November 16, 2018

Asking the Qur’an

I do not, as a Muslim, subscribe to the idea of the holy trinity. In that sense, God is not anyone’s father for me. But when I say this prayer, I say it as a poem. It speaks to me more as poetry. I hear forgiveness in it.
My Christian period ended upon moving to Pakistan to live with my grandparents. That’s when I was told I was a Muslim. I was like, hokay. No problemo. This sounded exciting and exotic and unified. But I had yet to really experience Islam. I was eight years old.

My grandfather is a five-timer. He prays five times a day and is active in his community. My grandmother reads the Qur’an every day at the crack of dawn. I watched them. It mystified me. I didn’t really have an opinion.
And then, at my new school, a convent ironically, I was introduced to a certain brand of Islam as interpreted by women who are the equivalent of Mr Brocklehurst at Lowood institution in the pages of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. In front of the entire class, my Islamic studies teacher, a morbidly obese, sweating pig of a woman, yanked me by the ear four times before beating me around the face for not being able to recite Qur’anic verses I was supposed to learn by heart. I didn’t know how to speak Urdu at that point. Arabic was a long, long way away. My ear rang for the rest of the day. And because I had hearing problems as a child stents had been placed in them to help me. That beating didn’t help.

I started to hate Islam. I hated how everything came to a standstill during prayer time. I hated how you could never question certain things. I hated how I saw women take a backseat to men and associated that with Islam because they covered their heads. I hated the guilt. Learning the Qur’an by rote or reading Arabic didn’t make any sense to me – what did it mean?? I would later on in life go on to be a polyglot of varying ability, learning Russian, German, French and Spanish, but Arabic remained a block.

It was only later on in life, in my late 20s that I came around to religion and took it on my own terms. I discovered Muhammad Asad’s translation of the Qur’an. He was, according to the Wikipedia entry, a Jewish-born Austro-Hungarian born journalist, traveller, writer, linguist, thinker, political theorist, diplomat and Islamic scholar. He is known as one of the most influential European Muslims of the 20th century. But what resonated with me the most was his exegesis of the Qur’an; he uses literary theory which I understand.

Islam is a religion that can take a lifetime to even begin to understand and I am no expert. In fact, people who claim to be experts (with a few exceptions) make me sick. Today in Pakistan you are more likely to get a confused rabid mullah than a balanced critical thinker.

A key topic I keep returning to is depression based on situational life tragedies, chronic trauma of living in a third world city like Karachi and their slow alteration of the brain’s chemical make-up. I have known people whose lives have been destroyed by mental disorders. People who have lost faith and lost their way. Sometimes I return to the Qur’an or ask people whose knowledge I respect to help me with answers. I have rarely been satisfied.
And so I thought many years ago that I would slowly dig through the Qur’an to try and figure it out. Ziauddin Sardar’s excellent blog for The Guardian made me believe it was possible. Here is a scattered, slow, attempt at doing it on my own time.

I am taking all my notes and translations from Muhammad Asad’s translation of the Holy Qur’an titled: The Message of The Qur’an (first published in 1964 in a limited edition. Complete edition published in 1980 by Dar al-Andalus Limited, 3 Library Ramp, Gibraltar, Copyright: Pola Hamid Asad. Distributed by EJ Brill – London, 41 Museum Street, London.)

Night 1 – Tā Hā (O Man) pages 470-486, the Twentieth Surah

(7) And if thou say anything aloud. [He hears it – ] since, behold, He knows [even] the secret [thoughts of man] as well as all that is yet more hidden [within him].

Asad’s note: He knows not only man’s unspoken, conscious thoughts but also all that goes on within his subconscious self.

This point I have intuitively known. For after all, if Allah or YWH is all-knowing, then He must know the inner recesses of my mind, even the parts that I cannot fathom. Why is this a comfort? Because there is one thing I have wanted for a long time that I have kept praying for. Surely then God has heard it. My plea has been deposited. Being ignored or having someone not understanding your point of view or what you want is painful. It makes the want worse. But here, it is registered. He knows. I may not get what I want, but I know it is docketed. This means also that when I directly address God in anguish or just while driving my car or lying alone at night, that He hears it all. There is a direct link. No matter how much I sin at least God hears me.

(75) whereas he who shall appear before Him as a believer who has done righteous deeds – it is such that shall have lofty stations [in the life to come]

Asad’s note: Thus the Qur’an implies – here as well as in many other places – that the spiritual value of a person’s faith depends on his doing righteous deeds as well…. On Judgement Day “believing will be of no avail to any human being… who, while believing, did no good works”.

Come on! Now this is the real deal. I learnt from Ziauddin Sardar that the Qur’an says BELIEVERS not Muslims. But believers. That is Jewish folks too! And Christians and Parsis and all the folks who believe in God. This makes me really happy. This is my God; one who casts the net wide. He is not a God full of hate and miserliness.
But secondly, at the crux of this verse is the simple message that you can believe all you want but if you don’t do stuff for your fellow human beings it doesn’t count. You have to pitch in on this earth. I’ve seen a lot of people who trumpet their Islam like it’s a Game of Thrones battlefield and they are backed by the Unsullied. But they are stingy people who don’t spread the love. They don’t help other people. I may not pray five times a day, which I should technically, but I honestly, honestly try to help anyone I can if I am not too exhausted emotionally. I may be a terrible Muslim technically but I don’t short-change the people around me if I can help it.

(131) And never turn thine eyes [with longing] towards whatever splendour of this world’s life We may have allowed so many others to enjoy in order that We might test them hereby: for the sustenance which they Sustainer provides [for thee] is better and more enduring.

Asad’s note:  Implying that whatever God grants a person is an outcome of divine wisdom and therefore truly appropriate to the destiny which God has decreed for that person.

OK. This was a tough one. I want one or two things really badly in life and in my bones I know they aren’t going to happen. My grandmother used to say that you can butt your head like a goat against the prayer mat but if God ain’t givin’ it, He ain’t givin’ it. I don’t know what my destiny is. It’s a rather heavy word. I mostly just fumble along and have no plan. I don’t feel I have any destiny to fulfil. And I guess if something isn’t going to happen, it isn’t going to happen. The only thing is I need to keep returning to this verse to remind myself because it’s so hard to accept.