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The Author Talks About:
Living The Quran In Our Times

1.Tell us how you came to write the present work, Living The Quran In Our Times? Please also recount interesting experiences while researching and writing the work.
(a) I was born and bred in a deeply religious Muslim family. However, my father, a Cambridge educated lawyer, was a great admirer of Mahatma Gandhi. At an early age I became interested in philosophy, psychology and spirituality. After getting a Masters degree from the Aligarh Muslim University in India I spent the next three years in doing my Moral Science Tripos from Cambridge in England, and research at Munster University, in Germany. My extensive travels and contact with some outstanding intellectuals and religious thinkers gradually led me to view different religions as, essentially, similar responses to the inscrutable mystery of human life. Their creeds and theologies might differ, but their origin and function were the same. They all served to evoke and deepen in the individual and society ‘the sense of the holy and the conviction of an eternal Source of all existence’. If I may say so, the original stagnant and muddy pool of my ideas and convictions expanded into a flowing and clear stream of convictions and this gave me great inner peace and bliss. I expressed my nascent and still growing ideas and convictions in my, Quest for Islam, 1977.

    Now after almost a quarter of a century of further study and reflection on the same lines, and by the grace of God, I have dared to make public the fruits of my honest search for truth. So help me God.

(b) An Indian publisher, after initial hesitation that my approach could displease and hurt orthodox Islamic circles, accepted the work for publication. However, at the very last moment when the contract was to be signed the would-be publisher developed cold feet and declined to honor his oral commitment. If I might say so, this was a blessing in disguise.

(c) Our eldest son, Jawahar Kabir, an electrical engineer by profession and located in the US, was much interested in the suitable publication of Living the Quran in Our Times. He rated the work highly, but he strongly suggested that the work should have an introductory chapter at the beginning and a glossary at the end. I immediately proceeded with the second task, but thought the first suggestion was rather unnecessary. However, while toying with the idea I thought why not lift the concluding portion of the work and make it into an introduction. To my astonishment this made a huge difference to the clarity and ‘gripping quality’ of the work from the point of view of the prospective reader. Jawahar thought the same and we both rejoiced at the result.

2.What are the seven major themes of your latest work, Living The Quran In Our Times?
(1) The nuclear essence of the Islamic faith, “There is no god but God and Muhammad is His Messenger”, like any other religious dogma, cannot be proved, logically or scientifically. Any faith, to begin with, is a product of cultural conditioning, but it can grow into a product of authentic free choice. This is the ideal condition for the human family in a global society like ours. Any idea, policy or action that vitiates free choice or destroys human life, except in self-defense, violates the sanctity of free choice by the individual. 

(2) Islamic theologians or missionaries, in general, sincerely and confidently hold that they can prove Islam to be the one and only true religion, but the unbelievers or the followers of other religions are enemies of Islam or they resist the truth of Islam for some reason or other. Such votaries of Islam pay little heed to the fact that Muslim believers themselves persistently disagree among themselves about what exactly the Scripture means. They have formed different sects and each sect claims that it alone possesses the treasure of real faith or truth while others only cling (rather unknowingly) to ‘fakes’, as it were. There is hardly any serious or systematic effort to diagnose the underlying cause or reason behind this chronic condition of internal disagreement and strife.

(3) The present work shows how and why the problem arises. The basic thesis of the writer is that the Islamic tradition holds the Quranic scripture as the ‘revealed Word of God’, but gives no thought at all to the vocabulary, and the different functions of the Arabic language, which, as a language, has not been ‘revealed’ but has evolved in the course of time, just like numerous other natural languages of the human family. This approach, inevitably, makes the believers turn to the literal meaning of the words or expressions comprising the Scripture without being aware of the many different uses and functions of language, be it human or extra-human. The exclusive focus on meaning of words or expressions of any linguistic communication without prior awareness of the conventional rules, diverse functions and communication styles of the language concerned creates perplexity, confusion and controversy among believers and others alike. Approaching the Quranic scripture after a prior ‘semantic’ analysis of Quranic Arabic dissolves most of the confusions and controversies that bedevil religious polemics.

(4) After clearing the above type of confusions and perplexities the writer gives an analytical summary of the Quranic thought system, value system and injunctions in three separate chapters. This task is attempted in an evocative rather than a didactic manner for reasons that become quite clear as the reader proceeds.

(5) The writer’s basic evocative approach consists of prayerful inner listening to the revealed Scripture without losing the ability and the desire to hear one’s own inmost response (the authentic ‘existential echo’) to the revealed text. It is futile to expect any rigidly uniform response. But the very yearning and concern of the reader (when freed from hubris and the will to power) to hear one’s inner voice after prayerful listening to and honest reflection on the Scripture is its own reward. It is the gateway to final felicity in the earthly life, as humans know it.

(6) Whether the final felicity in the earthly life (as mentioned above) will be followed by a still higher and glorious condition is a promise contained in the Quran. But the writer holds that it is useless to anticipate or speculate on this theme. Let each believer or non-believer have his or her own vision of the hereafter.
(7) It is an integral part of the writer’s paradigm of ‘perennial Islam’ to acknowledge and accept spiritual diversity just like linguistic diversity in the human family, and to practice ‘loving’ tolerance of differing faiths rather than aim at the universal convergence to any supposedly exclusively true Islamic faith.

3.What basic points in your book should be emphasized? Please be specific (i.e. why is it unique? How does it differ from other books on the subject? What are its strengths?).
(1) The idea that all religions are, at bottom, an inner human response to the, essentially, inscrutable mystery of the universe. The individual learns all responses, to begin with, from one’s milieu.

(2) Which religious response is true/right/valid can not be proved, but they perform the same function in the broad sense—educating and reinforcing the sense of righteousness, discipline, social solidarity and responsibility, inculcating a sense of the holy and so on. If and when the individual realizes that different groups think and respond in different ways he is pushed into making some sort of choice for himself or herself. No matter what he thinks or how he chooses the ‘resonance of the heart’ rather than ‘reasoning from the head’ clinches the outcome.

(3) The ego and perceived self-interest of the individual or group breed the evil of intolerance of all that differs from one’s own tradition in various matters like language, dress, religion etc. However, it is loving tolerance of cultural diversity in the broad sense, that the human family needs for survival in a global world. Indeed, tolerance of other faiths is as important as professing one’s own. And actually living one’s professed faith is even more important than merely proclaiming it.

(4) Every major religion has several over-lapping versions/paradigms/models just as all living species have several sub-species. As mentioned earlier, individuals pick up the version current in the milieu and deem it as ‘the’ standard or norm. Some creative souls, however, develop a wider and more inclusive version or paradigm of their ‘mother-faith’.

(5) Any religious paradigm (no matter what the religion) that holds that the writ of religion ought to run in every sphere of human concern or activity has become invalid in the modern age (due to several factors), whatever utility or validity such a view might have possessed in the infancy of the human family. Such religious paradigms block integrated progress of human society and the human quest for value. Likewise, any ideology or ‘ism’ that devalues or discounts the crucial role of spiritual and ethical values in the secular scheme of things is terribly mistaken and one-sided. It will destroy the human family.

(6) The Islamic paradigm presented here, focuses on the dignity and inner freedom of the believers and non-believers and the governance of the people with their consent, rather than merely on the social or racial egalitarianism of traditional Islamic paradigms.

(7) This more inclusive Islamic paradigm that permeates the letter and the spirit of the work has not been externally hoisted upon the writer from outside. It has rather grown upon him or he has grown into this Islamic paradigm, thanks to his Islamic roots and the critical study of the Quran in the light of Western analytical and existentialist thought. There are two conceptual distinctions that have helped crystallize the Islamic paradigm in question.

The first is the distinction between ‘intrinsic’ and ‘instrumental’ values. This distinction is central to the structure of Western ethical theory. Intrinsic values are the basic or root values that serve as valid ends in themselves and do not need any further justification or persuasion for their acceptance by human agents. Instrumental values are the considered rules of right conduct for realizing the said basic values. The suggested paradigm stipulates that the intelligent and honest Muslim believer must always keep in view this distinction when applying the Quranic injunctions in actual practice.

The second is the distinction between ‘mechanical’ literal obedience/loyalty, and ‘creative’ reflective obedience/loyalty to the ‘fount of authority’. The first type of obedience is literal submission, while the second type of obedience is purpose-based submission. The earliest rightly guided successors to Prophet Muhammad acted on this crucial insight. The Muslim community the world over should follow the same practice to respect the spiritual autonomy of the individual.

Born in 1928, Jamal Khwaja, has devoted a lifetime to the challenge of living the Quran with integrity.

His forefathers worked closely with Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, and with Mahatma Gandhi. Khwaja studied Philosophy in India, England, and Germany. In 1957 he was elected to the Indian Parliament.

His engagement with power politics was short lived. In 1962 he resumed his beloved, scholarly & contemplative lifestyle at the Aligarh Muslim University. He retired as Professor and Chairman of the Department of Philosophy.Jamal Khwaja has written seven major books. Anyone interested in the intersection of Islam and Modernity will find Khwaja to be a reliable guide. His work is magisterial in scope. It is full of passion but remains balanced in perspective. He believes in judicious modernization rooted in the Quran and firmly opposes shallow, unprincipled imitation of the West. He performed Hajj in 2005.

A Conversation with the Author Jamal Khwaja

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