Despite my doubts I still clung desperately to the belief that the Qur’an was from God but it’s deeper message was misunderstood by literalists. I scoured the sayings of Islamic scholars in my efforts to find evidence to refute the hard-liners. But the more I searched the more I realized it was a futile exercise. No matter how many sound arguments I put forward, there were an equal number – perhaps more – that contradicted them. I could never entirely invalidate the views of the literalists, simply because the literalist tradition is every bit as valid as any other. The fact is that the Qur’an often contradicts itself, providing evidence for those who wish to see freedom of religion in verses such as “There is no compulsion in religion” and evidence for those who wish to see a perpetual Jihad against the unbelievers in verses such as “When the forbidden months are past, then fight and slay the Pagans wherever ye find them, and seize them, beleaguer them, and lie in wait for them in every stratagem (of war).” Everyone can find what he wants in the Qur’an: peace, love and tolerance or war, hatred and prejudice.
Islamic scholars sought to resolve the contradictions by using the idea of Naskh (Abrogation) which takes its legitimacy from the Qur’an:
“Nothing of our revelation do we abrogate or cause to be forgotten, except that we bring (in place) one better or the like thereof.” (2.106)
Many of the conflicting verses come from the two main periods of revelation in Mecca and Madina. In the earlier Meccan period, when Muhammad was beginning his mission, the verses were of a more general and spiritual nature and included a much softer and conciliatory approach towards unbelievers. The later Medinan period, however, was much harsher, as it was revealed during a time of great hostility, when the Meccan polytheists were trying to crush the Muslims in Medina. The verses from this period are also concerned with making laws and guidelines for the newly formed Islamic State in Medina. The principle of abrogation actually works in favour of the extremists, because it is the later, harsher verses that supersede the earlier and more tolerant ones. So for example, the earlier verse saying “There is no compulsion in religion” is considered by many traditional scholars to have been abrogated by the later verse commanding Muslims to fight unbelievers – the so-called ‘Verse of the Sword.’
However one modern scholar, Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, has turned this argument on its head by arguing that today we must reverse this process and use the earlier Meccan verses to abrogate the later Medinan ones. The reason, he says, is that the later ones were revealed to deal with the situation at the time and so are confined to their context, while the earlier message of Mecca is “The eternal and fundamental message of Islam, emphasizing the inherent dignity of all human beings, regardless of gender, religious belief, race… equality between men and women and complete freedom of choice in matters of religion and faith.” An-Na’im was a student of Mahmoud Ta Ha who originally propagated this idea in Sudan, and as a result, was executed for apostasy. His followers fled Sudan, and Abdullahi An-Na’im himself now lives in America. An-Na’im’s argument sounds good, but is in fact an over-generalization. It simply isn’t true that all the harsh verses fall into the Medinan period and the tolerant verses fall into the Meccan period. There are instances of the opposite being the case. For example Surah al-Bayyinah is considered by many to be a Meccan Surah yet it is extremely intolerant of Jews and Christians as well as polytheists;
“Those who disbelieve, among the People of the Book (Christians & Jews) and among the Polytheists, will be in Hell-Fire, to dwell therein for ever. They are the worst of creatures.” (98.6)
While a verse from Surah al-Ma’idah, that most would regard as Medinan seems quite tolerant;
“And nearest among them in love to the believers wilt thou find those who say “we are Christians” because amongst these are men devoted to learning and men who have renounced the world, and they are not arrogant.” (5.82)
More importantly, many verses and Hadith are difficult or impossible to date with absolute certainty making such a distinction arbitrary.
I certainly agreed that many verses of the Qur’an were not relevant for today’s conditions, but I wasn’t going to get bogged down with arguments over abrogation or when and why verses were revealed. My own solution was simple: human reason should be the deciding factor of what is or what is not relevant to our own situation. It was a solution that created more problems than it solved, not least of which was to cast doubt on the Divine nature of the holy text itself, yet it I clung to it out of desperation. The only other alternative was to reject Islam completely and I simply wasn’t able or ready to do that. Unsurprisingly I found that most Muslims rejected the idea out of hand and I was told time and time again that Muslims cannot ‘cherry pick’ what is relevant and what is not. I was almost attacked by an angry Algerian brother in Regent’s Park Mosque when I suggested to him that verse 25 of Sura Nisa was limited to it’s time period and was no-longer relevant in our day and age. The verse directs those believers unable to marry free women to marry their slave girls.
Instead of arguing with people I decided to write articles about the need for reform but didn’t have much success in getting them published. At school I went to see Sheikh Omar in his office and discussed my thoughts with him. I knew that as a Sufi, he didn’t hold literalist views and so might be more receptive to my ideas. I was encouraged to find he agreed that not all verses of the Qur’an were relevant to our situation, but he insisted that this was not because part of the Qur’an’s message was limited to its time period, but because it offered different solutions for different situations and that the verses about Jihad against the Meccan polytheists were different from today’s situation. My problem with that argument is that it still leaves the possibility that such verses could be relevant under the right circumstances and that it is merely a matter of opinion what ‘the right circumstances’ are.
I had many discussions with my fellow teachers at Islamia School. During one conversation in the staff room with a group of about six teachers, we got on to the subject of equality, and the fact that Shari’ah Law gives a woman half the legal status of a man. In the case of inheritance, a daughter will only receive half what her brother receives, and where a woman is a witness, her testimony is considered half that of a man’s.
“That’s because the Qur’an says, ‘Men are protectors of women,’ said Sister Amatilah “And the Prophet said, ‘Women are deficient in religion and mind,’”
“What does ‘deficient in mind’ mean?” asked sister Nargis, clearly a little unsettled by the hadith.
“Firstly God made men stronger, and so they are the protectors and providers. A woman’s deficiency in religion is because she cannot pray all the prayers, due to menstruation. Her deficiency in mind is because of the nature of women and their role as mothers and the fact that women can be emotional and irrational, which makes their testimony less reliable.”
“The world has changed, sister Amatilah,” I said. “Many women also work and support their families financially – just look around this room; there are six women and one man. To deny them a full inheritance on the basis that their husbands will look after them is simply not fair. As for their testimony being unreliable, men can be just as emotional and irrational. We cannot justify such a law in this day and age. In this instance the Qur’an and Sunnah are not relevant to today’s situation.”
“Astaghfirullah, Hassan, how can you say that the Qur’an and Sunnah are no longer relevant to our day and age? The Qur’an is the last revelation to mankind and will remain till the end of time as the perfect guide for all places and at all times.”
“I’m not saying all of it is not relevant just some parts. Prophet Muhammad was first and foremost a prophet sent to his people with solutions for the situation at the time. The Qur’an says that Muhammad was sent with the message “So that you can warn the Mother of Cities (Makkah) and it’s surrounds.” Clearly the message he brought was in response to the circumstances of 7th century Arabia and we are not required to follow every detail of it today.”
“The Qur’an says that Prophet Muhammad was sent ‘as a mercy to the world.’” said Sister Amatilah
“That doesn’t mean the whole of his message was meant to apply literally at all times all over the world.” I replied, “All the prophets God sent came with a specific message to their people as well as a universal message of belief in God. It is a mistake to think Muhammad’s message was different.”
“But Muhammad was different.” insisted sister Amatilah, “He was ‘The Seal of Prophets’; he brought the final and complete message.”
“Just because he was the last prophet doesn’t mean the whole of his message applies for all times. It simply means that man has now reached a stage in his development where it is no-longer necessary to send any more prophets.”
“Exactly, no more prophets will come because the message of Islam is the final and complete message for mankind until the Day of Judgment.” said Sister Amatilah triumphantly.
I knew I wasn’t getting anywhere and was glad that it was time to bring the children in from the playground. Later that day two of the sisters who had been present at the discussion came up to me, quite independently of each other and said they agreed with me. Both said it in hushed tones and made sure no one else was listening. This was something that I witnessed quite often. Muslims who would remain silent and unquestioning when in the company of other Muslims, but would express their feelings or reservations when they knew that you too had similar reservations – but even then only in private. The reason they didn’t challenge people like sister Amatullah was quite simple. They didn’t have enough knowledge about Islam, while the sister Amatilah did. Although there were many Muslims eager to support a more liberal interpretation of Islam, those who had the better Islamic knowledge were resistant to change. It was a frustrating situation and I was growing weary. Not least because my efforts to reform Islam only served to undermine my faith in it.