Reason and Literacy: A Modernist Hermeneutic

Engineer’s liberation theology, moreover, reflects a distinctly modernist reading—an ideological tendency that comes out most acutely in his juxtaposition of rationalist thinking, on the one hand, with superstitious belief, on the other. Because the Bohra community in which he was raised was staunchly conservative, laying heavy emphasis on unquestioned obedience to age-old traditions, Engineer gravitated towards rationalist thought, particularly modern science and Western philosophy.[1] As a result, reason—that is, a process of judgement and comprehension centred on the use oflogic—has come to play a prominent role in his exegesis.[2] Indeed, he points out, the Qur’an emphasizes the use of one’s intellect, constantly exhorting humankind to ponder, to reflect and not to follow blindly the customs of their ancestors.[3] That being said, Engineer is careful to avoid partaking in tafsir ‘ilmi, or the scientific interpretation of scripture. Fixated on reconciling recent scientific discoveries with the Qur’an, from the Big Bang to the formation of the fetus, tafsir ‘ilmi has emerged as a major apologetic body of literature in contemporary Islam. Engineer is sceptical of such overtly modernist readings, arguing that the Qur’an is not ‘a sourcebook for science’ but a book of guidance and cautioning that in the fluid world of scientific knowledge what is considered as an empirical truth today may well be challenged tomorrow.[4] His emphasis on reason, in turn, leads to a scathing criticism of superstition, which comes to exemplify everything that is backward in Muslim societies. Commenting on Q. 17:90-5, Engineer maintains that Prophet Muhammad, as the bearer of a divine message based on reason, sought to cleanse the world of superstitious and supernatural beliefs, refusing to perform any miracles.[5] The passage reads:

They say, ‘We will not believe you [Muhammad] until you make a spring gush forth for us from the ground. Or until you have a garden of date palms and vines and you make streams gush through it. Or until you cause the sky to fall in fragments upon us, just as you would aver.

Or until you bring God and the angels in front of us. Or until you have a house of gold, or you ascend into the sky. And we will not believe your ascension until you bring down for us a book that we may read.’ Say [God commanding Muhammad]: ‘Immaculate is my Sustainer! Am I anything but a human, a messenger?!’ Nothing kept the people from believing when guidance came to them, but their saying, ‘Has God sent a human as messenger?!’ Say [God commanding Muhammad]: ‘Had there been angels in the Earth, walking around and residing (in it like humans do), We would have sent down to them from the Heavens an angel as messenger.’

Engineer’s conclusion that God’s refusal to deliver any miracles in this particular context translates into a categorical rejection of miracles is incoherent not only because the Qur’an is full of the miraculous—from Prophet Moses’ parting of the Red Sea to Prophet Jesus’ raising of the dead to divine promises of the Resurrection—but also, and most significantly, because the very foundation of Islam (and of religion as a whole) is built on the supernatural, the illogical: namely, faith in an unseen and yet ever-present deity.

Just as Engineer privileges the rational over the superstitious so, too, does he elevate the literary over the oral. Muslims routinely refer to pre-Islamic Arabia as the Age of Ignorance (jahiliyya), alluding to the widespread practice of polytheism. Describing this period, Engineer writes: ‘People were steeped in superstitions and there were no more than seventeen persons who could read or write.’[6] [7] Here, he not only connects superstition with illiteracy, but also implicitly associates the ignorance of literacy with a wider ignorance of God. The mission of Muhammad, then, was not simply to bring knowledge of the Word, but of the written word in general. Reflecting upon Q. 96:1-5—the first verses that were revealed to the Prophet— Engineer claims that the call to literacy came packaged with the Qur’anic message of monotheism. The verses read:

Recite! In the Name of your Sustainer who created; created the human being from a clot of blood. Recite! And your Sustainer is the most generous, who taught by the pen (al-qalam), taught the human being that which he knew not.

Literacy, expounds Engineer, is intrinsically linked to knowledge and thus guidance—a sacred relationship embodied in the above verse by the metaphor of the pen (al-qalam).143 Engineer’s exegetical emphasis on the literary is problematic not only because the first Muslims engaged the Qur’an primarily as an oral text, but also because he overlooks the complex ways in which knowledge was historically transmitted in pre-Islamic Arabia, reducing it, literally, to an age of ignorance. In fact, it was possible for the first Muslims to memorize lengthy Qur’anic passages precisely because mass memorization was how knowledge had been preserved—a reading practice facilitated by such poetic techniques as versification, and which the Qur’an itself would later adopt—in an oral society.[8] By elevating the written letter over the oral word, Engineer takes the richness and intellectual sophistication of orality and demotes it to illiteracy, and therefore as something that is necessarily negative, lacking. Engineer’s literary biases stand in contrast to Esack, who is keenly aware of the value of orality, even devoting the first chapter of his textbook on the Qur’an to its popular reception and underscoring the fact that the vast majority of Muslims continue, legitimately, to encounter the Qur’an as an oral text, especially in terms of its rhythmic recitation.[9] What makes Engineer’s modernist bent towards the written letter even more problematic, particularly in the Indian context where illiteracy is high, is that the traditions and testimonies of the downtrodden are rarely written down, but rather rooted in the oral, the folkloric. Thus, the task of liberation theology, as a theology that is in critical conversation with the oppressed, is to unearth and safeguard these much maligned traditions. For example, a principal project of Dalit Theology, which seeks to empower the so-called Untouchables in an oppressive, caste-based society, is to reclaim Dalit culture and history, embedded in oral media like songs, folk stories, and myths.[10]

  • [1] 138 To be sure, he clarifies that liberation theology is not synonymous with rational
  • [2] theology. That is, while (his) liberation theology is a rational theology, rationaltheology is not necessarily liberative and can serve the interests of the powerful. SeeEngineer ed., Islam and Revolution, 24.
  • [3] Asghar Ali Engineer, Rational Approach to Islam (New Delhi: Gyan PublishingHouse, 2001), 61.
  • [4] Engineer, Islam: Misgivings and History, 102-3.
  • [5] Engineer, Islam and Liberation Theology, 32.
  • [6] Engineer, Islam: Misgivings and History, 41.
  • [7] Engineer, Islam and Liberation Theology, 31.
  • [8] Mattson, 45.
  • [9] Esack, The Qur’an: A User’s Guide, 21. This popular engagement with theQur’an falls under what Esack classifies (descriptively, he is not setting up a normativeorder) as the first level of Muslim interaction with the text, which is not intellectual, letalone critical. Confessional Muslim scholarship is the next level, entailing a scholarlyelucidation of the Qur’an to the rest of the world, though in an idealized andapologetic fashion. Critical Muslim scholarship—Esack’s own exegetical terrain—falls under the third level of interaction, asking more difficult questions about thetext’s language, nature and origins. See Farid Esack, ‘The Territory of the Qur’an:“Citizens,” “Foreigners,” and “Invaders”’, in Mumtaz Ahmad, Zahid Bukhari andSulayman Nyang eds., Observing the Observer: The State of Islamic Studies in American Universities (Herndon, VA: International Institute of Islamic Thought, 2012),54-6.
  • [10] Wielenga, 68.
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