One Verse That Can Catapult Our Understanding of the Quran in Our Global Age


We did not send you Muhammad, but as mercy for the whole mankind. (Al Quran 21:107/108)

mosque of medina high resolution.jpeg
The Mosque of Medina, first built by the prophet Muhammad himself

Written and collected by Zia H Shah MD, Chief Editor of the Muslim Times

Some 44 million Muslims live peacefully as law abiding citizens in Europe.  They have not been brought there as slaves but they, their parents or their grand parents came there out of their sweet will and volition for better economic or other opportunities.

Travel back to 1492, the same year that Christopher Columbus reached the American soil, the last city-state of Granada fell to the Christian rulers and every Muslim in Europe was either killed, banished or converted by force to Christianity.  There was then no one openly Muslim in the Christian Europe for a couple of centuries.

Today the Christians are their neighbors, colleagues and mentors.  Sometimes they are spouses and family members.

Obviously these are two polar opposite circumstances.  If the holy Quran is read as a rigid set of instructions about the Muslim-Christian interaction to create human societies, then it can obviously not handle both situations.

The way the Muslims of the fifteenth and the sixteenth century read the Christian-Muslim relationship in the Quran cannot be true for the twenty first century.

It is projected by the Pew Research Center that the Muslim population in Europe is growing; they project 10% of all Europeans will be Muslims by 2050.

Better paradigms for coexistence between the Muslims and the Christians are very much needed and for the Muslims it starts with their understanding of the Quran.

If my articles are boring to you, it may be that you need to read more of them, as was suggested by John Cage, an American composer, “If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.”

Going back to the subject at hand: understanding the Quran:

A large majority of the Muslims read the Quran for blessings and delegate their understanding of the book to the scholar of their choice, who often defer it to the scholar of their choice of the past centuries.  This emphasis on the past scholarship leads to extreme conservatism and changes the Quran into a rigid document.

Omar Naseef writes in his article, God Is Living, So Why Does Religion Treat God As Dead?:

There’s a vigorous debate in the United States about the nature of our constitution. Liberals tend to argue that the constitution is a living document, while conservatives, like the late Justice Scalia, claim our constitution is “dead, dead, dead”.

If the authors of the constitution were alive today – having lived through 239+ years of U.S. history – do we really think they would ask their 1787 selves how to interpret the constitution?

In secular law, the debate is reasonable. Because the authors are dead and a “living” constitution risks judicial tyranny, we do need to find some way to reasonably restrain the interpretation, especially since we can amend the constitution if we aren’t happy with its meaning.

This same “living” versus dead argument often happens in religion. Those who argue for dead” are often conservatives, and they are hurting their own cause. It is proper for all of us to deliberate before breaking with long-held tradition. However, insisting that the understanding of sacred text is frozen puts the most fundamental belief of religion at risk.

When any religious person claims that a sacred text is “dead” – in that the understanding of its meaning is fixed forever – they are directly at odds with their own idea of a living, active God.

This relatively unknown author is not alone in his opinion. A polymath from the last century, Sir Zafrulla Khan who was the first Foreign Minister of Pakistan and President of United Nation General assembly for a term, among other accomplishments agrees:

It is this comprehensiveness of the Quran, the need to make provision for guidance in every respect for all peoples for all time, that made it necessary that the guidance should be conveyed in verbal revelation. The Quran is literally the Word of God and possesses the quality of being alive, as the universe is alive. It is not possible to set forth at any time the whole meaning and interpretation of the Quran or, indeed, of any portion of it with finality. It yields new truths and fresh guidance in every age and at every level. It is a standing and perpetual miracle (18:110).

The world is dynamic and so is the Quran. Indeed, so dynamic is the Quran that it has always been found to keep ahead of the world and never to lag behind it. However fast the pace at which the pattern of human life may change and progress, the Quran always yields, and will go on yielding, the needed guidance in advance. This has now been demonstrated through more than thirteen centuries, and that is a guarantee that it will continue to be demonstrated through the ages.

The Quran has proclaimed that falsehood will never overtake it. All research into the past and every discovery and invention in the future will affirm its truth (41:43). The Quran speaks at every level; it seeks to reach every type of understanding, through parables, similitudes, arguments, reasoning, the observation and study of the phenomena of nature, and the natural, moral, and spiritual laws (18:55; 39:28; 59:22).[1][2]

For the Quran to be dynamic it needs to be read in the context of the time.  The majority of the Spanish Christians may have been blood thirsty enemies in the 16th century but today in Europe they are neighbors, colleagues, teachers and mentors. They are benefactors of the Muslims in several capacities.  For some they are even spouses or blood relatives.  Unless we can read the Quranic principles according to the circumstances we are vulnerable to box ourselves into fixed paradigms to our and others’ detriment.

I believe that we need to grasp what is fundamental in the holy Quran and for that matter in any book or writing and not go after the allegorical. Let the fundamental define the allegorical and not vice versa. The Quran says:

He it is Who has sent down to you (Muhammad) the Book; in it there are verses that are fundamental or decisive in meaning — these are the corner stone of the Book — and there are others that are susceptible of different interpretations. But those in whose hearts is perversity pursue those that are susceptible of different interpretations, seeking discord and wrong interpretation of such ambiguous verses. And none knows their right interpretation except Allah and those who are firmly grounded in knowledge; they say, ‘We believe in it; the whole is from our Lord.’ — And none heed except those gifted with understanding. (3:7/8)

So, what is a fundamental teaching?

A fundamental teaching is what is substantiated not from one perspective but from multiple or all angles. It is something which does  not leave the slightest doubt in your heart and mind. It is something that you can easily defend,  no matter who the audience. It is something that you like to preach to your children and you don’t hide from anyone. It is something that is true whether you are on the receiving end or the opposite. It is true whether you are a leader or a follower. It is true whether you are among the ‘haves’ or the ‘have-nots.’ It is not what is preached by one scholar, one leader or one sect of Islam. It is true if it follows the Golden Rule.

It is a fundamental teaching if it fulfills all or a majority of the above conditions.

A fundamental Quranic teaching is one that is not mentioned once or twice in the scripture, rather dozens of times from different angles and perspectives.

Once you have a few fundamentals going for you, you will be able to understand more and more of the Quranic text. The Quran will be made easy for you. You will begin to resolve the apparent conflicts in the Quran. Because your understanding would be in keeping of the Divine understanding and rise above the vulnerability of human inconsistencies and contradictions.

I believe that the verses about compassion and justice in the holy Quran are fundamental. As there are, Two Hundred Verses about Compassionate Living in the Quran and scores of verses about justice in human affairs.

Let us read the whole of the Quran in light of the verse that has been mentioned as the epigraph and I promise you that you will not go wrong in your worldly or heavenly life:

We did not send you Muhammad, but as mercy for the whole mankind. (Al Quran 21:107/108)

This is the best pluralistic message, which as Muslims we can never forget or make it secondary to any other commandment or teaching.

May Allah grant us the courage and wisdom to read the scripture for ourselves and not through the limiting eyes of the scholar or the leader of our choice only.

Additional suggested reading: Scope, Style and Preservation of the Quran


  2. This quote is from the chapter about the Quran. Read the whole book online: ISLAM – Its Meaning For Modern Man

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s