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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
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, April 21, 2024

Book Review: Mohamad Jebara's The Life of the Qur'an: From Eternal Roots To Enduring Legacy

 Book Review:  Mohamad Jebara’s The Life of the Qur’an:  From Eternal Roots To Enduring Legacy. 

M. Bakri Musa


St. Martin’s Essentials, NY 2024. 248 pp Indexed. US26.54.


Most Malays (and Muslims), from sophisticated urbanites to simple villagers, hold two glaring misconceptions about our faith. One, early Islam was all smooth sailing. Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w, received his revelations and the Bedouins were miraculously emancipated from their Age of Jahilliyah (Ignorance). The faith then blossomed. Even a cursory review of our history would disabuse one of that delusion.


            Two, we treat the Qur’an less as a divine guide “for all mankind and at all times till the end of time” but more as a talisman. Recite a particular passage and our ills would be cured, dead relatives admitted to Heaven, and we would pass our examinations.


            Mohamad Jebara’s The Life of the Qur’an:  From Eternal Roots To Enduring Legacy helps us understand the Qur’an so we could be better human beings, a prerequisite to becoming good Muslims. As for being a guide, the Qur’an “… [is] only a revelation, dependent on imperfect mortals for its enactment.”


            Instead of an encyclopedic treatment, the fault of many writers, commentators, and translators then as well as now, Jebara picks only a few selected themes and then uses specific passages in the Qur’an to highlight them. His approach is closer to that of the late Fazlur Rahman’s Major Themes of the Qu’ran, except spared the latter’s terse, compact a la Oxford prose.


            Jebara begins at the basic level, as with the three-letter root of all Arabic words. He calls that the Qur’an’s DNA. Islam’s root letters–S-L-M (seemlam, and mim)–means “to repair cracks in city walls.” To Jebara, “Islam” refers less to a religious sect rather a mindset of ‘arriving to repair and restore fractures.’” The wall is already there except that through the ages inevitable cracks had appeared and unneeded accretions as well as distracting flourishes added that had only weakened the structure. Meaning, “The Qur’an unequivocally and repeatedly affirms past scriptures and prophets.”


            Of interest, the word qur’an shares the same three root letters as qariah, boundary, as with the qariahof a masjid (area served by it). Interpreted thus, the Qur’an is a guide to acceptable boundaries of human behaviors that would please Allah, and thus also your fellow human beings.


            Jebara likens the Qur’an to an onion. Each layer you peel reveals yet another fresher, thicker, and even more aromatic one. You never quite reach the core for as long as the onion (and you) is alive, it keeps adding more layers. Duke University’s Ebrahim Moosa put it clearer:  The day you feel that you have fully understood the Qur’an is the day you die, if not physically then intellectually. Meaning, the need for continuous learning and wariness of certitudes.


            As such I have little tolerance for scholars and ustads who after reciting a Qur’anic passage or hadith would arrogantly proclaim, “And it means this . . . !” No equivocation; absolute certainty! It would be more appropriate to add ‘approximately translated.’ That would soothe your listeners’ ears, quite apart from reflecting the reality as well as the speaker’s humility. 


            The Qur’an strives to maintain a balance between uplifting inspirational rhetoric and the realistic awareness that the world can be a dangerous place. Words and ayats are the Qur’an’s instruments. Hence the dangers of certitudes, for as per the Arab proverb, the wound of a word is more deadly than the slash of a saber. Being reckless with words like kafir (non-believers) and murtad (apostate) would be “un-Qur’anic!”


            Jebara selects a few words and passages to highlight his points. “Nabi,” a Semite term for prophet, also describes an unlikely source of water. Water makes the dry, seemingly sterile desert bloom. Evocative and symbolic! “Rasul,” a channel directing water to the most fertile land; Khalifah, an orchard caretaker, akin to the biblical shepherd; masjid, a place of re-grounding. The root-word of “imam” means a guide out of a dark cave to light.


            Jebari’s discussion on the first revelation (iqra’) repeats much of what is in his Muhammad, The World-Changer. An Intimate Portrait (2021). His rendition of the Prophet’s Last Sermon, though not part of the Qur’an, is also refreshingly different and illustrates Jebari’s novel approach and understanding.


            Jebari’s treatment of the Qur’an reminds me of my long-ago undergraduate course on Shakespeare. Throughout the year we dealt with only a few of his plays and sonnets, together with some out-of-class assignments as with term papers and reviews of local productions. In all we covered less than five percent of the Bard’s total corpus. Yet with that we were well equipped to discover at our own leisure throughout our life his other works. Likewise, Jebara’s The Life of the Qur’an also illustrates the wisdom of quality over quantity, of depth over breadth.


            Jebara stays away from “revisionist” controversies, triggered earlier by Orientalists but now picked up by many Muslim scholars, on such fundamental issues as when the present Qur’an was canonized and whether it is the same version compiled by Caliph Uthman. Jebara is more on shining the light from a different angle rather than on the object itself.


            Life is a journey; you need a guide to live it to the fullest and to be what the Qur’an refers to as insan solehan (the righteous individual). However, reading the Qur’an alone without living its message would be akin to poring over a guide book but never venturing out. The Slavic martial arts expert Khabib Nurmagomedov said it best:  Non-Muslims do not read the Qur’an or hadith. They read you!


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