by Zafar Bangash (Islamic Movement, Crescent International Vol. 37, No. 3, Rabi' al-Thani, 1429)
Over the last few years, Crescent International has serialised a new tafseer of the Qur’an by Imam Mohammad al-Asi. The first volume of this tafseer is now being published by the Institute ofContemporary Islamic Thought (ICIT), as the ICIT’s Director ZAFAR BANGASH explains.
Allah subhanahu wa ta‘ala chooses whom He wills for His mercy and grace. As we approach the launch date (May 24) of the first-ever tafseer written directly in English, we at the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought (ICIT) and Crescent International feel both honored and humbled by the thought that we are about to make history. Incredible as it may sound, never before in Muslim history has a tafseer of the Qur’an been attempted by anyone directly in English, and to address the unique situation facing Muslims in the contemporary historical era, in which the English-speaking West has achieved global hegemony. The Ascendant Qur’an: Realigning Man to the Divine Power Culture, by Imam Muhammad al-Asi, is thus the first of its kind. True, English translations of some well-known tafseers—Fi Zilal al-Qur’an (by Syed Qutb), Tafhim ul-Qur’an (Maulana Abul-’Ala Maududi) and al-Mizan fi tafseeril Qur’an (Allama Seyyed Muhammad Husayn Tabataba’i)—are now available, but none of these was originally written in English or for the Ummah as it now stands. Imam al-Asi is the first scholar to embark on such a project; the first volume (first juz’) of his tafseer will be launched later this month in Toronto. We at Crescent have been privileged to serialise this tafseer as it was written over recent years; and now it will also be made available to a wider audience.
The Qur’an is Allah’s last and final formal communication to humanity. It encapsulates the complete set of principles and related behaviors that enable man to fulfill his mission on earth and lead him on a course to Allah subhanahu wa ta‘ala, his ultimate destination. Inscribed for eternity on the lawhun mahfuz (the Well-Guarded Tablet—al-Qur’an 85:22), the Qur’an assumed its earthly form when it was sent down to Muhammad (saws), the last messenger and the seal of all prophets. He was not only the recipient of the divine Word but also its living prototypical example, its first teacher and mufassir (interpreter). His task was to build a civil society founded on divine principles and a parallel social culture that could be relied upon to continually show man a path from darkness into light: “[He has sent] an apostle who conveys unto you Allah’s clear messages, so that He might extract those who have made a secure commitment [to Allah] and do righteous deeds out of the depths of darkness into the light…” (Q. 65:11).
The first few ayaat of the Qur’an were revealed in the solitude of the Cave of Hira; thereafter the Qur’an was sent down to the Messenger of Allah (saws) in parts over a period of 23 years. The Qur’an is our guide from the womb to the tomb, at both the individual and collective levels. It is relevant for all places and peoples, and current for all times. Allah’s care, compassion, love and mercy for His creation have been interwoven into the purpose of revelation (2:185); however, His guidance is only available to those who guard themselves against the corrective justice of His power, those who are conscious of His living presence in human affairs, those who, in short, are muttaqi: “That Divine Writ has no vacillation about it: [it is] a guide for themuttaqeen” (2:2). It provides a programme of action for those who are securely committed to Allah subhanahu wa ta‘ala: “And upon thee [too, O Prophet] have We bestowed from on high this divine writ for no other reason than that thou might make clear unto them all [questions of faith] on which they have come to hold divergent views, and [thus offer] guidance and grace unto people who will be securely committed [to Allah]” (Q. 16:64).
From the pace-setting days of the first Qur’anic generation to the unsettled times of our era, Muslims have endeavored to understand the Qur’an’s message in order to establish a culture of obedience to Allah’s command and conformity to His wisdom, thereby exemplifying a just direction and course for the rest of humanity. There have been numerous commentaries of the Book, first in Arabic and later in other languages as Islam spread to many parts of the world. Although nothing can compare with the eloquence, poetic and rhetorical beauty, subtlety of style, and the ever-expanding impact of the Qur’an in Arabic, all commentaries and translations nonetheless attempt to communicate a partial, human understanding of its substance, sense and gist. It must, however, be emphasized that the Qur’an can never be accurately translated or exhaustively commented upon; translations can only be approximations of the actual essence and intent, and can never encompass all of the many layers of meanings of its ayaat.
Every language comes embedded with its own values and developmental biases. An idiomatic expression that may be suitable in one language may not adequately convey the same meaning when translated literally into another. For instance, there is no equivalent word or concept in the English language to directly represent the Arabic word taqwa. Conversely, there is no single word in the Arabic language or the Qur’anic lexicon to precisely render the concept of nationalism. Similarly, many more Qur’anic concepts are unknown to Western culture. This presents Islamic scholars, activists and da‘ees with a difficult problem. They have to face the challenge of properly delivering Qur’anic ideas through the medium of Western language, a system of verbal communication that is mostly antithetical to the Qur’anic culture because it evolved out of an atheistic and exclusivist historical experience. Thus all translations of tafseers from other languages into English run the risk of widening the gap between the Qur’an and its actual meaning.
While an essentially English tafseer must also suffer from such structural weaknesses, its inconsistencies are likely to be less cumbersome if the mufassir is well versed in both English and Arabic. Imam Muhammad al-Asi, who has now been engaged on this tafseer for ten years, has a good grasp of both Arabic and English, and has been immersed in the study of the Qur’an all his life. In his own words, he has “cooked his brains in the Qur’an.”
His particular talent in capturing the sense of the Arabic original and then projecting it with an appropriate set of English words makes him the ideal individual for this project. He is able to convey the essence of Qur’anic meanings despite the obvious limitations of the English language. This lexical faculty is all the more important in an age when the purity of the Qur’anic discourse has been polluted by translations whose authors, despite their undeniable sincerity, could not shake themselves loose from their material upbringing in a colonial or Western world dominated by self-interest.
Many factors influence the tenor and style of a tafseer: the mufassir’s understanding of the Qur’an, his personal preferences in highlighting some aspects over others, and the contemporary historical situation in which he lives. Thus, we note that the early mufassirs concentrated on aspects of imaan because that was the greatest challenge facing the early generation of Muslims who encountered peoples from other parts of the world. Later generations adopted a philosophical approach to the study of the Qur’an, while others highlighted the historical background and the context in which certain ayaat were revealed. All these are useful and relevant, and they enhance the evolving compendium of Qur’anic literature for all future generations. In the contemporary age, Muslim scholars have sought inspiration from the Qur’an to guide them in their struggles against injustice and oppression. Thus each age influences the manner in which the Qur’an is studied. Every approach is correct in its own way because the Qur’an is a vast source of knowledge and wisdom. No single approach can be considered as the final or complete word.
A distinctive feature of Imam al-Asi’s tafseer is the manner in which he explains the ayaat to make their meanings come alive. For instance, most translations render the expression “Ya ayyuha alladhina amanu” as “O you who believe!” Imam al-Asi translates it thus: “O You who have made a secure commitment [to Allah]!” If the Qur’an is our guide — as indeed it is — then its message must be conveyed in a manner that brings out its rich depth and purpose. The pacifist approach to studying the Qur’an must give way to a more dynamic understanding in order to facilitate the desired transformational change, first in our lives and then in our comunities and societies.
The noble Messenger of Allah (saws) overhauled the jahili Arabian society as the Qur’an was being progressively revealed; yet we who are in possession of the entire Qur’an, the Seerah and the Sunnah of the Messenger (saws) fail to make any meaningful change in our lives, much less in our societies at large. The reason is that the Prophet (saws) nurtured a group of people who lived and breathed the Qur’an, who relied on its powerful and power-giving ayaat to overcome pressing social, economic, political and military problems. Today, we recite it only to get blessings but seldom make the effort to understand its message and subsequently implement it in our lives outside the home or masjid. The other purpose we seem to have for Allah’s Words is to recite them over the dead. The Qur’an is a book of guidance for the living, not the dead. Only when we internalize this point will we be able to permanently transform our lives.
The world in general, and the Muslim world in particular, is beset by myriad problems today. They range from the illegitimacy of rulers and the gross polarization of wealth and resources to the mass inequities suffered by a people who have no representative political institutions. Despite vast natural resources, most Muslims live in extreme poverty. To overturn such inequalities, Islamic movements are involved in intense struggles both within their societies and against external enemies who have invaded and occupied the lands in which most people are Muslim.
The Crescent and ICIT have for decades chronicled the global Islamic movement and the root causes of the problems facing the Ummah. Like Islamic activists everywhere, those in the media must also demonstrate a willingness to make sacrifices for the cause they espouse. It bears mentioning that while Islamic activists in Palestine, Lebanon, Chechnya, Iraq, Afghanistanand elsewhere are making great sacrifices in life and blood, one cannot say that those in the media have demonstrated the same degree of commitment. There is a hadith in which Allah’s Messenger (saws) is reported to have said, “…the ink of a scholar is more sacred than the blood of a martyr.” This is a great honor for those involved in Islamic publications, but lamentably not many have realized their true import.
It is our hope and prayer that workers and activists in the Islamic movement will find the present tafseer inspirational in the disquietude associated with their ongoing sacrifice and struggle. If it serves as a platform not merely for academic discussion but for bona fide action and activism by committed Islamic workers and mujahids, then we feel our efforts will have been worthwhile. The ICIT and Crescent International have always taken an uncompromising stand on issues of justice and the right of Muslims and the Islamic movement to resist oppressors everywhere.
We seek solace in the fact that Imam al-Asi’s approach breaks new ground in developing a deeper and more engaging understanding of the Qur’an. While the ICIT and Crescent have concentrated on reporting and analyzing the activities of the movement, this tafseer is expected to add another dimension to the emerging Islamic momentum. It will serve an important leadership function: to motivate and inspire the movement by anchoring it more firmly to Allah’s (swt) message to us in the Qur’an.
There are numerous terms such as mushrik, mustakbir, taghut and mustad’afun used in the Qur’an. These must be understood in their contemporary context so that they can be usefully applied to today’s conditions. The Qur’an also narrates the stories of such tyrannical figures as the Pharaoh and Nimrod. These are not just figures from history; they are the archetypal enemies of Allah (swt) found in every age. If the stories of Pharaoh and Nimrod were just tales from history, Allah (swt) would not have narrated them repeatedly in the Book of Wisdom. After all, the Qur’an is not a book of stories; it is a book of guidance for all humanity. Why is it that so many Muslims are unable to make a connection between the oft-repeated descriptions of the Pharaohs and the oppressors of humanity today? The simple answer is that they have lost touch with the spirit of the Qur’an.
The Messenger of Allah (saws) transformed the jahili society of Arabia and remodeled its people into the most upright, committed and brave human beings on earth. By contrast, today’s Muslims have failed to understand the message of the Qur’an in a manner that would institutionalize lasting change in their lives. We must, therefore, rectify our own inadequacies. Allah (swt) tells us in the Qur’an, “Verily, Allah will not change the condition of a people unless they change their attitude” (13:11). The first step on this journey is to develop a better comprehension of the Qur’an.
Imam al-Asi is well-placed to provide us with that service. He has studied and lived the Qur’an all his adult life. I have had the honor and privilege of his acquaintance since the Islamic Revolution was launched in Iran. Our paths frequently crossed during the many conferences at university campuses in the US and Canada. Later, this extended to other parts of the world as well. His speeches and presentations are not only eloquent but have always provided a fresh perspective on all major issues. Like few other scholars today, he has been able to bring out the deeper meanings of the Qur’an in his captivating style and has related them to the contemporary problems facing Muslims.
This tafseer has been serialized in the Crescent International for many years. It is finally being presented in book form. By its very nature, a newspaper or magazine does not have a long shelf-life. A book will, however, satisfy the needs of permanence; and in order to accomplish the task of producing a publishable volume, this final compilation has been revised and ably edited by Br. Afeef Khan in consultation with Imam al-Asi himself. The tafseer reflects Imam al-Asi’s understanding of the Qur’an as developed over several decades. If it enables Muslims to look at their problems from a fresh perspective and begin to address them in earnest, then we feel our efforts in producing this work are justified. It is our hope to provide access to the tools and resources that would motivate Muslims to think critically about their problems. Then they can begin the long journey back to becoming the vibrant and dominant civilization that Allah (swt) intends them to be: “He it is who has sent forth His Apostle with the [task of spreading] guidance and the deen of truth, to the end that He may cause it to prevail over all [false] religion — however hateful this may be to those who ascribe divinity to aught beside Allah” (9:33, 61:09).
Our sincere attachment to the Qur’an, the Sunnah and the Seerah of the Messenger of Allah (swt) are the essential first steps on the road to Islamic revival and reassertion.