“Are those who know equal to those who do not know?”: The Democratized Utopia of Scriptural Understanding

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“Are those who know equal to those who do not know?” (Q 39:9)

Being a graduate student of the study of Religion, every day is an eye-opener for me – a stark reality check – about how much there is to learn and how negligible a proportion of it I have managed to know so far. Clearly, a two-year long degree programme was not going to make me an expert on the intricate matters of faith and, most certainly, I will not pretend that it has. However, perhaps not everybody shares my degree of self-doubt. Recently, I heard one of my class-fellows voice his opinion in the class to this effect: “We need to take the legal tradition of Islam from the scholars who have monopolized it and give it to the ordinary people.” This got me to ruminate the entire day on how problematic I find this opinion to be. This article is precisely a cathartic outlet to that very rumination.

I would like to believe that the speaker’s opinion came from a well-meaning place, but I wonder who is this ‘we’ who’s bent upon snatching the tradition away from the scholars? Is it not an alarming case of intellectual hubris when individuals in their 20s, with barely two to three semesters of training in a religious studies degree based in a Western institution not only deem themselves fully qualified to take the Islamic tradition away from the scholars but also believe that scholarly contributions to the tradition can be bypassed in favor of individual efforts and interpretations. Presumably, the aim of this endeavor is the democratization of knowledge. It is needless to say that this is not a novel suggestion. The Protestant idea of everyone being entitled to access the scripture individually on their own and interpret it for themselves, and the modernist emphasis on breaking the chains of centuries worth of scholarly tradition in order to eradicate the intellectual stasis is echoed on the other end of the spectrum of modern madness when enraged accountants and engineers convince groups to go on killing sprees based on their ‘interpretations’ of the book. The increasing radicalization in the Muslim world in the past century is the very fruit of unqualified individuals interpreting scripture on their own, without the requisite tools, bending it to all sorts of devious and heinous ends.

On the one hand, I wholeheartedly concede that that the Quran and the Sunnah of the Prophet is not a monopoly of the select few but a collective inheritance of the believers. On the other hand, I also firmly believe that that there has to be a systematic ethic with which this inheritance is to be viewed. Quran and hadith comprise not only of unequivocal general ethical exhortations but they also contain specific, legal, and deeply perplexing content, to comment on which scholars traditionally received training for decades within multiple religious sciences before they considered themselves qualified. And since everyone does not have the temperament, ability, or desire to possess these requisite tools, it is encouraged that when seeking clarity on crucial matters one asks those who do.

Certainly universal ethical principles can be consumed individually, but Quran and hadith are not entirely composed of ethical principles. How do ‘common people’ derive clear doctrinal precepts from scripture? Have they historically done so without utilizing the heritage of the scholars? Commenting on the verse 16:44 wherein the Prophet is reminded that Quran is sent down to him so that he may ‘explain it to the people,’ Taqi Usmani writes that “Had the interpretation of even this type of subjects (doctrinal issues) been open to everybody irrespective of the volume of his learning, the Holy Quran would not have entrusted the Holy Prophet with the functions of ‘teaching’ and ‘explaining’ the book.”

Even after the Prophet, Quran clearly encourages one to ask those who know and explicitly reminds that not everyone ‘knows’; undoubtedly, everyone is not at the same station of knowledge.

“Are those who know equal to those who do not know?” (Q 39:9)

“Question the people of the Remembrance, if it should be that you do not know..” (Q 16:43)

“And these similitudes We mention before the people. And nobody understands them except the learned.” (Q 29:43)

“Rather, the Qur’an is distinct verses [preserved] within the breasts of those who have been given knowledge. ” (Q 29:44)

The classical intellectual heritage of Islam owes its existence to the works of committed scholars. In my modest opinion, a handful of self-styled modern religious ‘scholars’ who use and abuse religion for political ends must not lead one to discredit an entire tradition standing on the efforts, commitment, and wisdom of those authentic scholars – classical, post-formative, and present – the ‘heirs of the Prophet’ according to the famous hadith – who worked sincerely and relentlessly to preserve the integrity of this extremely rich and beautiful tradition.

Not only is Quran a difficult book, the hadith and sunnah are even harder: Ibn Wahb (d. 813), an Egyptian jurist who travelled to Medina to study with Malik ibn Anas, noted that he learnt so many hadiths that they began to confuse him, and if it weren’t for Malik through which God rescued him, he would have destroyed himself. Malik used to guide him to study some hadiths and leave some.

Islamic tradition has been and will remain, if any meaningful understanding of it has to be acquired, a tradition learnt under the guidance of teachers – under the shadows of the scholars. One of the modern sages who’s been my constant source of inspiration quoted these Arabic verses recently which I find most germane to this issue under discussion:

العلم انتقل من الصدور الئ السطور / ولكن بقي الرجال مفاتيح لتلك السطور

(at some point) the knowledge was transferred from the breasts to lines (of books) / but humans still remain keys to those books

And Allah knows best.


“Kill them wherever you find them”: Violence in the Quran? The wise speak only of what they know…

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Following is the set of verses in Surah al-Baqarah, Chapter 2 of the Quran, that is often cited to highlight the so-called ‘controversial’ and potentially violent character of the Quran:

2:191: And slay them wheresoever you come upon them, and expel them whence they expelled you, for strife is worse than slaying. But do not fight with them near the Sacred Mosque until they fight with you there. But if they fight you, then slay them. Such is the recompense of the disbelievers. 2:192: But if they desist, then truly God is Forgiving, Merciful.

Many exegetes have suggested that these verses were revealed against the backdrop of Treaty of Hudaybiyah when many Muslims feared an attack from the Meccans. So these verses laid out the guidelines for a prospective combat. For instance, even though fighting was forbidden in and near the Sacred Mosque, Muslims were enjoined to fight back if they were attacked near the Mosque. It has also been argued that these verses are describing the limits of warfare by emphasizing 2:194: “So whosoever transgresses against you, transgress against him in like manner as he transgressed against you…” as a reminder that this is an authorization for a commensurate response to aggression, rather than a license for inordinate carnage. Aforementioned verses also appear strikingly similar to another set of verses from Surah al-Nisa:

4:89: They wish that you should disbelieve, even as they disbelieve, that you may be on a level with them. So take them not as protectors till they migrate in the way of God. But if they turn their backs, then seize them wherever you find them, and take no protector or helper from among them. 4:90…. If they withdraw from you, and do no fight you, and offer peace, God allows you no way against them.

Arguably, these verses were also revealed in a very specific context when a group of ‘hypocrites’ in Medina acted like war traitors, and thus their alliance was to be avoided. Again, the qualifier in 4:90 reiterates that if these deserters are not fighting against the Muslims, then peace should be extended.

Since these verses were revealed in very specific contexts, breach of a treaty or the imminence of a war, they have no universal import and hence they cannot be invoked during times of peace in order to justify the initiation of aggression. However, these ayat remain problematic because of what Lesley Hazleton refers to as the “yellow highlighter” version of reading the Quran: cherry-picking of isolated verses leading to misunderstood perceptions causing fear of Islam on one end of the spectrum, and the abused, de-contextualized misunderstanding of the text to justify violence, on the other. These are particular context-based verses which arguably come in contradistinction with the more universal principles such as the sanctity of human life (5:32, 6:151). This observation gives rise to questions about any measures taken by the traditional Quranic exegetical sciences to resolve tensions when a universal principle comes in conflict with a particular verse. Moreover, the presence of such verses also highlights the possibility that scripture in general, not just Quran, can be a dangerous text if approached without formal instruction, adequate interpretive tools, or historical background. As Huston Smith aptly notes in his ‘World’s Religions’ that Quran is not the kind of book that you would just casually decide to curl up and read by the window on one rainy evening. Traditionally, Suyuti (d. 911/1505) listed 12 disciplines that must be mastered for an individual to be considered qualified as a Quranic exegete: 1. Lexicology 2. Grammar 3. Morphology 4. Etymology 5. Semantics / Linguistic Pragmatics 6. Imagery and Figurative Language 7. Rhetorical Embellishments 8. Modes of Recitation 9. Theology 10.Legal Methodology 11.Circumstances of Revelation 12.Abrogation. This makes one wonder to what extent a modern, novice reader of this text is qualified to interpret its intricacies with the only  tool at his disposal being prejudiced ignorance and unapologetic hubris.

In this context, it also needs to be asked whether or not can the Protestant idea, of everyone being entitled to access the scripture individually on their own and interpret it for themselves, be extended to Quran as well.

I argue that the role of supplementary exegetical guidance is absolutely indispensable for Quranic readers, Muslims or non-Muslims, if they are seeking to develop any meaningful understanding of it or its so-called ‘controversies’ that do not live up to their 21st century sensibilities. The sciences of fiqh have developed stipulations such as asbaab (causes), shuroot (conditions), mawaana’i (restrictions), rukhas (licenses), and azaayem (firmness) to determine whether or not a decree in the Quran holds applicability in any given situation: khitaab-al-wada (the situational discourse). The necessity of these complementary interpretive tools ought to be all the more imperative when it comes to studying the Quranic decrees widely held ‘controversial’ because they highlight the historical character of the so-called ‘verses of the ‘sword in the Quran as well as the restrictions on their applicability outside of the context of their revelation.

Interesting, Quran itself seems to acknowledge the idea that the readers of the text can use it to do both good and evil; that the same message can both guide and mislead. 2:26: “… He misleads many by it, and He guides many by it, and He misleads none but the iniquitous.”  So, without the informed historical context and well-developed interpretive tools, most readers are likely to insert their own values, biases, and motives into the text, ending up potentially misguided and misguiding.

An Examination into Quranic Criticism of Jews, Christians, and Polytheists

N.B.: This was originally written for a class assignment.


One of the recurrent themes in the Quran is that of prophets being sent in the past, by the same God, to various communities to guide them and the subsequent deviation of some among those communities from that guidance: “Mankind was one community; then God sent the prophets as bearers of glad tidings and as warners. And with them He sent down the Book in truth, to judge among mankind concerning that wherein they differed concerning it, after clear proofs came to them, out of envy among themselves” (2:213). Apart from this deviation, Quran also seems unhappy with the rivalries between Jews and Christians that must have been prevalent during the time of its revelation: “The Jews say, “The Christians stand on nothing,” and the Christians say, “The Jews stand on nothing,” though they recite the Book… God will judge between them on the Day of Resurrection concerning that wherein they differed” (2:113). Against this backdrop of divergence and rivalry, Quran sees itself as a final reminder attempting to correct what has been, in its view, distorted in the Divine message in the Abrahamic tradition. Additionally, it also sought to reform the polytheistic character of the milieu in which it was revealed. It appears to summon people towards what is believes to be the essence to every messenger’s teaching: monotheism. “We indeed sent a messenger unto every community, “Worship God, and shun false deities!” Then among them were those whom were deserving of error” (16:36).

A number of verses in Quran attempt to make a case for what can be seen as establishing Islam’s supremacy over past traditions and, by extension, directing disapproving polemic towards certain Jews and Christians, which is certainly not unexpected: If Quran had to establish its tradition as a corrective to the ‘distortions’ of the past, it perhaps felt pressed to be unreserved in its description and criticism of what and who, according to its view, were the causes of this distortion. Examining the specific beliefs and acts which Quran deems a deviation from or a rejection of the Divine guidance, this paper will analyze the critical outlook of the Quran towards Jews, Christians, and polytheists, and will also attempt to understand the motivation behind such outlook. It will also attempt to classify the criticism into two broad categories: i) theological criticism: criticism over alleged doctrinal innovation and distortion of Divine Message which presumably necessitated the Revelation of the Quran, and ii) polemic criticism: criticism over certain ‘wrath-invoking’ actions, independent of any doctrinal disagreement, serving as a tool for admonition.

Preliminary considerations

“And indeed We gave Moses the Book and caused a succession of messengers to follow him. And We gave Jesus son of Mary clear proofs, and strengthened him with the Holy Spirit. Is it not so that whenever a messenger brought you something your souls did not desire, you waxed arrogant, and some you denied and some you slew” (2:87). This verse illustrates Quran’s honouring the prophets and the traditions they brought on one hand, and its simultaneous censure of some of the recipients of those traditions on the other. Before exploring the Quranic criticism of Jews and Christians, it is important to preface the discussion by making a case that rather than making a universal judgment of condemnation for every single one the followers of Judaism and Christianity, Quran seems to criticize those followers who either, according to Quranic perspective, distorted the message, failed to live up to God’s message to them, or collectively committed acts displeasing to God. This distinction is evident in a number of verses: “And [remember] when We made a covenant with the Children of Israel… Then you turned away, save a few of you, swerving aside” (emphasis added) (2:83). ‘Save a few of you’ implies that even though Quran makes a distinction between those Jews of ancient Israel who went astray and those who did not, it holds that most of them were in the wrong. It is perhaps the idea of majority being deviant which, in Quran’s view, necessitated its own revelation. Moreover, the verse “Neither the disbelievers among the People of the Book nor the polytheists wish that any good be sent down to you from your Lord” (2:105) alludes to the distinction between the ‘disbelievers’ and ‘believers’ among the People of the Book (Jews and Christians). In the Quranic view, ‘upright religion’ to which Jews were called entailed monotheism, worship, and alms as exemplified by hanifs or primordial monotheists: “They [Jews and Christians] were not commanded but to worship God, devoting religion entirely to Him, as hanifs, and to perform the prayer, and to give the alms – that is the upright religion. Truly the disbelievers among the People of the Book and the idolaters are in the Fire of Hell, abiding therein; it is they who are the worst of creation” (emphasis added) (98:3-6). Arguably, those Jews and Christians who stayed true to this upright faith, as per the Quranic point of view, are guaranteed salvation by God of the Quran: “Truly those who believe, and those who are Jews, and the Christians, and the Sabeans – whosoever believes in God and the Last Day and works righteousness shall have their reward with their Lord. No fear shall come upon them, nor shall they grieve” (2:62).

Criticism of Jews:

Following are some of the reasons of criticism of Jews this paper identifies in the Quran: a sense of arrogance and complacence about being God’s chosen people and excessive attachment to the world, distortion of scripture, transgression of Divine Law, and ungratefulness and fickleness.

  1. i) Complacence about being God’s special people, and attachment to the world: Quran repeatedly reminds the Jews of the favour God extended to them by emancipating them from slavery as well as elevating them above other nations: “O Children of Israel! Remember My Blessing which I bestowed upon you, and that I favoured you above the worlds” (2:47). However, Quran also reminds them that even though they had been blessed by God in the past, this should not give them a cause to be so complacent about the hope of being undoubtedly saved through prophetic intercession (2:122-3), for when Abraham inquired God about assuring eternal well-being for all his progeny, God qualified his covenant with Abraham by reminding him that “My covenant does not include the wrongdoers” (2:124). Thus, being historically chosen for Divine favour should not lead to a sense of arrogance and false security about eternal salvation regardless of one’s actions, Quran suggests. It can be inferred that Jews in Medina must have been outspoken in expressing their belief of Jews being God’s special people and therefore successful in the Hereafter, from the instruction God issues to Prophet Muhammad to tell them: “Say, “If the Abode of the Hereafter with God is yours alone to the exclusion of other people, then long for death, if you are truthful. But they will not long for it … You will find them the most covetous of people for life, [even] more than those who are idolaters. Each one of them would wish to live a thousand years” (2:94-6). In other words, if you believe you are saved in the Life after Death by virtue of being dear to God, why are you so attached to this worldly life and heedless about the next one? Quran refers to the Jews in Medina as ‘most covetous for life’ among all people. “It is they [these Jews excessively attached to the world] who have purchased the world at the price of the Hereafter” (2:86). The considerable weight attached to the eschatological themes in the Quran and its approach towards the finality of death and the transience of this life indicate why Quran would rebuke as deluded those individuals it finds excessively attached to this world.
  2. ii) Distortion of scripture: In its second chapter, Quran alleges that the Jews’ scripture is not in its pure form preserved as it was revealed, and makes repeated references to their deliberate distortion of the Divine word: “But those who did wrong substituted a word other than that which had been said unto them. So We sent down a torment from Heaven upon those who did wrong for the iniquity they committed” (2:59). “A party of them would hear the Word of God and then distort it after they had understood it, knowingly?” (2:75). “So woe unto those who write the book with their hands, then say, “This is from God,” that they may sell it for a paltry price. So woe unto them” (2:79). Quranic criticism of Jews allegedly changing their scripture over time, which it terms an ‘iniquity’, explains why God decided a Last Reminder was necessary in the form of a scripture believed to be purely the Word of God untainted by human redaction that He promised He will himself preserve and guard against corruption (15:9).

iii) Transgression of Divine Law: Even when God commanded the Jews not to kill of their own, Quran frowns on a murder committed by the community of Jews in Israel followed by them casting blame upon each other (2:72). God appears particularly displeased when the Jews, allegedly, killed their prophets (2:61, Matthew 23:37 also makes a reference to this killing of prophets by the Jews of Jerusalem). Moreover, 2:65-6 suggest that God was extremely wrathful when the Jews “transgressed in the matter of Sabbath” and so as a punishment, God “made it an exemplary punishment for their time and for times to come.”

iv)Ungratefulness and fickleness: The Jews of Israel were granted a special food by God, the manna, according to the Quranic narrative. 2:61 narrates that these Jews, supposedly blessed, complained to Moses that they “shall not endure one food” and that he should intercede to God to provide them with a variety of delicious foods, to which Moses responded: “Would you substitute what is lesser for what is better? Go down to a town, and you will have what you ask for.” Seemingly, as a consequence of this ingratitude to God’s blessing and greediness for better, “they were struck with abasement and poverty, and earned a burden of wrath from God” (2:61).

Quran also cites a number of anecdotes wherein Jews behaved with fickleness invoking God’s displeasure with them. In 2:246-7 it is narrated that the Jews of Israel asked their prophet to bring a king for them so they would fight in God’s way. However, when Saul was raised as king above them, the same Jews became resentful of him being made sovereign because of their contempt for his poverty and conceit for their own wealth. Save a few, most of them also turned their backs to fighting in God’s way in violation of their earlier promises.

In another instance, when Moses was away for forty nights, his followers took up a calf and began worshipping him at which the God of the Quran seemed disappointed but He chose to pardon them so that they be grateful (2:51-2).

Then “aforetime they (Jews) used to ask for victory over those who disbelieve – so when victory came to them that which they recognized, they disbelieved in it. So may the curse of God be upon the disbelievers” (2:89). This verse is seen as referring to the contemporary Jews living in Medina at the time of Quranic revelation. They were known to have been fighting with the idolaters trustful in the hope of an imminent messenger who would support their cause, but when that Prophet Muhammad began preaching, most of them refused to believe in the truth of his message. Quran views this all of this inconsistent behavior with stern disapproval. It can be argued whether Quran expected, from Jews and Christians of Arabia, ‘religious conversion’ to Islam in complete and modern sense, or merely a belief in the truth of Prophet Muhammad’s prophethood and message while retaining their own identities. For them, the latter probably meant the former which explains their hesitation to believe in Prophet Muhammad.

Criticism of Christians:

Quranic criticism directed towards Christians does not appear to be as elaborate as that for the Jews. It mainly pertains to the doctrinal points of their ascribing the status of God’s Son to Jesus, the idea of Trinity, and their alleged alteration of their scripture as well.

Quran views the Christian idea of ‘incarnational sonship’ (viewing Jesus as God’s word made flesh and His son simultaneously) with disapproval because it goes against not only the absolute monotheism of Islam but also one of its fundamental ideas that God does not beget children (112:3). Quran acknowledges the truthfulness of Jesus as a Prophet, grants him an exalted position (4:171), and prefers him above other prophets by degrees (2:253), but it describes asserting the idea that God has taken a son as a “terrible thing” (19:89). This is because the idea of sonship of Jesus tampers with the Quranic idea of the wholly otherness of the God: “That is Jesus son of Mary – a statement of truth, which they doubt. It is not for God to take a child. Glory be to Him!” (19:34-5, also 2:116). Quran’s rejection of idea in Christian doctrine of Jesus’ sonship comes out of its believing that Christians view this concept in a literal sense. It can be argued whether this idea is a popular perception, or a normative concept: whether Christian theologians treat this idea literally (For instance, many Christian theologians consider the word ‘begotten’ son in the Gospel of John (1:18) as a later interpolation) or simply as a reality which cannot be taken in a physical sense. In any case, Quran discourages parental images for God, and does not employ them even metaphorically.

Christian view of Trinity is also explicitly criticized: “So believe in God and His messengers, and say not “Three.” Refrain! It is better for you. God is only one God (4:171).” Quran assumes this doctrine to be also in violation of the uncompromising tawhid that Islam stands for. It will be beyond the scope of this paper to examine the normative view of Trinity but it is interesting to point out that some formulations of the Trinitarian doctrine claim to both assert and preserve God’s unity, viewing God one and three at the same time, simultaneously manifested in the idea of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Quran’s insistence on Oneness, however, leaves no room for any such triune symbols.

Like Jews, Christians are also accused of losing or changing their scripture, some of it may have been a result of innocent forgetfulness: “they forgot part of that whereof they were reminded (5:14)” and some of deliberate concealment: “Our Messenger has come unto you, making clear to you much of what you once hid of the Book (5:15).”

Before we go on to examine the significance of this criticism, it will be important to examine Quran’s view of Abraham. Quran strives to distinguish itself from both Jews and Christians and claim the symbol of Abraham for itself. God tells the Prophet Muhammad that Jews and Christians will only be happy with him if he follows their creed (2:120), and he is commanded to respond to them by saying “Rather [ours is] the creed of Abraham, a hanif” (2:135). When the Jews and Christians claimed that prophets including Abraham were Jews or Christians, the Prophet was instructed to rhetorically ask if they believe they know more than God (2:140). This implies that the God of the Quran does not consider Abraham to be Jew or a Christian, but simply a hanif, a primordial monotheist, and the Muslims to be the true followers of his creed. In light of this contest to claim the symbol of Abraham, it does not come as a surprise that Muslims are required to send blessings on Abraham five times a day during their ritual prayers at the same time when they send blessings on the Prophet Muhammad.

Criticism of polytheists:

Though Jews and Christians are chastised by the Quran for distorting God’s guidance to them and failing to act in line with His commands, the polytheists in Arabia are seen as people who had not been warned earlier and Prophet Muhammad was sent to guide them: “that thou [Muhammad] mayest warn a people whose fathers were not warned; so they were heedless” (55:6). Thus, criticism towards these polytheists does not arise of any historical deviation from guidance on their part, but their stubbornness in not responding to the Prophet Muhammad’s message of monotheism. They are reprimanded mainly for i) associating partners with God and expecting intercession through them, and ii) being stubbornly ungrateful to God’s bounties.

Pre-Islamic Arab polytheists believed in a pantheon of deities and Allah was considered to be a supreme deity in a polytheistic pantheon. Other deities, particularly the three goddesses Al-‘Uzza, al-Lat and Manah were believed to be able to make intercession to the high God. Quran severely rejects this practice of associating partners with God in the hope of any benefit to be received from these deities: “Then on the Day of Resurrection He will disgrace them and say, “Where are My partners on whose account you were defiant?”” (19:27). Quran intended for polytheists to center the divine within a single God, but monotheism cannot be seen as an innovative idea put forth by the Quran in Arabia since historically there were some hanifs in that region who subscribed to that position already. Quran was, in fact, more radically so stressing on a complete elimination of idols from the religious milieu of Arabia which is evident in its uncompromising tone it adopts towards polytheism.

Moreover Quran, interestingly, equates the absence of monotheism to a lack of gratitude and insight. Quran urges the polytheists to ponder upon the logic of their beliefs by reflecting whether the idols they worship seem capable to them of creating the wonderfully intricate world they observe around them: “And they worship, apart from God, that which has no power over any provision that may come to them from the heavens and the earth; nor are they capable [of such] (16:73).” Quran seems to argue that once people begin to reflect on the ‘signs’ in the universe, that is natural world, and the numerous blessings they are bestowed with, it becomes almost commonsense to have faith in One Omnipotent God. This is why Quran finds it surprising that the polytheists enjoy all the blessings of this world, the assistance provided by the cattle, the variety of foods and drinks they enjoy and “yet they have taken gods other than God, that perhaps they may be helped. They cannot help them,” (36:74-5). Thus, evidently, Quran equates polytheism with ingratitude, and suggests that polytheists’ ascribing partners to God is an act of ungratefulness: “behold, a group among you ascribes partners to God. So let them be ungrateful for that which We have given them: “Enjoy yourselves! For soon you will know””(16:54-5). In the same vein, it is interesting to note that the Arabic word ‘kafir’ generally rendered as ‘infidel’ or ‘disbeliever’ has a root meaning of kufr which signifies ‘lack of gratitude’. Lack of belief, in God’s eyes, is intrinsically intertwined with lack of thankfulness: gratitude for bounties of life should ideally lead one to reflect on the source of those bounties which in turn leads to reverence for and faith in that Source.


After having analyzed the Quranic criticism towards Jews, Christians, and polytheists, it is important to briefly conjecture the possible motivations behind these objections in order to put them into perspective. Criticism advanced towards Jews and Christians can be seen in two broad categories: Doctrinal criticism which can be seen as an end in itself, and polemical criticism which can be viewed as a tool employed as a means to another end.

It is to be noted that objections such as distortion of scripture by the Jews and Christians, and towards Christian belief of Jesus’ sonship and the Trinity can be seen as indispensable points of theological disagreement from the perspective of Quran.  As seen earlier, the Christian doctrines were disapproved by the Quran because of their alleged violation of monotheistic principles. Quran views itself not only as a continuation of the Old and New Testaments but its culmination; it sees its message to be in line with the original Torah (2:89). However, it also asserts that these earlier revelations were not preserved in their original form, and that they were corrupted in transmission. Thus, Quran viewed its message as the word of God through Prophet Muhammad and as a corrective reform to the alleged distortion of Divine message by the past communities. It is in this spirit that Quran seems eager to elaborate on those distortions because these elaborations acted as justifications for the need of the Quran, almost its raison d’être. If Quran had agreed with all the subsequent developments in the Christian and Jewish theologies, including the scriptural redactions as well as doctrinal innovations, it would have failed to furnish adequate reason and urgency for the need of a new Revelation from the God of Jews and Christians.

Moreover, Quran’s emphasis on the alleged defects and limitations, irrespective of whether due to deliberate or circumstantial reasons, in these earlier scriptures helped it develop this contrast whereby it could present itself as the final and infallible revelation by God (5:48, 15:9). The infallibility of Quran is an important idea which has led the Muslims to live as a scripture-centered community. Quran’s casting doubts on the purity of earlier scriptures can be attributed to its viewing scripture having a central importance in a tradition; a loss of scripture means the loss of tradition. This importance of scripture can be seen in the way Quran, instead of opening with “In the beginning there was …”, commences with “This is the Book in which there is no doubt, a guidance for the reverent” (Chapter 2 considered as formal beginning). Also, in an interestingly unique way Quran appears to be self-conscious of its status as a scripture: it repeatedly refers to itself as book or scripture throughout the text even when it was revealed piecemeal. Quran’s reference to Jews and Christians as ‘People of the Book’ is another telling notion pointing not only to Quran’s emphasis on the centrality of scripture but also its role as a linkage between Abrahamic traditions.

On the other hand, the second category of criticism pointing to alleged human failings of historical Jewish communities and highlighting their certain qualities and acts such as the sense of complacence, transgression of laws, ungratefulness, and fickleness of the Jews can be seen as polemical rhetoric unrelated to any theological disagreements. Arguably, these are not the points of criticism that could help Quran establish the basis for its need: such flaws and failings may creep into a section of any community that, arguably, do not necessarily have to trigger the need for a new Revelation reminding the basic precepts of God’s message as long as the message itself remained intact normatively. The reason of the inclusion of these accounts can be viewed as didactic: a tool for warning against certain patterns of behavior marked by ingratitude, too much attachment to the world, and transgression for instance. According to the Quran, these failings incurred God’s wrath and hence should serve as “an admonition to the reverent” (2:66): to remind to the followers of Quran to be warned against the consequences of displeasing God by bearing in mind the example of Jews. This is evident in the strong language Quran invokes when narrating these historical accounts. Quran, in its overall character, is to be viewed as predominantly doctrinal and indirectly historical, unlike other Abrahamic scriptures which are the reverse. The historical anecdotes in the Quran are interspersed into various places, not as linear narratives but, as references in order to support the ideas. In view of this framework, Quranic anecdotes chastising historical Jews can also be viewed as having a purpose beyond themselves: moral instruction through inculcating the fear of divine retribution.

Lastly, Quran’s criticism of the Arabian polytheists for ascribing partners with God, linking it with lack of discernment and gratitude, seems expected in the light of the unqualified urgency Quran attaches to its idea of absolute and uncompromising monotheism. Quran’s plain refusal to accommodate or negotiate over any polytheistic practices of Arabia is, again, expected in light of its purported aim, which was to reestablish the monotheistic legacy of Abraham, the prime idol-breaker.


Nasr, Seyyed Hossein., Carner K. Dagli, Maria Massi Dakake, Joseph E.B. Lumbard, and Mohammed Rustom, eds. The Study Quran: A New Translation with Notes and Commentary. New York: HarperCollins, 2015. Print.

Raguel arbitrates between God and the spokesman for Muslims: A Response to Muhammad Iqbal’s Complaint & Answer (Shikwa – Jawab-e-Shikwa)


Note: I originally wrote this poem, preceded by its description, as an assignment for one of my courses, whereby we were supposed to draft a creative or poetic response to any of the themes in Muhammad Iqbal’s Complaint and Answer (Shikwa – Jawab-e-Shikwa). Now, my poetic expression is admittedly low-quality but I still believed that the theme of Divine Justice I identified in these works and the discussion built around it is worth sharing.

Footnotes to the poem are crucial.


The main theme of this poem titled ‘Raquel Arbitrates between God and the Spokesman for Muslims’ is reflection on the conversation between God and Muslims particularly in light of the idea of Divine Justice, and that the essence of ‘Muslimness’, as per Iqbal’s conception, may not be unique to Muslims alone.

In this poem, the Archangel of Justice and Fairness takes over the task of arbitrating between God and Muslims, in the interests of restoring peace and harmony in the heavens and the Universe. He realizes that Ultimate powers of arbitration and dispensing Justice lie with God, but God Himself appearing as the accused party is a very unusual and striking situation for the angel, and he is left with no other choice but to intervene as a third party in order to resolve this conflict between God and the Muslims. After all, he has been trained in the Just ways of God, by God himself. Apart from adjudication, this Archangel’s role is also important in that he is deeply familiar with his main occupation: the principle of Justice, which leads him to repeatedly emphasize its importance to persuade the Muslims to reconsider their complaint and position.

In the Complaint, Muslims repeatedly lament their suffering disloyalty at the hands of God, and express their resentment over seeing God favour ‘others’ over Muslims. There tone is, for the most part, of a jilted and betrayed lover, to the point that they even refer to God at one place as ‘harjaayi’, which literally means someone who will go to anyone, an unfaithful lover; someone who enters into a relationship, and then terminates without a reason, to unite, temporarily or otherwise, with someone else. One of the verses in the Complaint, in Urdu, reads like: Rahmatai’n hai’n teri aghyaar kay kashaano’n par. A.J. Arberry translates it as ‘But the showers of Thy mercy other thirsting souls assuage’ (p. 16). I feel Khushwant Singh’s translation captured the sentiment more accurately: ‘Your blessings are showered on homes of unbelievers, strangers all’ (p. 41). This captures the dismay of Muslims seeing God bless ‘others’, who Muslims believe do not deserve to be favoured, since Muslims alone are supposedly the special, chosen people of God. There are various references to this sentiment: ‘Be it so; bid us gone and let the earth belong to others’ (Arberry, p.20); ‘Yet Thou too, alas, art changed, now us, now others favouring’ (Arberry, p.24); ‘But that infidels should own the houris and the palaces – ah, woe!’ (Arberry, p. 18). Raguel begins by recounting these complaints, by Muslims, of blessing ‘others’ as well as those of being abandoned by God. The Archangel finds it curious that the Muslims’ sense of entitlement mainly arises from their martial victories, or their imagination that since they spread the word of the God, they had entered into a perpetual covenant with God whereby they deserve to be protected, indulged, and esteemed for the eternity. So, Raguel inquires them of what else have they accomplished, in the fields of self-development and creative intellect for instance, to make their mark in the eyes of God. In Complaint, Muslims’ shock at seeing non-Muslims thrive mainly springs from their belief that unbelieving peoples, in terms of the Muslim conception, do not deserve God’s attention. Khanda-zan kufr hai ehsaas tujhe hai kay nahee’n: Disbelief is loud with laughter; art Thou deaf, indifferent? (Arberry, p.17). The use of ‘kufr’ is crucial because Muslim seems to highlight that the successes of non-Muslim nations in the fields of economy, politics, culture imply a victory of infidelity over Islam, which conjures up a dichotomy of Islam vs. Kufr, in which everything not Muslim is kufr, and vice versa. Raguel reminds the Muslim how this division is not entirely clear since Quran often refers to the word kufr to mean ingratitude, and it does not necessarily and invariably have theological connotations. Thus, I submit, an ungrateful Muslim (characterized by incessant ‘complaining’), too, can have the qualities of kufr, just as a non-Muslim can have the qualities of a ‘true Muslim’, as we shall see shortly. Raquel also chastises the Muslim in the court for repeatedly asserting that without his (Muslim’s) existence, God’s name would cease to be remembered; For Raquel this is arrogance of radical proportions and he analogizes it to that of his former colleague Azazil, later Iblis, who was expelled from the heavens because of such a heightened sense of self-importance and superiority.

Raquel then looks at the argument of the defendant – God – and notices that, to all these charges of infidelity, God responds precisely, on the mark, with the reiteration of his Law of Justice. ‘The Creator’s law is justice, out of all eternity/ Infidels who live like Muslims, surely merit faith’s reward’ (Arberry, p.48); and ‘If there were one deserving, We’d raise them to regal splendor/ To those who seek, We would unveil a new world of wonder’ (Singh, p.66). For Raquel, this short reminder is of such substantial significance that it brings the case on the verge of closure by highlighting how there was never a breach of promise by God, rather He unequivocally communicated to His creation that all efforts, irrespective of faith professed, shall be proportionately rewarded, and by that logic, lack of effort to be met with disappointment. God sees human as His co-creator in shaping the world. So for Iqbal, a true Muslim is the one who embodies ‘khudi’ which can be defined as the ‘realization and expansion of self-hood’, thus a non-Muslim who adopts these ‘Muslim’ qualities is promised commensurate success and reward. Thus, the boundary between Muslim and non-Muslim is not merely theological rather a non-Muslim can choose to adopt a Muslim lifestyle by exerting, relying on, and developing himself. Raquel poses to Muslims, how they can claim to love and know a God and yet be unfamiliar with His principles and promises of Justice, which is an essential part of God’s reality, and his Oneness. If they were acquainted with these precepts before, they would not find any logic in complaining about betrayal and neglect, rather they would look at their condition and that of others in the light of this very justice dispensed. Raquel also recounts Words of the God from the Quran, and finds it curious how the Muslim, even though when he professes nearness with the Quran, displays an appalling unfamiliarity with the principles laid out in it. To conclude, Raquel rules that the Muslim’s charges are weak and unfounded, since God has always been fairly explicit about his Principle of Justice, by virtue of which he blessed the ‘other’, and therefore He is not found guilty of cheating the Muslim.

-Sarah Khan

Raguel arbitrates between God and the spokesman for Muslims…


God, herein the accused, by Muslim a party aggrieved

Behold! Creator and created, entangled in a heated debate.

Though an intriguing spectacle, a rarity of a kind,

The unrest of it now must abate.

As the spirit of fairness and justice, the seeker of harmony, truth

After hearing both sides, I seek to adjudicate.

O Muslim, you blame your Lord,

For showering, upon unbelievers, His favors and grants.

Whilst you, the pious devotees, suffer His rage and neglect

And thus these resentful chants!

You brandish your victories with wars and swords,[1]

Can we hear, too, of thy creative, intellectual advance?

O brazen plaintiff, like a jealous lover

Charges of infidelity, towards God, you submit

For from you He snatched the world’s reins

And passed to ‘others’ whom you deem unfit,

Whilst you found yourself stranded, empty handed, mere promises

Your enemy brims with joyous riches, so enviously you covet

Conceitedly, you repeat: “Without our existence

The humankind would cease to remember Him.”

Such arrogant self-importance mirrors just the kind

That got Azazil exiled for refusing to submit to Adam

And God’s abandonment, you view as the smirking triumph of ‘kufr’

‘Kufr’ and this ingratitude, yet, could be one and the same[2]!

O God of all the worlds, comprehensible and unknown

To his accusations of infidelity, You reply with Your vital decree

Your law of Justice, eternal and universal

Rewards non-Muslims, for their Muslimness[3], equally

Those who seek, who work, and thus deserve

Are granted with splendor of powers that be

This jury then inquires you, O oblivious Muslim

That while you profess to uphold Tawhid, so you claim

How could you remain seemingly ignorant

Of Al-‘Adl, your Lord’s most striking name[4]?

Your God avers to be more than an entity Just,

But Justice and Him are to be one and the same

You declare you walked the earth

Holding Quran close to your heart

Open and Read; therein he says unmistakably He would not

Deal with anyone in ways unjust[5]

Nor does He wrong peoples

But it is they who themselves hurt[6]

Your case, O Muslim, turns weaker,

More on His Justice do we dwell,

That if you don’t exert to change your condition

He surely never will[7]

Where, then, do we find a promise violated

When He does not promise what He won’t fulfill[8]

Your God then bestows success

Upon ones who work for it

For Him a non-Muslim, assiduous and creative

Is a vicegerent, better than a sulky slothful Muslim

By a simple rule of Justice,

Not your forsaken fancy, nor His heedless whim.

Has it occurred to you, in the moments of introspection?

That according ‘unbelievers’ riches, the favours and the reins of the world

Merely springs from His promise of Divine Justice

They appeared more deserving, more striving – thus more Muslim – in eyes of your Lord

Thus the premise of your complaint

Breaks and falls apart

When he spoke these words eternal:

Nought shall be granted unto human but what he is striving for[9]

He addressed to humankind: believers, unbelievers alike

Are you unfamiliar with the ways of your God whom you claim to adore?

That glorious past, the lost esteem, you may well restore

If you complain less, and strive more

To the standards of justice, thy allegations do not hold

So close the case, to turn a leaf anew

Thus make your peace, and cure your fancies

For thy Lord hasn’t broken a covenant with you

Your understanding of the covenant, His principles and promises,

Merely turned out to be flawed: deluded, untrue



[1] From fifth to tenth stanzas in the Complaint, there are repeated references to the martial accomplishments of Muslims, and little or no mention of accomplishments in the field of science, literature, intellect, knowledge, creativity etc.

[2] The Complaint mentions that ‘kufr’ smirks at the losing Muslims; ironically ‘kufr’ does not necessarily mean theological dividing line between Muslims and non-Muslims. It is used in the Quran (14:7) in the sense of denoting ingratitude. I submit, when Muslims refuse to acknowledge favors granted to them and incessantly ‘complain’, they can also be accused of ‘kufr’.

[3] A term to denote that being Muslim, for Iqbal, does not merely entail professing shahadah, but it also involves a sense of self-respect, struggle, personal growth and development, a set of attitudes that can fairly well be embodied by non-Muslims.

[4] Al-‘Adl is one of Allah’s ninety-nine attributes which implies that God is Justice. Adl, in itself, means justice; Justice, therefore, is not merely a characteristic of Allah, but rather Allah is the embodiment, the realization of Justice. Therefore, anyone claiming to know Allah cannot miss this aspect of his existence.

[5] Translations by Muhammad Asad: Quran 18:49; For they will find all that they ever wrought [now] facing them, and [will know that] thy Sustainer does not wrong anyone.

[6] Quran 16:118; And no wrong did We do to them, but it was they who persistently wronged themselves.

[7] Quran 13:11; Verily, God does not change men’s condition unless they change their inner selves.

[8] Quran 3:194; Verily, Thou never failest to fulfil Thy promise!

[9] Quran 53:39; And that nought shall be accounted unto man but what he is striving for.

A Critique of Maududi’s ‘Human Rights in Islam’

(In the interest of humanity, I have decided to start uploading my term papers that I’ve written over the last four years for my undergrad. Knowledge, like joy, increases when shared. I know; you’re welcome humankind!)


No student of Political Islam, whether he likes it or not, is able to deny the momentous influence of Syed Abul Ala Maududi in the aforesaid area. He is known to have written extensively on Islam and how Islam should shape every aspect of human life.  It would be safe to term him to be the most influential theologian, leader and Islamist thinker of India in the last century. The fact that his ideas have held such widespread impact makes it likely that his legacy will live on for generations to come. For the purpose of this paper, from his voluminous magnum opus, I have chosen to discuss and critique his pamphlet ‘Human Rights in Islam’ in detail. This document puts forth a doctrine which is a guideline for many Muslims who happen to be Maududi’s adherents, hence in large numbers. Human Rights is an important and widely contested issue in today’s globalized world politics. It is a generally held perception, mostly among Western audiences, that Islam is not only incompatible with human rights; rather it actively opposes the application of universal human rights. It is as though there is a tug of war going on between Islam and the West to vie as to who was the earliest indisputable pioneer of the introduction of human rights on the world stage. West tends to claim the roots of human rights in the Occidental tradition whereas Islamic thinkers seek to trace human rights back to Quran and Sunna. On one hand it is true that the ideas of ‘liberty, fraternity and equality’ emerged out of Enlightenment and French Revolution, which concurrently came about with the loosening grips of religion. On the other hand, we also see how Thomas Jefferson invoked God in the Declaration of Independence to establish the rights of humans: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights …” Later on in West’s history, such divinely inspired claims of justice provided primary motivation for numerous progressive movements, be it the Emancipation Proclamation by Lincoln as a step towards abolishing slavery, or the civil rights movement by Martin Luther King to eliminate segregation and secure equal rights for African Americans. Muslims, on the other hand, believe that it was in fact Islam that not only introduced the idea of huquq al-insaniyya i.e., the Rights of Humans 1400 years ago, but it is till date the greatest, unparalleled proponent of human rights. The idea of invoking God as a means to achieve the ends of justice is, therefore, not new. But perhaps what irked Maududi, and other Muslim theologians, was the fact that the same powers which colonized, subjugated and plundered weaker nations at some historical juncture, now claim to be the biggest champions of equal human rights and dignity, and simultaneously malign Islam as a hindrance in reaching their ‘noble’ goals. Therefore he provided his commentary to expound on his perspective of human rights in Islam, and apparently to exonerate Islam from the charge that it is incompatible with human rights. But as an Islamist ideologue, it does not come as a surprise that his position is not one that human rights ought to determine Islamic beliefs, rather, he believes Islam should help to determine human rights. In the course of our analysis, we will examine this position and also critique the validity of the claims put forth by Maududi in his article ‘Human Rights in Islam’.

It is interesting to note that any reader who has read Maududi elsewhere, for instance his articles ‘Al-Jihad Fi al-Islam’, ‘Islamic Law and Constitution’ etc. will easily notice that Human Rights in Islam is a watered down, somewhat altered version of his otherwise rigid views on women, freedom of religion, death penalty for apostasy, individual’s rights as a citizen and so on. There appears to be an uncharacteristic clemency in his tone in this article which does not agree with his definitive, unyielding style in his other writings and statements. This could be because of two reasons. Firstly, intended target audience: Richard Bonney cites Ishtiaq Ahmed whereby he accuses Maududi of dishonesty on the question of freedom of belief in the pamphlet under discussion (207). Since this article was published in the UK, and was directed towards the Western audience, Maududi made no mention of the doctrine of apostasy, rather emphasized on the Quranic injunction that proclaims no coercion in matters of faith. Ishtiaq Ahmed notices, that in the aftermath of anti-Ahmedi riots of 1953, Maududi declared before the Court of Inquiry that apostasy was punishable by death in Islam. Secondly, political evolution: Sam Houston notices that the totalitarian, communitarian aspect of Maududi’s philosophy gradually toned down according to the exigencies of time. For instance, in ‘Islamic Law and Constitution’, which was published in 1941 before the inception of Pakistan, Maududi provided Islamic rationale for an all-powerful executive (amir) and for total subjugation of the individual to the state. Pakistan’s creation was followed by anti-Ahmedi protests spearheaded by Maududi’s party, which led the government to clamp down on the agitators; Maududi was put on trial, found guilty of sedition and sentenced to death (later the verdict was reversed). These experiences made Maududi a stakeholder, and therefore personally concerned and interested in the protection of individual rights, due process of law, and freedom of political expression. It is clear that these circumstances led to Maududi’s disillusionment with the centralization of power in the executive, thus his newfound advocacy for the importance of protecting individual freedom of conscience. At this particular juncture, he penned the pamphlet under discussion.

Like every other work by Maududi, the starting point of this essay, too, is severe condemnation of the West. The argument reminds the reader, of the logical fallacy of tu quoque which is defined as an attempt to discredit the opponent’s position by asserting the opponent’s failure to act consistently in accordance with that position. Maududi asserts that West attributes every good thing to its own conception, even though there was no Western concept of human rights before the 17th century. In same broad strokes, he also paints UN, as well as UNHR, to be a farce that has no effective moral sanctions behind it. Accusing the other of hypocrisy does not truly help buttress one’s own position; instead it only serves to make ones arguments less objectively valid and more suspect. He goes on to claim that, on the contrary, Islam ensures unalterable human rights that have been conferred by God and hence they are “applicable to every believer” and that they are not subject to “scope for any change”. This raises two important questions. Firstly, the claim that ‘human’ rights in Islam are applicable to every ‘believer’ leads one to ask whether Maududian philosophy deems non-believers to be non-humans and hence not worthy that the applicability be extended to them regardless. Secondly, the assertion that any right given by God has no scope for change assumes no scope for expansion either. These kinds of claims which discourage evolution and adaptation with changing epochal circumstances cast doubts over the claim that Islam is a religion which is meant for all times to come.

Expanding on the ‘right to life’, Maududi states that it is not permissible for anyone to kill another human, except through the due process of law (Quran 6:151). A clear case can be made that even though he did not explicitly say it, for reasons explained above; this ‘law’ is the Shariah, according to Maududi’s understanding of which, its rules about apostasy make it possible to sentence people to death. In celebrating the righteousness of Islam, Maududi does not forget to, again, revile the West terming its declarations to be hypocritical in that they are, according to him, interested in protecting the lives of their own citizens or the white race alone (he gives multiple examples such as the destruction of Red Indians in America).

Whereas Maududi has written a separate document on women: Purdah and the Status of Woman, it is interesting to note that in his pamphlet on human rights, the only right mentioned related to a woman is ‘respect for the chastity of women’. He maintains that the chastity of a woman must be respected and protected regardless of her nation or religion. Not mentioning the actual women’s rights is, again, a sign of unwillingness to broach the subject and raises the question as to whether Maududi does not reckon women important enough to be considered as bearer of basic rights. He has made his views clear in his writing whereby he believes that equality of women, such as in modern secularized societies, only leads to promiscuity and loosened family values. Riffat Hassan condemns this chastity-obsessed approach, as though chastity is the only thing worthwhile about a woman to be protected, and as though Islamists are not worried about protecting men’s chastity. Protection of chastity does not qualify as a human right; it is neither a civil nor a political right. On the contrary, it has been used as a justification by conservatives and fundamentalists like Taliban to deny women personal freedom that they are entitled to enjoy, and to keep them restricted to chaadar and chaardiwari – housebound and in purdah.

Maududi goes on to claim that the sanctity of chastity of women can be found nowhere except Islam. This is a historically flawed, sweeping claim. Kautaliya wrote Arthashastra, no later than the 2nd century AD, to illustrate the Hindu political philosophy, in which he forbids, and lays out severe punishments for, violating the chastity of female slave girls. This text was written long before Islam’s advent, but this regulation has to be among the most liberal in history, in that how it protects the chastity of female slaves; whereas Islam explicitly allowed a master to have sexual intercourse with his slave women. Maududi writes that while Western armies have always raped and abused women of their conquered lands, such thing was not perpetrated by any Muslim army. This is a flimsy argument. Mayer terms this argument by Maududi to be a “curious, contrary-to-fact assertion” and writes that “there is no evidence that Muslim armies have historically conducted themselves any better in their treatment of women… and that prostitutes have not served the needs of soldiers in Muslim armies over the centuries” (101).Crimes against women in wartime are not allowed under any legal or moral system; violations in reality have little to do with what is theoretically permissible.

            When promulgating the individual’s right to freedom, Maududi starts a long exposition of how it was originally Islam, and not the West, that abolished slavery, by commanding to set the slaves free and treat them humanely. He then narrates, at length, how brutally the Europeans and Americans treated slave labour and now, with all their shameful record, they have the audacity to denounce Muslims for recognizing the institution of slavery. Slavery has now been abolished all over the globe and these kinds of arguments lack any theoretical or practical value. It is true that Islam guaranteed the lives of the slaves, but they had no property right; and Maududi’s claim that Islam has superiority over the West in abolishing slavery does not stand up to historical scrutiny. An-Na’im writes that since slavery was a norm at that time, Shariah recognized it as an institution and despite its encouragement for emancipation, “slavery is lawful under (traditional understanding of) Shariah to the present day “(172). Denigrating Western accomplishments by referring to its deviation, at different historical junctures, from modern human right standards, is akin to holding the golden age under the Prophet responsible for the malpractices that various Muslim societies over the centuries developed. This kind of smokescreen obfuscates the actual problems of oppression in the Muslim world and reflects the unwillingness to deal with them. Every civilization makes its positive contributions to the humanity and there should be no shame in recognizing West’s intellectual debt in terms of formally, legally, and irrevocably prohibiting slavery- certainly the lowest point in the history of human rights.

When Maududi talks about the right of equality of human beings, he claims that Islam enjoins absolute equality between ‘men’ irrespective of any distinction of colour, race or nationality. He cleverly evades the issue of discrimination based on gender and religion by avoiding mentioning equality in these two categories. Delling analyzes that by sidelining the rights of women and religious minorities, Maududi resorts to a “hypocritical way of allowing these discriminations to continue” (37).  These two categories are omitted, in this document, in an attempt to avoid answering sensitive questions; while Maududi has made his beliefs clear elsewhere that Islam, according to him, does not deem non-Muslims fit to administer state affairs, and prohibits women to participate in public life. Bielefeldt observes that by not including gender and religion in the criteria of nondiscrimination, and by not acknowledging the conflicts between Shariah and modern human rights, Maududi has reduced his essentialist, i.e. rigid and unchanging approach to a “superficial and uncritical ‘Islamization’ of human rights” (104). Maududi opines that superiority of one man over another is “only on the basis of God-consciousness, purity of character and high morals”. This is to say that Islamic standards of virtue and duty can lead people to claim a higher degree of dignity than those who fail to meet the religious standard. Bielefeldt maintains that “such dogmatic type of reference to a divine foundation of human dignity leads to a concept that … serves as a vindication to human inequality rather than justifying universal equality of all human beings in dignity and freedom” (104).

As we have discussed before, direct confrontation with the state of Pakistan led Maududi to begin advocating certain positive freedoms such as the right to participate in the affairs of the state, and the right to protest against government’s abuses. He also stipulated certain negative freedoms such as restricting the authority of the state with respect to interfering in the sanctity and security of private life. One wonders if Maududi and his party were in a position of state power and authority – instead of the victims of it – would he still tone down on his totalitarian inclinations and declare that state cannot encroach on the privacy of individual’s life, when we are all familiar that the underlying pillar on which whole Maududian philosophy stands is his concern with shaping all the aspects of human life according to the principles of Islam. Maududi maintains that government pries on the lives of citizens who are dissatisfied with its official policies. He claims that Islam terms this to be the root cause of all mischief in politics; it makes it difficult for a common citizen to speak freely. Again, as an example of ‘mischief’, Maududi sticks to his tradition of pointing out something Western; he refers to the evil of FBI agents meant to spy on the affairs of men, which Islam is strictly against. We can argue that if prying on people’s personal lives is reprehensible, it should by extension, also render preaching and censuring others on the basis their personal morality (‘forbid evil’) in their private lives unnecessary.

Maududi takes pride in declaring that Islam allows freedom of speech, expression, and association on the condition that it is used to propagate virtue and “not for spreading evil and wickedness”. This assertion is highly problematic in that Maududi does not, at all, define the open-ended terms ‘evil’ and ‘wickedness’. This deliberate loophole opens on the state the occasion to abuse power by making easy for it to define ‘evil’ to suit its own purposes. For example Houston and Oh note that government can prevent others’ religious activities terming them ‘evil’, or a discussion group gathered to debate religious issues or the proofs of the existence of God could be labeled as spreading ‘evil’ (6). Infact any party or organization that the government deems not in its favour can be proscribed under the pretext that it is spreading ‘evil’. Maududi maintains an air of superiority in claiming that Islam’s right to free speech is better than its Western counterpart because the former categorically prohibits evil. In my opinion, the latter is more functional in that the limits on the Western freedom of speech are relatively clear and precise i.e. hate speech and libel. Whereas the lack of a concrete definition of broadly vague term ‘evil’ in Maududi’s conception can lead to significant implementation problems. Perhaps, his aim is to remain open to the limitations Shariah rules bring about with reference to blasphemy. Mayer notes that using Islamic standards of virtue to organize public life, without giving the exact meaning of the qualification, leads one to “think of Islam as a curb on rights” (76), whereas Maududi is trying to make us believe the opposite. Although Maududi encourages toleration but he also stresses upon the necessity to “enjoin good and forbid evil”. It is not difficult to foresee that by allowing all Muslims to forbid each other from evil not only leads to self-righteousness galore, but the forbiddance would tend to manifest in the most violent forms. Irene Oh notes that these two injunctions (tolerance and the duty to forbid evil) lead to inevitable tensions, and Maududi fails to provide guidance as to which principle takes precedence if the two come into conflict, for instance, when a Muslim denounces Islam (4). Moreover, forbidding evil, for most part, necessitates prying on people’s personal affairs which, as already established, is prohibited by Islam. Taking the principle of forbidding evil too far, in the modern world, seriously undermines Mill’s idea of Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”

Maududi includes two articles maintaining “freedom of conscience and conviction” and “protection of religious sentiments” in which there is a palpable contradiction. On one hand he claims that Islam forbids harassment of the ‘people of the book’ and coercion towards them to convert to Islam. On the other hand he does not address the question of whether we can extend the right of freedom to religion to include, also, conversion from Islam to another religion. Like the rights of women, Maududi chooses to conveniently evade this contentious issue. He chose not to confess that he supported killing those who convert from Islam, to avoid undermining the credibility of his human rights scheme.

It is a curious fact to notice that in the section of ‘Rights of citizens under an Islamic State’, Maududi presents fifteen articles, some of which we have discussed; none of them deals specifically with the rights of non-Muslims under an Islamic State. Although he does mention in passing that the lives and properties of dhimmis are as ‘sacred’ as those of Muslims, and that they have the same rights as Muslims. This is a misleading statement which does not accurately reflect Maududi’s views on the subject, which he expressed in other publications. In Islamic Law and Constitution Maududi explicitly stated that non-Muslims are ‘not fit to administer state affairs’ and so they cannot be employed in government posts. He corroborates his stance by adding that if it was desirable to induct non-Muslims in state machinery, then Prophet Muhammad would have set an example by doing so. That the Prophet did not even keep one non-Muslim member in his Shura convinces Maududi to deem non-Muslims unfit to administer state affairs. This argument is again invalid, because the Prophet’s life preaching Islam spanned only over 23 years, which is a very short period of time to set examples for practically every issue that has to arise until the end of the world. If something was not the need of the hour 1400 years ago and was not implemented, does not entail that it is prohibited. I would argue that it has been historically documented that Jewish, Christian and pagan communities living in Medina were termed as part of the ‘umma’ in the first constitution scribed by the Prophet after consultation. Umma in this context held a wider connotation that signified the idea of a community living together in association (Faruki 14). If contemporary political rights are to be determined by following the examples set in Prophet’s time, will the Muslims of today be willing to also follow this example set during Prophet’s time?

            The lip service of ‘equality of rights for non-Muslims’ is essentially negated when non-Muslims are denied the equality of opportunity, and are relegated to an inferior status. It is equivalent to saying that ‘we recognize your rights, your freedom of religious belief, as long as you do not meddle with the matters of the state under which you live, and remain confined to your menial jobs’. Elsewhere, Maududi also advocates the reimposition of jizya tax on non-Muslims. In Jihad in Islam Maududi writes that Islam will not interfere with the faith and rituals of non-Muslims. And then he also adds that Islam will ban usury, gambling, prostitution and all activities that it deems immoral. It will make it obligatory for even non-Muslim women to observe modesty in dress as required by Islamic Law. Does this not interfere with the rituals and norms of the non-Muslims? Maududi is silent on these matters in his Human Rights pamphlet.

Before summing up, it is important to note a palpable irony visible in Maududi’s framework: despite his bitter criticism for Western ideas, he unavoidably borrows western vocabularies to show that Islam has institutions comparable and equally ‘advanced’ as those in the West; he “ultimately mirrored those very Western paradigms he sought to oppose” (Houston 8).  This tendency arises out of what French scholars have called concordisme pieux (pious harmonization), the practice involving “strained attempts by Muslims to project modern intellectual developments that have emerged outside the Muslim world back into Islamic past” (Mayer 171). Islamic scholars are inclined to do this to preserve the credentials of their religion as a ‘comprehensive ideology’ which anticipated all value achievements of modern civilization.

Moreover, Maududi’s excessive reliance on extensive quotes from the Quran indicate that his approach is to use text of Revelation as a permanent guide to law-making, not reason and the exigencies of time. Khadduri maintains that reliance on a Divine Legislator, God, who is not communicating to people through prophets anymore, to make contemporary law, makes human rights in Islam static (79). Moreover, the making of derivative laws was also prohibited by the theologians of 10th century AD which further made Muslim legal system entirely static.

As a way forward, I would propose the approach put forth by people like Mahmoud Mohammed Taha and Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im in the area of human rights in Islam. They honestly maintain, unlike Maududi, that instead of concealing the contradictions between Shariah and modern human rights, one should candidly confess that the contradictions exist, and strive to make an evolved and reformed Islamic law. It is possible that the proposed reform may diverge from the traditional interpretation of Shariah in its attempt to keep in line with the current times, while also maintaining its Islamic legitimacy in order to be effective in changing Muslim attitudes and policies.

Works Cited

An-Na’im, Abd Allāhi Aḥmed. Toward an Islamic Reformation: Civil Liberties, Human Rights, and International Law. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse UP, 1990. Print.

Bielefeldt, Heiner. “”Western” versus “Islamic” Human Rights Conceptions?: A Critique of Cultural Essentialism in the Discussion on Human Rights.” Political Theory 28.1 (2000): 90-121. Print.

Bonney, Richard. Jihād: From Qurʼān to Bin Laden. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. Print.

Delling, Malin. “Islam and Human Rights.” Thesis. Goteborg University Department of Law, 2004. Print.

Faruki, Kemal A. The Evolution of Islamic Constitutional Theory and Practice: From 610 to 1926 /by Kemal A. Faruki. Karachi-Dacca: National-House, 1971. Print.

Hassan, Riffat. “Are Human Rights Compatible with Islam? The Issue of the Rights of Women in Muslim Communities.” The Religious Consultation. University of Louisville, Louisville, Kentucky, n.d. Web. 29 Mar. 2014.

Houston, Sam. “The Contours of Conscience: Maududi, Freedom of Conscience,and Comparative Religious Ethics.” Southeast Regional Meeting. American Academy of Religion, Greenville, SC. 16 Mar. 2013. Academia.edu. Web. 29 Mar. 2014. <http://www.academia.edu/4402914/ >.

Kautalya. The Arthashastra. India: Penguin, 1992. Print.

Khadduri, Majid. “Human Rights in Islam.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 243 (1946): 77-81. Print.

Maududi, Syed Abul A’la. Human Rights in Islam. Leicester: Islamic Foundation, 1976. Print.

Maududi, Syed Abul A’la. Jihad in Islam. Lahore: Islamic Publications (Pvt), 1990. Print.

Maududi, Syed Abul A’la. The Islamic Law and Constitution. Lahore: Islamic Publications (Pvt), 1990.

Mayer, Ann Elizabeth. Islam and Human Rights: Tradition and Politics. Boulder, Co.: Westview, 1991.

Oh, Irene. Islam and the Reconsideration of Universal Human Rights. May 2005. Essay by Assistant Professor. University of Miami, Florida, USA.



Islam in Pakistan: A Tale of Distortion and Hypocrisy


How many times in our lives have we successfully managed to convince ourselves that Western media is responsible for propagating the negative image of Islam and acquitted ourselves of the heinous offenses we commit everyday or silently, spinelessly observe being taken place around us in our country in the name of Islam.

Pakistan, the land of the ‘pure’, has unquestionably turned into the land of the self-righteously puritanical and self-complacently so.

When General Zia, the self-proclaimed savior of Islam, arrived brandishing the flag of Islamization to legitimize his unnecessary existence, he successfully sowed the seeds of the hollow, hypocritical version of Islam whose bitter repercussions we continue to reap till today. Zia’s parochial and distorted view of Islam presented the prohibition orders, the lethally vague blasphemy laws, the utterly flawed Zina Ordinance, and the Ehtaram-e-Ramzan law for which one could be jailed for eating in public and so on. One common underlying factor that is evident in all the components of Zia’s Islam is punishment.

I am not an authority on Islam, but I possess adequate knowledge to claim that Islam is not just about penalty, prohibition, punishment and castigation of the defenseless. Islam was a political and social revolution in itself whose foundations were laid upon the very essence of peace and compassion. Islam introduced and endorsed the concepts of accountability, of human equality regardless of caste and creed, of social justice, of all men being equal before law and of protecting the weak and vulnerable of the society, financially and socially. These very tenets of Islam when adopted can revolutionize and reform the face of a nation. But implementing these meaningful measures required sincerity and long-term commitment which Zia severely lacked. So instead, Zia chose to design malevolent, retribution-oriented laws which brought forth all the scandalization and sensationalism that promised him an immediate recognition as the upholder of faith. And that left us with the legacy of bigotry, riot and murder.

Apparently, while we were too busy believing that Islam is all about declaring the sects we do not like as infidels, others continued to adopt and inculcate within their social systems, the virtues and principles of religion that we should have inherited.

Ever since, the Islam of Pakistan has been shaping up to appear more like a superficially symbolic and a hypocritically melodramatic phenomenon and less like a religion of peace. Exhibit A: a Danish cartoonist in some other part of the world decides to draw the caricatures of our Prophet (PBUH), and we tear down our own country, burning tyres, blocking roads, damaging the infrastructure of our own towns and going to the ludicrous heights of filing blasphemy complaints against Mark Zuckerberg. Exhibit B: a mentally deranged man is alleged to have burnt Quran and we practically burn the man himself alive in public. Or an 11-year old Christian girl with a Down’s syndrome is seen to have manhandled the Noorani Qaida is severely beaten and imprisoned.

I, by no means, intend to defend and promote someone’s acts but to only highlight our internal contradictions that plague ourselves and our society.

My discontentment originates from the fact that if a goddamn faithless man’s drawings are to be considered as disrespect worthy of setting your country on fire, then why on God’s earth, a faithful man’s routine disregard and disobediences towards the teachings of our Prophet (PBUH) are not categorized as a sign of contempt that calls for stirring an equal controversy. Dictionary lists the word blasphemy to mean “irreverent behaviour toward anything held sacred.” Call me excessively concerned, but I believe disobeying and disregarding someone’s orders are just as irreverent as anything else. We lie, slander, backbite, bribe, cheat, spread intolerance and hatred, despise and hurt the poor, exploit the weak and blatantly violate and ignore our Prophet’s guidance everyday and yet have the heart and conscience to declare others as blasphemers while only a little introspection would be enough to convince us that we, ourselves, are the real blasphemers.

Similarly, we get so busy picking and hunting the rough-handlers of Quran that we completely forget that we also have one copy of the same Book lying dust-covered in some dark, forgotten part of our shelves back at our homes for us to read, understand, and apply to become better human beings who build better societies.

While Shias are dragged out of buses and shot dead at point blank range, and the drones keep eliminating innocent lives, we continue to apathetically switch the channels, too lazy to raise a voice. But we see the news of Veena Malik pose naked and we make a point of carrying out a detailed investigation into the matter scrutinizing all pictorial evidence and then let go a vehement outcry damning the model for tarnishing the image of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. We imply: ‘Look we are the Muslims of Pakistan, we cannot tolerate Blasphemy and Behayayi. The other atrocities and misdeeds that are equally against the teachings of Islam and are actually hampering prosperity in Pakistan are there but we have comfortably chosen to turn a blind eye to them. We whine, under the fits of self-pity, about being misjudged but we are adamant that we will not mend our ways until we have absolutely and irrevocably reduced our Islam to just burning tyres and burning men.’

Sarah Khan