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.

SEE ALSO: Redefining the Fourth Estate –Snapchat’s #Mecca_Live

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 Curious Case of Zakir Naik

Like many, I too was drawn to Peace TV and the myriad of Islamic clerics and speakers it lent a platform to. It was, at least to my knowledge, the first time a Muslim had easy access to understanding his faith from scholars belonging not just to a handful of Gulf states, but from speakers who practiced their faith in UK, Canada, USA, Pakistan and India. To a majority of Indian Muslim, the barrier of Arabic language was broken and knowing their religion made easy and comprehensible with verses of the Qur’an and the sayings of the Prophet explained in Hindi & English. Amongst the many speakers & preachers that the viewers saw for the first time, there was one that few were not familiar with – Dr. Zakir Naik.

Hailing from the state of Maharashtra in India, his prolific talks demonstrate uber-memory strength and an impressive ability to rattle references down to the detail of book names, sections, page numbers, and verse numbers of holy scriptures of the Islamic, Christian, Jewish and Hindu faith. For someone who virtually binge-talks on the many aspects of a religion that forms the centre of much discussion and news, Zakir Naik may have well memorized the various controversies he’s been into too.  While I don’t intend to list down every sticky situation he has been in, a recent development may help me touch on a few of them. What should be a proud moment for the preacher and the people who follow his views was responded with an adversarial stance from the media. Or I must say, a stance that manifests into critical denunciation of his life and achievement.

Zakir Naik was awarded Saudi Arabia’s King Faisal International Prize for his service to Islam as one of the renowned non-Arabic speaking promoters of the religion. What would sound like an innocuous story calling for a celebration is actually reported as a controversy in itself. An analysis of the keywords used at the beginning of this paragraph, namely Saudi Arabia and Islam, may help one understand why. However, to understand the mood employed in reporting this story, there’s another keyword that very few can miss – Zakir Naik.

Zakir Naik was awarded the Saudi Arabia's King Faisal International Prize on 3rd February, 2015

Zakir Naik was handed the King Faisal International Award by the recently appointed King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud on 3rd February, 2015

 

A Case in Skewed Reporting

With a humble recognition of the chinks in his verbal and intellectual armour, which I will address in this blog, the reportage of his award by most outlets betrayed a hatred for his success and the following he enjoys. Right from the headline and hanger, drifting down to the body, most articles conveniently mix the man with controversies and the man with the award. The content is beefed up with his views on 9/11 and Osama Bin Laden, and is made to sound mutually non-exclusive with the award and the rationale behind rewarding his services. Very few, like the one I read in Economic Times, introduced the reader to Naik’s run in with the West as a reflection reserved for those who cared to read the article in full. Instead, the articles cast their judgement on the one awarded and questioned the authority of the one awarding, thereby reducing the award itself to an incidental mention – all this in the headline and introductory sentences. The articles do nothing to educate the reader except cast suspicion over Naik and the bygone years of work that resulted in this recognition from the Kingdom.

The controversies cited are no feat of investigative journalism too, with allegations echoing Naik’s remarks on the infamous 9/11 attacks and the issue of terrorism looming large over Muslim societies. He is harshly critical of the US foreign diplomacy and equates their advances on foreign soil as terrorism clad in the garb of democracy and liberation. If this statement provides no breakthrough to your intellectual fodder, it is because many academics and intellectuals around the world, ones with faith or without, have cast similar aspersions.

ZN3

If the headline and the image are important entry points for a story, then this article in The Guardian takes the readers on a scary flight. The image chosen builds a paranoia and adjudges the subject as a culprit

The author of this Scroll.in article goes onto to link Naik to Salafism, a term loosely thrown in so as to suggest an inherent threat associated with it. Had the author taken the mild pain of searching, he would know that Naik publicly disassociates himself with any revivalist movement, specifically Salafism, which has ironically resulted in several ‘pukka Salafis’ rejecting his teachings and ideals. Following the trail of other pieces, albeit with deeper analysis in the Indian context, the writer zeroes in on Naik’s controversial remark to debunk his pedigree, thereby making him look like a laughing stock for the wider Hindu audience whose literature on Zakir Naik may be limited to this online article. 

Saif Mahmood, a student of the University of Waterloo and a keen observer of developments in current affairs & Islam, understands the pitfalls that Zakir Naik’s stage time entails. Acknowledging a smear campaign directed towards Naik, Saif commented:

“I can’t say I would expect it differently from the western media. They probably haven’t read or seen a lot of his work. The reality is that all academics who preach comparative religion and challenge the worldview of the existing paradigm will get a backlash.”

India could barely boast of any English-speaking, globally acclaimed Muslim speaker as an authority in his own faith, leave alone comparative religions. Zakir Naik was that breakthrough, but along with his message of peace and harmony lurked the shadow of his analysis and deconstruction of events and scenarios that was best left unaddressed.

The Folly of Frankness

I cannot help but agree with those who regard his penchant for conspiracy theories on 9/11 as problematic. His critical lambasting of the US aggression in the Gulf sounds more of an emotional outburst than a thorough analysis for the audience to reflect on. It’s one thing to be unsure of the nuances involved in a disaster that changed the dynamics of the world, and another to avowedly side with alternative explanations to a people who take him by his word.

In today’s day and age, the average Indian citizen should rather be inspired to lead a change in his own backyard than explore sinister motives behind the policies of another country. What matters more than ever is the role of Islam in the post-9/11 era, and not a reflection on the nature of the attacks that the world has struggled to grapple with. The sensitivities associated with this event are deep and addressing them deserves a special faculty. Zakir Naik’s open confrontation of this topic and expression of controversial views in front of an audience which –  on many occasions – numbered in thousands, elicited the kind of response that would leave few surprised. Statesmen of UK, USA and Canada took note of his views – perhaps even at times out of context – and denied him a visa. Others who took note were journalists whose stories travel without one.

Another inescapable chink is his ultra-simplistic approach to a much-sophisticated issue. A lot of queries from the listeners that deserved a tailor-made response was instead picked up from one of his previous regurgitation. For an intellect that sharp and a reach so massive, I’d believe that the changing trends in societies could be met with a more dynamic approach. While the average Muslim was equipped with answers to pressing questions that Islamic societies are faced with, a discerning listener could detect waning relevance as questions became more pertinent to modern challenges.

The information accessible to critics and Islamophobes in the age of the internet could not be dealt with the suave yet rudimentary replies of the past. Some of his statements were so plain that they were ready made material over the net to be picked and shred of its context. For instance, several questions on the emergence of sects in Islam were not greeted with an intellectual discourse on its history, rather as a completely rejection of it as an outlier in the body of Islamic orthodoxy. While his narrative on this matter cannot be rejected, a topic so relevant to Indian societies deserved a comprehensive response.

His attempt to relax the ‘terrorist’ stereotype on Muslims with a play on paradox has contributed heavily in landing him in a pit of trouble. “A terrorist is a person who terrorizes the society, and miscreants – be it a thief, rapist or murderer, should be terrorised by the presence of Muslims,” Naik explains to the audience. He concludes the point with his maxim – “hence, every Muslim should be a terrorist.” Though this is usually met with a thunderous applause from the audience, you don’t need a Sherlock moment to understand how other forms of miscreants have (mis)used this statement.

His efforts at harmonious exchange between different faiths sometimes result in tense showdowns. Having watched his videos in full and having had the privilege to watch one of his talks in a live audience, I can sense that his intention has never been to hurt sentiments. Despite his well-intentioned attempt at bridging the gap between Islam and other faiths, his lectures could not escape the odd instances of petty argumentative exhange between the participants of the discussion – which also included members of the mixed-faith audience.Things were changing, but sadly, Zakir Naik’s style and content trailed behind.

To reflect further it bears mention that  Zakir Naik’s views are never meant to be the be all and end all for Muslims in India. In a country caught in a clash of polemic views on modernity and Islam, Naik is the flame that can ignite the quest for Islamic knowledge amongst the educated and rational Muslim.

Beyond Babri Masjid

In the 21st century and particularly post 9/11, there has been a dearth of Muslim speakers from the Indian subcontinent who have guided discussions to core Islamic thinking. Islam in India, like other philosophies, is often embattled with a dash of political cynicism and skepticism. What people found in Zakir Naik was a relief from the debate on mere peripheries of Islam and instead a focus on the fundamental aspects of the faith – the theology, Prophet’s legacy, deconstruction of holy verses, and Islam’s relationship with other Abrahamic and its simalirites with pagan faiths. Far from being apologetic for one’s Muslim identity, Zakir Naik tried to champion a cause of revival in confidence amongst the Muslim youth. Instead of shedding away one’s faith and embracing a false sense of modernity, Naik proved that the skull cap and neck-tie could survive a happy marriage, especially if they were bound by the force of knowledge and conversation.

His oft-repeated invocation from Chapter 3 of the Qur’an can in fact guide the concerted efforts to nurse wounds of communalism – “come to common terms as between us and you.” While the drama of stage, lights, camera, questions and tensions may have taken this focus away from Naik’s lectures, even if momentarily, every individual holds the power to test his or her own mohalla with a renewed philosophy of peace and mutual understanding.

If there’s one thing that I admire Zakir Naik for, it’s his unbridled confidence in representing Islam. Most of us may shy away from our religion and languish in our mediocre understanding of our own faith. Growing into adolescence with a passion for public speaking, Naik’s strong oratory skills was always a treat to watch and admire. To learn further that he was once an acute stammerer speaks fluently of his dedication and will-power. But here’s a man torn between the fan following of thousands and hate-mongering of plenty. We need not choose sides, for choosing the scholar we would like to follow is not an emotional or patriotic decision. It’s a choice we make after a thorough understanding of our context and the ability of the scholar to inspire an honest religiosity.

There was a time when I was inspired by Zakir Naik, but I have now grown beyond his favourite topics he chooses to address. Perhaps, had it not been for him, I would not chance upon and find solace in the teachings of other learned scholars that broaden my horizon of understanding the religion. He was the foundation that now empowers me to respectfully look beyond his style and sermons.

Whether or not Zakir Naik’s sincere contribution to Islam deserves to be dwarfed by the controversies is a topic that would be best addressed by him. And I reckon this face-off between him and his adversaries will not be a simple one.

Come to common terms as between us and you: Surah Imran [Ch:3], verse 64

Review 2014 : When Islam entered some awkward spaces

In the year that we’ve just bade farewell, Islam and Muslims around the world were tested with some disturbing trends. The lion’s share of this obstruction to a routine, peaceful life was contributed by the ISIL – the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant – a separatist group that continues to exercise crime and persecution as you read.

While this transnational occurrence got the debate flowing around its legitimate claims to Islam (read ‘political Islam’), some local and episodic incidences also dictated conversations throughout the year 2014.

Here are 4 incidences in 2014 that I believe took Islam in some awkward spheres of discussion, and my brief take on each of them

4 – In the name of “Allah”…if only a Muslim

In the month of June, 2014, Malaysia’s Muslim-majority country garnered attention and criticism for a contentious decision by the High Court. The ruling refused to overturn a ban on the use of the word ‘Allah’ by Christian communities for reference to ‘God’. Put in place in year 2007, the ban was instituted to avoid confusion amongst the two sister faiths, Islam and Christianity, and obviate the possibility of Muslims converting to Christianity with this common reference.

Image from - www.bbc.co.uk

What’s in a name? Image from – http://www.bbc.co.uk

There is no Islamic Law, at least one with a unanimous consensus, that limits the use of the word ‘Allah’ only by Muslims. Quite on the contrary, it’s a given historical observation that much of the pagans of Makkah used the word ‘Allah’. The Holy Qur’an too has no mention of Jews and Christians (categorised as Ahle-Kitab, People of the Book) being forbidden from using addressing God with this term. In the Book of Psalms, Jesus is recorded to have uttered the word ‘Elahi’ on the cross, the Aramaic pronunciation of the contested word.

My Take – Monopolizing the use of this word in Malaysia, against the reasons cited by the authorities, added more confusion to the social and religious ethos of the Southeast Asian country. This controversial ruling by the judiciary over linguistics and religious rights was widely seen a threat to integration of minority groups in the country. While people of all religions attempt to find common grounds, this divide dents the otherwise peaceful nation regarded as an otherwise exemplary Muslim state.

To watch a detailed discussion on this topic by The Stream on Al Jazeera, click here.

3 – Ready for Tawaf, but first, let’s take a…

Controversy is bound to make its way when the largest religious pilgrimage on a conservative soil meets the new age behaviour of producing visual content. In sharp contrast to a time when television sets and cameras were banned in Saudi Arabia, Hajj in 2014 was in news for reasons other than religion and record statistics. In focus were pilgrims taking pictures of themselves with a digital camera or mobile phone in the midst of the supreme religious environment one witnesses in Makkah.

Image from - www.naharnet.com

A perception of foreground and background. Image from – http://www.naharnet.com

Some clerics regarded this behaviour as disdainful and anathema to the spirit of rituals at Hajj that should be far removed from intentions of boasting.

Taking such selfies and videos defy the wish of our prophet. It is as though the only purpose of this trip is to take pictures and not worship.

-Assim Al-Hakeem, a Saudi based scholar who also has a large audience base on his social media pages

(Quoted from a BBC article)
Many pilgrims, on the other hand, argued that pictures make the pilgrimage special and memorable which can be preserved for posterity.

As this is my first pilgrimage, it is important for me to document all the events taking place around me. Wherever I go, I take pictures, especially since nowadays we have these little cameras… that offer a full view of the area.

– Ali, a pilgrim from Kuwait quoted to Saudi Gazette.

My Take – While there are norms of behaviour that should guide a person’s relationship with his or her religion, an innocent desire to capture a personal journey and pilgrimage should be welcomed with more mercy than what has been demonstrated. It is important to note that while regular selfies could focus on the foreground, #HajjSelfie largely attempts to project the environment of the subject. It is the Kabah and the teeming crowds that a Hujaaj seeks to showcase, rather than his presence at a religious site. In times when the gulf between ignorance and education can be bridged by sharing images over Social Media, the Hajj Selfie can be a powerful tool to enter into a conversation, rather than controversy.

A UAE based writer and communications specialist with the blog name ‘Alex of Arabia’ has written a more detailed analysis on this issue.

2 – A Raw Slap

Indian actress Gauhar Khan was slapped on the sets of a reality show Raw Star, where she played host. As bizarre as this incident of trespassing and assault sounds, the situation took an ugly turn when the coward perpetrator and his motive surfaced.

During the show, Akhil Malik, an Imam of no mosque and a scholar of not even the foundational Arabic alphabets, considered Gauhar Khan’s outfit as offensive to Islam.

Being a Muslim woman, she should not have worn such a short dress. Actresses are the face of society and they should not wear skirts and short clothes as they make youngsters get attracted to them sexually…if actresses stop wearing short clothes, crime will decrease and lead to a better society.

Mufti Google Shaykh Wikipedia Akhil Malik

Quotes taken from independent.co.uk

While Akhil Malik gave is 1.5 cents on Islamic morality and social security, this incident sparked a debate on the notions of modest dressing and the position of Islam in deciding a Muslim’s wardrobe. Out of nowhere, Islam was forced down a host’s throat by a dispirited nobody as the entire country watched a spectacle made of the religion.

My Take – Speaking out of common sense, a religious man that conforms to the ideals of Islam would never hear or even watch an entertainment show, leave alone attending one. When the boiling blood of youth and the despair of an idle mind see no outlet, it takes extreme measures to put across a poorly thought-out point. In all honesty, I have strong doubts about the sincerity of the man who charged at the host. When 10 seconds of fame is compared with misguided religious fervor, the former seems increasingly tempting. The scholars of Islam in India have a daunting task ahead of them. Islamic education, ethics, morals, behaviour and intellectual discourse cannot remain a subject taken at madrassas – at times themselves fraught with inefficiencies and education disconnected from mainstream society.

Ways will have to be carved to educate the Muslim youth of India, who finds himself lost in the abyss of Islamic teachings which usually begin and end at locally funded seminaries. There’s a constant demand to act in accordance with acceptable moderation, and an a professional and academic approach to Islamic education can temper a mind just when it’s needed the most.

Before more young Indian Muslims find themselves humiliating fellow-beings on reality TV shows, a greater reality will have to be addressed – that of their role in the eclectic social fabric of India.

1 – A Jihadi named Romeo

Looks like in every countdown, love emerges winner. This winner has infused in it a healthy dose of hatred.

This story received much traction in the second leg of 2014, owing to its place of origin which boasts the second largest Muslim population in the world – India.

In August 2014, a young girl from Meerut filed a police case for abduction, gang-rape and forced conversion by a group of Muslims. The revised version of the victim in October, however, changed the course of the story when the victim backtracked on her statement. According to her latest confession, she had in fact eloped on her own freewill with the accused.

The period between August and October witnessed a massive counter-reaction to the emergence of this case, mostly from the BJP and it’s heavily right-winged ilk. This incident, referencing to past stray cases involving love and conversion in South India, was termed as Love Jihad – a clever coinage covering two dangerous elements people easily fall to these days.

Some publishing houses did not shy away from expressing  the politics behind this love story.

Some publishing houses did not shy away from expressing the politics behind this love story.

The debate deconstructed the religion, right from its status in India, the political ramifications of the ill-fate incident, the institutions of Islamic studies (madrassas), scholars of religion (ulemas) and many other facets that were awkwardly stuffed into the realm of love and romance. Love Jihad was one of the top trending topics in India at the time. There were hacks for the average Hindu girl to avoid being lured by Muslim men, a move that suffered backlash as most of them refused to accept any of it. Their bodies, they quipped, was not another Babri Masjid open to be swayed by religious sentiments.

My Take – It’s common for Islam in India to be completely divorced from it’s intended role, as an entity that carries with it profound scriptures, deep theology, meaningful rituals and community practices. By centering the Islamic narrative solely around vote-bank politics, the flash-points of weak Muslim performance in India have been often ignored. Weak economic performance, dismal literacy rates, self-segregation and low-levels of quality employment are some of the issues that would benefit from attention and resources. If intermixing of religious communities gives rise to problematic trends, in this case to the likes of #LoveJihad, it should be dealt with methodically, with a fair opportunity given to the common Muslims to voice their opinions.

Love, if anything, should script stories, not awkward controversies.

Latest report of the case can be read on India Today.

Here’s hoping that the only difference 2015 brings is not a coward escape from controversial and awkward situations, but a much thoughtful and respectful response from the Muslim community around the world.