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MUSLIMS, QURAN AND THE 21ST CENTURY

Since the September 11, 2001 tragedy and the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, the dialogue between followers of different religious, spiritual and secular traditions worldwide has reached new heights and depths. While followers of some religious traditions are dreaming of creating theocratic states, secular minded people are working to preserve scientific education in their schools and maintain the human rights of women, children and minorities in their communities and cultures.

        In these passionate dialogues, scriptures are playing a significant role. Their interpretations and relevance in the 21st century can be seen on a wide spectrum.

On the extreme right of the spectrum are the followers of religious traditions who believe that scriptures are collections of divine revelations and are the guidelines for writing constitutions for theocratic states. They believe in a Creator God who not only created human beings but also provided them with guidance through Prophets in the form of scriptures that contain laws for all of humanity until eternity. They pray for the day when all human beings on earth will make laws based on scriptures.

Still on the right but closer to the centre are the followers of spiritual traditions who believe that scriptures provide personal guidance, unrelated to matters of state.

To the left of centre are those who read scriptures as part of folklore—as a collection of mythology and wisdom literature. They are of the opinion that scriptures can offer enlightenment but are not meant as a basis for laws.

On the extreme left of the spectrum are the atheists who believe that scriptures are completely outdated documents with no relevance in the 21st century.

        In the last couple of centuries the disciplines of biology, psychology, sociology and philosophy have been challenging traditional beliefs in God, Prophets, Scriptures and life after death. The number of atheists, agnostics, humanists and free thinkers has grown from 1% in 1900 to nearly 20% in 2000, which means that one in five people in the world have outgrown religions. Such a significant change is partly due to the discoveries of Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud and many other secular scholars and scientists whose discoveries are becoming increasingly popular with the passage of time. Followers of these scholars and philosophers demand objective, rational, logical and scientific evidence for any assertion to be accepted as truth.

        In the 21st century, many are coming to the conclusion that religion and spirituality are private matters and that while all human beings have the right to their private belief systems, they do not have the right to impose their values on others. They believe that state laws should be based on democratic, secular and humanistic laws according to which all citizens are entitled to equal rights and privileges. The debates between religious, spiritual and secular people are based on their understanding of what role scriptures should play in people’s personal, social and political lives.

        It is interesting to note that while most Christians support the separation of church and state and most Jews have agreed to keep synagogue and state separate, there are still many Muslims who find it difficult to accept the separation of mosque and state. They dream of establishing Islamic theocratic states with Quran as the basis of the constitution as they believe Islam to be a complete system encompassing all aspects of life— personal, social, religious as well as political. They are thrilled to see a secular Pakistan transforming into the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

        Many secular people wonder which interpretation of Quran would be considered valid for an Islamic state, because followers of each sect believe that their interpretation is the correct one. When we read Muslim scholars like Abul ala Maududi, Ghulam Ahmed Pervaiz, Abul Kalam Azad, Mirza Ghulam Ahmed and many others, we are struck by their differences of opinion.

Some believe in one wife, while others believe in four.

Some believe in jihad with the sword, while others believe in the jihad of the pen

Some believe men are superior to women while others believe in the equality of men and women.

Some believe in cutting off the hands of thieves and stoning adulterers, while others believe that those punishments were from a particular time in the past and no longer apply.

Some believe in Muslims having female slaves while others consider such traditions obsolete.

        Even the subject of the origin of Quran is a great controversy for Muslims. Some believe Quran was compiled at the time of Mohammad under his supervision. Others believe that there were many versions of Quran at the time of Mohammad’s death and that during the reign of Caliph Usman, the official Quran was compiled and other versions were ordered to be destroyed.

It is apparent from this discussion that these questions and controversies make it difficult for Muslims throughout the world to achieve a consensus. Many Muslims are genuinely confused and unsure which interpretation of Quran to follow: Shiite or Sunni, Ahmedi or Salafi, Deobandi or Brelvi. That is why some Muslims believe that in spite of one text of Quran, there are many Qurans because of different, even conflicting and contradicting interpretations, reflecting many Islams that have evolved in different parts of the world in the last few centuries.

        In the 21st century Muslims are at a crossroads. They have to choose between

…Political Islam offered by militant fundamentalist leaders

…Spiritual Islam shared by peace loving leaders

or

…. a Humanistic lifestyle based on scientific and secular values.

        While some Muslims in Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Pakistan are working towards the foundation of theocratic states based on a fundamentalist interpretation of Quran, secular minded people are wondering whether Muslims will embrace modern advancements in science, sociology and psychology or adopt a system that originated in the Middle East nearly 1500 years ago. At such a juncture a passionate dialogue between followers of religious, spiritual and secular traditions is crucial as it will play a significant role in raising social consciousness and deciding the future of humanity in general and the future of Muslims in particular. It will be fascinating to watch whether in the future scriptures will become part of theology or philosophy, will be considered divine revelations or folklore, and will be perceived as myth or reality.