Some thoughts on understanding Qur’an
By Asghar Ali Engineer
How to understand Qur’an is an important question. Generally we pick and choose a verse to prove our point. Then the commentators also tell us that some verses were cancelled out (mansukh) and that some verses replaced them (nasikh) and this creates further confusion in the minds of common Muslims. Thus different Muslims are in different positions in understanding verses of Qur’an.
There is nothing wrong in different understandings but this at the same time should not lead to anarchy. There has to be a definite methodology so that Qur’an, despite different ways of understanding it, should be understood under certain guidelines. There would be some uniformity of principles. Here I would like to throw light how, under certain definite and well defined methodology one can try to understand Qur’an so as to avoid arbitrariness.
Taking one verse when there are so many other verses on the subject cannot yield proper result but this is precisely what is done by our theologians. Let us take for example the question of polygamy. Our ulama generally quote the verse 4:3 to justify polygamy unconditionally. But there is another verse on this subject i.e. 4:129 and if both the verses are read together it would yield different result.
The second verse i.e. 4:129 is so emphatic on the question of justice that marrying more than one becomes secondary and justice becomes more important and yet our jurists and theologians hardly refer to 4:129 and keep on referring to 4:3 only though 4:3 also puts emphasis on justice as it also says if you fear you cannot do justice then marry only one. If both the verses are read together it becomes duty of the qadi to make a rigorous inquiry as to why a person is taking second, 3rd or 4th wife and whether the man taking more than one wife really needs to take another wife. Also in view of such strong emphasis on justice definite rules will have to be laid down to define what would amount to do justice. This has never been done by our conventional theologians.
Another important question is of wife beating referring to verse 4:34 which is cited as Qur’anic permission to beat ones wife. But all other verses about women’s rights and women’s treatment in Qur’an contradict this. What is needed in this case is to read all verses on women in Qur’an together on one hand, and to read all verses using the word daraba (for beating) in Qur’an together and the result would be very different.
This would show that Qur’an can ever allow a wife to be beaten by husband. First of all it should be noted as I have shown in one of my essays that all verses on women in Qur’an emphasise their rights vis-à-vis their husbands and all verses relating to men emphasise their duties vis-à-vis their wives. If it is so how Qur’an can permit being of one’s wife. Also, all verses on treatment of wife after marriage or even divorce say that they (wives) should be treated with ihsan and ma’ruf (i.e. good and morally approved behaviour).
Then Qur’an also says that Allah has created love and compassion (mawaddat and rahmah) between husband and wife. If then husband is allowed to beat his wife, love and compassion has no meaning whatsoever at all.
Now one can argue that beating is allowed in case of nushuz (rebellion, uprising) but then if nushuz is rebellion how serious is that rebellion to warrant beating but Qur’an does not use any word with nushuz to show its seriousness. One of the theologians I had discussion with said it amounts to extra-marital elations but if it is so, it warrants more serious punishment and that punishment cannot be meted out by husband but by the court of law or qadi court.
Also, there are several other verses in Qur’an which use the word daraba in several other meanings like to give example, to travel etc. and Raghib, a 12th century lexicographer of Qur’an points out that in pre-Qur’anic Arabic daraba ‘ala meant he camel going to she camel (for sexual intercourse) and if we take this meaning as suggested by Imam Raghib the verse would amount to suggest that if she desists from rebellion husband could go near her and this seems to be more appropriate as previous line of the verse advises man to isolate her in bed. Thus it would mean if after reconciliation between husband and wife after she is isolated in bed, husband should go near her.
Thus the above verse (4:3) would yield very different meaning if we adopt proper methodology of understanding Qur’an. It makes all the difference. So far the theologians, using pick and choose method have concluded that Qur’an permits wife beating. This meaning is in total contrast to another verse in Qur’an 33:35.
This verse equates man and woman in every respect and says both will be rewarded equally for their good deeds and hence one exercising authority over the other does not arise. Also one has o keep in mind that Qur’an avoids using the word husband and wife and instead uses the word zawj (couple) for both again indicating that both are treated absolutely equally.
These are illustrative examples and not exhaustive. If we use this methodology, our many problems can be easily solved and it would be easier to understand correct meanings of Qur’anic verses and many objections hurled at Qur’an can be easily challenged.
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