Quran and Violence 4: Some clarifications

Rohit Dhankar

(Continued from part 3)

As I said in my last post, the way I am writing about Quran is open to some serious charges of bias and misinterpretation. I would like to explain my stand clearly on two things: 1. Cherry-picking the verses and taking particularly fundamentalist translation. 2. Ignoring the context of revelation of the verses.

Cherry-picking and fundamentalist translation

In any genuine discourse one should take the most generous interpretation of the theory one is criticizing/critiquing. In respectable discourse this is generally accepted principle. The reason for this stand is not simply the generosity and good heartedness towards the author or protagonist of the theory. There is also a very sound intellectual reason for this attitude. If one can refute the most generous interpretation then the less generous ones get automatically refuted in this attempt, while refutation of the least generous interpretation leaves room for other more generous interpretations still being defendable.

In writing this blog I am deliberately violating this principle. My reasons for this violations are as follows:

  • Quran is not supposed to be a theory advanced by some human being. It is supposed to be a book sent by Allah and the claim is that every word of it is true, inviolable and good for humanity. Therefore, showing one verse that is unacceptable for the humanity should be enough for refuting the claim of perfection and total goodness. Once that is accepted; that Quran is like any other book, we can look for the good and beneficial aspects of the book more generously. But till the claim to perfection and immutability is maintained, there is no point in looking for softer and nicer parts of Quran. Because the fundamentalism and violence is based on the claim of perfection and immutability.
  •  This book is considered perfect guidance to humanity revealed to the perfect prophet. Again, this perfection is the problem; and once the claim of perfection is withdrawn or refuted one can then see the overall benefits or otherwise of the preaching of the prophet, like one does with all political and moral theorists. Then Muhammad can be analyzed like Marx or Plato or Gandhi or anyone else.

Let us take two examples to underline this point further. Bhagvad Gita is taken by some (not many though) as guidance coming directly from Krishna as the ultimate God in human form. If one wants to show that this ultimate God gave verses that could be interpreted as supporting caste, lower position of women and restriction on women one would chose the relevant verses and not the principle of self-less action for the benefit of all humanity. Let’s also remember that there are Hindu fundamentalists who may use Gita for these purposes.

For this let’s look at the verses 32 and 33 of chapter 9 in Bhagavad-Gita:

मां हि पार्थ व्यपाश्रित्य येऽपि स्युः पापयोनयः ।

स्त्रियो वैश्यास्तथा शूद्रास्तेऽपि यान्ति परां गतिम् ॥ ९- ३२ ॥

किं पुनर्ब्राह्मणाः पुण्या भक्ता राजर्षयस्तथा ।

अनित्यमसुखं लोकमिमं प्राप्य भजस्व माम् ॥ ९- ३३ ॥

They are translated by LM Fosse as “For even those of lowly origin, Son of Pritha, such as women, traders, peasants, and servants, reach the highest state when they take refuge in me. (9:32) How much more pure Brahmin devotees and royal sages? When you live in this transient, unhappy world, worship me! (9:33)”

Fosse has already taken the tinge of the words “पापयोनयः”, “वैश्य” “शूद्र” by translating them as “lowly origin” “traders and peasants” and “servants” respectively. We all know “shudra” is not just servant, the cultural meaning of the term is much worse. Then compare this with “पुनर्ब्राह्मणाः पुण्या भक्ता राजर्षयस्तथा” etc.

Now there are a dozen ways to explain this away and many scholar of Gita may consider this an unfair quotation. But still it does leave the possibility open that the God who was giving Gita-gyan to Arjuna was aware of this varna division in the society, accepted its social recognition; in spite of declaring that all are equal to him. If one is reading Gita as a human creation one will look for the overall message and try to understand where the balance lies. But if one see the Gita as perfect message from God without any blemish, then has to take these verses in consideration as well.

Let’s take another example from Maryada Purushottam Ram. I must repeat that trying to look at Rama as a decent human being one will look at all aspects of his life, but if he is proposed an the perfect purush and husband and an unblemished ideal to be followed by all, then his demand for agnipariksha and sending pregnant Sita to forest acquire a different meaning. And cannot be explained away.

Now, I am not discussing Gita or Ramayana; I am discussing Quran. The issue is: if the Quran is supposed to be the perfect book given by Allah to a perfect prophet, it has to be scrutinised as strictly as possible and highlighting the worst aspects of it is perfectly legitimate. But if it is seen as a human book written/recited by a human being who was like anyone else both good and bad; then one should look at the overall message of the book. The problem is that the Quran is taken by believers as the perfect book given by God and non-believers remain hesitant in challenging that.

The point I am making is that the God’s perfect books has to be analysed differently than the fallible humans’ imperfect books.

Context of the verses

Another problem with Quran is that most of its verses are revealed in a context of small tribal warfare in a small part of the globe. But if one believe that then they become obsolete as soon as that historical time is passed and as soon as one goes out of Arabia. That will make large parts of the Quran redundant today, or will leave them only with interesting illustrations of practical decision making which are open to interpretation. Then the Quran will no more remain immutable. Status of women, attitude to idolatry, polytheism, business, slavery, slave women, etc. all will have to change. But staunch believers like to read universal and eternal message in Quran. That creates a serious tension on the one hand and an advantage to the believers on the other. If there is a demand from non-believers in the society to be accommodative in certain problematic aspects of the Quran then the eternality of Quranic message is emphasised and any change is plainly refused. But when the disrespect, violence and hatred for others in Quran is pointed out then the contextual explanations are offered. This is plain double standard. One cannot have one’s cake and eat it too. The defenders of Quran have to make up their mind: is it the eternal and perfect truth or a contextual message that is being interpreted for universal guidance? If it is the second then I should have quoted many other caring (only for believers through, there are not many for polytheists, etc.) verses as well. But if it is the first, which is the case, then my taking out the verses I have taken out is justified.

It is about the Quran the book and not about Muslims

I must reiterate that the sanction of violence I am looking at is in the Quran. As far as Muslims are concerned I believe they are no different from others in general. There are plenty of Hindus who do not care much about what Gita says; similarly I believe there are plenty of Muslims who do not bother much about what Quran says. There may be Hindus who respect Gita and also reject its varna dharma idea and its ideas about impurity of women. Similarly there are Muslims who respect Quran but reject its violent interpretation. But there are also Hindus who would like the Gita to be THE BOOK and use an interpretation of it to further their agenda. Similarly, there are Muslims who would take Quran as Allah’s book and go by its word.

(To be continued in part 5)

3 Responses to Quran and Violence 4: Some clarifications

  1. Thanks Rohitji
    I hope once they understand the importance of critique.


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