Understanding the Quran

09 Feb 2012


HOW to understand the Quran is an important question. Generally we pick and choose a verse to prove our point. Thus, many Muslims have different positions in understanding the verses of the Quran.

There is nothing wrong with different understandings but this should not lead to anarchy. There has to be a methodology so that the Quran, despite different ways of understanding it, should be understood under certain guidelines. There should be uniformity in the principles of understanding.

I would like to throw light on how under a certain well-defined methodology one can try to understand the Quran so as to avoid arbitrariness. Taking one verse when there are so many other verses on the subject cannot yield a proper result, but this is precisely what is done by many theologians.

Let us take, for example, the question of polygamy. Our ulema generally quote verse 4:3 to justify polygamy unconditionally. But there is another verse on this subject, i.e. 4:129; if both the verses are read together it would yield a different result. The second mentioned verse is so emphatic on the question of justice that taking more wives than one becomes secondary; justice becomes more important and yet our jurists and theologians hardly refer to 4:129.

They keep citing verse 4:3 only. Though 4:3 also puts emphasis on justice, it also says that if you fear you cannot do justice then marry only one woman at a time. If both the verses are read together it becomes the duty of the qazi to make a rigorous inquiry as to why a person is taking another wife and whether the man really needs another wife.

Also, in view of such a strong emphasis on justice definite rules will have to be laid down to define what would amount to doing justice by the wife. This has never been done by our conventional theologians.

Another important question is of wife-beating, referring to verse 4:34, which is cited as Quranic permission to beat one’s wife. But all other verses about women’s rights and women’s treatment contradict this. What is needed in this case too is to read all the verses on the treatment of women, and to read all verses using the word daraba (for beating) in the Quran; and the result would be very different.

This would show that the Quran could never allow a wife to be beaten by her husband. First of all it should be noted that all the verses on women in the Quran emphasise their rights vis-à-vis their husbands, and all verses relating to men emphasise their duties vis-à-vis their wives. If it is so then how can the Quran permit the beating of one’s wife? All verses on treatment of wife, or even after divorce, say that wives should be treated with ihsan and maruf (i.e. good and morally approved behaviour).

Then, the Quran also says that Allah has created love and compassion (mawaddat and rahmah) between husband and wife. If then husband is allowed to beat his wife, love and compassion have no meaning left between the two whatsoever.

One can argue that beating is allowed in case of nushuz (rebellion, uprising) but then if nushuz is rebellion how serious is that rebellion to warrant a beating? The fact is that the Quran does not use any word with nushuz to show its seriousness in the matter. One of the theologians I had a discussion with said it amounted to extramarital relations on the part of the wife. But if it is so, it warrants perhaps a more serious punishment and that punishment cannot be meted out by the husband but by a court of law or a qazi.

There are several other verses in the Quran which use the word daraba in several other meanings. Imam Raghib, a 12th-century lexicographer of the Quran, points out that in pre-Quranic Arabic daraba ala meant a male camel going to a female camel to mate.

If we take this meaning the verse would suggest that if she desists from her ‘rebellion’, the husband could go near her and this seems to be more appropriate, as the previous line of the verse advises the man to isolate his errant wife before resorting to any extreme action. It would mean that after reconciliation between the husband and the wife after she had been isolated, the husband should go near her.

Thus, the verse would yield a very different meaning if we adopt a proper methodology of understanding the Quran. It makes all the difference. So far the theologians, using the pick-and-choose method, have concluded that the Quran permits wife-beating. This is in total contrast to another verse in Quran, 33:35.

This verse equates man and woman in every respect and says both will be rewarded equally for their good deeds; hence the question of one exercising a blanket authority over the other does not arise. Also, one has to keep in mind that the Quran avoids using the words ‘husband’ and ‘wife’; it uses the word zawj (spouse) for both, indicating that both are treated absolutely equally by God.

These are illustrative examples and not exhaustive. If we use this kind of methodology to understand the Quran, many of our problems can be easily resolved; it would be easier to arrive at more comprehensive meanings of the Quranic verses, and many objections hurled at the Quran by non-Muslims can be easily dismissed.

The writer is a scholar of Islam, and also heads the Centre for Study of Secularism & Society, Mumbai