Sunday, July 12, 2009

A Thematic Commentary On The Qu'ran: Prof Shaykh Muhammad al-Ghazali

Friends ,

If you recall I have already written an article on Prof Shaykh Muhammad al-Ghazali [ distinct and not related to Imam al-Ghazali , another of my favourite Guru ]under 'Personalities Section' on 21st April 2009. First and foremost I must reveal I have a vested interest in literally encouraging you guys to lay your hands on his seminal work, 'A Thematic Commentary on The Quran'. Whatever good that comes out from that read I have been guaranteed a 'percentage'cut.

Seriously it is a damn good read: for those of us too lazy to embark on a personal adventure in starting on a long, arduous 'tafseer work' [ Tafsir Al Azhar for example which comes in a 10 volume hard bound cover, at a dirt cheap price of less than RM 280 , published by Pustaka Nasional, and can easily be obtained from one of those bookstalls along Jalan Masjid India: You can claim from me if it cost more!], or for those who had gone through and know the Quran like the back of their hands, Prof al-Ghazali's is still a great read. 'Amatuer' or 'pro' ,can still gain something from this great writer and Islamic scholar 'whose contribution here is somewhat unique and contemporary in the sense that he focusses on the organic unity of each surah highlighting the logic or inherrent reasoning that courses through each surah and unifies its various components and images'.

Let us just go through his treatment of surah al-Baqarah:

"Following the Muslims' emigration from Makkah and their settlement in Madinah around 622 AC, all attention was focussed on building the first Muslim autonomous community there. By embracing the new religion, members of that community had, each in his/her own right, succeeded in breaking away from idolatry, polytheism, and other forms of pagan traditions and practice of Arabia. They had now found security and safety in their new sanctuary where they could group together and set up a state of their own.

Nevertheless , they were to face fresh hostilities from a rather unexpected source. The Jewish rabbis had always believed that religion was the preorgative of their own people and a monopoly of their 'Chosen Race'. Predictably they were somewhat ruffled and unhappy at the arrival in Madinah ofProphet Muhammad and his followers preaching Islam. They quickly embarked on preparations for how to react to that threat and for the best way to deal with it. Scheming, overt and covert,began.

The Hebrew tribes who had settled in Madinah, or Yatrib as it was known then, in the fertile northwestern part of the Hijaz, had gone there as refugees to escape the oppression and persecution of Byzantine, the eastern Roman Empire whose capital was Constantinople. Although welcomed to live among the illiterate Arab tribes, they rather looked down upon them. The Jews made no effort to combat idol worship, which was widespread in the area; nor did they feel the need to pass on the teachings of their religion to their native hosts. They recognised no obligation to propagate God's message or establish His order to replace the existing man-made one. Their view of the Arabs was wholly sanctimonious, adopting the proverbial 'holier than thou' attitude, holding jeolously onto their religious heritage, and totally beholden to the erroneous belief that religion was their privelege and theirs alone.

What then, was their [ or, more specifically, their elders ] reaction to Islam? They rejected it. They began to distort, conceal and otherwise obliterate religious and historical facts in order to preempt the spread of the new religion.{ How very true even 1400 years later, now more so with the help of the now so called secular 'Trinitarians': This is mine,not al-Ghazali's }

In contrast, Prophet Muhammad, the last of God's prophets and the benefactor of the new religion, spared no effort in appealing to them and soliciting their understanding and cooperation. However their malaise was deep and irrepressible, and increasingly their hostile intentions began to be reflected in their behaviour. In view of this Muslims found themselves, in their new sanctuary, building their community on the one hand and defending it on the other hand. They were laying the foundations of their nascent state, under the guidance and direction of the divine Revelations being received by Muhammad, while at the same time having to ward off the inpending threat posed by enemies living in their midst, who were intent on undermining their existence and everything they were building.

It was in this atmosphere that al-Baqarah, the longest and the most wide-ranging chapter in the Quran, was received. The surah obliquely cited the fallacy of Jewish claims of exclusivity by describing the Qu'ran as "the Book over which there is no doubts, a guidance to those who fear God"[2], thereby highlighting the view that other 'Books' or scriptures were less viable as sources of guidance and law, less authoritative as references for or expressions of the divine will.

In over thirty different places, the surah elaborates extensively on the features and merits of the God-fearing category of human beings. This aspect is unique to the surah,Fear [ alternatively, awareness ] of God is a quality required of human beings by all religions. God say in the Qu'ran: "To God belongs all that is in the heavens and on the earth; and We have recommended to those who have received the Book before you, as We have recommended to you, that you should all fear God" [ al-Nisa' : 131 ]

The surah is also remarkable for referring to all the five principles of the religion of Islam in the following verses:

Tawhid:"People: worship your Lord who has created you and those before you" [21]

Salah :"Observe salah, especially the middle one, and submit to God" [238]

Zakah :"Believers; spend of what We have given you before a day comes when there will be no
trade and no friendship and no intercession" [254]

Sawm :"Believers, sawm has been prescribed for you as it had been for your predecessors
" [183]

Hajj :"Complete the Hajj and the Umrah for God's sake" [196]

Reading through the early part of the surah, we find that it describes God-fearing people in three verses, the unbelievers in two, and the hypocrites in thirteen, an indication of the last's wickedness and the threat they pose to the whole Muslim community."........{ Mashaallah, begitu sekali berat nya' hypocrites ini ! Yet again ,my exclamation, not al Ghazali }

On the issue of women......The treatment of women in certain Muslim soceities has been a soft target for the enemies of Islam , and has proved a dangerous breach through which they relentlessly attacked its teachings and laws. This issue has been the trojan horse for those who want to undermine Islam and Muslim soceities by calling for the ''liberation' of Muslim women from the injustice and cruelty of Islam!'' This has led to a bandwagon of opinion among sections of the intelligentsia in some Muslim countries, especially amongst women, who have taken up this issue with great enthusiasm. But certainly, some of those who claim to speak for Islam and grossly misrepresent it or are ignorant of the spirit of its legislation, are partly to blame.[ SOS in Malaysia , is a good example: Dr Nik's opinion,not al-Ghazali ]........

.............{ al Ghazali when on further, to finally conclude his 'thematic discourse' of al-Baqarah with the following poignant remarks }...

Muslims have no race to be biased towards, nor a homeland to identify with, because their allegiance is to the universal God, the Creator and Lord of all. They have no advantage over other nations or human groups except by what they passed on to them of the religion of Islam, and they are distinguised by their piety and sincere faith. The special reputation and place gained by the city of Madinah in the history of Islam are directly linked to the fact that it was the cradle of revelation and the first city of the great Islamic nation that has since emerged. In it was created the first Muslim families, market-places, government cadres,center of learning, trade enterprise, farms, legislative councils; all under the guidance of divine revelation and the enlightened leadership of the exponent of that revelation, Muhammad. History tells us that the Prophet had once selected a very young man for a leadership post because he had memorized and learnt this surah well, indicating its distinguishd and prestigious status in the Qu'ran.

Finally, as we look at the last verse in the surah, our attention is drawn to the historic phenomenon that nations which attain ascendancy and supremacy usually display arrogance and conceit, and look down upon other weaker nations. Today's domineering, vainglorious civilisation, which has encompassed both east and west, is a vivid living example- a culture of decadence and gross injustice thriving on the great acheivements and glory of a genius elite who have split the atom and made inroads into outer space. When the Muslims were a leading nation, however, and at the height of their acheivement, they were overwhelmed by a sense of submission to God and a need for His support and guidance. They have always sought God's forgiveness and looked up to His grace, praying:

Our Lord, do not take us to task if we forget or make mistakes.
Our Lord, do not lay upon us a burden such as You had laid upon those before us,
Our Lord, do not burden us with more than what we can bear.
Pardon us, forgive us our sins, and have mercy upon us.
You are our Lord.
Grant us victory over the unbelievers. [al Baqarah, 2 : 286]

{ Footnote 1: Muhammad al-Ghazali, by virtue of space and theme of his book deals only with the tangible, rational aspect of the Qu'ran. Some 'mufassirun' elsewhere stated that when ayat 284 to 286 , and surah Al Fatihah were brought down to earth by an angel, Gibrael who was then with The Messenger of God, looked up to the sky, and told the Messenger that that door in the heaven up till then had never been opened until that instance. That reflect the significance and 'weight; of the last three ayat of surah al Baqarah along with al Fatihah, the umul Qu'ran. This constitute the 'intangible', 'alam ghaib' part of the Qu'ran. Along with Ayatul Kursi [ 2 ; 255 ], also from surah al-Baqarah, understandably, these ayats are my favourites during my prayers. They encompase amongst the most 'heavyweight' ayat of the Qu'ran and 'divinely' taught do'a at the same time.}

{Footnote 2: My almost daily routine nowadays to be 'reminded' and be 'in contact', to ensure that at least I could be motivated enough to move one scale up from the 'totally engrossed with this world' to 'the penitent' individual is quite simple [ see earlier blog on Imam Ghazali's Remembrance of Death and the Afterlife ]. In this days and age of connectivity and IT, I do not need to open or touch a Qu'ran!.

I usually read a short chapter on say, surah al-Baqarah from Muhammad al-Ghazali's Thematic Commentary, to get a general overview of the surah. Then 'attack' the Qu'ran via the 'Quranexplorer' [ see Link ] on the same surah, say at a snail-pace rate of 25 'ayats' a day , in the wee hours of the morning after 'suboh', before work, or 'isyak' before sleep.The lilting voice of qari Mishari Rashid or the haunting rendition by Abdul Baasit with a background transliteration into old English, by Pickthal, directly after each 'ayat', the Divine letter cannot come any better. When I come to an 'ayat' or two which requires further elaboration, I would go to Hamka's Tafsir al-Azhar to get further clarification . Prof Hamka, my Asian and contemporary 'guru' will definitely connect me to a host of other expert 'mufassirun' like Ibn Katsir, Shaykh Muhammad Rashid Rida in al Manar,Sayyid Qutb, Ibn Abbas etc and etc and also illuminate with examples of hadiths hassan,sahih and otherwise, further 'spiced' with his own anecdotal comments. Hamka was a worldly man. I enjoy his many anecdotes which were 'nusantara' in nuances and easily understood. I must concede that his tafsir al Azhar [... part of his tafsir you can get online now, see Link ] has been very much underated in this part of the world. [This is typical of us Malays, always unable to see 'nuggets' within our midst! ]

[ I tried reading Kathir's tafsir on recommendation of many friends, on the basis that he was a 'salaf' ulama' ie the period just after Prophet Muhammad .I found him too 'dry'. Hamka was more 'alived' and his anecdotes, and examples he put forward ,we in this region can easily 'connect'. JMHO ]

This way I get to meet all my rather illustrious 'gurus' who transcend Time, Age and Space in one morning! Now who is that clown who says you have to learn from your Ustaz 'face to face' to learn 'ugama' in this days and age of connectivity????
Just a feeble attempt by one individual, weak in both spirit and flesh and surrounded by 'the evil whisperers of both men and jinn' to progress a wee bit upward to be somewhere near 'The Sublime'. The Divine letter, coming in regular , mini-doses like this, is a very 'liberating' experience. Liberates one from the cudgel of human frailties, pretensions and inconsequential inter-human reverance. A definitive way to scrap slowly at that mountain of 'karat2 jahiliah' that has accumulated over years of spiritual neglect. Try that for size my friend! Allahualam. }

"Lo! We are Allah's and Lo! unto Him we are returning." [ 2 : 156 ]

A Thematic Commentary on The Qu'ran
Shaykh Muhammad al-Ghazali
Translated from Arabic by Ashur A. Shamis
First published in 2000 by The International Institutue of Islamic Thought, USA
Malaysian Edition:Islamic Book Trust

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