by Zafar Bangash (Opinion, Crescent International Vol. 50, No. 2, Sha'ban, 1442)
Ramadan and the noble Qur’an are intimately linked. It was in the month of Ramadan that the first few ayats of the Qur’an (96:1-5) were revealed to the noble Messenger of Allah (pbuh) in the solitude of the Cave of Hira. The Qur’an states: “It was the month of Ramadan in which the Qur’an was [first] made accessible from on high as a guidance for people and a self-evident proof of that guidance, and as the standard by which to discern the true from the false…” (2:185).
Ramadan is that time of the Islamic year in which committed Muslims practice abstinence from their immediate dependencies on the life of the world and focus on generating/enlivening the consciousness that protects them from the inevitable consequences of Allah’s corrective power. The victuals that feed this taqwa-aspiring consciousness, unlike the food that satisfies the body and its needs/desires, are the words and meanings of Allah’s final communique to man, the Qur’an. Hence for man to be able to don this mantle of protection, prevention, and precaution, he must learn to live the Qur’an. Being a part of the Qur’anic culture is an “acquired taste”: it requires effort, commitment, and ultimately full confidence and reliance on Allah’s guidance and the methodology of His final Prophet, Muhammad (pbuh).
The Qur’an is our guide from the womb to the tomb. Guidance, however, is conditional upon understanding and the escalating self-assurance that comes from implementing that guidance. Ideally, this can only be done if Muslims learn the language of the Qur’an (which is different from the numerous dialects spoken in various countries). There was a time when standard Arabic was the dominant language of the world. Unfortunately, this is not the case today. Muslims have lost touch with the Arabic language and, therefore, the noble Qur’an.
There is emphasis on reading or memorization without understanding. Further, since Islam is a global deen, there are many more non-Arabic speaking than there are Arabic-speaking Muslims in the world today. Even those whose mother-tongue is Arabic have also lost touch with the message of the Qur’an. The sad state of the Arab world clearly reflects this grim reality.
So, what is to be done? The simple answer is to learn the Arabic language (that is, standard Arabic). Barring that, we are left with the option of presenting the message of the Qur’an in a language that is widely spoken and understood worldwide: English. This is not as simple as it sounds.
First, the Qur’an cannot be accurately translated into any other language. The Qur’an’s language is highly poetic and stylistic and imbued with multiple layers of meanings. Further, English has been secularized and cannot render many Qur’anic words and expressions accurately. The Qur’anic words taqwa, birr, ihsan, ‘ibadah, mu’min, mushrik, kafir, munafiq etc, for instance, have no English equivalents. To complicate things even more, “church” English, which has been used in some of the more common Qur’an translations, is not the same as modern English, and is hardly used, even in churches. Hence, to some extent, those translations are fast becoming outdated.
What also requires mention is the fact that the English of the 11th and 12th Gregorian centuries would hardly be recognizable today, and if someone spoke it, he could not be understood. Therefore, when imprecise or arrogant “scholarship,” using English as a standard of comparison, tries to draw a parallel between classical English and “classical” Arabic, the suggestion is that the Arabic spoken by the Prophet (pbuh) 1,400 years ago, and the Arabic employed in the Qur’an would not be understood today. The fact of the matter is that the Arabic subject to an extensive set of rules and organization at the Prophet’s time is the same Arabic today, subject to the same rules. This is one of the miracles of the Qur’an: it standardized the Arabic language for all times to come, so that its message could be understood in the way it was revealed, regardless of time or place; indeed Allah (swt) says, “Behold, it is We Ourselves who have bestowed from on high, step by step, this conscientious reminder: and, behold, it is We who shall truly guard it [from all alteration and corruption]” (15:9).
Finally, and this cannot be underscored enough, modern English is the medium used by a thoroughly corrupt power culture — which seems to think that it can rival God’s power — to rationalize and justify injustice, oppression, dispossession, endless war, censorship, and exploitation without limits. English is being used to euphemize human degradation: and so torture has become “enhanced interrogation,” kidnapping has become “extraordinary rendition,” murder of non-combatants has become “collateral damage”. Usury has become “interest,” and in the age of the pandemic, what would have ordinarily been characterized as a gene therapy or treatment has been able to skirt all public health safeguards simply because its manufacturers are calling it a “vaccine.” This means that translating the Qur’an into the English language presents a rather sizable challenge, one that previous translators may not have been entirely cognizant of.
If we keep in mind that all translations of the Qur’an are approximations of the meanings of the Arabic original, we can begin to make a start. While numerous English translations of the Qur’an exist, there is still a need for other translations to convey more accurately the meanings of the divine message.
Cognizant of this reality, we in the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought (ICIT) have for many years been engaged in presenting to Muslims literature in the form of the tafsir (exegesis) of the noble Qur’an by Imam Muhammad al-‘Asi. Titled, The Ascendant Qur’an: Realigning Man to the Divine Power Culture, 14 volumes of the tafsir have so far been published. Based on our experience with the tafsir serial, we felt there was need for a translation as well, again by Imam al ‘Asi.
The new translation is meant to provide the average Muslim a basic understanding of the essential message of the Qur’an. It will, insha’Allah facilitate delving more deeply into the tafsir. Before we highlight some of the distinctive features of this translation, it is important to be clear about a fundamental point: Allah’s power and authority. He is our Creator as well as Lawgiver. His power and authority are absolute. Only He determines what is right and wrong. We are commanded to obey His laws.
Based on this understanding, there cannot be two power centers in our lives. We must either self-surrender completely to the power and authority of Allah, or we risk getting subsumed into the power of taghut (excessive and concentrated power in the hands of man). In the latter case, we cannot call ourselves muslim even if we practice all of the prescribed rituals.
The Makkan mushriks did not persecute, torture, and kill the early Muslims because they prayed, fasted or kept to themselves. Such practices were not part of Islamic ritual discipline in those early days around the Prophet (pbuh). It was the early Muslims’ emphasis on Allah’s power and authority — and the responsibility attending such recognition to the end that all of Allah’s temporal rivals need to be identified, prevented, and finally stayed from running their destructive program of human degradation and abuse — that so riled up the Makkan mushriks. They were not dumb: they immediately realized that their privileges and hereditary advantages were at stake in the presence of this new, enduring, and final dispensation from the Most High.
Most Muslims today seem to have missed this crucial point that is central to the message of the Qur’an. However, now as then, the dominant power culture is acutely aware of what can be unleashed by attendance to Allah’s words. Hence its ferocity and vicious bloodlust when it comes to turning back the clock on the majority Muslim world. It has laid to waste their societies and murdered and displaced uncharted tens of millions. This has happened recently in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, Mali, Yemen, and other places.
Upon this dynamic rest some of the distinctive features of this translation. In addition to emphasizing Allah’s tawhid, which all Qur’anic translations do, this translation highlights some important aspects that have been heretofore missing, chiefly Allah’s power and authority so as to integrate those who yield to Allah’s command and counsel into the power-grid of Islam.
The principle of social justice is front and center in the Qur’an. Through this translation, a reader would develop a keenness and sense of responsibility to confront and overcome the widespread injustices in the world today. This statement is not made lightly or rhetorically. It has to do with the fundamental precepts of Islam as ordained in the noble Qur’an. How can we say that Allah (swt) is our Creator, Sustainer and Lawgiver but ignore His laws so casually?
Such lack of clarity missing in earlier translations has rendered most Muslims incapable of changing their lives, much less the world around them. Imam al-‘Asi’s translation contributes toward overcoming this general weakness within the collection of translation literature. Equipped with Qur’anic insight, a committed Muslim’s vision is supposed to be piercing, when it comes to assessing the world around him.
Consider, for instance, the irony of the pathetic COVID relief packages being offered to the people by the current and previous regimes of the ‘leader’ of the free world, the United States. After literally thieving trillions of dollars from the current and future earnings of hard-working Americans for wars of aggression that benefit no one but a handful of billionaires; bailout subsidies for Wall Street banksters who should have been sent to jail with no possibility of parole, but who grew the size of their fraudulent banks and are now almost untouchable. Tax reductions have been offered to the super-wealthy 1 percenters who have expanded their fortunes by over 25% during the pandemic shutdowns while their countrymen wait in bread lines or run out of unemployment insurance. These two regimes and their “elected” detractors in the opposition are fighting about “giving back” a role of quarters to the suffering masses.
Muslims reading the Qur’an should not have to wait for principled non-Muslims to call out the powers that be. If the Qur’an cannot put the Muslims in the lead demanding a redress of grievances, then unfortunately all humanity is constrained to march together — deaf, dumb, and blind — into a neoliberal armageddon. And so, what shall we say on the Last Day in the Court of Divine Justice when we are brought face to face with the responsibilities we failed?
And [likewise] for those who reject their Sustainer, there is the torment of Hell —and what a miserable destiny! If they are cast into it, they will hear its inhalation [wheeze] as it seethes, nearly bursting at the seams out of fury; every time a company [of God-deniers] is tossed into it [Hell], its keepers will ask them, “Did no warner ever come to you?” They will say, “Yes, of course a warner did come to us, but we contravened [what he told us] and said, ‘Allah did not bestow anything [upon you]! You [imposters — so-called prophets] are [involved] in a massive misconception!’” And they will go on, “If only we had listened [to the warner sent to us] and reasoned we would not have been attendees of the blistering flame!” Thus, did they confess to their sins: but [too late for them — for] thrashed are the attendees of the blazing [and blistering] flame (67:6–11).
The Ascendant Qur’an translation is also not tainted by any sectarian slant. Careful attention has been paid to avoid any such pitfalls so that Muslims can get the message of the Qur’an in its original purity without having to navigate the inbuilt biases some translators cannot seem to overcome. Sectarian argumentation and falling out one against the other has taken place of late, in violent clashes, less on the ayat of the Qur’an, but more on the nature and authenticity of hadith literature. In fact, most of our brother- on-brother warfare, exploited to no good end by our joint enemies, comes out of how we differently interpret various so-called hadiths attributed to the Prophet (pbuh). In this regard, the careful reader will note that this translation focuses quite undepartingly on the Qur’anic ayat themselves, and does not rely on any hadith expositions to explain the ayat in explanatory notes or the like.
This translation has been composed with neither fear nor favor of any worldly power or authority. We recognize only one power and authority: Allah (swt). There is none like unto Him or equal to Him (112:1–4). “He is the Sovereign Supreme, the All-Powerful, the Almighty and the Truly Wise” (59:22-24).
Since the Qur’an’s message is applicable for all times, it has to be presented in such a manner that a reader is able to make the connection between what was revealed more than 1,400 years ago and our current reality. When the Qur’an highlights tyrannical rulers in early history, these are not just interesting allegorical narratives but pertinent lessons from history about how human behavior transcends time and place. This translation articulates the common demeanor of these tyrannical rulers thereby empowering its readers to identify the modern-day nimrods and pharaohs and to confront them accordingly.
The early Muslims around the Prophet (pbuh), though small in number, understood this point clearly and internalized it fully. In the 23-year period between the first revelation that Prophet (pbuh) received and his final moments on earth, there emerged a generation shaped by the Qur’an. It went on to set the pace for the inhabitants of the world who had been mangled by superstitious beliefs and cowed by the promulgations of emperors, kings, popes, and philosophers.
Guided by this final Testament, subsequent generations of Muslims set out to shape the destiny of humanity for nearly 1,000 years. For this Qur’anic generation no challenge was too great and no price too steep. It did not seek the material possessions or comforts of this dunya (life on earth), but the pleasure of Allah (swt) in the akhirah (life hereafter).
First, they brought the entire Arabian Peninsula under the sway of Islam in 23 years. And soon thereafter, they spread the message of Islam to other parts of the world. The sword, quite apart from the attempts of secular orientalism to impose a Western expansionist view of history on Islam, was the least of their instruments of advancement, dominion, and progress. Their mission and struggle were directed at saving errant humanity from its deviant beliefs and practices that were leading to its destruction.
Ending gross injustice was the most important dimension of their mission. Islam imbued the early generations of Muslims with the spirit of self-sacrifice to Allah so that social justice on earth would be a reflection of absolute justice in the realm of forever. They cultivated a respect for the dignity of human beings that was based not on race, color, or status but on taqwa (consciousness of Allah’s power presence in life).
This community under the leadership of its prophet exemplified an executable program that a humanity needing liberation and slaves desperate to overcome the shackles of bondage could employ at any time and any place. And so, whatever triumphs took place on the battlefield were just a natural extension of a mind no longer encumbered by fealty to a temporal sovereign and a heart no longer possessed by the fear of the punishment of oppressive powers.
The Qur’an also inspired a new potency in the quest for knowledge and the evolution of scientific inquiry throughout the expansive landmass under the sway of Islam. It was the knowledge that Europeans acquired in Islamic institutions of learning that led to Europe’s Renaissance.
Today, unfortunately, Muslims are not in the driving seat of history. They have been surpassed and dominated by an exploitative system that has dug its claws deep into the flesh of billions of people. Most of them including many Muslims feel helpless. It need not be. Islam has the regenerative power to enable Muslims to re-emerge in their natural dominant role in the world.
The building blocks of this regenerative process are none other than a proper understanding of the noble Qur’an and the Prophetic Sunnah and Sirah. Toward this end, a new, contemporary translation of the Qur’an by Imam al ‘Asi has been completed and is being printed. We hope to have it available before the end of Ramadan, insha’Allah.
This beautiful, leather-bound English-Arabic edition is available at a modest price of US$45. It is our hope and prayer that Muslims would not only acquire a copy for themselves but also get copies as gifts for relatives and friends. We also request Muslims to sponsor copies so that we can provide them to those who may not have the means to afford even this modest sum.
Another version in simple English is also at an advanced stage of preparation. This is meant for Muslim youth and those with insufficient grasp of the English language. The aim is to make the message of the Qur’an accessible to as many people as possible.
Muslims are always very generous in supporting the needy and the destitute. This is admirable, but we also need to ask, why are there so many destitute people in the world, most of them Muslims? There is no shortage of resources. The reason is gross injustice. Unless we understand the root causes of our suffering, we will never be able to change our condition.
The ICIT relies on the support of individual Muslims who appreciate the value of such work. In early Islamic history, there used to be the Bayt al-Maal that not only helped the needy but also supported scholars involved in such work. There was also the Islamic institution of waqf. It still exists in some Muslim countries but today such institutions are controlled by regimes that are responsible for our grim situation in the first place. They only support people who do their bidding. Hence, our appeal to individual Muslims for help and support.
In order to sustain such vital work, we need more Muslims to step forward. The work of the ICIT is just one of the building blocks of the reconstruction of the Islamic civilization of the future. This is what we have embarked upon in the ICIT. We invite you to join and help us in this noble task.
(Donations can be made through Paypal or through the ICIT website. All donations, big or small, will be gratefully acknowledged)