A matter of interpretation

Qasmi traces how women of the Subcontinent were denigrated to pre-Islamic status, violating rights accorded by Islam


Khaled Ahmed August 17, 2011

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.

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COMMENTS (23)

Naveed | 9 years ago | Reply

Excellent article indeed that revolves around the interpretation of just one word. Much more could have been written about Perwez, his interpretation of Quran or the book of Mr. Qasmi. I felt that the content of the article was pretty thin. The writer has just "reported" on the topic without expressing any opinion of his own. This is understandable in an extremist society where an open appreciation of Perwez, Ghamdi, Allama Aslam Jairajpuri and other scholars who are very 'quran-centric' and denounce all the contamination to Islam, may attract criticism, bias and even violence. Mr. Rao Shaukat's analysis in the follow up comments is really good and informative. Perwez's interpretation of Quran may seem over stretched in some areas but remains, in my opinion, far superior and pure in comparison with that of Maudidi's.

BM | 9 years ago | Reply

Whenever I have tried reading Iqbal’s ‘reconstruction..’ or Plato’s ‘republic’ I am humbled by its depth, The fact is that I have miles to go to reach intellectual epiphany. Khalid Ahmed’s articles have a similar effect on me. I can see that most people miss the point he makes.

I am a diehard fan, and will remain so of the writer. The sheer knowledge and the way he brings all thread to an amazing conclusion never seizes to amaze me

The author’s interpretation of one word is on the mark. Quran has historically been male interpreted, which is why many equality and women’s rights issues have been ‘brushed‘ over.

There is a lot more to be discovered. Please do continue to enlighten us.

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