Written and collected by Zia H Shah MD, Chief Editor of the Muslim Times
Should not the Catholic Church like the masses to read the Bible, which has the four canonical Gospels, describing the life and the crucifixion of Jesus, may peace be on him? Most people would reflexly think, ‘yes of course!’
This may be true today but wasn’t always so.
William Tyndale, (born c. 1490–94, near Gloucestershire, England—died October 6, 1536, Vilvoorde, near Brussels, Brabant), was an English biblical translator, humanist, and Protestant martyr, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Tyndale was educated at the University of Oxford and became an instructor at the University of Cambridge, where, in 1521, he fell in with a group of humanist scholars meeting at the White Horse Inn. Tyndale became convinced that the Bible alone should determine the practices and doctrines of the church and that every believer should be able to read the Bible in his or her own language.
A BBC page has nicely summarized the life history of William Tyndale, who was one of the pioneers to translate the Bible into English and was burnt on the stake for translating the Bible and making it more accessible to the common man:
In 1523, Tyndale moved to London with the intention of translating the New Testament into English, an act that was strictly forbidden. He passionately believed that the Bible should determine the practice and doctrine of the Church and that people should be able to read the Bible in their own language. Tyndale was setting himself against the established Church in England as these sorts of ideas were closely associated with Martin Luther and other controversial Protestant religious reformers.
In 1524, Tyndale left England for Germany with the aid of London merchants. He hoped to continue his translation work in greater safety and sought out the help of Martin Luther at Wittenberg. Just one year after his English New Testament was completed and printed in Cologne in 1525, copies were being smuggled into England – the first ever Bibles written in the English vernacular.
Tyndale’s work was denounced by authorities of the Roman Catholic Church and Tyndale himself was accused of heresy. He went into hiding and began work on a translation of the Old Testament directly from Hebrew into English. The emissaries of the King Henry VIII and Cardinal Thomas Wolsey were unable to track him down and the location of Tyndale’s hiding place remains a mystery to this day.
Henry VIII’s break with the Catholic Church in 1534 signalled the beginning of the English Reformation, and Tyndale believed it was safe to carry on his work in public. He moved to Antwerp (in modern Belgium) and began to live more openly.
Soon afterwards Tyndale was betrayed by his friend Henry Phillips. He was arrested for heresy by imperial authorities and imprisoned for over 500 days in Vilvoorde Castle. On 6 October 1536, Tyndale was tried and convicted of heresy and treason and put to death by being strangled and burned at the stake. By this time several thousand copies of his New Testament had been printed.
It was reported that Tyndale’s last words before his death were ‘Lord, open the king of England’s eyes.’ Just three years later Henry VIII published his English ‘Great Bible’ based on Tyndale’s work. Even though Tyndale’s translation of the Old Testament remained unfinished at his death, his work formed the basis of all subsequent English translations of the Bible, including the ‘King James’ version of 1611.
The Catholic Church wanted to monopolize the understanding of the holy Bible.
Countless translations of the Bible into English are now available and one website provides at least 53 different translations of the Quran into English. It would seem they no longer burn or torture individuals for translating the scripture. But is it really so?
Given the proliferation of the translations one would assume that humanity has come of age and now there is religious freedom in general and no one is burnt for making the scriptures more accessible. Not so fast!
A new Pew Research Center analysis finds that, as of 2014, about a quarter of the world’s countries and territories (26%) had anti-blasphemy laws or policies, and that more than one-in-ten (13%) nations had laws or policies penalizing apostasy. The legal punishments for such transgressions vary from fines to death.
Apostasy and blasphemy may seem to many like artifacts of history. But in dozens of countries around the world, laws against apostasy and blasphemy remain on the books and often are enforced.
Last December, for instance, authorities in Sudan charged 25 men for apostasy – the act of abandoning one’s faith — including by converting to another religion. The men face the death penalty for following a different interpretation of Islam than the one sanctioned by the government. And, in Pakistan, police are currently pursuing a Christian accused of sending an allegedly blasphemous poem to a friend. Blasphemy – defined as speech or actions considered to be contemptuous of God or the divine – is a capital crime in Pakistan.
It goes without saying that understanding and putting the holy Quran into practice in their individual’s life is the most important religious issue for each and every Muslim.
The Catholic versus the Protestant understanding of the Bible was a struggle between the two choices, either the understanding of the scripture by the institution or the power holders of the Catholic Church or the leaders representing the Protestant reformation, who did not lead institutions and stressed individualism and freedom of thought of each person.
There is no central authority among the Muslims, unlike the Catholic Church, but a similar struggle exists in the understanding of the Quran in the different sects of Islam. What do I mean? Almost every Sunni and Shiite sect of Islam favors a joint rather than an individual understanding of the scripture, when we properly analyze the ground reality.
The Protestant reformation had to bring the stress back to the Bible, which they called Sola Scriptura, as the Catholic Church was giving primacy to the tradition and the papacy.
Sola scriptura (Latin: by Scripture alone) is a Christian theological doctrine which holds that the Christian Scriptures are the sole infallible rule of faith and practice. It is a formal principle of many Protestant Christian denominations, and one of the five solas. It was a foundational doctrinal principle of the Protestant Reformation held by the Reformers, who taught that authentication of Scripture is governed by the discernible excellence of the text as well as the personal witness of the Holy Spirit to the heart of each man. Some Evangelical and Baptist denominations state the doctrine of sola scriptura more strongly: Scripture is self-authenticating, clear (perspicuous) to the rational reader, its own interpreter (“Scripture interprets Scripture”), and sufficient of itself to be the final authority of Christian doctrine.
The Muslim obsession with sectarian or a group understanding of the Quran, unlike the Protestant reformation some five centuries ago, is most easily demonstrable in the case of the Shiite Muslims. I will describe two examples, firstly, the Twelvers, who are a majority in Iran and Iraq and secondly, the Ismaili Muslims (Seveners), some 15 million strong in the world. No prejudice is intended against them, as I believe, all the Muslims are guilty of the same, of not recognizing the individual potential and individual freedom of thought to the fullest, in their pursuit for the communal goals.
Sayyid Ali Hosseini Khamenei (Persian: سید علی حسینی خامنهای, pronounced [ʔæˈliː hoseiˈniː χɒːmeneˈʔiː] ( listen); born 17 July 1939) is a marja and the second and current Supreme Leader of Iran, in office since 1989. He was previously President of Iran from 1981 to 1989.
In Shia Islam, marjaʿ (Arabic: مرجع; plural: marājiʿ), also known as a marjaʿ taqlīd or marjaʿ dīnī (Arabic: مرجع تقليد / مرجع ديني), literally meaning “source to imitate/follow” or “religious reference”, is a title given to the highest level Shia authority, a Grand Ayatollah with the authority to make legal decisions within the confines of Islamic law for followers and less-credentialed clerics. After the Qur’an and the prophets and imams, marājiʿ are the highest authority on religious laws in Usuli Shia Islam.
Here is a book by Sayyid Ali Hosseini Khamenei, Replies to the Inquiries about the Practical Laws of Islam: Book of Sayyid Ali Hosseini Khamenei. The first chapter of the book is about complete obedience to the religious leaders especially the supreme leaders or the marāji:
Q 63: The term ‘absolute authority’ was used during the time of the Noble Messenger (SW) in the sense that when he (SW) ordered an individual to do something, it was obligatory for him to carry out his order, even if it was one of the most difficult acts such as suicide. My question is whether the term ‘absolute authority’ still means the same thing, given that the Noble Prophet (SW) was infallible, whereas no infallible leader exists at the present time?
A: The ‘absolute authority’ of the qualified mujtahid means that the true religion of Islam, which is the final heavenly religion and will last till the Day of Resurrection, is a religion of governance and administration of social affairs. Therefore, it is necessary for the Islamic society, at all levels, to have a guardian for their affairs, a ruler, and a leader to defend the Islamic society against the enemies of Islam and Muslims. He must preserve their social system, establish justice among them, prevent the strong from victimizing the weak, and attain for them the means of cultural, political, and social development and prosperity.
At the stage of implementation, the above goals might sometimes conflict with the
tendencies, ambitions, interests, and liberty of some individuals. Thus, after
assuming the grave duty of leadership according to Islamic law, it is obligatory for
the leader of Muslims to take necessary measures, whenever he realizes the need
for them, and issue orders in accordance with Islamic jurisprudence.
When the general interests of Islam and the Muslims are at issue, the jurist
leader’s will and authority should necessarily be superior to the will and powers of
the people in case of disagreement. This is a short explanation of the concept of
If there is any doubt left about the theocracy in Iran, as suggested here in the above quote, being a totalitarian system, similar to the Catholic Church, please read the next two questions and answers from the book of the Supreme leader of the Twelver Shiites in Iran:
Q 64: According to the fatwā of mujtahids, continuing to follow a deceased mujtahid depends on the permission of the living one. Do the wilā’ī edicts and orders issued by a deceased (jurist) leader also require the permission of the living leader to remain effective or are they efficacious without the permission of a living leader?
A: The wilā’ī edicts and decisions made by the leader of Muslims remains
effective unless they were limited to a certain time span or the new leader of
Muslims deems it beneficial to revoke them, and thus, does so.
Q 65: Is it obligatory for a mujtahid who lives in the Islamic Republic of Iran but does not believe in the absolute authority of the jurist leader to obey his orders? Will he be considered as unjust if he defies the jurist leader? And if a mujtahid believes in the absolute authority of the jurist leader but regards himself to be more qualified for that position, will he be considered as unjust if he disobeys the orders of the mujtahid who is in charge of leadership?
A: It is obligatory for every mukallaf — even if he is a mujtahid — to obey the wilā’ī orders of the jurist leader. It is not permissible for anyone to disobey him — as the one with the responsibilities of leadership — on the pretext of being more qualified.
This is the case, only if the present mujtahid in charge of leadership reached the
office through its known legal process; otherwise, the matter would be completely
With such detailed rules of submission to the religious leaders, I see very little room for a personal reading and understanding of the holy Quran.
Let me now move to my second example about the Ismaili Muslims.
The verses of the Quran that prescribe the Pilgrimage to the Kaaba in Makkah or the Hajj are from Surah Hajj and I quote from the translation by Muhammad Abdel Haleem:
We showed Abraham the site of the House, saying, ‘Do not assign partners to Me. Purify My House for those who circle around it, those who stand to pray, and those who bow and prostrate themselves. Proclaim the Pilgrimage to all people. They will come to you on foot and on every kind of lean camel, emerging from every deep mountain pass to attain beneﬁts and mention God’s name, on speciﬁed days, over the livestock He has provided for them. Feed yourselves and the desperately poor from them. Then let the pilgrims perform their acts of cleansing, fulﬁl their vows, and circle around the Ancient House.’ All this [is ordained by God]: anyone who honours the sacred ordinances of God will have good rewards from his Lord. (Al Quran 22:26-30)
How are the fifteen million Ismaili Muslims supposed to understand the Quranic verses about the Hajj? I quote from an Ismaili blog, Ismaili Gnosis:
The true House of God must be a House which is living, speaking, intellectual and conscious whose essence remains free from decay and impurity. Unlike the realm of ẓāhirwhich includes corruptible inanimate objects, the realm of bāṭin consists of living realities possessing the fullness of intellect and soul. One can recognize the bāṭinī House of God or the spiritual Ka‘bah by recalling the three major Qur’ānic facts about the establishment of the physical Ka‘bah:
The purity and sanctity of the physical House of God (purified by Abraham and Isma‘il and later by Muhammad and ‘Ali) depends upon the purity of the Prophet and Imam of the time, who are the People of the House (ahl al-bayt – declared to be purified by God in Qur’ān 33:33).
The Prophet or Imam are those who “raise up” the physical House of God, by God’s permission (iḍn Allāh).
The exoteric Ḥajj, in its Qur’ānic origins, is a pilgrimage to both the physical Ka‘bah and the Prophet of the time and his family.
In light of the above facts, it is not surprising that Sayyidna al-Mu’ayyad al-Shirazi penned the below verses:
Come, I will show you that which is truly the House of God,
Not what you imagine to be the House of God.
Is a House of stone more sacred
than the chosen guide who established the House?
Sayyidna al-Mu’ayyad al-Shirazi,
(Diwan al-Mu’ayyad, tr. M. Adra, Mount of Knowledge, Sword of Eloquence, 189)
Since the very status and existence of the physical House of God is derived from, connected to, and dependent upon the Prophet and Imam, it follows that the Imam of the Time is the esoteric House of God and the Living Ka‘bah. The Imam himself is the inner meaning (bāṭin; ta’wīl) of the physical or ẓāhirī Ka‘bah. In this sense, the Shi’i Imams have declared:
We are the Ka‘bah of God (ka‘batullāh), Exalted is He, and we are the Qiblah of God (qiblatullāh). We are the Sacred Sanctuary of God (ḥarāmullah)”
Imam Ja‘far al-Sadiq,
(Bihār al-Anwār, 24:211/1, in Muhammad Ali Sabzvari, Tuhfa Yi-‘Abbasi: The Golden Chain of Sufism in Shi‘ite Islam, 68)
The Sufis of Sunni Islam, including Hazrat Jalal al-Din Rumi, professed the very same teaching that the Prophet or Imam of the Time is the living House of God and the spiritual Ka‘bah. Rumi himself writes that the physical Ka‘bah in Makkah is but a branch of the spiritual Ka‘bah – the Prophet and the Friends of God.
The meaning of the Ka‘bah is the heart of the Prophets and the Friends of God (awliyā’) and the dwelling place of God’s revelation. The [physical] Ka‘bah is a branch of that. If it were not for the heart [of the Prophets and Friends of God] what use would the Ka‘bah be? The Prophets and Friends of God who have totally abandoned their own desires and are following the desire of God. So whatever He commands, they do it.
Hazrat Jalal al-Din Rumi,
(Fihi Ma Fihi, in Arthur F. Buehler, Sufi Heirs of the Prophet: The Indian Naqshbandiyya and the Rise of the Mediating Sufi Shaykh, 43)
A Sufi saint of sixteenth century India, Qasim Kahi, proclaims that the Prophet Muhammad himself is the Ka‘bah:
Ahmad, that is the Ka‘bah toward which we strive,
The Black Stone is certainly his black mole
Qasim Kahi, (Quoted in Annemarie Schimmel, And Muhammad is His Messenger, 204)
The proofs and arguments for the Imam of the Time as the spiritual Ka‘bah and the living House of God are numerous. …
It is not a stretch to imagine that if any of the 15 million Ismaili begins to read the Quranic verses about Hajj similar to how a very large majority of the other Muslims understand these in opposition to the formal Ismaili understanding, he or she will lose his or her place in the society. Actually the same website also explains, Why Ismaili Jamatkhanas (community centers) are only open to Ismailis for prayers, and would give some ideas about social isolation of those who don’t tow the party line.
My article is not meant to condemn one sect or the other, I believe that we are all guilty of the same crime of trying to force a group understanding of the Quran within our individual group, through social pressure and sometimes more nefarious techniques.
The Muslims are in dire need of their Marin Luther, John Calvin and Huldrych Zwingli, the stars of the Protestant reformation, who will liberate the Muslim masses so that each one of them is free to genuinely read the Quran and fully independent to understand, preach and practice.
It is time for the Muslims to have our own version of sola scriptura.
Let me take the liberty to propose the Muslim version of the sola scriptura. It states that the holy Quran, the literal word of God, is the sole infallible rule of the Islamic faith and practice.
Sola scriptura rejects any present human infallible authority other than the Quran. In this view, all secondary authority is derived from the authority of the scripture and is therefore subject to reform when compared to the teaching of the Quran. The sect leaders, Imams or scholars are not an original authority alongside the Quran in the sola scriptura approach.
The authentication of the Quran is governed by the discernible excellence of the text as it is the literal word of God and appeals to the pure heart of each man. It is its own interpreter (“Scripture interprets Scripture”), and sufficient of itself to be the final authority of the Islamic faith.
As we applaud the miracle that the original text of the Quran has been preserved over the centuries, we envision that each individual reads the Quran on his or her own and learns from multiple teachers and scholars. Perhaps, in such a free world, there would also be less sectarian divide in the Muslim societies and greater cohesion and compassion will prevail, God willing!