It used to be that if a traditionalist wished to insult you, they would call you a Wahabi. Nowadays, you are more likely to be labelled a Quranist, a bizarre slight, as peculiar as the non-Muslim’s Islamist. While I am certain that there are sects and groups that refer to themselves as Quranists, Quraniyya, Quranites and all manner of derivations, those on the receiving end of this extraordinary taunt often do no such thing.
A few months ago I shared with friends a short video, in which Hassan Farhan al-Maliki spoke a word of truth about the Muslim community’s relationship with the Qur’an. One friend, a respected imam in the United States, initially responded with a two word reply: ‘Very powerful,’ he said. However, a short while later he followed up with a more considered response: he did not like the speaker’s subtle promotion of the Quranist agenda with its veiled attack on hadith.
I responded by saying that I did not believe that the speaker was a proponent of a Quran-only approach to Islam. In fact Hassan Farhan al-Maliki used to be a staunch Salafi, who devoted many years of his life to the field of hadith. Instead, I said, I believed that his approach to hadith was more like that of Imam Abu Hanifa, wherein he rejected any narration which contradicted the outward meaning of the Qur’an.
This statement led on to a comical exchange in which a second learned teacher took me to task for my apparent adherence to a heretical worldview, which he immediately labelled Quranism. ‘Is this man your teacher?’ began my friend.
‘No,’ I replied, ‘but my own teacher is a man of Qur’an, and as a result I respect many of the arguments of Farhan al-Maliki, who insists that we should always take what the Qur’an says first.’
When I said this, my erstwhile companion instantly began attacking my teacher, whom he had never met, labelling him a Quranist too. Again I responded that he is no such thing, and that he is fact a teacher of Maliki fiqh who devotes his time to studying, mastering and teaching the recitation of the Qur’an. Yet again this was greeted with consternation, as he insisted that it was impossible that a Maliki could be a man of Qur’an. It was clear that when I said, man of Qur’an, he had something else in mind entirely. And so it went on.
Ludicrously, having first labelled me and my teacher Quranists, he then went on to attack us for holding to beliefs that Quranists apparently hold, such as the rejection of mutawatir hadith, which constitutes an act of disbelief. Alas, my honoured companion was belligerent and there was nothing I could say to assuage his animosity to what it was that he said I believed, without having first established that what he said I believed was in fact what any of us actually did. So stunned was I by this confrontation that I confess that I decided to part company with him.
How utterly bizarre it is to be written off as a heretic solely on the basis of a label assigned to you a matter of minutes earlier, which hitherto you had not entertained even for a second, let alone committed to as a belief. Of course such actions are by no means new: we have all been labelled Wahabis and Innovators too, on the basis of assumed affiliations and imagined beliefs. What I find so flabbergasting about this label, however, is that it is wielded by so many as an insult and put-down. How can any Muslim, who believes in the centrality of the Qur’an to their life, contemplate brandishing the term Quranism as an acrid affront? We might expect that from our enemies, but from those that recite it daily? It is simply extraordinary.
Nevertheless, I encounter this attack daily nowadays, with apparently witty posts online castigating people who desire to put the Qur’an back in its proper place in their lives. The rising stars of social media frequently devote space on their pages to confronting unnamed others who mine the Qur’an for direction in their lives. Frequently they attack people, having absolutely no idea what it is that they are defending, and what it is that they attack, completely ignorant that the Qur’an itself has the Messenger, peace be upon him, testifying:
“O my Lord, indeed my people have taken this Qur’an as [a thing] abandoned.” — Qur’an 25:30
The reality is that many of those labelled as Quranists by others do not in fact approach the Qur’an by considering it a sole source of guidance, but rather believe that it should be their primary source. Such people may describe themselves as Quran-centric, or they may simply align themselves with scholars of the past such as Abu Hanifa, for whom such a position was in no way controversial. They may reject some hadith which contradict the Qur’an — a stance itself undisputed by tradition which always insisted on the convention, ‘It is reported that the Prophet said,’ rather than, ‘He said,’ recognising the probabilistic nature of hadith, which led to the development of methodologies to evaluate the chain of narration and what was reported to have been said or done.
True though it may be that there are people who call themselves Quranists, who have beliefs which fall foul of scholastic orthodoxies, it is completely nonsensical to assume that people who you yourself have decided to call Quranists hold to their dogmas, allowing you to mock and deride them at will. Of course I have been here before, right from the very moment I uttered my testimony of faith, when I was excommunicated at a conference for being friends with a person who for the weekend happened to be studying Arabic with a scholar whom my companions considered a Person of Desires.
Ours is a community which brandishes labels like a weapon, to sort out believers into different types. It does not matter to those wielding these labels whether those thus labelled actually believe what they are said to believe. It does not matter to them whether they jump to conclusions utterly unwarranted by the discussions to date. And it does not matter to them whether the label they employ makes mockery of what should truly be strived towards, belittling what should rather be held in honour. But even here the Qur’an responds:
“But the people divided their religion among them into sects — each faction rejoicing in what it has.” — Qur’an 23:53
Perhaps it is time that we each stopped rejoicing in what we think our faction has, recognising that this religion of ours is one religion. Let us put away these labels we attach to ourselves and others, and instead strive to believe and work righteousness as we are asked to.
And hold firmly to the rope of Allah all together and do not become divided. And remember the favour of Allah upon you — when you were enemies and He brought your hearts together and you became, by His favour, brothers. And you were on the edge of a pit of the Fire, and He saved you from it. Thus does Allah make clear to you His verses that you may be guided.
And let there be from you a nation inviting to good, enjoining what is right and forbidding what is wrong, and those will be the successful.
And do not be like the ones who became divided and differed after the clear proofs had come to them. And those will have a great punishment.