Who Speaks for Islam?

reading-quran1-223x300By Summar Shoaib…

Addressing whether Christians should read the Qur’an or not, Christianity Today published a piece with the views of three different authors. Only one of these authors, Nabeel Qureshi, rigorously advises Christians to avoid reading the Qur’an for two reasons: first, “the Qur’an was not designed to be read like a book”, which he contrasts with the way the Bible is meant to be read. Instead, Qureshi advocates that Christians learn about Islam by being around Muslims, which comes to his second point: the idea that “the Qur’an only comprises a small part of the Muslim’s worldview.” His advice is given largely based on his experience as a former “zealous Muslim;” Qureshi positions himself as an emic (or insider) voice familiar with the ins and outs of the Muslim community and the Islamic faith.

Undoubtedly, the Qur’an is not an easy text to navigate. For someone unfamiliar with the tradition or the Arabic language, translations in English can be confusing; for example, the pronoun “We” is often used for a singular God. The Qur’an is not chronological and often narratives are not even confined to one chapter of the text. Instead, one may find revelations about prophets such as Moses spread across different chapters. However, if Qureshi advocates that Christians learn about Islam by being around other Muslims, then reading, reciting and memorizing Qur’an are a large part of Muslim practice. As an ethnographer myself, I do believe that what Muslims do and say are an interesting and integral part of the study of Islam. However, it is also important to understand the textual tradition from which many Muslim practices and thought are derived.

The text is not divorced from the way Muslims “live life.” I recently lost my dear father in law; upon hearing this news, the first thing one of my Muslim friends said to me was “Wal akhiratu khairun wa abqa,” citing a verse from Surah A‘lā meaning “And the hereafter is better and everlasting.” Likewise, during time spent in Syria and Egypt, I often heard people citing verses of the Quran for different situations of life. However, it seems as though Qureshi’s modus operandi is to take his personal experience with Islam and map that onto the lives of 1.5 billion other people.

Qureshi does not believe reading or understanding the Qur’an is important because of his personal experience with the text. He states, “By age 5, I had finished reciting the entire Qur’an in Arabic and memorized its final seven chapters;” while this may appear to support Qureshi’s positioning as a former “zealous Muslim,” this is pretty typical in terms of Muslim practice. Furthermore, for someone unfamiliar with the Qur’an, this is misleading of Qureshi’s actual knowledge of the Qur’an. First, the last 7 chapters are some of the briefest, comprising a mere 32 of the well over 6000 verses in the Qur’an. Furthermore, Qureshi, like many Muslims, does not come from an Arabic speaking background. While learning to read the Arabic script in order to maintain the integrity of the text is common across the Islamic world, many Muslims did not grow up understanding the Arabic language, hence the offering of Qur’anic Arabic, general Arabic, and tafsīr (or Qur’anic interpretation) courses at many local masjids. Thus, Qureshi believes that the Qur’an is not important for understanding Islam because the Qur’an was not important to his understanding of Islam.

Mirza_Ghulam_AhmadFinally, I would like to make a point about Qureshi’s insider positioning. Qureshi has always positioned himself as a former Muslim and he absolutely has the right to do so. However, there are important factors to Qureshi’s own background in Islam that I believe are key to understanding his relationship with the Qur’an. Prior to his conversion to Christianity, Qureshi was an Ahmadi Muslim. Long persecuted for their beliefs, Ahmadis are often charged as being heretical within the Muslim community for various beliefs, primary among them the belief that the founder of this particular branch of Islam (Ahmadiyya), Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, was a prophet who came after the prophet Muhammad. This belief is relevant regarding Qureshi’s own understanding of the Qur’an for two reasons: the Qur’an’s positioning of itself as a final corrective in a series of messages revealed by God and the status of the prophet Muhammad as the final prophet, both of which are related.

In several verses, the Qur’an states that it confirms much of what has already appeared in other scriptures such as the Torah and the Gospels. However, the Qur’an also states: “O People of the Scripture, there has come to you Our Messenger making clear to you much of what you used to conceal of the Scripture and overlooking much. There has come to you from Allah a light and a clear Book” (Q5:15). This situates the Qur’an specifically as a corrective, one which has been revealed by the messenger Muhammad. Not only is the Qur’an positioned as the final Message, but the Messenger is the final prophet: “Muhammad is not the father of [any] of your men, but [he is] the Messenger of Allah and last of the prophets. And ever is Allah, of all things, Knowing.” (Q33:40) Therefore, if Qureshi was from a tradition where the prophet Muhammad was not considered to be the final prophet, and Mirza Ghulam Ahmad was considered to be a prophet bearing an additional and later message, the corrective and final aspect of the Qur’an is called into question. This suggests Qureshi’s understanding of Islam does not in fact represent the historical mainstream of Islamic thought and practice that has been the case for some fourteen centuries.

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