Mar 27, 2009

The Quran and the west

Quantum note
Dr Muzaffar Iqbal
After a century of concerted efforts to discredit hadith literature as a veritable source of Islam, the Western academia has now diverted its full attention to the Noble Quran. There are, literally, thousands of new graduate students working on various aspects of the Quran at different Western universities. Numerous books are being published on the Quran and there is an increasing number of graduate and undergraduate courses in the department of religious studies specifically devoted to the Book held sacred by one-fourth of humanity. This new attention to the Quran is neither accidental nor incidental; it is also not a well-planned conspiracy; it is simply the most logical outcome of Western attitudes towards Islam and its source material.This new attention to the Quran is not without affinities to certain recent global events which have strained the relationships between Muslims and the West in general. Like the Crusades and the Turkish Wars of the previous centuries, which produced an enormous interest in the Quran in Western Christendom, current global tensions have generated a new round of scrutiny of the Quran by Western thinkers, clergy and academia. These new tensions have also created a certain degree of urgency (and funding) to study the Quran, which is now being seen as the very root of the "Muslim problem," not only by certain European and American politicians but also by some scholars and religious leaders.This perceived problem comes, more specifically, from the Quranic verses on Jihad, which have attracted the attention of many influential politicians and various think-tanks. As a result of fear, misunderstanding, and sheer ignorance, "terrorism" is also being linked to the Quran. Certain Muslim governments have been forced to "expunge" many verses dealing with Jihad from the educational curricula. The vigorous military, political, economic and cultural campaign now underway has, however, not remained in the domain of politics; it has its academic counterpart, just as the Orientalism of yesteryears was not merely an academic exercise.The Quran and the West, one of the first books on the Quran published in the West after the events of Sept 11, 2001, is a case in point. The author, Kenneth Cragg, who "for six decades has been recognised and praised as one of the West's most gifted interpreters of Islam," is pre-occupied with the relevance of the Quran to the events of that day, which he takes for granted as being the work of Muslims who were "inspired by the Quran." While both these premises are doubtful, what is relevant here is the sheer force of these events, leading Western scholars and religious leaders like Cragg to look into the Quran to discover the root of the "inner crisis in the liability of Islam." In his book Cragg oscillates between condemning the "harsh belligerence in the Quran, a strong pugnacity on behalf of faith," and what he calls its "gentler side." Despite his counsel to Westerners to respect the Quran and Muslims, Cragg's own highly charged book is filled with overt and covert insults and disparaging remarks. His book is primarily an attempt to sift and separate apart from the Book of Allah portions that he calls the "acceptable Quran"--the one that has no political content, no theme under the title of Jihad save the jihad bi'l-nafs, a Quran with no role in the shaping of society, for "the political power-exercise only came at all for the briefer Medinan period and had been firmly excluded throughout the defining Meccan years when only the ever prior preaching task was given [to the Prophet]." He does this by making a sharp distinction between the Makkan and Medinan period of the Prophet's life as well Makkan and Medinan surahs--this time in a much harsher manner than he had done in his 1971 work, The Event of the Quran: Islam and Its Scripture. This is, by no means, an isolated example of the Western academic attitude towards the Quran.Historically, the current Western academic attitudes can be traced back to the work of the nineteenth Orientalists and, through them, to the five centuries of discourse on the Quran by Christian polemists-cum-philologists who appeared on the Western academic scene in the fourteenth century, when the Church Council of Vienna, held in 1312, announced the establishment of chairs in Arabic, Greek, Hebrew, and Syriac at Paris, Oxford, Bologna, Avignon, and Salamanca. It is the vast store of Orientalism from which most of the current Western discourse on the Quran derives its kinetic pressure and material resources, although "today an Orientalist is less likely to call himself an Orientalist than he was almost any time up to World War II," as Edward Said had noted in 1978.The contemporary academic discourse on the Quran has re-cloaked itself in new garb in order to distinguish itself from Orientalism proper, but it is unreasonable to assume that any scholarly tradition can dissociated itself from the core values, assumptions and premises of its mother-tradition. Thus, while the current academic writings on Islam are no more the sole dominion of the erstwhile Orientalist, the study of Islam as a subject alongside other religions in the relatively new departments of religious studies, as well as in the older and well-established area study departments and departments of languages and literature at numerous British, European and North American universities, has umbilical links with the Orientalism of yesteryears. A general survey of the contemporary Western academic study of the Quran makes it abundantly clear that it cannot rid itself of the very foundation on which it stands, because, as Edward Said noted, "despite its failures, its lamentable jargon, its scarcely concealed racism, its paper-thin intellectual apparatus, Orientalism [continues to] flourish."

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