiled perhaps improved – by many hands over many generations; and the handiwork of human beings always has a history susceptible to historical criticism.) Such history as can be attached to the Qur’an is only to be found in the human response to it, a little during the period of its sending-down (as in what the Qur’an records of responses to the Hijra and certain of the battles with the idolaters and their allies), and a great deal in the subsequent growth of intellectual and material culture among Muslims, including Qur’anic inscription, commentary and interpretation, and implementation.
f The Qur’an is memorable so that some or all of its words, sounds and meanings are readily preserved in the hearts of the believers, and preserved the same by all believers with some acceptable (indeed, most pleasing) variation in the melody and intonation with which the remembered words are chanted publicly.
g The Qur’an is plain in sense (mubin), comprehensible. Its intended meaning is not layered or hidden in a secret language coded in symbols (linguistic or numerical) accessible only to a privileged elite. The accessibility of the meanings of the Qur’an is an essential condition of its being actionable, of its being a lived, embodied din.
4. By way of example of how the principle of consistency works:
the Qur’an may be a sort of elevating inspiration but it cannot be a guidance unless actionable, and it cannot be actionable if its discourse is not mubin.
Its guidance cannot or will not be acted upon unless its discourse touches the soul so that belief in it is as comforting and pleasurable as being healed of an affliction, or as cool shade on a hot day, or as seeing a light and the way ahead when lost and trapped in darkness.
The guidance of the Qur’an cannot or will not be acted upon in a sustained way, as generations pass and circumstances change, as fortune converts to misfortune or the reverse, unless the Qur’an is readily memorised and preserved.
Because it can be and is memorised, the Qur’an’s authority for the believers does not diminish even when and where their status in this world has fallen to the lowest of the low. So it will be heard recited, and provide strength and succour, even in prisons where Muslims, justly or unjustly, are incarcerated. This functioning of the Qur’an as a mercy for humankind helps to keep alive the Muslims’ dignity as believers in Allah, as His servants, even when tyrants compel them (and their children) to say publicly that you can be a good Muslim and yet consume pork and intoxicants (the case presently – as reported in the West – in western China), that you can be a good Muslim and yet proclaim approval of fornication, adultery and enacted homosexual desires (the case presently in all Western countries and those Muslim-majority societies willing to imitate Western legal fashions).
The reliability and stability of the Qur’an is a factor in its authority for believers, which is a factor in its being comforting to the soul, which is a factor in the desire to live by it, to benefit from it as guidance… … and so the different self-descriptions of the Qur’an cohere and combine and support the human effort to live by it.
5 The quality of being “acted upon”, of being “lived by”, is decisive of the fulfilment of a believer’s duty to the Qur’an. But it is decisive only in the same way that flowering and fruiting is decisive of a plant’s kind and of that plant’s health. For the plant does not cease to be an instance of its kind, nor does it cease to be alive, while it is not flowering or not bearing fruit – it can be “just holding on” for the appropriate season or other conditions necessary for it to flower and bear fruit.
I use that image just to make clear that, in our modern times, when hijra (self-uprooting, migration away from sin cities) is practically impossible, the severe limitations on how the din is embodied by Muslims, even in formally Muslim-governed societies, should not make us disconsolate or desperate. Since belief is rooted in the heart, the immaterial centre of being, it is not destructible with the destruction of the right material conditions for easily sustaining the belief in the heart. Such destruction only makes belief more difficult, requiring exceptional vigilance with exceptional steadfastness and perseverance (sabr).
6. The first stage of vigilance is to make ourselves aware that the Qur’an as a whole is actionable. That awareness is especially necessary when the conditions for living by the Qur’an are not immediately present. If Muslims are not vigilant, they will lapse into the error of believing that only the commands and prohibitions in the Qur’an, its do’s and don’ts, are actionable. So when tyrannies (formally and overtly, or craftily by manipulating the spaces controlling freedom of belief, thought and action) stop you from doing the do’s or somehow compel you to do the don’ts, you will feel that you have not lived the din, that you have failed Islam and Islam has failed in the world. If this state of mind persists, the commitment to Islam narrows to an exaggerated, vehement need to preserve the symbols of Islam, and to preserve Islam as symbols. It is in this state of mind that the Qur’an comes to be treated as a sacred object, instead of being treated as actionable guidance.
7 It is important that I am not misunderstood here. I am not saying that reverential behaviours with the Qur’an – its use in decorative inscriptions in the mosque (which replace the pictures and statuary found in prayer-sites of other religions); “professional” dedication to the art of recitation; special gatherings to honour and reward the best recitation; the preservation in museums and libraries of beautiful examples of Qur’anic calligraphy; the use of the Book in political ceremonies (or indeed in private ceremonies: for example, I have seen at weddings people holding copies of the Book above their heads in the shape of an arch, under which bride and groom are encouraged to pass – a way of expressing the hope that the marriage will be blessed by Allah) – I am not saying that such behaviours are “wrong”. They are not wrong. Reverence for the Qur’an is right, always, albeit making reverence something elaborate and expensive is troubling. What is wrong is that hearts and minds do not open to the Qur’an, do not open up to and reflect on its meanings, that believers do not test or question themselves as to how well they have understood and tried to implement the Qur’an in their lives.
8 Devotion to the Qur’an as the discourse of Allah has to be something more active than an “atmosphere”, a “mood”, an aesthetic of “spirituality”, to be enjoyed at the end of the working day or week, as a sort of “holy time”, a sort of escape and relief from the burdens of life. The appeal of Muslim forms of spirituality as an aesthetic works just as well for non-Muslims as for Muslims – they too can “enjoy” touring mosques and soaking up “the atmosphere”, and they too can “love” the call to prayer (especially before dawn and after sunset) without feeling any need or obligation to answer it. It may well be okay to think of the Qur’an as a beautiful, sacred thing. There are old and beautiful maps held in libraries and museums, admired and studied for information about past geography and how to represent past understanding and past uses of that geography. But such maps are not being seen as maps in the ordinary, practical sense of “map”. As believers we must understand that the Qur’an deserves better from us than that it should be admired and revered as some ancient document with a curious power to evoke a spiritual mood. Non-believers may view and use the Qur’an that way, or as part of the academic study of failed or failing religions. Muslims must do better than that.
9 The tyranny of the dominant political economy may force you to have some dealings with ribawi (interest-tainted) financial instruments and institutions. But you can minimise those dealings, be fully aware of them and not seek to disguise the use of them with pseudo-Islamic legal terminology. And you can prevent those dealings from having any influence on your heart, the core of your being, by greater diligence in the doing of zakah and sadaqa. If the economic system is life-destructive, you can prove to yourself that you are on the side of those who believe it ought not to be: you can emphasise benevolence and kindness in your behaviour, by remembering that such “small” acts as removing litter from the public space, meeting another with a smile, avoiding doing harm to your neighbours even when you don’t much like them – provided such acts are done for the sake of Allah, i.e. because you know they are right – are multiplied hugely in your favour at the accounting hereafter.
The tyranny of political power, fearful of Islam as a threat to the assumptions of its economic system, may forbid Muslim women from wearing the hijab. But no power exists that can prevent men from lowering their gaze, from refusing to look at women as status objects or objects of sexual desire, or prevent women from seeking the pleasure of attracting, or enjoying the power to attract, attention to themselves as objects of sexual desire. In short, hijab can be practised even when it is prohibited. That does not mean the material form off hijab is not important or not necessary – that just modesty in dress and behaviour will do. On the contrary, it is important and necessary to implement the material form of hijab whenever and however it is possible. It is no less important to be mindful that the prohibition of hijab does not destroy Islam; what could destroy Islam is if all Muslims came to believe that the hijab, the material symbol of it and its practiced meaning, is not important and necessary.
Similarly, if the labeling or selling of halal foodstuff is prohibited, you can find consolation in the Qur’an’s permission to consume haram provided there is no desire to do so, no desire to abolish the distinction. More practically, you can improve your commitment to the distinction by making your consumption halal, by strictly limiting that consumption (so you do not become one of the musrifin, the brothers of the devil), and by regularly sharing what you eat with others, even if only with the birds in the park – provided, as always, you do this for the sake of Allah, i.e. because it is right.
10 I do not think it necessary to continue with examples of this kind. What they have in common is that the public dignity of the symbols of Islam is not the purpose of Islam. Of course, we must strive to preserve and protect those symbols. But that should be because they represent a deeper allegiance to Allah, the guidance of His Book and the teachings and example of His Messengers. It should not be because they represent personal or collective identity, which is affronted if those symbols are disrespected. If Islam only matters in respect of cultural identity, then Muslims will never again achieve the equivalent of a secure, successful journey from Makka to Madina and back again.
The general point is that implementation of the din is not conditional on political power to require or impose such implementation. Having majority-status or holding power may make it easier but it does not guarantee that Muslim individuals or societies will implement the din. Only Allah could provide such a guarantee, and He does not provide it for this life. His promise of just recompense for individual and collective human effort, His promise to remove all rancour from the believers’ hearts, to replace unease with ease, to welcome the believers into gardens of paradise with the greeting of peace – all this and the more we cannot even imagine is promised for the hereafter. For the here and now what is promised and provided is the dignity to earn by our effort in this life what awaits us in the next. As I have said, hijra at the present time is practically impossible, but no human power exists that can make self-distancing from what is wrong impossible.
We must as believers turn to the whole of the Qur’an as guidance – the third that teaches us how to conceive of God and how to speak about and speak to him, the third that urges us to learn from the narratives of the peoples and prophets before Islam, the third that gives direction (do’s and don’ts) for the inter-human relations on which our individuality and personal character are dependent, and for our attitudes to the natural world (the earth and heavens, whatever is between them) on which our material survival is dependent. That is a large scope within which to expend our energy as Muslims.