Perils of interpretation

December 15, 2013

Perils of interpretation

At a panel discussion recently organised by LUMS Literary Society (LLS), Noman-ul-Haq, Anjum Altaf and Athar Masood reminisced about Daud Rahbar whose passing away a couple of months back was hardly reported anywhere or noticed by anyone in Pakistan’s print and electronic media.

Born in 1926, Daud Rahbar was a man of many talents. Trained in classical Arabic and Persian by his learned father, Dr. Muhammad Iqbal (which many confuse with Allama Muhammad Iqbal), Rahbar was educated at Government College Lahore and later at Cambridge University where he earned his doctorate. After finishing his PhD, Rahbar spent time lecturing at different universities of the world before settling down as a professor for Comparative Religion at Boston University. After his retirement from Boston during the early 1990s, Rahbar shifted to Florida where he breathed his last on October 5, 2013 and was shortly cremated afterwards.

 They did not have any intention to raise objections against Islam. But as academics, it was not required of them to prove the veracity and authenticity of Islam.

Daud Rahbar was the remnant of a generation of scholars steeped in the tradition of classics, with expertise in a range of disciplines and arts. He had encyclopaedic knowledge of Perso-Arabic and Urdu poetry. He was a practitioner of North Indian classical music and a calligrapher.

At his office in Boston University, he used to have a farshi nishast with students and fellow teachers where he would cook kebabs of various exotic flavours. But he will probably be remembered for his multivolume collection of letters which he wrote over decades to hundreds of people and diligently kept a copy of those letters. After Ghalib, he is perhaps the only one among Urdu literati who took up epistles as a form of creative writing and developed it as his forte.

Daud Rahbar is remembered for a controversial incident in his life from 1958. Khaled Ahmed has written about it in his book Pakistan: Behind the Ideological Mask. Rahbar was invited to present a paper at the International Islamic Colloquium organised by the University of Punjab (inaugural lecture given by Iskandar Mirza) from December 29, 1957 to January 8, 1958. At this conference, Rahbar presented a paper titled "The Challenge of Modern Ideas and Social Values to Muslim Society". In this paper, Rahbar took up an historical overview of the dominant scholastic trends regarding Quran as a text. Rahbar was trying to emphasise the importance of Asbab-i-nuzul as an important consideration for the understanding of the Quranic text.

The absence of such an approach, he argued, "reduces the Quran to a book which might have been received by the Prophet as a bound volume all at once". But he was also appreciative of the apprehensions which some believers had about adopting such an approach to the reading of scripture. First, it implied that the Quran had been composed in the lifetime of the Prophet; second, it suggested that the Quranic verses were not universally applicable and were revealed according to the situations of the Prophet’s lifetime. In other words, it implied equating the Quranic text with a specific temporal condition and hence questioning its universalistic reach. Ironically, Daud Rahbar’s paper was an attempt to challenge such an understanding of the text rather than to support it. He wrote in that paper: "The glory of the Quran is recognized best by recognizing its own ideas and understood in its own terms and within its own literal and historical texts".

There was, hence, no attempt on his part to use Asbab-i-nuzul to limit Quran in any way; rather he wanted this approach to enable a fuller appreciation of its text and its universality.

Also, Rahbar argued that Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) had prior knowledge of Biblical stories because of his close proximity with Christians and other believers living in Arabia at that time. This, he said, was not so dissimilar from a situation in which a Pakistani would know of the stories of Hindu scriptures even if he does not have any specialised knowledge about it. But this knowledge of these biblical stories, wrote Rahbar, was different from the one which "came in revelatory language, with meanings more crystallised and words far more beautiful". This, too, was considered an affront to religion.

Rahbar’s paper created a lot of stir during the conference and he was subject to harsh criticism. Rahbar later clarified his position in the revised draft of his paper which he submitted and printed in The Muslim World. The collection of papers published by the Punjab University did not publish Rahbar’s paper on the pretext that it had already been published in The Muslim World. In the published draft of the paper, Daud Rahbar mentioned that due to paucity of time, he could not present his complete paper which probably caused a lot of misunderstanding.

Also, some of the delegates and the critics simply failed to understand the nuanced argument being made by him. Rahbar took this criticism to heart. This created in him a spiritual crisis which led him to a path which resulted in baptism. But this was just a phase in his life. From the accounts gathered from his published works and reported by his close acquaintances (such as Ejaz Husain Batalwi and Noman-ul-Haq), Daud Rahbar went beyond it. But he became increasingly isolated. He seldom visited Pakistan after this experience. He almost gave up serious academic writing and immersed himself in creative arts and writing.

History repeated itself a decade later in 1967-8. During the 1960s, for fulfilment of his vision of instituting Islamic modernism in Pakistan, Ayub Khan had appointed Dr Fazlur Rahman as a member of the Advisory Council of Islamic Ideology and head of Islamic Research Institute. Dr Fazlur Rahman was among that rare breed of scholars who combined Western scholarship with expertise in classical Islamic Studies. He was influential in drafting important pieces of legislation such as family laws of 1961 and giving juridical opinions on such issues as family planning and interest-based banking.

In 1967, faced with a growing number of Pakistani immigrants to the UK, the Pakistani High Commission asked for a religious decree on the issue of mechanical slaughter. Mufti Shafi, the leading scholar for Deoband, issued a fatwa for its permissibility (though undesirability) provided Bismillah was recited by the person operating the slaughter machine. Dr Fazlur Rahman, in his response to High Commission’s query, simply appended Mufti Shafi’s fatwa and approved of it. Once this news was made public, there was a huge outcry. Mufti Shafi simply denied having given any such fatwa. Rahman was accused of permitting jhatka -- a term denoting the method of slaughter followed by Sikhs.

Around the same time, Rahman published a book titled Islam. An Urdu translation of some of its chapters was published in fikr-o-nazar of Islamic Research Institute. In this book, Rahman had argued against a mechanistic understanding of the concept of wahy. He later explained: "it seemed to me that the standard orthodox accounts of revelation give a mechanical and externalistic picture of the relationship between Muhammad and the Quran -- Gabriel coming and delivering God’s messages to him almost like a postman delivering letters". He believed that "the Quran is entirely the Word of God insofar as it is infallible and absolutely free from falsehood, but, insofar as it comes to the Prophet’s heart and then at his tongue, it was entirely his word."

This was interpreted by his opponents as implying that Quran was the word of the Prophet. The controversy surrounding this issue was intense and persistent. It had come at a time when opposition groups were looking for an excuse to rally support against Ayub Khan. Ultimately, Dr Fazlur Rahman had to resign from his office in September 1968. He spent the rest of his life at the University of Chicago where he continued to influence a whole generation of young scholars from around the world.

Such incidents where an academic and scholarly approach to Islam is interpreted as an act of sacrilege have continued to exist. In recent times, Javed Ahmad Ghamdi is the most well-known example who has been forced to live in exile in Malaysia. Similarly, Dr Khalid Zaheer left Pakistan and took up an academic position in England. The difference between 1958, 1968 and 2013 is that Ghamdi and Dr Zaheer were actually faced with the threat of brutal violence.

While it could be said about Ghamdi and Dr Zaheer that they were ‘modernists’, scholars with more orthodox outlook have not been spared either. Dr Baha-ud-Din, himself a scion of a prominent Ahl-i-Hadith family and a staunch believer in the concept of khatam-i-nabuwwat, was accused of being disrespectful towards Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) by organisations politicking on the concept of khatam-i-nabuwwat. He had to resign from the university and later moved abroad.

This incident took place around mid-1980s as Dr Baha-ud-Din (he was previously known by another name but changed it in order to hide his identity to avoid life threats) came back after finishing his doctorate from England and started teaching at Islamia University Bahawalpur. In his doctoral research, he had worked on the espionage system organised by Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) which was found ‘objectionable’ by his opponents.

These incidents serve as examples of the general degradation of intellectual tradition in Pakistan. Dr Fazlur Rahman and most probably Daud Rahbar as well were believers in their own understanding of the concepts and had a certain degree of spiritual affiliation with their area of study. They did not have any intention whatsoever to raise objections against Islam and its Divine scripture. But as academics operating in a different epistemological tradition, it was not required of them to prove the veracity and authenticity of Islam as absolute divine truth. This can be done (and has always been done) in different settings with a different approach towards Islam, Prophet and the Divine scripture which has a rigorous and prestigious scholarly tradition of its own.

Such incidents also show that gradual regression of intellectual traditions had started soon after the creation of Pakistan. There has been a general tendency to nostalgically recount pre-1971 Pakistan (or pre-Ziaul Haq period) as a bastion of ‘liberalism’ by reproducing images of advertisements about alcohol and cabaret performers being routinely published in the newspapers of that time. Perhaps it is time Pakistan’s intelligentsia revisits some of its preconceived notions about history and what it means to be ‘liberal’ in a more critical manner.

Perils of interpretation