The right principles for understanding the Quran

Friday Khutba by Dr Zahid Aziz, for Lahore Ahmadiyya UK, 12 April 2024

“The month of Ramadan is that in which the Quran was revealed, a guidance to people and clear proofs of the guidance and the Criterion. …” — ch. 2, v. 185

شَہۡرُ رَمَضَانَ الَّذِیۡۤ اُنۡزِلَ فِیۡہِ الۡقُرۡاٰنُ ہُدًی لِّلنَّاسِ وَ بَیِّنٰتٍ مِّنَ الۡہُدٰی وَ الۡفُرۡقَانِ ۚ  

During the month of Ramadan that has just ended, we have been learning about the connection between fasting in this month and revelation of the Quran. I have recited the opening words of a verse of the Quran in the section on fasting. It refers to three qualities of the Quran. The Quran is a guidance for people, that is to say, for all mankind. In addition to being a guidance, it provides proofs of the truth of that guidance, and it is also called the Furqān, which means the Criterion or the standard that enables us to distinguish truth from falsehood, right from wrong.

To remind Muslims about this true status and position of the Quran, which they lose sight of at various times in their history, Allah instituted the sending of mujaddids or Reformers. One of them, who lived three hundred years ago in India, was the great, world-renowned scholar and philosopher of Islam, Shah Waliullah of Delhi. He is widely recognised in the Indian subcontinent, and the Muslim world beyond it, as one of the greatest Muslim thinkers and writers in the history of Islam. He has written in a book that mujaddids arise in Islam to fulfil the promise which Allah has made in the Quran: “Surely We have revealed the Re­min­d­er, and surely We are its Guardian” (15:9). Their primary purpose is to safeguard the position of the Quran.

In modern times Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, Founder of the Ahmadiyya Movement, substantiated his claim to be Mujaddid by his service of the Quran. He showed how the Quran was “a guidance to people and clear proofs of the guidance and the Criterion”. At the beginning of his first major book, Barahin Ahmadiyya, published in the 1880s, he wrote:

“All the arguments I have given in this book about the truth of the Holy Quran, and the evidences for the truthfulness of the Holy Prophet’s claim to be the Messenger of Allah, and the excellences and beauties of the Holy Quran, and the clear signs of it being revealed by God, have been taken and deduced from this Sacred Scripture itself. This also applies to any claim I have made about the Quran. That is to say, any such claim I have made is exactly what this scripture has claimed about itself, and any argument  I have presented in this regard is what this holy Book has indicated.”

He said that this was a unique feature of the Quran, that it sets forth its own claims and also the arguments to prove them. He questioned whether representatives and exponents of other faiths would be able to put forward their religious beliefs by depending only on their holy scriptures, and not relying on the later writings of their scholars. He also showed, in connection with various questions of religion, how to treat the Quran as the Furqān, the criterion and standard for determining what was right and what was wrong. The Quran is not merely a guidance which commands people on what to do and what not to do, but what really makes it a guidance are these two qualities: that it provides its own arguments to support its teachings and it enables us to tell the difference between right and wrong.

The Quran is called here a guidance for mankind rather than just a guidance for believers or Muslims. This makes it our duty to present this guidance to the entire world. Again, the man who in modern times was most anxious to do this was the Founder of the Ahmadiyya Movement, Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad. It was his deepest desire to have the Quran translated into English, and published along with a commentary, and sent to Western countries. When he expressed this desire in a book which he wrote in 1891, he had no means of getting such a publication prepared and produced. Nonetheless, he wrote:

“I cannot refrain from stating clearly that this is my work, and that no one else can do it as well as I, or he who is an offshoot of mine and thus is included in me.” (Izala Auham, p. 773).

Even when he died in 1908, and had formed a movement of followers by then, there seemed no prospect of such a difficult work being undertaken. However, one man who had joined him as a follower and had then dedicated his life to the service of Islam during the life of the Founder, took up this task shortly after the Founder’s death. This was Maulana Muhammad Ali, who possessed several qualities which fitted him for this work. He had not only the intellectual capability, the academic qualifications, and the determination, but also the purity of mind and heart, and a close spiritual bond with Allah, required to accomplish this enormous task.

He produced an English trans­lation of the Quran, with detailed commentary, which was first printed and published right here in England in 1917. At that time there was no other English translation of the Quran by a Muslim available to Western countries. Some thirty years later, with changing times and circumstances, Maulana Muhammad Ali revised this translation and commentary and it is available in print and electronic form up to today. His interpretation was based on treating the Quran according to its two qualities mentioned in the verse above — that the Quran contains “clear proofs of the guidance” and it is “the Criterion” for distinguishing between what is true and what is false. In accordance with the first quality, Maulana Muhammad Ali in his commentary has treated the Quran as a complete, self-contained and consistent book. He has given prominence to what the Quran itself says and how it explains itself. In the traditional commentaries of the Quran, done centuries ago, the commentators had filled them with elaborate stories and tales brought in from external sources to explain certain events mentioned in the Quran, and in explaining most verses they related them to the occasion of their revelation and thus limited their application. It is as if they had thrown the Quran itself into the background.

Of course, we need information from external sources in understanding many passages in the Quran. These sources are primarily Hadith books, reports from the life of the Holy Prophet, and explanations given by his companions and scholars of the early generations. However, these sources can only be used to fill in details, to complete the picture, and to provide illustrations of what the Quran is teaching. Such material cannot be used to contradict the Quran and to give interpretations which violate the principles laid down in it.

Secondly, the Quran contains the criteria or standard for distinguishing between right and wrong beliefs. So in many controversial issues which arise as to what are the correct teachings of Islam, for example, issues relating to Islam’s attitude towards other religions, jihad, tolerance, freedom of religion, rights of women, etc. the Quran is the determining factor. Once we have found the right teachings from the Quran, they cannot be overturned or superseded by anything outside it, including Hadith reports and the older commentaries. In regard to these issues, Muslim scholars have made mistakes, and as a result they have caused harm to the Muslim community and damaged the reputation of Islam, by not taking the Quran as the Criterion. Instead, in many matters they have been following certain ideas not found in the Quran but which developed in the later history of Islam, or they have been taking certain cultural practices as a part of Islam which are in fact not supported by the Quran.

For example, there are verses of the Quran which teach Muslims tolerance towards people of other faiths and to have harmonious relations with non-Muslims. There are verses which teach Muslims that when confronted by abuse and insult towards their religion, they must show patience and not retaliation, and certainly not react with violence. There are also verses which show Islam to be entirely a peaceful religion, which gives everyone freedom to follow whichever religion they choose.

Some Muslims mistakenly believe that these teachings only applied in the earlier part of the Holy Prophet’s mission and that in the later part of his mission Muslims were directed to wage war against people of other religions, and even apply the death penalty to any Muslim who left Islam. They claim that it is these later teachings that are permanent, and that the earlier ones were temporary. But the verses mentioning tolerance and harmony between Muslims and people of other faiths do not become inapplicable just because later on in the Holy Prophet’s life a situation arose in which Muslims had to fight in battle against non-Muslims. When the Muslims fought the battle of Badr, they still exercised forgiveness and tolerance towards their enemies after taking many of them as prisoners. When the Holy Prophet Muhammad conquered Makkah, he was no doubt fighting his enemies, but he showed unparalleled forgiveness towards them after his victory.

Just because a teaching was given by Allah to the Holy Prophet in the first half of his mission, but in the second half it seems as if a different teaching was given, this does not mean that this latter teaching has permanently cancelled the earlier teaching. The apparent difference happened because in the second half Muslims were facing very different circum­stances from the first half. And if circumstances change again back to what they were in the first half, then the earlier teachings apply again.

So, turning back to the verse from which I recited at the beginning, the very verse which ordains fasting in the month of Ramadan, it calls the Quran as “a guidance to people and clear proofs of the guidance and the Criterion”, it was the Founder of the Ahmadiyya Movement and his followers in the Lahore Ahmadiyya Movement who accorded this true and rightful status to the Quran. May we continue to build on the foundations established by our forefathers, Ameen.