A bright young scholar with a PhD from Heidelberg and currently involved in postdoctoral work at the University of London, Ali Usman Qasmi, has given us a brilliant book: Questioning the Authority of the Past: The Ahl al-Quran Movement in the Punjab (OUP 2011) on a very significant movement in the understanding of the Holy Quran.
Presided over by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan’s ‘rational’ exegesis of the Quran, the ulema who sought to reinterpret the scripture thus included Aslam Jairajpuri, Maulana Ahmaduddin, Maulvi Chiragh Ali and Ghulam Ahmad Parwez — a work on Hadith of the last-named being banned in the more literalist-Hanbalite Gulf and likely in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.
Sir Syed got a raw deal in the evolving meaning of the phrase ‘natural law’ and was dubbed ‘nechari’ as linked to Darwinism, but when he took the term it was only ‘law of reason’ as first discussed by Cicero, French political philosopher Montesquieu and later by the founding fathers of the American Constitution. He gave new ‘rational’ meanings to the Quran and tried to make credible his denial of miracles in it. To stay focused on the scripture, he either ignored the hadith or challenged it.
Qasmi has described the movement and analysed its natural high point: Ghulam Ahmad Parwez. One controversial reinterpretation by Parwez was man as qawwam of his wife, normally meant to assert his mastery. He tried to establish that the divine intent was to assign the husband the status of a ‘partner’ not ‘master’.
Qasmi writes: “According to Parwez, Tabari — the first to come up with a written tafsir—arrived at this meaning at a time when the ‘real’ Islam had been overshadowed by ‘Persian Islam’ under the influence of repressive dictatorships. The women were again denigrated to their pre-Islamic, sub-human status in violation of the rights ‘originally’ accorded to them by Islam”.
He continues: “In his lexicon, on the other hand, Parwez traced the word qawwam from the root qwm which he translated as meaning ‘striking a balance’. As per rules of the Arabic language, all subsequent words derived from the root were to possess similar meanings. For this reason the translation suggested by Parwez was that of a ‘partner’ as it was purportedly more in tune with the meaning of the root of the word alluded to. Such an application of exegetical and lexical principles runs through the whole corpus of Parwez’s writings” (p.224).
The root qwm has given us more words than we realise and all of them are wonderfully apt. From the root meaning ‘standing up in balance’, we have the word qaum (nation) which Parwez equates with brotherhood (partners) in Islam. When you stand up balanced so as not to fall, you are qayem which also means that which remains permanent. And when you rise after the end of the world, it will be qayamat.
Parwez tends to take us in the direction of balance and assistance. Even Allah is called al-Qayyum. And qawwam is an intensification of qawam, which is the element of assistance and addition. Qeemat (price) is actually the worth of something when put in balance with it. Last but not least, the qiwam we eat with our paan gives not only balance but also an extra heady flavour. Imagine the husband as an intoxicant qiwam to his wife and you will have no problems in life at all!
If you take the husband as ‘partner’ (qawwam), and not as ‘master’, it sounds much better in our day and age. It is just that his maqam will be a little different from the days of the pre-Islamic order.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 18th, 2011.