Understanding a book of divine revelation
Reviewed by Parbina Rashid

Living Qur’an in Our Times
by Jamal Khwaja Sage. 
Pages 213. Rs 650

Life comes full circle, they say. They seem to be right. From bunking the compulsory theology classes during my college days in Aligarh Muslim University to involuntarily picking up this volume, Living the Qur’an in Our Times, by a former Dean of the Faculty of Arts of the same university, Jamal Khwaja, for no other reason than to understand the faith I was born into, life certainly has come full circle in my case.

Hovering between the two ends of the religious spectrum —faith and atheism — most of my life, I must admit that religion has never been my strong point, as a part of curriculum or otherwise. And for someone as confused as I am, Khwaja’s book is an excellent starting point.

Not that it would teach you all about the Qur’an, but it will certainly teach you the way to read it. It would give you the courage to form your own understanding of the holy book. The way he does, with bold, rational and insightful explanations — "It may be thought that for the committed Muslim, at least, the Qur’an is the beyond the shadow of imperfection. But the crucial point is that the Qur’an has to be understood by human beings whose conceptual framework is bound to change with the passage of time."

While asserting that the Qur’an need not and should not be viewed as a systematic book or document, as only a very small portion of its contents are prescriptive or mandatory in the concrete sense of being specific rules of conduct or categorical commands, he asserts, "All Muslims must, therefore, defer to such injunctions or imperatives in a manner that combines loyalty to the basic values with freedom to modify instrumental rules in an ever-changing human situation."

Starting with the nature and revelation of the Qur’an, as revealed to the Prophet Mohammed through the Archangel Gabriel between AD 610 and 632, Khwaja goes on to explain the structure of the book, the semantics, the vision contained in it, the piety it promotes, the injunctions that throw light on gender issues, spirituality, fatwas, Muslim personal law and even inter-religious marriage and a roundup with a complete chapter on its perennial message and the human situation.

While explaining these issues, Khwaja, a devout Muslim, does not shy away from being critical. For instance, when he talks about gender issues, he admits that the Qur’anic value system is weighed in favour of the male in several respects, but he infers, "Yet, the fact is that, among all the different world religions, the Qur’anic value system comes nearest to the modern concept of gender equality," a statement which is backed up with convincing arguments.

As any book on religion is expected to be, Khwaja’s book too is heavy on content and demands a reader’s undivided attention for grasping each thought.

In case it gets too heavy, you can always refer to the author’s favourite anecdote— A saint going on a long pilgrimage instructed his dutiful son to water the house plants, without fail, twice daily at specific times. When the saint returned after several months, he found that the plants had died. What happened was that when the saint left home, it was summer, but when he returned, it was the end of the rainy season.

The son’s literal obedience to his father’s orders had led to the over-watering of the plants. In this anecdote lies the true essence of Khwaja’s book.

As with the Bhagavadagita, the Bible and every other inspirational religious text, its influence over individuals varies widely. While a microscopic minority might claim to find justification in the Qur’an for blowing up strangers in a cafe, others are led to establish schools, hospitals and orphanages. The answers the book gives ultimately depend on the questions asked of it.

The author makes the reader confident about asking such questions. As someone said, the Qur’an is not a book to be read and forgotten, it is a book to be studied and assimilated. In this, few can guide better than Jamal Khwaja.