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Qur’an First

Like Esack, the Qur’an is the primary text that Engineer draws upon in his Islamic discourse. This is because, writes Engineer, as the literal Word of God the Qur’an is considered to be completely authentic by all Muslims, irrespective of sectarian affiliation.13 His foregrounding of the Qur’an is at odds with traditionalist approaches to textual authority, in which the sunna is also considered to be a form of divine revelation and, therefore, hermeneutically on a par with the Qur’an. Indeed, the only difference that classical theologians drew between the Qur’an and the sunna was that the former is to be used in recitation (tilawa), such as in religious rites and rituals, while the latter is unrecited (ghayr matlu).14 This is not to imply that classical scholars understood the sunna as being the literal Word of God. Rather, they argued that while the Qur’an was the speech of God in word, the sunna reflected this divine speech in spirit.15 Yet how can the disputed word of the Prophet, asks Engineer, compete with the authentic Word of God? Drawing upon the writings of the Egyptian Qur’anic scholar Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd (d. 2010), specifically the distinction that he draws between revelation (tanzil) and interpretation (ta’wil), Engineer argues that while the Qur’anic text constitutes revelation, the Prophet’s explanations of these verses reflect his own interpretations.16 So while these explanations may be of immense value, they are not authoritative and cannot override the dictates of the Qur’an. To put it another way: if any sunna is to be followed, it is that of the Qur’an and not of the Prophet. This is a compelling point given the striking absence of the much celebrated term sunnat an-nabi—the precedent of Prophet Muhammad—in the Qur’an. As the Islamic scholar Daniel Brown has noted, the Arabic root of sunna (S-N-N) surfaces only sixteen times in the text, emerging in two general contexts, both of which refer to God’s judgement: firstly, as the precedent of—that is, the fate that befell—earlier communities (sunnat al-awwalin, such as in Q. 8:38; 15:13; 18:55; 35:43); and, secondly, as the precedent of God, or sunnat Allah (Q. 33:62; 35:43; 40:85; 48:23).17

That being said, the hadith literature is not entirely absent in Engineer’s writings. Indeed, there are various hadith reports interspersed throughout his work. For instance, at one point he relates the prophetic prayer—‘O Lord, I seek refuge in Thee from unbelief (kufr) and poverty (faqr)’18—while at another he recalls the famous prophetic maxim: ‘Wisdom is the lost property of the faithful; he should acquire it wherever he finds it.’19 What Engineer seeks to underscore,

  • 14 Brown, Rethinking Tradition in Modern Islamic Thought, 7.
  • 15 Von Denffer, 93. 16 Engineer Interview, 2010.
  • 17 Brown, Rethinking Tradition in Modern Islamic Thought, 143.
  • 18 Engineer, Islam and Liberation Theology, 79. 19 Ibid, 87.

however, is that the hadith are not a binding source. These reports are useful because they provide a historical window into how the Qur’an was understood in the classical world.[1] That is, the hadith reflect a particular culture and experience—namely, that of the first Muslims—and while this experience certainly holds much value for contemporary believers, it should never eclipse our own lived realities. Engineer’s critique of hadith moves beyond the universalization of classical experiences, extending, like Esack, to issues of authenticity. Because many of the hadith came into being in the centuries following the Qur’anic revelation, Engineer writes, the veracity of these traditions is deeply contested. As such, the hadith reports need to be approached with caution and Muslims ought to avoid making any authoritative, legal pronouncements from this disputed body of literature.[2] His core grievance with the hadith, then, is its hermeneutical elevation to that of the Qur’an or, even worse, when these prophetic reports outright trump the Word of God.

The Islamic punishments for apostasy and illicit sexual relations are illustrative examples. Engineer points out that capital punishment for apostasy (irtidad) derives from the hadith and has no scriptural basis,[3] just as the penalty of stoning to death for unlawful sexual relations (zina), too, is based on hadith, while the Qur’an prescribes a hundred lashes.[4] Although the Qur’anic prescription is, technically speaking, a step up from stoning—the express objective of stoning is to kill whereas that of flogging is not—it is difficult to believe that someone could survive a hundred lashes. In reality, the outcome of both punishments may well be the same: death.[5] Instead of merely juxtaposing the hadith-based penalty with the almost equally violent scriptural one, a more persuasive line of argument would have been to highlight the wider message of the Qur’an’s discourse on zina. For a necessary condition of any accusation of zina, the text goes on to state, is the testimony of four witnesses who saw the sexual act taking place, prescribing a punishment of eighty lashes for those who accuse chaste women without substantiating their claim with these four witnesses (Q. 24:4- 5).[6] Since it is highly unlikely that four witnesses (in addition to the couple) would be present during the act of sex— making it next to impossible for the punishment of a hundred lashes to be meted out—the Qur’an’s intent is clearly not to give free license to flog fornicators. Rather, it seeks to emphasize the grave sinfulness (a) of illicit sexual relations and (b) of slander, of falsely accusing others of sexual immorality, especially women.

Engineer also engages the inherited, intellectual tradition, albeit in a critical manner, always making sure to privilege Qur’anic teachings over the shari‘a whenever any conflict between the two may arise. Discussions of Islamic jurisprudence resurface at numerous points in Engineer’s writings. When showing how earlier Muslim jurists had taken into account questions of oppression and social justice, for instance, Engineer refers to the following proverb by the medieval Islamic scholar Ahmad b. Taymiyya (d. 1328): ‘The affairs of men in this world can be kept in order with justice and a certain connivance in sin is better than pious tyranny.’[7] As was noted at the beginning of this chapter, Engineer received training from his father in the Islamic intellectual tradition and therefore, like Esack, Engineer is conversant with this corpus of accumulated knowledge. His main contention with the tradition, however, is that it has come to dominate Islamic thinking and practice. As he put it in our interview:

Still, take any madrasa. I’m talking of higher Islamic learning in madrasas. It is 100% based on medieval texts. Not even a 1% attempt to understand the Qur’an in the modern context... So that [medieval] text is at the centre of traditional Islam. And what is needed to understand the Qur’an in its real, revolutionary spirit is not this medieval text but reason and reflection in the light of our own experiences, our own problems, our own issues.[1]

There are thus two fundamental concerns at stake here. Firstly, that the shari‘a does not cater to contemporary circumstances. A key critique that Engineer levels against traditional Islamic scholars, particularly in the Indian context, is that they hastily apply medieval rulings without studying the particularities of present situations and without applying ijtihad, which he describes as being ‘creative reinterpretation’.[9] Secondly, in traditional Islam the shari‘a supersedes the Qur’an rather than the other way around. On the contrary, he argues, the shari‘a should be approached as an ‘instrument’—a means of transmitting, of putting into practice scriptural values—as it is the Qur’an that is central to Islamic teaching and, as such, should take precedence over shari‘a rulings.[10]

  • [1] Engineer Interview, 2010.
  • [2] Asghar Ali Engineer, The Rights of Women in Islam (New York: St. Martin’sPress, 1992), 13.
  • [3] Asghar Ali Engineer, Islam: Misgivings and History (New Delhi: Vitasta Publishing, 2008), 140.
  • [4] Ibid, 166. The punishment of one hundred lashes can be found in Q. 24:2.
  • [5] I am grateful to Tim Gorringe (in discussion with the author) for this insight.
  • [6] These rules differ when a man accuses his own wife. In this case, both spousestake oaths that they are telling the truth, at which point, significantly, the wife’s wordis privileged over the husband’s (Q. 24:6-9).
  • [7] Ahmad b. Taymiyya, as cited in Engineer, Islam and Liberation Theology, 26.
  • [8] Engineer Interview, 2010.
  • [9] Asghar Ali Engineer, ‘Women’s Plight in Muslim Society’, Secular Perspective,1 November 2006, available at: accessed 12 August 2016.
  • [10] Engineer, Islam: Misgivings and History, 100.
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