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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

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Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Reflections On Awal Muharram: Re-Reading The Quran

 Reflections On Awal Muharram:  Re-Reading The Quran

M. Bakri Musa (www.bakrimusa.com)


Review of Muhammad Shahrur’s The Quran, Morality and Critical Reason. The Essential Muhammad Shahrur. Translated and Edited by Andreas Christmann. K Brill, Leidin, 637 pp, 2009.  ISBN 9004171039§


Last Thursday August 20, 2020, after sunset, Muslims ushered in our New Year. Awal Muharram (the first of Muharram) symbolizes peace and reflection. Reflection because 1441 years ago our Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w., undertook his hijrah (migration) to Medinah to escape his persecutors in Mecca. So momentous was the event that the Companions of the Prophet later decided to begin the Muslim calendar from that date.

            As for peace, there was nothing peaceful about that epochal journey. The prophet escaped an assassination attempt by having his nephew Ali sleep in his bed that night. Legend has it that Allah made the prophet invisible to his pursuers. Invisible perhaps, but not weightless for the prophet had prudently scattered dirt to cover his tracks!

            Like then, peace still eludes the ummah today. The majority are trapped in dehumanizing poverty, appalling injustices, and brutal autocracies. In the latest “Islamicity Index,” not one Muslim country made it in the top thirty.

            Volumes have been written to explain this sorry state. Some pine for Islam’s own Martin Luther. Conveniently forgotten is that during its few centuries the Islamic civilization was the beacon for the world. What went wrong?

Muhammad Shahrur’s epiphany came early. He remembered as a youngster hearing a sermon in his local mosque right after Syria was humiliated in the Six-Day War with Israel. “We have strayed far from the ways of Allah,” his Imam bellowed. “We do not fast and our women have discarded their hijabs,” he excoriated his flock.

Israeli women wore bikinis, yet their armies prevailed, Shahrur reflected. That prompted his lifelong self-study of the Quran. No easy task for a man who was a professional engineer (Dublin PhD) with a thriving consultancy, quite apart from his academic duties.

Shahrur dispensed with those voluminous ancient treatises. Those are what produced today’s ulama and scholars like his Imam, he reasoned. To his scientific mind that would be akin to reading Freud and Jung when the world is into neurotransmitters and dynamic brain imaging.

Shahrur began writing in the 1990s, and until his death last year he had published over a dozen books and countless essays, and been interviewed numerous times. Though ignored by the establishment (lucky; he could have been branded an apostate and dealt with accordingly), he was (and still is) a phenomenon among literate Arabs. The Quran, Morality and Critical Reason:  The Essential Muhammad Shahrur, a translation, is his only book in English.

To Shahrur – and all Muslims – the Quran is Allah’s words, “for all mankind at all times and till the end of time.” It explains itself, a la Christianity’s sola scriptura. Shahrur was advantaged and emboldened to re-read the Quran asArabic was his mother tongue.

He began with the concept of non-synonymity. Allah is precise in his choice of words. Thus Al Kitab (The Book) and Al Quran must not mean the same thing. When Allah used both in the same ayat (sentence), it is not for reasons of style. They have separate distinct meanings; it is for us to discern them. To Shahrur, the Quran as we know it consists of two parts. One, the early Meccan verses expressing universal values and aspirations. He called that the Al Kitab (The Book). That contains the same revelations dispensed to earlier prophets like Jesus and Moses. They are but variations on the theme of the Ten Commandments.

Two is Al Quran, which adds to the confusion. It comprises the Medinan ayats revealed as the Prophet was establishing the first Muslim community. Those dealt with the practical realities of governance in 7th Century Arabia. By necessity those revelations have to be in forms and language comprehensible to and executable by his constituents. Our error, now and in the past, is in reducing the prophet to Allah’s fax machine, mechanically and mindlessly spouting out His message.

To make the Quran relevant to contemporary society, Shahrur would have us read and interpret it as if it was revealed yesterday. Only then could it be as transformative to us as it was for those ancient Bedouins. Consider that had Allah chosen His Last Messenger to be an Eskimo, would the Quran’s imagery of Hell be one of blazing eternal fire or a dark frozen dungeon?

The late Fazlur Rahman had a comparable approach to the Quran. That is, deduce from its particularities the underlying governing principles (connect the dots as it were), and then apply them to current challenges. Both demand considerable intellectual exertions. Endlessly quoting the Quran, no matter how exquisite the tajweed, would not do it.

There are many apparent contradictions in the Quran. The Meccan verses assert there be no compulsion in religion; the Medinah, kill the apostates. Ancient scholars applied the concept of abrogation to reconcile those differences, whereby later verses “abrogate” earlier ones.

Shahrur rejected that. Allah is Perfect and All-Knowing. He does not need revisions, editing, or abrogating of His words. Instead, the Medinah verses reflected the specific challenges facing the early Muslims as they struggled to deal with their enemies intent on destroying this new movement that was challenging the existing order. Those Medinah verses are thus the exceptions to the central message of Al Kitab; the exceptions proving the general rule.

To Shahrur, the Quran cannot contradict what we know from our senses and rational thinking. If our observations show that the earth rotates around the sun, then that must be so. If the Holy Book were to say otherwise, then we have misread it. Thus Islam was spared Christianity’s Copernicus conundrum.

Shahrur’s take on Surah An Nisaa (Women) was most enlightening. He read it as per ancient word usage, not formal Arabic grammar. That was not developed till long after the Quran was revealed. He made the point that the masculine and feminine forms in those ayats refer not to men or women, rather leaders (the dominant partner, who may be men or women) and followers (who may be likewise), and the dynamic relationship between the two. Thus those ayats have wide applicability beyond the family, as with organizations.

That is a more sophisticated reading than the contorted interpretations of Muslim feminists. Husbands disciplining their wives should thus be read more generically, as with leaders their wayward followers. Malay leaders would do well to reread Surah An Nisaa as per Shahrur’s insight.

His other significant contribution is the concept of limits, derived from his understanding of calculus and engineering. To Shahrur, Allah defines only the extremes or limits of punishments, as with cutting of hands on one end to forgiveness and restitution on the other. Within those parameters it is for society through consensus to determine the appropriate level.

Shahrur’s views resonate far beyond the Arab world. However in Indonesia, a doctoral candidate had to withdraw his dissertation on Shahrur as it triggered the wrath of local ulama and widespread howling controversy. They took umbrage at Shahrur’s interpretation on consensual sex outside of marriage. To him, the Quran condemns only where force or coercion is involved, inside or outside of marriage. This criminalization of consensual sex is a later bida’ah (adulteration of the faith).

Malaysian ulama would have rape victims marry their tormentors, and abused wives continue ‘pleasing’ their husbands. Meanwhile Muslims are comfortable with muta’ah (temporary marriages). It is said that brothels in Tehran have ulama ready to solemnize such ultra-brief ‘marriages,’ for a fee of course! Elsewhere in the secular world that is called pimping.

Back to Malaysia, the religious police should quit snooping around parks and hotels looking for khalwat (close proximity). They should instead focus on rapes, spousal abuses, and forced as well as child marriages.

My prayer on this Awal Muharram and year AH 1442 is for Allah to shower His blessings on the soul of Muhammad Shahrur, and for his books getting wider reading. Muslims are in desperate need of this gush of fresh air to blow away the thick cobwebs encasing those ancient texts as well as contemporary minds.

§  Google the author and title to download a free pdf copy.



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