The Quran: Response to Mr. Ashraf

February 15, 2015

Rohit Dhankar

Faith always demands acceptance before understanding. Perhaps that is why Adam and Eve were forbidden the fruit of knowledge. Critical examination can be tolerated in faith only under the condition that the dogma is first accepted and criticality submits to the dogma, operating only within the boundaries drawn by it.

Mr. Ashraf’s response “Quran and Peace” exemplifies this very clearly. He does not respond to my understanding (whatever little) of Quran; but gives a theory which says how Quran can be understood properly as preaching peace. This, to me at the least, is a very illuminating piece of writing. I am sure, on his own testimony, Mr. Ashraf believes in this; however, I am not sure if all true believers in Quran would endorse it. Still it gives a glimpse in the mind of a believer, provides a picture of the world and principles to live a ‘good’ life. Therefore, is worth making an attempt to understand it critically and workout possible implications if one actually believes in this theory of the world and religion. That is what I propose to do in this little article, though I have to be brief for want of time.

Mr. Ashraf’s position is articulated in sufficient detail, therefore, it would be useful first to summarize it as accurately as my capabilities can manage. I will do it in several sections, first summarizing an important point and then responding to it. At the end will list a few question that this piece raises in my mind.

On peace and freedom

Mr. Ashraf states in unequivocal terms that “peace and freedom” are essential for any society. That violence cannot be justified in the name of religion; it is “a shame for humanity” and no words are strong enough to “condemn” it. This is a good news for non-believers (non-believers not of Islam alone, but of all religions). However, this unacceptability of violence may not be endorsed by religious texts, of Islam as well as of other religions. I am not responding to this claim any further, unless by the way of reference in response to other points. Simply because if all religious people come to this understanding, it would be a hugely good news for the world as a whole.

Who can understand Quran, and how?

Mr. Ashraf not only claims that the Quran preaches peace; but also that it is “a basic, not an additional point to the knower of this book”. But according to him this understanding of the book is not available to people who do not meet three conditions. To understand the book one has to know:

  1. The source of the book
  2. The purpose of the book, and
  3. The theme of the book.

One who does not understand these three things cannot understand the message of peace in the Quran. So let’s examine these three conditions separately.

The source of the book

To understand the Quran properly, according to Mr. Ashraf, one has to first accept that “he has a creator and there is a purpose of his creation”. With this in mind if he reads the book he “will know that the source of this book is God (Allah), his creator and sustainer”.

Which implies that for an atheist (be s/he socially Hindu, Christian or Muslim) it is not possible to understand the true meaning of the Quran. Actually, no one but Muslims believe that the Quran came from Allah, therefore, only Muslims can understand the true meaning of Quran. That should not be a problems at all, and many religions make that claim about their scriptures. It is not that hard to come by a claim that the Gita can be understood only by a believing Hindu, who first accepts that Krishna was an Avatar of the supreme God.

Problem arises when one wants to first understand these books and then accept their claims. This path is clearly closed for Quran as per Mr. Ashraf. One first has to believe and then understand. The order of things is reversed for human mind. The book, therefore, can contribute nothing to one’s acceptance of it or not.

The real problem arises when some of the believers demand certain special treatment of the book and charters in it (Allah and Muhammad, or Krishna and Gita) from non-believers. Because then the non-believers have to unconditionally accept the believers’ interpretation of the book, as they can never understand it on principle. This is a method of putting the book beyond critical examination, and still demanding special treatment to it. In the modern world this cannot be accepted.

The theme of the book

According to Mr. Ashraf, “[T]he theme of Qur’an is Muhammad’s (PBUH) warning (‘indhar’ in Arabic). Every page of the book speaks of this reality.” However, “before” the true meaning of this theme can be understood “one has to establish this clear concept that the giver of this book is the supreme authority.” Again, therefore, this understanding is a prerogative of Muslims alone. However, in the actual reality, every reader of the book notices it immediately that the theme is Muhammad, his warning, his power and obedience, and punishments he perpetrates on others. But the ‘true’ meaning of all this seem to be reserved only for the believers. We will revisit this issue in somewhat greater detail, a little later.

The purpose of the book

The purpose of the book is not deliberated upon in detail by Mr. Ashraf, but it seem to be to warn those who reject the belief in Allah as the only God and Muhammad as His last messenger. And the warning, of course, is stern. It is not a warning from a concerned and kind parent; rather, a warning from an absolute power who demands absolute submission and does not mind tuning into a permanent (internal) tormenter if the warning is not heeded. Why is he so obsessed with his worship and obedience alone is beyond the minds of non-believers.

We can understand the full scale meaning of these things (as unbelievers) only if we look at the grand scheme and jihad, warning, violence etc. within that scheme. So now I would like to turn to that grand scheme.

The grand scheme as described by Mr. Ashraf

I am not sure, as I said above, whether this is Mr. Ashraf’s belief alone or of a sizable number in the believers of Islam. But it is worth understanding; however, I can do that only through my infidel mind, as that is all I have.

The scheme in brief

The beginning

The Allah created the world. He created all human beings, including you and me in the very beginning, and also created the hell and the haven. He showed us both the hell and the haven; and put a condition before us: if you believe and obey me as the only God, you will get heaven. If you do not, you will get the hell. And made us first make a covenant with him that we will believe only in Him. One wonders: 1. Why did he do that? 2. Where is the freedom for us? The condition is absolute, and binding. The test is stern and there was only one way of wriggling out of it, not a very attractive one, hardly better than hell (we will come to that). Is it just? Is Allah, strictly as per this scheme, just? Looks like a tyrant playing games with mice to me.

Those who did not agree to the test

Some of us humans got too scared. They opted out of the test. The Allah, in his mercy makes them die in infancy, before they do anything in accordance or against His will. These will be the serving boys and girls in the heaven. That is why I said above there is no way out of the test, this can hardly be a desired end for any human being.

The prophets

“They were the ones who decided to take the toughest test.” Not only that they will themselves live according to the will of Allah, but also that they will preach his word; and messengers (like Muhammad) among them will punish and destroy those who reject the Allah’s demand that they worship no God but Him. They will get the highest rewards in the heave, but also the severest punishment if do not comply with Allah’s demand.

Those who came at the time of the prophets

“Those who had a lot of resolve chose the times of the prophets for their test. Their test was to believe in and support the prophets during those eras of widespread ignorance.” Those who actively aligned with the prophets will get high rewards in both the worlds. If they happened to be with the “messenger” who also punishes those who refuse to believe, they get the political power and also the duty to destroy nonbelievers. They also will get very high rewards in the heaven; though, less than the prophets and messengers among the prophets.

The Muslims

“The second, and lower, level of the test is whereby people chose to become part of the nations of the prophets after the prophets had passed away. Their test is to protect themselves from going astray, sectarianism, deviations, and ignorance of later times while holding steadfast to the divine law. They are also expected to promote good deeds and to help stop people from bad deeds. Those responsibilities are assigned to them as they have the teachings of the prophets to turn to for guidance, and because they are born as Muslims.”

The lowest of all

The third group comprises of people who selected an even easier test. They are born in circumstances where they do not have access to any direct guidance from the prophets. Their test is based on the innate divine guidance present in the nature of every human being, that is, a test based on belief in Oneness of his Lord and universal moral values.”

Their test is supposed to be easy, they are not responsible for spreading the God’s word or stopping others from doing bad deeds. But their reward is also the lowest if they are successful; so is their punishment if they fail. As there is “no risk no gain” principle operating.

An infidel’s comments

I read something very interesting in it, I admit the possibility of misinterpretation, but am still sharing how I see it.

Turning covenant into a karma-theory

All the three so called Semitic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) are based on the idea of covenant with the God. Covenant is an agreement between God and his people in which God makes certain promises and requires certain behavior from them in return. The God demands absolute status as the only God and promises certain benefits to those who agree.

Mr. Shraf explains on the basis of the covenant and how strictly one follows it the status of people in the world and their rewards and punishments hereafter. Both—status in this world and gains hereafter—are dependent on your karma of agreement, the level of test you chose and the strictness you passed the test with. It is all your karma after the covenant, which was forced upon you by the Allah. Seems to come reasonably close to karma-theory. The beauty of the karma-theory and covenant theory is simple: they bind and govern you; but there are no grounds and methods to examine their truth. They have to be believed on the word of some prophet or some Rishi or some avatar.

Yesterday, Kejriwal explained results of Delhi elections in similar words. He said (not exact words) that this kind of landslide victory cannot be due to the work of any man. It is the doing of the uparwala (the God), he wants to do something grand, he has a scheme, Kejriwal and his party are just his instruments (nimitta), and they are lucky to be his instruments. Well Krishna told Arjuna that he is just a nimitta, Israelites considered themselves as chosen people for God’s work and felt lucky, so did Muhammad. How do you prove or disprove Kejriwal or Krishna or Israelites or Muhammad? Do others have any better grounds than Kejriwal? (A little aside question: is Kejriwal being humble in attributing it to God, or is he being arrogant declaring himself the instrument of the supreme Power? The same question can be asked of all the others. And is he preparing to take on the mental of a prophet?

Varna cannot remain behind if you have karma

Another striking similarity of the covenant theory as explained by Mr. Ashraf is with the varna theory. The world is automatically divided into four varnas based on their response to the test offered by the God. Highest—prophets and messengers. Second lower—people who agreed to be born in the time of the prophets. Third lower: the people who chose to be born in the nations of prophets (Muslims of later era). The lowest—the people who are born in the rest of the world, without guidance. The polytheists etc. This is decided; even more immutable than the caste in India, as your caste might change in the next life (janma), but in this covenant theory there is only one life that fixes your fate for eternity.

The crimes and punishment

“Polytheism, disbelief and apostasy are indeed grave crimes; however, no human being can punish another human being for these crimes. This is the right of Allah alone”, says Mr. Shraf. And Allah will punish, and will accept no excuses.

This scheme which is propounded as so just, condemns more than the 50% of humanity to eternal torment of hell. It seems there have been some highly regarded people in the world who will go to hell as per this understanding. We must remember though, that, 1. Almost all religions predict hell for people belonging to other religions, so this is not unique to Islam or this doctrine; and 2. Mr. Ashraf may not agree with this list, but I see no way of avoiding this implication, this is direct logic. Let’s meet some of them in a random order:

  • Krishna, (if there was such a historical figure). He declared himself as the supreme God, and said worship whomsoever you want all worship will naturally flow to him. A non-believer and a blasphemer.
  • Mahavira, as he had no use of God in creating and sustaining the world.
  • Buddha, as he did not believe that there is a God.
  • Socrates, as he believed in other Gods as well, was a polytheist.
  • Plato, the same as Socrates.
  • Christ, as he declared himself as the son of God and part of the God. (Quran claims that he did not think so, it is only later Christians who brought these impurities to the Book. But then you have to accept Islamic understanding of a Christian text.)
  • Most of modern philosophers.
  • Gandhi, he was happy to believe in all religions simultaneously, and to accept all Gods.
  • Dalailama, he does not seem to believe in God (I guess, as Buddhism does not believe in God).

And of course all people who do not believe in Islamic monotheism, definitely atheists. I do not know how to look at an exclusivist doctrine which dispatches to hell such an impressive list of people. And the majority of people born in this world so far. The only consolation for people like me is that the company in the hell is interesting; in case they pay attention to smallfries.

Some remaining questions

Coming back to valance, some questions remain:

  1. The messenger’s right to destroy non-believers simply because they did not believe is granted as per this thesis, however a believer may consider it totally justified. So Quran did sanction violence against non-believers in Muhammad’s time; though this path of spreading religion is closed now for ever, fortunately. Good for humanity.
  2. Now only a sovereign state may declare jihad when it becomes “essential to curb the evils perpetrated by countries and nations”. Can non-Islamic states also declare jihad or is it a prerogative of Islamic states alone? Can a state declare jihad even if the evil is perpetrated within the boundaries of another state and has nothing to do with the state which wants to declare jihad?
  3. The Muslims are supposed “to help stop people from bad deeds”. This is about individual Muslims. Am I correct in assuming that they cannot do this stopping with violent means, if the supposed to be ‘bad deeds’ are not directly against them? Also, can Muslims of country A get involved into stopping these deeds if they are happening with Muslims in a country B different from theirs? Also, are the Muslims supposed to try to stop these deeds with any one, irrespective of sufferers being Muslims or not?

Finally, I do understand that Mr. Ashraf, like any decent human being today, is against all violence in the name of religion; and in his interpretation of the Quran the book does not sanction violence. But this is achieved through two devices. One, justifying some of the violence (Ex. Of hell, destruction of non-believers in this world by God’s actions, and Muhammad’s attacks on non-believers) in the name of the original covenant and Allah’s scheme. And two, interpreting some verses of Quran to mean that it was justified in that context they were revealed in, but no more. This interpretation is not accepted by all believers as for them Quran is the eternal message of the Allah.

This piece of mine, of course, will be interpreted as biased against Islam by Mr. Ashraf, and against all religions by those who know me better. One argument is that religion is beyond (or below!) reason, therefore, this kind of analysis is futile and misleading. I accept this wholeheartedly, but only as long as the religion does not play any role in the public space, remains totally private. As soon as it enters the public space in a democracy where everyone not a believer, religion loses this immunity against reason (or common sense thinking) and becomes one with all political ideologies. Open to be analysed and criticised.

I sincerely value Mr. Shraf’s concern for and politeness shown to me in the following remark (actually throughout his article): “for your own sake, please don’t open the translations and commentaries of the holy book until you develop an urge from inside to seek the truth. […. Allah leads astray many and guides many to the right way by the same thing and He leads astray only those who disobey Allah. Qur’an 2:26]”

But I hardly care about Allah or any God, my concern are human beings and their thought process to guide them to live a decent life in this world. Because of that I cannot stop from examining religious books. As he has faith in Allah’s command, I have confidence in human mind, and it’s totally unhindered use to the hilt. Therefore, the Allah and all His divine enemies (for Allah has no friends among the divinity, only rivals and enemies), be they from whatever religion are bound to be angry with me. But fortunately, I am only a very small and insignificant part of the great mass humanity who will not stop the use of their minds because of the fear of wrath of all the Allahs, Gods and Ishwaras put together. Or at the least I hope so.