Leave them be

I don’t consider myself a Quranist — a peculiar term of denigration deployed by traditionalists — but I completely understand why, for some, it seems to be the only way ahead. Whenever I encounter a scholar or preacher piling into Quran-centric folk, picking apart their take on religion, I just think to myself: “Just leave them be.” Let them believe in what they can believe in. Better to embrace them than to chase them away.

In days gone by, when illiterate masses had to defer to the wisdom of specialists —their vast collections of narrations and books of law held in libraries a journey away — the derisive scorn of the gatekeepers of religion may have been justified. In days gone by, perhaps they could have spoken legitimately of ignoramuses following their inner desires and turning their backs on a millennium of sacred knowledge and wisdom.

With the advent of the internet however — and the decision of educational institutions, foundations and private endowments to digitise the entire canon of orthodox Islam for anyone to access, in any language, over the past twenty years — the appeal to the ignorance of the commoner falls flat. A book that once would have required a month-long journey to track down on the shelves of a far flung library is now a mouse click away; nay — how old fashioned — but a tap on a slab of glass in your pocket, conjuring a digital assistant to query two billion indexed websites in an instant.

In days gone by, ignorance was bliss. Today’s seeker has the unenviable position of being unable to unsee what they have seen; to wipe from their mind what they have read in a book of law or collection of apparently sahih narrations, attested to by generations of scholars for hundreds of years. A seeker who may once have been content to accept the perennial allegation that Shia Muslims believed in a different Quran — or believed that the Quran had been tampered with — cannot unsee what they found in their own sources, alleging lost verses and possibly even chapters, depending on the view of the individual narrator of a particular hadith.

For the specialist, there is nothing to see here. In the course of their intensive learning, sitting at the feet of the greatest of scholars, they have studied the discipline of abrogation in depth, learning to weigh up the multitudinous strands of evidence as it feeds into the body of fiqh of their school. I recall my surprise some years ago, when I first encountered these narrations, that our scholarly folk know all about them, and have even accepted that a legal ruling stands for a verse inexplicably lost when it was supposedly eaten by a goat!

For many an ordinary Muslim — the commoner, non-specialist, non-scholar — these digitised collections of the canon, some hewn of all context, some not, are an obstacle to overcome. It is all well and good the traditionalist sheikh denouncing the layman for delving into those books without qualification, as they used to when the Salafis wandered around brandishing isolated hadith to justify their latest opinion or practice — but that is just closing the stable door long after the horse has bolted.

Many a commoner has now seen what they can no-longer unsee: narrations which curdle the blood; narrations which paint their Prophet in a bad light; narrations which contradict the Quran entirely; narrations that are preposterous and ridiculous; narrations not even attributed to the Prophet, but nevertheless graded as sahih and passed off as sacred guidance. Some will put what they have seen in their mental inbox marked “return to later”, perhaps adding the flag “ask sheikh about this” before filing it away. Others will add them to their compendium of doubts, now bursting at the seam, possibly tipping them over the edge. Others still may just throw out the entire corpus.

Here we find many Quran-centric folk. Some of them describe themselves as Quran-first; they believe in the primacy of the Quran, preferring its verses over any narration which outwardly contradicts it, but nevertheless continue to adhere to their school of fiqh in acts of worship. These folk will not discard books of hadith wholesale, considering the volume of data too vast to throw out altogether, but will weigh each narration against the criterion of revelation they hold sound. Yet others describe themselves as Quran-only, the most extreme rejecting anything other than their sacred text and their own intellect — throwing out even lexicons and dictionaries, akin to throwing away the keys. Between these two poles, a full spectrum of positions and persuasions, attempting to hold as best they can to the primacy and centrality of the Quran above any other secondary source.

For most of our scholars and preachers though, these people are beyond the pale, and they would rather chase them away and out of the religion, than meet them where they are. They would rather defend obscure narrations and old opinions of men, than meet them in the middle in the verses of a book recited daily in prayer. They would rather rejoice in dogma and inheritance than search for commonality, shared understandings and a way forward. For them it is enough to pretend that the canon of orthodox Islam has not been digitised and laid bare for all to engage with as they please, willingly or not — pretending that it is still the preserve of specialists alone, who from their ivory towers can pontificate before willing laymen who will hang on their every word. Those days have passed; long gone.

Pandora’s jar has been smashed to the ground, sending pottery splintering all over, its contents spilling free. There is no gluing it back together. Perhaps our scholars and preachers could find some humility to approach their brothers as they do the non-Muslim who approaches the Quran anew. For the seeker outside the fold they will gladly pronounce: “Read!” — ponder, read and reflect, they say, seeking to increase their number. Why can they not extend this hospitality to their brethren, in their journey of faith? Why must they vanquish every heretic, demanding conformity, as if bullying people to believe makes good believers?

Why can’t they just leave them be?

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