When I found myself in the world, there was Quran.
For as long as I remember, Quran was part of my existence. In my early years, it was always at the top of the shelf in the upstairs family room, looking down on us, yet never saying a word like a silent sentinel. I remember that very copy too, an encyclopaedia-sized translation by Abdullah Yusuf Ali bought in 1983 by my late grandfather. I took this very copy with me to England years later and after 5 years returned it to rightful place. It’s now in my own bookcase in the very same house in Malaysia, still bearing its receipt of purchase and a small note in grandad’s handwriting.
The only times Quran’s presence was known to me was when it was recited as the opening TV program every evening. I had to wait patiently for it to finish before my cartoons began. There was also when a member of the Malaysian royalty passed on and Quran was read on TV for 40 days. I resented it then because it delayed my cartoons.
When my grandmother passed away in 1985, our entire family started practising Islam as we knew it. We all began praying and suddenly Quran became a big part of our lives. Even though I had already been through religious studies in school for 2 years before that, this event made Quran something known in my life. A religious person was engaged to read Quran for the soul of my grandmother. I remember his presence in our living room after her passing faithfully reciting Quran for her soul as per his paid appointment. Later, when he finished, we had a small ceremony to mark the occasion.
With religion becoming a part of our lives, I was also made to learn the art of recitation of Quran. My grandfather engaged a teacher who would come with his van on hot Malaysian afternoons and I, sleepy from the heat and the soothing breeze of the ceiling fan, would recite Quran with adequate skill. I eventually completed my reading under this teacher who then told me that if I couldn’t read the text, to kiss its pages for that would be at least some benefit for my soul. I never opened the Quran again on my own volition till years later.
With that religious grounding, I was able to make my way through religious studies in school without much difficulty but there was no feeling in it. Religious practises were a norm in my house but I only participated if there was adult supervision and not unless. Religion became a tedious ritual and that included the reading of Quran. It’s almost like a robot practising religion.
When I was fifteen, an unnoticeable change came over me. There was something that was invoked in me leading me to find an interest in Islam. I studied Islam because I wanted to and for the next five years I learnt something more of Islam and in particular, Sufism. Sufism is considered to be the esoteric mystical branch of Islam and it interested me to the point of my wanting to engage in its practises myself. I read a lot on its theory and did some practises but never progressed very far.
When I was 20 in 1996, I came to the UK for my university education. The first time I logged on to the internet at uni, I keyed in ‘islam’ in the search engine and I encountered a idea which I had not contemplated before let alone met in the flesh, the idea that Quran stood on its own and rejected any other source of revelation. This was the ‘quran alone’ doctrine which was to change my life in ways I could not even imagine back then. It took me a year to come to accept this principle due to the fact that I was very much entrenched in traditional Islam. During this time, I researched into traditional Islam as much as I could and found questions which were unanswered back then and remain unanswered till today. These questions scared me because they undermined what I held dear in the world, my religion. I actually fell ill at one point for some weeks when I realised traditional Islam was indefensible.
I went home to Malaysia for my summer vacation in 1997. In that summer, I visited an uncle in my home state of Penang and found in his library a book which gave me the final decision in my dilemma of Traditional Islam vs Quranic Islam. I read that book and made a copy for my best friend. After the summer holidays that year, in the middle September, in an Edgeware Road flat in London, my best friend and I first openly declared our agreement to Dr Kassim Ahmad’s thesis in his book ‘Hadith : A Reevaluation’, the book I found in my uncle’s library. Irony is the warning written by my Uncle on the copy of this book that it should not be believed in, my dear uncle’s grim warning. There was a momentousness to this event as both my friend and I were both struggling with the problem together for the whole year previously. It was the beginning of my journey into Quranism. I had become a Quranist just then.
The initial mindset I had as a new Quranist was that everything about Islam was right except what contradicts the Quran. So initially, only sharia law became unacceptable as the bulk of it was from hadith and the opinions of scholars. It was during this time that I encountered Kashif Ahmed Shehzada whose understanding of Quran was phenomenal. Kashif had his own website where he wrote articles on the misconceptions about Islam. It was fantastic how far he had come even at that time. Although Kashif was a Quranic thinker in his own right and even now I do believe that he has the greatest understanding of Quran of anyone I know, he was also thoroughly familiar with the various thinkers of Quran and introduced me to them.
Toluislam was the first of those. At last, an institution which upheld Quran! But it was so much more than that, of course. It was founded by Mr Ghulam Ahmed Parwez whose understanding of the Quran took it away from the paradigm of religion. Parwez’s ‘Lughatul Quran’ (language of the Quran) which was partially available online was so powerful in showing how concepts in Quran had meanings which were natural (i.e. based in creation) or in philosophy. This helped shift my own reading to my first step in reading Quran as a manual of being human as opposed to a religious text Parwez wrote many other books too such as ‘Islam : A Challenge to Religion’ and ‘Kitaabun Taqdeer’(book of fate) but nothing to me was better than Lughat.
Dr Abdul Wadud was another figure in Toluislam who influenced me in my reading. His book ‘Conspiracies Against the Quran’ was a very helpful introduction on how the Muslims came to be apart from Quran. His book ‘Gateway to the Quran’ was my first example on how non-religious Arabic which Parwez taught can be applied and the result was, chapter one became so powerful. Quran was beginning to show its power to me and I was hooked.
Among other figures whom Kashif introduced me to were Dr Kamal Omar whose work called ‘the Ultimate Truth’ gave me a first clue of how the concepts of Quran were misunderstood and racialised. Two initial concepts which I saw a Quranic view were Children of Israil and People of the Book. I remember thinking how deeply entrenched these misconceptions are but really, if one studies Quran on its own terms, the falsehoods simply fade away.
An enigmatic personality whom Kashif introduced me to was Inayatullah Khan Al-Mashriqi. Till today, I have not read possibly more than 5% of Mashriqi’s own words but that 5% was enough to initiate a vital notion in my reading, the notion of reading Quran as a human being and not a Muslim (Mashriqi saw this as being a religion but I see it as part of a culture). Quran must be read as God’s message to humankind for their evolution as a species. Al-Mashriqi’s deep insight into this liberates Quran from being a religious text to the Muslims alone and wallahi, it’s the liberation every reader must take with him.
Kashif also introduced me to the two people closer to home. I remember the day I met them both. I was escorting a new Quranist visiting the UK from the States and on that tiring spring afternoon, I met up with the London Quranists. They were followers of Parwez who moved beyond him. WAY beyond. I will call these two great men as the two Ali’s. The first Ali was older and a keen historian. He showed me how Quran contradicted much of Islamic history which didn’t surprise me at all. The most precious thing the older Ali showed me was the use of Quran as a political manual, as in how to govern society. While I do not agree with him at this stage, he definitely planted those seeds in mind.
The second and younger Ali introduced me to my favourite philosopher. The younger Ali was a keen philosopher himself and I guess it was through my endless late night talks with him that I was able to see Quran as a philosophical text. In fact, this is how we can tease out the sheer conceptual power of Quran, when we invoke it to answer our philosophical needs. Quran moves beyond any field created by human beings and lands us in our essential field of being: human being.
Kashif eventually moved away but he did leave me with a final acquaintance: Mr Mohamed Sheikh of the IIPC. Mr Shiekh brought to my mind the concept of the living Quran. That is, Quran which is alive now and not a historical reading. Through this principle alone, Quran became alive! It became our living prophecy and was able to foretell all our essential future. Mr Shiekh had several novel interpretations of various concepts like Children of Israil and People of the Book. His lectures still continue and now they have a presence on youtube.
Other than Kashif, I also encountered a number of Quranists who helped me form my current thinking.
In the year 2000, through Layth Al-Shaiban, I was introduced to the ideas of Mohamed Shahrour, a Syrian Quranic thinker. Shahour introduced me to a technique called ‘ghair taradduf’ (non-synonymity) which says that no two words in Quran have the absolute same meaning. Shahour focussed on the words ‘al-kitab’ and ‘al-quran’ (among other similar words) in his most famous book but the principle applies to all of Quran of course. I have found this principle very powerful in teasing out subtle meanings and defending against false interpretations.
In 2001, I was shown that traditional Islam had still much to offer in the field of exegesis. I was out on a book finding mission charged to me by the Older Ali in London and by some miracle, I was introduced to the work of Mustansir Mir, ‘Coherence in the Quran’ which, although assumed traditional interpretations for Quranic concepts , was able to employ the arrangement of Quranic chapters and verses for its exegesis. The effect was devastating – another tool was disclosed to me! Mustansir’s teachers, Hamiduddin Farahi and Amin Ahsan Islahi had tremendous insights by simply employing the arrangement of the text.
Perhaps my most earth-shaking moment in my journey was my encounter with Aidid Safar in 2002. I had known Aidid for some years before that and I considered him a dedicated student of the Quran. Aidid was concerned about application of the Quran and that summer, we brought up the topic of the hajj. Aidid’s initial stimulus allowed me to see for the first time God’s system and led to some fulfilling research into the topics. While my conclusions differ a lot from Aidid’s, 9 years down the way, I must thank Aidid for his courage. Aidid fears no one and nothing and this is why he was able to break through preconceptions in such a manner.
In early 2008, I became pre-occupied with the use of the word ‘al’ in Quran thanks to my online conversations with a brilliant young man from Pakistan by the name of Fahad Ali Khan. Fahad’s intriguing questions have led me to question principles which I have held for the past 8 years or so, that when Quran uses the word ‘al’ for a word, it refers to the same thing throughout the text. . Such is the nature of our inquiry into Quran. We must always be prepared to hold our hands up and say ‘I will need to reinvestigate this’.
Later in 2008, I had the privilege of editing ‘Critical Thinkers for Islamic Reform’ and one of the essays submitted was by Ahmed Subhy Mansour. Dr Mansor wrote an essay on the concept of ‘believer’ in the Quran and showed that it wasn’t necessarily a ‘religious’ idea. I partly agree with him but certainly appreciate his concept of ‘believer’ which is close to my own.
In 2008/2009 I also took some classes in Islamic studies. I came across historical studies of Islam which helped me realise that Quran has prepared its own defence against even a historical criticism. I was amazed at this discovery but this is so typical of Quran, easily defending against any critique.
It is now January 2011. This year I find myself taken by the structure of Quran which I mentioned above was revealed to me by Mustansir Mir. I am beginning to see layer upon layer of groupings and pairing of chapters. Through these groupings and pairings, each chapter is exposed in a variety of ways. I find that every chapter can be exposed in a variety of ways depending on which grouping you compare it with. I also am finding ‘progressions’ in themes in the later chapters which I find use a markedly different vocabulary than earlier chapters. Perhaps the most exciting thing for me is now seeing how concepts are used in subtly different ways in different chapters. Truly Quran is amazing beyond words.
It has now been fifteen years since my first encounter with Quranism and at this point, I know of some issues and don’t know of others. I have seen a lot of research and many arguments. One thing I can say about the whole experience though is that I have thoroughly enjoyed the journey and Quran’s exposition on things. It really addresses my being in the world and I hope to dive deeply into it in times to come.