QUEZON CITY (MindaNews / 13 September) – When we share the joy of Birmingham University and the Muslim community in Britain about the newly found fragments of the Holy Qur’an in the said University’s library, it is because it is very rare, as we said, that we see such an expression of acceptance on Islam’s holy book.
If those fragments of the Qur’an were discovered in university suffering with myopia on knowledge or too parochial in understanding truth or if those were found in a hostile community, they would probably follow the fate of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi manuscripts. They could be hidden from public eyes for centuries and, if found in a hostile environment, be subjected to manipulation until they lose their original revelatory intent. And it would take another luck or providence before they could be made available for people to read.
Qur’an and Orientalism
Now, those Birmingham fragments provide new opportunity for Orientalists and Muslim scholars alike to do more studies about the Qur’an, for them to confirm or, if need be, construct or deconstruct their theories and critiques about Islam’s scripture.
We value the varying methods and critical studies about the Qur’an. We don’t have problem with efforts to theorize about it. In fact, there are many commentaries and studies about the Qur’an by Orientalists that have different perspectives from those traditional Islamic sources particularly those of the Qur’an, Hadith, and such works of Ibn Ishaq, al-Waqidi, At-Tabari, and many others. Orientalist perspectives like those of Muir, Margoliouth, Watt, and Bell, and many others are commentaries and criticism about the Qur’an, which to fanatical Muslims may be considered condemnable. In truth, they have some use too. We are able to see what traditional mufassir of the Qur’an hardly noticed or considered less or unimportant.
Thanks to Muslim scholars with strong background on the Qur’an and had done rigorous research on the classic of Qur’anic Studies and those who studied in Europe and America allowing themselves to avail Orientalist’s methodologies in understanding the Qur’an; they provide more comprehensive and authoritative perspectives about the Qur’an and how we should view those studies, theories and commentaries by Orientalists about the Holy Qur’an.
We refer particularly to recent works of Mohammad Mohar Ali in his “Seeratu n-Nabi and the Orientalists: With Special Reference to the Writings of William Muir, D.S. Morgoliouth, and W. Montgomery Watt.” It is also the same with Muhammad Mustafa Al-Azami, “The History of the Qur’anic Text: From Revelation to Compilation (Comparative Study with the Old and New Testaments).” These works contributed much not only in providing proof on the authenticity of the Mushaf that we hold now; they also identified the weakness of arguments by many Orientalists about the Qur’an.
We value this kind of debate, as the Qur’an should be opened into rigorous studies as much as possible. So far, recent works have proven the authenticity of the Holy Qur’an despite many attempts by Orientalists to find loopholes therein.
This is unlike the varying apocryphal materials like those of Dead Sea Scrolls and Nag Hammadi manuscripts. They have practically shaken the foundation of the Roman Catholic Church and other traditional understanding of Christianity, as those newly discovered scriptures spoke totally different from what have been generally believed and regarded about the Old and New Testaments.
Such a challenge of revelation is not the monopoly of Roman Catholicism and other sects of Christianity. For all you know, the Qur’an poses too serious a challenge on the Muslim community particularly on the area of interpretation or tafsir and, most importantly, its supposed personal and social level of appropriation and application – a reason why (rightly or wrongly) the Muslim ummah has suffered from severe schism and division. While this is less of the problem of the Qur’an as it is more of the ummah, serious student of Islamic thought must recognize this challenge as real.
But we are swerving from our point. We can take a separate look on this issue in our future khutbah. What we simply want to point out this time is the reason why, we say, we are elated to know that there are more new finds and discoveries of past scriptures, as they help highlight the intersection of the Qur’an with previous revelations as these are made easily accessible to us these days.
We are very much reminded of the recent display of the Gospel of St. Barnabas in one of Turkey’s museums five or six years ago. The Vatican got interested in it, although we don’t know if Turkey has acceded to the request of the Holy See.
Actually, the Gospel of St. Barnabas had been discovered, translated and published by Lonsdale and Laura Ragg at Oxford in 1907 where many of the words of Jesus (AS) therein are in accord with those of the Holy Qur’an.
We are quite sure if we’ll be able to access those Gospels discovered at Nag Hammadi or those of Dead Sea Scrolls many of the thoughts therein would possibly complement with the Holy Qur’an’s.
That’s why we said apocryphal materials are equally important as sources of scriptural studies. Not simply because they complement with that of the Holy Qur’an, but in the name of truth, those scriptures should be made available to the public.
In fact, we do not know why past revelations including apocryphal ones are coming out and becoming easily available these days. Perhaps, it is the irony of our time. Past generations did not have the luxury to access or to read what they believe. But in our time, there is no excuse not to read them, as they are just in our fingertips literally.
Crisis and Truth
Seemingly, there is a positive effect of the crisis in the Middle East, as mosques and museums are bombed and synagogues and churches looted. Many old scriptures hidden for centuries in those places reached the hands of smugglers and they were sold to antique collectors and the like. It is what happened to the Gospel of St. Barnabas manuscript; it was intercepted by Turkish military from smugglers. If there were no crisis, those manuscripts would continuously be hidden for a long time in synagogues, churches, mosques, museums, libraries, and so on. Paradoxically, it is probably a way into which the crisis becomes instrument in showing the truth of revelations. This is why we have to always go back to the verse that says:
Soon will We show them Our Signs in the (furthest) regions (of the earth), and in their own souls, until it becomes manifest to them that this is the Truth (Fussilat: 53).”
It is ironic that the way this truth is vouchsafed comes in a very mysterious way. This means we should not be afraid of opening up the revelation be it past scriptures and the Qur’an to public scrutiny.
I was reminded when the issue of the burning of the Qur’an was intense few years ago. Many Muslims were downhearted. But there is a guarantee that the Qur’an provides:
“We have, without doubt, sent down the message and We will assuredly guard it (from corruption). (Al-hajar: 9).”
This is the confidence that we all have to carry when we speak of the Qur’an and our attitude toward previous revelations. Real revelations are beyond corruption because they are protected by no less than Allah (SWT).
What we worry about is the machination of some dark forces that continuously hide the truth of revelations. The Qur’an has already spoken of this when it says:
“Those who conceal God’s revelations in the Book, and purchase for them a miserable profit, – They swallow into themselves naught but Fire; God will not address them on the Day of Resurrection, nor purify them: grievous will be their penalty.
They are the ones who buy error in place of Guidance and Torment in place of forgiveness. Ah! What boldness (they show) for the Fire!
(Their doom is) because God sent down the Book in Truth but those who seek causes of dispute in the Book are in schism (far from the purpose) (Al-Baqarah: 174-176).”
If you read the Qur’an, the phrase “kitaab bi l-haq” or the “Book with truth” is repeated several times. It must be true, too, with regard to previous, authentic scriptures, as they are continuously revealed into the open in our time.
[MindaViews is opinion section of MindaNews. A khutbah (second part, with revision) delivered at the UP-Institute of Islamic Studies, on 7 August 2015. Julkipli Wadi is Professor of Islamic Studies, University of the Philippines.]