Academic journal article Islam & Science

Muslims and Western Studies of the Qur'an: The Qur'an in the Contemporary World: Seyyed Hossein Nasr in Conversation with Muzaffar Iqbal

Academic journal article Islam & Science

Muslims and Western Studies of the Qur'an: The Qur'an in the Contemporary World: Seyyed Hossein Nasr in Conversation with Muzaffar Iqbal

Article excerpt

[This conversation took place on Saturday, October 23, 2010 in Professor Nasr's office at the George Washington University, Washington DC. USA.]

Iqbal: Bismi'Lidhir-Rahmanir Rahim. First of all, jazakAllah khayran for your kindness, as always. Today I would like to discuss the situation of the Glorious Qur'an in our times, and specifically three unprecedented situations that arise as the contemporary world encounters the Noble Qur'an. First among these is the situation of Muslims today: Some 1.6 billion Muslims, of whom only about twenty percent can actually open the Book sent down for their guidance and start reading. The second aspect is the question of the Qur'an in relation to non-Muslims: What paths are open to them to access the Divine message? And, finally--and I would like to address this thoroughly--is the situation of academic scholarship on the Qur'an.

Nasr: Bismi'Llahir-Rahmanir Rahim. Let me begin with the first very important subject that you brought up. It is true that only twenty percent of the Islamic community is Arab, but that really has very little to do with it. We are faced with an unprecedented situation because of other factors. Of course, not even those fluent in Arabic can simply open a copy of the Qur'an and begin reading with full comprehension of all its layers of deep meaning! And it has always been like this: throughout Islamic history, after the early expansion and the Umayyad period, a large part of the Ummah was not Arabic speaking. The Persians, the people of the Indian subcontinent, the Turks, the Chinese, the Malays, the Africans--even in the so-called Middle Ages, the majority of Muslims did not have Arabic for their mother tongue. Perhaps the Arabic minority was not as small a minority as it is today, but, nevertheless, it was a minority.

Despite this sociological and linguistic diversity, however, Islam and Islamic civilization could only survive insofar as the Noble Qur'an preserved its centrality and they did survive and, in fact, flourished. Someone in Sumatra hearing a verse of the Qur'an would weep as much as someone in Fez or Cairo, and their physical location and the language they first grew up in were irrelevant to their piety. There were established channels through which the external and inward meanings, the message, and even the art of litany of the Qur'an were transmitted across the vast reaches of the community of believers, the ummah. There was a historical infrastructure for the dissemination of the Qur'an and its understanding. Those who knew would teach those who did not know: people would listen to its transmitted understanding in khutbahs (sermons), transmit it through literature, through stories ... And then, of course, one should never overlook the very important aspect of hearing the Qur'an. Do not forget that the Qur'an is an oral revelation; it was not originally a written revelation analogous to Moses receiving the Ten Commandments inscribed on a tablet on top of Mount Sinai. The Prophet, upon himi peace, first heard the Qur'an. This experience of hearing the Qur'an is extremely significant. The fact that people might not understand every sentence is in a sense really irrelevant to the basic presence of the reality of the Qur'an in their hearts and minds.

The new situation we are facing therefore is not simply the fact that eighty percent of contemporary Muslims do not speak or read Arabic. It is that many of those traditional channels I just described have become weakened or even, in some cases, destroyed. This is heightened also by the introduction of modern education into the Islamic world, as a new so-called intelligentsia--I hate to use this word, because they are not really what we know as the khawass (elect) but merely educated people in the modern Western sense--came to the fore. Even people without advanced modern education began to be trained in another way of thinking, of connecting subject and predicate, of looking for meaning in sentences other than the traditional Islamic way, as they approached the Divine revelation and otherwise as well. …

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