World’s Oldest Qur’an – A Symbol of Modern Endeavour

This blog first appeared as my article in Arabian Gazette on July 26, 2015. Click here for the original version

The discovery of oldest Qur’an fragment in Birmingham is a moment of excitement and reflection for the modern Muslim world.

Oldest Quran revealed

The discovered fragment of Qur’an carries parts of three chapters

For the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, Qur’an provides a rich experience of devotion and knowledge that has transcended languages & cultures. Touted as the world’s most memorized book, the Qur’an decks the homes of faithful, often closely combined with its exegesis authored by scholars who spent a lifetime understanding the nuances of what is believed to be the divine speech. A refuge of sorts for the believer, a comprehensive understanding of the book allows for the book to pour in wisdom at every pit-stop of the journey called life.

[pullquote]The leaves of parchment have been carbon-dated back 1,500 years – a time period that makes the object of discovery contemporaneous with Prophet Muhammed (PBUH)[/pullquote]

Much of the West’s interaction with the Qur’an is marked more by its content than the book itself. Speaking on the 9/11 attack, Hamza Yusuf – described by the New Yorker Magazine as most influential Islamic scholar in the Western world – said, “Islam was hijacked on that plane as an innocent victim.” The spate of attacks undertaken in the guise of Islamic legitimacy has stirred up a wave of tirade against the role of the holy book.

The majority moderate Muslims’ close-knit relationship with the book has been a fertile ground for condemnable acts that riled up emotions.  Perhaps the most infamous of them being a failed attempt by Pastor Terry Jones to incinerate the revered book.

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A leaf from history

The pages of the world’s oldest Qur’an recently discovered in Birmingham is a gratifying victory at best, and at the least, a consolation from the grim challenges of integration and other dire events for Muslims in the West.

The leaves of parchment have been carbon-dated back 1,500 years – a time period that makes the object of discovery contemporaneous with Prophet Muhammed (PBUH) – the living medium through whom the divine revelation reached the scribes and tribes at large.

“The person who actually wrote it could well have known the Prophet Muhammad. He would have seen him probably, he would maybe have heard him preach. He may have known him personally – and that really is quite a thought to conjure with.” – David Thomas, Professor of Christianity and Islam at Birmingham University.

On the question of how the historic folios emerged from here, Dr. Yasir Qadhi, a prominent Islamic cleric in America and professor at the Religious Studies Department of Rhodes College, had the following to say on his Facebook page

A fundamental tenet of Islam is the belief in its flawless preservation, and to the effect means that the devotional dimension of this find would remain largely unmoved. What breathes soul into the discovery is its context – incidentally a Qur’anic reality that eludes those who use the very same verses for sinister gains.

A symbol of modern endeavour

Two news-grabbing events collided with the discovery – David Cameron’s controversial Anti-Extremism Bill and a shooting range declared as ‘Muslim-free zone’ by a Florida gun-shop owner. While the first is considered as knee-jerk measures that risk disenfranchising Muslims further away from the social fabric, the latter casts a shadow of suspicion due to the misgivings of an isolated incident. Both cases hold a mirror to the challenges faced by Muslims in the West, and their continous struggle to reconcile their religious identity with secular beliefs.

In the discovery is a lesson for those who have debated the relevance of Islam in today’s age. Just like the fragments stood the test of time, Muslims are expected to inspire resillience against weathering challenges like the ones mentioned above. While the scholars of tomorrow are trained in the confines of a seminary in the Arab World, opportunities for engagment arise out of a University in UK. Our obsession with that which is literal and neglect of wisdom has taken conversation away from the divine speech to prime-time debates.

Taha - 2

In light of current challenges, this verse from Surah-Taha, Chapter 20, scribed on the parchment deserves reflection

The Hijazi script inked in the parchment is a reminder of the magnificence and beauty ingrained in the literary representation of Islam. It begs a reflection on the current state of the Islamic world – divine wisdom written and preserved for posterity is short-changed and perverted by agents of violence.

Like the fragments in the observatory room which represent the complete book, the diverse Muslim communities should aim to confidently represent what the faith ultimately stands for and unites us with. Just as any text scripted from ill-conceived fringes of the faith cannot pass as divine word, intolerance developed outside the folds of peace should not pass as being Muslim.

A thousand years from now, pages from another chapter of the Qur’an may emerge at a centre of learning. Reaffirming the authenticity, the question will not revolve around the text, but rather the spirit of the book observed by Muslims.

And it isn’t the historic, but Muslims in modern times that will have to be prepared with a response.

The Closet Eater – On Ramadan Rules for Non-Muslims

I once heard the story of an Imam who was invited for lunch by a Non-Muslim. The Imam accepted the offer and gorged on the feast which included a stream of savoury & confectionary delights. While he was washing down the cake with water, it struck him – he had forgotten that it was the month of Ramadan and he was fasting. Had the feast invalidated the fast? The resounding opinion is a “no.”

This story is often used to explain that fasting is not about merely abstaining from food and drink. In a state of forgetfulness, your spiritual commitment to fast takes precedence over even large quantities of food consumed. In Islamic countries populated with an expatriate mix, the central message of Ramadan – i.e. the spiritual and not gastronomical – should form the centre of all cultural education.

At times, our over-reliance on protectionist rules tends to nudge the discussion in the wrong direction. Some strict rules governing conduct in Ramadan – undoubtedly to protect sentiments and make fasting convenient – may lead many to believe that not eating & drinking is the be all and end all of the holy month. Rather than being a month of reflection for people of all faiths, we risk making the Non-Muslims anxious over their eating habits.

The 'other side' of Ramadan. It's common to find make-shift veil arrangements to separate eating areas during the holy month

The ‘other side’ of Ramadan – it is common to find make-shift veil arrangements to separate eating areas during the holy month

A less pampered Ramadan is important as people observing the fast become more mobile than ever – traveling on business trips or residing in a non-Islamic country for other, long-term purposes like education. We may not always have the luxury of people, encouraged by the law or without it, covering their sandwich for the fear of offending us. At some point in our lives, fasting may span more than 18 hours in a country where our friends & colleagues would be discussing where to have their 4th meal of the day.

Moreover, attempts at ‘avoiding offence’ sometimes offend our intellect. I spotted this at a local McDonald’s outlet, and I doubt if I would have really taken note of this little eatery had it not been for this clumsy barrier. I don’t know how it benefits my state of fasting, if anything, it makes me chuckle.

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You also hear of the odd instance when someone’s upset with the spirit of Ramadan not being observed, as this letter to the 7Days newspaper suggests. The letter shows that the conception of Ramadan is ill-understood by some and restricted to the physical manifestations of food and water. Threads that discuss the “Do’s & Dont’s in Ramadan” are usually lopsided towards the cautionary don’ts. Instead of people inquiring about the month and asking questions that can be retained a lifetime, people are busy making sure you’re taste-buds are not tempted before dusk…for 30 days.

And if it’s important to state it bluntly – nope, nobody in the state of fasting would keel over and die if he/she spotted someone eating or drinking. (Unless I saw you eating vanilla ice-cream, in which case It’ll be difficult to recover from the shock at your choice of flavour.)

This month for us is a battle against the fleeting temptations of our body. It’s a month to recognize that while others are being asked to abstain from eating in front of us, we binge-eat our hearts out without caring for the unfortunate who’s life is stuck in the darkness of dusk. (Sometimes, we eat our way to the hospital!) It’s a call to hear the grumbling of our stomach and feed the hungry of this world, and try to introduce at least a glimmer of dawn in their lives. It’s not a month of McDonald’s as much as McCare & McEmpathy.

What encouraged me to write this article is a recent conversation with a (Non-Muslim) friend. He told me that Ramadan sometimes taxed his mind & body more than the regular months, especially because he delayed refreshing himself with water till he reached home after the long commute in his car. When I offered my commiserations, he brushed it away saying that not eating in front of us was the least he could offer as a respect to the spirit of Ramadan. With such high morals, I’m sure this friend, even without the enforcement of rules, would display the best manners to respect our holy month.

However, I also understand the the role of some measured stern policies when required. Perhaps maybe, just maybe, a monetary penalty may rectify a deliberate & persistent behaviour that flouts the norms and harmony of a culture.

In my humble opinion, it’s time we fasting Muslims reclaimed the true spirit of Ramadan and diverted the attention of our beloved Non-Muslim friends towards that which increases their respect for the religion. It’s time we spoke less of staying away from waffles and instead explained the wisdom behind the waffle-less hours. Gentle reminders to uphold the spirit and abide by the unwritten rules of good manners can ensure that people follow the spirit of the law instead of fretting over its letter.

Dubai in particular and the United Arab Emirates as a whole boasts a splendid array of cultures and mindsets. The month of Ramadan provides the best opportunity to sensitize Non-Muslims about the religion. With the ‘us vs them’ narrative besetting the region, UAE harbours a sense of harmonious belonging to a home and people that exhibit a healthy diversity.

It could also be the country where a Non-Muslim’s depth of understanding Ramadan rivals his/her Muslim counterparts, provided the understanding comes through gradual interaction and not enforced laws.