The Qur’an and Coherent Heterodoxy: A Book and System Beyond Religion

(Source: Adli Wahid)

Note: I’m quoting extensively from a page devoted to correctly analyzing and rightly criticizing traditionalist translations of Qur’anic verse 4:34, the so-called “wife-beating verse”. Its author is Wakas Muhammad from the United Kingdom. Here, my interest is in both his personal story and his methodology for studying the Qur’an. Both he and I are not scholars, simply seekers.

When someone else has found the words for the thoughts and feelings I share, I let them do the talking. As time passes, I become even more convinced of the necessity of interpersonal exchanges from laypeople, away from centers of power and gatekeepers of knowledge.

Have you read the Qur’an? Have you tried? It can be confusing. Believe me, I know. Especially if you are like me and didn’t grow up with any sort of religious background. Moreso if you grew up in a milieu or you actively chose to be reject the idea of religion in the first place in your youth. The very idea of some god on high commanding you to surrender could seem odious to some, especially westerners. Many seem to think an ineffable, divine reality goes against logic and science. I remember going to hardcore punk shows in Riverside county or while browsing the Bridge 9 messageboards in high school, and seeing, alongside the straight edge community, a significant atheist presence, some with tattoos such as: “I’ll die before I kneel.” Maybe they were anti-monarchists, but I doubt it.

The Qur’an is unlike the Bible or any other religious text. The parables of prophets and admonitions of the life to come, of the absolute unity of God, and of the importance of good works are scattered throughout its 114 chapters, arranged in descending order according to length.

Things can become simultaneously more inspiring and confusing when you’re wading into the waters of Islam; researching what you’ve read, watching lectures on YouTube, talking to Muslims if you have the opportunity, reading histories and theologies.

By then you’ll surely have discovered there is a vast trove of narrations recounting the supposed actions and sayings of the prophet Muhammad, compiled a few centuries after his death. This is the hadith literature. By now, while reflecting on your existence and seeing the signs in your life and in the world, you might be convinced of the existence of God, and possibly the veracity of the Prophet Muhammad.

But there might also be doubt. Your family or friends might not understand the changes that seem so clear and logical to you. You might agree with 90% of Islamic teachings according to the scholars.

I remember one Ramadan night in Nouakchott. It was after iftar and I was enjoying the warm evening desert air with two Muslim neighbors from France. The topic turned from the Islamist takeover of northern Mali to capital punishment. One of them mentioned how the people of Azawad, sick of the corruption and indifference of Bamako and lawlessness that was born because of it, some citizens welcome the takeover and the imposition of rajm, or stoning. Regardless of the Qur’anic silence on the matter (to be very clear, stoning is not mentioned in the Qur’an) and my disgust, the other neighbor, a convert himself, said, “Well, like it or not, it is part of Islam.”

We have not neglected in the Register a thing.
— Qur’an [6:38]

Despite clear admonition to not innovate upon the system that God has laid out, we have innovated.

It is beyond the scope of just one post to articulate my own journey and current views vis-a-vis hadith of almost a decade. But I guess this is what a blog is for; a continuous dialogue, in flux. I briefly touched on some of those thoughts in an earlier post.

All this to say; each of us has a journey, and I have found hope and solace in others’. The following is for two types of readers; Those interested in hearing of someone else’s experience following the straight path [6:151-153], and those looking for some guidance on what to make of the Qur’an using only itself as a reliable source.

Wakas Muhammad’s Journey

I’ve quoted a few illuminating passages from Wakas Muhammad’s about page regarding his relationship to Islam and the Qur’an. He was born into a traditionally Sunni Muslim household, while I came into the fold later in life via the shahada in Sunni Mauritania. We’ve never met. But we share an affinity for nature, are skeptical of authorities, and an inquisitive mind in common. I highly recommend reading his full story.

On accepting the core and questioning the presumed authorities:

“So whilst I questioned Islam, I never really questioned its core belief.”

“…there was simply no way of knowing if my Sunni Islam was the right version. I often thought if I was brought up as a Shia Muslim for example I’m sure I’d think Shia was the right version and Sunni was wrong.”

“I had no idea then, that this simple and subtle shift in direction was to lead me somewhere I never imagined: to a book and system that was beyond Sunni or Shia, in fact, to a book and system that was beyond religion.

On often overlooked hadith criticism of early Islam:

“Namely, the traditional Hadith are a mix of truth and falsehood, littered with traditions/culture/politics/conflict/views of the time and nothing to do with the universal message of The Quran. Hearsay pawning itself of as the direct words of prophet Muhammad when in fact it was compiled generations after (like The Bible!) through arbitrary means and ultimately unverifiable chains of narration. An important point I realised was the authenticity of Traditional Hadith was in question right from the start, bans were in place, hadith scripts were systematically collected and burned by Caliphs Abu Bakr and Umar, people jailed for spreading them, opposition to them having an obligatory status was significant, no early school of thought used them as an obligatory source of law, conflicts arose etc. Eventually however, this new Hadith-centric position triumphed. Unfortunately, this is the history Muslims are not taught, as the saying goes: “it is the victor’s history that goes to school”. Just like in the past, history had repeated itself:

  • Moses delivered God’s message, afterwards, most of his followers became misguided.
  • Jesus delivered God’s message, afterwards, most of his followers became misguided.
  • Muhammad delivered God’s message, afterwards, most of his followers became ?

Muslims seem to think we are immune to this pattern in history. Like me they have no idea it has happened to us as well [6:112-116], [25:30].”

On the long process of smashing idols and rebuilding faith:

“Even though I had effectively accepted The Quran as the only source for Islam, I hadn’t realised to what extent tradition/culture had been incorporated into everyday practice/beliefs. This point in the journey is not for the faint-hearted! Many Traditional Muslims will accept that not all traditional Hadith can be trusted (hence weak/strong classification, etc.) and most will state The Qur’an is the primary source, but like many I had no idea that the Islam taught by the Qur’an was almost unrecognizable to the Islam practiced today.”

“This is where many end the journey. This part requires someone to actively study/seek/research/question their own beliefs as well as their family/friends, etc. It requires the breaking down of myths, embracing uncertainty, periods of confusion mixed with joy and clarity, rebuilding of ideas… who would want to put themselves through that? Not many. The more I researched, the more disillusioned, confused, lost I became. It is important to point out it was not because it didn’t make sense, it was because it was shaking my beliefs down to the ground. It was just so different and unexpected to what I had been taught. Slowly but surely I began to connect the dots and see the big picture. I now realize it was necessary to break down my beliefs and rebuild on a solid foundation [9:109]. Like most, I started with a core starting point (belief in God) but had built upon it a mixture of Islam + tradition + culture + myths + hearsay + bias. This was not a solid structure, so I began to dismantle it using the ultimate falsehood smasher; the Qur’an. Akin to how a sculptor does not keep adding clay to his subject, actually, he strips away the inessentials until its true form is revealed, and the truth is beautiful.”

On monotheism and faith as an ongoing exercise:

“To end, I consider myself a monotheist who inclines towards the Qur’an because it resonates with who I am and how I see the world, and I try to live by its principles. My working hypothesis is that it is the Word of God and I am in an ongoing verification process, and I am still learning. I am not religious, nor do I wish to be, for the Qur’an is a book beyond religion. I do not know if I chose this path, or the path chose me, but I will continue to walk it, because I choose to.

As the saying goes: “there is a difference between knowing the path and walking the path”. I believe most Traditional Muslims know the path but are unwilling to walk it, or if they do walk it, they prefer to be led down the path by their religious leaders. When one has the guiding light of the Quran, there is no need for another shepherd.”

Toward A Rational, Nonsectarian Qur’anic Study Framework

I became aware of this list years ago and saved a copy in my notes on my phone. I didn’t know who had written it then. It might have been on tumblr, or another social network where works are passed around often without any original accreditation accompanying them. Only when I wanted to share this did I find the author and his page. The links direct to quran.com, an easy-to-use online Qur’an with multiple translations.

  1. Look to its internal examples, stories within it give us lessons, it is a clarification for all things [7:176], [12:3], [12:111], [17:89], [18:54]
  2. Any interpretation must always be understood in a way that is focused on benefiting mankind and our development [13:17]
  3. Any understanding should reflect its attributes, such as: wisdom, mercy, healing, noble, glad tidings, blessing, clear etc. [2:97], [10:57], [15:1], [17:82], [36:2], [45:20], [56:77], [85:21]
  4. Seek God’s spiritual aid, away from the forces of satan/opposition (e.g. emotional instability, personal desire, self-delusion, arrogance, prejudice, deviation) [16:98]
  5. Seek knowledge, verify, use your God-given senses [17:36], [39:9]
  6. To not believe in the Hereafter can act as a barrier to its understanding [17:45-46]
  7. Guides to what is straight/upright/establishing [17:9]
  8. It increases guidance for the guided, i.e. those who continuously turn towards it, seek it, and follow it [19:76]
  9. It has not been sent to make us suffer unnecessarily, thus any interpretation should bear this in mind [20:2]
  10. Its information and teachings should map to our reality (within our psyche, experience and to the furthest horizons). All signs, internal and external can point to the truth of it and act as a verification mechanism [21:10], [30:30], [41:53], [51:20-21]
  11. Open your heart and mind [7:179], [22:46]
  12. Those closest are those who believe and do good works, implying God-consciousness/righteousness and understanding could go hand-in-hand [22:54], [34:37]
  13. It is the criterion with which to determine/judge [2:185], [6:114-115], [25:1]
  14. It contains the best response/explanation [17:41], [25:33]
  15. Knowledge of archaeology, biology, physics, history, sciences, philosophy, etc. will all help to better understand it [3:137], [3:190-191], [29:20], [45:3-4]
  16. Advised not to blindly follow the teachings of our ancestors [2:170], [7:28], [6:112], [7:70], [26:74], [43:23]
  17. A guide for the God-conscious/forethoughtful, there is no doubt in it, thus understandings which raise doubt about it must be carefully reviewed [2:2], [3:138], [10:37]
  18. Shows the importance of reflection, to deeply consider/think [2:219], [3:191], [6:50], [10:24], [16:44], [30:21], [34:46]
  19. Listen and consider other views and follow what is best of them [39:18], [42:38]
  20. Variance rejected, no crookedness, one consistent source is the preference [39:27-29]
  21. Remain true to its principles of justice, equivalence, fairness, compassion, opting for the good/better response etc. [3:195], [4:135], [5:8], [8:61], [28:54], [42:40]
  22. Ground oneself in solid principles and maintain sincerity [3:79], [75:18]
  23. Apply what you learn/know [3:79], [75:18]
  24. Language is not a barrier, belief/acceptance of it will help understanding [41:44]
  25. Tadabbur means to ponder over something giving careful consideration to its consequences [23:68], [47:24]
  26. Disapproves of conjecture/guesswork and promotes examination of evidence [2:111], [6:116], [21:24], [45:24], [49:6], [53:28]
  27. Anything from God will not have contradiction/inconsistency/variance. This also applies to our understanding as well. If we formulate a correct interpretation of the Qur’an, we will find that everything falls into place (This is one of the most crucial criteria) [4:82]
  28. Stick with a solid/proven source, not a baseless narration/hadith. The Qur’an is the best, most truthful and only obligatory hadith [4:87], [31:6], [39:23], [77:50]
  29. Purity of mind/heart will grasp it. Work on this aspect of oneself as you seek guidance [56:79]
  30. Do not rush our learning, read what is easy of it, gradually build knowledge and acceptance to strengthen one’s heart, and ask God to increase our knowledge [5:101], [20:114], [25:32], [73:20], [75:17]
  31. Try to utilize and appreciate its complete system of concepts [6:114], [12:111], [16:89], [17:89], [18:54], [39:27]
  32. Majority opinion means nothing [6:116], [12:106]
  33. Be wary of following desires as opposed to following God’s revelation [6:56], [13:37], [30:29], [42:14-15]
  34. Promotes logical thinking [2:258], [2:260], [6:75-79], [12:26-27], [21:22], [21:57-67], [22:5-6], [23:91], [36:78-79]
  35. In order to receive a weighty or profound word or saying, we need to arrange the likenesses in the Qur’an, e.g. cross-reference concepts/words/topics [73:4-5]
  36. Give it full attention, focus [7:204]
  37. Strong affinity towards use of reason [8:22]

With the Qur’an as a measuring stick, one finds a universal, timeless reminder, inclining toward peace, security, for all, regardless of faith-based identity. When hadith are introduced as a supplement, the picture becomes murkier, more 7th century, and more dislocated, at least for me.

Far from the book of an exclusivist religious group preoccupied by rituals and dogma (as some portray it), the Qur’an is meant for all people, for all time. It would serve us Muslims well to examine deeper into our history and traditions to become better stewards of the Message. It is 2019 and the world will not become less complicated. But we can, using the same intersectional critiques we use for other religious communities, un-complicate the Qur’an and open the door to other seekers, especially those not born into the faith.

Many thanks to Wakas Muhammad for his story and his Qur’anic study methodology. Thanks for reading this far.

Further Reading:

Doubt and Belonging in Search of Truth

I could quote every paragraph of folio’s post on searching for truth in a time of modern secularity but I’ll leave this gem that resonated with me.

The desire to be a part of a movement or a community of the likeminded is a deceptive diversion from reality: it obscures what we are really called to, replacing personal ethical responsibility with group-think. In contrast to what is commonly taught amongst Muslims, the Qur’an cautions against following herd instinct: “If you obey most people on earth, they will take you away from the easy path of God.” [6:116] Belonging, really, is not what it is all about.

Sometimes I am surprised how little these friends of mine know me, as they bombard me with the ramblings of men linked to me only by a very generic profession of faith. We are not called upon to embrace what others say out of a sense of pious solidarity. The truth is just truth; it is founded on the argument, not on belonging to a particular group or ethnicity. None of this is new.

I’ve tried writing my own thoughts, but it all comes out as gibberish. Soon, God willing.

Confronting Islamophobia On Social Media

Juan Cole’s deconstruction of Adam Milstein’s islamophobic tweet should be highlighted.

  • Cole unpacks the conspiracies surrounding the supposed connection between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR),
  • he highlights Milstein’s own history and biases,
  • and finishes by touching on Reps. Tlaib and Omar’s backgrounds. Even with a cursory understanding of contemporary political Islam, it’s clear these representatives are singled out for being Muslim and willing to question the political status quo vis-à-vis Israel.

Juan Cole is an informed scholar and blogger on Islam and Muslims. If right-wing pundits and politicians refuse good-faith attempts by Muslims to engage in dialogue, the least they can do is listen to non-Muslim experts. Take the short history lesson of Muslim Brotherhood as an example:

In short, the US government has had a complex relationship with Muslim Brotherhood branches, but for the most part has been perfectly willing to cooperate with them, and sometimes has actively promoted them. The outlier is Hamas in Gaza, which has its origins in the Muslim Brotherhood, and which was promoted by Israeli intelligence in the 1980s and after as a way of dividing the Palestinians.

We need to work against these lazy attacks by those who wish to score political points with their base. It’s dangerous.