Muhammad Asad and his translation of the Qur?an (IV)

As previously pointed out, Asad?s "rational interpretations" should be divided into three. Let us today classify those t

As previously pointed out, Asad?s "rational interpretations" should be divided into three. Let us today classify those three groups:


a) Advancing appropriate explanations for miracles and divine-existential laws: For instance, consider the explanation in connection with `the cleaving of water` (2:50; 20:77-78; 26:65-66 and the corresponding notes). Unless you have a fixed idea that "miracles can never be explained", you can either accept or reject such explanations. Ultimately, it is an interpretation. Opposing a divergent, yet not wrong and in fact properly made, interpretation merely because of its not matching the previous interpretations is tantamount to `absolutizing` one of the interpretations on the grounds of its belonging to "jumhur" (i.e. the majority) or to "salaf" (i.e. the preceding majority). This approach is contrary to the established method. It is dangerous because an absolutized interpretation takes the place of clear evidence. If an interpretation becomes absolutized, clear evidence becomes conditional, i.e. depending on other factors. What is more, an interpretation cannot reverse another interpretation.


Making an interpretation that is contrary to the opinion of the majority cannot by itself constitute the proof of the interpretation?s invalidity. Many commentators, who are called the majority (jumhur), themselves authored many an interpretation contrary to "the majority preceding themselves`. Mujahid ibn Jabr?s interpretation of `the turning into apes" (2:65), Kaffal?s interpretation of `illa ma zahara minha" (24:31), Tabari?s interpretation of "and your feet" occurring in verse 6 of Sûrat Al-Ma?idah are but a few of hundreds of examples. Experts know how many wrong interpretations were absolutized by resorting to the authority of the word "jumhur" (i.e. majority) throughout history of our science. The fact that an interpretation is "irregular` does not per se imply that it is wrong. The most typical example of this are the interpretations of Abu Muslim Al-Isfahani, one of the most original names of the history of Tafsir science. Considered as "the most irregular of the irregular", his interpretations are supported and described as `preferable opinions` on most occasions by Razi. In fact, it is thanks to Razi that we reach Abu Muslim Al-Isfahani?s lost commentary.


However, even the most divergent interpretations were deemed worthy of "being narrated" in the history of Tafsir, for instance, Kirmani's opinion that `Yusuf` mentioned in 40:34 is not the Prophet Yusuf known as the son of the Prophet Yaqub, but another Yusuf assumed to be the grandson of the Prophet Yusuf.


b) Taking one of the alternative opinions: An example of this is Asad?s approach to the Qur?anic verse (54:1) containing the phrase `the moon is split asunder`. After the choice of one of the alternative opinions is verified within the triangle of word-meaning-purpose, it remains for us to say "it is the commentator?s choice". Asad?s comment on verses 3:30-32 belongs here, too.


c) Putting a forced construction on miracles without using as basis any cogent narrative and rational evidence: By way of example, this is the case in the explanation proposed for verse 3:49 and also in the hardly convincing and forced note to verse 12:93 concerning the Yaqub?s regaining his sight.


But, can we label Asad `a rationalist` in view of the very limited number of such examples? Rationalism is a philosophy that absolutizes reason. Yet, according to the Qur?an, reason is a means (bond) whose existence depends on its being active. Can a believer be "a rationalist" in that sense?


Can we cast aspersions on Asad with the accusation of denying the miracles because of those one or two non-convincing interpretations? To sum up, he applied a `reasonable` approach to the Qur?an, and not a `rationalist` one, though he missed the mark in a few of his rational interpretations. Those who feel eager to know the extent of his faithfully Muslim criticism against rationalism can refer to his work `Islam At The Crossroads`. I?ll confine myself to quoting a short passage therefrom:


"The function of reason in regard to religious teaching is of a controlling character; its duty is to see to it that nothing is imposed on the human mind which it cannot easily bear, that is, without the aid of mental jugglery. So far as Islam is concerned, unprejudiced reason has, time and again, given it its unreserved vote of confidence. That does not mean that everyone who comes into contact with the Our'an will necessarily accept its teachings; this is a matter of temperament, environment, and -last but not least -of spiritual illumination. But surely no unbiased person would contend that there is anything in the Qur'an contrary to reason. (?) Our mind is unable, by virtue of its nature, to understand the idea of totality: we can grasp, of all things, their details only. We do not know what infinity or eternity means; we do not even know what life is. In problems of a religion resting on transcendental foundations we therefore need a guide whose mind possesses something more than the normal reasoning qualities and the