A matter of interpretation

Published: August 17, 2011
The writer is a director at the South Asia Free Media Association, Lahore 

The writer is a director at the South Asia Free Media Association, Lahore [email protected]

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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Reader Comments (23)

  • Roflcopter
    Aug 17, 2011 - 10:05PM

    sigh People with weak faith should stop their lame attempts at “modernizing” Quran.


  • Aug 17, 2011 - 11:34PM

    I am sure re-interpretations of Quran sharif is a very huge task and must not be taken lightly. I hope writer has not only ample knowledge of Arabic but also History of Islam as well as Fiqh, according to which all revelations are tested and then interpreted. Then, the sayings of Prophet of Allah must also be taken into considerations before any interpretations of Quran are made. For it was Prophet on whom Quran was revealed and who initially explained it to his followers.


  • faraz
    Aug 17, 2011 - 11:43PM

    Muslims still haven’t recovered from the Mongol invasion. Many in Pakistan blame Lord Macaulay for our ills.


  • Ahmad Ansari
    Aug 18, 2011 - 2:53AM

    The author is not reinterpreting Islam, the movement he discusses did that!


  • Hassan K Bajwa
    Aug 18, 2011 - 8:49AM

    Understanding the Quran in light of the present is not a sign of “weak” faith as roflcopter would imply but rather the exact opposite.

    People with weak faith fear that their faith cannot keep up with changing times. People with STRONG faith however, have no doubt that it will and they DO adjust their understanding to incorporate the realities of NOW.

    Weak faith fears change.. strong faith celebrates it.Recommend

  • mind control
    Aug 18, 2011 - 9:23AM


    sigh People with weak faith should stop their lame attempts at “modernizing” Quran.

    And should start blindly following har dil aziz Dr Amir Liaqat instead?


  • Munir Munshey
    Aug 18, 2011 - 11:16AM

    The West has been the dominant and the occupying force in the Muslim world at least in the intellectual domain and therefore what “sounds much better in our day and age” is the conclusions of the western intellectuals.

    There is a conflict between what “sounds much better in our day and age”, and what Islam has traditionally been understood to recommend.

    Muslim intellectuals have a problem. They could reason with the west that what “sounds better in our day and age” is really not good for us in the long run. That would require a lot of courage.

    It would be easier to try to make Islam agree with all that “sounds better in our day and age” Yeah! Let’s re-interpret Islam. It’s a poor man’s religion anyway!


  • SharifL
    Aug 18, 2011 - 12:10PM

    What I like about Khaled Ahamd is that he takes the subjects he writes about thoroughly and remain true to the subject and does not air it to suit his own feelings and beliefs. Not very common in the country these days. Whether you agree with his subject is another matter. this is not to say we should abandon criticism, suppress our views and fall silent. As Winston Churchill noted, “Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function of pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.”

    In this 21st century, those of us who strive for reformation should not be dubbed as non believers and condemned. A society can only live happily and survive if both sides are brought to light. This is particularly true of faith related issues. With so much ignorance in our midst, the editors have to put a lot of energy and time to make sure the writer is not hurting any feelings. It is like having a boxing match, where one party can only play the game with one hand tied. Can I ask someone if this is acceptable that whereas Muslims can build mosques in non Muslim countries, encourage others to join Islam, sometimes successfully, but threaten to kill any muslim who leaves the faith? Quoting Quran in this case does not convince west as an valid answer. (And if my comment is not printed in Tribune, I will know the reason)


  • shakir khan
    Aug 18, 2011 - 12:36PM

    there is no denying of the fact that the message of quran is ternal and universal. but the main thing is interpretation because due to narrow and hard interpretation of socalled mullah the quran global message is resticted.Itis a high time those scholars who have grasped in both islamic and modern knowledge interpret the quran in broder way. i adore khalid ahmad for his forsighted approach.


  • Rao Shukat
    Aug 18, 2011 - 1:13PM

    @Author! Do you know Sir ! that Sir Sayed Ahmed suffered from serious sense of inferiority after he travelled to UK. He was mesmerized by new industrial development in England and had hard time explaining the miracles of science. He could not collaborate the spirtual indepth of Quran with that of the then advancement in engineering and science and took a very wrong discourse to explain Quran by science and in doing so had to refute every metaphysical phenomenon and relate to it within the relam of then known scientific facts, many of which, since then, have been proven wrong or have been replaced by new scientific ideas. I do not suspect his intentions. He was indeed very sincere to his mission but he was a pssionate educationalist and I am sorry to say that religious interpertition was never his field. He was like an accountant who suffers from peptic ulcer because of the stress of his jobs and after years of suffering considers himself to be the master of the the art of healing ulcers…without formal training in medicine.


  • Tupple
    Aug 18, 2011 - 2:54PM

    @Rao Shoukat; Wish you had the courage to repeat this infront of our Ghairat brigade.Wish you could tell this to the people behind our textbooks.

    I’m telling you to do so because I was taught by my own people that Sir Sayyed Ahmed Khan was a great Muslim scholar who fought against ‘Hindu Dominance’.I read your comment and I’m confused.

    Otherwise, silence is best.Please keep quiet for Ummat’s sake.Agree that you have a point.Can’t you let Allah Himself separate the chaff from the grain?You seem very eager to show us the right path yourself,and wrongly so.


  • Rao Shukat
    Aug 18, 2011 - 3:39PM

    Ghulam Ahmed pervaiz was part of the same generation of scholars who suffered from serious psychological depression as they saw the down fall of political power of Islam in India, Iran, Afghanistan, Middle east and Turkey. For them, revival of the political face of islam was the biggest task. Interestingly, Maududdi suffered from the same problem and remarkably, these two rivals were impressed by the same person i.e Allama Iqbal. The leftist scholars are quite quick to crticise mududi but leave pervaiz out of the leauge. Where as the fact is that just like Mududdi, Pervaiz was also a staunch believer of an ” Islamic Country”. Like mududdi, he also believed that islam suffered a lot in the time of Ummayad dynasty. He also wanted ” Quranic laws” to be implemented in Pakistan. His fundamental difference with orthodox islam or Mududdi was not the interpertition of the word Quwamun or qawam but his understanding of Islam as a socialist movement. Mududdi on the other hand considerd and beilieved in conventional capitalistic and feudalistic face of Islam. In doing so, both these great scholars interpreted Quran to propagate their social ideas. Ghluam Ahmed pervaiz attarcted leftist crowd and in order to appease them, he frankly speaking at times over streched the interpretion and Mududdi on the other side attracted the far right and military and supported their view of state through his interpertition of islam.


  • Baghlol
    Aug 18, 2011 - 6:11PM

    If a ship is loaded with intellectuals and scholars and heading towards disaster it can be saved unless its direction is changed. The scholars and intellectuals could praise each other but they cannot avoid disaster unless they change their direction.
    Here Khalid Ahmad is one of such intellectuals and scholars who do not know that their direction is leading the country towards disaster as people like him complement the narratives which the Americans laid down!
    Mr. Khalid Ahmad is a deadly sectarian and pro-American and he hides is real self under the rubric of rationality! Now quoting Ali Qasmi he tries to say as if Islam was pretty rational before it came under the influence of Persian culture. Nothing could be more absurd than this.
    Would this explanation of the word “qayyam”, which according to Ali Qasmi and Khalid Ahmad, was distorted by a Persian scholar, Tabri, can also help them explain the meaning the word “zaraba” or “daraba” which clearly means hitting as it this word is widely used “Zarba-e-Momin”! This word has been used in Quran to beat wives.
    Now neo-Islamists such as Ali Qasmi and Khalid Ahmad would also try to say that here “Zarba” doesn’t mean beating! This shows if Quran could be mis-interpreted under the Persian influence and distorted a millennium ago it can also be mis-interpreted and distorted today under American and Saudi influence!


  • Kanishka
    Aug 18, 2011 - 7:45PM

    The root cause of all problems ailing Muslims:

    You dont have faith in Human Intellect……You undermine God given human intellect/logic and try to retrofit that logic all the time in context of a Holy Book….

    Have more faith in your God Given Divinity….You all are potential Prophets…Prophets are born from amongst us…they dont drop from the heaven…

    No disrespect to anyone….


  • Baghlol
    Aug 18, 2011 - 9:41PM

    Interestingly the Ayat 4:34 where the Arabic words go like this “Ar Rejaalo Qawwamoona alan Nisaa” has also clearly stated towards “Fil Mazajei wa Uzraboo hunna”! I have failed to understand that the Ayat which very clearly mentions the word “Uzraboo” which essentially is “zaraba” (beating or hitting), would suggest equal partnership between man and woman! In the Ayat 4:34, Quran allows a man to beat or hit his disobedient wife! But no where in Quran a wife is allowed to hit or beat her husband for any sin or crime; then how could one imagine that the word “qawwam” had a sense or meaning of equal partnership between husband and wife! Ali Qasmi and Khalid Ahmad, both must be joking or rewriting Quran!


    Aug 18, 2011 - 9:55PM

    Why someone from English unversity student can challenge something he dont even know i will sugest please go to where this came from and learn arabic and holy quran from them
    not a pervezi or like him many lived in history so many.Recommend

  • Rao Shukat
    Aug 18, 2011 - 10:07PM

    There is nothing to be confused about. Yu should get out of the spell of” personality” and “hero” worship mafia writing text books in Pakistan and India. No human being except prophets is perfect. I do not think, Sir Sayed saw the problem of India as ” Hindu dominance”. He rather beileved india to be like a bride with Hindu and muslims as two eyes of that. He thought that British were neglecting muslims in jobs and positions because of their ( muslims) aversion to english language and learning westren sciences. In that respect he was 100% correct. Sir Syed was an excellent educationalist and contributed alot by establishing institute in Ali Garh. But Religion and religious interpertitions were not his field.


  • Yusuf
    Aug 18, 2011 - 11:28PM

    The only reason the powers that be are afraid of reinterpretation of the Book is that they fear the house of cards and their power built upon mythology, pseudoscience, hate, bigotry, misogyny, ‘miracles’, stories bereft of any logic and reason, plagiarism of ancient texts — will come falling down. That is why we are required to follow blindly and anyone who dares question its authenticity is shot down, sometimes literally. What we need more of is questioning the very core of our belief, with a suitable dose of skepticism and reasoning. Then what is true shall prevail and the lies crumble.


  • Mastishhk
    Aug 18, 2011 - 11:36PM

    @ Baghlol
    …So anyone who taks sense is an american agent and Anti-Islam….The Author and his likes are the one who are trying to steer the ship away from an imminent Disaster where as people like you do not want to change course even when u see the iceberg us ship is sure to hit !!!


  • Cynical
    Aug 19, 2011 - 3:39AM

    @Khaled Ahmed
    Thank you sir!
    A scholarly treat as all ways.


  • Aug 19, 2011 - 2:29PM

    these efforts to reconcile modernity with a religion are doomed. I can interpret Hinduism as the most tolerant, scientific, forward-looking relgion or pick and choose my way through Hinduism to come up with a backward, intolerant religion. both versions are not the whole truth – but that is the point – when it comes to faith – there is no such thing as an absolute truth.
    The tragedy of this article is that the Qasmi chap went all the way to Germany to come up with an analysis of a movement that supposedly pushed women back to a pre-islamic time. He did not have to waste so much money going to Germany -all he had to do was listen in to the programme on Karachi on PTV where one speaker attributed the violence to the burmese and bangladeshis who are staying in Karachi illegally. This notion that if we go back to some pristine form of Islam, all our ills will be solved – someone needs to start debunking that theory. And a writer of Khaled Ahmed’s eminence should not waste time on an effort to prove the supremacy of Islam in the guise of an academic paper.


  • BM
    Aug 21, 2011 - 12:16AM

    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.


  • Naveed
    Sep 10, 2011 - 5:33AM

    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.


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