The Quran: Continuing dialogue with Mr. Ashraf

February 20, 2015

Rohit Dhankar

[This post is my response to Mr. Ashraf’s comment on my last post. Interested people will understand better if first read his comment. However, I have tried to summarise the points I am responding to.–Rohit]

Dear Mr. Ashraf,

You are interpreting Quran in a very balanced manner coming to conclusions most (not all) of which will be readily accepted in today’s world. I think it is a very commendable effort. If Quran teaches you that ‘sanctity of human life is the summum bonum’ I believe every sane human will rejoice in this conclusion of yours. One by one you have made very significant choices: 1. today as a believer it is not your job to punish non-believers, 2. the declaration of war (jihad in Quran) was not against all rejecters but the Maccan rejecters of that time, 3. as a present day believer you cannot disassociate yourself from non-believers and rejecters.

I think they are very reasonable and intelligent choices and interpretations for a believer. However, it seems to me there is a tension between these ‘interpretations’ and some declarations in the Quran. Please do not misunderstand me; I am not trying to dissuade you from this interpretation; that would be a pity, an act against humanity; if I believed in ‘sin’ I would have called such an attempt a ‘sin’. But logical tension is something we should not ignore. In the light of this last statement of mine I have three specific points regarding your claims in this post:

1. Sura 9 is about declaration of war only against idolaters of Macca.
2. That war against idolaters of Macca was justified because they rejected the ‘truth’.
3. A knowing and wilful rejecter of ‘truth’ (after understanding) should be punished, by the messenger.

I will briefly deal with each one of them below.

1. War was against Maccan rejecters alone

Not so, Mr. Ashraf. Actually the most stringent verses making jihad mandatory for all believers came after capturing Macca and almost total consolidation of Arabia under Muhammad’s rule. They came in connection with expedition to Tabuk, which was based on either unconfirmed rumours of possible attack by Byzantine Empire or a fabrication. As the Muslim army found no enemy at Tabuk and Byzantine records have no mention of any plan to attack Arabia or Muslims at that time.

Maulana Azad says that the first 30 or 40 verses came sometime after occupation of Macca. They were for consolidation of faith. Maulana also claims that the “last verses of this chapter were also delivered during the ninth year of the Hijra, while the Prophet was on an expedition to Tabuk and a little there after.” However, the Maulana agrees with you about the initial verses that they were not for war against polytheists in general but polytheists of Arabia, who were still resisting in some parts. According to Maulana the Verse 29 is about Jews of Arabia and Christians of Syria. And he also says that “the remaining verses of this chapter deal with the Prophet’s expedition to Tabuk.” One can confirm this with two other commentaries. One, Tafsir-ul-Qur’an by Maulana Abdul Majid Daryabadi; and two, A Comprehensive Commentary on Quran by E M Wherry. So the chapter involves more than just Maccan rejecters. And that is important, as the involvement of Byzantine Empire gives these verses a wider context.

My second disagreement regarding ‘only in context’ interpretation of these verses is what I have already explained in my earlier post. Maulana Azad sees a general lesson in these verses when the community of believers is in danger or under attack. This is legitimate, in a way, but the interpretation of danger and under attack in the history have shown that this little consideration can be easily converted into a call for jihad. Even the Tabuk call for jihad is suspect in this sense; was there a real danger? However, people agreeing with this contextual interpretation can legitimately claim that that is not the fault of the Book, but that of the interpreters.

2. That war against rejecters of Macca was justified

I am not absolutely certain about it. Muhammad was the first one to declare the Maccan gods as false and of no use, which cannot even protect themselves; and giving inflammatory examples of idol breaking by Abraham etc. He rejected all offers of reconciliation; one fully understands that being steadfast with his monotheism he could not have worked out any compromise. But was it necessary for him to denigrate their gods? At one or two places Quran advises the believers not to insult nonbelievers’ gods, but the reason given is that if you do that they may insult your God. However, the Quran itself calls them false and useless, and talks of them in insulting terms. One should understand Maccan people’s behaviour exactly on the yardstick of Islam today. Does an Islamic state allow preaching a new religion in its territories? The Maccan Arabs were from the same culture. In such circumstances the question becomes important as to how justified was Muhammad’s war against the Maccans? I know the stories of all the ‘aggressions’, ‘unrest in the land’, ‘unprovoked attacks’, etc. But there are more than one versions of all these claims. That brings me to my third and the most important point.

3. Knowing and wilful rejecter should be punished?

I am asking this question not regarding common people like you and me; I am asking this regarding someone claiming to be a ‘messenger’. There have been many people in the history who declared themselves either as prophets, or messengers or avatars or somehow having the authority of the supreme Lord. Some of them were proved to be charlatans, some were more successful. Suppose today someone declares himself/herself as such an authority; and peaches to us (to you and me) for 20 years. One, can this person ever be certain that we understood him/her? No, so s/he has to invoke the help from the God, who informs her/him that we have understood but are still rejecting. Two, can the people ever be certain that this person is really the authority s/he claims to be? If no, why should they believe her/his claims and why should they accept? Then what right does this preacher has to punish them? On the authority given to him/her by the God, of which no one but s/he alone can be certain?

What I am trying to say is that this very idea of someone having the ultimate truth, and those who do not believe can be punished, even be killed, is a violent idea. The very possession of ultimate truth and the authority to enforce it are ideas against human freedom of conscience, autonomy of decision, human dignity and human reason. Sorry, Friend, but they are evil ideas. All religions have this tendency in the beginning; but slowly they learn and become mellowed. Perhaps you know that even the Catholic Church has come to the understanding in Vatican three that religions other than Christianity can also be true religions and lead to salvation. (In my opinion they all lead to slavery, rather than to salvation!) All your writing in this dialogue, Ashraf Saheb, in spite of being very gentle and liberal in all other respects, is very firm that there is one and only one true religion and that is Islamic monotheism. And that all the atheists and all polytheists and rejecters of Islam will go to hell (I am saying this on the basis of the theory you gave in your first response). And that is the real problem with religions, their belief that they are the only true guardians of the ultimate truth. The more absolute this belief becomes, greater condemnation for the humanity issues from it. And the more foul a tinder-box ready to be sparked it becomes.

I am sorry if it has come out rather strongly. And, yes, in one of your posts you have wondered that ‘mocking religions’ might be my religion. No, Mr. Ashraf, I am not mocking; just analysing somewhat ruthlessly. And this cannot be a religion. In my humble view (I might be wrong) a religion (purely at the level of belief) can be defined as follows:

• It is a system of beliefs based on some central dogmas.
• These central dogmas are considered the ‘truths’ by the believers and have to be accepted on faith; there are no rational grounds for their justification; and a rational examination of them is not accepted.
• One of the central dogmas is necessarily life after death, in some form or other.
• One’s actions in this life determines the kind of life one will have after death.

[Religions also have social, political and organisational aspects. So this is not a full definition but takes care of the belief system aspect adequately.]

A belief system that does not have these characteristics cannot be called a religion. A belief system which accepts reason as basis of justification and is ready to subject each belief to strict rational scrutiny cannot be called a religion. Therefore, my examination of religions cannot be called a religion.

With regards