The West generally has had an antagonistic relationship with
Islam. Initially that is not always the case and there are extraordinary cases
of cultural flourishings that occurred certainly during periods of the time in
So there is hostility, it is historical but generally most Western people are ahistorcial like most Eastern people, they do not know much about history but if you grew up in this country you probably grew up with cartoons such as Crusader Rabbit with ideas of the crusades that Moors in all those films such as El CID were always portrayed as dark, swarthy and violent. In some of the earliest films in this country like the Sheek with Rudolph Valentino the Muslim is portrayed as quite romantic but in the end it turns out that he really is not an Arab, he was European so it was alright for him to take the European girl. The idea that there is antagonism is serious and it is one that Muslims have to look at very seriously but it is also something that Western people need to challenge themselves in trying to look at Islam with less hostility. It is difficult. This book is an attempt at presenting Islam to Muslims in a way that is going to satisfy them in a sense and I think they do a reasonably good job of that and I am going to point out the things in the book that are problematic, I think it is very useful for understanding Islam. The reason that I am interested and why I am teaching this class is because one of the things that we forget about Islam is holistic tradition. It is a totality. The Quran says “do you believe in one portion of the book disbelieve in other parts?”. When you take Islam, you submit to it. That is what it is, it is submission to a total world view. It is a way of looking at the world with eyes of Muslims, they look at the world with eyes of people who have been trained in Western universities or in Western world views and they do not realise how tainted their views are. There are many Muslims who are so disconnected from Allah that they really do not experience anything of the divine in their daily lives and so they live lives that are very divorced from a deep rich spiritual tradition. The beauty of the book I think is an attempt to look at Islam in a holistic way and it is based on the hadeeth of Jibril.
One of the things also that is very interesting I know that William Chittick studied in a traditional madrassah at least for some period of time so he knows the tradition is very adept at translating text because I have read his translations and I know the Arabic word he is translating and I think he is very adept at what he does. One of the things that they say is classical texts ask too much of the beginning readers. They were not written for people coming from another cultural milieu rather they were written for people who thought more or less the same way the authors did and shared the same world view. It is very dangerous to read a book by Imam al Ghazali and not understand that Imam Ghazali is working in 6th century Eastern Islam and if you attempt to apply your standards or your criterion to the imam, you are doing him a grave misservice because it is simply not fair. On the other hand, the Imam’s tradition definitely says something to use today; Imam Ghazali is as relevant today for us as he was when he was writing because he is writing about universals. On the other hand, there are going to be things in Imam Ghazali’s book that are not relevant today because they relate to his time and place.
Another thing that he says as a general rule they were written for those with advanced intellectual training. A type of training that is seldom offered in our graduate schools much less on the undergraduate level. Now anybody who has worked in traditional Islamic texts, for instance Imam Ghazali, he assumes in most of his works, not in all of them because he write some as popular works, he is assuming that you have been trained in grammar, rhetoric, logic, dialectic, he is assuming that you have been trained in poetry and prosaity. He is assuming you have been trained in mathematics. He is making these assumptions when he writes his book and so you will find things even if you know Arabic, if you do not know logic you do not realise that he is actually using terms that doesn’t mean what they mean to the average Arabic reader. They actually mean something, it is a technical word, it is a technical term. To study in classical texts one has to go through classical training. If you do not, you are just not able to do it and that is why you will see gross mistranslations of classical texts because people do not know the requisite knowledges that are needed to examine the text.
One of the things they mention also is that the texts were basically outlines of an argument. Anybody who has studied any of our classes with any of those traditional texts, that is what you will know, you are dealing with an outline. Texts tended to be pegs upon which the teacher hung the meanings or the commentaries. That is how the traditional Muslim world transmitted knowledge. When you have learned the alfeia it was not enough just to know those lines of poetry, you had to know the commentary, you had to know all of the examples in order for the rules to become meaningful. Another thing is that the students did not know borrow the books from the library and then return them the following week, they did not buy them, they had to copy them out by hand and spend several months or years studying word by word with a master. I personally did copy out some of the texts that I wrote because they are not published and were not available. There is a great benefit in doing that and I am glad I had that opportunity. I would sit down and word for word the Shaykh would comment on the text. Having studied dozens of books like that with teachers has been immense. Shaykh Muhammad has studied hundreds of books. He has studied 400 books with his father. A lot of them were reading them but many of them were word for word commentaries on these texts. Generally, if you had good training, you would have studied at least 30-40 books well before a teacher would let you move on your own and be able to study from the text.
Now this also I think is very interesting. We are perfectly aware that many contemporary Muslims are tired of what they consider outdated material. They would like to discard their intellectual heritage and replace it with scientific endeavours such as sociology. By claiming that Islamic heritage is superfluous and that the Quran is sufficient, such people have surrendered to the spirit of the times. Those who ignore the interpretations of the past are forced to interpret their text in the light of the prevailing world view of the present. This is a far different enterprise than that pursued by the great authorities who interpreted their present in the light of grand tradition and who never felt preyed to update the most obsolescent of all obstractions. So one of the beauties of the ancient tradition, a writer writing in the 12th century is writing from the same world view as a writer in the 3rd century or the 4th century really and that is where there is a continuity of interpretation. They did not succumb to the temptations of the time. One of the things that the moderns do is that they interpret everything in light of their time and then people will look back later and see how ridiculous much of what they come up with sounds. That is why if you look at the 19th century, phrenology was considered to be the most uptodate way of understanding personality and that was feeling bumps on people’s heads to determine their character types. This was considered deeply scientific in the 19th century and likewise there will be things today that 50 or 100 years from now, people will wonder and marvel at how people could fall for that type of nonsense. This is one of the dangers of that.
Then he says another thing that we find often in short
histories of Islamic thought, intellectuals appear a bit foolish for apparently
spending a great amount of time discussing irrelevant details. Muslim scholars
would go into great detail about certain things and there is a kind of idea
that they were really irrelevant issues. What he says in fact much of what they
were discussing is being discussed in the contemporary world but just in
different terms so we have semantic analyses going on now. We have people that are
deeply involved in the analyses of language. You will find that amongst Muslims
historically. Some of the most extraordinary scholars of grammar emerged out of
the 3rd, 4th and 5th century of
Finally he says as authors we have our own lenses. Some people may criticise us for trying to find Islam’s vision of itself within the Islamic intellectual tradition and the Sufi tradition in particular but it is precisely these perspectives within Islam that provide the most self conscious reflection of the nature of the tradition. So they are definitely working from an intellectual tradition and it is a classical tradition. The Sufi tradition is not the Sufi tradition that many people now speak ill of but rather most of the scholars of the past, our greatest scholars, did have a perspective which was rooted in their own spirituality and in an interpretation and explanation of Islam based on that, that was in fact the science of tassawuf. So that is not an innovation, in fact it is part of the tradition and that is what they show.
Now in the introduction basically they say the religion was established by the Quran through the Prophet (sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam). A Muslim is one who submitted to God’s will, one who follows the religion of Islam. The Quran is a book that got revealed to the Prophet (sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam) by means of the angel Jibril and this is the basic story. Now to flesh that out. Over 1400 years ago on a mount outside of Makkah in which a man was meditating and an angel came to him and told him Iqra (read) and this was the beginning of the revelation which is called wahy. From that, everything comes. That is the foundation. So the Quran sets this whole thing in motion and now we are on a planet in which one out of every five people believes in the Quran as a revelation from God. So this began with one man given a revelation from an angel. Now the Quran, they say that the Muslim view unlike the Christian view, the Quran is only in Arabic. A Christian will generally say when they speak about the Bible, they will say “well it says in the bible”. A Muslim would never say that about Yusuf Ali’s commentary if they understand Islam. They will say “well the translation says”. They will never say the Quran says. You should not say that because a translation is ultimately an interpretation and therefore no Muslim accepts any translation of the Quran as definitive. There is no definite translation of the Quran because of the nature of the Arabic language and the nature of language in general. Every language has the possibility of multiple interpretations.
I recently finished translating after two years a poem by Imam al Busiri which is 160 lines. I re-translated it three times, literally I translated it first time and sent it to somebody who edited it for me, it came back with a lot of changes, it forced me to go back to it a second time and I went through it again and then the last time I completely just re-translated it. At a certain point I realised that if anybody read Borehey Horeheads who was a surrealistic Argentinian writer and one of the motifs that he often explores is the eternal recurrence of events and I realised that I could be in a Borehesion story where I would just keep translating this thing for infinity because there was always a new possible meaning. There was always a word that could be something else. If you look in a book of synonyms you will find for the same word several different possibilities. Trying to understand exactly what that poet meant when he said this and then the possible syntactical changes. Quran is Arabic, We have given this in Arabic. It is an Arabic Quran. That is why the Quran is Arabiyyah and you do call a translation Quran. It is not even called Quran. The meaning of Quran is it was uttered, revealed, incapacities anybody from imitating it. It was sent to worship Allah, that is the Quran and it is Arabic.
So that is very important and this is why there are many different interpretations of the Bible. If you look at the new American version and then look at King James, they are completely different, sometimes the meaning is completely different. So what do you follow and who determines what it means. There are obviously multiple interpretations of the Quran but if you have completed the 15 different sciences or the 12 according to Ibn Juzai needed to master the Quran before you can interpret it, once you have completed those sciences and your interpretation is congruous with the Arabic language and does not stop to contradict anything that the Prophet (sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam) said, it is an acceptable translation so the Quran is open to multiple interpretations, always has been and always will be. He mentions that the Quran was translated into Persian early on which is true but they were more intralinear in notes, they were actually not done for the masses, they were done for the rules so the original interpretation of the Quran was not given to the mass of people. It was the same idea that the Catholic Church held. They kept the Bible in Latin and did not translate it into vernaculars until Lutherhism and Protestantism began that process because they felt that you should master certain sciences before you read the Bible because you will misinterpret it so the idea was do not put it out there for the common people and traditionally that idea was understood in Islam that you can read the Quran for worship but you should not attempt to interpret it until you have mastered certain sciences and then also that the Quran has, he mentions 7 meanings. He is referring to the hadith that says “Quran was revealed in seven different letters” and there is a lot of debate about what they exactly means but there is a hadith in which the Prophet (sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam) said “every ayah has an inward, outward and an overseer” so the idea is that there are meanings. You become an esoterist when you only accept the outward meaning. Sunni Muslims have always believed that the Quran has both inward and outward meanings and neither should be rejected. It is also mentioned that this Quran which created an incredible civilisation addresses simple people and sophisticated people, philosophers and kings as well peasants and shepherds. That is one of the attractions and the powers of the Quran, it literally speaks to the highest and the lowest and there is a common ground that it finds because it is speaking about the most important things that we deal with and also mentioning the Quran spread within 100 years from China all the way to Spain and all of those various people spoke different languages and yet dispute the fact that the Quran was in Arabic, the Quran was able to speak to all of them because it was speaking to their hearts and minds not just their ears, to their tongue. It was speaking about meanings that human beings share and that is why the Quran is a universal book.
One of the things, if you read some other traditions you will notice that in their scriptures there is a great deal of geographical things that really relate to living in the jungle for instance where Islam, if you look at the Quran, it is speaking to people who travel on the ocean despite the fact that Arabs did not travel on the ocean so it speaks to sailors in the middle of the ocean dealing with massive waves. It also speaks to people traveling in the desert. It speaks to people traveling in the mountains, people who live, agriculturalists, pasturalists. It speaks to merchants, it speaks to people who have trades, people who make things by hand so everybody will find themselves in the Quran and the Quran does speak to everyone.
One of the powerful unifying factors of Islam is the fact that it invites all of us with Arabic so Christians for instance have liturgical services in Korean, Japanese, Polish, Sanskrit all these various languages whereas Muslims, their worship is one language so we all share that. So whatever mosque you went to, you will hear the same Quran recited, you will not hear a different Quran and that is a unifying factor for us as one people. Also the Quran is about the same size as the New Testament in terms of actual link although it differs from the Old Testament and the New Testament by consensus. Both of those books were compiled by several different people where the Quran was given by one person and that is in agreement. Even though there are people like Patrician Crone and other scholars who have attempted to say the Quran was put together by a committee of people after the Prophet’s (sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam) death and they added what they wanted and took out what they wanted. This was in Atlantic Monthly, it has come up a few times. Those are rejected even by the Orientalist people that work within the Orientalist tradition do not accept those theories and Patricia Crone has backtracked quite a bit. She is not saying things like she was three or four years ago. She is teaching in the East Coast now, she was originally at SOAS. She is no longer saying the same things because she was given so much flak by the Orientalist community. When you read those things, you have to understand that those things are not even accepted by the non Muslim scholars of Islam.
Nicholson who taught Arberry in his book on the history of Arabic literature says that we have to admit that the Quran is definitely the word of the Prophet (sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam). It is what he taught his people and anybody who knows the prolific memories of the Muslims and the Arabs in particular know that this book has been transmitted orally and I will give you an example. Muhammad Hasan Al Dudu who came here and gave a talk here who has probably close to a photographic memory and has memorised several books of hadith. He memorises al Bukhari by heart and I had a handwritten copy of Bukhari that he took a look at and found two mistakes on the first page he was looking at and he pointed them out. That is why traditionally the Muslims depended on people not books themselves and people do not understand that. People are actually more when they have powerful memories and they devote their memories to preserving knowledge. They are actually more trustworthy than the text itself. Scribes make mistakes, whereas a Hafidh does not. He might make a mistake but he will catch himself if he is a true Hafidh. That is why no true Hafidh who masters the Quran needs anybody to interrupt him. He can work it out, if you leave him alone, he will work it out for himself. All of us have seen that, who have prayed behind a really strong Hafidh in taraweeh prayer. A hafidh is someone who memorises the Quran by heart.
The shortest surah has 10 words and the longest one over 6000. Each of the verses is called ayah which means a sign. They go into quite a bit of detail about that. Now one of the interesting differences between the Quran and the Bible is that the Quran is about God. Now that might surprise somebody to hear that the Quran differs from those traditions but if you read the bible you will find a great deal of the Bible does not really talk about God. It talks about history, tribes, people’s problems, families, a lot of things but you will not actually find God mentioned for several pages in sections of the bible. In the Quran on the other hand, no matter what God is talking about, He will always bring it back to Allah and one of the ways He does that is by using His divine names, He will end the ayah by saying He is the Merciful, Giving, He is over all things Capable, so the Quran always bring us back to that most important subject which is Allah and that is why if you look at a red lettered Quran you will notice that every single page in the entire Quran is filled with the name of God. If you look at a red lettered Bible you will be quite surprised to find that a good deal of the Bible does not make mention of God. That is not to say anything wrong about the Bible but it is an interesting difference between the two books.
One of the things that he mentions here is that people who are native speakers feel a propriety relationship to the Quran in other words it is mine alone and nobody else’s particularly Arabs. Arabs definitely have that feeling that if you do not understand Arabic, you cannot really understand the Quran. I personally do not believe that is true. I think there are ajamy people who do not know Arabic but are actually more moved by the Quran than many many Arabs and I know some people especially South Asians who have seen their mothers or fathers weep profusely reading the Quran and they don’t even know the meanings of the Quran but they know it is God’s words and that is what is impacting them than the fact that they are reading God’s revelation and that is why there is a famous story of one of the ajam who heard the Quran and began to weep and one of the Arabs said to him you are an ajamy and “how can you weep by hearing the Quran”. He said “my tongue is ajamy but my heart is Arabi”. The heart can understand things that the mind does not necessarily understand. This is important also. A general rule is that a person with no grounding in the Islamic world view, if they pick up a translation of the Quran will have their prejudices confirmed and I think that unfortunately that is very true. If you go to the Quran already with prejudices you will find exactly what you are looking for, I knew it, they do it and it is right there. They are looking for that so they found it and when you are looking for something you are often blinded to the other things so prejudices can be confirmed by the Quran. If you don’t allow the Quran to speak to you that is why the Quran begins “this is guidance for people who already have plenty” and it says “this is a book, there is no doubt in it”. It already declares its position right from the start. If you have doubt about this book, it is not going to benefit you. If you believe automatically that it is not a revelation from God then you are going to read it with that perspective. If however you go to it and I say I want to find out “is this a revelation from God?”. It is not that you have doubt, you don’t know anything about it and you simply want to see for yourself so going sceptically and going objectively are very different and you have very different experiences in taking these routes.
Another thing is that the Quran and the world view of the Quran is definitely connected to the Arabic language. The Arabic language is a Semitic language, it is the language that Moses and Jesus spoke. They spoke Semitic languages. The route structures of Aramaic and Hebrew are very similar in Arabic. Hebrew scholars are forced to use Arabic dictionaries by their own admittance to interpret the Hebrew language. The reason for that is that the Rabbi’s prohibited putting down a great deal the midrash. They have an oral tradition that was not permitted to be put down and they never bothered to do any dictionaries. The Arabs began to write dictionaries immediately and literally in the 8th century the first Arabic dictionary, which is already a sophisticated dictionary unlike the English dictionary, we find our first dictionary is in the 16th century and it is a bad dictionary. It is a lousy dictionary whereas the Arabs were already writing extremely sophisticated dictionaries by 100 years of Islam. Another thing about Arabic is that it was preserved by poetry. Aishah memorised 12,000 lines of poetry from just one poet. That is not an exaggeration because I know people who have memorised far more than 12,000 lines personally so I know that is not an exaggeration.
On page 19, there is one expression there that I thought inappropriate and you can see it for yourself but I crossed it out in mine and I do not want to repeat it. They were using an English idiom and I do not think they intended anything by it but I don’t believe it is appropriate to say in conjunction with the Prophet (sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam). Let me put it this way. The Quran is a miracle of the Prophet (sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam). The Quran is his miracle, in other words the Quran is part of the Prophet (sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam) because he is the first and greatest Muslim.
Now next is the Quran. It has 114 chapters, it is a non linear book and that becomes problematic for Western people that are used to a book like Genesis that begins in the beginning and goes by history. You read the Quran and it does not begin in the beginning. It begins exactly where Allah wants to begin it. It begins Alif Laam Meem and nobody knows what that means which I think is one of the greatest proofs of the Quran because I don’t think that anybody can think of it, to start a book with letters that nobody knows what they mean. To show you that over everybody who knows something there is somebody who knows more. You have to do to the book humbly because it is already