by Zafar Bangash
As we bring out additional volumes of the tafsir, The Ascendant Qur’an: Realigning Man to the Divine Power Culture, by Imam Muhammad H. al-‘Asi, we begin to realize the immensity of the challenge before us. What we initially thought would be a 20-volume tafsir now appears likely to be twice as large. We got some inkling of this when Surahs al-Fatihah and al-Baqarah spanned over three volumes, instead of the two we had originally anticipated; and now, Surah Al ‘Imran will be completed in two volumes instead of our initial estimate of one. Furthermore, it is likely that Surahs al-Nisa’ and al-Ma’idah as well as the other surahs will similarly require more volumes than we had planned at the inception of this effort.
This is one dimension of the challenge facing us. The other, based on the now apparent size of the undertaking and the inevitable human feelings that shoulder the heavy burden, relates to whether we are equipped to handle such a task. This is not to suggest that we are having second thoughts about the project but that we are aware a project of this magnitude requires enormous material and human resources. Unfortunately, we are equipped with neither. Ordinarily, such a project would be undertaken by an institution or an organization with hundreds of persons, if not more, working simultaneously. In the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought (ICIT), we have very limited staff. This again is related to lack of resources.
Consider the example of a medium-sized publishing house. Normally, a book of some 300 pages would not only have a managing editor but more than half a dozen or more other staff members that would review the material before it gas to press. And these individuals would be tasked with working full time on that one particular book. In our case, there are a handful of us that have to perform several tasks simultaneously: working on the tafsir, bringing out the Crescent International magazine once a month, participating in conferences in different parts of the world, and also dealing with Islamic activities locally. Beyond that, we have to work on other books, occasionally on short notice, as well as act as distributors and promoters of our existing literature.
This explanation is not offered to excuse ourselves from these responsibilities we have willingly accepted, but to alert our friends and well-wishers to the fact that such work needs help and support. We know Muslims are not short of resources; often these are not properly utilized. One can cite examples of how most resources are used either for providing relief to suffering Muslims in different parts of the world, or for building huge masjids. Both are important in their own right (although the second is putting the cart before the horse); providing the healing touch cannot be ignored — but Muslims must also pay attention to creating the environment to facilitate a paradigm shift that prevents future Palestines and Afghanistans. This will require nurturing ensuing generations of enlightened Muslims that will take on the challenges facing them. Let us be precise: Muslims face a far greater threat from alien ideas than from guns and bullets. We have seldom been defeated by overwhelming military might; our primary failure has been in the realm of accepting bad ideas that have no connection to truth. This tafsir enables us to make the paradigm shift to help create the Qur’anic generation that would take on the world on its own terms. Thus, what is needed is much greater commitment from Muslims to support this project. This is the first tafsir ever attempted directly in English; indeed, it is more than a tafsir; it is an encyclopedia of the Qur’an that will insha’ Allah guide many generations of Muslims in the future, but for that dream to be realized, its message must be spread far and wide to different communities. Unless this fundamental challenge is taken head on, we as an Ummah would continue to drift aimlessly.
The seeds of change are planted first and foremost in the mind. When the mind is ready to accept change, the rest follows naturally. Allah (SWT) tells us in the noble Qur’an, “Indeed, Allah will not change the condition of a people unless they are willing to [first] change their attitude” (13:11). This is what happened in the early days of Islam. The society in Arabia was described in the Qur’an as jahiliyah — primitive savagery based on ignorance and superstition — in which people fought for petty reasons. The rich and powerful oppressed the poor and weak. Corruption was rampant; so was the oppression of women and girls. Every kind of vice was promoted as a virtue. Is the world any different today? Do not the present-day rich and powerful oppress the poor and weak? The world has in fact moved on to oppress, persecute, and kill on a grand, mechanized scale; more people have been killed in the last 100 years than in the previous 10,000 years. And the people who want it this way use their “high-class” international relations and political science departments at universities to rationalize the idea that the way things are is the way things ought to be. Is that progress and civilization? There are more poor and hungry people in the world today than ever before even while food production has increased phenomenally. The earth is on the verge of extinction because of environmental degradation borne of greed.
What kind of thought process allows for such disparities and exploitation, and should the Muslims be content to sit on the sidelines, even as the situation continues to rapidly deteriorate? It has become clear that the catalyzing ideas leading to phenomenal growth in industrial production have also created a man devoid of all sense of fairness and justice. Greed and extravagance have enshrouded the natural human qualities of compassion and caring. Our troubled world needs to be brought back to divine guidance so that mercy, magnanimity, and justice become the guiding prescription for humanity. This will not happen with the same stock of secular and secularizing ideas that have brought the world to the brink of disaster leading to endless wars, unfair treatment, and mayhem. Only divine guidance derived from the noble Book can restore man to the original purpose for which he was created: as khalifah (vicegerent) of Allah (SWT) on earth.
Proper understanding of the divine message in order to apply it in our lives is the essential prerequisite to confront this challenge. This tafsir, The Ascendant Qur’an, does precisely that. Written for the English-speaking audience, Muslims as well as non-Muslims, it offers an understanding that relates the divine message to our contemporary age. In these very unsettled and uncertain times, unfortunately like many other people, Muslims who are separated from these divine, life-giving words of Allah (SWT) are feeling the distress of despair and the associated inertia that comes with not knowing what to do. In order to charge these people up and motivate them to once again shoulder their God-given responsibilities, the humble attempt here to explain the meanings of the Qur’an is meant to show them that today’s paralyzing fear and despondency are a by-product of how man exercises power without the benefit of Allah’s guidance (SWT).
The Qur’an has always been here to energize and discipline our efforts so that we can overturn exactly this situation. However, this cannot happen unless the Qur’an is part of our real lives — and this is not the subject of a few pages. Hundreds of thousands of pages have been written, even about the Qur’an, to enable those who have been detached from God to gain individual spiritual fulfillment, but few lines have been authored to say that personal spiritual expansion is just the beginning, that it can never be complete unless the ghaybi energy thus harnessed is channeled into a social movement to detach humanity from that which detached it from Allah (SWT) to begin with: maximalist governance, its institutions, its executors, and the so-called inevitability of its assertions. This tafsir is an attempt to fill that void.
This volume (Volume 4) covers the first 120 of the 200 ayat of Surah al ‘Imran, which was revealed in Madinah. The Muslims had migrated to Madinah from Makkah after spending 13 years in extremely difficult circumstances. Persecution, oppression, exile, and even being tortured to death were their common experience. But migration to Madinah did not leave their problems behind in Makkah; only the nature of them changed. This surah deals with the early years in Madinah, especially from the Battle of Badr (Ramadan, 2AH), in which the Muslims achieved a surprising victory, to the Battle of Uhud (Shawwal, 3AH). It is a survey of events occurring during those formative years of the Islamic power base in Madinah. Throughout, the divine ayat of the Qur’an offer the first Muslim generation guidance by helping and supporting it through its uncertain beginnings.
The ayat of this surah deal with the specific situation facing the Muslims in Madinah, especially during battles — for it is in the immediate life-and-death moments of a battle that the attachment to Allah (SWT) is validated, and life lessons are engraved on the heart, never to be forgotten. And in the process of shaping this community that would be required to accept the heavy responsibility of reshaping the world according to Allah’s (SWT) principles of social justice, the ayat lay down the foundational principles of dealing with the enemies of Allah (SWT) — and of humanity — whose mission in life is to divorce ordinary people from the freedom of conscience and the confidence of action that comes from being “one” with Allah (SWT).
Regardless of whether the challenge confronting Muslims is with the force of arms or with propaganda and malice, the Qur’an is there to guide them. Led by the noble Messenger of Allah (SAW), this majestic Qur’an nurtured the first generation to take on the rebellious kafirs, the treacherous munafiqs within their own ranks, and the ever-troublesome Yahud that, despite claiming to be recipients of the divine scripture, never failed to betray the Muslims, even after entering into a binding covenant with the Prophet (SAW). In this surah, Allah (SWT) shows to His committed servants how to deal with setbacks in battle, as the Battle of Uhud turned out to be, despite the Muslims’ initial successes. No matter how undesirable and unpleasant, wars are an integral part of life. There will always be enemies of Allah (SWT) who in the real world are represented by oppressors and tyrants, fifth columnists, and covenant-betraying coteries. The Qur’an instructs Muslims in how to deal with them — then, now, and in the future.
The Qur’anic message is meant to instruct Muslims by equipping them with divine principles to deal with every situation within the range of human experience. Whether in victory or in defeat — and victory is not automatically guaranteed even to committed Muslims — the Qur’anic imperative offers guidance, comfort, and solace. More is to be learned from the dejection of defeat, in an attempt to figure out why, then from the exultation of victory. The aim is to enhance the collective taqwå in a society that would result in Allah (SWT) being pleased with it and which ultimately will be pleased with Allah (SWT) for the benefit of guidance through an unrelenting wilderness, as well as the reward it will get through divine mercy.
One of the characteristics of the surahs revealed in Madinah is that while covering a broad range of conceptual issues, they purge the Muslim mind of various misconceptions and misapprehensions acquired in the age of jahiliyah.Without such cleansing, the Muslims would not have been able to manage the undoubted challenges they would face as they prepared for the greater responsibilities in life as Allah’s (SWT) representatives on earth. This is as true today as it was 1,400 years ago. In the early days of Islam, the first Muslims had to deal with a localized jahiliyah; today it is global. Our responsibility, therefore, is that much greater. We will only be able to discharge it faithfully — and our steps will be more confident — if we have a clearer understanding of the divine Book. And we need this confidence, which can only come from the Book of Allah (SWT), in a captive world that immediately brands those that challenge its wayward ways as intellectually backward and socially as terrorist. Those familiar with Imam al-Asi’s work and his contribution over the years and especially those who have studied the first three volumes of this monumental tafsir would recognize his unquestioned ability to provide a deeper insight into the understanding of the noble Book. Indeed, he has taken our understanding to greater heights linking the divine message more directly to our contemporary troubled times. Those sincere in engaging the majestic Qur’an will discover deeper insights and guidance as they journey through the divine Book secure in the knowledge that the Most Merciful honors those who conscientize Him (2:153). Such a fusion with the divine culture, however, must be accompanied by a proper understanding of the message, and the ultimate motivation to act with purpose and conviction. That is what this tafsir helps us achieve. One final word about the tafsir project: it was the late Dr. Kalim Siddiqui who proposed and then provided inspiration for this work. We pray to Allah (SWT) to bless him and to give him everlasting life in Jannah al-Firdaws among the salihun, the siddiqun, and the shuhada’. Amin.
And we pray to Allah (SWT) to provide us the ability and the wisdom to understand His message properly in order to enable us to implement it in our lives.
Director, Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Sha‘ban 23, 1431 AH (8-4-2010)