THE JUDGMENT MISSES THE MAIN POINT
It is not for laymen like us to discuss the correctness or otherwise of a High Court judgment. It should better be left to those who are conversant with the law and can enter into the intricacies of interpretation and logical construction. For all we know, it is perhaps impossible to impugn a book under the existing law, if it is assumed at the very outset that the book is a sacred scripture cherished as such by a certain community.
It must, however, be said to the credit of Justice Basak that he took considerable pains to establish such an assumption in respect of the Quran. He cited authorities like the Encyclopaedia Britannica in order to certify that the Quran is the basic textbook of Islam. He did not stint in using his own stock of literary and philosophical flourishes for fortifying the fundamental Muslim belief that the Quran has a divine source.
But the Writ Petition had not contested the point that Muslims revere the Quran as divine revelation. In fact, the Petition had stated quite clearly that “the Quran, particularly in its Arabic original, moves Muslims to tears and ecstasy” - a sign of extreme devotion. The real issue raised by the Petition was not what Muslims believe about the Quran but what behaviour pattern the Quran inculcates in its votaries vis-à-vis the unbelievers.
We find that Justice Basak neither faced this issue squarely nor ignored it completely in his judgment. He was not required to face it after he had constructed the legal concept that the Quran is sacred scripture. He could have cited the relevant law which exempts scriptures from legal review, and gone straight ahead to draw the logical conclusion that no court in India can sit in judgment on the contents of the Quran. He, however, chose to make three observations which, though brief, are significant.
Firstly, in para 24 of his judgment, he observed, “In the faith of Muslims, and according to the theory propounded in the book itself, the Koran is the revealed word of God. This postulates God, and indeed the kind of God who has something to say to us and who takes the initiative in saying it. Religion in this view is not a human searching after God; it is God who acts, and is known because and in sofar as, and only as, he chooses to disclose himself.” The same view of the Quran is repeated and further elaborated by him in paras 25 and 26 which follow.
Secondly, he said in para 29 of his judgment that “Some passages containing interpretations of some chapters of the Koran quoted out of context cannot be allowed to dominate or influence the main aim and object of the book”. The Advocate-General of Bengal and the Attorney-General of India had also made the allegation that the Writ Petition had quoted some passages of the Quran out of context, though they had not said that these passages were “interpretations of some chapters of the Koran”.
Thirdly, Justice Basak concluded in para 37 of his judgment that “This book is not prejudicial to maintenance of religious harmony”. He added that “Because of the Koran no public tranquility has been disturbed upto now and there is no reason to apprehend any likelihood of such disturbance in future”.
The third observation is of too general a nature to be discussed properly till we have a clear picture of Islamic theology propounded by Muslim scholars on the basis of Quranic pronouncements. We shall take it up at a later stage. For the present we shall confine ourselves to the first two observations, namely, that the Quran is the word of God, and that the Writ Petition had quoted some passages containing interpretations of some chapters of the Quran out of context. The two points conveyed in these observations are interrelated.
The passages which the Writ Petition has quoted from the Quran are not “interpretations” but the very words of Allah conveyed through the Prophet. They have been translated into English by a translator viewed as competent by Muslims, and published by an orthodox Muslim publishing house.
Nor have these passages been culled at random from different chapters of the Quran with a view to making the book sound sinister. On the contrary, they provide an almost exhaustive list of Allah’s sayings on a subject of great significance, namely, what the believers should believe about and do to the unbelievers. The fact that these saying are scattered over as many as 30 chapters is explained by the peculiar manner in which the Quran has been compiled. Most chapters in it happen to combine “revelations” received by the Prophet on different dates at different places, and regarding varied subjects.
There is no question of these passages dominating or influencing the “main aim and object of the book”. The Quran provides no other passages which abrogate or run counter to these passages. In fact, these passages embody, more or less completely, one of the two main themes of the Quran, the other theme being as to how Muslims should become a militant brotherhood (ummah) on the basis of uniform beliefs and behaviour.
As regards the observation that these passages have been quoted out of context, it would have carried weight if the legal luminaries had come out with what they knew or thought to be the proper context, at least for one passage as an illustration. In the absence of an illustration, one cannot help suspecting that the plea about “out of context” was no more than a stereotyped remark which is often made by those who run out of relevant arguments.
The observation sounds all the more astounding because finding the context of the passages cited in the Writ Petition, presents no problem. The meanest mullah in any village mosque can tell us as to when and in what situation the Prophet received which particular “revelation” from Allah. Islam is not a mythical religion, howsoever chock-full it may be of magic and miracles. It is a historical creed which was floated less than fourteen hundred years ago. Moreover, the pious scholars of Islam have been more than meticulous in preserving a record of what “revelation” the Prophet received on which occasion.
We have several orthodox biographies of the Prophet and as many as six authentic collections of the Prophet’s Traditions (Hadis). Commentators on the Quran have used this wealth of first-hand historical material for connecting most of its verses to concrete situations in which the Prophet had received guidance from Allah in the form of “revelations”. The oft-quoted authentic editions of the Quran, in original Arabic as well as translations, also carry detailed information about the context of every sUrah and Ayats in it. And all this literature is available in English translations made by pious Muslim scholars or renowned Western Islamologists. The government lawyers could have consulted some of this literature and brought it to the notice of Justice Basak, if they were really interested in the context of Quranic passages.
Context is the Key to the Quran
Apart from the failure on the part of the concerned lawyers to provide the context, no one can quarrel with the proposition that passages from the Quran cannot be understood properly unless the context is known. Only we do not see our way to accepting the implied proposition in Justice Basak’s observation that the context is likely to elevate in any manner the meaning of passages cited in the Writ Petition.
The language of the passages under reference is far from being ambiguous or allegorical. It is precise and plain in every instance. Nor do the passages embody any abstract principles. On the contrary, they contain concrete rules of conduct. There is plenty of evidence, as we shall see, that all imams and sufis and ulema and qazis have always stood for a literal and matter-of-fact acceptance of these passages. They have always frowned upon those who show a taste for allegorical interpretations (ta’wIl).
The Quran in Context
The Quran has 114 sUrah (chapters) and more than 6,200 Ayats (verses).1 The bulk of the material in it consists of stories and doctrines borrowed bodily from the Bible and the Judeo-Christian lore floating around in Arabia in the Prophet’s time. Many rituals and social forms as well as norms have been taken over from the Pagan Arab traditions, and transformed in a manner so that they look like original contributions of Allah. The only “revelations” which stand apart from this general mass, are those which Allah relays at certain critical junctures in the Prophet’s career. As the Quran has been compiled neither in a chronological nor in a thematic order, these key “revelations” lie scattered (or secreted?) in many chapters. But biographers of the Prophet in the modem West have sorted them out, and connected them to the concrete contexts in Muhammad’s life as a prophet spread over 23 (610-632 CE) years.2
We list below, in a chronological order, the occasions when Allah either commanded his prophet to do what the latter had already decided to do, or confirmed and justified what his prophet had already done:
This repeated coincidence between the Prophet’s convenience on the one hand and Allah’s commands on the other, makes it more than obvious that Allah of the Quran is no other than the Prophet himself. Many people around the Prophet must have seen through the game. But it needed a privileged person like ‘A’isha to expose it in so many words. When Allah approved of his wife Sauda renouncing her ‘day’ in favour of ‘A’isha (33.51), the latter could not contain herself and quipped, “I find that Allah is prompt to proclaim commandments in accordance with your desire (maIN dEkhtI hUn kE woh allah ta‘la Ap kI ArzU ke muwAfiq jald hukam farmAta hai).6 The same comment by ‘A’isha is recorded in a slightly different Urdu translation in another Hadis collection, “Allah excels even you in fulfilling your wish (allah ta‘la Ap kI khwAhish pUri karnE mEn Ap sE bhI sabqat lE jAtA hai).”7
We find far more clinching evidence to the same effect in biographies of the Prophet and Hadis collections. According to Ibn IshAq, Muslims had constructed a hut for him to retire into at night on the eve of the Battle of Badr. Next morning, after he had “straightened the ranks”, he returned to the hut and prayed, “O Allah! if this band [i.e. the Muslim army] perishes today Thou will be worshipped no more.”8 At-Tabari has a slightly longer passage in the same context. The Urdu translation we have before us, reads, “KhudAwandA agar yEh mErI jamA‘t halAk hO gayI tO duniyA mEN phir tErA kOI parastAr na rahEgA (O Allah! if this band of mine perishes, then there will remain no worshipper of yours in the world).”9 Here the “band” is defined specifically as “Mine” and “the world” as a whole is supposed to stand threatened with the disappearance of Allah’s worshippers. A modem writer has referred to the same passage without mentioning the source from which he has quoted it. According to him, “The Prophet’s well-known remarks on the morning of the day of Badr were, ‘Almighty Allah, if these 310 perish today, there would he none left to worship Thee on earth.”’10 Thus he follows at-Tabari except for substituting the word “these” for “mine”, and mentioning specifically the number of Muslim swordsmen who were present at Badr. Sir Muhammad Iqbal, the renowned poet of Islam in modern times, goes still further. In his famous poem, Shikwah (Grievance), he sings:
quwwat-i-bAzu-i-Muslim nE kiyA kAm tirA.
(Did anyone mention your name before we [appeared on the scene]? It was the might of the Muslim muscle which made you click.)
I can multiply references to similar statements by stalwarts of Islam in medieval and modern times, particularly from the orthodox Hadis collections. We are thus led to the following conclusions:
Obviously, these claims are too tall or wild to be accepted. If Allah stands for God or some other name of the Divine, he was certainly known and worshipped by many people in all parts of the world since time immemorial. In fact, Allah was the name of the Great God whom the Pagan Arabs had known and worshipped, particularly at the Ka‘ba in Mecca, for ages before Islam was born in 610 CE. Nor can it be conceded that Allah as God would have been forgotten if the handful of Muslim swordsmen at Badr had perished. A large part of the world has remained unconquered by the sword of Islam, and continues to worship the Divine known by numerous names. On the other hand, if Allah is the gangster known as Jehovah in the Bible which Prophet Muhammad made him mean after hijacking him from the Pagan Arab Pantheon, a large number of “revelations” in the Quran itself state loud and clear that he was known and worshipped ever since the first man, Adam, was created by him. All biblical prophets received “revelations” from him, and he had had the Jews and the Christians as his Chosen People at least for three thousand years before Prophet Muhammad tried to monopolize him for the Muslim Ummah. The Jews and Christians have continued to worship him till today, and taken together they exceed the number of Muslims in the world.
The three conclusions mentioned above should, therefore, be rewritten as follows:
There is thus no substance at all in the Muslim belief or Justice Basaks’ judgement that the Quran is the “word of God,” unless God is another name for Prophet Muhammad. Allah of the Quran is no divine source of “revelations”. On the contrary, the source of those “revelations” is wholly human. The Quran betrays, throughout its chapters and verses, the infirmities such as are native to ordinary and uncultivated human nature. The only difference which imparting a divine character to the Quran makes, is that it puts a heavenly stamp on monstrous monologues of an earthly person. What would have been dismissed out of hand as passing failure of normal human reason and natural moral sense, has thus acquired the authority of inviolable laws established for all time to come.
We should like to quote at some length from Maxime Rodinson, a modem biographer of the Prophet, who is well-known for being more than sympathetic to Islam and its institutions:
“May any Muslims who read these lines forgive my plain speaking. For them the Koran is the book of Allah and I respect their faith. But I do not share it and I do not wish to fall back, as many orientalists have done, on equivocal phrases to disguise my meaning. This may perhaps be of assistance in remaining on good terms with individuals and governments professing Islam; but I have no wish to deceive anyone.... I do not believe that the Koran is the book of Allah. If I did, I should be a Muslim. But the Koran is there, and since I, like many other non-Muslims, have interested myself in the study of it, I am naturally bound to express my views. For several centuries the explanation produced by Christians and rationalists has been that Muhammad was guilty of falsification, by deliberately attributing to Allah his own thoughts and instructions.
“We have seen that this theory is not tenable. The most likely one, as I have explained at length, is that Muhammad did really experience sensory phenomena translated into words and phrases and that he interpreted them as messages from the Supreme Being. He developed the habit of receiving these revelations in a particular way. His sincerity appears beyond a doubt, especially in Mecca when we see how Allah hustled, chastised and led him into steps that he was extremely unwilling to take. But it is said that in Medina, as Buhl has very aptly expressed it,
“Had the inspired visionary been transformed into an impostor, driven by necessity to produce convenient revelations at the appropriate moment and at no other, in the way that mediums have been known to resort to fraud in similar cases? ‘A’isha certainly remarked sarcastically on one occasion on the Lord’s readiness to answer her husband’s wishes. There are a number of difficult occasions, when we find him hesitating to make up his mind, asking advice and thinking things over, before the revelation suddenly descends from heaven and solves the problem along lines of what human (sometimes all too human) cogitation might have suggested. ‘Umar boasted innocently of having three times given advice which turned out miraculously to correspond with the dictates of heaven... Even Muslim tradition tells the story of a secretary of the Prophet’s, AbdullAh ibn Sa‘d, who was taking down the sayings of the Koran at his dictation. At one point, when the Prophet broke off, the secretary continued aloud to the end of the sentence as he thought it should read, and Muhammad absentmindedly incorporated ‘Abdullah’s suggestion into the divine text. (A prey to doubts of the Prophet’s inspiration, ‘Abdullah abjured Islam and fled to Mecca. When the city fell the Prophet wanted to kill him, but he finally escaped with his life after his foster brother ‘UthmAn interceded for him.)
“All this is true, but does not necessarily imply deliberate deception. Man's capacity for self-deception is infinite. It is obvious to non-Muslims that the words which Muhammad heard, by which his experiences (in themselves almost inexpressible) were translated in so miraculously perfect a fashion, were dictated to him by his unconscious. He himself suspected it; he had doubted their source, he was afraid that human inspiration might have formed some part of it, and, as we have seen, he even admitted at a later stage that Satan himself had managed to insert his own orders.
“With success achieved, his own faith acknowledged, strengthened and confirmed by thousands of disciples, it was only natural that he should have fewer and fewer doubts about the promptings of his inner voice; and that these, too, should have conflicted less and less with the results of his conscious deliberations and with the urge of those strong instincts which were fostered by the comfort of his position, by the intoxicating influence of success and by the consciousness of power... There was nothing surprising in the fact that Allah should suddenly command him to take reasonable decisions which his own human reflections, or the advice of shrewd companions, had already urged. Besides what could be more natural than that the Master's orders should correspond with the lawful wishes of his faithful servant?...”11
The observation of Rodinson in the last line of the above citation is confirmed by a Tradition of the Prophet himself: “A Muslim saw in a dream that he met a person from a People of the Book [i.e. a Jew] who said, ‘You would have been an excellent ummah if you had not practised idolatry and not said - what Allah pleases and Muhammad pleases.’ He came to the Holy Prophet and reported the dream. The Prophet replied, ‘By Allah! I also think alike. You should start saying - what Allah pleases, then Muhammad pleases.”12 But the Quran has retained verses which equate obedience to Allah with obedience to the Prophet, and promise reward and punishment accordingly (4.80; 5.92; 8, 1, 20, 46; 24.52, 56; 33.36, 71; 47.33; 49.14).
The Jew was commenting on the Islamic confession of faith (Kalimah) - There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is the Prophet of Allah. Mixing the name of Muhammad with that of Allah, must have sounded sacrilegious and a pollution of pure monotheism to the Jews - an idolization of Muhammad so to say. Their misgivings proved true. Islam started by substituting Muhammad for the idols of the Pagan Arabs, and that is what it has remained till our times.
Why Quran and Hadis are interchangeable
This identification of Allah with the Prophet alone can explain why orthodox Islam has placed the Quran, the word of Allah, on the same holy pedestal as the HadIs, the word of Muhammad. “The sources of Islam,” observes Ram Swarup,” are two: the Quran and the HadIs (Sayings or ‘Traditions’), usually called the Sunnah (‘customs’), both having their centre in Muhammad. The Quran contains the Prophet’s ‘revelations’ (wahy): the HadIs, all that he did or said, or enjoined, forbade or did not forbid, approved or disapproved. Muslim theologians make no difference between the Quran and the HadIs. To them, both are works of revelation or inspiration. The quality and degree of the revelation in both works are the same; only the mode of expression is different. To them, the HadIs is Quran in action, revelation made concrete in the life of the Prophet. In the Quran, Allah speaks through Muhammad; in the Sunnah, he acts through him. Thus Muhammad’s life is a visible expression of Allah’s utterances in the Quran... No wonder that Muslim theologians regard the Quran and the HadIs as being supplementary or even interchangeable. To them, the HadIs is wahy ghair matlU (‘unread revelation’, that is, not read from the Heavenly Book like the Quran but inspired all the same); and the Quran is hadIs mutwAtir, that is, the Tradition considered authentic and genuine by all Muslims from the beginning.”13
It is this fixed and frozen image of the Prophet which is meant when a Muslim proclaims his DIn (fundamental faith). In fact, the Prophet produced a “revelation” (33.21) presenting himself as the perfect model for those who look forward (with hope) for the Day of Judgment. For a pious Muslim, human life is lived best when it conforms to Muhammad’s conduct even in minor matters such as defecating, urinating, brushing one’s teeth, licking one’s fingers after meals, combing one’s hair, cutting one’s beard to a specific size, and so on. Islam leaves no room at all for individual initiative or judgment, not to speak of innovation. In case of doubt, a pious Muslim must go to a mufti (jurisconsult) and obtain a fatwa about how the Prophet would have conducted himself in a situation which, according to all known sources, the Prophet is not known to have faced. The exercise is eulogized by Islamic scholars as qiyAs, that is, laying down the law by analogy.
It is the same identification of Allah with the Prophet which has given currency to the patent Muslim slogan, “(you can) be reckless (in your utterances) about Allah but when it comes to Muhammad, beware! (bA khudA dIwAnA bAsh o bA muhammad hoshiyAr).” Allah can be discussed, but Muhammad is a closed book. The only freedom of expression which one can exercise vis-à-vis Muhammad is the freedom to praise him.
Orthodox as well as liberal Muslims agree that Muhammad occupies the centre of Islam. “Urdu poetry,” writes a liberal Muslin “abounds in irreverent references to the Almighty. But there exists not a single couplet which takes similar liberties with Prophet Muhammad. Even scholars of Islam in the West, bar a few exceptions, have not quite understood the impact, over the centuries, of the Prophet of Islam on the Muslim mind… In 1985, the great scholar, Annemarie Schimmel published a classic entitled And Muhammad is His Messenger: The Veneration of the Prophet in Islamic Poetry. She drew not only on works of scholarship but also on poetry, music, folklore and literature to show the central place he has occupied in Muslim life and thinking since the down of Islam.”14
The Judgement suffers from Syllolisation
Coming back to Justice Basak’s judgement, we find that it is a syllogism which assumes arbitrarily in its major and minor premises what it has to prove in its conclusion. In other words, the conclusion has not been inferred from the evidence presented but deduced hypothetically.
The Writ Petition had placed before the court 85 Ayats from the Quran which command Muslims to practise a particular behaviour pattern towards non-Muslims. The first point to be considered by the court was whether there was substance in the Petitioners’ plea that the behaviour pattern prescribed by the Quran was inimical to public peace, communal harmony, and religious beliefs of those who did not subscribe to Islam. The belief system which produces that behaviour pattern should have been evaluated only after evaluating the behaviour pattern in terms of natural justice and common sense.
Justice Basak, however, chose to proceed the other way around. He started by accepting the Muslim claim that the Quran was the word of God. That was his major premise. His minor premise was that if the Ayats sounded obnoxious, they must have been tom out of their proper context and interpreted to mean what they did not really mean. The conclusion he drew became unavoidable. How could a belief system based on the word of God prescribe an ungodly behaviour pattern? So the Quran and the creed embodied in it, posed no threat to public peace or communal harmony or to the religious beliefs of non-Muslims. Quod erat demonstrandum.
We have before us another case which came before the court of a metropolitan magistrate in Delhi in 1983 but the judgement on which was pronounced an year after Justice Basak pronounced his judgement in Calcutta on 17 May 1985. Two persons had been charged under Section 153A of the Indian Penal Code for publishing in a poster 24 Ayats of the Quran and stating that riots in India cannot be stopped so long as those Ayats remained in the Quran. All the 24 Ayats are included in the Writ Petition which had been filed in the Calcutta High Court, and which Justice Basak had adjudged. The metropolitan magistrate, Shri Z.S. Lohat, however, drew a contrary conclusion. He pronounced on 31 July 1986, “With due regard, to the Holy Book of ‘Quran Majeed’, a close perusal of the Ayets shows that the same are harmful and teach hatred and are likely to create differences between Mohammedans on one hand and the remaining communities on the other.”15
respect to the dignity of a High court judge, we find the procedure adopted
by the metropolitan magistrate far more apt. ‘Shri Lohat studied
the Ayats placed before him and inferred that what the accused had
stated about the effect of those Ayats on communal harmony was correct.
He did not even mention the Muslim claim that the book containing those
Ayats was the word of God, though he referred to the Quran as “Holy Book”.
1 There are five different systems of numbering the verses which number 6,239 in KUfah version, 6,204 in Basrah version, 6,225 in ShAmI version, 6,219 in Makkah version, and 6,211 in MadInah version. It has 323,671, or according to other authorities, 338,606 hurUf or letters, and 77,934, or according to other authorities, 79,934 kalimAt or words (T.P. Hughes, Dictionary of Islam, 1885, New Delhi reprint, 1976, p. 489).
2 We recommend two modem biographies of the Prophet which have been reprinted by Voice of India - Mohammed and the Rise of Islam by D.S. Margoliouth, New Delhi, 1985; and The Life of Mahomet by Sir William Muir, New Delhi, 1992.
3 This document was cited and the Muslim-Jewish alliance invoked by Maulana Abut Kalam Azad when he harangued the Muslims in India to join hands with the Hindus and against the British during the Khilafat agitation (1920-22) without informing anyone why the alliance had broken down soon after it was sealed. No other mullah came out with the truth. They were depending upon Hindu ignorance of the history of Islam, particularly of the Prophet.
4 K.S. Lal, Theory and Practice of Muslim State in India, Aditya Prakashan, New Delhi, 1999, pp. 95-110. Chapter IV of the book deals with Income of the Muslim State in medieval India. It has a section on khams.
5 Cited by Maxime Rodinson in Mohammed, Second (revised) edition, London, 1971, p. 207 with reference to TirmidhI, sahIh, kitAb 44 (‘tafsIr al-qurAn), on sUrah al-azhAb, hadith 9a to 11 (ed. Cairo, 1292 H., vol. II, p. 209f).
6 Sahih Muslim SharIf, Arabic text with Urdu translation by Allama Wahid-uz-Zaman, Aitqad Publishing House, Delhi, 1986, Volume IV, p. 80.
7 Sunan Ibn MAjah, Arabic text with Urdu translation by Maulana Abdul Hakim Khan Akhtar Shahjahanpuri, Aitqad Publishing House, Delhi, 1986, Volume I, p. 557.
8 Ibn IshAq, SIrat RasUl Allah, translated by A. Gillaume, OUP, Karachi, Eighth Impression, 1987, p. 300.
9 TArIkh-i-Tabari, Volume I, SIrat an-Nabi, Translated into Urdu by Saiyyad Muhammad Ibrahim, Nafis Academy, Karachi, n.d., p. 163. Emphasis added.
10 Brigadier S.K. Malik, The Quranic Concept of War, Lahore, 1979, First Indian reprint, New Delhi, 1986, p. 81. Emphasis added.
11 Maxime Rodinson, Mohammed. Second (revised) edition, London, 1971, pp. 217-20. Emphasis added.
12 Sunan Ibn MAjah, op. cit., p. 589.
13 Ram Swarup, Understanding Islam Through HadIs:Faith or Fanaticism?, published in the U.S.A., 1983, reprinted by Voice of India, New Delhi, 1984 and 1987, pp. vii-viii. This publication and its Hindi translation were banned by the Delhi Administration in 1990 and 1991.
14 A.G. Noorani in a review of In Search of Muhammad by Clinton Bennett, The Statesman, 24 May 1999. Noorani’s credentials as a liberal Muslim are guaranteed by his quoting a length, in the same review, from Ziaduddin Sardar’s The Future of Muslim Civilisation. Sardar attacks orthodox Muslims for interpreting Islamic injunctions mechanically and literally, thus losing “right of the individual freedom, the dynamic nature of many Islamic injunctions, and the creativity and innovation which Islam fosters within its framework”.
15 For proceedings of the case in the court of Shri Z.S. Lohat, see Freedom of Expressions: Secular Theocracy Versus Liberal Democracy, compiled by Sita Ram Goel and published by Voice of India, New Delhi, 1998, pp. 1-9.