by Zafar Bangash (Reflections, Crescent International Vol. 37, No. 6, Rajab, 1429)
Two months may be too short a time to present an accurate assessment of the impact of Imam Muhammad al-Asi’s tafseer, The Ascendant Qur’an, but the contours of its reception are already clear. Most people have been impressed by its fine production quality, contrasting it with the poor quality of Islamic literature often produced elsewhere in the Muslim world. Perhaps more importantly, the fact that it seeks to broaden the Muslims’ understanding of the divine message has also been appreciated. The number of people who have paid for the entire 20-volume set in advance, based on only the first volume, or have inquired about the availability of other volumes, shows the wide acceptance it has received. We are grateful to Allah subhanahu wa ta‘ala for His Mercy and Grace in helping us spread His message in a way that English-speaking Muslims can relate to. Since its launch in Toronto on May 24, a number of similar programs have been held in other cities in North America, including Hamilton (Ontario), Washington DC, Calgary (Alberta) and Dallas (Texas). Within Toronto it has been well received at a number of Islamic centers.
This month we head to South Africa for its publication and launch there. This is a trip of particular significance for all of us involved with the tafseer, as it was in South Africa that the idea of this tafseer first emerged in 1996. Crescent International had just held a highly successful international conference on the theme ‘Creating a New Civilization of Islam’, attended by scholars and Islamic movement activists from all parts of Africa, as well as Europe, North America and Pakistan. While the conference itself was highly successful, the informal discussions outside the conference sessions were arguably even more important. One after-dinner discussion involved young Muslims associated with the Qur’an Study Group, who sought Imam al-Asi’s advice on their studies, and particularly wanted to discuss the translations and tafseers of the Qur’an that they were using. During this discussion, at which I was also present, Imam al-Asi warned them of the shortcomings of some of the most common English Qur’anic materials, including Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s The Holy Qur’an: Text, Translation and Commentary,Marmaduke Pickthall’s The Glorious Qur’an and Muhammad Asad’s The Message of the Qur’an. The youths’ response was to suggest that Imam al-Asi himself consider writing a newtafseer of the Qur’an, conveying his unique understanding and insight into the text of the divine revelation.
The fact that the noble Qur’an cannot be accurately translated into other languages, and that English, which is rooted in a secular culture and value-system, is particularly ill-equipped to convey the divine message, is well established (see Crescent International, May 2008). The meanings inherent in the divine message are so profound that they cannot be adequately or accurately communicated by simply translating the words of the Qur’an into the English language; and while these elements of their meaning are lost, other connotations of the English words are added. Furthermore, the hidden layers and depths of meaning emerge only as human knowledge expands. Thus, in order to get as close to the divine message as possible, Muslims must have access to a tafseer—exegesis—of the Qur’an that not only provides an expanatory translation of the divine verses, but sheds light on the circumstances in which theayaat of the Qur’an were revealed, providing context to their meaning, and highlighting layers of meaning that may not be apparent to less informed readers. For the South African youth who helped inspire this tafseer twelve years ago, for Muslims all over the rest of the world, and for open-minded non-Muslims who genuinely wish to appreciate the noble Qur’an, Imam al-Asi’s tafseer will be a welcome addition to their libraries and a source of understanding and inspiration.
The publication of instalments of this tafseer in Crescent International as Imam al-Asi has written it over the last decade whetted people’s appetites. The publication of the first volume has taken us to a new stage of this great enterprise, and made a number of points clear. First, there is increased pressure on Imam al-Asi and those working with him to prepare the tafseerfor publication to speed up their work, in order to satiate the thirst for knowledge of those now awaiting further volumes. Time is of the essence and we cannot disappoint them. Second, we in the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought and Crescent International must strive even harder to promote this tafseer. No option must be rejected nor any effort spared to get this into the hands of every educated Muslim anywhere in the world. It is an ambitious target but it is possible if we show resolve and commitment. And thirdly, our friends and well-wishers must assist in realizing this dream, as they have done in the past; with the launch of this first volume their responsibility has increased. Their support thus far has been invaluable; their support in future is essential.
There have also been suggestions for an Arabic version of this tafseer but that is a challenge that must be addressed separately. For now, we need to get this first-ever English tafseer into every English-speaking household in the world, to help produce a Qur’anic generation that can make this long-suffering world a better place for all humankind, insha’Allah.